What has Freedom got to do with Idolatry?

We had a great time during this week’s creative meeting looking at how the Gospel sets you free. What does that mean? What is freedom as far as the New Testament is concerned? It seems to me there are a number of different emphases. The question is; is there one overall idea that holds them all together?
In John chapter 8 Jesus debates with some Jewish leaders who believed he was the Messiah but still defined the Messiah in terms of politics. The Messiah was the political leader, the rebel leader who would one day defeat the Roman occupiers after a guerrilla campaign that wore them down and eventually drove them out, much as a the Mujahedeen drove the Russians out of Afghanistan in the 1980s. For these Jews, freedom meant freedom from political oppression, freedom from occupation.
In contrast Jesus speaks about freedom from sin. It is their very nationalism that blinds them to who Jesus really is and what the Gospel really is. They had forgotten that God had chosen them as a nation of priests to intercede for the world. Instead they had become proud of their own heritage, proud of the Law itself, and disdainful of others. In so doing they had lost sight of God’s grace and become slaves to sin. Jesus offers them freedom.
Paul echoes this in Galatians chapter 5 where he declares “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” But for Paul, the issue is slightly different. Paul has preached the Gospel of free grace to pagan Galatians and they have responded, only for Jewish Christians to come and confuse the Galatians by telling them they need to get circumcised and keep Torah, the Jewish Law. Paul is incandescent. It is tantamount to being released from prison, only to willingly return to your cell and lock the door behind you again. For Paul in Galatians, slavery is not to sin, it is to the Law and freedom is freedom from the Law because we have died to the Law.
It seems to me that freedom from the Law is one particular example of freedom from sin. Not that the Law is sin, but that we are slaves to the Law because of sin. The underlying idea that ties together slavery to the Law and slavery to sin is idolatry. For the Jews debating with Jesus, as well as for the Jewish Christians leading the Galatians astray, the Law had become an idol. In the words of Tim Keller, the Law had become a ‘functional saviour’. It defined who they were, it gave them worth and value, it provided meaning and purpose. Again, to quote Keller, the Law, a good thing, had become an ultimate thing – an idol.
It’s profoundly ironic, that the first commandment is a ban on idols, yet the Jewish leaders had made an idol of the Law itself. It demonstrates powerfully that Calvin was right when he said human beings are “idol factories”, we can make idols out of anything, however good they might be. It makes sense too of why that other great Reformer, Martin Luther said that unbelief was essentially idolatry. Unbelievers trust something or someone else rather than Jesus. So, for these Jewish leaders debating with Jesus, their functional saviour was their Jewish heritage. God had given them the Law and they found their identity in keeping the Law rather than in the grace of God.
Now, I have to say, I find this a very practical way of talking about what freedom actually means. It is easy to declare freedom over someone when we are preaching or praying for them, but it is much more difficult to work out that freedom in practice. It seems to me that idolatry explains how we can find real day-to-day freedom through the Gospel.
Idols enslave us because they always let us down. They never satisfy us and so, having believed the lie that our particular idol really can be our functional saviour, we pursue it with greater intensity and passion until our desire for the idol consumes our lives. This had happened to the Jewish scribes and teachers in 1st century Judea who had added increasingly complex laws in their quest to keep Torah, the goal they believed would satisfy the desires of their hearts. Today, we wrestle with many different things, but they are all idols. For example, some of us belief that wealth or success will satisfy us, now both of these things are good things, but when they become ultimate things we quickly sacrifice family, children, even our health on the altar of these particular idols. Idols always oversell and under deliver.
It is only the unconditional acceptance of God’s gracious love for us through the cross of Christ that can set us free from the idols all of us worship. It is only when we realise only he can truly satisfy our restless hearts, only he is worthy of our trust and faith that we learn what freedom really means. That is why, whether we hear it from the lips of Paul or Jesus himself, it is the Son, and only the Son, who sets us free, and when the Son sets us free, we topple our idols, turn to the living God and know true liberation and deliverance.

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