“For if you should forgive people their offenses, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you should not forgive people, neither will your father forgive you your offenses.”
“For if your Hebrew brother or Hebrew [person] is sold to you, he will serve you six years, and in the seventh year you will release him from being with you. And when you send him free from being with you, you shall not send him out with empty hands. You shall surely provide abundantly for him from your flock and from your threshing floor and from your wine vat. For Yahweh, your God, has blessed you; you shall give to him. And you shall remember—for you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh, your God, redeemed you. Because of this, I command this thing of you today.”
“And you shall make holy the year of the fiftieth year and you will proclaim liberty in the land to all who dwell there. It is to be a jubilee for you. And you will return, each man to his possession and each man to his family. You shall return.”
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for the sake of which, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the recovery of sight to the blind and to send forgiveness to those who are broken down—to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“And all who believed were with each other, and they held all things in common.”
One of the things that you find as you study scripture is that there are themes that begin in the Old Testament and are developed to their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. These themes, as they develop, point more and more to the need of something greater than simply a human fulfillment and are meant to show us our absolute need of Christ to fulfill what we cannot do on our own. This theme of the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee is one of them.
According to ancient Jewish law, God commanded that every seventh year, those who were in debit to you were to be let free and pardoned (see the passage from Deuteronomy (above). This principle was based on two things. First, it represented the principle of the Sabbath being applied to all of life. Not only then were masters to have their servants and slaves rest on the seventh day, but in the seventh year, their slaves were to be freed and sent away with enough wealth that they could start off a new life on good financial footing.
The second principle that this is based on is the principle of God’s release of the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt. Because they had been slaves at one time, and God redeemed them from their oppressors, they were always to remember that and do the same for the slaves in their household. And as they had left Egypt with great possessions, so too, should their slaves leave their households with great possessions. The language of the passage is forceful and stresses the idea that this command of God was not an abstract rule that he was giving them, but they had an obligation to their slaves that flowed out of their very national identity. They are ones who had been redeemed—they then must be redeemers of others.
As an important side note, earlier in this chapter about the Sabbatical year, where God is talking about the forgiveness of personal debits, there is a promise that if the people would be faithful in this, God would bless their land and there would be no poor amongst them. Oftentimes, it was poverty and debit that forced people into slavery. Were this principle enforced, people would not only pay off all of their debits through six years of labor, but they would get a fresh start with new possessions from the master—the wealth would not be hoarded, but distributed amongst the people. There would still be some who were wealthier than others, but no one in the land would be in need.
In a similar vein, the Jews were to celebrate a year of Jubilee every 50th year. Not only were debits forgiven in the Year of Jubilee, but family lands that had been sold to pay debits were to be returned to their rightful families. It was to be a year dedicated to the worship of God and all he did and a year dedicated to restoring family bonds and connections.
The problem with all of this is that the people did not follow through on the command that God had given them to fulfill the Sabbatical year or the Year of Jubilee. To do so would have represented a huge financial loss to those in power financially. Human beings, because of sin, tend to be rather selfish, and the promise of no poor in the land was not an incentive for the wealthy class to relinquish part of their wealth.
As the misery and poverty that resulted from the people’s failure grew, God issued a new promise through the prophet Isaiah. Because the people could not fulfill the year of Jubilee, God would do it for them. Isaiah proclaims that a messiah would come who would proclaim this year of the Lord’s favor (Isaiah 61:1-3). In Jesus’ first recorded sermon in his hometown (Luke 4:18-19), Jesus quotes this passage from Isaiah and states that the prophecy has been fulfilled and it is fulfilled in him.
You see, Christians live in the year of Jubilee, for the ultimate year of Jubilee is in Christ. Many people wonder, when they see the picture of the early church sharing everything (Acts 2:42-47), what is going on here. They oftentimes think of this as some kind of Christian communism. That is not the case at all. There were still those who were more wealthy than others. The people understood that Christ had ushered in the Year of Jubilee in its fullness, and they were celebrating it! As a result, not only did the church grow, but God blessed it so that there was no want or need.
Obviously, this model did not continue—it is a very special picture of a very special time. And it is meant to be a pointer to what living as the church will be like when we enjoy eternity with Christ in the new heavens and earth—free from the effects of sin. At the same time, it is a reminder to us, that we live in the year of Jubilee, and as we have been forgiven our debits by God, we also must forgive the debits of others. Just as it was God’s command that the debits (financial and otherwise) be forgiven between God’s people in the ancient Jewish time, so too, we must forgive the debits of others in the life of the church as well.
Loved ones, we are not the rich men, owning many slaves to release. We are the poor slave, oppressed by sin, and God has proclaimed our release in this year of Jubilee that was inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. How is it then, that you who have been forgiven so much can justify holding forgiveness against another—especially against our brothers who, in this year of jubilee, are seeking to return home to the Christian family.