“Hold on!” whether it’s a rock climber holding on to a rock or a tree-climbing kid holding on to a tree limb – it makes sense to hold on to something stable to avoid plunging 30 feet below. That’s how we defy gravity.
Similarly, we also defy gravity in our day-to-day life. We all have been in chaotic life circumstances one way or another. We don’t like it, but life just happens. We better hold on to something good when the whirlwinds of changes blow through our lives. And yet, how often do we find ourselves holding on to something bad like a toxic relationship for instance? This is where Paul is coming from in his letter to his Greek friends in Thessaloniki. He is asking his friends to use their better judgment by identifying what is good and then holding on to it.
It goes without saying that we cannot hold on very well if we fail to let go of whatever takes up space in our hands. Back to the tree-climbing kid: if I carried a bag of groceries and saw a kid about to fall from a tree close to me, I would have to let go of my grocery bag to catch the falling kid. We all have to use our better judgment to determine and let go of our baggage. We have to ask ourselves some hard questions: what is toxic in our lives? What undermines the good things we have? We need to let go of evil to embrace the good and the wholesome.
Believe it or not, that’s what legalism is all about, but it approaches the whole issue upside-down by first identifying the evil, then proceeding to build fences and walls around it saying: “Do not touch!” In all reality we are supposed to identify the good first and by holding on to it, we let go of our baggage, which by the way includes legalism.
We are all familiar with “Thou shall not steal” from the Ten Commandments – well, legalism does steal! It steals the good things from us; joy, love, and mercy go right out the window once legalism takes over. This is probably the reason why Jesus got so incensed about his law-abiding contemporaries. Listen to some of His serious accusations (Matthew 23:23-24):
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone. Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”
When people try to clip the wings of freedom Jesus gave us, He gets mad. Understandably so! If you worked hard for a great cause and someone else would take away the benefit of your labor, I bet you would get mad too. Well, Jesus died for a very good cause. He died to set us free. Our freedom is purchased by His lifeblood. So why are we surprised that Jesus butts heads with the religious establishment?
If we feel cornered by other people’s expectations with no room left to breathe, here is some good news: Jesus gives us room to breathe. He is very protective of the freedom He has given to you and me. And once He sets us free He wants us to stay free and steer clear of any form of slavery, especially legalism. Paul calls his legalistic friends in Galatia (situated in modern Turkey) “bewitched”. Here is what he wrote (Galatians 3:1-2):
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
Paul’s question is now ours to answer. We cannot meet the Divine by meeting legalistic criteria. We meet the Son of God by embracing Him – and He’ll never let us go, not now, not ever!
“Oh no, you never let go, through the calm and through the storm; in every high and every low you never let go of me!” (Matt Redman)