Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ (Galatians 4:7).
To begin with, imitating Charles Dickens’ introduction to ‘A Christmas Carol,’ we must be very clear and have no doubt what the word ‘servant’ means in the Epistle to the Galatians and in the rest of the Bible. Just as surely as Jacob Marley was ‘dead as a door-nail,’ the word ‘servant’ means ‘a slave.’
Today, the word ‘servant’ usually means some sort of employee, perhaps of the domestic sort, along the lines of a butler or maid, who is free to seek other employment if he or she chooses. But in every English Bible translation, up to the 1880s, the word ‘servant’ always means ‘a slave’ or a ‘bondsman,’ someone whose labor or even whose person belongs to somebody else. Such a person is most definitely not free either to seek new horizons or alternative employment.
This often-ignored fact of English Bible translations follows from the common Latin translation of the Bible used in Europe before the Reformation, where the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘slave’ were translated by the Latin word ‘servus,’ which gives us our English words ‘service’ and ‘servant.’ Furthermore, in practical, everyday English, the word ‘servant’ meant ‘slave,’ literally or figuratively, well into the 19th century. The person who signed a letter ‘Your obedient servant,’ meant that in some sense he owed whomever he was addressing the service that a slave owes his master or a serf owes his feudal lord. And in the American Colonies and the antebellum United States, the word ‘servant’ was the preferred word for ‘slave.’ In her famous tract against slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe called the slave she referred to as ‘Uncle Tom’ a ‘servant.’
Being a servant is, thus, a serious business in the Bible. Each of us belongs to whatever or whomever we serve. As our Lord warned, ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24). And all of us, as sinners, have a serious problem with the moral and physical slavery that follows from sin. As our Lord explained, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin’ (John 8:34).
When Adam first sinned, he essentially sold himself, his wife, and all their descendants, including us, into slavery to sin and the devil; and since ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23), we are all, without the intervention of God, condemned to die, not just in this world, but forever. It is our great blessing, then, that God has intervened, not only to save our lives, but to free us from the slavery to sin that kills us.
God began this intervention with his calling of Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, and He took His intervention as far as fallen mankind’s enfeebled capacity could respond on its own, even bolstered by His grace, when He gave Moses the Law. Under the Law, men could pledge themselves in obedience to God, even as they were forced by their slavery to sin, Satan, and death to admit that they could not keep their pledge. The Law shows mankind what a servant of God should be, even though the Law by itself cannot free man from his old slavery so that human beings can become complete servants of God.
And then God intervened both from above and from within the human race. God sent His Eternal Son made man, born in Bethlehem, who, as St. Paul explains, ‘being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men’ (Philippians 2:6-7). The Son of God became a man, a servant, and a slave to set mankind free to serve His Father.
The word we use to describe this action of Jesus Christ is ‘redemption,’ and it is exactly the word that was used for the buying of slaves out of bondage. The price that Jesus Christ paid for our redemption, moreover, was not in money, but in His own blood—blood that He was born to shed for our redeeming. As our Epistle tells us this morning, ‘But when the fulness of time was come, God sent for His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons’ (Galatians 4:4-5).
Although the Eternal Son of God has no sin, when the Father in heaven decided that it was time for our redemption, that Son became a man to take on Himself in His total innocence all the burdens and penalties of our slavery as revealed by the Law. The Lord who declared the Law was born ‘under the law’ to suffer the consequences of our sins and our condemnation for them under the Law.
But Almighty God, through His Son, does more than transfer our servanthood from sin to Himself. It is right that we begin as servants of God, since even the Son of God has made Himself His Father’s servant. The Apostles in their writings call themselves the servants of God and the servants of God’s people. But God in Christ takes our redemption further still, so that once we are free to be His servants again, even while we struggle with the remnants of sin in us, He makes us His children by the blood of Christ, by adoption, and by an infinite, unmerited grace.
The same Father, who is now our Father, also sends us the Holy Ghost, so that we can begin right now, even while our imperfections are still being done away, living as his Son Jesus Christ lives forever: ‘And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying “Abba, Father’’ (Galatians 4:6). Because we have been made more than servants and slaves, we can call the God who made us, ‘Father.’ And the implications of this change are immense. St. Paul tries to summarize them by writing, ‘Wherefore [for this reason] thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.’
The life, death, and resurrection of the child born in Bethlehem transforms us from slaves to sin and death into, first, the true servants of God, and then, into the living heirs of our Father’s eternal kingdom. And we encounter a remarkable illustration of the power of that child, even in the womb, in today’s Gospel.
St. Joseph, who had wooed and won the Virgin Mary as his wife, discovers that she is pregnant with a child not his own. Some legends say that Joseph was an older man who awkwardly and shyly courted the prettiest and finest girl in Nazareth. But young or old, shy or confident, Joseph faces a love story that had turned into a humiliating disaster. Based on the facts as he knew them and under the terms of the Law, Mary was an adulteress, and the penalty for adultery was being stoned to death. What Joseph actually did makes for one of the most beautiful lines in the Gospel: ‘Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily’ (Matthew 1:19).
Joseph could have been a slave to anger and to jealousy. He could have used the Law as a slave’s weapon of death, as the Pharisees so often did. But Jospeh was a ‘just man,’ a man who had pledged his service to God, even as he waited for God to make the complete redemption of that pledge possible. He chose love and mercy and the life of Mary’s child over his own broken heart; and of course, through the beautiful providence of God, Joseph’s broken heart was healed by the child his love and mercy protected in the womb of Mary. That child, Joseph’s Lord, sent an angel with the truth of the matter—that Mary was with child by the Holy Ghost, a child who would be the Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Joseph had to wait, like the rest of us, for the one sacrifice once offered by which his adopted son would give all the redeemed their freedom from slavery and their adoption by the heavenly Father. But Joseph also demonstrates that the grace of God is never idle and that God created men for something better than slavery. Almost all we know about Joseph is that he was a just man, a decent man, who refused to be a slave and who put his trust in the child born of Mary. If as much can be said of us, then we too shall never be slaves. We shall have understood the true meaning of Christmas, and we shall be the adopted sons and daughters of God forever.