If the story of Jesus teaches us anything it is that God is on a mission. The gospel record of Jesus’ coming is simply a continuation of the Old Testament story of God at work, through his chosen instruments—Abraham and the nation that arose out of his descendants—to bring redemption to the world and to set right the creation which has been damaged and corrupted by human sin.
After his baptism and temptation, which took place in the southern part of the Jewish homeland, the area known as Judea, Jesus chose to begin his formal and public ministry in the north, where he had grown up, in the region known as Galilee.
Here is the way Mark describes it in chapter one of his Gospel.
Now… Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:14)
It’s interesting that Mark, who records very little of the teaching of Jesus, preferring to concentrate on his actions—his miracles and works of power—nevertheless begins his account of Jesus’ ministry, after briefly mentioning the baptism and temptation, with a reference to something Jesus said.
According to Mark, these are the very first words spoken by Jesus in his public ministry. With these words, Jesus set the tone of his ministry for the next three years. And almost everybody now agrees that the kingdom of God was the single most important theme in all of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.
When Luke writes about the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee, he includes a few more details than Mark. Here’s what Luke says in 4:14-16.
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.
When we read Luke’s account of Jesus teaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, we have to believe that what he said there is part of what Mark was referring to when he described Jesus’ ministry as proclaiming the good news of God and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.’
First century Jews were looking for a king. It had been 500 years since they had been an independent nation with their own king. The Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, promised that one day a king would come, a descendant of King David, and he would restore Israel to the position among the nations which she had enjoyed before she was conquered and subjugated first by Babylonia, then by Medo-Persia, then Greece, and then, at the time Jesus lived and the Gospels were written, by Rome.
Since the Jews viewed themselves as the people of God and their king as the representative of God, the restoration of the kingdom of Israel was, to their way of thinking, the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. And they were ready for it. They were tired of being walked over. They were ready for somebody anointed by God (and that is precisely what the word “messiah” means) to come on the scene and overthrow their oppressors so that their king could be seated on his throne once again. They were ready for some pomp and pageantry. They were tired of waiting.
Onto this stage steps Jesus. Listen again to the way Luke tells the story in chapter four.
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then 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. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The passage from which Jesus read was Isaiah 61. Everybody in that synagogue that Sabbath morning knew that the words of Isaiah 61 referred to the Messiah. When Jesus rolled up the scroll and then said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” they couldn’t believe their ears. Could it be that this Jesus Bar Joseph, the son of the carpenter, the kid they had watched grow up among them, was identifying Himself as their Messiah?
Was he really claiming to be the king that the prophets had promised? Did he really have the temerity, the audacity, to announce that the kingdom had finally come, that he was, in fact, the king, and, on top of everything, to dare to call this announcement “good news”?
Oh yes. That’s exactly what he was saying. He clearly believed that the Spirit of the Lord was on him… that he had been anointed to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom to the poor (that is, to people with a legitimate need which they could not address in and of themselves). He really believed that the Spirit of the Lord had sent him to somehow provide liberty for the imprisoned, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
Scholars disagree about whether Jesus understood Isaiah’s words as literal or figurative. What I think we can all agree on, however, is that not all poverty is economic…but some is. Not all prisoners are locked away in rooms with steel bars for walls…but some are. Not all blindness is physical…but some is. And not all oppression is political…but some is. The gospel of the Kingdom is good news for people who are the victims of sin and injustice—whatever the source—which has left them hopeless, fearful, and alone.
These few verses from Luke 4 are among the most important in the Gospels, because in them Jesus concisely summarized the heart of his message and the scope of his ministry. Everything he would do and say from that point—up to and including his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension back to the right hand of the Father—would somehow relate and contribute to the accomplishment of the task outlined in Luke 4:18, 19. A task which Isaiah had first described as the work of the Messiah and which Jesus had then applied to Himself.
But as vital and essential as that point is to understanding these verses, it still doesn’t exhaust their importance.
Remember that Luke—the Gentile historian and physician who wrote the gospel that bears his name—also wrote the New Testament book of Acts. And here’s what he wrote in the first two verses of that book.
1In my former book (i.e. the Gospel of Luke),… I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
All that Jesus did and taught—from the time he preached to the hometown folks at the synagogue in Nazareth until he ascended back into the presence of the Father some forty days after his resurrection—all of that, Luke writes in Acts 1:1, constitutes what Jesus began to do and teach.
If Jesus’ ministry on earth was merely the beginning of what he did and taught, where is that ministry continuing? I’ll tell you where—in and through the church which is his body (Ephesians 1:22-23), the ongoing presence of Christ in the world.
His mission is our mission. His work is our work. His calling—to proclaim good news, freedom, sight, and release—is our calling. The church doesn’t have to struggle to come up with a mission statement. Jesus already declared it when he opened the scroll of Isaiah and preached to the people at the synagogue in Nazareth.
Here’s what others are saying about my autobiographical novel, The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey. (Tap the title or the cover image to go to the book’s order page on Amazon.com.)
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“This is an absorbing memoir… the tender story of a life tormented by disappointment and depression, yet sustained by the unshakable hope for the kingdom of God.” –From the back cover blurb by David Swartz, Assistant Professor of History at Asbury University and author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.