Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.
And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.”
But [the two disciples] had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel . . .
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them
in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Luke 24:21, 27
Since I was a child I have heard and sung Jingle Bells too many times to count. At Christmas, that song is a staple. Yet, until this year I had never considered the place that Jubilee Bells, or rather a Jubilee trumpet might play at Christmas. And as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ I want to share a few reflections on Christ’s birth that relate to the Jubilee told in Leviticus 25, retold in Isaiah 61, and folded into the swaddling cloths that held Jesus.
Indeed, Jubilee is not just a part of the Levitical law, nor a planned redemption of Israel’s land and people. Jubilee is a part of God’s revelation that prepared the way for Christ. In Luke 4, Jesus announced his ministry with the words of Isaiah 61, which tell of the redemption God was planning for his people. Clearly, Jesus had an understanding of his role in redemption, as one who was fulfilling the prophetic word. Yet, Isaiah 61 goes back to Leviticus 25, and the redemption of redemptions promised in the Jubilee.
Even more, as we read Luke’s account of Christ’s birth with the light of Leviticus 25, we can see how the Evangelist portrayed the birth of Christ as indicating the coming of Jubilee and the restoration of all things. While this biblical theological meditation would require a full consideration of Leviticus 25, Isaiah 61; Daniel 9, as well as Luke and Hebrews, in the spirit of Christmas, I will focus on what we see in Luke’s Gospel. For in itself, Luke shows in at least four ways how Christ, from his birth to his death and resurrection, fulfills the ancient promise of Jubilee.
With that in mind, let’s consider how Christmas requires us to sing not Jingle Bells, but a carol of the bells celebrating Israel’s long-awaited redemption.
Luke’s Use of Redemption Suggests Jubilee
The first thing to see is the way that Luke speaks of redemption in his Gospel. In four passages (quoted above), we find the language of redemption. Redemption is a multi-faceted term, one that can relate to the act of redeeming someone(s) from sin or slavery, as in the exodus. It can also refer to the price paid for that ransom, as in the Levitical sacrifices that redeemed the life of someone by offering a substitute. And third, it can speak of the person who is making that purchased price, as in the kinsman-redeemer. In his treatment of the “redemption,” T. F. Torrance (Atonement, 27–50) outlines each of these and we will keep them in mind as we read through Luke’s four uses of the term.
First, Luke records Zechariah’s word of praise for the birth of his son (John the Baptist), who will prepare the way for the Lord (Jesus). In his prophecy, Zechariah describes how God has visited his people to redeem them, indicating a climactic moment in Israel’s story of salvation. But what exactly does “redeemed” mean (1:68)?
The answer comes in the rest of Zechariah’s praise. First, he praises God for raising a savior from David’s house (v. 69); then he speaks of the way this royal savior will defeat Israel’s enemies (vv. 70, 74); but he also speaks of the way this child will give a knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of sins (v. 77). In short, with the births of John and Jesus, God has come to redeem Israel, and this redemption will come through a new kinsman-redeemer who would be born in Bethlehem.
Next, Luke describes Anna, the widowed prophetess, as someone waiting for the redemption of Israel (2:38). This is similar to Simeon’s hope, as Luke 2:25 says this elder saint is waiting for the consolation or comfort (paraklēsis) of Israel. Both of these statements draw on the Old Testament promises. The latter stressing God’s promise of comfort (see e.g., Isa. 40:1; 57:18); the former speaking of God’s redemption of his people. But again, we can ask: What does this redemption of Israel mean?
Set against Zechariah’s use of redemption that sees a redeemer coming in the person of Jesus, Anna’s hope in God’s redemption is closer to that of the Jubilee promised in Leviticus 25. In that chapter, Jubilee is presented as the time when God’s land and God’s people are redeemed. And in the days of Anna and Simeon, both the people and the land are in need of redemption. Hence, she is waiting for God’s intervention and the return of the land to Israel and the return of Israel to the place where they might dwell freely with God. This hope of redemption might also relate to a new exodus, but this simply reminds us that the theme of Jubilee should not be divorced from the exodus. For as Leviticus 25:38, 55 remind us, God’s redemption in the exodus was what created Israel. And that first redemption served as a foundation for all others, including Jubilee.
