The Hebrew calendar was based on the number seven. As you read the Old Testament, you learn that God designated every seventh day as a “Sabbath.” This day was set apart from the regular week’s schedule by God’s own command in Exodus 20:8-10. No work was to be done on that day, rather it was to be dedicated to rest and worship of the Lord.
Every seventh year was a designated a “Sabbath Year.” During that year, as on the weekly Sabbath, no work of planting and harvesting was to be done. It was also a test of faith, as the Lord was to provide enough crops in the 6th year to last through the Sabbath.
The crowning event of the groups of 7 was a very special time, after 7 sets of 7 years, called “the Year of Jubilee.” This year is described in Leviticus 25:8: “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…”
The year of Jubilee brought a message of redemption and freedom. Both the people and the land were at rest. God’s people could take a break from their labors, enjoy God’s creation in peace, and be thankful to him for all he had given them.
As such, Jewish tradition connected it with the coming of the messiah. In a sense, Messiah was to be the embodiment of Jubilee, bringing freedom, healing and rest – and that’s just what Jesus did.
The Year of Jubilee began on the Day of Atonement. On this sacred day the sins of the people would be “atoned for” by the sacrifice of a goat, and the release of a scapegoat into the wilderness. It was a time of deep sorrow and sincere repentance for sins. With their sins forgiven, the people were restored to proper fellowship with God, and a year long celebration could take place.
The Year of Jubilee would begin with the blowing of the ram’s horn because the word ‘jubilee” means “sound of the horn.” The tri-fold purpose of the year was:
1) All property was to be returned to its original owner. This was a reminder that the land was not really theirs, it was merely entrusted to them for a time by God.
2) The land was to be left fallow, thus giving it a year-long rest, too. God would insure that His people had enough excess crops the previous year to feed them during the year of Jubilee.
3) It would bring final justice, as slaves were to be set free: Leviticus notes that the people were servants of Yahweh, not any man. Thus, Israelite slaves were to be freed at the Year of Jubilee. Additionally, all leases were to expire, and all debts were to be forgiven.
Thus, the year of Jubilee was designed by God to provide hope – hope that everything would be made right again in the end. In Ezekiel 47:17 the Jubilee year is called “the year of release.” This passage is often used as a reference to the coming of Messiah and the ultimate release of the earth from the bondage of sin.
While there is no evidence that the Hebrews actually put the entire process into practice, there is some proof that a few of the regulations may have been observed in ancient Israel. For example, in the time following the Babylonian exile there was a documented period during which slaves were released and debts were forgiven. Nehemiah 10:31 notes that God’s people repented of not observing Jubilee, and promised to “forego the crops of the seventh year and the exaction of every debt.”
The Jubilee year is not a part of Jewish life today. With the Temple destroyed and the ruling religious body (the Sanhedrin) long dissolved, the Jubilee year is no longer calculated. However, the Shofar horn is still sounded every year after Yom Kippur as a symbol that one day the Jews will still be released from bondage.
Christians, on the other hand, believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah. His atoning death on the cross made it possible to have a restored relationship with God – both for people and for the world itself. His sacrifice freed people from the bondage of sin forever, and opened the door to God’s great provision for them in heaven. So, for Christians, Jubilee has already arrived.