Over 130 years ago on July 4, when the Second Continental Congress issued a declaration to the British Crown: We hold these truths self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…In essence, the Second Continental Congress declared their liberation from the British Empire.
The Bible itself is a book that at its core is a universal story of liberation. While it is not a declaration of independence—it is a story of freedom. It is a story that starts with humanity living in true freedom, but quickly sliding into a world of self-centeredness. That self-centeredness turned toward its natural regression into idolatry, self-indulgence, jealousy, suspicion, hatred and division. Underlying all of it all was the World Hater—the Accuser and all of his demonic associates. We know him as Satan.
Throughout the Old Testament we see the story of liberation unfold as God moves to counter act the fall of humanity into the kingdom of the World Hater. He calls Abraham to become the Father of a nation through whom all the nations would receive the blessing of liberation. He creates the nation from Abraham’s descendants through a mighty act of liberation we know as the Exodus in which the gods of Egypt are shown to be no-gods. And God calls these former slaves to enter into relationship with him. When he gives them the Law he does not start with “Do this,” “Don’t do that,” he says: “I am YHWH your God who delivered you from slavery in Egypt.” In other words, he starts with the relationship. Unfortunately, time and again the people of God forget the relationship and end up going back into the slavery of worshipping the no-gods—of falling into their self-centered ways. The ways of the World Hater.
Eventually, most of Israel is assimilated into the pagan culture of Assyria and the people of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi are dominated by Babylon and led into captivity. Although they return from their exile after 70 years, the Jews never considered the exile really over. In a world dominated by Greece and then by Rome—the Jews of the first century still described themselves as being in exile. When Messiah comes the nations will be overthrown and Israel will rule over all—and the righteous dead will be resurrected.
And in a way they never could imagine, God brought about his act of deliverance—the one he spoke about when he told Abraham the Nations would be blessed through his descendants: the death of the Messiah, on a cross, and his resurrection. Through this act of God the exile was finished, liberation was accomplished, and freedom was available—not just for the Jew, but for all nations.
But what does this mean? What was God doing? What does it mean to be free? Quite simply God has freed us from the powers: the powers of the cosmos, the powers of exclusion, the powers of guilt and death.
When I say the powers of the cosmos, I am using Paul’s language in Galatians, Colossians, and Ephesians. These are demonic powers, spiritual forces of darkness, the powers of the World Hater—the essence behind pagan idolatry. Listen to Paul in Colossians 2:13-15,
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.In Galatians 4:3, 9 Paul speaks of being under the slavery of the “basic principles of the world”—or the powers of the cosmos. In Ephesians 2:1, 2 Paul speaks of how the Ephesians used to follow the “ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient…” This is a world dominated by fear and uncertainty; held under the sway of the World Hater. The way people try to escape this fear is through superstitious rituals, selfish indulgence or perhaps even denial of the spiritual world.
Then there are the powers of exclusion. The world of the first century was a world of exclusion. There were the Greeks, Philosophers, trade guilds, Cynics, Epicureans, Jews, Samaritans, slave and free: noble and low born. It was a world where people were kept in their own enclaves—you don’t associate with some people, and if you did—it was only briefly and because it was absolutely necessary. Part of the problem Paul was dealing with when he wrote Galatians was this attitude of exclusivity. It wasn’t so much the Jews didn’t believe in grace. It was they felt for Gentiles to receive grace they would have to become Jews—an exclusive group marked out by certain foods, dress, and circumcision. When Paul confronts Peter—he is not confronting him over legalism—he is confronting him over his exclusiveness. Of course we don’t have that problem in our world, do we? There’s not a problem with the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. There are no problems between LULAC and the NAACP—we don’t have skin-heads, or people abusing others because of their ethnicity, country of origin, or culture, do we? When 9-11 hit, no one defaced Mosques or make threats against Muslims in our country did they? We love the French, right? And politics? Democrats, Republicans, and Independents only debate philosophy—they don’t attack each other’s character, do they? Are you getting the point? We often laugh at the cliquishness we see in schools as silly—but they are only a microcosm of our world today. The labels are there—just different names.
What about the powers of guilt and death? If you live any length of time—you find yourself struggling with regret and guilt. We’ve all hurt people, done things we wished we hadn’t, said things we can’t take back, and thought things that would embarrass us if they were ever revealed. And to make matters worse, as we get older the more we become aware of our temporality. We will all die and be forgotten. And when we face death we face death knowing we cannot change history. There is no way to undo any of the evil we have done.
But this is where the good news of liberty breaks in! God through Jesus has set us free from these powers. By the way, these powers are really only one power: the power of Satan, the World Hater—the power of sin and death. When Jesus died, he freed us from the grave—he guaranteed death is not final. Not only will our bodies be redeemed—liberated from death, but the world will be liberated! Romans 8 tells us, we and the world groan waiting for our resurrection! One day all of this will be made new. In so doing, he also offered complete forgiveness from all of the evil we have done or planned. Furthermore, in Christ, the walls have been torn down—Paul tells us in Galatians 3:28: “…all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us that through Jesus—the walls of hatred have been broken down. There are no first and second class citizens, no Jew or Gentile. But all have been made into one new humanity. Culture no longer can divide—social status, sex, politics, and nationality are no longer the markers of our identity. We are now one because of a suffering servant.
The gods of this world have been proven to be powerless. Whether the idols are actual deities worshipped throughout the world, or whether they are just reflections of our lust for power, money, or pleasure. Jesus disarmed these spiritual forces of darkness—freeing any who would trust him from the will to power and freeing us from being the center of the universe.
But there is more! God did not just free us from all of this—he freed us for something. It is what he freed Israel for. It is what Adam and Eve had in the beginning: knowledge of God. Oh, not intellectual knowledge—or touchy-feely emotional attachment. God has invited us into a relationship with him: he invites us to be his children—to know him as Father. That gives us the freedom to embrace all who were once our enemies. As Croatian Miroslav Volf points out, it gives him the freedom to embrace the cetnik—the Serbian fighters who had wreaked so much havoc and violence in his native country in the early 90s. It gives us the ability to embrace our difficult relatives, our nosey neighbors, the people who have different values than we do. It allows us to love and to invite others to a common table and to share a common meal—even with those who will not love or accept our offer. This relationship with God frees us to serve and love the one who rejects us. Instead of demanding our rights and our ways—we take the route of Jesus: suffering service. We are called to give the gentle answer to the harsh word, to wash the feet of the one who we know will betray us, to forgive the very ones who crucify us as they are in the very act.
This freedom is not for the faint-hearted! It is not a freedom from pain and suffering. It is not the freedom to selfishly pursue my own happiness. It is the freedom to love; a freedom from exclusion, demonic power, guilt and death—but a freedom that calls us to embrace, serve and love.
How was your Independence day celebration? Today is our celebration of liberty! Every Sunday we gather to remind ourselves what we were freed from and what we were freed for. So may you recognize God wants you to be free. May you experience the freedom for your pettiness, self-centeredness, and selfishness. May all of your idols be torn from your heart, may you be freed from your guilt and the fear of death. And may you go forth now as a true patriot of the cross. May you embrace your freedom and go out and serve, love, and embrace.