How to Buy a Slave (Devotional)

Reading: Galatians 4:1-11

The world has a long and increasingly more terrible history of slavery: Britain has stories, America has stories, Africa has stories, France has stories, China has stories, Arabia has stories. Today slavery is largely past, as a generalization of course. Some think we are more enlightened because of this, that our ancestors were somehow less-thinking than we are to have done such terrible crimes of treating another human being as if they were an animal, a piece of property. This is not accurate, we are not more enlightened, we just sin in different ways and even more terrible ways nowadays, yet with the same intentions. We may not enslave our children, yet we kill them by the millions. We may no longer tear apart the families of those who became or were slaves, although we promote the destruction of the family at a national and international level through easy divorce, homosexuality, and the dismissal of the God-given role of mothers. We may not cheer in coliseums anymore, as human flesh is torn to pieces by lions, yet we cheer in dark, crowded rooms, staring into the imaginary yet so-real world of the movies as guns blaze, evil triumphs, and blood flows freely.

We may not sin in the way the ancients did, yet we are no better than them. In fact, we are probably worse.

The Roman Empire had slaves, and the sheer number of slaves is staggering. It has been estimated that upwards of 30 percent of Romans subjects were enslaved, a full 60 percent would have included the enslaved and the temporarily indentured. Therefore one in every three, during the first century, would’ve been a slave: one born into slavery with little to no chance to become a free man.

Paul was a Roman, he knew of slavery and the ongoing slave trade, and he probably saw it everywhere. So when he referenced slavery in correlation with our salvation, he was simply using the daily reality of slavery as a metaphor. Any person of the first century would be able to readily appreciate his metaphor, because they would’ve known it so well. Now, Paul clearly rejected slavery in Christian circles, showing that in Christ we are all made equals before God. He never openly spoke against the whole system of slavery, although he does state that Christ died for all men, equally, that all can be redeemed from a slavery to sin, death, and hell through faith in the grace of Christ. The Old Testament also rejected slavery, although it did teach indentured servitude that lasted seven years as a way to clear one’s debts. Scripture clearly teaches, as a whole, against the reality of slavery, and this would be a great study for another time.

Paul, in the midst of the book of Galatians, is attempting to shown the Galatian churches (it was a province in what is today Central Turkey) that they were wrong in listening to the Judaizers, who were distorting the Gospel by saying that salvation came through Christ and the following of the Law (very similar to modern Catholicism and 7th Day Adventists). He, like a perplexed mother speaking to a wayward son, uses reason, Scripture, and metaphor to convince them of their error. In Galatians 4:1-11 Paul uses the metaphor of slavery to speak of who we were, yet now freed from the slavery to the Law and human philosophy through Christ:

Now I mean that the heir, as long as he is a minor, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. But he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. So also we, when we were minors, were enslaved under the basic forces of the world. But when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, who calls “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God.

Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods at all. But now that you have come to know God (or rather to be known by God), how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless basic forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? You are observing religious days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you that my work for you may have been in vain. (NET)

There is so much I could say about this passage, but I will refrain in order to focus on Paul’s metaphor – the buying of a slave in the 1st Century:

Sometimes slaves stood on revolving stands, and around each slave for sale hung a type of plaque describing his or her origin, health, character, intelligence, education, and other information pertinent to purchasers. Prices varied with age and quality, with the most valuable slaves fetching prices equivalent to thousands of today’s dollars. Because the Romans wanted to know exactly what they were buying, slaves were presented naked. The dealer was required to take a slave back within six months if the slave had defects that were not manifest at the sale, or make good the buyer’s loss. Slaves to be sold with no guarantee were made to wear a cap at the auction. (“Slavery in Ancient Rome”)

An old advertisement for the sale of slaves in Missouri.

Remember, a full 30 percent of persons in the Roman Empire had undergone such a condition at one time, or multiple times. Paul says that we, the human race as a whole, were naturally born slaves to sin, death, and hell. Our task-masters included a variety of things which he calls “the basic forces of the world”, or the “basic principles” of the world. These basic principles are things that all humans know, include: (1) the existence of God (or gods), (2) the sinfulness of man, and (3) the wrath of this God (or gods) on our sins.

The Law teaches these things perfectly, as does basically every religion known to man, yet imperfectly. These all tell us that to be saved, we must follow specified strict guidelines in order to be free from the wrath of God. Our options include: salvation by doing good, by following tradition, by understanding human philosophy, or by following the Law. It is all summed-up in a phrase: salvation by works.

Paul says that this is “weak and worthless” thinking, that such ideas, while right, are only rudimentary. For example, to be a great mathematician one needs to know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, yet while these basic things are important for him as a foundation to future learning, they by no means make him what he aspires to be, for they do not include algebra, logical formulas, physics, or abstract math. So it is with the Law, to which these Galatians were clinging. It was only the rudimentary truth: God exists, you are a sinner, and God will eternally damn you for this. Why do you think the Law is so full of “if you do this, then you will die”? Does not Ezekiel 18:20a say “The one who sins is the one who will die“? The Law shows us our problem, but does not help us to resolve it, for it cannot (Gal. 2:16). 

Therefore, all men, without Christ, are hopelessly enslaved to sin, death, and hell. For what the Law promises cannot be attained by men who entered the world as sinners already. That is where Christ comes in, “born under the law“, in order to “redeem those who were under the law“.

Redeem, this is what Christ does to the enslaved sinner. To redeem is to buy, pay for, take the shame away from – Jesus buys the slave at the slave market. Jesus comes to the slave market looking for those who wish to be freed (Luke 19:10), but doesn’t look at the physical qualities, spiritual “holiness”, place of origin, or even our sex. He pays our price (paid to God not Satan, dying under the full wrath of God, therefore appeasing it fully – this is where the metaphor breaks down some), having chosen us even as we have chosen Him (v.9), and then takes us away from that wretched place. Then Christ takes us to a lawyer (in this metaphor), writes-up the documents for adoption and takes these along with us to His Father. He doesn’t put us to work under another of the “basic forces of this world”, but instead clothes us with His own clothing (Romans 13:14), brings us into His eternal Home, and presents us as worthy candidates to His Father (Heb. 4:16). Here we, who once were lost and damned slaves, are legally acknowledged and adopted as sons of God, He who shares Christ’s infinite inheritance with us, having “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).

God, through Christ, has bought anyone who will come from the chopping-block of the human meat-market of Satan, and brought us into the wonderful glories of heaven, adopting us into God’s family for all eternity.

This is how God buys a [spiritual] slave. Jesus is the ultimate and final breaker of modern slavery – slavery to sin, death, and hell. 

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