Slave or free?


Read Galatians 5:1-15

Paul has devoted much of his letter so far to his concern for the Galatians, repeatedly setting the record straight regarding the very basics of salvation. This includes their need of a Saviour and God’s provision for them through Jesus. He has reminded them of their hopelessness without Jesus and the fact that the only other option – the old covenant law – was no real option at all. Nobody could ever keep that law. It was sent as a "teacher" to point us to our need for a permanent solution to our separation from God. That solution came in Jesus Christ – God made flesh - who came to the earth with the sole purpose of reconciling humanity to God and thus providing the way back across the gulf of separation that had opened up as the result of Adam’s deliberate and considered rebellion (sin) in the Garden of Eden.

Paul sums this up so well in Ephesians 2:11-13: "Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles (non-Jewish people) by birth and called 'uncircumcised' by those who call themselves 'the circumcision' (that done in the body by the hands of men); remember that, at that time, you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise - without hope and without God in the world. But now, in Christ Jesus, you who once were 'far away' have been 'brought near' through the blood of Christ."

It is not what we have done, but what Jesus has done for us. It is what He accomplished (by dying on the cross at "calvary") that has provided the solution to our otherwise tragic destination. On that cross, and through that most cruel and vicious of deaths, Jesus took on Himself the entire sin of the whole world. Yes... and that includes us. "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Corinthians 5:21) Our eternal destination has been instantly changed. We shall not be separated from God for all eternity but ushered into His very presence and accepted by Him for ever! That change of destination is effective immediately. We don’t have to wait until we die to receive the benefit! Our eternal future in the kingdom of God begins the instant that we accept what Jesus has done for us. So, if you are in the kingdom of heaven, begin to explore it straight away! It is endless and, although we have eternity in which to get to know every last corner, we are going to need it, as it is forever!

Living in the Holy Spirit

Christ died to set us free from sin and from a long list of laws and regulations – well over six hundred! Jesus came to set us free, although not free to do whatever we want. That would just lead us straight back into slavery to our own, selfish desires. Rather, thanks to Jesus, we are now free and able to do what was impossible before: to live unselfishly. Those who appeal to their freedom so that they can have their own way or indulge their own desires are falling back into sin. But it is also wrong to put a burden of law-keeping onto other Christians. We must stand against those who would enslave us with rules, set methods, or special conditions for being saved or growing in Christ. Being a Christian gives us entire freedom to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

When I was a volunteer for a few years in prisons (doing "Joy for Life"), I had the pleasure of seeing several women finding a freedom in Jesus Christ, even while behind closed doors. They found real joy in true repentance and the knowledge that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross had paid the price for all they had done. Their passionate desire to say "thank you" by giving something back to Jesus was often overwhelming, but they recognised that any effort they made could never be enough. They just had to give their whole selves to Him alone; to just "be" and cling close to Him, day by day.

Jesus came to give us this freedom so that, no matter what we do or where we do it, we can choose who is to be our lord and master. We can be released from our slavery to sin and set free from the chains with which Satan has bound us these many years. We have been brought into a spacious and unique relationship with our creator. This relationship will never ever change, and doesn’t depend on how we feel. "Jesus replied, 'I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son and daughter belongs to it for ever. So, if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’" (John 8:34-36)

Staying the course

If we have put our trust in Jesus, then He has already set us free – for ever! Why would anyone want to give that up? It's so important that we stay away from the things that we know will harm us. Having realised that our previous way of life was a form of slavery - that we hated with a passion - why would we want to return to it? Those things that we love so much, despite knowing that the Father has warned of the dangers involved; do we really need them? Are we going to listen to the lies of the enemy when he and his demons try to lure us back with the bright, glittery lights that will only shine until we are bound up again in your old slavery? The drudgery and entrapment only ever get worse each time.

In Galatians 5:1, Paul explains to the Galatians that, if they choose to live by (and trust in) the old covenant law, then Jesus will be of no value at all. He goes so far as to say: "you’re acting as if Christ is not enough". Those who choose to live under the constraints of religion can never experience or appreciate the boundless freedom and responsibility that is delegated to believers. They will live in bondage to their desires for ever, or until such time as they choose to replace their former slave driver with the freedom of the Holy Spirit. "You have cut yourself off from Christ and have fallen away from the revelation of grace." (Galatians 5:4)

Why would anyone want to continue living in slavery when they know the truth? If we begin to trust in one part of the old covenant law and come to rely on it, then we are obligated to keep the entire law. It is one way or the other, not both. Will you trust in Jesus or do you want to go back to your old way of doing things? Stand firm! Do not be misled and do not come under the old yoke of slavery again!

Living by faith

The Bible teaches us that faith is a substance. It is not airy-fairy stuff-and-nonsense as some would have you believe. It is a product: the result of something. Let’s look at the letter to the Hebrews (found in the New Testament section of the Bible). This letter was written to Jewish people who had become believers and needed to understand where their existing religion and tradition fitted in. Those (including the apostle, Paul) who went out to preach the good news about Jesus went initially to the Jewish people. Then, when they were no longer welcome in the synagogues, they went to preach elsewhere, often in the homes of newly converted believers or in rented halls.

