Few things sit as deep within us as does the desire for freedom. We are not always sure exactly what freedom means, but we are ever resistant to whatever restrains, limits, or coerces us. We do not like being forced to do things, being told what to do, or having outside forces limit our choices. We value, more deeply than most anything else, our freedom.

Or, at least so it would seem. On the surface, this is true. At a deeper level, however, our desire for freedom is obfuscated by many things, especially by the fact that, too often, we have freedom confused with emancipation. Our struggle for freedom is focused rather narrowly on those forces outside of us which unfairly bind or limit us. But victory over these forces, emancipation, is only a small step towards genuine freedom. 

Today, in the Western world, we are, for the most part, emancipated, but we are far from free. We have been able to throw off most of the shackles of external tyranny, but we remain very much the prisoner of our own fears, our own wounds, our own angers, our own attachments, and our own obsessions. We are emancipated, but not free.

Let us look at a picture of a rare freedom: Jesus, at his trial, standing, bound and stripped, before Pontius Pilate.

In all of literature, nowhere do you see an image of a freer human being. Not even in Socrates before his accusers, or in the illustrious, stoic heros and heroines of great literature, nor indeed even in the deaths of martyrs, do we see anyone more free. Jesus stands before Pilate as a truly free human being.

And there is a great paradox in this. Jesus stands before Pilate in chains, captive, bound, whipped, despised, ridiculed, humanly impotent, unable to do a single thing to free himself. Yet he is free in a way that even his critics envy.

One of those critics is Pilate himself and he too, ironically, ends up admiring the man he condemns. Pilate has an interesting exchange with Jesus. When he first begins to question him, Jesus refuses to answer. Pilate then tries to intimidate him: “Don’t you know that I have power over you, that I can put you to death or set you free?”

Jesus, bound, externally powerless, answers in words that might aptly be paraphrased this way: “You have no power over me whatsoever. You do not adjudicate death and freedom. That power lies beyond you. You have no power to kill me or to set me free because, first of all, in my case, I am already dead … and free from you because of that! In the garden of Gethsemane, I gave my life away, gave it away of my own accord. Nobody takes my life from me. I lay it down and I take it up. God, alone, is Lord of life and freedom and once a person submits to that then no human person, no tyrant, no despot, no Hitler, can take his or her life and freedom away. You can kill me … but I am already dead!”

Pilate, to his credit, understood and the Scriptures tell us that, afterwards, he was anxious to free Jesus.

Jesus, before Pilate, was free, but not emancipated. We, today, are emancipated, but not free. As we struggle for freedom, we might well contemplate that image of rare freedom, Jesus before Pilate, externally bound but internally free, telling the world that no human power can ultimately coerce the heart.

However as we contemplate that image, we need to follow through on why Jesus was free in this deep way. Pilate had no power to take his life from him only because he had already given his life to his Father. Through obedience he became free, through submission to the God of heaven he escaped the power of the gods of earth.

Too often today our notions of freedom are too adolescent to understand this. We are emotionally resistant to all notions of obedience, submission, another’s will, and sometimes even to the very idea of Someone being above in such a way that puts us below. But until we give ourselves over in obedience to what is ultimate, higher, we will constantly find ourselves at the mercy of lesser gods whose altars perennially demand human sacrifice.

C.S.Lewis once said: The harshness of God is kinder than the softness of human beings and God’s compulsion is our liberation. We see exactly how true that is when Jesus appears before Pilate.