Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written: 18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on Him. 21He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:17-21, NIV)
While attending synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, Jesus read a passage from Isaiah 61. There, the prophet spoke as if he were the “anointed one” of Israel, the Messiah who would bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. After reading this prophecy, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). In other words, He said, “I am the One anointed by God to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. I am the Messiah who will bring good news, release, healing, and freedom.”
Throughout history, followers of Jesus have tried to figure out exactly how Jesus fulfilled the messianic words of Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets. Jesus did not, after all, do what many expected Him to do: raise up an army to expel the Romans from Judea so that He might reign over God’s earthly kingdom. What, then, did He accomplish? How did He fulfill the messianic job description found in Isaiah?
Many have interpreted Jesus’s use of Isaiah in a metaphorical or spiritualized way. Jesus brings good news, not to the materially poor, but to the poor in spirit. He releases captives caught in sin and spiritual bondage. He heals those who are “blind” by revealing God’s truth. He frees all who are oppressed by the guilt that comes from sin. Many in the church were taught that this is what Jesus meant when He claimed to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. That makes sense because many have experienced the salvation of Jesus in this non-literal mode.
But as we study Scripture more carefully, especially the Old Testament prophets, and as we examine closely the teachings and works of Jesus, we see that the non-literal understanding of Jesus’s mission was too narrow. Yes, He surely offers salvation to those who are spiritually poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. But Jesus also proclaimed and inaugurated the reign of God on earth. He came to offer deliverance to those who were literally poor, captive, blind, and oppressed. His messianic work was not limited in the non-literal mode. It was far more widespread and far deeper. Ultimately, as Jesus broke the power of sin through His death on the cross, He brought not only individual salvation, but also the full peace of God, including justice, reconciliation, and restoration. (See, for example, Ephesians 2:1-22.)
The world-changing work of Jesus has begun, to be sure. In this we rejoice, but there is still much more to be done as Jesus works today through those who follow Him. The complete reign of God will come only through God’s own effort. We don’t make God’s kingdom come. But, as we wait for the fullness of the kingdom, we can and should join in the life-changing, world-changing, kingdom-extending mission of Jesus today.
The holiday known as Juneteenth is a fitting illustration of the “already here and not yet” work of Jesus. On June Nineteenth of every year (hence “Juneteenth”), many people celebrate the emancipation of black Americans from slavery. Though the Emancipation Proclamation, which officially ended slavery, became effective on January 1, 1863, many parts of the country did not know this, including Texas. But on June 19, 1865, the people of Texas were officially informed that all slaves were free. Several years later, black people and others in Texas began celebrating “Juneteenth” as a day of freedom. In 1979, Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday. Since then, almost all other states have followed suit.
Juneteenth is, of course, particularly relevant in our present day, when issues of racial justice are rightly and excruciatingly on the forefront of our consciousness. But this example is not only timely, but it also helps us understand the work of Jesus in at least two ways. First, Juneteenth reminds us that the mission of Jesus has everything to do with the liberation of people in today’s world. Wherever people are victims of prejudice, held down by racism, and/or oppressed by unjust systems, Jesus and those who follow Him faithfully are working for their liberation and flourishing. There are still poor who need good news, captives who need release, blind who need to see, and oppressed who need freedom.
Second, Juneteenth also helps us celebrate even when the work before us isn’t finished. After all, Juneteenth is a celebration of liberation. But this celebration does not imply that liberation for black Americans has been fully accomplished. Yes, the flagrant evil of slavery was abolished, but “liberty and justice for all” is still very much a work in progress. Recent events, protests, and prayer meetings in our country have pointed out just how far we have to go when it comes to defeating racism and its permeating implications.
Through His death on the cross, Jesus conquered sin and brought us into new life. Individually, we are saved by God’s grace given through Christ and received in faith. Yet the death of Christ also brought peace to a broken world. It forged reconciliation between divided and hostile peoples. It made possible the experience of God’s peace in this world, a peace infused by justice, shaped by love, and embodied in unity. We who follow Jesus celebrate what He accomplished on the cross. And we also commit ourselves to joining His mission on earth until that day when God’s kingdom is complete and all things and all peoples are united in Christ (see Ephesians 1:10; 2:1-22). Today, we follow Jesus both in our celebrating and in our laboring.
