Whenever I think about freedom, I think about William Wallace. Is it because I have Scottish blood running through my veins? Maybe. Is it because of Braveheart (one of the greatest ‘guy’ movies ever)? Maybe. I like to think it is because the story of Scottish liberation from the tyranny of the English is powerful, beautiful, and thrilling. I like to think it is because the imagery of a small revolutionary movement, spear-headed by a single passionate leader is what I long to see happen in the church. I hope it’s also because freedom is something that is full of beauty, hope, and trust.
Galatians 5:1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This little sentence has been the cause of a great many problems even though it was meant to be the solution of a great many problems. You know the old saying, “Give them and inch and they take a mile”? This is how many feel about Galatians 5:1. Why did Paul give them an inch? Why did he not call the Galatians to follow the ten commandments? I think that this is a wonderful starting point in our journey about law and grace.
The problem with beginning at Galatians 5:1 is that it is near the end of the letter to the Galatians. To get a good sense of what is happening we must understand the context from which this verse comes, both historically and literarily.
Where do we begin? Let’s begin with the situation to which Paul was writing. There was a significant Jewish minority in the region of Galatia, stemming from the fact that approximately 2,000 Jewish families were forced to relocate to the region in the second century BC. As the Galatian converts, whether Jew or Gentile, were coming into contact with the large Jewish minority they were facing questions that needed answers. The key question being in reference to what it meant for a person to be included in the community of faith.
This historical setting is critical to coming to an understanding of what is happening in Galatians 5:1. The community of faith wanted answers. These answers were not coming from the reality of the crucified messiah but from a Jewish tradition that did not always line up with grace. The general answer that this little group of Galatian converts were receiving was that to be in the community of faith you are to do certain things and not do certains things. This was a law that brought guilt, shame, and dishonor to most that sought to uphold it.
The literary context of 5:1 is also important. In Galatians 4 Paul has illustrated the difference of being under the law and under grace by comparing Hagar and Sarah. Following his brief discussion on freedom he moves on to look at the practical outworking of being a Christ follower in the second half of chapter 5 and chapter 6.
This issue of freedom is important because Paul is juxtaposing it against living under the law and equates is to living under grace. Therefore, we must grapple with what Paul is saying in 5:1 and come to some conclusions. We will pick this up tomorrow, so that the posts don’t get too long.
James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1999), 213.
Paul Barnett, Behind the Scenes of the New Testament, (InterVarsity Press: DownersGrove, IL, 1990), 175–177.