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: https://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:

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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13 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Luke 4:18-19”

  1. Thanks for this, Bill. Very clear and helpful, as ever.

    For me, the big issue to wrestle with is the nature and expression of the Church’s mission in the world. We are in the “in-between” bit. We are in the Isa 61:2a bit. We are proclaiming and manifesting the Year of the Lord’s Favour, not the Day of his Vengeance. We can warn of the latter, but our body life as the church is about manifesting the former.

    We are to be the “fragrance of the Lord’s favour” to the world, if I can put it that way. I say that because there is something so critical, I believe, to proper “imitation of Christ” in very deliberately assuming His posture of enemy love, of turning the other cheek, of being generous and hospitable, of not judging (rightly understood), etc.

    The Church is not the vehicle of God’s wrath – if it is ever necessary – in this “day”, the State is.

    Anyway, you get my point. And I think this clarity is important in order that the Church is clear about our mandate. We have in the judgement to come an assurance that, as NT Wright would say, God will set all things aright. We thus – in the here and now – share Christ’s ministry of suffering, of “absorbing” the effects of prosecution upon us, rather than responding in kind. He’ll take care of that later 🙂

    Alister Cameron

  2. Thanks Alister

    Well yes the application of all this does get a bit difficult and nuanced. Yes the church deals with sin and forgiveness, while the state deals with crime and punishment. But there is also some overlap here – how much and to what extent is a contentious issue of course. So is the way we tease this out in terms of how we understand the church’s relationship to the state. Some take a complete separation approach, as the Anabaptists, eg. Others take a different tack of course. And our undersnding of how justice and righteousness operate now in this life, even before Christ comes again, will also impact the way we deal with these issues. And if one takes a pacifistic approach to things, that too will impact how we debate all these issues. So it gets fairly complex and multi-layered. Not the stuff of short comments here however. But hey, take me out for a coffee and we can start to get into the nuts and bolts a bit more!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Thanks Bill. Yes this is so interesting!
    When Jesus was anointed as the Messiah, He came with the purpose of confirming God’s Covenant. He came as the Messenger of the Covenant. For three and a half years He confirmed the covenant of grace and mercy. He proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord. He came to earth as the Lamb of God.
    But God’s covenant is not limited to grace. His covenant involves justice, judgment and vengeance on the wicked.
    The completion of the confirming of the Covenant awaits another three and a half years. Rev 11-13. During that three and a half years two witnesses will confirm the covenant…the day of vengeance of our God. Then Jesus will return as the Lion of Judah.
    I believe this is the meaning of the prophecy of Daniel. Daniel 9:24-27. The covenant will be confirmed for one week. In the midst of the week sacrifice ceases. Messiah is cut off. Jesus ministry on earth finishes. When Daniel asks how much time remains,he is told three and a half years, time, times and half a time, 1260 days. Daniel 12:6-10.
    2000 years or so has intervened.
    Today is still the day of grace. 2 Corinthians 6:2
    But vengeance is coming. 2 Thessalonians 1:8
    Thanks Bill for your many insightful articles that demonstrate the current grace and yet warn of the coming vengeance.

    Annette Hammond

  4. Thank you so much Bill, You have answered a question I’ve wondered about for years.

    “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.”

    Why the Jews didn’t get Jesus.
    Thank you again.
    Daniel Kempton

  5. Bill,

    Both David Chilton and Kenneth Gentry helped me with this passage when they pointed out that the Day of the Lord was fulfilled for the Jews in AD 70 when God’s covenant law suit was served against them, and the kingdom of God was taken from them, to be given to a nation (any nation) that would bring forth the fruit of the kingdom. At that time, the Church played its part by praying the imprecatory prayers against the apostates (as recorded in the Book of Revelation: “O Lord, How Long?”).

    Lest we become puffed up, the Lord is no respecter of persons, and in the same way will visit His Day of Vengeance upon apostate Christendom (as He has done repeatedly in history: reflect upon Revelation Chapters 2 & 3).

    Sure, the consummative Day of Vengeance is at the Final Coming of the Lord, but there are Days of Refreshing from the Lord, and Days of Vengenace throughout History, according to the covenatal faithfulness or covenatal unfaithfulness of God’s People in every age (Fall of Byzantine, Fall of the Holy Roman Empire, Decline of the British Empire, Decline of the Pax Americana, etc.).

