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Freedom for Something

In the second half of John 8, as Christ challenges his listeners to abide in his word, essentially to stick with him through thick and thin, he also offers to them true freedom. His hearers, however, found it difficult to accept that they needed to be free. They pointed to their heritage as children of Abraham. While they would have acknowledged that they were not politically free, their spiritual freedom was without doubt, at least from their perspective.

And part of their strong reaction to Jesus’ offer of freedom flowed from the events of the Exodus. In no uncertain terms, God had declared to the nations that his people were not to be thought of as a people to be conquered and enslaved. By his mighty works of judgment against Egypt, he freed his people from bondage, so that this event must have left an indelible mark on the people of Israel. Therefore, to be told that you need to be free strikes at the heart of their character.

One big problem, however, is that by the time of Jesus’ ministry, the nature of freedom had been confused for many. For many, to be free sons and daughters of Abraham meant to be radically free. In perhaps the worst confusion of freedom, the people of Jeremiah’s day, on the eve of exile, put their hope in the slogan, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer 7:4). As Jeremiah preached against the people, “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!'-- only to go on doing all these abominations?” (Jer 7:8-10 ESV). The problem, as I see it, is that they understood their freedom to be a radical freedom. They were free to serve themselves, they thought, but that wasn’t freedom as God saw it.

That dark moment before the exile highlights the truth that when you are freed from sin, you’re not only freed from something but also freed for something. Returning to the Exodus for clarity on the idea of freedom, Christopher Watkin points out that the constant refrain in Exodus is not merely, “Let my people go,” but “Let my people go that they may serve me.” To be free from Pharoah is not to be free from any and all service (what we might call radical or absolute freedom), but to be free for service to YHWH, the creator of heaven and earth, who has covenanted with his people.

Therefore, any meaningful talk of liberation must acknowledge both freedom from and freedom for. Otherwise, we unwittingly find ourselves serving a new—and often harder—taskmaster. Commenting on the modern dichotomized usage of the terms “oppressed” and “free,” Watkin says, “We see that [this dichotomy] always smuggles in a new, off-balance-sheet master to replace the old [one]. [For example,] I am freed from parental control in order to serve my own desires; I am freed from following one social group in order to fall in step with another.

“So,” he continues, “at the same time that we [modern folk] dismiss the ‘that they may serve me’ clause [of Exodus] as a retrograde, subservient refusal to be free, we are busy enslaving ourselves to the fickle masters of ambition, or reputation, or fame, or power, or even to the very ideology of our own freedom.” Therefore, radical or absolute freedom is, Watkins concludes, “not only unlivable; it is unimaginable.”[1]

In light of all of the above, Paul urges the readers of his letter of the Galatians to consider what it means to have freedom for something in Christ. He begins Galatians 5 with a strong statement about freedom: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1 ESV). However, he ends that chapter with a description of what we are free for: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25 ESV). In the end, Paul is reflecting what Christ offers in John 8 and echoes the true idea and original idea that freedom from something always entails freedom for something. What we should give thanks for is the fact that we are freed for service to Christ, whose yoke is easy and burden light. And what we should do is abide in his word, which calls us to love God and love one another.

[1] Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 266.

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