Luke’s Gospel of Seven
March 23, 2023

In his prologue, Luke tells us that his gospel history is an “orderly account” (1:3). Although generally chronological, time is not the only or the main organizing principle for his history. To argue for Luke’s main theme would take up too much space, but instead I want to explore one of the main organizing features of Luke’s gospel: the sabbath day.

The fact that Jesus heals on sabbath days is well known, so much so, that we tend to gloss over the significance of this. It is an oddity to us, that, at best, serves to illustrate the principles or exceptions of our particular understanding of how to observe the day of rest. But Luke’s narrative is carefully crafted around the Sabbaths in order to weave together the rich theological tapestry of the mission of Jesus Christ.

If you start counting in Luke’s narrative, you will discover that he records a total of seven Sabbath days (4:16, 4:31, 6:1, 6:6, 13:10, 14:1, 23:56). The first six are clustered together in twos, and the final sabbath is set off from the rest. The first six are very action oriented. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus casts out an unclean spirit, Jesus feeds the disciples from the grain fields, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, Jesus heals a woman with a bent over back, and Jesus heals a man who has swollen arms and legs. The seventh sabbath mentioned in Luke is when Jesus has been laid in the tomb to rest.

The very first sabbath sets the tone for the ministry of Jesus and also for the sabbaths to come. Luke places this event out of chronological order, but in the narrative of Luke it is both the first sabbath in his chronicle and also the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus describes his ministry in terms of Isaiah 61, which Jesus says is fulfilled, “Today” (Luke 4:21).

Isaiah 61 is looking forward to the anointed Messianic coming of Christ, but it is also looking backwards as a fulfillment of the year of Jubilee. This connection is made explicit by the Hebrew phrase, “to proclaim liberty,” which is a unique phrase occurring only in the description of the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10). Isaiah 61 is claiming that the Messiah will usher in the year of Jubilee by proclaiming “liberty” and in turn Jesus claims that the passage in Isaiah is fulfilled in him on this sabbath day. Jesus is proclaiming liberty to captives, that is to say, he is proclaiming the “year of the Lord’s favor,” which is the year of Jubilee.

However, the liberty that Jesus proclaims is not the liberty that is expected. The Septuagint uses the word aphesis to translate the Hebrew word, and this is the term used in Luke 4:18. This word can mean “loosening” or “release,” but elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, the noun form of this word specifically refers to “forgiveness” of sins (1:77. 3:3, 24:47). Its verbal form is also frequently used to mean “to forgive,” but it does have a wider semantic range to mean “loosen” or “release.” The year of Jubilee and the Lord’s favor then, is the year of forgiveness, i.e. liberty from the bonds of sin.

But the year of Jubilee is even more unexpected. In the Old Testament, the Jubilee comes every 50th year. It comes after seven sabbath years (Leviticus 25:8). These sabbath years are called “the sabbath of sabbaths,” or often in translation, “a sabbath of solemn rest.” Each of these sabbaths is “the sabbath of the sabbath.” And then when seven sabbaths of the sabbaths have been completed, the year of Jubilee begins. The year of Jubilee begins on the Day of Atonement, which is annually described as “the sabbath of the sabbaths.” (16:31). Every 50 years, when the high priest returns from making atonement, a trumpet is blown and the Jubilee is proclaimed. This is where the term, “Jubilee” comes from, since it refers to the blowing of pipes or of long ram’s horns, which is also called a shofar (cf. Genesis 4:21). After the years of the sabbaths of the sabbaths, the day of Sabbath of Sabbaths begins, the trumpet blast ushers in the year of Jubilee. Although this year is clearly the culmination of the sabbaths, and it is in many ways like the other sabbath years since sowing and reaping are forbidden (25:11) and it is a “holy” day (25:12), it is never referred to as “sabbath,” but only as “the year of Jubilee.” This is what comes after the sabbath.

This background illuminates the seven sabbaths of Luke in striking ways. Luke gives us seven sabbaths (49 sabbaths) just like the seven sabbath years (49 years) that precede the year of Jubilee. However, the year of Jubilee begins, shockingly, on the first sabbath! The beginning of Jesus’ ministry ushers the future year of Jubilee into the present time. Luke’s chronological reshuffling is more than a clever way to introduce the ministry of Jesus, it highlights the bringing forward of the future Jubilee, which is exactly what Jesus does.

