19. Super-Sabbath: Israel's Land and Its Lord (Leviticus 25:1-34)
When we began our study of the Book of Leviticus (which we never thought would be so extensive), I referred to the book as a “liver and onions” book, one that was good for you, but wasn’t very enjoyable. Well, I’ve changed my mind. This book is “steak and ale,” a real feast. Through the weeks of my study I have grown to love this book. Far from being dull and irrelevant, it is a book which conveys the character and the heart of God. The 25th chapter of Leviticus especially reveals the grace of God and His compassion for the poor and the oppressed. The Sabbath year and the Super-Sabbath, the year of Jubilee, are one of God’s gracious provisions for His people, especially the poor.
It is not just the “spirit” of the chapter which is relevant to the 20th century Christian. The content of the chapter deals with one of the most pressing problems our world is facing—that of the equitable distribution of property among the population of the world. Communism is dead wrong in its theology (atheism—religion is the opiate of the people), in its solutions and methodology (revolution), but it has certainly grasped the fact that the dispossessed peoples of the earth have a great desire to own a portion of land. The peoples of the world care little for the philosophy of communism, but they are very much attracted by its offer of property for those who have none.
It is not just communism, per se, which addresses this problem of the possession of the land. A more religious revolutionary approach is to be found in the “liberation theology”148 of our day. Indeed, such “theologians” capitalize on biblical books like Exodus and Leviticus to validate their erroneous views.
Furthermore, our study of God’s laws and God’s land will enable us to understand why the Jews feels so strongly about the possession of Palestine. The centuries old struggle between the Arabs and the Jews is essentially one over the possession of the holy land. Some of the reasons for this struggle will become evident in our study.
Finally, the year of Jubilee is one of the beautiful prototypes of the redemption which will be achieved in the person of Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah. This great event is described and defined almost entirely in Leviticus chapter 25, with only incidental references being found in Leviticus 27 and Numbers 36:4. If we would understand the concept of Jubilee, we must learn it here.
Overview of the Chapter
The entire chapter deals with the sabbath year and the super-sabbath, the year of Jubilee, which comes every 50th year. The two events are very much inter-related, and are thus both dealt with at the same time. The sabbath year has already been dealt with previously, but from a different perspective.149 The observance of the sabbath and the super-sabbath as defined here focuses primarily on the land and on the people. Verses 1-34 lay down God’s law pertaining to the land, while verses 35-55 prescribe the application of the sabbath to the people.
The Approach of This Lesson
In this lesson we will direct our attention to the first matter, the laws and the land of God. We will begin by reviewing what has already been written in the Pentateuch, in preparation for the instruction of this chapter. Then we will briefly survey what practices were a part of the observance of the sabbath and the super-sabbath. We will next turn to the application of the legislation of this chapter in the history of Israel. Turning to the New Testament, we will consider the impact of our Lord’s teaching pertaining to Himself and to the land of promise. Finally, we will consider the application of the “laws of the land” by the New Testament church, which includes the 20th Christian as well.
Pentateuchal Preparations for the Laws of the Land
It is my contention that the land of Canaan, the promised land of Israel, was consistently viewed in the Old Testament as the place of God’s presence and of His blessing. This begins at the very outset of divine revelation in the Book of Genesis, chapters 2 and 3. The Garden of Eden was, as it were, a kind of farm—at least an orchard. God placed Adam and Eve there, to keep the garden, and to enjoy its blessings. These blessings included fellowship with God, who came to walk with them in the garden (3:8), and the blessing of everlasting life, the result of eating from the fruit of the tree of life (3:22). To enjoy these blessings, all this couple had to do was to keep one commandment, to refrain from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:16-17). When they disobeyed and ate of this fruit, they were expelled from the garden (in general), and kept from eating of the tree of life (in particular, 3:22-24). The parallels between the Garden of Eden and the promised land of Canaan, the land of “milk and honey,” are not difficult to grasp. For now, let us simply observe that the earth was created with a special place for man, where God’s presence and His blessings were available. To enjoy these blessings, man had to obey God’s commands. To be expelled from this place was to be deprived of these blessings.
