Freedom Among Slaves
FINDING FREEDOM IN A NATION OF SLAVES
By Mark E. Hardgrove
Text: John 8:31-36
By Mark E. Hardgrove
Text: John 8:31-36
“Harriet Tubman: Moses of the Civil War” (This article originally appeared in the Sweetwater Reporter News April 5, 1992, by Russell Smith.)
A mystic railroad without tracks wound its way across America over one hundred and fifty years ago. The railroad, nicknamed the Underground Railroad, was a misnomer because it was neither underground nor a railroad. The name was a secret codeword invented for the escape route used by southern slaves in the pre-Civil War days.
The slaves were aided by thousands of "conductors" who used covered wagons or carts with false bottoms to carry slaves from one "station" to another. With the help of 3,000 conductors over 100,000 slaves escaped to freedom. Escaping slaves were called "passengers" or "merchandise" on their journey to freedom.
Harriet Tubman was the greatest single conductor in the history of the Underground Railroad. An escaped slave herself, Tubman earned the nickname "Moses" for her heroic exploits in leading slaves to the promised land. Returning nineteen times to the dangerous South, Tubman led more than 300 slaves to freedom, including her own aged parents.
Enraged Southern planters offered $40,000 for her capture without success. The wily and fearless Tubman carried a pistol on her freedom raids and if a slave had second thoughts about escaping she pulled her gun and said: "You'll be free or die!"
Tubman was widely read about and talked about, although she herself was unable to read or write. Two of her most famous sayings were: "Lord, you have been with me through six troubles. Be with me in the seventh." And "I nebber run my train off de track and I nebber lost a passenger."
Harriet had a wry sense of humor. By 1851 the Fugitive Slave Law was forcing conductors to lead slaves all the way to Canada. On one such trip a very frightened slave would not say a word or even look at the scenery while crossing into Canada with Tubman on a real train. But when the man realized he was on free soil, he began to sing and shout so loud that no one could shut him up. An exasperated Tubman finally cried out, "You old fool, you! You might at least have looked at Niagara Falls on the way to freedom!"
Harriet Tubman continued her courageous exploits during the Civil War. She became a nurse, scout, and spy for the Union armies. In one campaign she personally led 750 Southern slaves to freedom. General Saxon reported she "made many a raid inside the enemy lines, displaying remarkable courage, zeal, and fidelity."
Harriet "Moses" Tubman lived into her nineties and died in 1913 (her birthdate has never been verified and estimates range from 1816 to 1823 for her birth year). Millions of slaves admired her brave life and the many escaped slaves who owed their freedom to Tubman probably felt as Harriet Tubman did when she said, "I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. Dere was such a glory trou de trees and ober de fields, and I felt like I was in heaven."
The other day I came across a quote that has helped me to understand what is going on in America today. Harriet Tubman once said, “I could have freed more people, if they had known they were slaves.” That’s a powerful statement which gives us insight into the dialogue between Jesus and the Jews to whom He is speaking in our text.
I) THE OFFER OF FREEDOM
Notice, first of all, that Jesus is speaking to “those Jews who believed Him.” These were men and women who had seen the miracles of Jesus and who were willing to align themselves with Jesus for the sake of healing, or bread, or as part of a popular movement, but these were people whose faith was fickle. According to Jesus these were people who needed to learn to abide in His Word. These were people who needed to become disciples, and not just a fan club. Jesus knew that they were willing to believe for the benefits, but they were not ready to let the truth change their lives.
Jesus perceived that while these people “believed Him,” they had not yet experienced the power of the truth to liberate them from their sins. Jesus said to them, “If you abide in My word, you are my disciples indeed.” The little word “if” implies that they had not yet made that decision, they were not yet prepared to accept the Words of Jesus as a mandate for their lives. Jesus could see that these were people who were still enslaved to their sins. So Jesus said to them, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
We live in a country that supposedly “believes in” Jesus. We have churches filled every Sunday with people who “believe in Him.” However, Jesus is telling us that it is not enough to give mental assent to His existence, or to give some kind of psuedo-intellectual acknowledgement that Jesus was a good man who had some good things to say. Jesus is telling us that until we are ready to live our lives by the truth, which is the Word of God, then we can call ourselves Christian, or Pentecostal, or Religious, or anything else—we are still in bondage to our sins.
