What does it mean to be free? Something we all crave and long for, but may have never taken the time to ponder what it really means. In Judea Jesus talked a lot about freedom at a time when the nation saw nothing of the sort. During this period the jews were under the brutal rule of the Roman empire where death was no rare occurrence. First century Roman and Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote, “The Romans make a desert and call it peace,” and the Romans inscribed on their coins, “peace through victory.” In other words, the way to bring peace is by killing anyone that opposes us or is a threat in anyway. The Romans never hesitated to kill someone they suspected of being an enemy of the state, and it didn’t matter if they may be innocent or not. If they suspected it, they would just kill them. There was no sense of innocent till proven guilty. So we can imagine the confusion of the people when Jesus said, “Whom the son sets free is free indeed.” How could that be possible under the tyranny of the Roman Empire? The only way the Jews saw any chance of freedom was by overthrowing the Romans and kicking them out of Judea. So when Jesus came talking about freedom without overthrowing the Romans, the Jews would have been left either dumbfounded or outraged.
The show A.D. paints a vivid picture of what life was like in Israel (Judea) around the time of Christ and the years following. In the show, there is a Roman Centurion (what we would refer to as a military Captain) named Cornelius that is responsible for carrying out the ruthless bloodshed of the governor – Pontius Pilate. For most of the show he does so without thinking twice or questioning what he is doing. But towards the end he begins to feel that the people he is being told to kill are being wrongfully put to death, and he starts to feel sorrow, guilt, and shame for all that he is doing. One of the last things he was required to do was to execute a servant girl of the governors house by strangling her because she was caught telling another servant about Christ. Something the Romans viewed as treason because Christians are classified as enemies of the state and a threat to the empire. After he performs the execution he breaks down and begins to weep uncontrollably, for he can’t believe he just had to kill someone that did nothing deserving of death. This empathy that begins to build up inside of him ultimately leads to a meeting with Peter the apostle that becomes his conversion to Christianity; something taken from Acts 10. Then immediately following his conversion he has to go lead an escort of a statue of the Roman Emperor into the Temple of the Jews. Something everyone knows will start a riot and cause lots of blood shed. Once he gets to the temple gate he is met by all the Jewish priests and they refuse to move out of the way and let the Romans through, and they are fully aware that their actions may result in being slaughtered. Peter and the disciples come and stand next to the priests and begin to kneel and pray, the priests soon follow and Cornelius begins to do the same. Soon after this act of prayerful defiance, the Jewish Zealots begin to attack the Romans, resulting in an all out battle. Meanwhile, the priests, disciples, and Cornelius never get off their knees. When the fight is over Cornelius can’t believe he is still alive, and even more so that he never had to draw his sword and kill anyone. For the first time in his life he chose not to kill somebody when his job expected him too. Something that only his now found freedom in Christ could bring him.
So what would freedom be in light of Cornelius? A Roman soldier expected to kill anyone that his superiors told him too, then finally building up the courage to say no after his conscious kept begging him to stop. Before Cornelius had his encounter with Peter and gave his life to Christ, he was stuck in a vicious cycle of doing what he hated, knowing he would feel guilt and shame for it. But after his encounter, he is emboldened to finally stop his killing. First he is forgiven, which liberates him from his shame and guilt, then he is emboldened to “go and sin no more.”
The freedom that Christ brings starts with forgiveness, for without it we wouldn’t know the goodness of God. And in order to feel the weight of forgiveness we have to be aware of our wrongdoing. The beauty in the story of Cornelius, is that we can all imagine the weight of guilt that would come if we had to kill people on a daily basis that we felt did nothing deserving of it. The weight of that would be unbearable, so to hear about a God that forgives sins would be more precious than gold. After we have encountered the forgiveness of God and been liberated, we are inevitably inspired and emboldened to refuse the things we once did. This freedom can be obtained no matter what kind of government or kingdom is ruling over us. Christ forgives and he empowers, and it is what made him so attractive and beautiful in a world where oppressive, violent governments were the norm. It is what allowed Christianity to flourish in spite of the persecution attempts to blot it out. The freedom that Christ brings is an internal one that doesn’t hinge on governments or kingdoms, and is one that no one can take away from us.
We all crave freedom in some way. The problem is we often crave a freedom that is out of our control. The Jews all wanted the Romans out, but it didn’t matter how much they wanted it, it never came. The Jewish-Roman war from 66-70 AD was the result of a Jewish revolutionary effort to end Roman rule in Judea, but ended in the annihilation of the Jewish temple and a Jewish exile that lasted nearly 2,000 years. It wasn’t until 1948 after the Jewish holocaust that they could finally return and call it home. It is fascinating that Christ chose to come into the world at the time and place that he did. A time when Jews were itching for a Messiah to come and restore the strength of Israel and drive out the Romans. But to everyone’s surprise, when the Messiah did come, he came with a message of, “instead of worrying about a freedom that is out of your control, worry about one that is in your control, one that is not contingent on worldly affairs.” It doesn’t matter if we are serving a life sentence behind bars, living in a land of persecution, or in the “freest” of places like America. We all long to be free, to be forgiven for all the hurt we have ever brought into the world, either to ourselves or to others, and to be inspired and emboldened to get out of the vicious cycle of doing things we hate that make us feel guilt and shame. Even America, “the land of the free,” has it’s share of oppression. Think of the stronghold depression, pornography, sexual promiscuity, divorce, political corruption, and many other things has on our culture. Real freedom doesn’t come from man. Only God can truly set someone free, and nothing can ever take that away.