Abraham came to grasp the fact that the promised land was the place of God’s special blessing too. God called Abram to leave his land and to go to the place He would show him. The Abrahamic Covenant consisted of three particular promises: a land, a seed, and a blessing (cf. Gen. 12:1-3). These three promises were rightly understood to be somehow bound together, inseparable. During Abraham’s life, he built altars and called on the name of the Lord only in the land of promise. At his death, Abraham’s last two recorded acts had to do with the land. In chapter 23, Abraham purchased a family burial site in the land of promise. In chapter 24, Abraham gave solemn instructions to his servant concerning how he was to procure a wife for his son, Isaac. His most stern warning to his servant was that not under any circumstance was he to take Isaac out of the land (24:5-8). Abraham had learned that the blessings of the covenant God had made with him were inseparable from dwelling in the land. Even though his descendants might be removed from this land for a number of years, God would bring them back to it to experience the fulfillment of His promises (cf. 15:13-16).
Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, learned that this land of promise was a very special place, the place of God’s presence and blessing. Because of his deception and deceit, Jacob was forced to flee from the promised land, to live in the very place which Abraham warned his servant not to take Isaac. Nevertheless, God appeared to Jacob before he had left the land of promise:
And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it (Gen. 28:12).
In this vision, God reiterated His covenant, which He had made with Abraham and Isaac. He promised to be with Jacob wherever he went, and to bring him, once again, to this land, where He would bless him. Jacob’s response to this dream is very significant: “Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.’ And he was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:16-17).
Jacob’s dream convinced him that this land was special. It was the dwelling place of God, the place of God’s special blessing. And, more than this, it was the “gate of heaven.” No wonder the land of promise was so important to the Israelite! And no wonder that Joseph, Jacob’s son, would instruct his sons to bury his bones in that promised land, rather than in Egypt (Gen. 50:24-25).
In the Book of Exodus we see this same emphasis being revealed to Moses and the people of Israel. When God called Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt He promised, “Certainly I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12).
In Leviticus chapter 26, God promises to bless His people in their land. He will give rains in their season and crops in abundance if they obey His commandments. If they disobey, He will drive them out of their land, and they will experience cursing, not blessing. Being in the land is essential, for it is the place of God’s special blessing.
Later, in the Book of Deuteronomy, the land of promise is referred to as the place of rest:
“You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; for you have not as yet come to the resting place and the inheritance which the LORD your God is giving you. When you cross the Jordan and live in the land which the LORD your God is giving you to inherit, and He gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the LORD your God shall choose for His name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you …” (Deut. 12:8-11a).
However, since the people will not obey God, God’s words of warning (cursing) in the last part of Deuteronomy speak of the judgment of God in terms of having no rest, outside of the land of promise:
“Moreover, the LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known. And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the LORD will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life” (Deut. 28:64-66).150
The story of Ruth is especially interesting in relationship to finding “rest” or God’s blessings in the land of promise. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to return to their own land and to their homes (her mother’s house), where they might find “rest” (1:8-9). Ruth declined however, determining to find her rest with Naomi, in her land, and by the hand of her God (1:16-18). This Moabite woman looked for God’s blessing only in the land of promise, with His people.
The Practical Outworkings
of the Sabbath Year and the Super-Sabbath
According to the instructions God gave in Leviticus 25 the observance of the Sabbath year involved several things. First, the land must lie fallow and given its rest (v. 2). The seventh year, crops could not be planted, and those crops which were permanent (e.g. grapes, olive trees) were not to be pruned or cared for as they were the other six years (v. 3). The annual crops would re-seed themselves and thus there would be grain, and the perennial plants would continue to bear fruit. No harvests were allowed during the sabbath year (v. 5). By this, I understand that the crops were not to be harvested for sale. This did not prohibit the people from eating the crops, however. In fact, all the people, especially the poor (and even the animals) could eat in the fields (vv. 6-7). Rather than having the corners of the fields in which to glean, the poor could eat from any portion of the field.
Elsewhere the Israelites were instructed to forgive debts which were owed them and unpaid by their Israelite brethren (Deut. 15:1ff.). Also in Deuteronomy 31 we learn that the sabbath year was to begin at the Feast of Booths (31:10) and that the law was read at this time as well (31:13).
There was a great deal of faith required of the Israelites to follow these commandments pertaining to the sabbath year. After all, letting the fields lie fallow for a whole year seemed like a waste, and put the Israelite in the position of having to trust God for his daily bread. In verses 18-22 of Leviticus 25 God assumed that some would have their doubts about the sabbath year observance, and thus He assured the Israelites of His provision. In addition, let it be kept in mind that in Exodus chapter 16 God instituted the sabbath day observance with regard to the gathering of the manna. For some time, then, the people had been experiencing God’s faithfulness in this matter. God gave the people a small test of faith before He gave a larger one. Israel was thus prepared for what God commanded here.
