Tony was a heroin addict when I met him, fresh off the street, wandering into our church by chance (or, if I’m honest, by providence). He struggled with his addiction for years before finally getting cleaned up and being able to live a normal life.
Well before his triumph, though, I remember driving him through a rich neighborhood. He had just fallen off the wagon, having escaped rehab and gone straight to a dealer, and he was in rough shape.
As we drove through the beautiful homes overlooking the valley I felt inspired to tell him that I truly believed God had more in store for him than this pain. I told him that one day he could live in a home like this, with a wife who loved him, and a beautiful family to call his own. I told him life could be better.
I’ll never forget what he said to me in response: I just don’t know if I can do it. I feel like I’ll be stuck like this forever.
Years later, when I went to his successful rehab graduation, Tony hugged and thanked me for that drive. He said: I’m free, Dave, I’m finally free. And he was. He still is.
For Tony, the beautiful reality of Jesus Christ was the demonstration of power that broke his addiction to heroin. He was enslaved to that drug, but Jesus set him free.
The lie of this world is that you are powerless against your addictions, your genetic make-up, your desires, and your destiny. The truth is that you are not a slave. The truth is that Jesus Christ has conquered Death and Hell and his victory has made you free indeed.
Jesus didn’t come just to teach us how to live differently, or to make us more spiritual, or even just to get us into heaven. He came to deplete, exhaust, and destroy evil. Jesus’ task is to defeat Satan ,to break his power, to win the decisive victory, which will open the way to God’s new creation in which evil and even death itself with be banished.
The things we do have an addictive power. It’s easier for us to see this in some areas of our lives than in others -drug abuse, for example, makes it clear than anyone who flirts with heroin is likely to be held in bondage to it. Other things -a bad temper, perhaps, or an addiction to pornography- are also easy to see; but what about subtler things? What about patterns of speech or thought? Habitual actions and responses?
One way we may choose to understand our freedom in Christ is through the metaphor of an ancient marketplace. Now, we’re all familiar with debt and the wicked problem it can present to the undisciplined; well, the ancient world was no different. If you couldn’t pay your debts in that world, however, you were sold into slavery. Suppose a man was standing in the marketplace, offering himself as a slave. Someone might have pity on him and ask “how much do you owe?” When answered, if he offered to pay the price to allow that man to go free, that price would be called the ”ransom” price. If you paid the price of a debt, you redeemed the slave.
In a similar way, Christ offers us redemption, setting us free from the power of sin. This freedom-bringing was at the forefront of Jesus’ ministry. Consider that the two most controversial actions of Jesus- perhaps now as well as then- were healings and exorcisms. Typically, we’re tempted to dismiss those narratives as either fanciful mythologies or the realities of a pre-scientific understanding of mental illness; yet, scripture leaves us no such option. Scripture presents a world wholly supernatural, present with and full of mystical phenomenon and extreme possibility. In such a world, Jesus’ actions were powerfully demonstrative of the supremacy of God over evil.
In his acts of healing, Jesus was not just curing individuals, but trampling diabolical forces underfoot, and the signs and wonders represented visible and material tokens of Christ’s victory over the real forces of evil.
Healings and exorcisms were powerful ways in which Jesus liberated oppressed people, and it is always the movement of God to liberate oppressed people – whether from Babylon, Egypt, sin, or suffering. In these cases, the goal is to restore people back to God’s original creation. Jesus came to bring health, salvation, and freedom from bondage- to reintroduce us to the life of the ages as authored by God. The death of Jesus was an exposure of the cruelty and evil present in the worldly powers that rejected and killed him, and his resurrection was the ultimate triumph over these powers. Jesus’ encounter with human evil is seen as a groundbreaking display of creativity, courage, and the power of truth to disrupt the hegemony of power. He actively opposed violence with non-violence and depleted evil with cunning.
His actions were representative of those other biblical characters on the margins who employed their wits against the might of the enemy. Jacob was the champion trickster, as was Tamar (Genesis 38), Moses’ mother (Exodus 2), and Jael (Judges 4-5). Jesus sets us free from slavery to evil-evil thoughts, evil desires, evil habits, evil relationships -by exhausting the powers of evil, making a show of them (letting all the world know how obvious and pathetic the controlling aims of evil truly are), and ultimately defeating evil on its own terms by killing death itself.
Dr. David McDonald is the teaching pastor at Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, MI. The church, widely considered among the most innovative in America, has been featured on CNN.com and in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time Magazine. David weaves deep theological truths with sharp social analysis and peculiar observations on pop culture. He lives in Jackson with his wife, Carmel, and their two kids. Follow him on twitter (@fossores) or online at fossores.com