What was Jesus up to in his ministry? What did his miracles mean? We don’t have to guess, because he told us what he thought he was doing in his inaugural sermon in his home town of Nazareth.
Luke 4.16-21 [ESV]
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In order to truly understand what Jesus is saying, we need to familiarize ourselves with the context of the Isaiah prophecy that Jesus quoted. Here is a more extended quotation, which begins before Jesus started and continues beyond where he left off:
Isaiah 60.18-61.7 [ESV]
60.18 Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise. 19 The sun shall be no more your light by day, nor for brightness shall the moon give you light; but the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory. 20 Your sun shall no more go down, nor your moon withdraw itself; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your days of mourning shall be ended. 21 Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I might be glorified. 22 The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the LORD; in its time I will hasten it.
61.1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. 5 Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks; foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; 6 but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast. 7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.
What I find so interesting about this Isaiah prophecy is that it pertains to the kingdom–a time when God’s people rebuild ancient ruins, when strangers maintain their possessions, when all of them become priests of God, when they will enjoy the wealth of nations, when they will possess the land with joy. God plans on redeeming his people and restoring them to glory in the land. However, if this Isaiah 61 prophecy relates to the kingdom in its original context, why did Jesus quote it and say it was fulfilled?
Before answering this question, consider the various aspects of Jesus’ ministry. He healed people, cast out demons, preached the gospel, invited in the outcasts, taught ethics, and attended dinner parties. Typically, we think of these various avenues of ministry independently or perhaps as ways he loved his neighbor as himself. Nevertheless, we don’t need to guess what Jesus thought about his ministry activities. According to him, he was doing Isaiah 61.
Now, some see here a redefinition of the kingdom, as if Jesus is somehow coming against the notion of God setting up an actual monarchy on earth like the kingdom of old. However, that is impossible since it would make liars out of the prophets. What Jesus is doing here in his inaugural sermon is providing a context or framework for his entire ministry. He is doing kingdom work. He brings about signs of the age to come in the present to testify to the future God will one day bring. Surrounding Jesus, wherever he goes, is a bubble of the kingdom. If he encounters someone with a sickness, he heals him or her. If he runs across an outcast of society, he restores their dignity. If he finds a demon-possessed boy, he casts that demon out. This is because in the kingdom there are no sick, outcasts, or demons. Jesus was a living advertisement proclaiming and demonstrating in a small way what God will one day do globally. Would we expect anything less from the Messiah–the one destined to rule on the kingdom throne?