The super-sabbath was similar to, but not identical with, the sabbath year. The year of Jubilee commenced with the sounding of the ram’s horn on the annual day of atonement151 (on the tenth day of the seventh month). It would seem that the land had to lie fallow for 2 years since the year of Jubilee was the 50th year, following on the heels of the 7th (49th) year. Some have questioned this, suggesting that the sabbath year and the Jubilee were observed simultaneously152. These discussions are hypothetical and conjectural. The bottom line is that God is able to provide for a one or a two year period.
On the sabbath year the all debts were canceled, but in the year of Jubilee the Israelite who has sold himself to another is released, and the land which has been leased (since it cannot be sold, v. 23) to another is restored to its original owner. Only houses which were in walled cities were exempt, and after a redemption period of one year, it became the permanent possession of its purchaser.
Parenthetically, one can imagine that the aggressive promoter types would have been inclined to buy such houses (in walled cities) since they were one of the few properties which could be accumulated permanently. I think that the “widows houses” which the scribes and Pharisees were accused of devouring (Matt. 23:14), were those houses in walled cities. Where would a widow wish to live out her last days, if not in the security of a walled city? And who would an unscrupulous Pharisee find an easier prey than a helpless widow? The letter of the law was meticulously observed, but the spirit was greatly violated, and thus the stern rebuke of our Lord.
There is an interesting and very obvious contrast between loans which were made to a needy Israelite and the lease of an Israelite’s land, until the year of Jubilee. Loans were to be made without any consideration of how many years were left to repay the loan (Deut. 15:7-11). Leases, however, must be made by calculating the number of years remaining until the Jubilee (Lev. 25:14-16; cf. 26-28). The difference is not so much that between the sabbath year and the year of Jubilee, but between a loan and a lease. One is an act of generosity, which is considered more as a gift than a loan, while the other is a business arrangement, which is therefore very carefully governed so that a fair deal is struck. This is important since people are often taken advantage of in times of dire financial need.
The Purpose of the Sabbath and Super-Sabbath
Several purposes are evident in the commandments given here regarding the observance of the sabbath and super-sabbath.
(1) The sabbath and super-sabbath were a reminder of the fact that God owned the land. There is a folk song that goes something like this, “This land is my land, this land is your land …” This is a song which the Israelite could not sing. God clearly stated that the land was His, and that the Israelites were His tenants (v. 23). The Israelites would need a very practical and pointed demonstration of this from time to time, and the sabbath regulations did this beautifully. Let’s face it, the things we own we attempt to maintain, and we attempt to restrict their use. If the Israelite really owned the land, he would feel obliged to maintain his fields, and he would be inclined to post “No Trespassing” signs, keeping out others, especially strangers. God’s regulations forcefully underscored the fact that the Israelites did not own the land because they were prohibited from maintaining the land for one year out of every seven, and they were also instructed to allow their neighbors to come onto their land and to partake of their crops. The poor and the aliens were included here (cf. vv. 5-6). Those who own something feel free to use it when and how they like. The land could not be used other than in the ways God prescribed. Thus, the sabbath and Jubilee regulations proved the land was God’s.
(2) It made it possible for the people of Israel to become the recipients of divine blessing. Remember that a large part of the blessings which God promised His people consisted of the rain and the crops which God would give His people. To be a recipient of God’s blessing, one must have his own land by which means he will be benefited.
(3) The commands related to the observance of the sabbath and Jubilee years were tests of the Israelite’s faith and obedience, and the basis for God’s blessings or discipline.
(4) The regulations regarding the use of the land were a provision for the poor, providing them with food in times of need and with the possibility of a new beginning.
(5) The “laws of the land” were designed to hinder materialism and to keep in check those who would try to accumulate vast land holdings, at the expense of others. If these land laws were followed, there would be little incentive for one to lease the land of another, since the land would ultimately be returned to its owner, and since the price of the lease was directly tied to the value of its crops. There were no speculation land deals in that day, not if God’s laws were obeyed.