How are you participating in Jesus’s work in the world today?
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them He was hungry.
(Luke 5:27-28, NIV)
After Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came upon him, the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:2). The following verses describe the specific temptations Jesus faced and how he overcame them by drawing strength and guidance from Scripture. In each of the temptations, the devil tried to get Jesus to use his unique identity as the Son of God for his own benefit. Yet Jesus refused, remaining committed to the mission to which God had called him.
When we read this story, we may be surprisingly unimpressed. Of course, Jesus didn’t give in to the devil’s illicit invitations. He was the Son of God, after all, God in human flesh. He had superhuman strength to defeat the devil’s schemes. Some don’t even really believe that Jesus was truly tempted. His temptations seemed formal or formulaic, not genuine and heartfelt. What we need to understand, however, is that Jesus was actually wrestling with the meaning of His messianic calling. He was rejecting the obvious and expected path of glorious kingship, choosing instead the enigmatic and unexpected way of sacrificial servanthood. For Jesus, this wasn’t merely a thought experiment. It was a heartfelt, gut-wrenching challenge.
In the letter to the Hebrews, we find theological reflection on the temptation of Jesus: “Therefore, since we have a great High Priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have One who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin. 16Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16). The NRSV uses the word “tested” where other translations (NIV, KJV, CEB) go with “tempted.” Either way, the point is that Jesus was tempted/tested “in every respect . . . as we are,” though He never sinned. Whether in the wilderness or the workshop, whether alone or with others, Jesus was truly tempted. He felt the conflict of desires we know so well. He felt the temptations that are so familiar to us.
This means, according to Hebrews, that Jesus can “empathize with our weaknesses” (v. 15). He really understands what it’s like to be us when we are tempted. For this reason, when we are tempted, we don’t have to hide from Jesus in shame. Rather, we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness” (v. 16). We can tell Jesus what’s really going on with us without holding back. As we do, we will “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (v. 16). Jesus not only understands, but He also supplies what we need to say “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God’s kingdom.
How free are you to let the Lord know when you are tempted? What might help you to become even freer to do this in the future? The fact that Jesus experienced genuine temptation means that he sympathizes with us when we are tempted. We don’t have to hide in shame. Rather, Scripture invites us to speak openly of our struggles so that we might be helped by God’s mercy and grace given through Jesus.
After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow Me,” Jesus said to him, 28and Levi got up, left everything and followed Him. (Luke 5:27-28, NIV)
In a time of uncertainty, when we we’re not sure quite what to do, it’s good to follow Jesus. When we wonder where our lives are headed and what they’ll be like when we get there, it’s good to follow Jesus. When you’re not quite sure what to think or how to live, here’s something you can hang onto: When at a loss for what to do, follow Jesus!
In our present crises, I want to invite you to ponder on what it means to follow Jesus in our world at this time of history. Following Jesus is not only timely but also timeless. No matter the context, no matter the challenge, no matter the confusion engulfing us, it’s always good to turn our attention back to Jesus. I don’t know what will be expected of me in the future. I don’t know the challenges I’ll face or the opportunities that will be presented to me. But I do know this: When in doubt, follow Jesus!
Of course, for us, following Jesus today isn’t exactly like what it was for people who encountered Jesus in the flesh. when Jesus approached Levi the tax collector and said to him, “Follow Me,” Levi “got up, left everything, and followed Him” (Luke 5:28). He literally went after Jesus, walking along as Jesus led. Later, Levi threw a great party for Jesus so that he might introduce Him to his friends and associates (Luke 5:29).
You and I don’t have the chance to follow Jesus in that way. So, what does it mean for us to follow Jesus today? There are several passages in the Gospel of Luke that show us something about Jesus and what it means for us to follow Him. Though we can’t actually walk behind Him, going wherever He goes, we can follow Jesus by heeding His call, listening to His teachings, believing and doing what He says, getting to know Him personally, learning His way of life, being formed in the image of His character, praying as He teaches us, and joining in His kingdom-centered mission. I think I just described the process of fellowship.
