The inspired historian, Luke, in writing of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, tells us how that soon after his baptism by John, he went into the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth, stood up to read and was given “the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.” The place from which he read was Isa 61:1-2. The reference to the acceptable year of the Lord is clearly a reference to the year of Jubilee mandated in Lev. 25:8-13 on which occasion those in bonded servitude were set free, debts were canceled and land that had been sold was returned to its original owner. A time of freedom would, of course, have been a season of great rejoicing.
But when Jesus announced that he was the fulfillment of that “year of the Lord’s favor” the Jews were moved with wrath! It wasn’t that they were against freedom so much as that they didn’t think Jesus could do what he said he would do. The audacity of him! They had known him all his life. He had grown up there. He was no different from any of the other residents of Nazareth. They were just proving what Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown” (Lk. 4:24). Through their lack of faith in him they would pass up the great blessings he had come to bring to mankind.
In thinking about the announced purpose of Jesus’ ministry – the restoration of freedom to the captives – there are many today who are little different from the Jews of Jesus’ day. Because they do not really know him and do not know his real purpose they miss out on the great blessings he still offers to us. Jesus said that he had come to set men free. He came to inaugurate the season of restoration for which all men had been longing. But as was true then, today it is difficult for men then to understand the meaning of the freedom he came to offer. As he was speaking to some who had come to believe him he offered them freedom …
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32).
The truth they and we are to know – the truth which can make men free – is the truth of which he was just speaking. The truth that makes men free is not truth in general such as whatever happens to be right or factual like the sky is blue and grass is green. The truth is not the whole body of truth taught as the “doctrines of the true religion” as Barnes argues. It is not “the Gospel” as others insist – except in the sense that Jesus is embodiment of the gospel. The Savior was speaking to his audience here about who he was. There are a number of “I am” statements in this chapter. The significance of this little phrase is brought out clearly in John 8:24in the Easy to Read Version …
“I told you that you would die in your sins. Yes, if you don’t believe that I Am, you will die in your sins.”
The New International Revised Version makes it even plainer …
“I told you that you would die in your sins. Do you believe that I am the one I claim to be? If you don’t, you will certainly die in your sins.”
The meaning is that he was, himself, God, the “I Am,” and therefore was able to set them free from not only their sins but in every way that only God can set men free. And because he told them that this truth would set them free they turned against him. They did not believe they needed to be set free. They were Abraham’s children they said. They couldn’t be in bondage (even though they were under the rule of the Roman Empire at the time). There was another way they were in bondage and thus in need of freedom.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36).
Since the Son came to set men free it is no wonder that freedom or liberty is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. This is particularly true of the Galatian letter in which Paul is combating the efforts of the Judiazers to bring Christians, who had been set free through their faith in Christ, again under a yoke of bondage. These “false brothers” were seeking to slip another kind of yoke on these Gentile believers who had been freed from the bondage to sin and idolatry (Galatians 2:4). Paul urges them to not give up their freedom for anyone.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1).
James, the half-brother of Jesus emphasizes the theme of freedom or liberty. Twice he mentions the “law of liberty.”
“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (Jas 1:25).
“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (Jas 2:12).
There is much misunderstanding about just what James meant by this expression. What is the law of liberty? Why is it called the “perfect” law?
As with the “truth” mentioned above, there are many different ideas as to what constitutes the law of liberty. Adam Clarke maintained that …
“The law of liberty must mean the Gospel; it is a law, for it imposes obligations from God, and prescribes a rule of life; and it punishes transgressors, and rewards the obedient. It is, nevertheless, a law that gives liberty from the guilt, power, dominion, and influence of sin; and it is perfect, providing a fullness of salvation for the soul” (via eSword).
Barnes says that it is “the law of God or his will, however made known, as the correct standard of conduct.” (eSword). Is this law of liberty just the general law of God or is it something more specific? The best place to start in determining the meaning of any passage is with the context. In both instances of his use of the expression, (James 1:25; 2:12), James first describes what it is not and then what it is or how it does not work and how it does work.
In the first instance he points out to them that they must look into the word of God to see what kind of persons they were. To “look” here literally means to stoop to peer within. One must stop to peer inside something. So the idea is that one must pause and ponder, to meditate on the word. Then they were to continue on to do what they found – to be doers of the word.
What does one see when he peers into the word of God? Does he see a list of laws? A regimen of rules? Is that what the law of liberty is? Does the law of liberty regulate action by prohibitive prescription? Look at verse 27 to see what happens when one continues in the law of liberty and becomes a doer of the word …
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
Then in 2:12 he says that we are to “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” In the preceding verses he said if we attempt to keep the code of law as previously revealed and violate even one point we have broken the law and are guilty of having broken all. Then he contrasts that with the idea that Christians must think and act as people who will be judged by the law of liberty.
Now, what is that law? In this same context James had identified it, only he called it by another name – the “royal law” or the law of the king.
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8).
Many would argue with James that this is too simple. Surely God requires more of us than this! Does he? James is not the only inspired writer to insist that this is all God really requires of us. Let the apostle Paul tell us in his own words …
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14).
This “law of liberty” is really more challenging, more demanding, and the doing of it more rewarding than any list of laws or any requirement of rules that could be devised.
“Christians are to aim at a higher standard of holiness than was generally understood under the law. The principle of love takes the place of the letter of the law, so that by the Spirit they are free from the yoke of sin, and free to obey by spontaneous instinct (James 2:8, James 2:10, James 2:12; (Jamieson, Fausett and Brown Commentary via eSword).
It is only our humanly limited understanding that would require more than what God himself requires. The call of this law of liberty is for us to reach the full potential God put into us when he created the human race. It is to become, be, think and act like God himself acts toward us.