Read Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.
Debates frequently arise about the mission of the church. Are we supposed to evangelize or work for justice? Should Christians prioritize the forgiveness of sins or the care of the sick? These debates have deep roots in an old divide about both theology and mission. Broadly speaking, one group might be immovable about feeding the hungry but indifferent about the Virgin Birth; the other might be the reverse. One may give themselves to improving the world and the other to the promise of a heavenly afterlife.
Both sides of this divide would have been rebuked by Jesus. When he went to the synagogue and read from Isaiah 61, he announced his mission. The Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to bring “good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’” (Luke 4:18–19, NRSV throughout). Jesus demonstrated how the kingdom of God brings forgiveness and freedom, healing and hope—all signs of the renewal of creation to come.
Isaiah himself looked ahead to the day when God would bring about a new heavens and a new earth where “all flesh” would come and worship (Isa. 66:22–23). Though Isaiah and Israel with him would have imagined it happening in one move, God in Christ—the Anointed One!—was inaugurating a reign that will one day culminate in the remaking of the world. He will start with us—with the God-human relationship that was at the heart of creation. And he will work through the justified to bring justice. The “set right” people join God in his work of setting the world right.
But in announcing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus was also pointing to himself as the kingdom-bringer. This was no mere social improvement project. The total overhaul of the world and its systems would begin with a seed falling to the ground and dying (John 12:24). The Messiah alone inaugurates the kingdom.
The mission of the Messiah, the Spirit-Anointed One, continues through the Messiah’s people—the little anointed ones. Luke parallels this story in his second volume by talking about the Spirit anointing the followers of Jesus in the upper room. In a very real sense, the mission of the church is not really the mission of the church but of the Messiah. It is Jesus who started it; Jesus who by the Spirit empowers us to participate in it; and Jesus who will come again in glory to bring his reign to its culmination.
Glenn Packiam is an associate senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. His books include Worship and the World to Come and The Resilient Pastor (February 2022).
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