Liberation from Egypt
"Let my people go, that they may serve me" (Ex 8.1).¹
The Israelites' liberation from Egypt stands as the great paradigm of freedom in Scripture. Moved with compassion for their plight, the Lord came down and redeemed the nation from Egyptian bondage — and the firstborn from the Destroyer (Ex 3.7-9). Notice again the two sides of liberty: the phrase, "Let my people go", is negative, a command that Pharaoh release them from imprisonment, while the phrase, "that they may serve me", is positive, an assertion that only in pleasing God would Israel find true freedom. Thus the Lord bore them on eagles' wings (Ex 19.4) into the land of liberty that they might worship and serve Him.
Israel remained free only when worshiping God. After Joshua and the elders who outlived him died, Israel returned to bondage. The book of Judges records cycle after cycle of ungrateful rebellion, resultant bondage, slow repentance, and gracious deliverance. Over time, however, internal bondage to idolatry required a return to external bondage to other nations (Josh 24.31).
Notice that Israel's two-fold deliverance suggested a two-fold bondage: they were slaves to Pharaoh and to sin. The Red Sea took care of Pharaoh and his armies, but only substitutionary sacrifice — the Passover lamb — would deliver the firstborn from God's wrath. By this, God showed that the negative, external deliverance from Pharaoh would never suffice, and that His people's internal freedom was His ultimate goal. Thus Moses promised a time when God would write His laws on their minds and circumcise their hearts (Deut 30.1-6). Later prophets concurred that God would eventually exchange their hearts of stone for hearts of flesh, put His law inside them, write it on their hearts, and put His Spirit in them in order to truly liberate them (Jer 31.31-34; Ezek 11.17-20; 36.24-27).
The Paradox of Freedom: Free from Sin but Slaves of Righteousness
"But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness" (Rom 6.17-18).
The Holy Spirit often uses paradox to teach parallel truths. We learn that the last will be first, and the first last (Mt 20.16). Further, the person who preserves his life will lose it, and vice versa (Lk 17.33). So Paul writes, "He who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ" (1 Cor 7.22). Even more strikingly: "You were slaves of sin…but now that you have been set free from sin [you] have become slaves of God" (Rom 6.20-22). Thus our condition before and after salvation does not change — we were slaves then and are slaves now. The vast difference arises not from changing condition, but from changing masters. Christ set us free from chattel slavery to sin and Satan in order to "enslave" us to righteousness (Rom 6.18), to God (Rom 6.22; 1 Pet 2.16), and to others (Gal 5.13). We embrace this exchange gladly, knowing that slavery to Christ is perfect freedom.
The Hebrew Servant Illustrates the Paradox
"I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free" (Ex 21.5).
The Hebrew servant foreshadows Christian liberty (Ex 21.5). After six years of involuntary slavery, the servant found himself free and facing a choice. How would he use his new liberty? He could opt for a negative liberty, and be free from external constraints. On the other hand, he could go with a positive liberty, and fulfil his righteous aspirations. Would he serve himself, or would he serve his master, wife, and children? In the end, the model servant would decide to embrace true freedom by accepting permanent bondage to his master. He was a slave both before and after he made this choice, but he now related to his master in a wholly different way: new, voluntary, loving service replaced old, compulsory, grudging service. Although no longer controlled by external rules, he now willed to control his actions by love. A person who chooses to use his freedom to serve others is truly free.
The Hebrew servant who "would not go out free" was the freest man in the book of Exodus. The Holy Spirit strategically placed this statute immediately after the Decalogue in Exodus in order to foreshadow those who would embrace the spirit of that law. His love for his master and family foreshadows the later summary of the law — to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself (Deut 6.5; Lev 19.18; Lk 10.27). The mark on his ear fully dedicated this organ of obedience — the receptacle for God's Word. For him, the law was liberty.
If Israel had adopted the attitude of the Hebrew servant, they would have remained free. They, too, should have concluded that their freest choice would be to submit to perpetual service to God.
After the elders who outlived Joshua died, however, Israel returned to bondage (Josh 24.31). The book of Judges records cycle after cycle of ungrateful rebellion, resultant bondage, slow repentance, and gracious deliverance, but, eventually, the internal bondage to idolatry required external bondage to oppressing nations once again.
May we aspire to be as positively free as the Hebrew servant, as Handley Moule described him in his hymn:
My glorious Victor, Prince divine,
Clasp these surrendered hands in Thine;
At length my will is all Thine own,
Glad vassal of a Saviour's throne.
My Master, lead me to Thy door;
Pierce this now willing ear once more:
Thy bonds are freedom; let me stay
With Thee, to toil, endure, obey.
Yes, ear and hand, and thought and will,
Use all in Thy dear slavery still;
Self's weary liberties I cast
Beneath Thy feet; there keep them fast.
Tread them still down; and then I know
These hands shall with Thy gifts o'erflow;
And piercèd ears shall hear the tone
Which tells me Thou and I are one.
To be continued.
¹ In this series of articles, unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations from Scripture are taken from the English Standard Version.