"Now faith is the assurance [the confirmation or title deed] of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses]". (Hebrews 11:1 - Amplified Bible) Let's compare faith with hope. What do you hope for? Hope is a desire: it is something that would be good if it did happen or, conversely, something that would be good if it didn’t happen. For example, "I hope it won’t rain tomorrow". It carries no real conviction about what will happen, one way or the other. You might walk past a block of land that is for sale and say, "I hope to build on that block one day!" That’s all it is – just a hope – until you decide to do something about it. If you go to the seller of the land and make an offer that is accepted, that changes things and puts "hope" into an altogether different league. Hope has changed into faith following your action. At the completion of the transaction, you have a document that states that you own the land. Now you can start to plan your new build. The title deed states that you own it. You may not have the money to build just yet but, as soon as you do, nothing will prevent you from starting to build. Suddenly, hope has taken on substance. Now you have faith. By faith, you see in your heart the building you want on that land. You have the title deed and that is all the evidence you need that, even though one brick has not yet been laid upon another, you will one day have a house on that land and will live there.

So it is with Christian faith. Before we asked Jesus to take control of our lives, we were lost. We might have had some sort of hope that, when we died, we would be with God for ever. But that was all it was – a hope. There was no evidence that this would happen. We had not investigated the requirements for this to happen. All that we had done, perhaps, was to listen half-heartedly to a few sermons and have some discussions with our friends, who were not necessarily believers themselves. However, the instant that we became Christians, our hope turns to faith; it takes on substance. Why? Because that is now our right. One of the benefits of being a Christian is that we have eternal life - life in the presence of God for ever. We can even know that there is a special place reserved for us in heaven, when we have faith in the promise that Jesus made. Jesus says: "I will come back and take you to be with Me, that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going. I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me". (John 14:1-6) This is all so clear. Recently a beautiful, godly ninety-nine year old lady was passing away with her sons round her bed and she just put her arms up in the air. She was clearly seeing Jesus come back for her. Her sons said "you can go, Mum" and she went into the arms of her Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit is our helper

Jesus has not left us without any help. He has given us the Holy Spirit – the third person of the "Trinity" (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) – to be a comforter to us. He will help us, but He has also done one other thing: He gives us an identification mark, one that can only be seen by us and God. (Ephesians 4:30) Paul describes it as the "seal" of the Holy Spirit. This guarantees that, at the time when we pass from mortal life to eternity, we shall be welcomed into our home in heaven! Hope will become faith. We shall have the title deed to our future: an eternity in heaven. What's more, this is an unshakeable fact. Just as Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, so now, too, we have believed God and it has been credited to us as "righteousness" - right standing and acceptability in God’s sight. Our future is secure. Nobody could have removed that certainty from Abraham; neither will anybody be able to remove that certainty from us. It is the inheritance of those who love God!

Holding on - by faith

At times, I have had serious doubts about whether or not I really have been "born again" as I look at my attitude or behaviour, repent of it, but then repeat the foul sin all over again. Recently I was moved by hearing again the story of John the Baptist, in prison as a result of Herod’s whim. John asked his disciples to go to Jesus and ask: "Are You really the one the prophets said would come, or should we still wait for another?" (Matthew 11:2-19) John was Jesus' cousin. As a baby in his mother’s womb, he had "leapt" when his Aunt Mary (who was also pregnant) had paid a visit to his own mother, Elizabeth. Much later, as an established prophet, John had baptised Jesus and heard the Father say, "This is My beloved Son". John had subsequently encouraged his own followers to leave him and follow Jesus instead, declaring: "He must increase and I must decrease". But, after being put in prison, he had time on his hands to reflect on all that had happened and began to have severe doubts. In reply to John's question, Jesus got the messenger to tell John about all the wonderful things that were taking place: blind people were receiving their sight, the lame were walking, lepers were being cleansed, the deaf were regaining their hearing and even dead people were being raised to life again. These were precisely the things that God's "messiah" ("anointed one") was expected to do when he arrived. Jesus didn’t go and rescue John or deliver him from prison, but His answer must have reassured him that God's plan was indeed on track.

John had played his part faithfully and his future - eternal life with Jesus - was assured. Jesus was indeed God's "anointed one" and His mission would ensure that all who put their faith in Him would not be disappointed. We, too, can bring our doubts to Jesus, just like John. Jesus may not remove us from the storm (or the storm from us) but He will hold our hand through it. He will reassure us that eternal life is ours.

Faith expressed through love

In Jesus, no one person has value above or beyond any other person. What counts is faith – not hope – expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6) Once we have the basics in place - salvation, our eternal destination, understanding of the fact that Jesus has defeated sin and all the other things that we have discussed in this course - then we cannot help but start to show the love of God to others in our lives. It will not be our love, which is imperfect at best, but God’s love operating through us. It will flow out of us like a river in spate. That is just the kind of love that other people need to see in us.

