29 Oct 2008

Jubilee and the Story of God: Our Task & Identity in the World

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Contemporary Ethics, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Kingdom, Ministry, Mission
Redeemed refugees should make good neighbors. This is the point of the vast teaching in the Bible on justice towards the poor and the oppressed.

It has been noted that God’s people are often characterized as aliens within this fallen world. Near the beginning of the story, God’s people were literal slaves, literally without rights, literally without justice, literally without hope.

There arose a Pharaoh who oppressed God’s little band of nomads and suppressed their growing presence in Egypt. These outcasts lived in perpetual fear. The oppressor brutalized them through a reign of terror, aiming at the destruction of innocent Israelite children. This tyranny became the context of Israel’s salvation. It became the greatest moment of redemption in human history until the advent of the Messiah. And it is, biblically, the paradigm for the Messiah’s own redemption.

The Great Act of Jubilee Grace: Yahweh Sets the Captives Free

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor . . .They made their lives bitter with hard labor . . . in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly . . . The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help went up to God. God heard their groaning. . . So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. . . Then the Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers . . . So I have come downto rescue them . . . Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go tell Pharaoh and say to him, “This is what the Lord says: Let my people go” (Ex 1.11-13; 2.23-25; 3.7-8; 8.1, NIV).

God redeemed slaves. Yahweh was moved by the cry of the powerless. The astonishing story of the Exodus was the response of the Lord of grace to oppression. This marvelous act of redemption (i.e. Exodus) by God is the basis of Israel’s own way of life as God’s people. They were “saved by grace” in this moment of God’s great act. They were redeemed slaves. They had experienced the euphoria of deliverance from a life of bondage. A people redeemed from slavery share redemption with other slaves.

Israel would never forget the Gospel of the Exodus.[1] The book of Deuteronomy, for example, has the Exodus inter-woven through its teaching to its very core. Deuteronomy bears witness to the Great Story of gracious redemption  (the Exodus), the Great Commandment (love God with our very being), and the Great Society (loving our neighbors). The Ten Commandments (i.e. Words in Deuteronomy) are rooted in the grace of God (Deut 5.6) and the Sabbath commandment in particular.  Sabbath rest was to be granted to sons, daughters, servants, resident aliens (i.e. non-Israelites) even animals because “you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God brought you out with a mighty hand” (Deut 5.15). Thus the Sabbath bridges Loving God and Loving our neighbor.

Channels of Mercy Into the Fallen World: Israel’s Task in the Hebrew Bible

In reminding Israel of what it means to be the people of God (question of identity), Moses states that they were to be a people of 2) a circumcised hearts (Deut 10.16) and 2) defenders of the aliens (Deut 10.18). Moses first reminds them of the uniqueness of Yahweh, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” The people of God must follow God’s own example – this is how he treated THEM.

So Moses, after declaring God’s own priority, commands Israel  “And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt” (Deut. 10.18-19). Israel, the rescued – redeemed and graced – alien, was to be God’s instrument in caring for other aliens. Israel is to be an instrument of grace and shalom to their neighbors.  To be the people of God is to be the channel of mercy into the fallen world.

The Psalmists impress upon the minds of Israelites the place the poor have in the heart of Yahweh through their liturgy, that is their corporate worship.  Redeemed slaves are constantly living, breathing, sabbaths in the world.  They are to become Jubilees! God set them free – they are now the tool of grace to set others free.  The following sampling represents an aspect of God’s worship that is, perhaps, missing in our contemporary assemblies.

Rise up, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand;
do not forget the oppressed . . .
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
The helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan . . .
O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek;
you will strengthen their heart,
You will incline your ear to do justice
for the orphan and the oppressed,
So that those from earth may strike terror
no more.
(Ps 10.12-18)

Father of orphans, defender of widows,
such is God in his holy dwelling;
God gives the lonely a permanent home,
makes prisoners happy by setting them free
(Ps 68.5-6, Jerusalem Bible)

May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
and give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor . . .
For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.
(Ps 72.2-4; 12-14)

He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
the Lord gives sight to the blind,
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the alien
and sustains the fatherless and
the widow . . .
The Lord reigns forever . . .
(Ps 146.7-10, NIV)

