By Horatius Bonar, 1867
"The acceptable year of the Lord." Luke 4:19
It is as a "preacher of the gospel" that the Lord here announces himself. He was sent of the Father, that he might "testify the gospel of the grace of God." Both in that which he spoke, and in that which he did, he showed himself the Revealer of the free-love of God.
Not to create that love, nor to call it forth– but to reveal it; not to buy it– but to make a way for its reaching us, did the Son of God take flesh, and live, and die. It was as the messenger of peace between God and man, that he came from the Father, and "dwelt among us." It was as the bringer of good news, that he was born at Bethlehem, and died on Golgotha; and it is as such that he "stands up to read" in the synagogue of Nazareth.
This Nazareth, to which he brought his first message of grace, had no claim for such favor and honor. It was not one of the holy or famous cities of the Old Testament. It was neither a city of refuge nor a Levitical city. It had no name in Israel in former days, and, when the Lord made it his dwelling, it was noted for its evil, not for its good.
Certainly it is "beautiful for situation," nestling in the heart of the mountains of Galilee, far above the broad plains on either hand, yet girt in with hills on all sides as with a curtain, which shuts out everything of earth, and leaves nothing for its dwellers to gaze upon– but the blue sky above. Even as it now stands, it looks fair, though its slopes are bare, and its olive-trees, and fig-trees, and sycamores are few. From its heights how exquisite the prospect around us– Hermon, Tabor, Carmel, the hills of Gilead, the plain of Esdraelon, with the blue of the Great Sea filling up the hay of Acre, into which the Kishon is pouring its ancient waters.
Yet fair as it lay in the seclusion of its mountain dell, it was full of sin; nor did it present any attraction to the Son of God, save that which the sick man does to the physician, when "the whole head is sick, and the whole heart is faint."
But where sin abounded, there grace did much more abound; and it was this abounding grace that now visited this home of abounding sin. The Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost; and on these hills of Zebulon we find the good Shepherd pursuing his stray sheep, bent upon their recovery, as if they had been the choicest of his flock.
It is, then, to 'Nazareth-sinners' that the first words of grace are spoken; and the speaker is the Son of God himself. The gracious words at which the synagogue wondered, are the words of "the only begotten of the Father;" and they to whom they are addressed are not the best– but the worst specimens of Israel, the inhabitants of a city where there was no lovableness to attract the Savior's love, no worth to invite the favor, and no fitness to qualify for the honor conferred.
The Lord here, quoting Isaiah, states his mission to be the preaching of the acceptable year of Jehovah. Let us inquire what the acceptable year of the Lord is, and how he preached it.
I. WHAT is the acceptable year of the Lord. This expression corresponds to that of Paul, "the accepted time," "the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2); and means that there is a time when God accepts or shows favor to the sinner. It is what Ezekiel calls "the time of love;" what our Lord calls "the time of visitation" (Luke 19:44); and what we usually call "the day of grace." It does not refer to the lifetime of an individual, or to any portion of that lifetime– but to the whole period during which God is exercising mercy upon earth, a period which, no doubt, began when the first promise announced mercy to man– but which might be said to have received its great visible commencement or start, when "the Word was made flesh;" or, still more definitely, when he went forth as "the sent" of the Father, to proclaim to men the "exceeding riches of the grace of God." Then the new age or era of grace began; Jehovah's "acceptable year" commenced running its course.
It is sometimes called a day, sometimes a year, sometimes a time; implying a considerable period; but, at the same time, intimating that this season has an end. The mercy that marks it will not always last. At the appointed time the patience will cease, and the grace be transformed into vengeance, vengeance as true and as terrible as has been the grace.
Jehovah's acceptable year is the season during which he is revealing himself as the "Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin." It is the season during which he is showing himself able to save to the uttermost, and to quicken the dead in sin with an everlasting life. It is the season during which he is giving bread to the hungry, and water to the thirsty, and health to the sick, and clothing to the naked, and riches to the poor, and abundance to the needy; during which he is forgiving sin, cleansing guilt, loosing chains, opening prisons, finding lost ones, welcoming prodigals, receiving sinners, stretching out his hand all the day to a disobedient and gainsaying people.
Every era has its character, and the character of this is "grace." In it the patience of God gets full vent to itself, and his almighty love is pouring itself down upon an unworthy world. He has thrown wide open both his home and heart, that the men who have forsaken both may return and be blessed.
If, then, the special characteristic or mark of this era be that of God's "receiving sinners," who can hesitate to come, or doubt as to his own personal welcome? The gracious character of this era continues to the very last. It began in love, and it ends in love; and, not the less so, because it is to be succeeded by vengeance and wrath. There is no diminishing of the blessing; no drying up of the blessed stream; no narrowing of the heart out of which the gracious wonders come. No, as rivers grow fuller and deeper in passing downward, and as they are widest at their entrance on the great ocean, so does this acceptable year preserve its character to the last, and the free-love which marks it seems to increase and enlarge, as the time of the end draws near. The last messages of grace which the Bible contains, and which are specially meant for the last days, are the fullest and the largest of all; "Whoever will, let him take of the water of life freely."
