[This post is a slightly revised version of a Wascana Fellowship message from 2010.]
The image of judgment in Revelation 20:11-15 mentions that “books were opened” and that people were judged in accordance with what was written in them. We are told that one of them is the “book of life” but I had always wondered what the other books might be. There may be a clue in ancient Israel’s law.
At the time God was settling the Israelites into the Promised Land, He gives them rules about inheritance that feature a novel twist: land cannot be sold in perpetuity, but rather must be returned to the family every 50 years, during what He calls a Jubilee year. Could he be familiar with the human tendency to concentrate wealth?
There was to be a major redistribution of wealth-generating property in the 50th year in order to ensure that each family could have something to call its own to fall back on: a certain minimum net worth, as it were (Leviticus 25:8-55). According to Howard and Rosenthal [The Feasts of the Lord, p. 197], the primary purpose of this was to eliminate oppression among Israelites (though it did not help foreign slaves of Israelites very much).
The announcement of Jubilee was made on Israel’s most sacred day of the year, currently known as yom kippur and translated “the Day of Atonement” in most English Bibles. This was the day that all of Israel’s sins were “covered” by special sacrifices at the Temple. Once the sins were taken care of for the year, the release of Israelite slaves and the return to families of their land was to be proclaimed from God’s holy tabernacle or temple. Imagine the joy and jubilation of that day throughout the land!
Unfortunately, there is no Biblical or historical record that proves this law was ever kept in Israel, and no way to track or calculate the year that it should be happening on, since those records are not clear, either. Therefore: no prediction of Jesus’ return based on a supposed Jubilee year is feasible. (Note to self: Don’t try to predict the day or hour of Jesus’ return.)
Imagine, however, that it were kept. Where would a dispossessed family begin? Surely a family would need proof that the land belonged to them. Where would it get that proof?
We are told in the book of Joshua that the land was divided by lot “before the Lord” to the tribes and familes of Israel (Joshua 18:8-10). I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that there were some priestly scribes taking notes and writing out the deeds to these properties and storing them in a “primitive” land titles registry, probably eventually consisting of scrolls – the “books” of the time. Since there is a such a list recorded in Joshua 18-21 I think I am actually on fairly solid ground.
You are probably way ahead of me by now. As the Day of Atonement draws to a close, the proclamation of freedom and restoration is made, and the priestly books of inheritance are opened so that families can compare their geneological records with the land titles of their ancestors. If their family name is found in the books, they can return to their inheritance. If not, they are a lot more dispossessed than they thought! Those not found in the books do not have an inheritance in Israel.
So now the scene changes to perhaps a bit more than a millennium later, as Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue in Capernaum (Luke 4:16-21). He stands up to read the day’s assigned reading from Isaiah 61. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He closes the book, and declares that this decree is being fulfilled within their very own hearing.
In other words, Jesus is proclaiming Jubilee! He is declaring God’s own prerogative in setting His people free from the oppression of other human beings. This was Good News! (Though what is good news for the oppressed is not necessarily so for the power elite.)
We do now know when Jesus read his sabbath-day reading to the synagogue, but it identifies the kind of ministry Jesus is engaged in. This is a ministry of providing freedom from oppression, rather than one of restrictive rules.
(Note: While the Old Covenant has been seen as restrictive, this is not how God meant it to be. The problem is that human leaders selectively use or create laws to create restrictions and selectively ignore freedom-granting regulations like the Jubilee.)
Why should there be a connection between the Jubilee and the Day of Atonement? Well, for one thing, being conscious of the release of the burden of our sin should prime the conscience to remove burdens we have placed on our brothers and sisters.
Second, and more important, Jesus promises that human beings redeemed by faith in Him get to inherit with Him in a new heavens and a new earth (Rev. 21-22). Before this, however, there must be a judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). We have tended to see this only as a disturbing image of retributive justice (and so it is), but it is much, much more.
This is also the imagery of judgment to determine eternal inheritance. After the “books are opened,” those who remain get to inherit eternal life in “a better country” (Heb. 11:16).
This is the picture of the ultimate Day of Atonement Jubilee:
Jesus has dealt with sin and continues to extend salvation to those who believe in Him.
Jesus is the Judge who will deliver final sentence at the appropriate time.
Jesus (whose name is the same as Johsua in Hebrew) distributes the inheritance of the saved, which will be fully entered into at the appropriate time.