Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Inauguration of Jesus' Ministry Part IV: Healing (Luke 4:16-30)

The Inauguration of Jesus’ Ministry Part IV:
Healing (Luke 4:16-30)
By Dr. Dave Johnson
Assemblies of God Missionary to the Philippines

[This blog is the fourth in this series.  To read the first three blogs, please visit www.drdavejohnson.blogspot.com.]

Jesus continued to read the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-2. His listeners, knowing that the text included poetry where the second line reinforced the meaning of the first line, listened intently. He came to the third parallelism which began with, “To proclaim liberty to the captives.”

The phrase “liberty to the captives” must be understood within Israel’s historical context.  The Jewish nation had been forged in the bondage of slavery in Egypt and had been liberated only through God’s miraculous intervention.  The theme of deliverance from Egypt runs throughout the Old Testament.  Also, by Jesus’ time, the remnant of Jews had returned home from Babylonian exile.  As Bailey notes, this phrase carries the idea of captives longing to return home.  Since I have lived outside of the United States for most of the last seventeen years, albeit voluntarily, I understand something of this desire.  On many days, I have longed for home. 

When Jesus spoke these words, the Jews were under the authority of Rome—an oppressive master.  While they were in their own homeland, they were not free.  The common understanding of the Messiah in Jesus’ day was rife with political overtones, especially that the Christ would lead a revolt against Rome.  This led Jesus to avoid the use of the term among the Jews, although he had no qualms about it among the Samaritans (John 4:26). I agree with Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes)here that to interpret this passage solely in spiritual terms is to ignore history.  And there will certainly come a day when the Messiah will establish his Kingdom on earth, a Kingdom of righteousness and justice and to which there shall be no end (Isaiah 9:6).

At the same time, the spiritual connotations cannot be denied.  From Genesis to Revelation the Bible speaks of mankind being enslaved to sin. As one of my theology professors once said, “sin is so terrible only God can deal with it.” Jesus announced here that the day of God’s salvation was at hand. This was the essence of the Good News that he preached—a message that would be sealed in his own blood on a Roman cross.

The second part of this parallelism reads “To set at liberty those who are oppressed,” which carries the same meaning as the first part of the parallelism that we have already considered.  But before reading this phrase Jesus inserted the words “And recovery of sight to the blind.”  This phrase does not appear in Isaiah 61:1-2 but is drawn from Isaiah 42:7, another Messianic prophecy.  Jesus’ inclusion of another passage here posed no ethical problem for his hearers.  According to Bailey, adding in bits of other passages to the synagogue readings was a commonly accepted practice.  But why did he do so? Bailey goes on to note that the Qumran community, a sect of Judaism known as the Essenes that lived near the Dead Sea, believed that the coming Messiah would heal the blind, suggesting that this expectation may have been common in Jesus’ day. But this reason alone would not have been sufficient for Jesus as he was not trying to win a popularity contest.

Isaiah’s reference to healing in 42:7 is similar to that of another well known Messianic prophecy which also flowed from his pen, Isaiah 53:5 “And by His stripes we are healed.” Isaiah and Luke both well understood that sickness entered the world through the Fall of Adam and Eve, making a connection between sin and sickness.  In both Messianic prophecies here, Isaiah also makes the connection between forgiveness and healing.  In this case, both forgiveness and healing are alluded to in the same parallelism here.  Liberty to captives comes from forgiveness and is consistent with Isaiah’s theology of forgiveness through vicarious suffering. 

While the passage comes from the prophet Isaiah, one cannot help but wonder if Luke included it here because, as a medical doctor, he had a deep interest in medical issues and mentions them throughout his gospel.  Blindness was a common malady in first century Judea. In some cases, it seems to have been carried by flies, although there were also cases of congenital blindness (i.e. John 9) (Blindness in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia accessed 4 August 2011).  Because blindness was common, it can be seen as representative of all illness and, therefore, indicates that the Messiah would heal all manner of disease.  Additionally, the term is used as a figure of speech to carry the connotation of spiritual blindness.

The hermeneutical question that needs to be addressed here is how Luke, the author of the account, intended for this reference to be understood.  Also, how did Jesus himself understand it? At first glance, the concept of spiritual blindness would appear to be in view because it fits the immediate context well.  Reflecting deeper, however, it is clear that Jesus himself understood this passage to refer to all manner of physical healing (Matthew 11:1-6). On a broader theological plane, the concepts of healing from both sin and sickness are linked throughout Scripture.  It seems clear, then, all three shades of meaning of the term are in view here, with the strongest interpretation being general physical healing because that this way Jesus himself understood this text. 

The implications of this parallelism and the phrase inserted by Jesus are astounding in what the Messiah would do.  Surely he would have a ministry like no other before him.  Whether Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled this prophecy is a question not yet totally answered.  But before this question can be dealt with as well as the reaction of his hearers to his claim to be the Messiah can be considered, there is one more parallelism that needs to be taken into account.  This and the reason that Jesus only quotes half of it will be the subject of the next blog.

*All Scripture references are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.

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Copyright 2011 Dr. Dave Johnson 

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