Third, Jesus tells of a future redemption. This would be a day when his disciples would see the Son of Man ascending to God’s throne. Without getting into all the eschatological details of this verse, we can make a few observations. For starters, Jesus is speaking before his cross, resurrection, and ascension, which means that his words do not necessarily describe his final redemption (Rom. 13:11) or the redemption of the body (Rom. 8:23). As the rest of the New Testament declares, those who have been raised to life with Christ have been redeemed in the present (see Rom. 3:24; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; 1 Tim. 2:16; Titus 2:14; Heb. 9:12; 1 Pet. 1:18), even as we await a future day of redemption (Eph. 4:30).
Long story short, the forgiveness of sins, which is a mark of the new covenant (Jer. 31:34), is the greatest evidence that we have received this redemption (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), which secures for us our future redemption (Eph. 1:14). Accordingly, Jesus’s words in Luke 21:27–28 indicate that he will give his people the redemption they were seeking (Luke 2:25, 38). However, because his redemption is for Jew and Gentile alike (1 Pet. 1:18), it would not just be a redemption for Israel, as an overly-literal reading of Leviticus 25 would prescribe, as the disciples ask in Acts 1:6. Rather, as the Son of Man who would receive authority over all nations (Dan. 7:13–14), he would bring Jubilee for all peoples (Rev. 21:3), but only when he had made atonement for sin, just as Jubilee was announced on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9).
Luke 24:21, 27
This leads to the fourth and final mention of redemption in Luke. In Luke 24, when the resurrected Christ seeks two disciples fleeing Jerusalem, he rebukes their blindness and lack of faith. Importantly, Luke records how these disciples’ hopes for redemption had been dashed. Verse 21 says, they “had hoped that [Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel,” but when he was crucified that hope of redemption died. For their misapprehension of the situation, Jesus reproves them and teaches them that the messiah must suffer these things before entering his glory (v. 26). From there Jesus shows them how to read the Old Testament (v. 27), before revealing his true identity in verse 31.
From these four passages, we learn how redemption was hoped for and fulfilled. Christ was the fulfillment of this redemption, which is to say that all the promises regarding redemption in the Old Testament—those related to God delivering his people; those related to a price paid for that redemption; and those related to God providing a kinsman-redeemer—were fulfilled by Christ. As mentioned above, Leviticus 25, the instruction for Jubilee, is one key passage that defines redemption for Israel. Already, from these four passages, we have reason to believe that Jubilee is in view in Luke’s Gospel, but that becomes even more apparent when Jesus introduces himself in Luke 4.
Jesus’s Synagogue Sermon Preaches Jubilee
It is commonly accepted that Jesus’s citation of Isaiah 61 relates to the Jubilee of Leviticus 25. In Luke 4:16–20, when Jesus begins his ministry, he goes to the synagogue in Nazareth to read from Isaiah 61:1–2 and announce. Here is how Luke records it,
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 short, Jesus, using Isaiah 61, announces Jubilee. Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and announcing liberty for captives, Jesus explains his mission. And incredibly, that mission is not the restoration of the land to Israel, as the Leviticus 25 could be read. Rather, Jesus came to fulfill Jubilee through the preaching of the good news of eternal redemption by way of sins forgiven. (Later, this redemption would include the gift of the Holy Spirit too). In his lifetime, Jesus did not preach a message of immediate economic reversals. While Jubilee would have reset the economic landscape in Israel, this is not what Jesus preached, nor what he did.
For starters, Jesus did not have authority under the old covenant to declare Jubilee. In Luke 12:13, when a man comes to Jesus to resolve a dispute about inheritance, Jesus demurs. “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). If it sounds odd that the Lord of heaven does not have authority to settle a legal dispute between two brothers, we must consider what Jesus is saying. As a son of David, born under the law, Jesus did not have authority to resolve legal disputes. That was a matter for the priests (Deut. 17:8–13). Similarly, Leviticus 25:9, says that priests alone could declare Jubilee, after offering sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Therefore, Jesus could not declare Jubilee for Israel—not until he had offered himself as a greater sacrifice and was declared by God to be a greater priest (see Hebrews 5–7).
