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!