Mae Louise Walls Miller was a slave in southern Mississippi. One day she met Henriette, a storyteller about slavery, and Mae regaled her with her own story—a story filled with savage beatings, sexual assaults that began at age five, having to work in the fields under the Mississippi Summer sun all day long, and her family having to hunt for their own food and drink out of the same creek the cows defecated in.
One night, after having refused to go to the Big House, where she knew what would happen to her and her mother, the master beat Mae bloody, and she ran away. A kind family found her in the bushes and took her in safety safety, and, later that night, they rescued the rest of her family.
This might sound like a common story under slavery in the South. But there’s one detail I left out—Mae escaped in 1963. Her entire family had no idea that they had been freed nearly a century earlier. They continued to like slaves.
It wasn’t an isolated incident, although, it made history as the longest time anyone went not knowing they were freed. Some historians believe they might not be last. There may still be people living in the deep South who don’t know they’re not slaves.
Heartbreaking as this is, there are a whole lot of Christians who don’t know they’ve been set free and, because of that, live like slaves to their surrounding culture. As slaves, they have not been able to help anyone else get free.
“Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.
We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham.Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.” (Hebrews 2.14-18, NLT)
Only by dying could he break the power of the devil, and only by being sacrificed could he take away the sins of the people.
Psalm 110 is the most often quoted old Testament passage in the New Testament. It’s quoted right before this in chapter 1.
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit in the place of honor at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.”
“The central thing Jesus did, according to this writer and others, was fulfill Ps 110. Jesus had been raised to a position of divine power (the Lord’s “right hand”) over his defeated and humiliated enemies (who are now his “footstool”). In a Jewish context, this meant to say that Jesus brought the kingdom of God. To say the kingdom of God has come was to say the kingdom of Satan has been defeated.” (Greg Boyd)
“So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8.1-3).
Like Mae, we’ve been free to walk out for a long time. Unlike Mae, we become pretty comfortable in the Big House. We get used to the irritating consequences of sin because it’s more comfortable to stay than to take our papers and go.
To go to walk out in freedom into the kingdom of God, and as my favorite J.R.R. Tolkien says, once you walk out the door, there’s no telling where the road will take you.
We are saved from the power of God’s enemy, saved from our fallen inability to live in right relatedness with God, saved from the idolatrous, futile striving to find “life” from the things of the world, saved from our meaninglessness, and saved to forever participate in the fullness of life, joy, power, and peace that is the reign of God.
This is powerful stuff. Yet so many Christians don’t even know that it’s true. They’re still slaves. It’s no wonder so few of us are able to tell others how to get out of slavery. Christ opened the door—blew it off its hinges—and we still haven’t even stepped out of it.
Our Gospel is so small. Salvation in much of our Gospel is “I am saved from my sins, and I can go to heaven. I’m not perfect–Just forgiven.”
But God calls us to be perfect (Matthew 5.48). Perfect in the sense of whole and complete. Perfect in the sense of living in shalom. Peace. Reconciled. He never called us to be “just forgiven” and wait to fly away up into the clouds.
This small gospel we settle for is a license for a couple of errors. One, I don’t have to live a life very different from the people around me. My sins are forgiven, so he will just forgive more sins every time I keep messing up. We stop trying. Paul has a fairly straightforward response.
“Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.” Romans 6.1-4
It was wrong 2000 years ago—and it’s still wrong. We aren’t forgiven and sent back into the world with a pat on our heads. We are forgiven and sent back into the world with a new name and a new job—to live lives of shalom. That needs a bigger Gospel than most of us have been taught.
The other error too small a gospel leads to is making it all about me. It’s all about my sin, my salvation, my forgiveness, my wings to take me up to heaven.
Gospel restoration, Jesus’ shalom, being “perfect,” is about more than just me.
“Jesus died as our substitute and bore our sin and guilt by voluntarily experiencing the full force of the rebel kingdom we have all allowed to reign on the earth. To save us, he experienced the full consequences of sin that we otherwise would have experienced. In so doing, he broke open the gates of hell, destroyed the power of sin, erased the law that stood against us, and freed us to receive the Holy Spirit and walk in right relatedness with God.” (Greg Boyd)
Why do we want to stay in slavery? Why would we want so small a Gospel as one that made it all about us?
Jesus’ work of healing, demon casting, and even raising from the dead pushed back the darkness. Every minute that Jesus accepted those whom other people had pushed into the darkness, every time he showed mercy, every time he loved the unlovable and those that this world had cast away as unimportant or useless, Jesus was pushing back the evil of this world power.
We’re not slaves anymore, but that makes us responsible. Free people make free decisions to love and follow and sacrifice. Slaves don’t.
Victory can get out of hand, I know.
But in the midst of school shootings, personal shortcomings, fear of death with a capital D and of smaller deaths, opioid epidemics, and the hard things of life, we would do well to remember that Jesus destroyed the powers of hell. We may still feel their angry death thralls quite deeply because they are quite strong, and we are not.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.