BY PASTOR GARETH on October 18, 2017
Freedom is a central issue for the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. As I have indicated elsewhere, the situation is so dire in Galatia that Paul is pulling no punches in his counterarguments against the Judaizers who are insisting that the Gentile Galatians must be circumcised before they can be true members of the New Covenant in Christ. For the Galatians to accept this, according to Paul, would be returning to slavery, and a slap in the face to thefreedom we have gained through Jesus Christ (5:1). To support his point, Paul writes a masterful defense of his position through an allegorical understanding of the story of Sarah and Hagar in the Old Testament (Gal. 4:21-31; cf. Gen 16ff.)
The Jews of Paul’s day would have made the argument that they are the legitimate children of Abraham (and thus the true heirs of both Old and New Coventants) through ethnic heritage. This heritage would be traced all the way back to the birth of Isaac. Ishmael is representative of all ethnic groups born outside Israel (esp. “Arabia”) and therefore those who do not belong. Paul turns this line of argumentation on its head. The Judaizers in Galatia would have agreed with the symbolic associations Paul outlines here: Hagar = slave, Ishmael (son of flesh – that is, human effort), “Arabia”, earthly Jerusalem; Sarah = free, Isaac (son of promise – that is, God’s doing), “Israel”, and heavenly Jerusalem. But Paul does 3 important things here to subvert the Judaizers’ position. First, he associates Hagar with the Old Covenant and Sarah with the New (something seemingly not revolutionary there, until we connect it with the next two things). Second, he intentionally mentions Mount Sinai (where the Law was given) as being in “Arabia”. Third, he intentionally calls Isaac “the son born by the power of the Spirit” (4:29) and uses this as the connecting point with the Galatians: “you … like Isaac, are children born of promise” (4:28). The promise of which Paul speaks is the promise he has been re-iterating throughout this letter: the grace of God has come to the Gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ according to God’s promises! In effect, Paul is saying “the Judaizers are actually slave children of Hagar, but you, Galatians, are free children of Sarah”. To support his point, he reminds them that Ishmael persecuted Isaac in the same way the Judaizers were persecuting the Galatians.
After this argument we see a definite shift from the indicative (stating what is the case) to the imperative (stating what should be the case) from Paul: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1, emphasis on imperatives). Notice that Paul uses the word “again”. Since the Galatians never lived by the Mosaic Law before, he must have a different form of slavery in mind. From this we can see that Paul understands freedom in Christ as the only true freedom. Said differently,everything outside of Christ is slavery. This includes our own (and our culture’s) ideas of what freedom is or should be. But Paul doesn’t stop there.
Paul goes on to say “if you let yourselves be circumcised Christ will be of no value to you at all … [you will be] obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (5:2-4). He uses some pretty strong language here. Basically, what his point amounts to is there is no room for half-heartedness in this. This is an all-or-nothing kinda deal. Either you have freedom in Christ, or you follow the Law. You can’t have it both ways. The same could be said of the other forms of slavery we often choose as human beings: either we have freedom in Christ, or we follow the ways of this world. We can’t have it both ways. Herein lies the challenge for us today.
Our enemy, the devil, is crafty and careful. He is always looking for ways to accuse us and trip us up in our journey of faith. He doesn’t want us to realize the freedom we do have in Christ, and so he will use whatever means at his disposal to distract us from it and try to steer us towards various forms of slavery: legalism, relativism, addictions, etc. Freedom in Christ is not freedom without limits, as we will see in this week’s message. As God’s children of the promise, we have been freed from the various slaveries this world has to offer. But we have also been freed to something: the freedom to love as Christ loves and live as he lived. We will explore this some more on Sunday night.
Questions for Reflection:
1) What are some of the slaveries you have fallen victim to in the past?
2) How do you think Jesus desires you to live within the freedom he has given you?