Many people say: "I believe! I believe!" We all believe in lots of different things, but here Paul is talking about true faith in the living God. When we believe in Christ and become new people in Christ, then the Holy Spirit comes into our lives and, through Him, God’s love is poured into our hearts. (Romans 5:5) Love is the first and most important fruit of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, true faith always produces in our hearts a love for God and love for our neighbours. Genuine love will always find a way to express itself to those around us - those who we like and those we are not so sure about. Look at Jesus. He showed life-giving love to all people, even those who abused Him.

Highway robbery

Paul knew that the Galatian believers had started well. They had been growing in their faith and the churches had been prospering. They had listened carefully to the things that Paul had taught them, but something had gone wrong. In Galatians 3:1, we read what Paul says to these people: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" Now Paul goes even further. He likens their Christian lives to the running of a race. They had set off and been going well but, just as in a race, a fluid rhythm can be disrupted when the runner is jostled or pushed off course. Paul continues: "You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?" (Galatians 5:7)

The believers had been distracted from obeying the truth of the good news. Truth is not just about believing something, but putting that belief into action. If we stop following what we know to be true, we shall start to deviate from our course. Such dissuasion does not come from God. He is the One Who called us out of darkness into His marvellous light. He wants us to remain in the light, even as He is in the light. There is only one source of discouragement and obstruction: our enemy, Satan. He does not want us to grow in our faith. Jesus said: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they [the sheep] may have life and have it to the full". (John 10:10) The "thief" is the enemy who wants to destroy our faith. Why? Because in destroying our faith, he seeks to render us useless in the kingdom of God. Not only do we experience frustration ourselves, but we fail to encourage others to grow in power, love and their God-given authority. He also stops us from showing those who currently have little interest in God’s Kingdom, how to live in victory and in the way that God intended them to live. Part of God's plan is that others will see, through our lives, the wonderful way in which God works and loves them, too.

Discouragement works rather like yeast in bread-making: a small quantity of yeast affects the entire mix. As we share our discontent with others, an entire church can be affected and become ineffective. It starts in a small way: "sharing" with anyone who will listen how we don’t like the type of music played by the worship band (or organist), how someone leads a prayer group or study group, or flower-arranging circle, or how the coffee shop is dysfunctional. Those who hear such things are unlikely to be encouraged by my great love for people in the church. Before we know it, the church has become just like any secular club. How can I share with someone my experience of the amazing, merciful, gracious love of Jesus, after that poison comes out of my mouth? How can I talk about all the wonderful ways in which God is working in my life? Nobody will believe me.

Truth expressed through love

Paul was confident that the foundation which had been laid in the lives of the Galatian believers would stand firm in the fiery tests that they were facing. He did not write in order to condemn them or "write them off". His aim was to "speak the truth in love" - to encourage them and get them back on track. There are times when it is very important to tell people the truth in this way. There are many millions of people who have gone to be with the Lord in ages past and many who are alive today, who are thankful that Paul wrote so strongly to these early Christians. For those who disrupt the things of God and do not repent, there will be a time of judgement. (Matthew 7:21) It is a sad fact that the penalty of being removed from the presence of God for ever will be paid by some people. It is not God’s will that any should perish but, having free will involves the responsibility of living eternally with the consequences of choices made individually during our time on earth.

If people could be saved by keeping the old covenant law, there would be no need to preach about Christ’s death. For the Jewish people, the idea of Jesus being executed by crucifixion was an offence - a stumbling block. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Even today, it makes no sense to people to hear about "the cross". How can a dead criminal, hanging on a Roman cross, save anyone? Jesus looked down from the cross and said: "Believe in me and I will save you." But many still respond: "I can save myself, thank you very much. I don’t need anyone’s help. I am worthy enough. I do good things. I am kind. I prefer being with my friends." A rejection like this may not be a person's last chance but stumbling blocks and spiritual blindness need to be removed and that only happens through prayer.

If we know of people for whom Jesus' death is a stumbling block rather than a beam of hope, then we need to pray and believe for them. We need to take them in the courts of heaven. We must ask the Holy Spirit to show us what has caused them to respond in such a way. We have to reject any judgements of our own that we may have made and ask the Father for His mercy and intervention in their lives. We have a responsibility to ensure that others do not make wrong choices in their lives. (Galatians 5:7-12)

Paul asks a very simple but profound question of the Galatians: "Why would I still be persecuted, then? If I were preaching that old message, no one would be offended if I mentioned the cross now and then — it would be so watered-down it wouldn't matter one way or the other." (Galatians 5:11-12 - The Message version)

Why are we challenged, shunned or persecuted for sharing God's word with people? For the same reason that these things happened to the apostle, Paul. He refused to water down his message in order to make it palatable for all religions and belief systems. Perhaps the question that should be asked is this: "If we are not being challenged, shunned or persecuted for sharing God's word, are we being effective in the way we reach out to people (friends, acquaintances or people we have never met before) or are we compromising in our conversations with friends, colleagues, shop-keepers or any with whom we come into contact, day by day?

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