Why did Jesus die? Part 4: Freedom
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5.1a)
Have you ever heard the expression, ‘to lord it over someone’? In our contemporary culture, outside church circles, the word lord comes with quite a bit of baggage. It smacks of an unhealthy patriarchy where over-lords subjugate with male authority. And even in the church, as we make Jesus Christ our Lord (with a capital L), we tend to use the word in the sense that He has the ultimate power and authority. Yet, for both Christians and Jews alike, the word Lord, contains a deeper and more significant meaning.
The word Lord, when used to describe Jesus, comes from the Greek word ‘kyrios’, which is synonymous with the Hebrew word ‘adonai’, which in turn was the word used when the Jewish People encountered the name of God written as YHWH (that we pronounce Yahweh or Jehovah), and this God of the Jews is connected primarily with one thing, and that one thing is liberation.
For example, here is how God identifies him/herself to Moses just before issuing the ten commandments:
“I am YHWH (the Lord) your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20.2-3)
It is important that we understand just how central the Exodus was to the Jewish people. They worshipped the god Yahweh, not just because Yahweh was powerful or holy, but because Yahweh liberated them from captivity. They were literally a community of freed slaves and Yahweh, the Lord, was their liberator.
As the Exodus was central to the Jewish People and central to their scripture, the celebration of The Passover — the climactic event that led to their liberation — was the central memorial or festival of their year. In the same way, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to Christians, central to our scripture, and Easter — the climactic event that leads to our liberation — is our central memorial or festival. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, directly made the connection between Yahweh and liberation from sin that was to come, when he said this about Jesus,
“Praise to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and set them free.” (Luke 1.68)
Therefore, it is no coincidence that Jesus’ death and resurrection took place at the festival of the Passover because the Lord who liberated the Jewish people from the Egyptians is the same Lord that liberated us from our sin. We are a community of freed slaves to sin, and the Lord Jesus Christ is our liberator.
As a liberated people, Christians not only re-tell the Christian story on an annual basis, but also re-tell the Christian story on a weekly basis. It is why the majority of Christians worship on a Sunday, because Jesus rose again on the first day of the week, and as Christians gather, the Passover meal has been augmented with a new memorial, instituted by Jesus, that we call Holy Communion — for in the same way that the blood of a lamb rescued the Israelites and atoned for their sin, the blood of Jesus rescued us and atoned for our sin. At Holy Communion, the altar of sacrifice is replaced with the table of fellowship, and the flesh and blood of the lamb is replaced with the body and blood of Jesus — the bread and wine of thanksgiving.
In the same way that the Jewish people gave thanks and celebrated their liberation from captivity at the Passover, so we, at the Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) give thanks and celebrate our liberation from sin and death. It is why, for many Christians, communion is the central or climactic act of worship. When we eat the bread and drink the wine we give thanks for our liberation — our salvation.
On the eve of his crucifixion, when Jesus celebrated passover with his disciples, taking the cup of wine he said these words,
“Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26.27b-28)
Importantly, the Greek word rendered as ‘forgiveness’ is ‘aphesis’ which means ‘release’. It is not only that our sins are forgiven, we are literally released from them! Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we are led on a new Exodus, not from enslavement to a nation, but from sin itself.
This is why the writers of the New Testament often use the language of redemption.
To redeem something literally means to rescue something by buying it back, and a slave could be redeemed through literally buying their freedom — and it was costly. The payment for our freedom was Jesus Christ; through the costly giving of himself, he bought us back. It is why Peter can write,
“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1.18-19)
And even Jesus understood it in these terms:
“For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)
This ‘freedom’ perspective on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is important because it reminds us that, contrary to popular belief, we were all slaves to sin. It was not that we were fundamentally good and temporarily lapsed, but that we needed saving. No matter how hard we tried, we could never buy our own way to freedom; by our own efforts we could never be redeemed. No matter how many rational and good decisions I make, I can never, even for a single day, live without sinning — without putting myself first, before God, others, and the environment. Even if I do or think nothing, I can sin because of my apathy and indifference to the suffering or needs of others and the world around me. It is why Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that there is nothing he can do about his sinful nature and says,
“Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7.24-25a)
It will take more than reading or listening to this insight to fully consider the awesome implications of this confession of the human condition, and what this freedom from sin means for us. Personally, I am still grasping just how deep and wide the redeeming love of Christ is for both myself and all humanity, but when I get glimpses of it, I sing with all my heart:
My chains are gone, I’ve been set free
My God my Saviour has ransomed me
And like a flood, His mercy rains
Unending love! Amazing grace!