The prophets are laced with protests against religion that has a form of godliness but missed its power (cf. 2 Tim 3.5). Amos preached to a religious Israel. Israel was meticulous in her technical obedience to the forms of religion. Yet the society of his day allowed seizure of the poor’s land (Amos 2.7; cf. Micah 2.2), debt slavery (Amost 2.6), abuse of the courts in favor of the powerful (Amos 5.10, 15), sexual abuse of women (Amos 2.7b), and exploitation of the working poor (Amos 8.4-6). Israel (i.e. the church) complacently disassociated their passion for doing church things with BEING God’s people in the world. Israel forgot what it meant to be a redeemed slave! Amos says essentially, “you cannot be God’s worshipers, if you are not God’s Jubilee.”

The prophet Jeremiah, like Moses before him, forces Israel to ask what it means to be the people of God. Does having the temple and the altar make us his people? Does having a hill called Zion? Jeremiah says these are misplaced anchors of identity. Jeremiah declares that to know God, to be God’s people, is nothing less than to live by God’s values. Redeemed refugees, who know God, love other refugees.

In a powerful oracle Jeremiah weeps for God’s wayward people (Jer 22.13-16, NIV) … indeed Jeremiah sounds much like Jesus on one occasion when he told a similar story …

Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness,
his upper rooms by injustice,
Making his countrymen work for nothing,
not paying them for their labor.
He says, ‘I will build myself a great palace
with spacious upper rooms.’
So he makes large windows in it,
panels it with cedar and decorates it in red.
Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
he did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is this not what it means to know me?’
declares the Lord.

Jesus and the Jubilee of God

The Gospels paint the ministry of Jesus in complete harmony with this emphasis on Good News of Jubilee justice in the Old Testament. Yahweh heard the cry of the oppressed and acted to save Israel. Jesus claims that language to describe his own ministry. Quoting from Isaiah 61, Jesus says (Luke 4.18-19)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the
Lord’s favor.

The mission of Jesus was to release the oppressed. His mission is the same as Yahweh’s in the Old Testament. Luke stresses, throughout his Gospel, the connection between the year of Jubilee and Jesus.[2] One of the many ways Luke does this is through his use of the word “save.” Many modern Christians understand “salvation” in almost a totally other worldly sense (really a Platonic sense). Salvation, in this view, is only the forgiveness of sin and going to heaven. While this is one dimension of salvation it is far from the robust biblical doctrine. This truncated doctrine relegates ministry to the poor and oppressed as matters of secondary importance. But the ministry of Jesus, as well as the Law and the Prophets, calls that conclusion into question. Fully one fourth of the uses of the word “save” in the Gospels describe Jesus’ miracles of healing. Examples of those “saved” include blind Bartimaeus (Mk. 10.52) and the man with the withered hand (Mk 3.4-5). Luke uses “salvation” to describe the healing of the centurion’s servant (7.3), the sinful woman (7.50), the restoration of the demoniac (8.36), and the resurrection of a dead girl (8.50). Many more examples could be cited.

Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus shows Luke’s wider Jubilee emphasis. Luke 19 tells the story of a zealous tax collector. He had piled up riches through corrupt taxation in which the Roman land lords allowed local subcontractors to collect more taxes than they passed onto Rome. Yet when Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, he was radically changed. He returned four times the amount he had taken through corrupt means. Then he gave half of his goods to the poor. Luke caps the story off with Jesus’ words, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19.9).

Salvation is understood squarely against the backdrop of Jubilee. Through healing the sick, feeding the poor, and releasing the oppressed, Jesus proclaims the good news, the Gospel of God’s grace. It is not merely his words, but deeds that declare the good news of the kingdom. Luke describes salvation as new life, wholeness, forgiveness and healing.[3]

Jubilee and Us: Channels of Mercy

Jesus followed his Father’s example in releasing the oppressed. He also called the people of God, as Moses did before him, to be concerned about the powerless, the hungry, and dispossessed. To be Jubilee people. The parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt 25.31-46), in view of what we have discovered, is no afterthought for Jesus. This parable reveals God’s concern for the oppressed, Jesus’ identification with the poor, and our fellowship with the poor is ministry to Christ himself. Matthew 25 reinforces the claim of Jesus that “justice, mercy and faithfulness” are in fact the “weightier matters of the law” (Mt 23.23). Like Moses, Amos and Jeremiah, Jesus says being God’s people does not rest on mere ritual and form but on doing what God does.  Being a redeemed slave means we are channels of mercy into God’s world.  We continue the very mission of Jesus recorded in Luke.  We are the Year of Jubilee even as we wait for final eschatological redemption by divine fiat.

