Luke 4.16-19Again, some think that the reference here in Isaiah to the "acceptable year of the Lord"--where the oppressed are set free and freedom is proclaimed to the prisoners--is an allusion to the year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25.
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,and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“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,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Jubilee was to be the Sabbath year of Sabbath years. Every seven days the Israelites were to celebrate a Sabbath day of rest. And every seven years they were to observe a Sabbath year of rest. And after seven Sabbath years--7 x 7--there was to be a super-duper Sabbath year, the year of Jubilee.
During the year of Jubilee the following was to happen:
Leviticus 24.39-41During the years in between each Jubilee various people, for whatever reason, would fall into debt and, as a consequence, they and their family would be sold into debt bondage. During the year of Jubilee these debt slaves--often entire families--were to be set free. More, the family land was to be given back to them. All was to be forgiven and fortunes restored.
If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors.
In light of this, Jesus's allusion to the Jubilee in Luke 4 hints at the forgiveness that will be found in his life, death and resurrection. In the person of Jesus we experience the Jubilee of God. We are let out of the debtor's prison and our fortunes are restored.
And it might be even bigger than that.
Some at the time of Jesus were suggesting that there might be something on the horizon even bigger than the Jubilee. That God might be working up to Mega-Jubilee, a Jubilee of Jubilees. If the Jubilee was to be celebrated after 7 x 7 the Jubilee of Jubilees would go further, coming after 70 x 7 years.
Seventy times seven.
That sound familiar?
In the bible we first encounter this number--seventy times seven--in Daniel 9. In this text Daniel is in prayer about a prophecy made by Jeremiah that the Babylonian exile would last for seventy years:
Jeremiah 25.11-12In Daniel 9 Daniel is in prayer wondering when the seventy years will be over. In answer to this prayer the angel Gabriel appears and tells Daniel that the exile will not be over in seventy years but in seventy times seven years:
This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. “But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever."
Daniel 9.1-3, 20-24In one sense this is disappointing news. The end of the exile isn't going to be in 70 years. It's going to be in 70 x 7 (= 490) years.
In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years. So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes...
While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill — while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, a word went out, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the word and understand the vision:
“Seventy ‘sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.
But on the other hand the promise here is crackling with portent and theological significance. The end of the Great Exile is going to be the Jubilee to end all Jubilees.
So the Jews were expecting something really, really big. And a great deal of effort was expended in Jesus's day in trying to figure out just when the 490 years would be over. The main disagreements had to do with the starting point, when the 490-year clock started ticking.
But such calculations might have been a bit too literal. Seventy times seven may have been more theological than chronological. Seventy times seven may have been a way of saying that the end of exile would involve something apocalyptic in nature and scope. A Jubilee beyond imagining, the final and ultimate fulfillment of God's promises. The ending not just of exile but the inauguration of the New Heaven and New Earth.
With that background in place let's turn back to gospels. Does the seventy times seven prophecy in Daniel connect with Jesus in any way?
There are three connections.
First, the angel Gabriel appears only three times in the bible. The first appearance we've already noted. Gabriel is the one who tells Daniel about the seventy times seven years. The very next time we encounter Gabriel is in the gospel of Luke announcing the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Gabriel's reappearance in the biblical story brings to mind our first encounter with the messenger in Daniel 9. Perhaps, with the birth of Jesus, the exile is over? Does the reappearance of Gabriel signal that the Jubilee of Jubilees is upon us?
Second, some scholars argue that Matthew's genealogy in Matthew 1 is another attempt to connect Jesus with the sevens in Daniel. From Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus Matthew describes three sets of fourteen generations, six sets of sevens. Jesus comes at the end of this line, capping it off as the seventh seven, an allusion to the Jubilee.
But the most explicit connection in the gospels with the prophecy of seventy times seven comes from the gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 18:21-23Peter's eyes must have gotten very, very big.
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven."
Because, as we've seen, this isn't just any random number. The number is large, yes, but it's much more than that. It's a number associated with the end of exile, the number of God's apocalyptic intervention. It's the number of the Jubilee of Jubilees.
You can make a pretty strong case that the central core of Jesus's ministry, the orbit of his life, was forgiveness. The examples here go on and on. "Love your enemies." "Turn the other cheek." "Neither do I condemn you." "Your sins are forgiven." "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." "Forgive and you will be forgiven." "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." "My son who was lost has been found." "The Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth." "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."
All this makes sense if Jesus is, in his very person, the Jubilee. Forgiveness--releasing those in debt--is what the Jubilee was all about. To experience the Jubilee is to have your debts forgiven. And that's what Jesus did wherever he went. He brought the Jubilee. Jesus was the Jubilee.
And not just any Jubilee--it was and is the last, greatest and final Jubilee. The seventy times seven Jubilee.
And what is extraordinary about all this is that Jesus invites Peter--and you and I--to become the Jubilee as well.
It makes perfect sense that the seventy times seven number shows up in the middle of a question about forgiveness. If Peter is asking a forgiveness question he's asking a Jubilee question. How many times do I have to forgive my brother? Peter is thinking small, on the scale of the Sabbath week. Jesus goes further. Past the Sabbath year. Past even the Jubilee itself. Jesus goes big. He invokes the Jubilee of Jubilees.
And as should be obvious, by invoking seventy times seven Jesus isn't simply giving Peter a big number. Jesus isn't setting the bar higher, raising standards. Rather, Jesus is inviting Peter to become a different sort of person, to adopt a new sort identity. Simply, Jesus is asking Peter to become the Jubilee. Just as Jesus was the Jubilee. And if you are the Jubilee--if forgiveness is what defines you--then how could you ask the question "How many times do I have to forgive"?
If you embody the Jubilee--if the Jubilee is who you are--then the answer is obvious. You always forgive. You are the Jubilee.
That's what I think Jesus is saying to Peter when Peter asks about the limits of forgiveness. Jesus is inviting Peter, and all of us, to forgive as we have been forgiven. To become people of mercy and grace. To proclaim, in our own lives, the year of the Lord's favor so that we might become the Jubilee.