This leads to the last observation from Luke 4—namely, Christ is announcing the coming Jubilee, not a present Jubilee. In other words, the true Jubilee would come when Christ died for the sins of Jew and Gentile alike. As Hebrews 9:12–14 puts it, when Jesus offered himself as the true Day of Atonement sacrifice, then he could offer “eternal redemption.” Eternal redemption is what Christ proclaimed in the gospel that he preached on earth, but that redemption could only be received after he rose to the right hand of God. From the right hand of God, the priest after the order of Melchizedek would grant forgiveness of sins, announcing Jubilee for all who trusted in his final sacrifice.
On this connection with Melchizedek, it is worth noting how the Jews connected Melchizedek with Jubilee. Though it doesn’t pertain directly to Luke— unless you think Luke wrote Hebrews (ahem, ahem)— it is worth noting how expectations of Psalm 110 were related to Jubilee. As George Guthrie notes about one Dead Sea Scroll fragment,
The fragmentary scroll 11Q13 interprets, among other texts, Lev. 25:9–13, a passage dealing with the Jubilee Year. In 11Q13 the last “Jubilee” is called the “year of grace of Melchizedek,” in which Melchizedek is said to bring freedom from the debt of sins and atonement to the sons of light, defeating Belial and his evil spirits.
All in all, there is great reason for seeing Christ as the fulfillment of Jubilee. Or, to put it more personally, he is the one who will bring the final Jubilee, through his Day of Atonement death and his gospel announcement. In Luke 4, Jesus preaches Isaiah 61 with a view to end of his life and his fulfillment of Isaiah 53 (see Luke 22, esp. vv. 37). For us, we should see that Christ’s Jubilee came after his death and resurrection. However, we should also see that Luke introduces this theme in the beginning of his Gospel, even in the birth of Christ.
Joseph’s Return to Bethlehem Signifies Jubilee
Before Luke tells the birth story of Jesus, he introduces the theme of redemption with Zechariah’s blessing (Luke 1:68ff.). Similarly, he returns to the theme of redemption when Jesus is brought to the temple (Luke 2:25, 38). Because Jubilee is arguably the highpoint of redemption in the Law of Moses and because faithful Jews would have been looking for the redemption of Israel by way of Jubilee (see the “seventy sevens” in Dan. 9:24–27), it is more than plausible that Jubilee was in the mind of Jews awaiting their messiah.
With that background in place, as evidenced above, it should not surprise us to find a mention of Jubilee in Luke 2. But the question is, “Do we have textual warrant for seeing Jubilee in Luke’s birth narratives?” Is this just something we are bringing into the text, or does Luke really want us to see Jesus’s birth in relationship to the redemption promised in Jubilee? Let me answer this in two parts—(1) the return of Joseph to Bethlehem, and (2) the meaning of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.
To begin, the return of Joseph to Bethlehem is a strong indicator that God is bringing redemption to Israel and the nations, in a way that fulfills Jubilee. Observing this point, David Pao states, “The phrase hekastos eis tēn heautou polin (“each one to his own town”) recalls a similar phrase in Lev. 25:10: hekastos eis tēn patrian autou (“each one to his own family”), especially when the word patria (“family”) also appears in 2:4 (see Kilpatrick 1989). An allusion to the Jubilee context is possible especially in light of Luke 4:16–30, where both the Jubilee and the references to one’s own “native land” (patris [4:23–24]) are found.”
Pao’s observation is what sent me on this biblical-theological inquiry in the first place. And with his textual connection, I think we can go further. First, the return of Joseph and Mary to Israel is odd in a few ways. To put it in question form: Why does Mary have to go to Bethlehem, if Joseph is being registered? Why does he have to go to Bethlehem, when he lives, works, and would presumably pay taxes in Nazareth? Why do the Gentile authorities care about the historic towns of Israel (i.e., the 12 tribes that had been disbanded in the two exiles)? These questions, along with others, do not cast doubt on the historicity of Luke’s account. They simply point to the fact that Luke may include this return to Bethlehem to highlight the Jubilee theme.
Second, the duplication of “house and lineage of David” in verse 4 may clue us in to another way Luke 2:4 connects to Leviticus 25, as well as 2 Samuel 7. As Pao notes, “each to his own town” (Luke 2:3) mirrors the phrase “each to his own family” in Leviticus 25:10. This certainly draws a comparison, but so does the duplication of “house” and “lineage.” While “house” (oikos) in Luke is not found in Leviticus 25, “property” (ktēsis), a word similar in concept, is. The verse translated from the LXX reads, “And sanctify the year, the fiftieth year, and proclaim loudly a time of release concerning the land to all those inhabiting it; a year of remission this signal will be to you, and a person will go out, each one to his possession, and each one shall go to his family property.”
