We must never overlook the truth that we are set free to serve God, first and foremost. In His love and grace, He raises us from slaves to sons, but our primary purpose is to serve Him with all we are and all we have.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.'” (Exodus 8:1)
It’s very easy to develop a skewed notion of salvation if we limit ourselves to all the ‘warm and fuzzy’ verses and promises. All of these are true, of course. Salvation does meet every human need completely and perfectly. Jesus did die for our sakes so that we could be forgiven, redeemed, and restored. All of God’s promises are yea and amen in Him. We cannot argue the reality or the relevance of all the incredible blessings available to believers through salvation. But focusing only on these excludes a single overriding truth. We aren’t set free to feel good or enjoy liberty or be born again. These things happen, and they’re part of what He gives us as His people. But God’s people are set free to serve Him. All the other things that come with salvation are incidental, part of His overwhelming grace to those who don’t deserve it.
Free to serve and Pharaoh.
I have often wondered during my life why God ‘hardened Pharaoh’s heart’ for so long. If He hadn’t, the plagues might have been prevented as well as the slaying of the first-born and the annihilation of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. But God never does anything without good reason. In this particular instance, He was making a point – both to Pharaoh and the Israelites. To understand this, we must understand that God’s people never came to Egypt as slaves. They were sent there for ‘safekeeping’ during a time of famine for which God Himself had prepared through Joseph. It was only later, on seeing how strong the Israelites were and how rapidly they were increasing in number, that they were forced into slavery. This was the first bone God had to pick with Pharaoh. By enslaving them, the Egyptians forced them to serve a master other than God.
It’s worth noting that the Pharaohs considered themselves divine in the sense that they claimed to be the physical incarnation of one or other god and were revered by their people as such. Not only were they forced into slavery, but they were compelled to serve another ‘god’ – an idol, a man who set himself up as a god and thus up against the one true God. The servitude of Israel was not only to an authority God had not decreed but one which also enforced idolatry. In the long, drawn-out process, God was making a point. He wasn’t asking Pharaoh to play nice or even acknowledging his authority. He was doing the opposite – revealing His awesome, sovereign power in a way that it could not be mistaken. It’s reminiscent of Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, defeating them soundly, and then destroying them.
The Israelites and free to serve.
There are indications that initially, at least, the Israelites didn’t look on their situation as negative. For some 350 odd years, they were silent before God. It was only when the Egyptians tightened the screws and demanded the impossible that they saw their servitude began to call on God to deliver them. For this reason, He was making a statement to His people as well as to Egypt. The message was that they were to have no other gods before Him. They were to serve Him and Him alone. The ‘that they may serve Me’ in today’s verse is categorical. There’s no ‘if they feel like it’ involved here. He later reiterates this when He says He will be their God and they will be His people. It’s an exclusive relationship. They were to be set free to serve God, not so that they could simply be free.
Yet God did not summarily remove them from one slavery into another. They retained free will, something He gave and respected. As He journeyed with them through the wilderness to the promised land, He unfolded the choice before them over and over again. They were to choose between life and death, blessing and cursing, to serve God and no other. Yet the key word used repeatedly is ‘obey,’ and it means literally that. If they would obey and serve God, He would bless them. In essence, He essentially invited them to surrender themselves as ‘slaves’ free to serve Him, and He would reward them with all He had. We love to talk of liberty in Christ and all those wonderful things, but the truth is that ‘servant’ is the same word for ‘slave,’ something we overlook. Paul saw it when he declared Himself a slave to Christ and the Gospel.
Christ was free to serve.
Our perfect example is found in Jesus, who willingly set aside His glory and majesty and came to earth to serve. If anyone was ever ‘free’ it was Jesus, the Son of God Himself. His was perfect liberty, yet He willingly became a slave to the will and purposes of God. We see this in His terrible and profoundly beautiful struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane when He surrendered completely, a slave to the death. It’s a fallacy that Jesus was arrested. He was never taken by force but willingly gave Himself over – not to any manmade authority but to the will of the Father. He was free to serve God totally and completely, without reservation or thought to Himself. In Him, we see the pure and perfect exercise of free will and what selfless service was able to achieve for humanity.
