The theme of freedom rings loudly in one of the most crucial sections of Scripture, namely the narrative of the exodus. Already when establishing his covenant with Abraham, God had predicted the bondage and suffering of the Hebrews in a foreign land ( Gen 15:13 ). That long period of Egyptian slavery became a powerful symbol of oppression, and so the deliverance of the Israelites through Moses spoke to them of freedom in a more profound senseindeed, of spiritual redemption. It should be noted, moreover, that this liberation had as its purpose serving God and obeying his Law ( Exod 19:4-5 ; cf. also Exod 20:2 ; as the introduction to the Ten Commandments ). In other words, from the very beginning God's people were taught that the alternative to servitude was not freedom in some abstract sense, but rather freedom to serve the Lord.
It is not surprising that built into the very fabric of Israelite society was a constant reminder of God's deliverance and its significance. The fourth commandment, for example, had reference not only to God's resting on the seventh day of creation ( Exod 20:8-11 ), but also to the liberation of Israel from the hands of Egypt ( Deut 5:12-15 ). Israelites who sold themselves because of poverty were to be freed after six years and to be given a generous supply of food. "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today" ( Deut 15:15 ; cf. Lev 25:42 ). Every seventh year the debts of all Israelites were to be canceled ( Deut 15:1-2 ). Clearly, God was showing his people the greatness of his forgiveness and the implications of that forgiveness for their own behavior. In addition, the fiftieth year (i.e., after seven sets of seven years) was consecrated as a year of jubilee, in which the Israelites were to "proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants" ( Lev 25:10 ).
The ensuing history of the Israelites was one of repeated disobedience to their God. By their actions they indicated that they had forgotten his liberating work. Not surprisingly, they were given over to destruction and captivity. Now their exile in Babylon, as well as their subsequent submission to various powers, including Rome, became a reminder of their sin and fueled their longing for God's final deliverance. For many of them, however, freedom came to be seen more and more as a political hope. The very concept of Messiah was widely understood against the background of earthly kingship.
It was into this setting that Jesus' proclamation came. Although the Synoptic Gospels do not treat the theme of freedom in an explicit way, Jesus' message as a whole must be understood as a response to Jewish aspirations for deliverance. The Gospel of Luke in particular grounds the coming of Christ in the promises of divine liberation. Mary's Magnificat stresses God's power and justice in bringing down the proud and mighty from their thrones while exalting the humble and oppressed ( Luke 1:51-53 ). Then, in celebration of the birth of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah sees the promises of God beginning to be fulfilled. Remembering the covenant to Abraham, the Lord is accomplishing "salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us" ( Luke 1:71 ). Moreover, Luke introduces Jesus' public ministry by relating the visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. There Jesus announced the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, proclaiming "good news to the poor" and "freedom for the prisoners" ( Luke 4:18, ; citing Isa 61:1 ).
In the Gospel of John there is only one passage that makes an explicit reference to freedom, but this passage is of special significance, because it contrasts the political or external concept of freedom with the "spiritual" or theological work of salvation. According to John 8, Jesus made the claim that truth was to be found in his teaching; then he assured his hearers that his truth could make them free (vv. 31-32). This claim drew a sharp response from the audience, who appealed to their kinship with Abraham and deduced that they had never been slaves (v. 33). In view of their long history of subservience to other powers, this response was probably an appeal to a sense of spiritual freedom that transcended the political situation. Their notion that physical descendance guaranteed their place as the people of God was a fundamental mistake, and Jesus proceeded to disabuse them of their pride: "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family [because his descendants have no claim to the household], but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (vv. 34-36). One can hardly imagine a more powerful critique of misconceived ideas about freedom.
The notion of slavery to sin is especially prominent in Paul, who writes to Gentile audiences against the background of Greco-Roman thought. Undoubtedly, Paul's writing parallels some ideas current in his day, such as the emphasis on internal freedom even in the midst of social slavery (cf. the long discussion of freedom in Epictetus, Discourses 4.1). It is just as clear, however, that the apostle develops his teaching in distinction fromeven in opposition tocontemporary thought. Hellenistic philosophers, for example, tended to place considerable emphasis on the concept of natural human freedom, but Paul appears to reject any such idea. Writing to the Roman Christians, he reflects Old Testament teaching when he argues that freedom and slavery are simply relative to whatever it is that has our allegiance ( Rom 6:15-23 ). If I render obedience to sin, I am a slave to sin and lawlessness but I am "free" with respect to righteousness (cf. 2 Peter 2:19 ). If, on the other hand, I render myself as a "slave" to righteousness, I become free with respect to sin.
