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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Liberty (2)

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LIBERTY.—Christ and His first disciples clearly regarded liberty as an essential of the highest religious life. He begins His mission at Nazareth with the words of Isaiah that His work was ‘to set at liberty them that are bruised’ (Luke 4:18). By His contrast of the Mosaic law with His own ‘I say unto you’ of Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:28; Matthew 5:39, He declares His disciples to be free of the ancient law; their worship no longer fettered by place (John 4:21); their very Sabbath, which had held them together in the Captivity, an institution to be sanely used for any kind of good work and any sinless pleasure (Mark 2:27, Matthew 12:8, Luke 5:1-5). New wine-skins must be made for the new wine (Mark 2:22, Luke 6:38). The disciple must hold himself entirely at liberty from the things of the world for the world’s sake; he must stand ‘with loins girded about and lamp burning’ (Luke 12:35), unhindered by multitudinous possessions (Luke 12:15), not anxious as to the lesser matters of clothing, food, and shelter (Matthew 6:25, Luke 12:22), taking ‘no bread, no wallet, no money,’ whereon he may come to depend too much (Luke 9:3; Luke 10:4, Matthew 10:9, Mark 6:8). If the rich young man would be perfect, he must learn to be the free master of his riches, not their slave, even though he may have entirely to disperse them in order to assure himself of his spiritual liberty (Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22). In all things the disciple must be absolutely free for his mission, and ‘leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (Matthew 8:22, Luke 9:60). His utterance itself must partake of the same liberty, not crippled by the slow movement of the intellectual faculties, but made vivid by immediate contact with the Holy Spirit: ‘Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate beforehand how to answer’ (Luke 21:14, Mark 13:11, Matthew 10:19). Christ promises that the disciple who prizes His word shall come to know the greater fulness of truth, and that revelation shall liberate him; he shall no longer be a bond-servant of sin (it would be impossible, having once seen the light); he shall be free with all the liberties of sonship (John 8:32; John 8:34-36).

Jesus Himself exhibits the surprises which the ‘law of liberty’ (James 1:25) has within it. He tells of the master who, finding his servants alert and faithful, flings conventionality to the winds, ‘girds himself, makes them sit down to meat, and himself serves them’ (Luke 12:37). He tells His host that it were a higher thing to dare to invite, not his relatives and wealthy friends, but the poor, the lame, the blind, who could never recompense him (Luke 14:12). In dealing with the woman taken in sin,* [Note: Although no part of the correct text of John 8, the Pericope Adulterœ probably embodies a true reminiscence of an incident In our Lord’s ministry.] He takes the course of the moment, as novel as it is searching in its free way (John 8:1-11). The cruse of precious ointment is looked at as the symbol of an affectionate impulse, more to be valued than a calculated act of philanthropy—selling and giving to the poor (Mark 14:5, Matthew 26:6-12, John 12:5). Pharisees are startled at His frank intercourse with publicans and sinners (Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30; Luke 15:2). In vain He likens the liberty of the Spirit to the wind ‘that bloweth where it listeth’ (John 3:8); few can understand the variety of the workings of the Divine Spirit in man, Wisdom only being justified by ‘all her children’ (Mark 11:19, Luke 7:35), to the confusion often of those who cannot comprehend a John the Baptist abstaining and the Son of man ‘eating and drinking.’ There are times when Christ seems deliberately to lead His hearers, and especially the formalists among them, into problems that find no solution in ‘the Law,’ but that compel an exercise of liberty of judgment, as in the ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ (Luke 20:25, Matthew 22:21), ‘the baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?’ (Luke 20:4), and the question, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day, or not?’ (Mark 3:4, Luke 6:9; Luke 14:3). The principle of true liberty, as our Lord taught and lived it, would go far in encouraging the believers in ‘the reunion of Christendom,’ especially such a command as ‘Forbid him not: for he that is not against you is for you’ (Luke 9:50).