Peter, at the close of his second epistle, brings out this blessed truth, when he tells us the reason of the Lord's delay– "Account the patience of our Lord, salvation;" and never did words more expressively proclaim the yearning, the compassion, the unabated and unchanging fullness of divine tenderness to sinners, than when they announced through the lips of that apostle, that "the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is patience to us, not willing that any should perish– but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
How truly are all the parts of this era in keeping with each other! And is not this a fitting close to such a long, long day of grace, a noble summing-up of the loving-kindnesses and tender mercies that have been unfolding themselves during the "acceptable year of the Lord."
"The setting sun and music at the close,
And here, at the close of this day of salvation, we have the brightness of bright sunset made brighter by the heavenly music and the last long peal of the silver trumpet, proclaiming pardon, and life, and favor to the guiltiest; bidding, in the name of the patient Jehovah, each wanderer welcome home!
II. HOW Christ preached this acceptable year. This preaching of the acceptable year was to run through his whole life and ministry. It was to be their sum and their theme; their beginning and their ending; their first and their last.
In his PERSON he preached it; for his mere presence upon earth among sinful men was an announcement of it. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ; grace and truth shone out from him; so that every one who saw him, or heard of him, could not but know that this was the acceptable year of the Lord. So long as the Son of God, the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, was upon earth– so long men might understand that God was receiving sinners; for those who saw him saw the Father.
He preached it by what he DID. He went about healing all manner of sicknesses, and all manner of diseases. He raised the dead; he cast out devils; he opened the eyes of the blind; he unstopped the ears of the deaf; he gave feet to the lame; he fed the multitudes; he forgave sins and received sinners; he sought and found the lost. Each one of these acts spoke of the divine free-love that was now richly going forth towards the sons of men; not condemning– but pardoning; not destroying– but saving; not repelling– but welcoming the wanderer. Each one of these acts preached the acceptable year of the Lord, and said, not only in the name of the Son– but of the Father too– "Him that comes to me, I will never cast out."
He preached it by what he did not do. He did no deeds of terror, and wrought no miracles of wrath or woe. He was greater than Elijah, yet he called down no fire from heaven; he smote the land with no famine; he was the song of the drunkard, the object of reviling, yet not one stroke of vengeance came from his hand. Was not this the intimation of the gracious errand on which he had come? Did it not say– I have not come to destroy men's lives– but to save them? And even when Peter took up the sword in his behalf, and smote off the ear of Malchus, did he not heal the wounded man; as if to confirm this grace to the last, not only by abstinence from self-vindication– but by returning love for hatred; thus declaring that no amount of sin in man, or wrong done to Himself, could alter the character of this "day of salvation," or make it less "the acceptable year of the Lord?"
He preached it by what he SAID. His words were all of grace; and even the sharp rebukes against Scribes and Pharisees were the warnings of grace, not of wrath. Never man spoke like this man; crowds hung upon him to hear his discourses; and men wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. When he said, "I am come, a light into the world, that whoever believes on me should not abide in darkness," he was preaching the acceptable year of the Lord, and saying, This is the time when God is receiving sinners; so that all who are in darkness are welcome to this light. When he said, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven;" and again, "Neither do I condemn you;" he was preaching the acceptable year of the Lord, and saying, Now is the season for pardon; so that the most guilty of men may go at once to God with the certainty that their condemnation shall be taken away. When he said, "I am the bread of life, he that comes to me shall never hunger, and he that believes on me shall never thirst," he was preaching the acceptable year of the Lord; so that the hungriest and thirstiest of the sons of men might know that the bread of God is provided for them, and the living water flowing out to quench their thirst. And when, upon the cross, he cried, "Father, forgive them," and again, "It is finished," he was still preaching to the last the acceptable year of the Lord, and announcing the consummation of that sacrifice, by means of which grace had been identified with righteousness, and righteousness with grace.
It is still the acceptable year of the Lord, and Christ still preaches it. The season of God's free love is not yet over; and the Son of God, now seated at the Father's right hand, is to us the evidence and seal of this. His sitting on the mercy-seat, his continuing on the throne of grace, tells us that God is still receiving sinners. And this is the good news which we bring; this is the theme of our message, and the object of our embassy.
It is on this foundation of free love that, as saints, we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. It is this air of free-love which we breathe, and which is the very health of our souls. It is with this light of free-love that we are compassed about, and so made partakers of the heavenly joy. We entered on this liberty, when we received Christ's testimony to the acceptable year; and we continue in it, by continuing to believe that same testimony to the end. Embosomed in his grace, encircled with his free-love, we pass onward to the kingdom, in the expectation of receiving yet larger measures of love– "the grace that is to be brought to us at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 1:13).