In this way the first six sabbaths that lead up to the Jubilee are always enacting the proclamation of “release,” either explicitly or implicitly. We have already seen that on the first sabbath Jesus stands up and reads Isaiah 61, as it were, blowing the trumpet of the Jubilee. Then he delivers a man from an unclean spirit (Luke 4:35). On the third sabbath day, Jesus and his disciples are plucking grain and rubbing it in their hands, as it would happen on the year of Jubilee, eating “produce of the field” (Leviticus 25:21). Then Jesus “restores” a man’s withered hand (6:10). On the fifth sabbath day, Jesus “loosens” the “bond” of a woman from Satan (13:16). And finally, on the sixth sabbath day, he heals a man of dropsy and then “sends him away” or the word could be translated as “loosens” him (14:4). The future year of release from bondage begins now.

Luke offsets the seventh and final sabbath from the others, and this makes it highly significant. The seventh sabbath in Luke occurs on the Saturday after the death of Jesus, when his body still lays in the tomb. Luke highlights this sabbath by saying, “they rested on the sabbath day according tot he commandment” (23:56). This day is the culmination of all the other sabbath days, and hearkens back to the Exodus commandment (20:11), which in turn reminds us of the original pattern of creation in Genesis 1. In Luke’s narrative we have reached the end of the seven sabbaths, like the end of 49 years. The sabbaths have come. They have been perfected. Jesus’ work is all finished. The Jubilee has, so to speak, already begun, and yet, all of those sabbaths where only a prelude to something else that is at once the culmination of every sabbath, but is also entirely new and unlike those sabbaths that have come before.

In the very next verse, Luke has a curious phrase, “but on the first day of the week,” (24:1), which is literally, “on the one of the sabbaths.” This is the typical phrase for the first day of the week, and Luke uses it later on in Acts, when the church are gathered to hear Paul preach and to break bread (20:7). The day after the seventh sabbath is the first day of the week – and it is on this day, in the morning, that the Christ is resurrected, ushering in not a day or a year, or even a sabbath of sabbaths, but an age of eternal sabbath (cf. Hebrews 4:9).

On the first day of the new Jubilee, Jesus exits from the tomb having accomplished forgiveness of sins on the cross and having entered the holy places and sprinkled his blood there (cf. Hebrews 9:24). Recall that the first day of the Jubilee begins on the tenth day of the seventh month – the day of atonement. On this day, the high priest enters the most holy place once a year “that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in a the year because of all their sins” (Leviticus 16:34). And on that day, the high priest exits from the most holy place where he leaves his “linen garments” (16:23). Luke remarks that when Peter went into the tomb he saw “the linen clothes” still in the tomb. (Luke 24:12). Jesus returns from making atonement, leaving his old garments behind, and so begins the year of Jubilee because he has accomplished the final atonement for the sins of his people and freed them from the bondage of Satan.

We live in the new age of the resurrected Christ, our high priest. His resurrection is the culmination of all the sabbaths and the Greater Jubilee. His resurrection is the time of rejoicing, festivity, merrymaking, and trumpet-blasting joy. So where is the party? It is wherever Jesus is. And where do the disciples find Jesus after he comes forth from the tomb alive? They find him, walking with them along the road, discussing the Scriptures and finding in the Scripture everything that is written about him. Yet, they still don’t recognize him, until he is sitting down at their table, taking the bread, blessing the Lord, breaking it and giving it to them. On the first day of every week, the church gathers for the festival of worship, they come together to hear the Scriptures, to bless the Lord, and to break the bread at the Lord’s Table because that was when the age the Jubilee all started and that was where the disciples first recognized the resurrected Lord of the Jubilee, and today this is where we enter into the eternal jubilee of our resurrected Lord who has forever set us free from our sins.

Ryan Handermann is a pastoral assistant at Trinity Reformed Church and also teaches Latin for Wilson Hill Academy. He lives with his wife and five kids in the north of Idaho where they go foraging for morel mushrooms in the spring, cherry picking in the summer, apple cider pressing in the fall, and try to keep warm in the long, dark winter.

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