Freedom and slavery in antiquity were social and legal terms primarily, defining the relative worth and status of specific individuals. People normally aspired to be free people, as well as to possess the privilege of citizenship. These were the social and civic categories that provided greatest worth in the eyes of Greco-Roman society. Slavery, by contrast, generally carried a stigma and people in this category were property, not persons, able to be bought and sold and used at the discretion of their owner. Sometimes we discover this terminology used religiously, particularly as various people describe themselves as slaves of a specific deity.
Paul in his letter to the churches in Galatia vigorously attacks a perversion of the Gospel. Some Jewish Christians were teaching that non-Jewish Christians had to adopt the practices of Judaism (i.e. Sabbath observance, circumcision, dietary regulations) in order to participate fully in the blessings God promised to Abraham. To combat this distortion of Christian truth, Paul uses, among other arguments, the categories of freedom and slavery. Throughout the letter the Christian experience is defined by means of these two opposing, yet integrated concepts.
First, Paul assumes that every human being is enslaved to what he terms are "weak and miserable principles" (4:9). While some would give these principles divine status, Paul refuses, describing them as "those who by nature are not gods" (4:8). Yet they have sufficient power to enslave all human beings so that all labour under their "yoke of slavery" (5:1). This enslavement finds expression in "the desires of the sinful nature" (5:17). The result is that people "are sowing to please their sinful nature", something that brings about their destruction (6:8). There is no humanly-based power that can free people from this slavery and evil oppression. The whole world "is the prisoner of sin" (3:22)
Second, it is the action of God the Son, the Messiah that brings us opportunity for freedom, to know God and be known by Him. The Messiah’s personal self-sacrifice at the cross creates for us the opportunity to gain freedom from a life that is cursed. He defines it as a divine rescue mission (1:4). As people put their confidence and trust in the Messiah’s work for salvation, God eradicates their guilt and condemnation. He makes and declares them innocent, fully just. He proves this by placing His Holy Spirit in the very core of their being, their heart (4:6-7), granting them the right to claim to be His sons.
Third, this action by God and a person’s acknowledgment and embrace of it enables the individual truly to be what God created that person to be. Paul at the end of his letter describes this as the "new creation" (6:15). We become a spirit-led (pneumatikos 6:1-2) person, as the life of the Messiah finds expression in our lives (2:20-21). Such people are transferred from enslavement to evil and destruction, to freedom in God’s kingdom, where they can enjoy blessing. As new creations they enjoy and exhibit the "fruit of the Spirit", faith working itself out in love for God and for other people.
But this leads us, fourthly, to the wonderful anomaly that this new faith-based freedom also puts us into a new faith-based slavery. Our desire is to please God, not ourselves. Our energies are focused on "sowing to the Spirit", following His agenda, not our own. For Paul this means that he is the "slave of the Messiah" (1:10). Out of this primary relationship to God and the Messiah — a sonship that is also a joyous, obedient, life-giving slavery — comes the ability and desire to "serve one another in love" (5:13). We are not freed by the sacrifice of the Messiah in order to pursue selfish goals, but rather our new freedom gives us the opportunity to work for the one true God. We are God’s partners, the hands and feet of the Messiah in this world, energized by God’s Holy Spirit.
To be the slave of the Living God is not demeaning, it is liberating! Elsewhere Paul uses the metaphor of ambassador as a way to explain our new relationship (2 Corinthians 5:16-6:1), being "God’s fellow-workers." We struggle with this language of slavery today because in our culture to be a slave is considered demeaning. Slaves have no personhood, no future, and no power. There is nothing glorious about slavery in our world. Yet Paul would argue that being the slave of the Messiah is the only way for any human being to recover true personhood, to possess a real future, and to possess real power. The secret to this lies in the reality that followers of Jesus have a relationship with the Living God, "who is at work in us" (Galatians 2:8) for service (ministry).
What does Paul offer as deep motivation for us to persevere in our faith-based slavery? I think Paul would focus on the fact that such a person is on God’s side, with all that this reality promises. He refers to the "blessing of Abraham" (3:14) that replaces the curse of the law. He is almost ecstatic at the very thought that the Messiah lives within him and this makes him "an heir according to the promise" (3:29). What is this inheritance, if not eternal life itself? The fundamental motive is a relationship with the Living God. His Holy Spirit works inside us to enable us to contribute to God’s agenda of peace, love, joy – the very essence of goodness – for humanity. As we immerse ourselves in this new, willing slavery, we discover a wholeness and restoration that comes only through this relationship with God.
In the ancient world the desire of most slaves was to gain freedom. In Galatians Paul gives us the way to escape from our spiritual slavery and to gain the freedom God provides in a new covenant relationship with Him. This is the true Gospel. Some seek to alter this good news and substitute false ideas which nullify the effect of the Messiah’s sacrificial death. Let us with Paul declare the only Gospel that has the power to free us from the death grip of evil.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- consider how the truth of freedom in Jesus converges in your life with the calling you have as the "slave of the Messiah";
- define what your freedom in Jesus will allow you to do today that is different from people outside of the Gospel?
- discern patterns of slavery in the lives of unbelievers that you know. How can you help them discern their slavery and be motivated on this basis to seek Jesus’ help?