In Leviticus 25, we find the first reference to Jubilee, as part of the law given by Yahweh to the Israelites. These verses describe God’s intent that the Israelites should remain free from slavery for all time by instituting a Sabbath year every seven years. The Jubilee year – occurring after every seventh Sabbath year, thus, every 50 years – is an economic, cultural, environmental and communal reset, when the land and people rest, and all those who are in slavery are set free to return to their communities. The Jubilee laws are essentially concerned with social relationship, economic security, stability and the wellbeing of the community. They seek to ensure that people live in ways that reflect good relationships with God, with each other, and with creation.
“Jubilee was a recovery of identity, especially for the poor. It is not about simply correcting economic problems, which is very important; not even just caring for the poor because they’re poor; but it is restoring identity, which is a part of their history and very important for them. Jubilee operated as a corrective because people were tight-fisted and hard-hearted. When we talk about Jubilee now, people are reluctant – it’s a problem of the heart, not a problem of economics.” – CB Samuel
And what about the fact that there is little evidence that Jubilee was ever applied as outlined in Leviticus 25?
“The assumption is that it was not practised. But that does not mean it is not an important law... The law was given to the people of Israel so that they would know the intention of God, the heart of God.” – CB Samuel
And this is what we see throughout the rest of the Old Testament: God’s heart of grace and vision for restoration persisting, despite the Israelites’ failure to follow the laws that would bring them life. God takes action through prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, who bring messages that speak to the consequences of forgetting the law, but also to the promise of One who will enable God’s original vision for his people to be restored and for all creation to be renewed. That person, of course, is Jesus.
In Luke’s gospel we see Jesus, at the beginning of his ministry, announcing that he is the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Is. 61). This passage
(found in Luke 4:16-22), often called Jesus’ manifesto or mission statement, directly references Jubilee (“the year of the Lord’s favour”, v19). Jesus illuminates Jubilee to his listeners, drawing a thread from the pentateuch, through the prophets, into his moment – and beyond: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (v21). Here, Jesus is identifying himself as the Messiah and the fulfilment of Jubilee.
“Jesus would have seen himself as standing clearly in the progression of the prophetic. When he says ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled’, he’s saying not just every 50 years, not just every seventh year, but every now, every today – when you come across injustice, when religious systems shut people out – this is where Jubilee is fulfilled.” – Merryl Blair
Ultimately, Jubilee reminds us that we worship and follow a God who brings freedom. What we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is Jubilee’s objective of release from sin, restoration with God and resetting for all of creation taking on human form. We are liberated by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, an event that becomes the foundation of our hope for the future: the new creation that we are promised.
When we understand Jesus’ resurrection as the inaugural act of “remaking” in God’s creation it becomes clear that God’s people – the church – are meant to be a foretaste of what God wants to do for the entire creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). We live in the time between the arrival of the Holy Spirit’s redemptive power on earth following Christ’s resurrection, and full revelation of the kingdom of God when Christ returns. The church is called to be a new community that marks the kingdom of God breaking into the world; called both to proclaim and enact the certain hope of our salvation in the future, seeking to show what the promised restoration will look like in our present reality.
“One of the things that prophets do is bump people out of that sense that ‘this is normal, this is natural, this is all there is’, by saying ‘well actually, this could be pulled down and we could set up that’. Part of the job of the church is to be alert to those prophetic voices, to lift them up, let other people hear them – and that itself is a prophetic voice. Because if imagination doesn’t change, nothing changes.” – Merryl Blair
Jubilee reminds us that God expects the church to challenge worldly imperfection through their relationships with each other and the pursuit of justice – through social and legal provision (as enshrined for Israel in the laws) and through personal action and interaction, including generosity and sacrifice (as in the instruction to the disciples). The gift of the Spirit empowers and enables us to be a part of God’s mission to reset all areas of life, bring release and restoration.
“Jubilee must have exposed human greed and brought out the selfishness in society. The law didn’t have the capacity to change those things, it only showed it. But God said... I will pour out my Spirit upon you and the law will be written in your heart. The community of faith today has to translate this law – we don’t have to go back to it – but if we walk in the Spirit and love God and love our neighbour, many of our life expressions are actually there in the book. A Spirit-filled church which is committed to discipleship will actually care for the poor because that’s all in the year of Jubilee.”
– CB Samuel
The essence of Jubilee is God’s inspired vision to interrupt the status quo. A reset, embedded in the way of life for God’s redeemed and liberated people, emphasising the relationships between humanity, creation and God.
Within the reality of life in a world of broken relationships, Jubilee is an expression of God’s desire for all of creation to flourish. It is radical and countercultural and it is prophetic – then and now. It is a model for a community living well according to God’s will so that they can thrive as individuals and as a community and, in so doing, shine as light to the rest of the world.
In Reset Faith, we’ve gathered a collection of prophetic voices that help us imagine what Jubilee can mean today: for Tearfund, for the church, for neighbours from Australia to Africa and everywhere in between. We zero in on the crises that have catalysed the urgent call to reset, lean in to the hope we have through Jesus, and jump into action for a more just and compassionate world.
2021 is Tearfund Australia's 50th anniversary, but we’re inviting you to much more than a party: together, let’s pray for a year that is truly set apart for God and in which we can do great things for the sake of the world God so loves.