The Practice of the
Sabbath and Super-Sabbath Years in Israel
There are two very different incidents recorded in the Old Testament which show us how these “laws of the land” were either ignored or implemented by God’s people. First we turn to the account of Ahab’s “acquisition” of the vineyard belonging to Naboth, recorded in 1 Kings chapter 21. Ahab was Israel’s king, who had plenty of his own land, but there was this nice little vineyard, very near his palace … When approached by Ahab, Naboth refused to sell, not merely out of stubbornness or possessiveness, but knowing that God had intended the land to remain in the hands of those families and tribes to which it was first given: “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (1 Ki. 21:3).
In obedience to the intent and stated purposes of the “laws of the land,” Naboth could not sell his land without disobeying God. What Naboth knew well, Ahab was either ignorant of or it didn’t matter. Ahab was nevertheless ready to give up, but was depressed over his frustrated efforts. Jezebel handled the matter for him in a way that grossly violated the “laws of the land,” but in the pretext of keeping the Mosaic laws. The one way that the king could keep the property of an Israelite was to find him guilty of a capital offense, like blasphemy (which, you will recall, is dealt with in Leviticus chapter 24). A banquet is arranged, Naboth is invited, and two false witnesses are employed to bring the charge of blasphemy against Naboth, who is executed with a hypocritical sense of indignation and divine duty. God was not mocked, however, for Ahab “bought the farm” in more than one sense. His sin cost him his dynasty (cf. 1 Ki. 21:20-22; 22).
The contrast between Ahab and Boaz is a beautiful one. Ahab and Jezebel abused the law, using it as a pretext for doing good (punishing a blasphemer) when it was an instrument for doing evil (taking a man’s property and his children’s inheritance). Naomi was the widow of an Israelite who, due to a famine, had to sell (lease) his property and to move outside the land (Ruth 1:1-5). When Naomi returned to her land, Ruth went with her, seeking rest in Israel from Naomi’s God (1:15-18). Ruth quickly learned about the rights of the poor and went to the fields to glean (2:1ff.). In the providence of God, she happened upon the farm of Boaz, and also providentially God brought Ruth to his attention. Boaz went far beyond the requirement of the “laws of the land” and fed Ruth at his table, looking after her protection and welfare, and providing her with more of his produce than the bare minimum requirements (cf. 2:8-9, 14-16). Here is the law at its best, not viewed as a standard too high to strive for, but as a minimum to be surpassed. The kindly intent of God in giving the “laws of the land” is seen in the practice of this godly man, Boaz.
Beyond these two accounts we have little information concerning the observance of the sabbath and super-sabbath. Roland de Vaux writes, “The sabbatical year is therefore an ancient institution, but it is hard to say how faithfully the Israelites observed it. Positive evidence is rare and late, and comes from periods of national and religious fervour.”153
Of the year of Jubilee, de Vaux writes,
There is no evidence that the law was ever in fact applied. … The Law of Jubilee thus appears to set out an ideal of justice and social equality which was never realized. It is difficult to say when it was thought out. … But we must note that nowhere outside the Bible is the fiftieth year marked by a redistribution of the land or a remission of debts and of persons taken as sureties; nor is there any evidence whatever of such a general liberation, at any time whatever.154
We do now have evidences that, in general, God’s commandments were not kept, thus bringing about the expulsion of God’s people from His promised land and from His blessings. A disregard for the sabbath is seen in the Book of Amos, which is the basis for the divine judgment of God:
Hear this, you who trample the needy, to do away with the humble of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over, So that we may buy grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales, So as to buy the helpless for money And the needy for a pair of sandals, And that we may sell the refuse of the wheat?” (Amos 8:4-6, cf. vv. 7ff.).
Isaiah, too, condemned Israel’s failure to care for the poor, which was a central purpose for the giving of the “laws of the land.” Isaiah spoke of Israel’s obedience to these laws as the basis for restoration and blessing:
“Is this not the fast which I chose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will speedily spring forth; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you remove the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, If you give yourself to the hungry, And satisfy the desire of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday. And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. And those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell” (Isa. 58:6-12).
Because Israel failed to obey God’s laws of the land, Israel and Judah were sent into captivity:
And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete (2 Chron. 36:20-21).