God’s people receive everything by grace. Their status as a family in the kingdom of God is through grace. They have received gifts of grace in the form of material wealth. They have been saved by grace, not just from sins, but from an age enslaved to greed, narcissism, and mammon. We who have been redeemed from such an “empty way of life” (1 Pet 1.18) gladly love and serve the oppressed aliens in our midst.

From this survey, which is ever so brief, I conclude that David Lipscomb was essentially correct in his views … as challenging as they are.


[1] The Exodus has continued to be a powerful symbol of redemption for people through the centuries. Of interest is the different ways white Christians have read the story and they way black slaves in America interpreted it. A sensitive telling of these two contrasting interpretations can be found in David W. Kling, The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 193-229.

[2] James A. Sanders and Craig Evans, Luke and Scripture: The Function of Sacred Tradition in Luke-Acts (Augsburg/Fortress, 1993), 84-94; John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 64-77. For an insightful treatment of the ethical value of the year of Jubilee in the Old Testament see Christopher J. H. Wright, Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IVP, 1996).

[3] Ronald J. Sider, Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 89.

P.S. there is more information about Jubilee and living out the kingdom vision in my book with John Mark Hicks, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding

5 Responses to “Jubilee and the Story of God: Our Task & Identity in the World”

  1. Tim Archer Says:


    Don’t want to take a tangent, but I’m curious if you’ve ever seen any evidence that the Israelites actually practiced the law of Jubilee. When you say that Israel never forgot the gospel of the Exodus, I’d argue that they forgot all too often, which is why the prophets have to remind them.

    Sort of the way we forget at times the gospel message and get caught up in the doctrine that streams out of it. (like the writer you mentioned the other day who wrote 300+ pages on baptism and never mentioned the cross).

    Grace and peace,

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Tim, Jeremiah seems to indicate that it was supposed to be observed. But as for how often they actually did it as commanded by God we do not know.

    When I say that Israel never forgot the Exodus I mean that it is in all levels of the Hebrew Bible. It is appealed to in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings … all over. It is one of the most important motifs in Scripture.

    So absolutely some Israelites did seem to “forget” the Exodus and that is why their spiritual leaders exhorted them to “remember” …

    Bobby V

  3. kingdomseeking Says:

    Wonderful post Bobby. Grace transforms us into people who become conduits of grace, anything else is really not grace.

    Grace and peace,


  4. Eric Hallett Says:

    Another thought-provoking post. Exodus was the subject of the recent Conference on Preaching at Lipscomb and the influence of the Exodus on the rest of the Bible, including the New Testament, is undeniable. Some questions bear consideration:

    Are we the Israelites or the Egyptians? Could we be both at different times? Are we oppressed or do we oppress? How do we treat those suffering from oppression?

    Are we residents of Egypt, the Promised Land, or are we wandering in the Wilderness? What does the place we are indicate about our reliance upon God?

    I have always been fascinated with the idea of Jubilee. It is absolutely a justice issue. I wonder if this country would not have been better served if there were a sort of Jubilee bailout package that would wipe away consumer debt rather than a bailout to help some preferred financial institutions.

    I too am frustrated when I see lives focused on selfishness or even “church selfishness”. Why concern ourselves with hunger if the church doesn’t get anything in return? What are we going to do, force church attendance on those who are hungry? Let’s let our focus be on glorifying God. Let’s say with Paul, “For Christ’s love compels u, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15 NIV)

  5. Dan Martin Says:

    Really good piece, Bobby. If you wrote nothing but your first sentence “Redeemed refugees should make good neighbors,” it would have already been worthy of a whole lot of contemplation. I agree with you that Jubilee is central to the “good news” of both Torah and Jesus’ gospel.

    You might enjoy my own piece on Jubilee from Advent two years ago: Jubilee is an Advent Prophecy!


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