The following was prepared for our small fellowship. After its presentation, I was severely taken to task for failing to parrot some “doctrines” of a “statement of faith” advocated by a member. I welcome any New Testament based comments.
Redemption:“Get out of Jail Free” or “Under New Management”?
In spite of the fact that the Easter season, and indeed, every Sunday!, is supposed to celebrate Jesus’ glorious triumph over death by his resurrection, and, as I have pointed out previously, his complete superiority over everything that once separated earnest worshipers from God, demonstrated by the destruction of the temple veil, far too many people still choose to focus most of their attention on self-flagellation for having supposedly “caused” his suffering and death – often mistakenly calling it “redemption” – despite the fact that JESUS NEVER SAID THAT! I would challenge anyone to find one single place where he did! These are entirely separate concepts. The former (the definitive defeat of death and the opening of access to God) are well documented in the gospels and the epistles; and the latter (assuming personal, individual responsibility for causing Jesus’ suffering and death) is completely absent from both gospels and epistles. I am not quite ready to join the “red-letter Christians” who accept only direct quotations of Jesus, but I do consider those to be of greater authority than anything else.
People exacerbate this problem by continually lamenting what they represent as the dreadful “cost” or “price” of their “redemption”, which they interpret to require yet another mournful excursion into their own “unworthiness” or “sinfulness”, for which the slightest infraction is assumed to “deserve” capital punishment! I have yet to be shown a single culture in the whole world that imposes a death penalty for every misstep!
This was certainly NEVER the focus of either Jesus or any of the New Testament writers. I think, choosing the most charitable option, that its prevalence probably grows, at least in part, out of at the very least a gross misunderstanding, if not deliberate ignorance, of the original words connected with the concept of “redemption.” It is my hope that, by considering this topic, we may recover (or discover) some of both the beautiful wonder and the serious responsibility that is implicit in the concept of “redemption”.
In order to do this, it is necessary to correct our understanding of several terms that have been seriously distorted by what passes for “Christian teaching”.
Let’s start with a common phrase that is frequently used of a person who exerts tremendous effort toward a goal – any goal. When you hear that someone has “given his life” to the pursuit of a cure for a particular disease, do you assume that he died in the course of his work?
Or when an investigator lectures about the scientific, historical or archaeological discoveries to which he has “given his life” – Is he dead?
Then when Jesus clearly states (in Mt.20:28) that his own purpose “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom” is supposed to be a model for the service to one another that he expects of his followers (who at the time of that conversation were jockeying for positions of power and honor), why do you assume that he is referring to his death, instead of to his selfless life? Context, as usual, is critical to the understanding of any statement.
Similar misunderstandings surround the word translated “redemption” and “ransom” (both of which are used by English translators, to represent the SAME Greek word). Although another word – the one commonly used for the ordinary commerce of buying and selling – occurs in a few places, the principal one is represented by both English translations. Classically, it refers primarily to the ransom of prisoners of war, who had been enslaved by a conquering nation (in this case, Rome), which was common practice in many ancient cultures.
Nobody in the first century had to ask the meaning of the word “slavery” or “slave”. The concept was painfully familiar. The word “doulos”, although often translated “servant”, almost always referred to slavery, regardless of whether it described one born into bondage, a person captured as a prisoner of war, or a child sold by indigent parents. Slaves were wholly owned possessions of their masters, even though some held positions of great responsibility, or were even officially adopted into the master’s family. It was also not uncommon for a faithful slave to be set free, either by his master’s generosity, by having earned and purchased his freedom, or by having been “redeemed” or purchased by someone else.
Insight into the varied status and responsibilities of slaves is available throughout the New Testament: for example, notably,
Mt.8:9 – they do what they are told
Mt. 13:27 – they refer problems or uncertainty to the master, and receive instructions, which they are then expected to follow.
There are many others. I highly recommend to you the exercise of scanning the gospels for other examples. In doing so, remember that “servant” and “slave” represent the same original word.
Paul makes an eloquent case in Romans 6:16-20 that a person is a servant/slave to whomever or whatever he chooses to obey. Autonomy is not an option: never was, never will be.
Under Roman law, a redeemed slave could not only gain his freedom, but could even acquire Roman citizenship, which gave him many legal rights and privileges not available to others.
People “redeemed” by Jesus are also eligible for citizenship in his Kingdom! But sadly, not all accept that generous offer.
