“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 NIV
What has Christ freed us from? What is this yoke of slavery that Paul speaks of?
Taken in context of Galatians, Paul is referring to the demands of legalism. The issues Paul is specifically concerned with are circumcision (as part of salvation), and special religious observances (as part of salvation). While discussion of the law and how much is still in force are major dividing points in the church, this is not what I want to address at this time (though I promise to do so again, soon). Simply put, the legalism that we have been freed from is any extra-biblical requirement placed upon us, meant to make us more acceptable to God. Circumcision was being demanded for gentiles as necessary for acceptance by God. This was very contrary to the gospel. The gospel taught that salvation and acceptance by God had nothing to do with the conditions, actions, or nature of the person saved. Salvation and acceptance by God was tied to the nature of God and his sacrificial acts to secure salvation.
Paul commands us to not let ourselves be burdened with a yoke of slavery. For modern readers this doesn’t have nearly the impact experienced by our ancestors. To us, slavery is something alien. It is a word that we throw around in a way they would have laughed at. We speak of being a slave to our jobs, or other modern conditions. In ancient times when two groups went to war, the conquerors could do whatever they chose with the conquered. If the Romans chose to enslave the population they would build a “yoke.” This was made of three spears: one on each side and a third tied above as a cross bar. Those being enslaved would walk through this structure. You entered one side free and came out the other transformed into a slave. This was “submission to the yoke of slavery.”
The thing to keep in mind is that everyone enslaved in this way, chose slavery. Yes there were other ways to be enslaved that didn’t involve choice—such as children sold into slavery or found abandoned on the town dump—but when Paul speaks of letting ourselves be burdened with the yoke of slavery it is this ceremony of conquest that he has in mind. By walking through, they were choosing slavery over death. The conquered could choose to fight on and die, or could choose slavery.
When Paul tells us not to submit to a yoke of slavery, he is saying: “Do not choose to walk through into slavery.” We are to resist the legalists. We are to choose a spiritual fight rather than surrendering to those who would enslave us to their legalistic false gospel. Submitting to legalism in the name of peace is not a virtue. When the ancients chose to walk through into slavery, it was seen as proof of their lack of virtue. Such people were believed to be slaves by nature. A person of virtue, one truly fit for freedom, could never choose slavery. Any person not a slave by nature would have to be killed to end the struggle.
We Christians, freed by Christ, must resolve never to be enslaved again. We were set free by Christ, and it is time we demonstrate our place as Christ’s Freedmen. We do this by resisting the demands of the legalists. We do this by refusing to allow any, other than Christ, to place rules and burdens upon us. If we allow any other to burden us then we have chosen to walk through the yoke of spears into slavery. We demonstrate that we are not fit for freedom, but are by nature slaves.
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