Doctrine Ch.23 - Redemption

Payments to redeem a kidnap victim or to buy a slave are strange images for salvation, but in Bible times these concepts were regarded very differently from how we think about them today.

I was worried when my daughter said her new friend kidnaps people for a living. He was large, but he appeared to be gentle. It turned out that his firm is hired to perform abductions—including hooding and moderate violence—on unsuspecting trainees being sent to dangerous environments. This is necessary, because kidnapping and ransom is big business for the pirates and terrorists who use it as a profitable source of income, and these workers need to know what to expect and how to react to minimize danger to themselves.

       Kidnapping for ransom is by no means a new activity. One reason Jews tolerated Herod the Great was his defeat of bandits during his early reign, but by the first century AD others had filled the gap. One result was that when Jesus attended a wedding, he would be likely to hear a vow that no modern groom needs to make: “If you are kidnapped, I will ransom you.” It was a relatively new part of the marriage ceremony, necessitated by the real threat of kidnapping by vicious bandits. If a woman were kidnapped and held even for more than a few minutes, it was assumed she’d been violated. The vow was necessary because a pious man might feel obligated to live separately from her now that she was “defiled,” so he might be tempted not to ransom her unless he had made this pledge.1

       Jesus referred to himself as a ransom (in Mark 10:44), but some early theologians disliked this image. I think they took it too literally. They wanted to know to whom the money was paid, and they argued, reasonably, that if the payment had been to Satan, then God was giving in to his unjust demands. To counteract this, Saint Anselm in the eleventh century referred to the payment as a “fine”—that is, a penalty or punishment for our sins. Therefore, there was a just reason why payment could be demanded in order to free sinners. However, this image, like the image of ransom, can also be taken too literally, because it raises the question: Who demanded the fine—Satan? We can solve this absurdity by looking at what ransom and redemption meant in the Bible.

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Paying a ransom

In Old Testament law, you were required to either sacrifice or “redeem” every firstborn son or animal—that is, buy them back from God (Num 18:15-16). Since people could not be sacrificed, they had to be redeemed.

       This law originated from the time when Israel escaped Egypt and God protected the firstborn Israelite males from the final terrible plague that killed the firstborn of the Egyptians. Because God had spared them, they were regarded in some way as belonging to him. But instead of paying money to the Tabernacle for all the firstborn who came out of Egypt, the men of the tribe of Levi were given to God for religious service. They were almost the same in number as the firstborn males who had been saved, so only the difference had to be paid in shekels (see Num 3).

       When Jesus called himself a ransom, he seemed to compare and contrast himself to these Levites. Like the Levites, he gave his life (including his death) in service to God and humanity, as a ransom. But, whereas each Levite could redeem only one firstborn, Jesus is a ransom for “many”—that is, for everyone who repents.

       The Old Testament Hebrew doesn’t actually refer to these Levites as a “ransom”—that word is reserved for the money payment itself. However, by New Testament times, Jews were used to the concept that a person could be a ransom payment. The Septuagint (the Jews’ Greek translation of the Old Testament) does call the Levites “a ransom” for Israel (Num 3:12), using the same word that was normally reserved for “money payments.” Jesus was making the point that his life was so valuable that the exchange rate wasn’t one for one (as it was with the Levites); his single life could redeem everyone.

       Paul used a different image of a payment to explain the cross. He likened salvation to the redemption loophole that enabled a Greek or Roman slave to get himself released. The slave could save up money and pay it to a temple, so that the god would then purchase him with that money. This meant that, legally, he now belonged to that god, so he owed that god his allegiance. A large wall still standing at the shrine at Delphi in Greece records the names of many slaves who were redeemed in this way. Paul said that Christians should apply the same rule to themselves; they were bought from slavery to sin, so they should now regard themselves as belonging to God (1 Cor 6:19-20; 7:22-23). He used this image to show that Christians should live completely for God, because their freedom was bought by Christ.

       Some Christians conclude that the redemption imagery in the Bible indicates that God has to obey “justice”—rather like a modern ruler has to obey the law. But this speculation about the literal meaning of “ransom” implies something that Scripture does not: that God is constrained by some kind of law that is higher than God himself. It is as if this law demands punishment for sin or the payment of a fine, and God has to obey it. It is very difficult to believe in this kind of law and also God’s sovereignty. But even if there is such a law, we should be aware that it is not what the original readers would have envisioned when redemption was mentioned.

Further images of salvation

When thinking about how salvation works, it’s important to remind ourselves that the descriptions the Bible gives us are merely images—none are a complete explanation—and we should take care when trying to interpret them further than we are invited to by Scripture. For example, while the Bible portrays Satan as Jesus’ opponent, it does not say that Satan received any ransom payment. Satan can, perhaps, be regarded as our former slave master, but the Bible does not say that Jesus bought us back from him.

       When first-century readers considered redemption by Jesus, they would have thought about being rescued from kidnapping (possibly by Satan), being redeemed as a firstborn, or being freed from slavery to sin or Satan so that we are now owned by God. Another glorious way that Paul describes salvation at the cross uses the image of a battleground where Jesus defeated Satan and released many “captives” (Col 2:14-15; Eph 4:8-9). This complements the image of release from captivity or slavery that is illustrated by the concept of redemption.

       While the images of paying fines may emphasize God’s justice, the images of paying a ransom emphasize God’s love. Both are true: God is a severe judge whose justice was balanced by Jesus’ self-sacrifice and also a loving Father who sent his best warrior to defeat his enemy. Scripture describes our salvation using many different images, because the work of the cross is simply too big to be understood through one image alone. “Ransomed,” “redeemed,” and “rescued” are all aspects of God’s wonderful salvation plan, through which we can catch a glimpse of the breadth and depth of his love for us.

1^ See Papyri Yadin 10 in my “Aramaic Marriage and Divorce Papyri,” Tyndale Bulletin 52 (2001): 225-43 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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