December 13, 2013

Cover Feature

What color is freedom?

For some, freedom is represented by a flag or a slogan embraced by those seeking to escape oppression.

For some, freedom is the color of money: silver, gold, pastel banknotes; black, gold, or platinum credit cards.

People rarely see in the Bible anything that looks like the color of freedom. More and more people see the Bible as nothing but gray text that tells stories of people who seem stale, bland, and one-dimensional.

The Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne penned a bitter assessment of the impact of Jesus: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has turned grey from thy breath.”

Wrong. Wrong on two counts. Jesus wasn’t pale: a Jew, He was bronzed from traveling outdoors. And everywhere He went He brought the brightness of hope and freedom.

More Than a Word

In 1960 Noelene and I, just married, arrived in India. We were ready to change the world. The nation, just 13 years independent, was still giddy with the taste of freedom.

One day, with another missionary, I sat in a large public gathering in the city of Indore in central India. We had come to hear Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of free India. Dressed in a distinctive jacket with customary red rose in the lapel, Nehru spoke in Hindi.

Among the audience of perhaps 5,000, my colleague and I, the only foreigners present, must have stood out. Suddenly Nehru paused, looked in our direction, and switched from Hindi to English. After a few sentences he reverted to Hindi.

Inspired and guided by Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru had brought India to freedom. He and Gandhi had done so not by forming an army and fighting battles but by putting into practice principles from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They taught their people to fight force with submission—when beaten, to turn the other cheek.

On August 14, 1947, on the eve of India’s birth as a free nation, Nehru addressed the Constituent Assembly. In one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, he said: “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge. . . . At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.”

So the Union Jack came down, and the flag of India went up—saffron, white, and green. Colors of freedom.

Jesus set people free in mind, body, and spirit.

True Colors

For people in other lands, freedom comes in red, white, and blue, and in a host of other colors.

But not in gray. I know of no gray flag on the face of the earth.

Nor is gray the color with which Jesus of Nazareth paints the world. Study the four accounts of His life—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and you won’t find a gray Jesus. He set men and women, girls and boys, free; free to sing, to laugh, to live a new life.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind,” wrote the beloved John (John 1:4). And Jesus Himself said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

You wouldn’t get that idea from the behavior of many of Jesus’ followers over the course of the centuries. Jesus has been poorly served by a church that set out the ideal life as one of asceticism, self-denial, and withdrawal from society. To this day the evil one perpetuates Swinburne’s lie, portraying Jesus, the freedom bringer, as sucking the joy out of life, crushing individuality and creativity.

What a travesty of the Jesus who walked the paths of Galilee long ago! Only by stripping off the accumulated rubbish of the centuries and getting back to the Jesus of the Gospel accounts do we discover Him as He truly was. As He truly is.

The Message and the Mission

Early in Jesus’ ministry He laid out His message and mission. One Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth, when invited to read the Scripture passage for the day, He turned to the book of Isaiah and proclaimed:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).

As the eyes of all in attendance fastened on Him, He stated: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21).

Consider the thrust of the passage that Jesus quoted: good news; freedom; recovery of sight; release of the oppressed; the Lord’s favor. The words glow with hope and vibrancy. Its message is new beginnings, hope. A message of freedom.

Jesus of Nazareth lived this message. “He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

Jesus set people free in body, mind, and spirit. He was the liberator, the freedom bringer.

Jesus and the Sabbath

One Sabbath as Jesus teaches in the synagogue, a woman with curvature of the spine is among the worshippers. For 18 years she has been bent over at a right angle, unable to raise her head to the sky.

Jesus notices her and calls her forward. Putting His hands on her, He says, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity” (Luke 13:12). Immediately the woman straightens up and praises God.

But not everyone is happy at the miracle. The ruler of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus healed the woman on the Sabbath, admonishes the people: “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath” (verse 14).

What blindness! What a perversion of genuine worship!

Jesus promises the ultimate freedom.

Jesus doesn’t spare him. “You hypocrites!” He says. “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?” (verse 15).

Jesus’ reasoning cuts to the bone: In the name of keeping the Sabbath, they were treating animals better than human beings.

The Gospels record seven Sabbath miracles of Jesus (John 5:1-15; Mark 1:21-28; 29-31; Mark 3:1-6; John 9:1-41; Luke 13:10-17; Luke 14:1-4). Not one of the people healed was an “emergency” case. Like the woman with curvature of the spine, they could have waited one more day. The man by the pool had been paralyzed for 38 years (John 5); the beggar in Jerusalem had been born blind (John 9). Why not wait until after the Sabbath was over?

But why should they? They were in bonds, and Jesus had come to set people free. He would not put off their liberation by one more day.

Ultimate Freedom

While debating with the religious leaders of His day, Jesus made a stupendous claim: “If you hold to my teaching, . . . you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31-36).

The Jews retorted that they’d never been slaves of anyone. Most people today would give a similar response.

But all of us—no exceptions—are in bondage to habits that keep us in chains. Some of us to chains of alcohol, tobacco, drugs, overeating. Others to habits of mind that drag us down—worry, greed, lust, pride, envy.

The past tyrannizes us: we all have messed up, done and said terrible things. We’ve failed to do what we ought to have done.

The present tyrannizes us: we are anxious about our health, our jobs, our kids.

The future tyrannizes us: how shall we stand amid the fearful times that are coming on the earth?

But Jesus assures us: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” He is the liberator, the freedom bringer. He came to set us free: free from the bonds that enslave us, and free to limitless possibilities of joy, growth, expanded horizons.

“There is no limit to the usefulness of one who, putting self aside, makes room for the working of the Holy Spirit upon his heart and lives a life wholly consecrated to God,” wrote Ellen White. “All who consecrate body, soul, and spirit to His service will be constantly receiving a new endowment of physical, mental, and spiritual power. The inexhaustible supplies of heaven are at their command. Christ gives them the breath of His own Spirit, the life of His own life. The Holy Spirit puts forth its highest energies to work in mind and heart. Through the grace given us we may achieve victories that because of our own erroneous and preconceived opinions, our defects of character, our smallness of faith, have seemed impossible.”*

And Jesus promises the ultimate freedom: from death and its terrors. By His own living among us and dying on the cross He vanquished the power of the ancient enemy. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14, 15).

Only when we know how to die can we know how to live. By freeing us to face death, Jesus frees us to truly live.

Hallelujah, what a Savior! Jesus the liberator, the freedom bringer!

No, Swinburne had it all wrong. The truth is just the opposite:

“Thou hast conquered, O strong Galilean; the world has turned free from Thy breath.”

* Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), p. 159.