Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 4:18-19

This passage as such is not so problematic – it only becomes so when one realises what Jesus is quoting from. He seems to cite half an Old Testament passage, omitting a crucial bit. And this crucial bit may appear to be at odds with the rest of the text.

But a bit of background first. In Luke 4:16-21 we read about Jesus going to Nazareth and speaking at a synagogue on the Sabbath. He reads from the Hebrew text which was perhaps allotted for the day (there may have been a fixed reading schedule), which comes from Isaiah 61. The first three verses make up one long sentence, and Jesus starts with verse one, but only gets halfway through verse two.

When he finishes reading, he puts down the scroll and makes this amazing statement: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Suffice it to say, the Jews were all “amazed” at his words (v. 22). The problem is that he stops his reading at Is. 61:2a. He does not read the other two lines of it, nor v. 3. What he read in the synagogue was this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What he did not continue reading was this:

“and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.”

It is the bit about vengeance which has been left out. This has puzzled some, and left others to posit a bifurcation in the nature of God. Some argue that Jesus only stresses the good stuff here: good news, freedom, favour, etc., but not the bad stuff: his judgment on sin, etc.

Some suggest that this means Jesus is somehow different than the Old Testament God (supposedly a God of wrath), and that he only emphasises love and mercy. This of course is a faulty understanding not only of this text but the entire Bible. As I have written elsewhere, God is exactly the same in both Testaments.

He is not a grumpy, wrathful God in the Old Testament and a loving, forgiving God in the New Testament. He is fully both in both Testaments. But see here for more on this: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/27/on-divine-love-and-wrath/

So what is going on here then? Is Jesus downplaying divine justice, and simply elevating divine mercy? No, not at all. The short answer is this: Jesus stopped where he did in his reading of Isaiah to emphasise his servant role in his first coming. He did not come as a conquering king the first time around, much to the chagrin of the Jews who were hoping for such.

The messianic hope for many Jews back then was that the Messiah would come and kick some Roman butt, freeing them from their oppression under gentile rule, and making them pre-eminent once again. But Jesus came as a suffering servant the first time, as predicted in places like Isaiah 53. That is why most Jews missed him back then. They were not looking for a servant, but a military king.

And they certainly did not expect their deliverer to come as someone who would die a criminal’s death on a cross. They missed out completely on the need for Jesus to die this way, to bring about their freedom, favour and so on as predicted in Is. 61.

But in Is. 61:2b we find his messianic role as judge being emphasised. And this as we know will certainly be the case when Jesus returns in his second coming. Thus this entire Isaianic passage is fully being fulfilled in Christ, and there is no discrepancy here at all between the different aspects being emphasised.

God’s love and justice are both fully part of who he is, and this text refers to both aspects of who God is. He will indeed come again to execute just judgment on those who reject him. Now he offers folks grace and mercy, but then it will be too late. Then they will face his wrath.

Moreover, for anyone suffering oppression, the favour that Jesus speaks about in 2a will of course nicely be implemented by his just vengeance spoken of in 2b. Those who suffer now will one day be vindicated, and that provides great hope and comfort now.

So the text is a whole piece which cannot be divided in terms of who God is, but it can be divided in terms of when and how these aspects of God’s character are fully made manifest. The first half of the text finds fulfilment in the first coming, while the section on vengeance finds fulfilment in his second coming.

The truth is, the much longed for “day of the Lord” which ancient Israel awaited in fact is a very long day, with two main parts. It began with the first coming, and with Christ’s work on the cross. That inaugurated the day of the Lord. But it will not be fully consummated until his second coming.

Thus a passage like Is 61:1-3 presents us with the full day of the Lord, but the dual aspect of this day was not clear to the Jews back then. It is like looking at a range of mountain tops from a distance, in which one may not be able to see the large gaps between the mountains. We now can see a chronological gap between the two comings, but in Is. 61 it seems to be all compressed into just one period or one event.

This reflects the “already, and not yet” understanding of the New Testament. Already the day of salvation has come, already the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, but it is not yet fully realised, it is not yet fully brought to completion. For more on this important NT interpretive framework, see these two articles:
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2008/01/28/living-between-the-ages/
www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/05/07/v-e-day-and-the-end-of-the-world/

But all this is a fairly common understanding of this passage, so let me buttress my remarks by a few quotes from some of the experts here. Alec Motyer for example puts it this way in his commentary on Isaiah: “This is the passage the Lord Jesus deliberately sought out as the starting point of his public ministry (Lk. 4:16-22). His action validates authoritatively the understanding we have reached without appeal to the gospels, that Isaiah displays here a Messianic figure.

“In his reading, the Lord Jesus stopped at the words the Lord’s favour (2a) and did not proceed to the day of vengeance. Thus he expressed his own understanding of his mission at that point, not to condemn but to save the world (Jn. 3:17). He was also aware, however, of a coming day when he would execute the judgment committed to him (Jn. 5:22-29). In other words, what Isaiah sees as a double-facetted ministry the Lord Jesus apportions respectively to his first and second comings, the work of the Servant and of the Anointed Conqueror.”

Or as Raymond Ortlund puts it, “Christ fulfils all the prophecies, but not all at the same time. At his first coming, he inaugurated the year of the Lord’s favour. At his second coming, he’ll bring in the day of the vengeance of our God, when the door of grace will shut forever. There’s a time gap between the first line of verse 2 and the second line of verse 2, and we’re living right now in that interval.

“It’s as if Isaiah looks into the future and sees two mountain peaks far away, one beyond the other. But he can’t see how much distance there is between them. So we don’t know how long we have. But as long as this season of favour lasts, the Messiah continues to use the preaching of the gospel to take away the ashes of mourning that our dark thoughts heap on our heads and to pour upon us the oil of gladness.”

Lastly, Darrell Bock comments on the Lukan passage: “The ultimate time of God’s vengeance is not yet arrived in this coming of Jesus (9:51-56; 17:22-37; 21:5-37). The division of deliverance and judgment in God’s plan, alluded to by the omission [of Is. 61:2b], is sorted out later in Luke.

“This omission represents part of the ‘already-not yet’ tension of NT eschatology, and a Gospel writer can discuss an issue from either side of the temporal perspective. Jesus’ mission is placed initially in terms of hope, but it also brings an implication of judgment about which he will warn in 4:24-27.”

So we really have no problem here. Simply having an understanding of general biblical eschatology, with its emphasis of two comings as part of the day of the Lord, along with an understanding of “living between the ages” helps us to see this passage aright.

These understandings also help us to see even more clearly that there is no OT God/NT God distinction, nor is there a division of God’s attributes. He is fully loving and merciful, but he is also fully holy and just. We see both aspects on display at Calvary, and we will see both aspects on display when he comes again.

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