The prophets spoke much of Israel’s restoration. Through Jeremiah God promised restoration, based upon Israel’s keeping of the sabbath day (Jer. 17:24-27). But even when the captives were loosed and God’s people returned to the land of promise, observance of God’s “laws of the land” was imperfect (cf. Neh. 5). The later prophets thus speak of a great and future day of restoration, which will be fulfilled only in the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of His kingdom. The “laws of the land” are very much in view in these promises. Ezekiel, for example, speaks of the restoration of Israel and its implications:
‘Thus says the Lord God, “If the prince gives a gift out of his inheritance to many of his sons, it shall belong to his sons; it is their possession by inheritance. But if he gives a gift from his inheritance to one of his servants, it shall be his until the year of liberty; then it shall return to the prince. His inheritance shall be only his sons’; it shall belong to them. And the prince shall not take from the people’s inheritance, thrusting them out of their possession; he shall give his sons inheritance from his own possession so that My people shall not be scattered, anyone from his possession”’ (Ezek. 46:16-18).
“So you shall divide this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. And it will come about that you shall divide it by lot for an inheritance among yourselves and among the aliens who stay in your midst, who bring forth sons in your midst. And they shall be to you as the native-born among the sons of Israel; they shall be allotted an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel” (Ezek. 47:21-22).
This latter prophecy is significant in that it foresees and foretells of the inclusion of the Gentiles (aliens) in the coming kingdom, which Messiah will establish.
Likewise, Micah foretold the day of Israel’s restoration in the land:
And each of them will sit under his vine And under his fig tree, With no one to make them afraid, For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. … “In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will assemble the lame, And gather the outcasts, Even those whom I have afflicted. I will make the lame a remnant, And the outcasts a strong nation, And the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion From now on and forever” (Micah 4:4, 6-7).
One of the most significant prophecies of Israel’s restoration, couched in Jubilee terminology, is found in the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives, And freedom to prisoners; To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD” (Isa. 61:1-2a).
It will be this text which our Lord reads in the synagogue of His home town, Nazareth, as recorded in the 4th chapter of Luke’s gospel. Before we turn to the teaching of our Lord and the land of Israel, let us take a moment to pause and reflect on the meaning of the land to the Israelite of old.
The land of Israel was, to the Jew, the place of God’s presence and of His blessing. To be in the land was to be in the place of blessing, and to be outside of the land was to be apart from the place of blessing.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the godly Jew saw some magical power inherent and active in the land of promise. Ultimately it was God who was the source of blessing. Thus, we read in the Psalms that God is the saint’s dwelling place, the place of security, safety, and blessing:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!’ (Ps. 91:1-2).
Preserve me, O God, for I take refuge in Thee. I said to the LORD, “Thou art my LORD; I have no good besides Thee. … The LORD is the portion of my inheritance and my cup; Thou dost support my lot” (Ps. 16:1-2, 5).
“I love Thee, O LORD, my strength.” The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold (Ps. 18:1-2; cf. Ps. 27, 31).
Asaph summed up the fact that God is the saint’s true reward, who is always present, and who is one’s true good, even when he is afflicted and the wicked momentarily prosper:
Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. … But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (Ps. 73:25-26, 28).
The writer of the Book of Hebrews sums up the view of the godly Old Testament saint with regard to the land, and its relationship to their faith:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Heb. 11:13-16).
And so it was that the godly Israelites of the Old Testament dispensation were eagerly waiting for the coming of Messiah, in whom their hope rested. The heavenly country was that which He would bring to pass. The Messiah’s arrival and message was not welcomed by all, however.
The “Laws of the Land” and the Messiah
The year of Jubilee, to a large degree, was an ideal, one not realized by the nation Israel in the Old Testament dispensation. This does not mean that these laws, found in Leviticus 25 (and elsewhere) were of no value, however. In the first place, these laws revealed the compassionate heart of God toward the poor and the downtrodden. In the second place, it revealed how far short the nation Israel fell from living up to the standards which God had set. Thirdly, the ideals established by the “laws of the land” prepared the way for the Messiah who was to come, and through whom both men and the land would be brought to full restoration (cf. Rom. 8:18-25).
It is not surprising, then, that when our Lord appeared as Israel’s Messiah, He spoke of Himself and His ministry in “jubilee” terms and imagery. In the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel our Lord read from Isaiah 61:1-2a in the synagogue and said that these words had been fulfilled in the hearing of His audience (Luke 4:21). I believe that our Lord was claiming to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, as well as to being the antitype of the year of jubilee. Wenham agrees when he writes,
In Isa. 61:1, from which Jesus was quoting, the word used for “release” … is the same as that found in Lev. 25:10. It seems quite likely, therefore, that the prophetic description of the “acceptable year of the Lord’ was partly inspired by the idea of the jubilee year. The messianic age brings liberty to the oppressed and release to the captives.
