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  • Writer's pictureKathy Berry

Free to Obey: A Message of Liberty

But when the fullness of time came, God sent out His Son, born of a woman and born under law—to free those under law so that we might receive adoption as sons (emphasis added, Gal. 4:4-5).

The apostle Paul taught the Galatians the parameters and purposes of God’s laws using the Jewish literary style of parallelism. (cf. 4:4-5). Parallelism represents one of many Hebraic tools. Generally used in poetic language, it connects ideas by consecutively placing similar statements, using words or phrases that expand or clarify the concept. So, looking for these patterns in Jewish literature is important for understanding the topic better.

In today’s passages, we discover its use: (1) “God sent out his Son … born under the law;” (2) “to free those under the lawreceive adoption as sons.”

Notice the highlighted parallels between these consecutive verses. The directional cues “sent out” and “receive” are parallel, showing God’s relational intent. This language provides a rhythm of movement. Then, “under the law” is used in two ways. The first indicates that Jesus, as a native circumcised Jew, is subject to Torah-defined behavior (cf. Gal. 5:3; Rom. 5:3).[1] Paul makes the point elsewhere, using circumcision as a synecdoche for “Jewish people” and again as a word play for Jews (in the flesh) who behave as though they are not under the law—in an uncircumcised way, that is, hypocritically (Rom. 2:25-29).[2]

The second appearance of “under the law” represents the law’s condemnation. In other words, laws have the power to judge a crime. Here, Paul defines the limit and purpose of God’s laws. He continually shifts the status of being “under the law” as circumcised Israelites and freedom from condemnation “under the law” through circumcision of the heart, becoming adopted sons. Both conditions point to the expectation that being in this family means obedience to God’s commands. Obedience isn’t the condition for membership, but it follows. The Son offers sonship and freedom from the convicting power of the law.

Brothers, you were called to freedom—only do not let your freedom become an opportunity for the flesh, but through love, serve one another. For the whole Torah can be summed up in a single saying: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not destroyed by one another (emphasis added, Gal. 5:13-15).

Freed from the condemnation of God’s laws, followers are set free to obey them. This statement sounds paradoxical, and in a way, it is. How does freedom from under the law make possible obedience to the law? This question poses a couple of dilemmas: (1) the seeming juxtaposition of law and freedom in these passages; (2) the use of “under” to describe accountability to God’s laws.

Since we are called to freedom, no longer experiencing the condemnation that comes with sin, we are free to walk in the blessings of God’s household. Still, this family has behavioral expectations—toward Father God and one another. We walk freely, knowing that the law provides wonderful boundaries. Nothing is more confusing or upsetting than being in a group without knowing how the group functions. Once we understand how to behave, we easily serve one another. Hence, “freedom” in Galatians 5:13a is expanded to include “service.”

The last part of the above verse is intriguing in its construction: “Loving your neighbor as yourself” contrasts with “biting your neighbor destroys yourself. These are opposing parallels; the implication is that benevolence blesses the giver as much as the receiver, but the opposite is also true. We harm ourselves when we harm others. Harsh words, rash judgments, and angry outbursts have consequences. If not immediate, these actions, over time, demolish fellowships, devour our joy, and break down our immune systems. They also carry spiritual ramifications.

We are all required to obey society’s civil laws. There are consequences when we break the law. Nonetheless, they are beneficial for relationships and civil society. God requires his children to behave loyally and morally. When we make him preeminent in our lives, loving others follows. In remembrance of this season of independence when Americans came together, throwing off the yoke of servitude to a foreign power, let us likewise throw off the bonds of divisiveness, becoming servants of one another in Messiah, Jesus.

[1] Mark D. Nanos, Reading Paul within Judaism (Eugene, OR.: Cascade Books, n.d.), 145.

[2] Ibid.

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