This conception explains why Paul characteristically refers to himself as a servant (Gk. doulos [dou'lo"], "slave") of Christ and is even willing to make himself a slave to everyone ( 1 Cor 9:19 ). Moreover, when addressing the controversial problem whether Christian slaves in Corinthian society should seek to become free, he appeals to the higher principle of spiritual freedom: anyone who is in Christ and bears the label of "slave" is in fact the Lord's freeman, while the one who bears the label of "freeman" is truly Christ's slave ( 1 Cor 7:22 ; cf. Gal 3:28 ; Col 3:11 ). It appears then that Paul was not comfortable with the popular notion of freedom as "being able to do whatever one desires" (there are various references to this view, such as Aristotle's objection to it in Politics 5:7.1310a; and Epictetus's nuancing of it in Discourses 4.1.1-5 ).
Among Paul's writingsindeed, among all the books of the Biblenone addresses the topic of freedom more forcefully than Galatians, a letter sometimes described as the Magna Charta of Christian Liberty. Interestingly, the central concern of this letter parallels the issue reflected in John 8: What is the relationship between freedom and being a descendant of Abraham? The Gentile Christians of Galatia were being persuaded by some Judaizing groups to adopt circumcision and other distinctive Jewish ceremonies. Apparently, these Judaizers argued that such conversion to Judaism was necessary to participate fully in the blessings God promised to Abraham. In other words, if the Galatians wanted to be truly part of God's people (and thus spiritually free?), they must become descendants of Abraham by submitting to the Mosaic law.
Paul had little patience with this type of thinking. In his view it was "another gospel" that did not really deserve the name "gospel": those who proclaimed such a message were perverting the true gospel and deserved God's curse ( 1:6-9 )indeed, they were false brothers whose real purpose was to undermine the freedom that believers have in Christ ( 2:4-5 ). In developing his theological argument against these Judaizers, Paul points out that the function of the Mosaic law was that of a temporary guardian (the Greek word used Gal 3:24-25 ; is paidagogos, which ironically was itself used of slaves who had the responsibility to look after children and discipline them ). In 3:22-23 the language of "imprisonment" and "confining under sin" is used to describe that function.
The apostle's negative remarks about the Mosaic Law raise a difficult question. After all, God had given that law precisely in the context of liberation from bondage. In a very profound sense, the Law was both a symbol of freedom and even the means of enjoying that freedom in the service of God. James goes so far as to speak of "the law of freedom" ( 1:25 ; 2:12 ). The problem is that, because of sin, the law was impotent to grant life and freedom; instead, it cursed and killed ( Rom 7:9-11 ; 8:3 ; Gal 3:10 ). Christ, however, came specifically to redeem, that is, to liberate those who were under the law by delivering them from its curse ( Gal 3:13-14 ; 4:4-5 ). Through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we are freed from the law of sin and death ( Rom 8:2 ); we are no longer slaves, but childrenand not merely children of Abraham ( Gal 3:29 ) but children of God ( Rom 8:15 ; Gal 3:26 ; 4:6-7 ). Truly where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom ( 2 Cor 3:17 ; cf. Gal 4:28-5:1 )!
Paul, however, makes clear that this freedom is not license to do whatever we want. On the contrary, it leads to moral transformation ( 2 Cor 3:18 ) and even to the fulfillment of the law, which tells us to be slaves to one another in love ( Gal 5:13-14 ). Paradoxically, the life that comes from the Spirit and frees us from the enslaving power of the law ( Gal 5:18 ) produces in the believer the very conduct that the law calls for ( Gal 5:22-23 ).
Finally, we should note that the believers' experience of the Holy Spirit is only a down payment, a foretaste, of their inheritance (cf. Eph 1:13-14 ). Our final liberation is yet to come, when we receive the full adoption of sons, when even our bodies are redeemed, and when the whole creation will be freed from its bondage and decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God ( Rom 8:18-23 ).
Bibliography. E. M. B. Green, Jesus Spells Freedom; P. Richardson, Paul's Ethic of Freedom; E. Kä emann, Jesus Means Freedom.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Freedom'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".