Bondage and Freedom

One of the reasons I wanted to tackle this series looking at different Biblical metaphors for sin and salvation is that Western Christianity has, over the past thousand years, come to ignore a lot of this diversity. The ancient abundance of images has been replaced with an almost singular focus on a criminal justice metaphor most famously expressed in the ‘penal substitution’ theory of the atonement. As a result, many Western Christians today take for granted that this is not only the best way of understanding Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but the only way. But it was practically unheard of for the first thousand years of Christian history. Today, I’d like to consider the analogy that dominated early Christian thought: bondage and freedom.

Considering Christianity began as a Jewish sect, it should come as no surprise that the centrality of bondage and freedom has its origins in the deepest parts of the Jewish tradition. The formative event for the Hebrew people was unquestionably the Exodus, in which God acted to free them from slavery in Egypt. It was an act that was commemorated in psalms and songs and that grounded the people’s hope in later centuries, when they found themselves alternately exiled, invaded, and colonized by foreign powers. The main feast celebrating the Exodus was (and is) Passover, which recollects and makes present for the people God’s protection from the plague that finally got Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. Here’s how Exodus describes the first Passover:

Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. … You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. … This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. … The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (12.3-13)

If you are at all familiar with the Christian story, you’ll know that the Gospels all set Jesus’ death and resurrection at Passover. Matthew, Mark, and Luke set the Last Supper as a Passover Meal. John, for his part, seems to go for symbolism over chronology, and aligns Jesus’ death with that of the Passover lambs, elucidating John the Baptist’s reference to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” The connection between Jesus’ death and resurrection with the feast of Passover is so strong that, to this day, most languages in historically Christian parts of the world refer to Easter and Passover by the same name. (English is, as usual, an outlier.) With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that the first Christians understood Jesus’ death and resurrection through the lens of the Passover, as an Exodus freeing us from slavery. A crucial fact that is lost on most Christians is that the Passover lamb is not a sacrifice for sin, but a sacrifice of offering.

In the Gospels, the image of salvation as freedom from bondage is primarily found in Luke. Zechariah’s song (commonly known as the Benedictus) begins: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and set them free” (1.68). The theme is picked up by Jesus himself when he takes on Isaiah’s prophecy as his mission statement:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. (4.18)

Later, Jesus specifically refers to his healing of a woman as him “setting her free from bondage” (13.16).

In John’s Gospel, Jesus links not only salvation with freedom but also sin with bondage or slavery:

If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. … Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (8.31-36)

This image was also a favorite of the Apostle Paul. It recurs, by my rough count, forty times in the writings traditionally associated with him. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • “you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6.18)
  • “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8.2)
  • “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8.21)
  • “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Corinthians 3.17)
  • Jesus “gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age” (Galatians 1.4)
  • “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5.1)

One thing that’s interesting about this motif is that there is little consistency in who or what we are freed from. In the Law, Psalms, and Prophets, it’s usually political freedom that’s foremost in mind — freedom from tyranny. But in the New Testament, we see things like freedom from bondage to illness or injury, to sin, to death, to decay, or to the status quo. In the second and third centuries, all of these ideas about what is wrong in the world were often gathered together under the umbrella of ‘Satan,’ that mysterious figure in the Scriptures who twists truth and sows confusion and doubt. The atonement was then dramatized as a kind of Hollywood rescue caper, in which humanity is enslaved by Satan until Jesus tricks him with his humanity and overpowers him with his divinity, which shatters the chains and gates of Hades and frees us from slavery.

One of the things I find most interesting about this metaphor for sin is that it de-emphasizes personal responsibility for sin. Whereas in other images — the debt image we looked at last week or the common law-and-order image — we might simply be “getting what we deserve” because of our actions, here it’s not so cut-and-dry. Slavery is a sin, but to be enslaved is to be sinned against. This metaphor emphasizes that to a great degree we can’t help but sin in our complicated and messed up world. We are bound by the systems and structures of “the present evil age.”

We are bound by so many things; not just social and political tyrannies, but also our own psychological tyrannies as well: our public image which erases our true self, our possessions which come to possess us, our fears which keep us small, and on and on and on. The solution to this problem is freedom, from all of these things that keep us from showing up for ourselves, for one another, for creation, and for God. For some specific ways this works itself out, feel free to check out some previous posts which talk about:

7 thoughts on “Bondage and Freedom

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