Verse 22 says, "The whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised might be given to those who believe." Verse 23 says, "Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed."
We were held prisoner by both sin and the law. The law made us conscious of sin; it demanded consequences for wrongdoing. But the law couldn't save us; it could only intensify our guilt. We were prisoners of sin because its power was still unbroken; Jesus hadn't yet redeemed us from it. We had no way out of it--there was only the promise that a Savior would come. We were prisoners of the law because it held us accountable for sin's consequences. It demanded punishment, and we couldn't be good enough to avoid that. The law was also to lead us to Christ. By making sin concrete and measurable, the law pointed out our bad behavior very clearly. That unavoidable knowledge of our failure to be "good" was to bring us to a point of desperation where we would turn to God, the other party in the covenant, and seek his mercy.
The law was designed to be something no one could keep. It was intended to make us turn to our covenant partner and throw ourselves on his mercy. It was to make us realize that God loved us and wanted to relate to us, whereas the law was cold, impersonal, and objective. The law was to awaken us to our arrogance and failure and remind us that God's promise and his grace still stood; the promise given to Abraham was still there. The law was to awaken us to our own relentless imperfection and make us return to faith in God's promises. The law was not a new way to receive God's favor; it was designed to make us conscious of our need for God's favor. It was designed to point to the coming Messiah and his promised redemption of us.
But there is also another aspect of being a prisoner. Prisoners are locked up for two related reasons: to protect society from them, and to protect them from themselves. When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews were in chaos. They were undisciplined pagan slaves that God wanted to organize and discipline into a nation.
The law provided a structure in which they would be accountable. With the law in place the people couldn't get away with rampant sin. They were punished for wronging each other. The law actually protected them from chaos and the destruction of anarchy. It was a sort of "holding tank" in which God provided a way for them to begin to be able to see the dichotomy between lawless, impulsive self-indulgence and the disciplined, respectful way of life to which he was calling them. The law made them become aware of what behaviors were harmful and what behaviors were desirable.
The law was a "baby-sitter" that did not have the authority of a parent, but it enforced a certain standard of behavior until the parent came and, with love and authority, took full responsibility for the "child". As the law reigned in the people's behavior and demanded accountability for their self-centered choices, they began to awaken to the fact that they needed something more. The "prison" was fine for bringing order out of chaos, but it wasn't doing anything for their ability to resist sin. The "prison" was only making it very clear that their behavior deserved punishment. The law was only providing superficial protection from the results of everyone sinning with no accountability.
After Jesus fulfilled the law by bearing sin and dying, his resurrection released us from the power of the law. Our punishment was taken care of. Jesus became our head, our authority, our lover, our care-taker. The baby-sitting law was set aside, and Jesus now lives in us through his Spirit and trains us himself. We're no longer subject to the law's rules and consequences. We're subject to Jesus, and we're now accountable to his death and life and love.
As we accept Christ we take on his mind and heart. Now, because his Spirit is in us, we can also be accountable to our brothers and sisters in him. We can be united in our commitment to him, even if we have different opinions and gifts. Our love for him becomes part of our love and acceptance for one another.
No matter what role we occupy in our community, our commitment to Christ and his Spirit in us make us the spiritual equals of those with whom we live and work. We must love and serve those in authority over us and those over whom we have authority as if we were loving and serving Christ. We are of equal value to him and in him. Class distinctions cease to matter; we are the instruments of Christ's love and respect to every person we meet.
When we belong to Christ we receive the promise: salvation and rest and peace. The Messiah is our savior because we have believed in him. He is ours and we are his.
We are the heirs of the promise.
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