In the first half of this passage, Jesus stands up in the synagogue, reads the well-known Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 61:1-2, and then tells the people that He is the fulfillment of this prophecy (in other words the long-awaited Messiah). The people are left staring in awe at Jesus as they try to figure out the ramifications of what He just declared.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on what Jesus has declared thus far. Not only did Jesus just claim to be the long-awaited Messiah, He also announced divine anointing for the specific purpose of helping five vulnerable groups of people—specifically, those who are poor, brokenhearted, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. His last statement—“to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”—is likely referring to the Year of Jubilee, in which debts were to be cancelled, wealth redistributed, and land returned.
So far, Jesus’ snapshot of His messianic character and purpose appears to be viewed as good news by those listening. Luke informs us that everyone “marveled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth” (emphasis added). That Jesus’ listeners appreciated His snapshot thus far makes sense since they would have identified themselves as the vulnerable ones that the Messiah was anointed to help. After all, the Jewish people were oppressed, impoverished, and “imprisoned” by their Roman occupiers, and they longed to have their Promised Land restored. Yes, Jesus’ listeners liked this kind of Messiah.
Obviously the fact that Jesus just claimed to be the Messiah would have come as quite the shock to His hometown. However, both His claim and His description thus far have not infuriated His listeners. Certainly, they were transfixed and astonished. But they were not angered. If anything, Luke describes the state of the crowd as that of being pleasantly surprised.
So what in the world could Jesus have said that would cause a crowd to turn on Him so quickly? What could ignite such rage? The answer lies in the second half of Jesus’ sermon, the portion that begins with “You will surely say this proverb to me…”
In this section of His sermon, Jesus makes an unpopular indictment. In essence, Jesus declares to His hometown, “You Jews pride yourselves as being God’s chosen people, yet you always reject His prophets. This is why God never sent Elijah to any Jewish widows; instead, Elijah helped a widowed foreigner. And God never instructed Elisha to heal any of the many Israelites plagued with leprosy; however, Elisha did heal the leper Naaman, who let’s recall commanded the army of an enemy nation. You don’t have a monopoly on God. He is at work in the lives of non-Jews as well.”
Wow! Those are some bold words. At this, those listening immediately rise up and try to kill Jesus! Enraged by the claim that “no prophet is accepted in his own country”, Jesus’ fellow countrymen ironically prove His point as they attempt to toss Him off a nearby cliff. I personally suspect that Jesus’ listeners didn’t even give Him time to finish speaking. I envision Jesus still rattling off further examples of prophets being rejected by Israel and accepted by foreigners as His hometown dragged Him to the cliff edge.
This indictment gives us a foretaste of what kind of messiah Jesus will be. His coming is not for the sole benefit of one favored nation; He offers salvation to all peoples. As we have come to see, this is not the kind of messiah most Jews were expecting. They didn’t want a messiah that offers mercy to their enemies. As we’ve already seen, most Jews wanted a militant messiah that would help them overthrow the Romans. What was true for Israel has been true for almost every nation. History reveals that nations, regardless of their dominant religion, tend to instinctively believe in a tribal god that blesses their country and opposes their enemies.
The Part Jesus Omitted:
So far, our discussion of Jesus’ hometown sermon has shattered many of the popular theories amongst first century Jews as to what the Messiah would be like. Yet, there is still one more very important observation to make from Luke’s account of Jesus’ messianic description.
When Jesus stood before His hometown synagogue, He chose to read one of the most popular and well-known messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. As Jesus read through Isaiah 61:1-2, likely many of the people present that day were mouthing the words under their breath along with Him, like many of us today would find ourselves doing if a pastor started to quote John 3:16 or recite the Lord’s Prayer.
But then Jesus did something very subtle that likely most of His listeners did not pick up on. Whether intentional or not, Jesus leaves off part of the prophecy. He prematurely ends the prophecy with the words “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”. He then rolls up the scroll and sits down. Jesus stops reading mid-thought. In our modern-day Bibles, Jesus stops reading halfway through Isaiah 61:2. He ends at the comma.
Likely there were at least a few people present that day who would have considered it a peculiar place within Isaiah’s prophecy for Jesus to abruptly end. Perhaps, Jesus simply intended for His listeners to continue reciting the passage in their minds. After all, many would have had this passage memorized. Or was Jesus trying to distance Himself from the next portion of the prophecy?
What Jesus left out was the part many Jews were most looking forward to—“and the day of the Lord’s vengeance” (Is. 61:2b). Jesus forgot to talk about how He would usher in the day of the Lord’s vengeance against His chosen people’s enemies. What happened to overthrowing the Roman occupiers who made life incredibly difficult for the Jews? What happened to this mission of vengeance?
What Was Jesus’ Mission?
Why did Jesus leave out the part about vengeance? We will never know for sure whether Jesus purposefully omitted this portion of Isaiah’s prophecy, though the rest of His sermon suggests it was planned. As Richard Hughes observes, “Whatever else one might say about this omission, it is clear that Jesus focused this proclamation on issues of justice, not issues of vengeance.”
