Q&R: “The Day of Vengeance” – Bradley Jersak

Question:

I have a question concerning Jesus’ statement in the synagogue in Luke 4:19, where he stops short of finishing the verse cited from Isaiah 61:2, which ends “and the day of vengeance of God.” Many use this to proclaim a ‘Dispensationalist’ form of eschatology in which Jesus came the first time in love but will return with blood and destruction on his mind. How do you see this?

Response:

A very good question indeed! Let’s review in some detail:

Jesus launched his Galilean ministry with a prophetic mission statement from Luke 4:18-19:

  • 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
  •     because he has anointed me
  •     to proclaim good news to the poor.
  • He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
  •     and recovery of sight for the blind,
  • to set the oppressed free,
  • 19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

We know he is quoting a longer sentence from Isaiah 61, which says,

  • The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
  •     because the Lord has anointed me
  •     to proclaim good news to the poor.
  • He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
  •     to proclaim freedom for the captives
  •     and release from darkness for the prisoners,
  • to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
  •     and the day of vengeance of our God,
  • to comfort all who mourn,
  •     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
  • to bestow on them a crown of beauty
  •     instead of ashes,
  • the oil of joy
  •     instead of mourning,
  • and a garment of praise
  •     instead of a spirit of despair.

What a beautiful description of the mission and meaning of Christ’s life and ministry!

As you’ve pointed out, the omission of the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God” in Luke 4 seems conspicuous and may be confusing, but I know of three interpretations:

1. Dispensational Delay

I grew up in a church and did my undergraduate degree in a school that, at the time, taught John Nelson Darby’s 19th-century doctrinal system that we called Dispensationalism. It was popularized by the Schofield Study Bible and permeated the End Times vision of the Evangelical Bible College movements of the early to mid-twentieth century. Readers can research the details for themselves, but I believe there are much better uses of your time.

As for this text, Dispensationalists teach that the part of the verse Jesus quoted refers to his first coming, while he omits the missing phrase because the vengeance part is deferred to what they imagined the Second Coming of Christ would look like: the vengeance of God of a literalist and futurist reading of the Book of Revelation. They believed that the climax of history would involve the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the series of destructive plagues, the bowls of wrath poured out on the earth, the rise of the Antichrist, and the final battle of Armageddon, where Christ shows up, not as the Lamb slain but as the conquering death-dealer.

Many good books dismantle that flawed theological system, but my only refutation for now is that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so his nature, character, and means of ultimate redemption cannot and will not be contrary to the cruciform victory that is already “finished.” I don’t know how history will end, but to my mind, our clearest preview is the Gospel image of the Transfiguration, finally extended to the entire cosmos.

2. Closing the Book on Vengeance

A much better and more beautiful interpretation of Christ’s omission is that it was deliberate and meaningful. Jesus was effectively “closing the book on vengeance.” In an article by that title, Brian Zahnd (a friend of PTM) put it this way:

  • Jesus stopped mid-sentence and rolled up the scroll! It would be like someone singing the national anthem and ending with, O’er the land of the free. Everybody would be waiting for and the home of the brave. Jesus didn’t finish the line. Jesus omitted the bit about “the day of vengeance of our God.”
  • In announcing that God’s jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon was arriving with what he was doing, Jesus omitted any reference to God exacting vengeance on Israel’s enemies. In claiming that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in their hearing, Jesus is claiming to be Jubilee in person. But the scandalous suggestion is that this Jubilee is to be for everybody…even Israel’s enemies.

In this account, Jesus puts an end to the nationalist, militarist images of the Messiah that were prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures. Vengeance belongs to God and God in love lays it down. Forever.

3. Vengeance upon the True Enemy

While I feel comfortable with Brian’s response and recite his approach regularly, I will also add a third possibility (which aligns with the second). I would love to retain not only the aspects of the verse prior to the vengeance phrase but also the rest of the sentence, which continues to recount Christ’s ministry of restoration, redemption, and reconciliation. If citing just half the verse is a signal to keep reading (as we see elsewhere), then how would we interpret “the day of vengeance”?

In the ancient hymns of the church, the composers were fond of identifying “the day of vengeance of our God” with Good Friday and the vanquished foe with death itself (often personified). After all, 1 Corinthians 15 does say that the last enemy to be destroyed will be death. Here is one example of how the first Christians sang about divine vengeance:

  • The man-slayer became as one dead
  • when he saw the One who had been put to death
  • restored to life.
  • Our God has been shown to be a triumphant Victor and Vanquisher of death,
  • for death was smitten with fear when our God,
  • having taken living flesh subject to suffering,
  • wrestled with the tyrant and raised all with himself,
  • wherefore he is glorified.

In other words, after Christ, not one more human needs to be slaughtered for the world to be made right. Christ closes the book on vengeance by making the death of death (in his resurrection) God’s definitive saving act of vengeance.

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