Notice the order of possession and family property. If Luke inserts “house” in place of “possession/property,” and he does so in order to draw attention to the “house of David,” it is very likely he is making threefold connection in Christ’s birth between three Old Testament passages. These three passages are
- 2 Samuel 7:12–14, where God promises a son from David’s house to reign on an eternal throne
- Micah 5:2, where Bethlehem is mentioned as the place where the son of David will be born
- Leviticus 25:10, where the sons of Israel return to their hometowns in order to receive their inheritance
Focusing on Leviticus 25, we can see how Luke is stressing the role of Jubilee in the birth of Christ. Joseph returns to his hometown, as the law of Jubilee requires, so that Jesus can be born, not only as the true king of Israel, but also as the true kinsman redeemer, a son of Bethlehem who will redeem Israel, in a way similar to that of Boaz redeeming Ruth.
Jesus the Kinsman Redeemer
The final consideration of Jubilee in Luke 2 relates to the significance of Jesus’s birthplace—Bethlehem. In Luke 2:4, Bethlehem is called the City of David (cf. v. 11). This is one more way that Luke identifies Joseph and Jesus with their ancestor’s royal heritage. Yet, it is curious that Luke identifies Bethlehem and not Jerusalem as the “City of David.” In the Old Testament Jerusalem is always and only referred to as David’s city; Bethlehem never is.
As I understand it, Luke seems to be overlapping ideas here. He is calling Bethlehem the City of David, not because it is, but because he wants to show how this city has royal connotations. But what are those connotations? A survey of “City of David” in the Old Testament might help us.
While City of David can refer to Jerusalem with respect to its fortifications, or its temple, or its reconstruction; its most common connection is with the burials of kings. In Kings and Chronicles, no less than fourteen kings are said to be buried in Jerusalem. Hence I take it that Jerusalem is the city where kings go to die (cf. Luke 9:31, 51, 53; 13:31–35), while Bethlehem is where God’s true king is born. Though Luke does not cite Micah 5:2, like Matthew 2:6, he is surely aware of the connection. The prominent place of shepherds in Luke 2:8–20 may even echo the context of Micah 4–5. Still, the question is left unanswered: How does Bethlehem relate to Jubilee?
The first answer is linguistic, seeing how Joseph’s return to Bethlehem picks up key words and ideas from Leviticus 25:10 (see above). But the second answer relates to the kind of men who came from Bethlehem. And this is where I believe the birth of Christ in Bethlehem presents him as the true kinsman-redeemer, just like his great, great . . . grandfather Boaz (Luke 3:32). And importantly, this role of kinsman-redeemer is the second way we find a connection to Jubilee, by way of Ruth.
In the book of Ruth, we discover the kind of man Boaz is. Not only does he come from Bethlehem (2:4), a town whose reputation is well-established in Judges (see Judges 17–21), but he proves himself to be a righteous man. Instead of taking advantage of Ruth, he protects her. Then goes through the legal troubles of being her righteous redeemer (Ruth 4). Admittedly, Boaz’s role as kinsman-redeemer (2:20; 3:9, 12, 13; 4:1, 3, 4, 6) is best understood by the instructions on Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:5–10. However, because the story of Boaz and Ruth includes the transfer of land from Elimelech to Boaz, Ruth 4 has connections to Leviticus 25 as well. In fact, it may be the only place where we see Leviticus 25 take effect in the Old Testament (Ruth 4:3–4). Could Boaz’s redemption of Elimelech’s land even be called a mini-Jubilee? It’s worth considering.
In any event, in Luke 2, Bethlehem clearly identifies Jesus with the righteous sons of Judah, including the one of who is well-known as a righteous redeemer of Ruth. Even more, Joseph himself acts as a new Boaz, as he takes care of Mary, not taking advantage of her (Matt. 1:25), and delivering her safely to Bethlehem, where she can deliver the Christ child in David’s city.