For the purpose of this post, it does not matter whether Jesus accidentally or intentionally skipped Isaiah 61:2b. Either way, the mere possibility leads us to ask some very important and helpful questions: Why might Jesus have chosen to separate Himself from the notion of vengeance as He declared what kind of Messiah He would be? Is there more substantial evidence throughout the Gospels that show Jesus attempting to distance Himself from being associated with a mission of vengeance? And if Jesus did not come to earth to carry out vengeance, then what was His mission?
What Can We Learn From The Old Testament Passages Jesus Chose To Quote:
Years ago, when I first started grappling with these questions, I began to formulate an answer by studying the various times Jesus quoted from the Old Testament. I wanted to know if this instance in Luke 4 was the only time Jesus omitted talk of vengeance from an Old Testament passage He quoted. But I didn’t just want to discover if Jesus consistently avoided this notion of vengeance; I also desired to identify any Old Testament themes He frequently upheld as central to His messianic mission. If you’d like to study this in-depth, you can find a list of every recorded reference that Jesus made to the Old Testament in this article. For the purposes of this post, I simply want to present two relevant observations that I deduced:
Observation #1: Jesus Quoted Passages About Mercy
Jesus referenced Old Testament passages about mercy more than any other theme. On three separate occasions Jesus quoted a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures that dealt with mercy. Twice Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, which reads, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Elsewhere, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 29:13, which expounds a similar message as that found in Hosea 6:6.
Observation #2: Jesus Quoted Passages About Not Exacting Revenge
Jesus’ next most frequently quoted Old Testament passage is Leviticus 19:18. It states, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” As we will come to see in a minute, there were numerous Old Testament passages that teach the exact opposite lesson; namely, seek revenge. Jesus could have identified His messianic mission with the notion of vengeance found in those verses. Yet, just as Jesus omitted (whether intentionally or accidentally) the part about vengeance from Isaiah 61:2, He also chose to quote Scriptural passages that instruct us to not seek revenge. An omission may be accidental. An inclusion must be intentional.
To summarize, the Old Testament passages that Jesus most frequently quoted instruct us to be a people of mercy who do not seek revenge. Though more observations and trends can be deduced from the Old Testament passages Jesus chose to quote, these two are sufficient in helping us identify a central aspect of what Jesus understood to be His messianic mission.
What Does The New Testament Teach About Mercy & Vengeance?
Let’s recap what we’ve learned thus far: As we studied Jesus’ inauguration speech in Luke 4, the one in which He describes His messianic mission, we discovered that Jesus omitted the part of Isaiah’s prophecy that spoke about exacting vengeance on Israel’s enemies. Based on what else Jesus said in this sermon, it seems most likely that this omission of vengeance was intentional. Still, we must still allow for the possibility that this omission was accidental. Either way, this observation led us to ask whether there is more substantial evidence throughout the New Testament that shows Jesus intentionally distancing Himself from being associated with a mission of vengeance. Thus far, to answer this question, we’ve noted that Jesus only ever referred to Old Testament passages that promoted mercy and forbade vengeance, never the opposite. Let’s now move beyond Jesus’ use of the Old Testament. Let’s see what else Jesus and the New Testament writers had to say about mercy and vengeance. To do so, I want to juxtapose their teaching with portions of the Old Testament that taught quite the opposite:
- “The Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Execute vengeance for the Israelites against the Midianites. After that, you will be gathered to your people.’ So Moses spoke to the people, ‘Equip some of your men for war. They will go against Midian to inflict the Lord’s vengeance on them.’” ~ Num. 31:1-3
- “Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand still over Gibeon; and Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.’ So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies.” ~ Joshua 10:12-13
- “Then Samson called to the LORD, saying, “O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray! Strengthen me, I pray, just this once, O God, that I may with one blow take vengeance on the Philistines for my two eyes!” And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars which supported the temple, and he braced himself against them, one on his right and the other on his left. Then Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines!” And he pushed with all his might, and the temple fell on the lords and all the people who were in it. So the dead that he killed at his death were more than he had killed in his life.” ~ Judges 16:28-30
- “Put yourselves in array against Babylon all around, all you who bend the bow; shoot at her, spare no arrows, for she has sinned against the LORD. Shout against her all around; she has given her hand, her foundations have fallen, her walls are thrown down; for it is the vengeance of the LORD. Take vengeance on her. As she has done, so do to her.” ~ Jeremiah 50:14-15
- “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. Therefore ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” ~ Rom. 12:19-21
Hopefully you notice a startling difference between the two sets of passages? In Numbers we read God instructing Moses to “execute vengeance” on the Midianites. Similarly in Joshua we discover that the sun stopped moving “till the people had revenge upon their enemies.” Additionally, God granted Samson’s request to personally carry out vengeance on the Philistines. And through Jeremiah, God instructs Israel to take vengeance on Babylon. Wow! Vengeance sure seems to be a theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
Yet, to us Christ-followers Paul explicitly teaches, “Do not take revenge”. In fact, only God is allowed to avenge—“‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Elsewhere, in contrast to Joshua, who prayed for Yahweh to keep the sun up until his wrath went down, Paul counsels the church in Ephesus, “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” Joshua’s prayer and Paul’s instruction are blatantly at odds with each other. Contrary to the portions of the Old Testament in which God instructs the Israelites to seek vengeance, the New Testament clearly informs Christians that they are never to take revenge on their enemies.
