On the 4th of July the United States turns its collective gaze backwards to declaring independence and gaining national liberty for governmental self-determination, it stirs thoughts of freedom. This is one of people’s most cherished concepts, bringing with it the prospect of advancing oneself and enjoying personal blessings. While many citizens of western democracies relish political liberty, they little suspect that they are actually enslaved to a much greater tyranny: the power of darkness (Col. 1:13.) This bondage is well-illustrated by the tragic plight of the first century despot, Herod Antipas, which is recounted in Matt. 14:1-12.)
A Party At The Palace
Herod was a tetrarch, a subsidiary ruler subject to the Roman Empire but who retained political control over a portion of the land of Israel. He was wealthy and powerful, and to befit one of his station, he threw a grand celebratory soiree commemorating his birthday. The guest-list was composed of the social and political elites of his territory, as The Gospel According To Mark notes: “. . . Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee” (Mk. 6:21; boldface mine.) No doubt the food and decorations were exquisite, yet the entertainment featured a decadent dance routine performed by his stepdaughter.[i] This sordid display revealed the tetrarch’s enslavement to lust. Inflamed by the night’s festivities he rashly promised to give “whatever she might ask” to the provocative young performer (Matt. 14:7; cf. Mk. 6:23.) To his sorrowful surprise, this oath led Herod to the judicial murder of the prophet John the Baptist, who preached against his illicit relationship with his sister-in-law Herodias. As Matthew 14:9 dramatically expresses it: “And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her” (Boldface mine.) This is a historical illustration of the phenomenon: “You are snared by the words of your mouth; You are taken by the words of your mouth.” (Prov. 6:2.)
Slavery And Emancipation
This incident demonstrates that Antipas’ popularity and reputation – not to mention his pride in his royal position – were of greater importance to him than righteousness and personal ethics. He was enslaved to passion and peer pressure and so was powerless to resist the evil flow of events that night. His sinful appetites made him an unwilling pawn in his lover’s insidiously murderous scheme. The ruler was ruled by his lustful appetites.
In this age of pervasive pornography and loosening sexual mores, many people share this ancient monarch’s enslavement to sins of the flesh. But its not just “major” crimes that are addictive, all sin is enslaving. As Christ said: “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” (John 8:34.) Thus, all humans need a liberator. Thankfully, the Lord Jesus Himself is the emancipator; as he says a few verses later: “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36.) This great emancipation is effected by His sacrificial death on the cross. He died to pay for our sins; what is more, by His resurrection He gives new life to those who receive Him by faith (1 Cor. 15:3-8; Titus 3:4-7.) Believers are born again by the Spirit of God who indwells them (Jn. 3:5.) The transformation that he makes in a believer’s life by the Holy Spirit is so remarkable that the Bible describes it as a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17.)
Free To Serve
The Lord frees believers from sin’s penalty and power – and eventually its presence – so that they might serve Him.[ii] Galatians 5:1 sums it up this way: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (NAS.) One writer explains it thus:
To be enslaved by Christ is not a new bondage. It is a new freedom! To unbelievers, this may seem puzzling. Why, they ask themselves, would one give up one’s freedom to live as one wants? Why be subject to someone else’s rules? The answer, of course, is that the old, so-called ‘freedom’ of the self, as we have seen, is actually the very opposite. It is a captivity to that self with all of its compulsions and appetites. The freedom we have in Christ is a freedom from the captivity to our old imperious and autonomous self.[iii]
Schaff succinctly adds: “Show your freedom by love, and your love by service. This kind of bondage is honorable and delightful.”[iv] Paul and Timothy gratefully referred to themselves as “bondservants of Christ” (Phil. 1:1.) Believers are freed from their old sinful habits and modes of thinking in order to do the will of God. Instead of laboring to keep the law for justification – or sanctification – they are led and empowered by the Spirit to please their Creator (Gal. 5:13-18.)
Bound With Cords Of Love
Unbelievers mistakenly think that serving God is drudgery, but that could not be farther from the truth. Both Matthew 14 and Mark 6 couple the narrative of Herod’s party with the Lord Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000. Instead of His guests observing the spectacle of a powerful man felled by lust, they listened to the King of kings expound the Word of God. Herod’s companions became unwilling witnesses to a grotesque murder; Christ’s friends heard the words of life and fed on bread provided by the One who was the Bread of Life (Jn. 6:35.) One first provided discontent and shame; the other spiritual life, joy, and satisfaction.
Nothing in this world compares to knowing and serving the Lord. Spurgeon elatedly related this joy, saying:
Talk not of the joys of the dance, or of the flush of wine; speak not of the mirth of the merry, or of the flashes of the ambitious and successful. There is a mirth more deep than these; a joy more intense; a bliss more enduring than anything the world can give. It is the bliss of being forgiven; the bliss of having God’s favor and God’s love in one’s soul; the bliss of feeling that God is our Father; that Christ is married to our souls; and that the Holy Ghost dwelleth in us, and will abide with us for ever. Let the sweetness of the mercy draw thee, poor soul! let the sweetness of the mercy, I say, entice thee![v]
May you enjoy the glorious liberty of knowing Christ today!
[i] Although anonymous in the New Testament, extrabiblical literature identifies her as Salome, e.g. Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, 18.5.4; electronic ed. accessed on 4 July 2016 here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-18.htm
[ii] Rom. 8:1-4, 22-25.
[iii] David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3826-31. Wiersbe adds: “Through the Holy Spirit, Christ is in us and we are in him. We can’t imagine making plans or taking steps without considering his will. As we walk together with Christ, we become so united to him that we intuitively sense what will please him and what will grieve him. We seek to do only those things that please him. Yes, the cross makes the difference between slavery to the old life and liberty in the new life, but this liberty is the liberty of obedience. ‘And He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again’ (2 Cor. 5:15). It’s the freedom of sonship, the freedom that is motivated by love and not law. ‘For the love of Christ compels us . . .’ (2 Cor. 5:14). When the children of God deliberately disobey God’s will, they not only rebel and commit lawlessness (1 John 3:4–7), but they also wound the heart of God. It’s much more than citizens breaking the law of the king; it’s children breaking the heart of their heavenly Father. Jesus was ‘obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’ (Phil. 2:8), and it’s unthinkable that we should come to the cross, turn our freedom into license, and willfully disobey his Word. ‘For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh . . .’ (Gal. 5:13).” Warren W. Wiersbe, The Cross of Jesus: What His Words from Calvary Mean for Us. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), Kindle Loc. 1427-1436.
[iv] Philip Schaff, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881), p. 59.
[v] C.H. Spurgeon, “Too good to be true,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 7. Originally preached on December 15, 1861. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1861), 623.