This age was inaugurated with Christ’s first coming (Luke 4:21). It will be completed by his second coming (Jas. 5:1-8; cf. Luke 16:19-31). The jubilee, then, not only looks back to God’s first redemption of his people from Egypt (Lev. 25:38, 55), but forward to the “restitution of all things,” “for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (Acts 3:31; 2 Pet. 3:13).155
This is but the beginning, however. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ beatitudes, such as “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” convey the concept of jubilee. Who were more blessed than the poor and oppressed, for whom jubilee was to provide deliverance and a new beginning.
It is striking to observe that in the gospels Jesus used much of the symbolism and terminology which was related to the land, as viewed by the Old Testament, to refer to Himself and to the blessings which He had come to bring. The text in Genesis 28, where Jacob’s ladder was described, seems to be referred to when Jesus said to Nathaniel, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
If Jesus was claiming to be “Jacob’s ladder,” as I believe He was, then He is saying that while the land of Israel was once the special place of God’s presence, and the mediating point between heaven and earth (in Jacob’s words, “the gate of heaven,” Gen. 28:17), then Jesus has now assumed this role. He is the place where God abides in a special way, and He is the gate to heaven. To put the matter in words which our Lord Himself spoke,
“Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep … I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:7, 9).
“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
If the Lord Jesus was Jacob’s ladder, He was also the “water of life.” In the Old Testament, God promised water for the land of promise:
The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, And their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, As the God of Israel I will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights, And springs in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, And the dry land fountains of water (Isa. 41:17-18; cf. Lev. 26:4; Deut. 11:10-12).
Later on, God Himself was spoken of in terms of water:
As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God? (Ps. 42:1-2; cf. Ps. 63:1).
“For the people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns, That can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13).
When our Lord speaks of Himself in terms of water, I believe that He is referring to Himself in terms of those blessings (in the land) with which the godly Israelite was most familiar. Think of these words in this light:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).
How shocking it must have been to an Israelite, one who would scarcely consider giving up his farm, to hear these words of Jesus, which pronounce a blessing on those who give up farms: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, shall receive many times as much, and shall inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29).
Farms were the means by which God’s blessing was poured out on His people in the Old Testament. Farms were not to be given up, but were to be kept as in inheritance. Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who do give up farms, and speaks of one’s inheritance as “eternal life.” What has changed here? Why has the Old Testament emphasis on the land been so radically reversed?
The reason is that the Lord Jesus Christ has come; Israel’s Messiah has come. The special place of God’s dwelling is now Christ Himself, not a land, not a temple, not a tabernacle (although the terms tabernacle and temple are referred to by our Lord, cf. John 1:14; 2:19). The evidence, in my opinion, is more than abundant proof of this.
In the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy, Israel’s blessings were spoken of as “rest,” while her cursings were spoken of in terms of “no rest.” Rest was to be given in the land, while no rest was to be experienced outside the land. In the light of the relationship of “rest” to the “land,” think of the claim which our Lord was making when He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). The Jews were in the land of promise, but they did not have rest. Jesus offered them rest, in Himself, not in the land. Rest is now something which is found in Christ, not in a physical location.
So, too, worship is something which is no longer to be limited to a certain place, to the land of Israel, to designated places of worship in the promised land, to the tabernacle or the temple. When Jesus was talking to the “woman at the well” in John chapter 4, she raised a very tender point of dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans, a dispute over which mountain was the place where God was to be worshipped (cf. John 4:20). Jesus’ answer to this woman was that worship is no longer a matter of place, but of a person. The worship of the Father is to be done through, by means of, the Son.
It is therefore not the place—the holy land of Israel—which is so important in the New Testament, but the person of Christ.156 God dwells in Him, and it is in Him that we are saved, secure, and blessed. Thus, men can forsake their farms and follow Him without losing God’s blessing. In fact, not to follow Christ is to lose one’s blessing. That is why we find in the newly founded church, as described in the early chapters of the Book of Acts, that when a believer was in need, people sold their possessions (including their property) to meet these needs. Barnabas was just one notable example of this kind of generosity:
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need. And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-37).