All of this begs the question why: Why did God occasionally instruct the Israelites to carry out His vengeance in the Old Testament, only to forbid such an action in the New Testament? If we Christians have been explicitly forbidden to carry out God’s vengeance, then what is our mission? Let’s compare just one more set of passages:
- “When the Lord your God gives [the nations of Canaan] over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy.” ~ Deut. 7:2
- “For it was the Lord Himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that He might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” ~ Joshua 11:20
- “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Judge not, and you shall not be judged.” ~ Luke 6:35-37a
- “I want you to be merciful to others.” ~ Matt. 9:13 & 12:7
- After telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asked the lawyer, “‘So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves.’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” ~ Luke 10:36-37
In the passage from Deuteronomy, God told Israel to utterly destroy the Canaanites and “show them no mercy.” And in Joshua we read that the kings who allied themselves with King Jabin were “exterminated without mercy”, just as the Lord had commanded. Yet, as the three New Testament passages just listed reveal, Jesus repeatedly instructed His followers to show mercy to everyone…especially to enemies. In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say that His followers were to only show mercy; they were never to carry out judgment or vengeance. The command “be merciful” is immediately followed by the command “do not judge” (Luke 6:36-37).
In the Old Testament, there were times when God instructed the Israelites to execute His vengeance on a particular nation. Israel was ordered to “show no mercy” (Duet. 7:2). God occasionally used Israel as His tool for carrying out His judgment on a people. However, in the New Testament, Jesus came with an entirely different mission—that of only showing mercy and never avenging. Jesus’ mission was never one of bringing judgment. In fact, Jesus repeatedly stressed this point. To Nicodemus Jesus announced, “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:17). To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus comforted her, “I do not condemn you” (John 8:11). And to the Pharisees, Jesus proclaimed, “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one” (John 8:15).
It is crucial for us to recognize that the teachings on violence and treatment of enemies contained in the Old and New Testaments are in fact different. They are undoubtedly in contradiction: showing no mercy versus only showing mercy, executing God’s vengeance versus never being allowed to avenge.
How This Recognition Brings Us One Step Away From Resolving These Conflicting Teachings:
Recognizing this difference takes us a step closer to knowing how to reconcile the teachings on violence and treatment of enemies contained in the Old and New Testaments. So far we have learned two important things: (1) We now know that Jesus came to earth on a mission in which extending mercy to all was a vital component. And (2) We have concluded that the teachings in the Old and New Testaments on violence and treatment of enemies do in fact conflict. We no longer need to cautiously use language like “seeming contradiction” or “apparent differences”. These teachings do not simply appear to be in opposition. They are.
Now, let’s think for a moment about the implications of having two different missions or sets of teaching. There are two central tenants of orthodox Christianity that likely cause you to feel uneasy about the Bible containing contradictory teachings. For starters, most Christians (including myself) believe that all of Scripture is divinely inspired by God and thus inerrant. Additionally, Scripture tells us that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Because we believe in the inspiration of the entire Bible, we cannot say that the sayings and actions ascribed to God in the Old Testament are inaccurate representations of who He truly is. And because we believe that God didn’t just wake up one morning with a change of heart and suddenly decide to begin loving His enemies, we cannot simply say that God matured and recognized how unloving He had previously been.
These two orthodox Christian doctrines only leave us with two options for how one might make sense of “apparent contradictions” in the Bible.
(1) Show how the teachings actually espouse the same thing. In other words, show how they do not actually conflict. Explain how they are the same. However, based on what I’ve just said in the preceding paragraphs, this possibility is no longer a valid option. We have shown that they do in fact conflict.
Thankfully, there is a second option.
(2) Show that the teachings are different, but then go on to explain how these two different sets of teaching are both part of God’s one, overarching plan. In other words, explain how these two different missions both fit into God’s sole, master plan…a plan that He had devised from the start. To say it a different way: Could there be an event or act done by God that, prior to which, God sometimes extended mercy to people while at other times gave them what they justly deserved, but after which God’s justice was forever satisfied so that He could now exclusively offer mercy to all? If such an event or act existed, it would explain why these teachings or missions are in fact different.
As you can guess, I believe that we are suppose to use this second option to reconcile the different teachings on violence and enemy love. In the next post, I will finally explain how I have come to make sense of these different teachings and missions. After that, in future posts, I will unpack a couple more proposals that Christians throughout the centuries have constructed for explaining the violence in the Old Testament.
For now, let’s allow the implications of this post to sink in. Contrary to what most Jews expected the messiah to be like, Jesus came to earth with a mission of offering pure, undiluted mercy to all people. This is truly good news worthy of celebration on this Christmas day!
 Hughes, Richard T. Christian America and the Kingdom of God, pg. 38.
 Admittedly, there are some who reconcile the violence of the Old Testament by stating that the inspiration of Scripture doesn’t mandate that everything accurately describe God. In a future post, I will explain further how proponents of this view make sense of the violence attributed to God.