Of all of the words in the English language, the word freedom is one that may be the most open to interpretation. Freedom is often identified by a defining word placed in front of it: political freedom, religious freedom, personal freedom, etc. In these contexts, freedom deals with the concept of an expression of belief that is not restricted or controlled by anyone else. Or, as Webster’s Dictionary explains in its first definition: “the absence of necessity, coercion or restraint in choice or action.”
Freedom is often mentioned as a goal, even by opposing sides of the same issue. In America, freedom in regards to religion is a stated goal for those that practice a faith (freedom of religion) and those that do not consider themselves believers (freedom from religion). Freedom of religion comes from the belief that one should be able to put their beliefs into action with the utmost conviction. Those who don’t subscribe to a certain faith see this freedom in a different light; to them, religious freedom is the ability to follow their convictions without another’s belief system imposed upon them.
When looking at the scriptures on the topic of freedom, there are multiple examples using the words free, freedom, and even freely to describe an action. It is with this concept of freedom that we truly notice the context of the Old and New Testaments. The context where freedom is used in the Old Testament is very much literal. Much of the early recorded existence of the people of Israel throughout the books of Genesis and Exodus, they were enslaved by the kingdom of Egypt. To be a slave in this context was to the have every freedom taken from you: freedom to choose your living, your family, your home, and even your own state of mind. Moses, an unassuming leader, was chosen by God to help make good on delivering the Jewish people away from slavery to freedom in a land of their own. It is important to make a distinction here that the concept of being a slave in biblical times is not always the same. Most slaves in biblical times were workers that were indebted to someone and had no way of repaying except with their own labor. Once they paid their debt, they were released from their status as slave and were once again free. But sometimes, as was the case of the Israelites in Egypt, slavery took a turn for the worse, and reflected more of our horrific present-day slavery where people are taken unwillingly from their homeland, away from families, to the other side of the world to be used as property. It’s good to recognize the context and type of slavery in each Bible passage and understand that the meaning of slavery can be notably different from one chapter to the next.
“Freedom was a slippery thing for the new church, hard for the new believers to grasp and understand.”
The concept of both slavery and freedom in the New Testament is more spiritual in nature. There was still literal slavery during the beginning of the Christian Era, but the words of many of the writers of the New Testament reflect freedom from behavior that would get in the way of true happiness. These behaviors at the time included, for example, literal idolatry, the worshipping of false gods and beliefs. This is similar to the things that many in the world today place in high regard, such as loving material possessions more than loving our fellow human beings. Jesus spoke of this spiritual freedom many times in the gospels. In one instance, when he is referring to the Son, he is talking about himself, the one that delivers freedom from a life filled with instability by providing a spiritual home in him. “I tell you most solemnly that anyone who chooses a life of sin is trapped in a dead-end life and is, in fact, a slave. A slave is a transient, who can’t come and go at will. The Son, though, has an established position, the run of the house. So if the Son sets you free, you are free through and through” (John 8:34-36 The Message). In the years after Jesus’ time on Earth, the apostle Paul went throughout most of the known world at the time to share the Good News of Christ. He knew that the language of freedom and its opposite, slavery, was a clear way to help others understand the liberating power of a relationship in Christ. “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you” (Galatians 5:1 The Message).
Rev. Kelly Chripszuk believes that the people that were forming this new church as followers of Christ related to this comparison because during the years following the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, slavery and the freedom from it was a reality for everyone. Chripszuk says that “Freedom was a slippery thing for the new church, hard for the new believers to grasp and understand. Jewish converts in particular struggled with what freedom meant, having been required to follow strict laws in all matters of their lives such as circumcision of their newborn sons, eating only kosher foods, etc. A lot of the arguments in the New Testament were over the nature of Christian freedom (as they continue to be today).”
Probably the most evident example of the freedom found in Christ and the forgiveness that allows that freedom is the parable of the prodigal son. In this story, Jesus explains in very plain terms how the acceptance of his grace can provide the stability and the comfort in good times and bad that cannot be found on our own.
Freedom is the ability make our own choices; it is when we seek God that we have the freedom to make better ones.
Jesus starts with the story of a son that sounds like any modern teenager. “Then he said, ‘There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.” So the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had’” (Luke 15:11-13 The Message).
It becomes clear that after the son has discovered that having all that money could buy and the freedom to answer to no one, he realized that it is not all that it seems to be. He decides to go back to his father broke and broken, with nothing to his name, only asking to be a worker for him and not as his son. His father does not see someone who can earn his good graces because it would be impossible to do so. But he welcomes him back fully and gives him more than he deserves. “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time” (Luke 15:22-24 The Message).
As mentioned earlier, the concept of freedom is an idea that many people with different backgrounds seek and agree is a goal, even though the reality of freedom may manifest itself differently according to each situation. Rev. Chripszuk adds, “In my opinion, freedom is a fairly terrifying state for humans, particularly if we don’t believe in (know with certainty) God’s love for us, that we can trust God and that grace prevails over all. So, even when we get free, we automatically seek to attach to something else, even if it’s just nice ideas about God or good behavior or a certain church or teacher we like.” Freedom is the ability make our own choices; it is when we seek God that we have the freedom to make better ones.