Breaking the Chains

Psalm 116.16
1 Peter 1.17-21

The NRSV use of “loosed” in translating psalm 116.16 is valid and correct. But saying “you have loosed my bonds” is just a bit too timid for the work of God breaking our life loose from bondage. The contrast is more obvious in Hebrew. This is because Hebrew changes the meaning of verbs by altering its stem. Some stems make the verb passive “I have been lifted up,” others turn it causative “you caused me to rise.”

The simple (qal) stem of the verb is “open” as in “I open the door” but that is not the stem used here. Here it is the intensive (piel) stem which points not to the gentle opening of doors for invited guests but instead to the active, forceful work of ripping doors off hinges and tossing them broken on the ground. While this may seem a bit too aggressive and violent, there is an event in the life of the church which is very consistent with this sort of forceful opening.

It’s the harrowing of hell and the best image I’ve seen for this is in the Orthodox icon of the resurrection. Jesus in his glory is central to this image and he is pictured taking a man and woman by the hand and raising them to stand up again out of their coffins (by tradition these are Adam and Eve). Also by tradition he is standing on a pair of crossed doors. These are the bronze doors of hell itself which have been torn from their hinges and tossed on the ground. Surrounding them are the broken chains and locks of hell and in some icons you will find a single broken key prominently displayed. This is the key to hell which has, like the doors and the chains, been broken forever.

These chains, key, and doors are the broken power of sin, death, and the devil. They are also part of a larger breaking free into life. We see this more clearly in the letter of 1 Peter where we are reminded that the resurrection of Jesus has ransomed us “from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors.”

The futile ways could also be called “fruitless” as in “the ways of life which bear no fruit for life.” To be even more general, these could be called the ways and habits of life and heart which do not give life. They range from the endless stream of busy nothings which clog our days all the way out to the assumptions of life which trap us in futile patterns of living and even addiction.

And from where did we pick up these habits? We learned it from others. In fact, the Greek makes it clear that we were given this by others. The verb is paterdidomi, a compound of pater (father) and didomi (to give). Thus at its most basic, this is the stuff our fathers gave us. But let’s not blame fathers for all of this, because Greek lumps everything together as “from dad” even when dads are not actually part of the process.

Thus these futile ways of life from which we have been ransomed by Christ are in fact, the compound of all the ideas, attitudes, and experiences which we have received from everyone in our life, not just our dads. But Jesus does not ransom us from our entire past because (in spite the definite assurance of all teenagers) not everything we learned from adults is stupid, dumb, and pointless.

What Jesus has done is ransomed us from the fruitless (that is “that bear no fruit/life”) things we inherited, the unspoken assumptions of life and the childhood convictions based on insufficient evidence. Not everything is fruitless and his resurrection is our opportunity to stand up again into life. So what are we to do with all this?

The first thing to understand is that the power of the resurrection has ripped down the doors of hell and broken the chains which bind us. The second is to continue the practice of reviewing our life, sorting through the assumptions we have received and testing to see which ones lead us into Christ. Because of the power of Christ in our life, we can test what we have received, let go of what drags us down, and embrace the new life we have.

You have been ransomed with preciousness, you are valued and valuable, you can therefore let go of a fruitless past and embrace the fruit filled future of life in faith.


About pstrobus

The product of a youth misspent in libraries. I realized early that language is important and that words have a great deal of power and so I listen for the shape of the ideas as well as the words.
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