Please notice (and confirm by searching the New Testament) that neither slavery nor ransom from that condition has anything whatever to do with “offenses”! People convicted of wrongdoing were beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes executed, but not enslaved. Likewise, it has nothing to do with “sacrifice” – another word, incidentally, which JESUS NEVER USED in reference to himself or to anything he did. Check it out – using a genuine translation, not a paraphrased version, of the New Testament. The six uses of the word “sacrifice” in the gospels are never applied to Jesus, and the majority of the uses in the epistles refer to idol worship, or the formerly required Jewish temple rituals.
Notice also that “redemption”, also occasionally represented by the word for simple purchase, does NOT confer total autonomy! Far from the much-trumpeted concept of escape from the consequences of bad behavior (the “Get out of Jail Free” card in your Monopoly game), “redemption” represents simply a change of ownership: no more and no less.
Here is the beginning of an impressive list of oppressors from which our Lord has “bought” or “redeemed” his people:
Gal.3:13 and 4:5 – the curse and bondage of the Law
Titus 2:14 – ALL lawlessness
1 Peter 1:18 – the empty /futile ways of our ancestors (the only reference to “blood” – and that is connected to the Passover, the feast of freedom from bondage, and nothing else).
Ephesians 1:7 – our transgressions
Colossians 1:14 – our failures
and you can find many more. Please note that the latter two, “transgressions” and “failures”, which many people prefer to lump together and label “sins”, (although the New Testament does not), are literally “taken away”, not simply overlooked, and certainly not “forgotten”.
Using slightly different vocabulary, Paul reminds the folks in Colossae, “He (God) has delivered (rescued) us from the power of darkness, and has transplanted us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son!” (1:13)
Those whom Jesus has “redeemed” have been graciously offered citizenship in his Kingdom! But please remember that citizenship entails BOTH privilege and responsibility.
Paul’s reminder to the Romans, mentioned earlier, is still very much in effect: we are servants/slaves to whatever power we choose to obey!!
Do not forget that redemption is much more than mere escape from negative things and circumstances! The deliverance described in Col. 1:13 is into the Kingdom of the Son of God!
It includes (Rom.3:24) being made (not merely “considered”) just (which is the same word that some folks call “righteous”), (Rom.8:24) being adopted as sons of God, and having been set apart as the possession of the Lord Jesus (I Cor.1:30 and Eph.1:14),by his seal of ownership, the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to make kingdom living possible for us mere mortals! It’s about life – not “after you die”!
On a practical level, having been “bought” by our Master, it is reasonable to expect (I Cor.6:30) that we become eager to reflect honor upon him; (I Cor. 7:23) that we refuse to allow ourselves to become enslaved to anything or anyone else; and (II Peter 2:1) that we make every effort not to deny or discredit him in any way. For all the “redeemed” there is one single assignment: reflecting, however imperfectly, the whole personality of the One who has redeemed us. Such an assignment assumes that our lives will be radically altered, in order to represent him correctly and faithfully!
This is a concept that is often ignored in groups today that label themselves “welcoming”. It is perfectly true that all are indeed welcome, regardless of their previous situation or condition – but all must also be changed! Not a single aspect of our life is exempt! We are under new management!
The question “Can you be a Christian if you –-?” (fill in the blank with your currently preferred no-no) is totally irrelevant.
There exists no check-list of qualifications or requirements, after which we can relax. The re-direction of our lives is an assignment that lasts for our entire lifetime! If we choose to accept citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom, as ransomed, redeemed people, we will NEVER outgrow our need for course-corrections! Our whole life needs a total overhaul to conform to his ways. It must be obviously and always “under new management”!
Even if this were “all there is”, the condition of those so “redeemed” would be glorious! But there is more! In Eph.1:4, the Holy Spirit is described as simply the “down-payment” on the inheritance of the folks redeemed from every nation and tongue, to enable our faithfulness until, with those gathered around his throne, we celebrate the final triumph of the King! What a day that will be!
You may have noticed that there is one question that we have not addressed: “To whom was the ransom owed or paid?” This is neither oversight nor deliberate avoidance. The reason for its lack is simple: Although centuries of “theologians”, preachers, and teachers of many persuasions have adamantly (and often arrogantly) proclaimed the accuracy of their theories, The New Testament itself does not speak to that issue. Since this is a New Testament study, I will not presume to do so, either.
Our attention can much more profitably be focused upon faithfully seeking to fulfill the purpose of the One who has redeemed us for himself!
He has graciously provided us with very clear instructions for that effort, the resource of the power of his Holy Spirit to teach and enable us, and the supportive companionship of each other, with whom to learn to demonstrate his style of living, “under new management!”
Thanks be to God!