What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
–Galatians 4.1-11 (NIV)
When I was a young boy I idolized my grandpa Shaffer. I wanted to dress like him, talk like him, act like him. In fact, my desire to imitate my grandpa got to the point where it earned me the nickname, “Little Earl,” after my grandpa’s first name. And those of you who are old enough to remember Beatlemania can relate to this. During those heady days teenagers dressed like the Beatles, tried to talk like the Beatles, and boys wore their hair like the Beatles (primarily, I suspect, so they could get as many girls as the Beatles).
All of this points to a spiritual reality. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does the spiritual world abhor a spiritual vacuum (cf. Luke 11.24-26). We are creatures made to worship, and as Paul points out in today’s lesson, we will end up being “slaves” to something or someone (i.e., we will end up worshiping something or someone) and those who think otherwise are just fooling themselves. The question, then, is to whom or what are we going to be a slave? Who or what will we worship? On Friday we looked at the plight of the human condition, which reminded us that too often we humans choose to be a slave to almost anything other than God.
Don’t be put off by Paul’s use of the word “slave.” He is simply referring to the fact that we all choose to be owned by something or someone. Many of us choose to pursue wealth or power or fame. Just look at the explosion of YouTube videos, some quite shameful and which seek only to bring a fleeting moment in the sun for the poster, if you don’t believe me. Others of us seek prestige or the ability to control. Others prefer to pursue human knowledge as our god. Still others of us make ourselves to be god; we pride ourselves at being rugged individualists and self-made persons. But none of this can bring real life or raise us from the dead. In other words, none of this can completely satisfy our deepest human needs and desires and Paul would call our pursuit of these things “slavery” to them.
So what does all this have to do with today’s passage? Just this. In the previous chapters of Galatians, Paul has sought to combat the effect of the Judaizers on the church of Galatia. They apparently had been teaching the false doctrine that believers were saved not by the grace of God in Christ but by their ability to follow a bunch of rules and regulations.
In other words, the false teachers were trying to make it all about the Galatians rather than Jesus (and unfortunately they’ve had a lot of company since then, even to this day).
Here Paul is reminding them that they are choosing to be “slaves” to the wrong things. “If you want to really be free–free from the deadly effects of human sin, free to be truly human the way God created you to be, free to love God and others with all that you are–then you have to choose to be a slave to the right Person. You have to choose to be a slave to Christ,” Paul is telling them (and us).
What does he mean? Simply this. We have to become “Little Christs.” If we really love Christ, we will want to imitate him and do the things we know really pleases him, just the way I loved and wanted to please my grandpa Shaffer. What should be immediately apparent is that this frees us from having to follow a bunch of rules for their sake.
Sure, if we intend to follow Christ and be his disciples, we will have to be disciplined in our behavior (discipline and disciple have the same root). We’ll want to pray regularly and read our Bible everyday. We’ll want to gather with other folks who love Jesus to worship and praise him for setting us free from the power of sin and death by dying for us on the cross and bearing our rightful punishment for us. But these are means to an end, not an end themselves, and if we really understand what God has done for us in Christ, we will want to do these things because we know it pleases him and he desires that we pursue holy living.
Wanting to follow Jesus will have other implications for how we live our lives as well. For example, instead of taking revenge on those who wrong us, we will choose to show them mercy. Instead of insisting on our own way and wanting to be in control of things all the time, we will consider the needs and desires of others and acquiesce to those needs and desires if we know they are not harmful to us or the other. We will choose to pray for our enemies instead of cursing them. We will strive to end injustice where we see it, and to the extent we are able. And we will seek to ask God to show us his will for us each day and strive to do what he asks us to do, no matter how hard it is because we love him and are grateful for the gift of life he has given us in Jesus.
When we see Christian discipleship through this lens, it is tremendously freeing. Yes, we will have to put to death those things in ourselves that are unholy, but that is for our good. Yes, we will have to deny ourselves from time to time (perhaps regularly). Yes, we will have to live for Christ and others instead of ourselves. But we will want to do these things because following Jesus is more than trying to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules in the hope that it will make us right and acceptable in God’s eyes.
It won’t. Only by the blood of Christ are we made acceptable in God’s eyes and if that offends you, please do ask Jesus to help you get over it because it will kill you if you don’t.
Being a disciple of Jesus is a wonderful and joyful thing. We are free to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). We are free from the fear of being alienated and separated from the Source and Author of all life, both here in our mortal lives and for all eternity. We are free from being moralistic and legalistic bean counters. By the power of the Spirit, we are free to reclaim and embrace God’s image in us so that we can be truly human.
Does that mean that therefore anything goes? Hardly. Neither does it give us the liberty to rewrite what Scripture says in terms of what it means to be “holy”–only God can do that. Rather it means that we believe God really does love us and really does want to have a relationship with us. It means we are free to love him and do our best to imitate him with the help of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of the day, we can have confidence that despite our mistakes, despite who we can sometimes be, despite our body of sin that weighs us down so heavily at times, despite the weight of our worldly problems, we can look forward to hearing these words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25.34).
You will never hear sweeter words in all your life.
If you are someone who is seeking real life and real truth, if you are seeking to live your life with meaning, purpose, and power but are hesitant to follow Jesus because you’re afraid you’ll have to follow a bunch of rules and turn into some kind of a prig, consider seriously what we’ve just talked about. Not only will you find you are mistaken in your understanding of what it means to follow Jesus, you will discover all that your heart yearns for and desires. Then you will understand that being a slave to the Lord of the universe is the most freeing thing you will ever do.
Do you really want to be free? Then take the chance. Follow Jesus. Discover a freedom that will blow your mind.