    We are facing a Day of Vengeance in the western world, but it will not be the consummative Return of Christ; He is looking for the fruit of the kingdom (righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit), but He is finding rotten fruit (homosexuality in the marketplace, injustice in the court system, long term indebtedness and despising of the jubilee, the law of God being trodden under the feet of men). He dug around the tree and applied manure. but still the tree is bearing rotten fruit. Christ’s words still apply, “The kingdom will taken from you and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.”

    Lance A Box

  6. “We are facing a Day of Vengeance in the western world, but it will not be the consummative Return of Christ.”
    In regard to the latter phrase, you know that, do you? Hm?

    If we deplore date-predictors who constantly affirm that the Coming is very near, we must equally deplore date-postponers who affirm with the same “certainty” that it is far away.

    Murray R. Adamthwaite

  7. Hi Murray

    No certainty that it is very far away, but the Lord says He blesses such as fear Him and keep His commandments to a thousand generations. Given a conservative 40 years to a generation, that promise requires 40,000 years to be fulfilled, from the time it was made. I figure, there could be another 36,000 years (but of course I could be wrong, it might be a lot longer than that to see the fulfilment of the promises that Christ will be retained in heaven until the time of the restoration of all things spoken by the prophets, and that the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea – not sure I have the faith for these to be fulfilled in the near future).


    Lance A Box

  8. Hello Bill Muehlenberg and greetings.
    If you pardon me, I just wish to make a brief comment about Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah: After Jesus’ baptism and appointment by means of holy spirit, he read from Isaiah about his role in the fulfillment of Jehovah’s purpose for Israel: “Jehovah’s spirit is upon me, because he anointed me to declare good news to the poor, he sent me forth to preach a release to the captives and a recovery of sight to the blind, to send the crushed ones away with a release, 19 to preach Jehovah’s acceptable year.”(Luke 4:18-19)

    At the start of his ministry Jesus quoted just enough from Isaiah chapters 42; 58; 61, to give the sanctified seed of Abraham Israel (Isaiah 41:8) one final opportunity to complete their God-intended mission to become a blessing to all the families of the earth as promised Abraham in prophecy.  
    Statements about God’s continuing wrath with the wanton sinner and lawbreaker Israel and His coming vengeance upon them could wait, for this was the time for The Good News of Israel’s repurchase and salvation. Yes indeed, as Paul kindly indicated when he quoted from out of the all things written aforetime (Romans 15:4) from Isaiah 52:7: How comely upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news, the one publishing peace, the one bringing good news of something better, the one publishing salvation, the one saying to Zion: “Your God has become king!”Romans 10:15.

    Jehovah’s firstborn son Israel may have sold themselves into sin, but His love for them and all the promises He had made from Genesis to Malachi demanded a rescue, because Jehovah NEVER lies and ALWAYS keeps His promises.
    Bye an may God who never lies bless you and yours

  9. I appreciate this article and the comments. I’m wondering why the line ‘heal the brokenhearted’ is left out in the Luke 4 account of Jesus reading from Is 61. It seems pretty explicitly left out of the newer scholarship based on the NU-omission, since the older versions read it back in.

    Go easy on me, I’m a beginner.


    Greg V. Arthur

  10. Thanks Greg. A good question, but actually a rather complex one. This is not the place to go into detail on translation theory, textual criticism, manuscript evidence and the like. But if you go to any of the main critical commentaries (eg Bock or Nolland or Edwards or Marshall, eg), or Beale and Carson’s vital Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, you will get some detailed responses. I can only outline some of the key points here:

    -It is not a question of newer translations so much as what exact words did Jesus himself use from Isaiah, or what word choice did Luke use?
    -Were they running with the MT or LXX?
    -Other bits of Isaiah were also included in the Luke 4 citation.
    -It is common for NT authors to take some ‘liberties’ with OT texts.
    -Only a small amount of early Lukan manuscripts contain the phrase you ask about.

    But as I say all this will be covered in some detail in most of the better commentaries and reference works.

  11. If we proclaim only grace, and leave out judgement, our message is incomplete. The Holy Spirit is here now in the stead of Christ, and one of his major business is to convict the world of judgement. John 16:8. Jesus also preached the coming judgment (Matt. 5:29-30). In fact, God uses the government to start the judgment here on earth. He uses the law of harvest to effect some other judgement right here. Don’t think you will sow beans and reap yam because you are under grace. This is folly.

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