That the Apostles so understood Christ can hardly be questioned. Throughout the NT liberty (ἐλευθερία, and its even more confident form ἐξουσία) runs as a golden thread, distinguishing the New Dispensation from the Old. There is the same joyous exercise of the power of a new life that Christ foretold. The writers have met one of the deepest problems of philosophy (man’s freedom of will), and have boldly pronounced upon it. St. Paul has no hesitation in asserting man’s natural liberty in the light of the spiritual liberty now made known through Jesus Christ. He claims the right (ἐξουσία) of free action in the common affairs of life, in food, in marriage, in the pastor not necessarily labouring manually, but sharing in material provision in return for his spiritual toiling (1 Corinthians 9:4-6; 1 Corinthians 9:12 bis), just as St. John will claim for the purified soul the same liberty (ἐξουσία) of approach to the tree of life and entry by the portals of the eternal city (Revelation 22:14). Perhaps this particular word is most suggestively used in 1 Corinthians 8:9 ‘Take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling-block to the weak,’ i.e. lest the very strength and assurance of the new-found liberty may lead you to flourish it boastfully, thus courting temptation yourself, and perhaps ruining the weaker brethren, who, seeing you able to join in certain practices unharmed, will be tempted to copy you, to their own hurt. It is clear that in the first days liberty was fundamental with the Christian. Each man has to ‘work out his own salvation’ (Philippians 2:12), to be ‘fully assured in his own mind,’ to ‘give account of himself to God’ (Romans 14:5; Romans 14:12). Christians are the free citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, children of liberty (Galatians 4:26). For abiding freedom did Christ set them free (Galatians 5:1), calling them into liberty (Galatians 5:13). Henceforth no Mosaic veil of past traditions, laws, rites, can bind them. When Moses is read, it shall be with no hindering timidities (2 Corinthians 3:15 ff.) of the letter, but in the reverent freedom of the spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6-8). The disciple feels himself freed from that yoke ‘which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear’ (Acts 15:10). The Law has but led into a larger world, in which is prized ‘the liberty which we have in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:24; Galatians 2:4). The escape has been from the bondage of a religion of fear into the liberty of a faith that discerns in God the Eternal Fatherhood (Romans 8:15). So St. Paul prays that the word may have ‘free course,’ may run (Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ) (τρεχῃ), spreading the gospel abroad with a free unhindered spirit (2 Thessalonians 3:1), and leaving each worker to develop his own methods (1 Corinthians 9:1) and rules of conduct—‘Why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience?’ (10:29). But this does not imply licence. That his liberty is Christian implies a limitation. He is to be ‘as free, yet not using his liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the bond-servant of God’ (1 Peter 2:16), having no part with those worldly ones so ready in ‘promising liberty while they themselves are bond-servants of corruption’ (2 Peter 2:19). He knows that he will be judged in his speech and conduct by the law of liberty which has taken the place of the ancient law (James 2:12). Being made free from sin he is still a servant, but of righteousness, a ‘servant to God’ (Romans 6:18; Romans 6:20; Romans 6:22), and from the ‘bondage of corruption’ has entered into the ‘liberty of the glory of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21). This liberty has been the exchange of a hateful for a precious bondage. If you were actually a slave, you are now ‘the Lord’s freedman,’ if you were free, you are now ‘Christ’s bond-servant’ (1 Corinthians 7:21-22), and that service is the ministry of the brethren, a bondage into which St. Paul boasts and glories that he had brought himself (1 Corinthians 9:19). He has found a new law in place of the ancient prohibitory ‘law of sin and of death,’ and this ‘law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ has made him free (Romans 8:2). The practical comment of the Apostles upon this doctrine of the Gospels indicates also the immeasurable indebtedness of Christianity to that principle of liberty with which Christ inspired His disciples.* [Note: The various terms used, and the many English equivalents, will be found fully treated in Hastings’ DB, artt. ‘Free,’ ‘Freedom,’ etc.]

See also artt. Free Will and Necessity.

Edgar Daplyn.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Liberty (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Monday, November 11th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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