In the 1300’s, a man living in a small village in southern England offered a simple, heartfelt prayer: “Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits Thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults which Thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.” This prayer of St. Richard of Chichester has resonated in the hearts of Christians around the world, echoing throughout the centuries, and it is my prayer for you and me during this time. Indeed, in this particular time of history, with so many challenges and opportunities before us, may we know Jesus more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, day by day, even today!
Pause for a moment to take inventory of your daily life. Do you think of yourself as following Jesus in your everyday life? At work? In your community? With your family and friends? With your church? Do you know someone in today’s world who is following Jesus? If so, what are they doing?
Use St. Richard’s prayer as a way turning your mind and heart to Jesus. For the next several days, pray this prayer, either silently or out loud, a few times throughout your day.
… and she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. She wrapped Him in cloths and placed Him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
As He [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, He wept over it …
(Luke 2:7; 19:41, NIV)
The beloved Christmas carol, “Away in a Manager” have some believing that Jesus did not cry. When “the little Lord Jesus” is awakened by the lowing of the cattle, “no crying He makes.” This verse, however, is way out of line with Scripture. If Jesus was truly the incarnation of the Word of God, if He was fully human in addition to being fully divine, then He surely participated in normal human behavior, like crying when He was a baby.
In fact, the Gospels actually depict the crying of Jesus, not as an infant, but as a grown man. Perhaps the most familiar example is in John 11, where Jesus weeps along with those who are grieving over the death of Lazarus. Another example is Luke 19, where Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem. “As He came near and saw the city,” Luke tells us, “He wept over it” (v. 41). In fact, the original word in Greek is a powerful verb that could even be translated as “wailed.” We’re not talking about a modest sniffle, but a strong, gut-wrenching, public expression of grief.
Why did Jesus weep in this dramatic way? Jesus explains His sadness over Jerusalem. The city had had a chance to embrace the peace that Jesus offered, but they rejected it even as they rejected Him. The salvation of God was now hidden from Jerusalem, which, in time, they would be crushed to the ground because they failed to recognize “God’s coming” to them (v. 44). Jesus felt tremendous grief as He gazed upon the broken city. He wept, much as the prophet Jeremiah once wept over Judah and Jerusalem (Jer. 9:1-11).
The example of Jesus gives us permission to grieve over the brokenness and pain of our cities today. It invites us to feel and express our sadness and anger over suffering and injustice. In this time of history in our nation, perhaps more than ever, we need this permission and invitation to weep. Over 108,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19, devastating families and communities. Over 40 million people have lost their jobs and now face extreme economic hardships.
As if that was not enough, adding to this horror, we learn of the senseless killings of African-Americans, culminating in the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer. The pain and rage of millions of people of color and their allies is expressed in fervent prayer meetings and peaceful protests, which some people exploit as an occasion for acts of violence. Yet, these acts must not take our attention away from the injustice of racism that continues to plague our society, systems, and even our own hearts. We rightly grieve over the mistreatment of people created in God’s image. We rightly repent over our own participation in unjust structures. We, who seek to follow Jesus, have every reason to weep over our own cities much as Jesus once did over Jerusalem.
Of course, Jesus didn’t stop there and neither should we. After weeping, He also acted decisively and sacrificially to bring a more far reaching peace than anyone could have imagined. Grief over injustice and suffering is just the beginning, and we should not stop there. As we take our grief to the Lord, we also ask what He would have us do. We offer ourselves as instruments of His peace, as seekers of His justice in every part of life, and as people who love in deed and not only in word. Weeping opens us up to feel God’s heart, receive God’s direction, and join in His kingdom mission. What this means for each one of us will be distinctive, given our situation in life and our particular callings. But we can all do something to advance the cause of justice in our part of the world and to stand in solidarity with the African American community in the midst of our current crisis.
How do you feel about what’s happening not only in our nation right now, but throughout the world? I encourage you to honestly and openly express your feelings and thoughts to the Lord, for He knows what it is like to weep over a city.
Ask God to give you His heart for what’s happening in our cities and
in our world today.