If the Old Testament saint looked on the land of Canaan as the special place of God’s presence and His blessing, the New Testament teaches emphatically that the dwelling place of God and the place of security, peace, and prosperity is none other than Jesus Christ. If the Old Testament saint delighted to be in the land, the New Testament saint delights in being “in Christ.”
The great dangers of which the New Testament saint is warned are those which tend to draw him away from the centrality of being in Christ. The early chapters of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, all focus on the centrality of Christ.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me (Gal. 2:20).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Eph. 1:3).
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broken down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, growing into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:13-22).
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21).
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Col. 1:19-20).
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Col. 2:8-12).
The great danger of the Christian life is to be drawn away from Christ, from seeing in Him all the fullness, the sufficiency, the power and blessings of God. It is for this very reason that our Lord spoke to His disciples about the importance of abiding in Him: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Abiding in Christ is to abide in God and to experience the peace and prosperity (fruit) which God gives through Him. The results of abiding in Christ are remarkably similar to those of trusting in God in the Old Testament, as outlined by our Lord in John 15: keeping His commandments (15:10) and loving one another (15:12). Loving God and loving men, is both an Old and a New Testament obligation.
I wish to make three points of application as I conclude. First, let me remind you of the great continuity between the Old Testament revelation and the New. Those of us who are dispensationalists (I still include myself in this camp)157 sometimes tend to look at the New Testament only in terms of its contrasts and “newness,” without acknowledging sufficiently its continuity, its “sameness.” Let us be careful to look for the continuity of teaching and application between the two testaments.
Let me attempt to illustrate my point by talking about one of my favorite subjects for a moment—computers. I happen to have had one of the first IBM personal computers. Since the purchase of this first computer, IBM has come out with several later versions, which are faster and more powerful. Naturally, I look at these with eager interest, even desire. But my point is that while the heart of the computer, the microprocessor (an Intel 8088), has changed (I like the 80386!), essentially the design of these different processors is so similar that the same software can be run on all machines. The Old Testament revelation is like that. It is definitely surpassed by the New, but there is still a compatibility, a sameness. Sometimes in our efforts to stress the “betterness” of the New, we imply a “badness” about the Old. This is not true, and it inclines us to miss much of the blessing which could be gained from a study and meditation of the Old Testament.
Second, if the place of God’s blessing is now a person, and this person is Jesus Christ, then you will only be blessed in Him. In other words, you have little right to ask God for His blessings if you are not in His Son. The message of the gospel is that forgiveness of sins and eternal life are the result of being “in Christ,” that is by receiving Him as your Savior, your sin-bearer, your righteousness, and your eternal life. If you are not “in Him,” I urge you to trust in Him today, to be “born again” (cf. John chapter 3).
Finally, for Christians, we should be reminded that our source of blessing and security is Christ and Christ alone. Satan would like nothing more than to distract and divert you from who and what you are “in Him” to virtually anything else. If you do not sense the nearness of God and His blessings, it may be because you have been seduced by someone or something other than Christ. The words of our Lord are clear, blessing and fruitfulness come from abiding in Him, the One in whom the presence of God has been manifested, the One in whom all blessings are found.
148 Kaiser writes, “The tragic near-sightedness of ‘liberation theology,’ which loves to focus on the Exodus and laws like Leviticus 25, is that it overlooks the redemptive themes of the Lamb’s blood, the atonement, and the conditions of the covenant and thus it is left with merely a humanistic leftover from the passage.” Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1983), p. 219.
149 Cf. Noordtzij observes, “There was more than one side to the sabbatical year. In Exodus 23:10-11 it is regarded from a social and humanitarian perspective, since the sabbath rest of the land here formed the occasion for poor persons, and also animals, to freely partake of its produce. Leviticus 25:1-7 in contrast, although it does not disregard social and humanitarian concerns (vv. 6-7), draws attention primarily to the land’s right to have a ‘sabbath of rest’ (v. 4) every seventh year, a rest which, like that of the Sabbath day (23:3, 38), was dedicated to the Lord. The land is therefore in a certain sense personified here; it had been granted its own rights by its divine owner, and the Israelites were required to respect these. The previously held view that it was economic considerations that induced the lawgiver to direct that the land be left fallow every seventh year is therefore incorrect. Unlike elsewhere in the ancient Near Eastern world, the primary concern here is not the simple fact that the land was left fallow, but rather the inclusion of this agricultural practice within the overall framework of the sabbath idea. This notion of a sabbath rest for everyone and everything is a religious conception that is met with only in Israel. The verses under discussion therefore expressly direct that, although a person could farm his land for six successive years in order to satisfy his needs, he was to grant it a ‘sabbath of rest’ (or ‘time of complete rest,’ v. 6; the same expression, sabbath sabbaton, is used in 23:3, 32) in the seventh year and content himself with whatever grew of itself in his fields and vineyards. The produce of that year is referred to literally as the ‘sabbath of the land’ (v. 6; see KJV and RSV), and everyone, from the owner to the animals, was allowed to partake of this freely. No one could make any special claim to what grew during this sabbath year. For this reason, there is also no mention of harvest, it being merely stated that the produce of the land could be eaten (v. 7). The fact that Exodus 23:10-11 explicitly mentions the rights of the needy, while Leviticus 25:6-7 does not, may not be taken to indicate any essential difference between these two passages, for if the latter takes note even of the needs of animals, it could not deny those of the poor.” A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), pp. 249-250.