If this is how Luke is telling his story, then it not only weaves together themes from Leviticus 25, Ruth, 2 Samuel 7, and Micah 4–5, but it also explains how those awaiting the redemption of Israel would experience Jubilee. It would not come through a more scrupulous attention to the law, but through the good news of a child born in Bethlehem. Moreover, Jubilee would not simply reset the land in Israel, it would redeem the whole world!
In other words, redemption would not come by a mere return to the old ways. Redemption would come from something entirely new. In fact, this is where the absence of Jubilee in Israel’s history helps us to see what Christ brought in his birth. He was coming to offer a final sacrifice, which would in turn lead to the announcement of Jubilee. Wonderfully, this announcement preceded Christ’s cross, but always depended upon that cross. In the same way that Leviticus 25 was written so that Christ could fulfill it, Jesus spoke of his Jubilee before it had been fulfilled. Likewise, I believe and have tried to show above how Luke does the same.
Remembering Jubilee at Christmas
In introducing Christ to us, Luke spends two chapters explaining his birth in ways that foreshadow who Jesus will grow up to be and what he will do in his life and death. One of these fulfillments is Jubilee. Christ came to redeem his people and to reset the world. Only, this was not done for Israel alone, but for all those on whom the Lord has chosen to have favor (Luke 2:14)—whether Jew and Gentile. Moreover, this redistribution of the land will not come until the final day, when Christ comes again and makes all things new. This is the hope of Christ’s final redemption. Until that day, we are to announce, like Christ did (Luke 4:16–21), the good news of Christ’s Jubilee.
Indeed, this is the good news of Christmas too—not that all things have been made new, but that in Christ all things have begun to be made new. This was first fulfilled in the resurrection, and as Jesus taught his disciples, we are to read all Scripture in light of him (Luke 24:27). And just the same, we are to interpret our lives by all that Christ has said and done too.
At Christmas, in a world that loves to sing of the non-sensical and seek the non-eternal, Jubilee reminds us of what our hopes ought to be. Christ, as the resurrected Lord is seeking and saving the lost in this day, and one day he will return to redeem his people and all the earth. Until that day, let us rejoice in who Jesus is and what Jesus has done. And may we, with eyes trained by the Scripture, seek to better understand how Christ has announced Jubilee.
Merry Christmas! Jubilee Bells! Sol Deo Gloria!
 Here is a brief overview of the use of “City of David”:
- City of David as the fortified city of Zion – 2 Sam 5:7, 9; 2 Kgs 9:24; 11:27; 1 Chr 11:5, 7; 13:13; 2 Chr 8:11;
- City of David as the place where the ark dwelt and the temple stood – 2 Sam 6:10, 12, 16; 1 Kgs 3:1; 8:1; 1 Chr 15:1, 29; 2 Chr 5:2
- City of David as the place where kings are buried – David (2 Kgs 2:10); Solomon (1 Kgs 11:43; 2 Chr 9:31); Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:31; 2 Chr 12:16); Abijah (1 Kgs. 15:8; 2 Chr 14:1); Asa (1 Kgs 15:24; 2 Chr 16:14); Jehoshaphat (1 Kgs 22:50; 2 Chr. 21:1); Jehoram (2 Kgs 8:29; 2 Chr. 21:20); Azahiah (2 Kgs 9:8); Jehoiada the priest (2 Chr. 24:16); Joash (2 Kgs 12:21; 2 Chr 24:25); Amaziah (2 Kgs 14:20; 2 Chr 25:28); Azariah (2 Kgs 15:7); Jotham (2 Kgs 15:38; 2 Chr 27:9); Ahaz (2 Kgs 16:20).
- City of David as the place the exiles were rebuilding – 1 Chr 32:5, 30; 33:14; Neh 3:15; 12:37; cf. Isa 22:9
 It may even be that Bethlehem is the only place where God’s true “David” is born. Of all the kings in Israel, only David was born in Bethlehem and brought from the sheepfolds to the royal palace, as Psalm 78:70 says. Therefore, when God brought a new David, he would also have to be born in Bethlehem.
 As Pao and Schnabel observe, “The imagery of shepherding (Mic. 5:4) together with the reference to Bethlehem in the context of the promises of the “ruler over Israel” (Mic. 5:2) evokes the memory of King David, who “tend[s] his father’s sheep at Bethlehem” (1 Sam. 17:15)” Luke, CNTUOT, 267.