The following is a sermon given July 2, 2017 with thoughts for the 4th of July. You can listen to the sermon HERE.
Galatians 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Today, with the 4th of July this Tuesday, we are taking a break from out series on the Bad Habits of Jesus. Instead, I want to take a biblical look at the themes of the Fourth, namely, words like liberty, independence, and freedom. What does biblical freedom look like?
Freedom is a major theme in the Bible, but to understand it, you have to understand the cultural contexts that were the opposite of freedom. Freedom in the Bible is not defined by itself, as grace or love might be. Freedom is defined by its opposites.
The first cultural touchpoint opposite of freedom was prison. In biblical times, people were thrown in prison until they could pay back debts. This was often impossible, since they could not work to make money while in prison. Their families would be burdened with their debts, or if they could not pay the person would remain in prison in very harsh conditions. It was not uncommon for people to be wrongfully imprisoned with no process for righting the wrong.
The second cultural touchpoint opposite of freedom was slavery. Be careful when we say slavery that you do not put too much of your own personal baggage on the word. Certainly there were terrible slavery practices in biblical times, but not all slaves were mistreated or even seen as property. In fact, slavery was not always racially driven. You could become an indentured servant to pay off a debt, and most slaves could work their debts off and buy their freedom. Still, the practices were sometimes very dark.
The third cultural touchpoint opposite of freedom was oppression. This is much closer to the antebellum slavery that we think of. This is slavery that is often racially driven and aimed at keeping people down and treating them as possessions.
Freedom is defined in the bible as both literal and figurative release or escape from prison, slavery, and oppression. It can be an actual reality, or spiritual freedom, but the image is that God intends for us to be free.
The story of Israel is a story of the struggle for freedom. It begins when Joseph, the young and favored son of Jacob, is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. But, as Joseph himself says, what his brothers meant for harm God meant for God. He ends up in a position to save his family, and all of Egypt, in the face of a terrible draught.
For several generations, the people of Israel live in Egypt, and their numbers grow. Eventually, a Pharaoh comes to power that does not know the story of Joseph. He sees a people multiplying and growing stronger, and feels threatened by them. The Pharaoh starts to oppress the people. He forces them into hard labor. Treats them as expendable objects. Kills all their firstborn males.
But God hears the calls the cries of his people, and sends Moses to free them. It is the great exodus—the leaving of slavery for freedom. But freedom is a funny thing. It can sometimes be quite scary.
One of the first things that Israel does in the desert is desire to go back to Egypt. Moses had brought them out to the dessert to die, hadn’t he? At least we had food in Egypt. Sometimes we prefer the oppression we know to the freedom we don’t.
Then, while Moses is on the mountain of the Lord, the people decide they need a god to be made. Something they can see and bow down to. They are free to worship the God of their ancestors, but they want a god like the Egyptians have. And so, as Eugene Peterson puts it, Aaron stops being their priest and becomes their accomplice—giving them a God they can be a slave to instead of a God they can have loving relationship with.
They don’t know what to do with their freedom. It has been said that it took Moses 40 days to get the people out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to get Egypt out of them. They had trouble getting out of the mindset of slavery, and again and again they wonder if they should go back to Egypt. They remember that past as better than it was—remember, we had food. And they leave out the part about all their firstborn boys being killed.
This struggle for Israel continues after they have won the land, during the time of the judges. They keep falling into slavery. They keep going back to worshipping false God, and ending up under oppression.
Despite the warnings of the prophets, the kings make the same mistakes, and eventually Israel finds itself in exile. They are ripped from the land God promised them and spread out among the Babylonian and Persian Empires.
When Jesus is born, Israel is under the thumb of the Romans—still not free, and still struggling to stay true in their worship. And Jesus sees himself on this mission of freedom. Listen to his understanding of his mission from Luke 4:
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” c
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus, reading from the book of Isaiah, places his own ministry within this larger context of freedom. He came to earth to bring freedom.
Jesus talks about freedom a lot. In John 8, he says “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (32) He also adds, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (36)
Jesus is arrested, wrongfully tried, and sent to the cross. His movement was to be oppressed, squashed down by the killing of its leader. But the grave did not hold him. The moment of ultimate oppression became the moment of ultimate freedom.
Later, in the book of Acts, Jesus appears to an oppressor and persecutor of Christians. Paul is stopped on his way to attack Christians and told that he now belongs to Christ. Paul, who was a Pharisee, again picks of up the ideas of slavery and freedom in his work. He looks at his life and sees that he was a slave to the law with no way of freeing himself, and that Christ gave him that freedom. In fact, Paul turns the imagery on its head, saying that we are now “slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17) and “slaves of God. (Romans 6:22)
Listen to his proclamation of freedom from Romans 8:1-4-
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Paul says that according to the flesh we could not find freedom. It is only by Christ’s coming and sacrificing himself that we could find spiritual freedom. Here is how he puts it in 2 Corinthians 3:17- “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is not just something that God gives us. It is part of God’s character, and where you find God’s Spirit you find freedom. The Spirit is in the freedom business.
This is why it drives Paul crazy when the Judaizers come and try to tell new Christians that they have to follow the law—be circumcised, eat Kosher, and become Jewish. Paul understands that those rules were incapable of bringing freedom, and the freedom that he finally found was found in Christ.
But now we have a problem. Let me read again Galatians 5:1- “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
For freedom Christ has set us free. At first glance, that seems like a stupid sentence. Of course we are set free for freedom. Why would anyone who is free every again submit to the yoke of slavery? It is the same kind of thing that Jesus says, “So if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.” Well of course you are free if you are set free, right?
The answer, the hard truth of the Bible, is that we sometimes have trouble with freedom. Freedom is scary. Sometimes we prefer the oppression we know to the freedom we don’t. We would rather go back to our old life or our old habits. We would rather sacrifice and bow down to things that are more near, at least then we do not have to be as disappointed when they let us down.
• How free do you feel?
• How often have you seen someone struggle with an addiction and not seem to break free?
• How many times have you seen someone in an abusive relationship that they always go back to?
• How many habits and sins can you see in multiple generations of your family that are patterns passed down?
• How often do you find yourself returning to people, patterns, or behaviors that you are now are not good or Godly?
Maybe the words of Paul are not so silly. Maybe they are a good reminder. You have been set free not so that you can go back to slavery, but for freedom.
I am not sure why we struggle with freedom. Is it because we feel unworthy? We are unworthy. Our freedom is a gift to be received and we will never deserve it. Is it because our slavery is familiar, or is it because a life of freedom seems so unfamiliar?
If you find that you are in bondage or oppressed in your life, understand that is not God’s will for your life. You have been set free, and you have been set free for the purpose of being free. You are to set others free.
I hope that as you celebrate Independence Day and the Freedom that is so important to our nation, you will also reflect on the kind of amazing freedom that we have in Christ. Amen.