It is hard for us to understand an urban context where every third or fourth person you passed in the streets was a slave. But this was the social situation in the cities where Paul planted churches and a significant number of new Christians were slaves or former slaves. When Paul wrote his letter to the churches in the cities of the Roman province of Galatia (probably Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium), he uses the categories of slavery and freedom to sharpen the force of his message.
The unusual language of 5:1 ("The Messiah has made us free for freedom") probably finds its origins in this slavery-freedom social context. Deissmann drew attention to the parallels.1 Because slaves could not engage in legal activity, they could not purchase their own freedom. To avoid this problem society made it possible for a slave to provide money to a particular temple and its god (e.g. Apollo). Once the slave had paid enough, then the owner would sell the slave to the god, with the purchase money paid by the god to the owner. The slave became in effect the protégé of the god, but in the view of society, he or she was free. In one inscription at Delphi we read "Apollo the Pythian [a god] bought from Sosibius of Amphissa, for freedom, a female slave, whose name is Nicaea….The purchase, however, Nicaea hath committed unto Apollo for freedom".2
Previously in Galatians Paul has emphasized Jesus’ purchase of people through his death at the cross (Gal. 3:13 "Christ has purchased us from the curse of the law"; 4:5 "in order that he might purchase those under law"). Paul describes these people as being enslaved (4:3 "when we were minors, we were enslaved under the elements of the world"; 4:9 "how are you converting again to the weak and impoverished elements, to whom again once more you desire to be enslaved?"). The Hagar/Sarah typology that Paul uses in 4:21-5:1 builds on the contrast between Hagar and her son, who represent slavery, and Sarah and her son, who represent freedom. So whether Paul uses language such as "under law, under sin, under a custodian, under a steward, under the elements of the world" he means the same thing – our slavery to sin. In such state no one has the power to release himself or herself.
Jesus, in a way that is somewhat analogous to the Greek gods, steps in to purchase our release. He provides the price necessary to gain our release. The twist in this scenario comes when we realize that we contributed nothing to this price, in contrast to the human patterns of a slave purchasing her freedom. Rather, Jesus has paid the full price himself and this required his sacrificial death and suffering at the cross. We had received the full curse that comes from disobeying God’s law. Jesus took upon himself our curse and suffered all of the consequences in our place.
The result is our freedom. As we accept this gracious gift from Jesus Christ through faith, we become free from all of sin’s consequences. Jesus has bought us. The purpose of his act is so that we can enjoy freedom as his protégé. Our freedom is not to be used for selfish purposes, but rather as representative of Jesus. As Paul declares so clearly, "Christ is now living in me." (Gal. 2:20)
There is another part to this analogy that is important. Once a slave secured her freedom in this way, she could not be enslaved again. Strong prohibitions were made against such a practice. So when Paul affirms that the Galatian believers are thinking about becoming slaves again to their former master – sin, law, weak and impoverished elements of the world", no wonder he is absolutely astonished. No human slave would stand for such re-enslavement! It would be resisted and condemned out of hand. Yet this is their imminent action.
Paul uses this significant legal and social process of sacred slave redemption to define what Jesus has accomplished at the cross, as well as the position of the Christian. The believer is now the freedman of Jesus, with concurrent obligations.
Jesus intends his purchased followers to use their new status as the opportunity "through love to be slaves to one another". (Gal. 5:13) In this way they fulfill the second command to "love their neighbours as themselves". It is so hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around this model of life. The things that our general social context uses to define ourselves and our significance are so different. Innate selfishness corrodes the desire and the design, so that we end up functioning in a self-serving mode. We truly need the power of God’s Holy Spirit to guide us to true change and expression of the Jesus’ way, to be completely Jesus’ freedmen, but using our freedom in the service of others.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- give thanks to God for your freedom from sin’s slavery. Consider the ways you are using your freedom in Christ to serve others in love. What can you do to improve your service?
- try to define how your status as Jesus’ protégé influences the way you view your life, your vocation, your priorities, your relationships.
- Identify the temptations entering your life that have serious potential to damage your ability to be Jesus’ protégé. What needs to change in the way you exercise leadership, the way you relate to your spouse or children, the material you choose to read or view?
- 1. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978 repr.): 323ff.
- 2. Ibid., 323.