Jesus said that in order to be free, we must “abide,” or remain in, His Word. In another place Jesus said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are Spirit, and they are life.” It is not enough to come to church and sit in a pew, we must abide in His Word. It’s not enough to sing, and give, and pray, and practice religion, we must abide in His Word, and His Word must abide in us. Anything less is mere mental assent to the principles of Christianity without experiencing the liberating power of the truth.
II) BLIND TO THE BONDAGE
Look at verse 33. These people who “believed in Him” were not willing to receive the truth. Instead they were ready to argue with Him. They said, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?”
The response of these Jews reveals two things. First, their culture had so distorted their perception of reality that they were living in denial of their own history and of their present circumstances. The truth was that the history of the Jews (the descendants of Abraham) was a history that alternated between freedom and bondage. They were in bondage to Egypt for almost 400 years, and God set them free. They were in bondage to Babylon for 70 years, but God set them free. And now, as they spoke to Jesus, they were under Roman rule and occupation as a nation.
The Jews were so averse to the notion of slavery that their perception of reality itself was distorted. They were blind to their current political status. And this is precisely the problem in America. We speak about and sing about freedom and liberty so much that we have grown blind to the reality that we have become slaves to the notion of freedom and to our own culture.
In the name of freedom we tell our children that they cannot pray aloud in our schools.
In the name of freedom our judges tells us to remove the Ten Commandments from the courthouse walls.
In the name of freedom we permeate our society with pornographic images and literature.
In the name of freedom and liberty we foster economic and social dependency by our poor, and then tell them how to vote in order to maintain their benefits.
In the name of freedom we have become a nation bound to the entertainment industry, chained to popular culture, and enslaved by a society that holds material rewards in front of us like a carrot on a stick.
And so we continue to sell our souls for more material comfort and sing the songs of freedom while we run headlong down the path of slavery. And the sad part is that so few will ever find freedom because we, as a nation, don’t even know that we are slaves.
When Harriet Tubman made that statement, she was referring the fact that children born into slavery, and born into a culture that supported and endorsed slavery, didn’t realize that they are being deprived of liberty and human dignity. As a result, they didn’t even know enough to seek freedom. This is the condition of America today. We live in a society of people who are blind to the fact that they are slaves and they don’t even know enough to seek freedom.
Let me give you one example. It is almost a given in America that we will have to incur debt. Furthermore, we live in a society that makes getting into debt extremely easy. I routinely get letters from people who don’t even know me, telling me that I’m pre-approved. I’m approved to get another credit card. I’m approved to get a second mortgage. I’m approved to get another car. And for years I thought that’s the way you get through life. You sell yourself to the creditors and live the rest of your life trying to buy back your freedom. But a couple years ago my wife and I decided that we wanted to be free. We haven’t bought a new car in years. We haven’t bought new furniture in years. We live frugal lives and, with the exception of our house, we plan to be free from debt in a couple years.
But we live in a culture that tells us that it is appropriate to sell ourselves into financial slavery. And most people don't realize this until they feel the noose of too many bills-not enough money tightening around their necks.
More important than their social or political condition, however, Jesus’ words reveal, secondly, that these people were ignorant of their own spiritual condition. Jesus went on tell them that they were slaves to sin. A man can live free from debt and still owe a debt that he cannot pay. A man can be free from chains around his wrist and still be bound by chains around his heart. It is a spiritual bondage that hides behind the façade of physical freedom and liberty.
