Galatians 5:1 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.
The first verse of chapter 5 is really the final summation of all the arguments that proceeded it – going all the way back to Galatians 3:1.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set you free” The King James version of the Bible has this verse translated and phrased more like the original Greek. It says “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free.” The New International Version (quoted above) separates the phrase “stand firm” from the first phrase. But the original Greek ties it all together. We are not just to “stand firm,” but to stand firm IN the freedom Christ provides. This might seem to be “niggling,” but it is in keeping with the overall theme of the book – we cannot “stand firm” by a mere act of our will, or by our own efforts, but only by being “in Christ,” in a living RELATIONSHIP with Christ.
The word “freedom” here means many things on many levels. The implication here, the ultimate meaning, is complete and total liberation from the bondage of the law and, as Paul will explain in more detail in Chapter 5, from the bondage of sin. But there are further subtleties here. Just like “freedom” in English, the Greek word for “freedom” can mean many things, and the interpretations of the word in both languages have parallels.
There are three basic meanings for “freedom” in Greek, and all three apply here:
1) Freedom as in choice – the most common understanding of this word is the ability to do or omit things that have no relationship to salvation. By using this particular word (rather than a derivative, like the word for “free” later in the first phrase of this verse), Paul (or better yet, the Holy Spirit through Paul) is actually helping to emphasize the underlying theme of the unimportance of culture, race, or ethnicity as defining factors in our relationship with God and with each other. All of the arguments made so far in this letter have focused on the concept that it is unnecessary to conform to the requirements of the law of Moses (in other words, to become a Jew and adopt the culture of the Jews) in order to be saved, or be acceptable to God. True freedom, then, is the ability to choose to worship God in any manner that is fit. Style does not matter. The key factor is to be a child of the promise (as Paul pointed out in the previous section where he compared Hagar to Sarah), that is, truly born again. The place, manner, and “order” of worship is really not relevant to salvation. Our lifestyle choices do not matter either (unless they are “contrary to the Spirit” as Paul will emphasize later in Galatians 5: 16-26).
2) Freedom as in license – the freedom to do as we please. Of course, this is not the antinomianism discussed back in Chapter 3 – this is not a license to sin. Paul makes this clear as a major theme here in Chapter 5. But, freedom from the law, and the bondage of sin, brings a new exuberance to our relationship with God. Call it a license to serve, a license for joy, a license to open up your heart and relate in authenticity – the sky’s the limit. Freedom in Christ has no boundaries (again, not in the sense that we are free to sin, but that God’s possibilities in us and through us are limitless!).
3) Freedom to be responsible; freedom to be obedient. This is true freedom. This is a melding together of the first two definitions. It is the concept of living as we should, rather than just as we want. This is explained in detail later in this Chapter, in verses 13-26 – that is, the death of our sinful nature, and our new life in the power of the Spirit. This is often confused with legalism. Some argue, “How can you say you’re free, when you insist on a code of behavior, like refraining from the list of “sinful desires” in Galatians 5?” It’s really not a matter of do’s and don’ts. Once we are filled with the Spirit, the transformation of our lives in our relationship with Jesus produces virtue – and frees us from the bondage of these “sinful desires.”
While an inexact comparison, this is sort of like the United States Constitution. Under the Constitution’s text, we are guaranteed specific rights and liberties. But it also requires that we live responsibly so as not to violate those rights in other people’s lives or society generally. It is this second principle that is lost on most Americans.
The word “free” at the end of this sentence/phrase implies deliverance. We have been set free from the bondage of sin, and the law – from the dominion of sin.
“stand firm” A command, and a warning. The implication is that this freedom can be lost, or at least impinged upon. It implies that we have to fight for this freedom -- that we need to be aggressive about it.
“do not let yourselves” The primary meaning and understanding of the word “freedom” involves choice. Paul is imploring, indeed, he is commanding that we not make the wrong choice.
“be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” A yoke was a heavy piece of wood that held a team of horses or oxen together to work as a team. An individual is helpless to move against the force of the yoke, for where the group is led by the master, the individual is compelled to follow. In a positive sense, a yoke would be used for an untrained animal, to teach it what to do, to train it, and then remove the yoke once the animal was properly accustomed to the work (e.g. in Matthew 11:29, when Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”). The obvious implied meaning here is the “yoke” of the law on the Gentiles. Peter spoke of a “yoke” in the same manner in his speech at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:10-11. But in the context of Galatians 5, Paul means all of this, but so much more.
The word for “burdened’ here also means to be trapped, ensnared, or entangled. Picture an insect caught in a spider’s web. This is more than assenting to a concept – it is a force that will engulf and destroy you!
“yoke of slavery” This is more than just the law. In the context of the theme I’ve emphasized throughout these meditations, it of course means race, ethnicity, and culture, and the reliance on those things to define a person’s acceptability in God’s eyes. In the context of the rest of this chapter, it means slavery to sin.
This last point is the key concept for the individual Christian – and for most of us. The little word “again” stuck in the middle of it all is so very important. Galatians chapters 3 and 4 made it clear that the promise predates and overrides the Law, and that the promise is eternal, and unconditional. But Galatians 5:1 makes it evident that even a child of the promise, and heir of the Father (see Galatians 4:1-7) can choose to live in slavery. This was the ultimate problem facing the Galatians. It is a choice I am faced with every day of my life.