This article goes with the detailed Bible study for June 19 which covers the Bible readings found in the inter-denominational Revised Common lectionary. The story of Ejijah’s flight to Horeb, the demonised man in Gadara who was wonderfully set free, and the confusion going on the the Galatian church tell us about three ways in which we need to be set free.
See The Living Word study June 19: God’s Order Brings Freedom from Oppression for small groups which takes a deeper dive into these same Bible passages with commentary and questions for reflection.
Elijah faced a new threat to his life. He needed God’s PHYSICAL deliverance which would have saved him a long journey. He also needed EMOTIONAL freedom from his sense of failure. Following his participation in a huge spiritual victory, the devil was doing battle in his mind and he needed freedom from lies that had started to rule him, to get back to God’s call on his life as a prophet.
The demon-possessed and outcast man in Gerasa had a miserable, outcast existence overtaken with uncontrollable violence. But Jesus saw Him with different eyes, and how he needed SPIRITUAL DELIVERANCE from a host of demons that had taken over his life.
Closer to our own situation, the teaching given to believers in Galicia was to take hold of their FREEDOM IN CHRIST from the religious legalism of their Jewish Christian friends, who were trying to make them follow rules that no longer applied now they had made Jesus Lord of their lives.
Some verses from Psalms 43 and 44 helpfully set the scene for us.
…My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
I say to God my Rock, “Why have You forgotten me? Why must I go about… oppressed by the enemy?”
Vindicate me, my God… Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked. You are God my stronghold… Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour and my God.
These are not Elijah’s words, but they echo what we know of Elijah’s feelings following his courage in helping to bring a spiritual victory, and then such a spiritual attack in his thought life, he felt a failure, defeated and fearful. Which of course was not true. What the devil puts in our minds is never true. But it can be difficult to deal with. Elijah was facing a real enough death threat from someone who had put plenty of God’s worshippers to death already, which is where the Bible story in 1 Kings 19 starts:
1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.
2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
3-5 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.”
6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”
8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he travelled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.
9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
11 The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
15-17 The LORD said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.”
1 Kings 19:1-15a
Elijah now knew that he wasn’t a failure, and he had heard God afresh and received a new and strategic commission — to put God’s anointing on a new king, no less –- that would in time bring great change.
Now we move forward to the New Testament time with Jesus and we meet someone who is so messed up he had to live as a naked, violent outcast. Nobody loved him. Nobody came near him. And nobody could help him. Until Jesus, a Jew, was led by God to visit this non-Jewish region of Gerasa on the far side of Lake Galilee.
This wasn’t one of God’s chosen people. He was beyond help and beyond redemption in every way — except that Jesus saw him differently. He saw what he could become. Here’s the story from Luke chapter 8:
26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee.
27 When Jesus stepped ashore, He was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs.
28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at His feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do You want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!”
29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.
30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him.
31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.
32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and He gave them permission.
33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34-35 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.
35-36 When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured.
37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So He got into the boat and left.
38-39 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with Him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
There’s a big shift in understanding God, from Elijah’s time forward about nine centuries to when Jesus was ministering on the Earth.
Elijah had to hide in a cave and pull his cloak over his head because he knew he couldn’t see the holiness of God and live. After some dramatic signs, he heard God speak to him in a whisper. Then he returned to where he had come from with new directions.
People who met Jesus could see what God was like. That was part of his role. He was revealing God and His salvation in ways that ordinary people could grasp.
There’s another step shift in understanding as we come to the early church, the first believers who are learning to live as those who belonged to Christ. They were all on a spiritual growth journey, led and enabled by His Spirit. That should be our experience, too.
But if we are bound up spiritually, we cannot grow. Too often, church teaching tells us what we should believe and how we should live, but offers no help in doing it. As believers in Jesus, we should enjoy a spiritually-enabled walk with Him where He helps us lay down our obstructing baggage from hurts and hindrances in past life.
However the believers known as Galatians — like many in churches today — where being bound up again by the expectations of some in the fellowship who were not themselves free, and were putting their mistaken religious ideas onto others. Elsewhere in this letter (and in Romans) Paul is very direct in teaching that as believers in Jesus, we are not under law but under grace — if we are being led by the Spirit, we are not under law. We are not trying to satisfy God’s holy requirement of us, but living in the freedom and grace of knowing the One who has already met that requirement for us.
This is how he explains this freedom in this short Galatians 3 passage:
23-25 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
26-27 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
New life in Christ is not exchanging one set of rules for some new ones. It’s a confidence about being accepted by Jesus as we are, belonging to Him and walking with Him in the present. It’s the assurance of knowing we have the promise of eternal destiny with Him without having to tick any religious boxes or earn favour in any way.
It doesn’t mix with a religious approach which substitutes keeping rules for living in a personal relationship. New life is under the new and much better covenant. Who wants to go back to the Old Covenant way of doing your best, which is never enough, and coming to God by proxy.
In conclusion, Old Testament stories like Elijah’s do teach us about God and His freedom but they don’t teach us the whole story. Similarly, the gospel account of the demon-possessed man teach us about how Jesus has freedom for everyone in every kind of situation. But it’s the believers in the new church in Galatia we find easiest to relate to. Like many Christians in church today, they faced confusion and muddled teaching about whether belonging to Christ is about a good record of religious obedience, or about trusting Him in a relationship. The Bible’s consistent teaching is about the need for personal faith and personal relationship with God through Jesus.
Medieval beliefs which persist in some churches today present an alternative and false route of salvation through the church and its sacraments. In every age we have needed setting free from the grip of religion, and encouragement to trust the freedom and assurance we gain through taking the step of faith in Christ Jesus where we invite Him into our hearts and follow His lead.
And every day it’s good to be reminded of the good news of Jesus Christ — that He has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, has paid the price for our sin, made a way for us to know God our Father personally and intimately, and given us His Spirit to keep teaching us and enabling us and leading us in the good ways that He knows.
The world, our selfish flesh, and the devil and His lies, are always trying to confuse us and bind us up and make us feel failures or guilty or fearful. We see this illustrated in all three of these stories. and the best part of this Good news is how God is always at work to save us, deliver us, free us and enable us -– when we think we deserve it, and especially when we know we don’t. Thank You, God, for freedom in Christ!