Word Study #103 — Free, Freedom

August 5, 2011

Despite the protestations of popular hymnody and preaching, Jesus himself never connected the idea of “freedom” with either his death or his resurrection. It was the mission announced in his “inaugural address” (Lk.4:18), and his identity as the King of Kings, that authorized him to set his people free!

Actually, Jesus referred specifically to being “free” on only three occasions: a discussion with prospective disciples (Jn.8:32-36), a conversation with Peter about the tribute-tax (Mt.17:26), and in Mt.10:8, using a different word, instructing his disciples not to make any charge for the service to which he had commissioned them.
Even Paul, who is so widely (mis-)quoted in various retributionary theories about Jesus’ accomplishments, never makes any such correlations with “freedom.”
So it is appropriate that we lay aside the baggage of song and story, and investigate, “What does the New Testament say about Jesus’ very important provision of freedom to the people of God?”

The primary words with which we are concerned are the adjective, eleutheros, “free”; the verb, eleutheroo, “to set free”; and the noun, eleutheria, “freedom, liberty”.
The noun form, classically, referred to manumission (the formal release of a slave), to political victory, or to thanksgiving for such liberation.
In addition to those ideas, the verb included the clearing of an entrance or passage, the release of a debtor or prisoner, or acquittal in court.

The adjective could apply to anyone who was not a slave, to the status of favored cities in the Roman Empire, and to anything or anyone that was unencumbered, or legally permissible.

Of the 23 New Testament uses of the adjective, 17 are simply in contrast to cultural slavery. In agreement with Jesus’ instructions, Paul does not seem to think that questions of social status matter very much. In I Cor.7:20-22, he simply advises, “Don’t let it bother you. But if the opportunity arises to be released, by all means, take it!” He repeatedly asserts (I Cor.12:13, Gal.3:28, Eph.6:8, Col.3:11) that social status must make no difference whatever in the brotherhood, in terms of either responsibility or privilege.
Of the 11 uses of the noun, four refer to the Jewish law (two in the verb form), and one to one’s “lower nature” (four in the verb), while three refer to the indulgence of one’s human nature. Both of these are also labeled “slavery” (douleia) or “bondage/imprisonment” (desmos). The verb only appears 6x.

It is important to consider, then, from what the Lord’s people are “set free”, how this is accomplished, and to what end, or for what purpose freedom is granted.

Here, Jesus’ discussion in Jn.8:30-36 is normative. Notice that he is speaking (v.30) to “the Jews who had become faithful to (trusted) him.”, but saying that in order to be his disciples (W.S.#51), they need to “continue” or “remain” (meno – W.S.#58) in his word (W.S.#66). This will result in their becoming acquainted (gnosesthe— W.S.#29) with the truth (#26), which is then represented as the agent of their being set free (v.32).The substitution of “the Son” (v.36) as that agent foreshadows Jesus’ statement in Jn.14:6, in which he asserts that he is himself the personification of “the Truth”.
To their protests that they have “never been slaves” – Come on guys! Have you forgotten Egypt? Or the present occupation by Rome? – he explains that slavery (v.34) also exists where people habitually choose their own ways above God’s instructions.

Paul picks up the same theme in Rom.6:16-22: one must simply decide whom or what he will obey. “Freedom from the law” does not mean flaunting all regulation, but rather, subjection to a much higher law, which James calls “the perfect law of freedom”! (Jas.1:25, 2:12). “Freedom/liberty” is not personal autonomy that grants a license to “do your own thing” regardless of its effect on anyone else. It is the privilege, by enlisting in Jesus’ Kingdom, to learn to “do his thing”! This is the true “land of the free and home of the brave!”

The same idea appears throughout the letter to Galatia, with regard to the Jewish Law. In both cases, the call is to freedom from oppressive slavery, whether to one’s own whims or to a detailed legal system, into what Paul terms (Rom.8:21) “the glorious liberty of the children of God!” Or, as he put it in Col.1:13, from the power of darkness, into the Kingdom! Discipline and discretion do not inhibit, but rather enhance true freedom!

It is also significant that people – as well as all creation – need to be set free from their “natural condition” – whether (Rom.8:12) simple mortality (“decay”), “natural things” (Gal.4:8) (animism?), enslaving power systems (Gal.4:9), or “the flesh” (human nature) (Gal.5:13, I Pet.2:16). One’s natural inclinations are not acceptable excuses for unacceptable behavior, but slavery, from which any genuine representation of the Good News offers release and freedom!

How is this deliverance to be accomplished? By “continuing to live in my (Jesus’) word”(Jn.8:31); by “acquaintance with (him who is) the Truth” (Jn.8:32); by “the Son setting you/us free” (Jn.8:36); by the sovereign decree of the king (Gal.5:1); by “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom.8:2); by “presenting your/our selves to him for obedience” (Rom.6:18,22); and with the help of the brotherhood into which we are “baptized into one Body” (I Cor.12:13) – the Body of Christ!

And to what end is all this directed? “The glorious liberty of the children of God!” (Rom.8:21). This liberty enables people to “become servants/slaves to each other, out of love,” (Gal.5:13); “as free people, not using freedom as a cover-up for wrong, but as God’s slaves” (I Pet.2:16); as Paul testifies, “For although I was free from all, I made myself a slave to all, in order that I may win more” (I Cor.9:19) – the only genuine “evangelism”.
Best of all, this freedom does not entail the forcible abuse or subjugation of any person or group; no compulsion, no destruction of life or livelihood. Everybody wins!
Remember that “Where the Lord’s spirit is, there is freedom!” (II Cor.3:17) may well have been written from jail! By a man who saw himself as incredibly free!
“Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty with which Christ has set us free! And don’t be subjected again to the yoke of slavery!” (Gal.5:1) ANY kind of slavery!