Jesus said, “whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.” The tense of the verb “commits” implies a habitual act. Anyone who continues to sin, and who lives in sin, does so because he or she is a slave to sin. Their sinful acts reveal their bondage regardless of what their words and songs may say. It doesn’t take long to discover that we live in a country that is enslaved to the pursuit of pleasure. The television shows, the magazine articles, the billboards, and the secular music all scream out the truth of the bondage America is in. But the vast majority is blind to their own condition, they are blind to the bondage and therefore they will not seek the liberty that comes from Christ.
III) A WARNING TO THE WISE
Jesus gives them a warning here in verse 35, “A slave does not abide in the house forever. . .” He just told them that they were slaves to sin, and now Jesus warns them that the slave will not remain in the house forever. Things are going to change.
We need to hear this warning. What’s more, we need to heed this warning. A house slave may think that he’s part of the family, but he’s not. A house slave may feel like he is free, but he isn’t. Jesus said, “a slave does not abide in the house forever.” A slave can be sold at anytime. A slave can find himself in the house one day, and in the hot sun working the fields the next day. A slave can find himself sitting with the family one day, and then be whipped like a dog the next day. Regardless of how good it may appear at the moment, a slave, is a slave, is a slave.
In contrast to the slave, “a son abides forever.” In other words, the son is never less than a son. The son is the heir to the fortune. Even the Prodigal son came home to a ring, a robe, a pair of shoes and a party. The son will always have the love, care, and concern of the father. Furthermore, a son who acts on behalf of the father has the power to free the slaves.
Jesus said, in verse 36, “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.” Jesus is the “only begotten Son” of God and He has come from the Father to set the captives free. But the invitation to liberty will only be heard by those who are willing to recognize that they are slaves in need of redemption, and they are servants in need of salvation.
Jesus emphasizes the point by saying that if the Son shall make you free, then you shall be free “indeed.” When Jesus sets you free, it’s not just a physical freedom, a political freedom, or an economic freedom, it is freedom from the guilty stain of sin. It is freedom from the bondage of our will to the desires of our flesh. It is freedom that transcends this earthly existence and allows us to sit in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus.
We live in a nation of slaves, but we can be free. We dwell among those who are in bondage, and like Harriet Tubman, we ought to be working to bring the liberating message of truth to those who are bound by the lies of the father of lies. The Apostle Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16)
As I noted earlier, at the beginning of this conversation Jesus was addressing those who believed in him. But by the time Jesus tells them the truth, “You are of your father the devil,” they have gone from being fans to fierce opponents declaring, “You are a Samaritan and have a demon.”
Jesus was offering them freedom and they rejected both the message and the Messenger because they could not even acknowledge that they were in bondage. The sad truth is that many great sermons will be preached today in pulpits across American, yet many altars will remain empty as congregations of believers will fail to acknowledge their bondage and will leave the church as empty, and as lonely, and as confused as they came in.
We have people who are in the house, and therefore believe that they are sons, but when Jesus comes for His bride they will find, much to their surprise, that they are house slaves. They refuse to lay aside every weight and the sin that does so easily beset them, therefore, they’ve been in the house of God, but they have been living as slaves to sin.
Are you free “indeed”? It is amazing how many believers are living in bondage to secret sins, to secret fears, to doubts, discouragement and defeat. Jesus is telling us all here today, what He told the Jews two-thousand years ago, if you abide in His Word, His truth will set you free.
Can you see any area of your life today that is still in need of the liberating touch of the Son? If you need Jesus to break the bands that hinder you from happiness, come to this altar. If you need Jesus to break the chains that hold you back from your peace of mind, come to this altar.
If you want Jesus to set you free from fear, or guilt, or doubt, or discouragement, if you want Jesus to make you free indeed, and not just in theory, then get to this altar today because there’s a healer in the house, and He’s here to set you free.
The devil will try to keep you bound to the seat you’re sitting in today. The devil will try to use fear and pride to tie you down and keep you from breaking free, but if you know of bondage in your life, today can be the day that you look at your hands, and your hands look new. You look at your feet and they do too. It will be like you’re in a new world when Jesus breaks the bands and sets you free, giving glorious liberty.
Let me end by quoting Harriet Tubman, “You’ll be free, or die.”