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What does it mean to proclaim liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61:1)?

proclaim liberty to the captives

Isaiah 61 introduces a person upon whom is the Spirit of the Lord God (Adonai Yahweh) and who is anointed by the Lord (Yahweh): “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, . . . the Lord has anointed me” (Isaiah 61:1a). This person would bring good news to the afflicted; He was sent to bind up the brokenhearted and “to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Isaiah 61:1b, ESV). This one would also proclaim the favorable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of God (Isaiah 61:2). He would comfort those who mourn in Zion, replanting them as “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3, ESV). He would rebuild the ruins and repair the devastation (Isaiah 61:4), so that the Lord would be glorified. This prophecy speaks of coming days in which the people of Israel would be healed and freed, God would have His vengeance, and the people of Zion would be restored to their cities and their land.

Who is this person sent to proclaim liberty to the captives? The New Testament Gospels speak of Him. Centuries after Isaiah wrote his prophecy, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. He was handed a scroll of Isaiah, and He began to read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18). He continued to the line that said, “To set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” and stopped reading (Luke 4:18–21, ESV). The portion Jesus read included the proclaiming of liberty to the captives; after He rolled up the scroll, He said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus was claiming to be the One sent to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners. Jesus said that He was the person Isaiah was prophesying about.

The captives to whom Jesus proclaimed liberty were spiritual captives to sin and to the law. The people’s outward obedience to the law and their deeds of righteousness were not enough to gain them access to the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20). As the apostle Paul explained later, the people were actually in bondage to the law (Romans 7:6), and they needed to be freed. The law could only bring greater awareness of their sin. It was never intended for or capable of making people righteous.

Jesus proclaimed liberty to the captives by explaining that the law was not their way into the kingdom. They could only have righteousness and eternal life by believing in Him (e.g., John 3:16; 6:47). Jesus announced the coming of His kingdom (Matthew 4:17). Mercifully, before His kingdom was inaugurated, Jesus proclaimed the good news about how spiritual captives could have liberty and be free. Those who believed in Him would be no longer be bound by the law (Romans 7:6), and they would be no longer be in bondage to sin (Romans 6:6).

The righteousness of God has always been received by grace through faith (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; Ephesians 2:8–9) and never by works or human efforts (Romans 3:28). Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, proclaiming liberty to the captives (see Matthew 11:28 and John 8:32). He gave them the knowledge of how they could gain God’s righteousness and enter His kingdom—by belief in Jesus and not by works. Many thought that they could enter His kingdom by their own righteousness and efforts, and Jesus sternly yet mercifully corrected them. The righteousness of God can only come by grace through faith in Jesus. That is how captives are given liberty.

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What does it mean to proclaim liberty to the captives (Isaiah 61:1)?
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This page last updated: January 30, 2023