We also see that He was free to serve throughout His ministry. Over and over, we see Him giving out of Himself to the broken, the blind, the disfigured, and the possessed. We see Him raising the dead and feeding the multitudes in miraculous ways. In His quiet times, we see Him withdrawing from the crowds and even from the disciples to spend time alone with the Father. His entire life was one of devoted servanthood. What is remarkable is that He walked in true liberty from the temptations and darkness of the world. This is what the Bible speaks of when it tells us that if the Son sets us free, we are free indeed. Jesus was set free from the world by the Spirit. He was set free not as the Son of God but as the Son of Man so that He could fully serve the Father.
Free to serve still applies to every believer.
I often remind myself that God owns us three times over. First, by right of creation, second, by right of conquest, and third, by right of purchase – by paying the slave price. None of these leave any room for confusion. His ownership is absolute and incontrovertible. But the last one is particularly significant in the light of today’s verse. Jesus paid the slave price to purchase us from Satan. Technically, that means we now belong to Him. He is our new slave master. But in the same breath, He sets us free to choose, to exercise our free will. This doesn’t alter the fact that His purpose is that we are set free to serve Him. Whatever we decide, that remains an eternal truth. We were made for His glory and that is our purpose. Allowing us to choose doesn’t affect His ownership at all.
Simply put, Pharaoh is a type of the devil and Moses a type of Jesus. Their conversation is exactly the same challenge Jesus had for Satan – release my people so they may be free to serve Me. God proved His sovereignty and power over Pharaoh, and again, Jesus utterly defeated Satan. Believers today still have the same choice to make as those early Israelites. We are set free to serve and must make the right choice. The beauty of it, however, is that when we choose servanthood, we receive liberty in Christ that is never possible without Him. In laying down our lives, we gain them. The critical truth here is that there is no ‘middle ground’ in which we can hide. There is no ‘spiritual Switzerland’ that allows for neutrality. The Bible is very clear. If we don’t serve God, we serve the devil.
What free to serve demands from us.
Every believer makes the choice to follow Jesus. We have all, like Joshua, said we and our house will serve the Lord. If we hadn’t, we would never have entered the kingdom and salvation wouldn’t be ours. But the sad reality is that many of us are like those first Israelites, wandering around in a kind of no-man’s land and never truly entering into the promised land – or all of God’s promises for His people. The fact of the matter is that we don’t serve God because of what we can get. We are free to serve because He is God and we were created to serve Him. Yet God took Israel right out of Egypt. He removed them entirely instead of simply reversing their slavery, which He could have done. The message is clear. Are we entirely removed from ‘Egypt’ or are we only partially serving God?
Serving God isn’t a piecemeal thing. It’s an entirety of existence – heart, soul, mind, and strength. True, our Christian lives are a journey of releasing the things of the world that compete with God for our focus and attention. We are free to serve, but Jesus Himself said that we cannot serve two masters. He gave His life to buy our lives, and if we choose to serve Him it must be with all. In His grace, He walks alongside with patience as we learn the letting go, but the choice must already be made in our hearts. He won’t share His glory with another, but if we are committed to walking away from the things of Egypt, He will empower and sustain as we go. If we serve God by half-measure, we receive half-measure. We receive the all of God if we hold nothing back.
Free to serve and sons of God.
Galatians 4:7 may seem to contradict the truth that we are, first and foremost, slaves. Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. If anything, though, it reinforces it. It is the slaves God raises up as sons. Also, this verse isn’t speaking about the slaves of Satan, whom we belonged to before salvation. It is the slaves bought into the kingdom of God from Satan by the blood price of Christ. We come into the kingdom as slaves of the conquering King, and from there, God raises us up as sons. As the Son of God Himself showed us, we must live first as slaves and then as sons. In Jesus, we have perfect liberty – we are free to serve God with all we have and are. It’s up to us to make the right choices.
Lord Jesus, thank You for showing us so clearly what it is to be a true son of God. Forgive us for the times when we’ve looked only to the blessings and not the service, or when we’ve grasped the liberty for our own purposes. Help us to live as You did, fully surrendered to the will of the Father, as joyful slaves and rejoicing sons, living in the fullness of all it means to be His people and have Him as our God.