Basically, freedom from all other bondage or obligations enables Kingdom living, after the pattern established by the King.

“If the Son will set you free, you will actually be free!” (Jn.8:36)
Thanks be to God!

Word Study #102 — The Way

August 2, 2011

In the last study, we considered Jesus’ primary call to prospective disciples: simply to “follow” him. Once that choice is made, however, questions remain, even – perhaps especially – for folks seriously committed to faithfulness. “Following” usually assumes that one is going somewhere. Where are we going? How shall we get there?
In asking this, we are in good company. The early disciples were just as confused as we.

Perhaps the clearest understanding of the use of hodos, “the way”, among early followers of Jesus can be gained from an examination of his conversation with Thomas and Philip, recorded in John 14:1-16. Both disciples are thinking in concrete terms: “If we don’t know where we are going, how can we get there?” indicates that Thomas is focused on a destination (as are so many today, who can think of no goal but “getting into heaven”), and Philip is focused on an official “introduction” – or maybe some sort of high-powered “spiritual experience” – with the Father – “the really BIG guy”. Jesus, recognizing that both have totally missed the point, gently corrects them. “I AM the Way”, he explains. “It’s not about going anywhere, Tom – it’s about sticking with me!” And “Phil, open your eyes and look! Don’t you get it? All that I AM, and all I’ve been doing, shows you the Father!” The critical key to this whole discussion is Jesus’ use of “I AM” (See W.S.#17)

The point he is trying to make, for them and for us, is that he himself is not only the Leader and Guide, but also both the journey and the goal! And to this end, he makes use of a very ordinary word, in an extraordinary way. Although there are nine other words also translated “way”, none used more than twice in the New Testament, they add nothing of significance. “Hodos”, used 83 times in the New Testament, is the one that deserves the focus of our attention.

Classically, hodos was used in three primary ways: of place : a road or highway, or the course of a river; of action : a trip, journey, or sea voyage; and metaphorically: of one’s culture, manner of life, intent, method, or system. With prepositions, it could indicate (with pro) “on the way, forward, profitable, or useful”, (with kata) “along the road, or by the way…”, and with a prefix (parodos) – only a single NT use – “along the way.”
20 of the NT uses refer simply to a physical road or pathway, and 15 to a trip somewhere, although some of these may fall into both of those categories.

The 8 references to “preparing the way”, although describing the actual road construction that was done in honor of a conqueror or royal personage (remember that first century Roman road-building rivaled modern highway construction, and lasted longer. Some of those roads are still in use!), clearly intended more far-reaching preparations, as intimated in Lk.1:76-78 and later references to the ministry of John the Baptist. The goal is not just a smooth highway, but “a prepared people, ready for the Lord.”(Lk.1:17)

Most significant for our purpose are the “metaphoric” uses of hodos. References to a way of life, or cultural norms, may be seen in Mt.10:5, Ac.14:16, and Rom.3:16, speaking of the behavior of “the nations” (W.S.#62), or of unfaithful individuals (Ac.13:10, Jas.1:8, 5:20; II Pet.2:15, Jude 11), as well as in a more positive sense: “the way of peace” (Lk.1:79, Rom.3:17), “the way(s) of God” (Mt.22:16, Lk.20:21, Ac.18:26, Rom.11:33, Heb.3:10, Rv.15:3), “the way of righteousness/justice” – W.S.#3 – (Mt.21:32, II Pet.2:21), “the way of life” (Ac.2:28), “the way of salvation” – W.S.#5 – (Ac.16:17), “the way of truth” – W.S. #26 – (II Pet.2:2, 2:15).
But even these pale in comparison to the transformation effected by the Lord Jesus.

The crucial statement referenced above in John 14, is preceded by another: “You all know the way where I am going.” (v.4). Not only had they been watching and participating in Jesus’ “way of life” and conduct for the past three years, but he had continually been trying to prepare them for what lay ahead. Although he had warned them repeatedly of the trauma of his rejection and execution by the very people who should have welcomed him most eagerly,(with none of the modern theological jargon that accompanies such subjects today), that was not the focus of these final hours.
Rather, (Jn.16), it is the benefit that would accrue presently for faithful disciples as a result of his “going to the one who sent me” (16:5), “going to the Father” (16:9), and the enabling they would consequently receive from the Spirit, to continue following the Way he had showed them

This, I am convinced, is among the primary reasons why subsequent followers became known as “people of the Way.” This designation appears all through the Acts account of the early church– from the folks Paul pursued to Damascus (Ac.9:2, 22:4, 22:14), to Priscilla and Aquila instructing Apollos (Ac.18:25,26), and even used by their opposition in Corinth (Ac.19:9) and Ephesus (Ac.19:23). These emphasize that the new movement was a way of living, not merely a “philosophy” or a “new religion” as the Areopagos Council assumed (Ac.17:19-32).

The first century Roman Empire was a pluralistic society at least as broad as our own. “Gods” were plentiful, and frequently added (for insurance?). They only required an occasional offering to remain beneficent, so nobody minded. The “powers that be” didn’t really care much what anyone “thought” or “believed”, as long as they behaved according to the emperor’s demands – which of course included accepting him as a superior part of the pantheon, and offering incense to him as well. It was transformed lives, subject only to an authority much higher than his, that they could not handle.

And that is an accurate description of “the Way.”

So really, these two studies are simply two perspectives on the same principle. To “follow” the Lord Jesus is to continue along “the Way” – in his company, according to his instructions, and toward the unity with him, with his Father, and with one another for which he prayed (Jn.17).

His “I AM the Way” is the only answer to our puzzled queries of “where?” and “how?”

May we help each other to follow faithfully in the Way.