On this Juneteenth weekend, we’re going to honor the roots of Juneteenth in the Biblical Jubilee.
Exodus 21:2 If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.
This weekend we’re celebrating Juneteenth, which we marked this past Saturday, June 19. On June 19, 1866, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation, the freedmen of Galveston, Texas celebrated the first Juneteenth – but they called it, Jubilee Day. That’s after the Biblical Jubilee in Ancient Israel, when slaves were traditionally freed.
Last week we talked about Martin Luther King Jr., and how his “dream” came from the Holy Spirit. The true roots of the civil rights movement were not in the hearts of men, but the heart of God Himself. Similarly, on this Juneteenth weekend, we’re going to honor the roots of Juneteenth in the Biblical Jubilee.
When we look at the Biblical Jubilee, we need to get one thing right out of the way up front: and that’s that Biblical slavery was nothing compared to the chattel slavery that scarred the American soul. It would be better to use the word indentured servant to describe what our Bibles translate as “slave”. In the Bible, when it says servant of God, it’s the same Hebrew or Greek word the Bible also sometimes translates into slave. But there’s no difference in what it’s referring to – the Biblical type of servant, not the chattel slave. It’s an unfortunate translation issue.
To project our definition of slave onto the Biblical concept would be incorrect. Torah Law did not permit people to own other people.
Now in Ancient Israel, the servants had rights. The Hebrew servant is a worker who is also required to rest on the seventh day, the Sabbath. A Hebrew servant could only be contracted for six years – in the seventh year, the Jubilee, he’d be freed.
These are the laws not of the universal Christian church, but of her mother, the nation of Israel. And the Christian church is supposed to be founded on a new, and even better covenant than the old covenant undergirding the ancient nation of Israel. Yet the American founders, some of whom were Christian men, made no such provisions to ensure the rights of servants. Far from it, they permitted a form of chattel slavery completely unknown and offensive to the God of Israel, to the God of the Church.
Ask yourself, if there were guards against chattel slavery were in the Law, how much more-so should the Grace revealed in Christ, which is greater than the law, protect against such slavery? How could any Christian neglect such an obvious conclusion?
Make no mistake – there is no justification for chattel slavery in the Bible. The Old Covenant guarantees a Jubilee in the nation of Israel every seven years – and the New Covenant guarantees a Jubilee universally, at all times. This is the Jubilee Jesus proclaimed when he opened his ministry with the words, “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The year of the Lord’s favor – that’s the Jubilee. But God didn’t intend for just a one-year Jubilee, but an eternal Jubilee in Christ – “In Christ…there is neither slave or nor freedman…but all are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus came to set us free. He said, “For this reason I was born, and for this reason I have come into the world: to bear witness of the truth.” And what does the truth do? “The truth will set you free.”
So in Galveston, TX, on June 19, 1866, they weren’t having just a patriotic little picnic to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s new executive order. They were having a spiritual celebration, a religious holiday – to celebrate the government’s recognition of the freedom guaranteed to them in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These celebrations were organized mostly by churches — and they weren’t celebrating Juneteenth, because no one called it that yet — they were celebrating Jubilee Day!
Now, when I was a student at the Chabad – the Jewish learning center – I once asked the Rabbi why there is no Jubilee anymore in the modern Jewish religion. And he said it’s because in the Jubilee year, all property returned to its ancestral owners. In Israel, the land was portioned out by tribe – he asked me, “can you imagine the mess there would be if we tried to get our land back?”
I asked him, “But do you think the land should be given back?” And his answer was very interesting.
He said — “When the Holy City was destroyed on Tisha B’Av” — in A.D. 70 — “all the records were lost about tribal genealogy and therefore who belongs where in Israel.
“But when Messiah comes, it will no longer matter, because he will rule over not just Israel, but over the whole earth, and all its people. Jews will no longer need to live in Israel in order to be tzadikim” — righteous — “because the whole world will be made holy, and no one will fight any more about who owns the land – because everything is God’s, and we are all God’s people.
“That is what the Jubilee foreshadows.”
This answer hit me hard. This was a man who believed that Messiah had not yet come. Yet, in paraphrasing the Prophets, without realizing it he also paraphrased the New Testament. I realized that if Messiah has already come – then all this Rabbi had just described must already be true.
And it is – in the Church. In the sense that Christians have taught and proclaimed for millennia that “The Kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of Our Lord and His Christ – and he shall rule for ever and ever.” In the sense that, in the eternal Kingdom of Our Lord and His Christ, which is spiritual, we proclaim the same one eternal spiritual truth that Christ did: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Just as our nation is currently a bit forgetful of the God who gave the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. his dream, so are some of our brothers and sisters a bit forgetful of the spiritual Jubilee at the heart of Juneteenth. Our job as Christians is to preach the word in season and out of season – and since our word is a word of Jubilee, Juneteenth is without a doubt in season.
It is not just expedient to preach Christ’s jubilee gospel in order to remind everyone the spirit of Juneteenth – but also because it’s still necessary to preach the glorious freedom of the children of God to a world still filled with slavery. Tim Ballard, the founder of Operation Underground Railroad, is a living reminder that slavery is still an open wound. This one man in just a few short years has saved 1,600 children from sex trafficking. He is living proof that just one person can make a difference.
But why is he alone in this fight? He says, “We all read history and we think, ‘Oh, I would … have risen up, I would have fought, I would have been an abolitionist,’ And I tell them, ‘No, you wouldn’t have. If you would have, you’d be doing that right now. You know trafficking exists, you’ve heard of it, but you don’t want to look.”
Yesterday’s slavery was out in the open. Today’s slavery is hidden, albeit in plain sight. I once met a woman who works for an immigrant rights advocacy group. When she was just a young girl, her parents paid for a “coyote” to smuggle her into America, which is what you hear people call “dropping an anchor baby.” The smuggler took her parents’ money, and then he went behind their back and sold her to another smuggler who intended to put her into God knows what sort of human trafficking ring. Thank God she escaped, and she has devoted her life to making sure that nothing like this happens to other little boys and girls.
I think many of us wouldn’t have to look too far to find even one degree of separation from stories like this. I don’t like upsetting people by sharing these stories – but my job isn’t to protect people from stories like this. My job is to follow Jesus, to bear witness to the truth.
When we celebrate Juneteenth this year, let’s remember that the victory of Juneteenth is not just a victory for black Americans, but for Jesus Christ, for God’s glorious purpose for His people and our world; and let’s continue to bear witness to the truth, so that Jesus Christ can claim more victories for his people. There are many, living under the shadow of injustice, who do not know that “the Kingdoms of this world has become the Kingdom of Our Lord and His Christ” — they don’t believe it, because they can’t see it.
Blessed is he who believes without seeing – but that shouldn’t stop us from blessing those who can’t see by showing them. We can and should pray and even fast in hopes that Jubilee will come to those who are now in bondage – but God in Isaiah reminds us, “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and tear off every yoke?”
So on this Juneteenth, let’s be confirmed in our calling: we are to be Christ’s Jubilee witnesses, and bear witness to the truth in our world. And the truth will set us free.