150 Cf. also Dt. 3:20; 25:19; Josh. 1:13, 15.
151 “The blowing of trumpets, or blast of the far-sounding horn (shophar, see at chap. xxiii. 24), was the signal of the descent of the Lord upon Sinai, to raise Israel to be His people, to receive them into His covenant, to unite them to Himself, and bless them through His covenant of grace (Ex. xix. 13,16,19, xx. 18). Just as the people were to come up to the mountain at the sounding of … the shopar, to commemorate its union with the Lord, so at the expiration of the seventh sabbatical year the trumpet-blast was to announce to the covenant nation the gracious presence of its God, and the coming of the year which was to bring “liberty throughout the land to all that dwelt therein” (ver. 10),—deliverance from bondage (vers. 40 sqq.), return to their property and family (vers. 10,13), and release from the bitter labour of cultivating the land (vers. 11,12). This year of grace was proclaimed and began with the day of atonement of every seventh sabbatical year, to show that it was only with the full forgiveness of sins that the blessed liberty of the children of God could possibly commence.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 458.
152 “It is generally thought that this is the year following the seventh sabbath year, i.e., the fiftieth year by our figures. This would mean, however, that the end of every seventh sabbath of years, Israel would have two successive years of a special character—the sabbatical year, and then the Year of Jubilee—and it is highly unlikely that this could have been the case. Such a position overlooks the fact that verse 8, unlike 23:15, does not state that the counting was to begin after a particular date. In 23:15, the counting began “from the day after the Sabbath,” whereas 25:8 only commanded Israel to “count off seven sabbaths of years.” This therefore means that the sabbatical year on which the counting began was the first of the fifty years spoken of (vv. 10-11), and the seventh sabbatical year would then be the fiftieth year counted. In conformity to this, verses 11-12 clearly describe the Year of Jubilee as a sabbath year.” Noordtzij, p. 251.
Keil and Delitzsch challenge this view, however: “It is quite evident from vers. 21 and 22, according to which the sixth year was to produce enough for three years, and the sowing for the ninth was to take place in the eighth, that not only the year of jubilee, but the sabbatical year also, commenced in the autumn, when they first began to sow for the coming year; so that the sowing was suspended from the autumn of the sixth year till the autumn of the seventh, and even till the autumn of the eighth, whenever the jubilee year came round, in which case both sowing and reaping were omitted for two years in succession, and consequently the produce of the sixth year, which was harvested in the seventh month of that year, must have sufficed for three years, not merely till the sowing in the autumn of the eighth or fiftieth year, but till the harvest of the ninth or fifty-first year, as the Talmud and Rabbins of every age have understood the law.” Keil and Delitzsch, II, pp. 460-461.
153 Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965), vol. 1, p. 175.
154 Ibid., pp. 175-176.
155 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 324.
156 Christ took the place of land, as the place and means of divine presence and blessing. He also took the place of the people, who were unable to earn or obtain the blessings. Israel must identify with Christ as the True Israel. Thus, the one who is in Christ is the true Israelite. Cf. Rom. 9:6; Gal. 3:9, 27-29; 6:16; Phil. 3:3.
157 For any who may be wondering if I have taken a kind of Amillennial position here, I have not. I believe that God is still going to literally fulfill His promises to Israel and to give this land to His people. At this point in time, however, I do not think that the issue of the land is the crucial one for Israel, but rather it is the person of Christ, who is Israel’s Messiah, and in whom every true Israelite is found.