Redemption – what does it mean?

The word ‘redemption’ is not commonly used today and perhaps for many it now refers merely to some vague religious ‘God-talk’. While redemption is a word found in the Bible, up until relatively recently it was also a word used in everyday life. For example, if you were short of money, you could take a personal possession, perhaps a watch, to a pawn shop and sell it. The pawnbroker would keep the item for an agreed period of time at which point you could return and buy it back or, if not, the pawn broker would be free to sell it to anyone. Buying back the item was called‘redeeming’ and the price you paid was the ‘redemption price’.

Redemption – setting a slave free

In Bible times, redemption was a well-known idea and was often used in connection with slaves. You could be a slave for different reasons. Perhaps you had been captured after losing a battle and forced into slavery. Or, perhaps you had lost all your money and the only alternative to starving was to sell yourself, and maybe even your whole family, into slavery. But if you had become a slave, were you bound to be a slave for your whole life? Well, in principle, you could slowly save your meagre earnings and eventually buy your freedom. However, there was also provision for someone to buy you out of slavery – to ‘redeem’ you. The law allowed such a person, perhaps a wealthy relative, to make arrangements with your owner to pay the redemption price. This would involve the redeemer going to the local pagan temple and paying the agreed redemption price plus a small ‘cut’ to the temple priests. The temple would then pay your owner and your ownership would be transferred to the temple’s god. This elaborate deal was necessary to ensure you remained a slave in status, but, of course, being a slave to a pagan‘god’ meant that you were essentially free and could do as you please.

Redemption – in the Old Testament

In the Bible, redemption always contains the idea of being set free on the basis of payment. This payment is often called the ‘ransom’, so payment of the ransom price would secure release. In the Old Testament, slaves and prisoners of war could be redeemed and, in some circumstances,when a person’s life was forfeit (e.g., because his ox had gored someone to death) there was provision made allowing a ransom to be paid to prevent the person being put to death, Exod.21. 28ff. Another Old Testament concept was that of the ‘kinsman redeemer’. Here, a kinsman (a member of your family) had an obligation to redeem various family members and possessions. It might mean marrying the widow of a deceased family member, e.g., Boaz, Ruth 3. 13, or buying one of the family out of slavery, Lev. 25. 48ff., or reclaiming a field which had been sold in time of financial hardship, Lev. 25. 26. In all these instances the redemption comes at a cost, usually a financial payment. However, in the Old Testament God, as Jehovah, is frequently said to have redeemed Israel, whether it be from slavery in Egypt, Exod. 6. 6; 15. 13; Ps. 106. 10, or the later deliverance from captivity in Babylon, Isa. 43. 1; 48.20; Jer. 31. 11; Mic. 4. 10. This use of the word redemption has led some to suggest that, when applied to God, it means simply ‘to deliver’ and loses the idea of paying a ransom – after all, who does God pay a ransom to when redeeming his people?However, careful reading of such passages often shows that the redemption which Jehovah brings about is not effortless, but it requires exertion (note the ‘outstretched arm’, Exod. 6. 6). The effort is regarded as the ‘price’ and Jehovah’s action is at cost to Himself.

Redemption – in the New Testament

The New Testament writers take up the imagery of redemption to apply it to the Christian. As sinners we are in slavery to sin and to Satan, and we need someone to provide redemption. But what could be the redemption price? Jesus answers the question in His own words, ‘Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’, Matt.20.28. Elsewhere, we read that it was Jesus who secured our eternal redemption ‘with his own blood’, Heb. 9. 12 NKJV. That is, at the cross Jesus gave His life as the ransom price to buy us back from slavery to sin. We, just like that Roman slave, have been redeemed and had our ownership transferred to Jesus Christ – we have become servants (or literally ‘slaves’) of Jesus Christ, Col. 4. 12.

We could never buy our own freedom; nothing we can do could release us from Satan’s power – we could be ransomed only ‘with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot’, 1 Pet. 1. 19 NKJV. But if Jesus’ life was our ransom, then who was the ransom paid to? Here we must be careful not to stretch the human analogy of redemption too far. Although we were slaves to sin and to Satan, no ‘ransom’ was ever paid to ‘sin’ orto Satan himself. They didn’t have the power to demand such a payment, and it was not Satan whose holiness was offended by sin requiring a penalty to be paid. Rather, the penalty for sin was paid by Christ, and received and accepted by God the Father. This is not the same as saying Christ was paid as a ransom to God the Father, as it was not He who held us in bondage but Satan and our own sins. We must simply rest in the joy and peace of knowing that the price has been paid and we have been redeemed.

Redemption – in my life

In Romans chapter 6 Paul explains that, while we were once slaves to sin, we are no longer, because Christ has died. Not only has Christ died, but, Paul says, we have been crucified with Him, and consequently we must consider ourselves ‘dead… to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus’, Rom. 6.11. This means sin’s stranglehold has been broken, and, while we still struggle with sin, we can be assured that we will never face its penalty and we will eventually overcome it. Paul, elsewhere, says that we were ‘bought at a price;therefore glorify God in your body’, 1 Cor. 6. 20 NKJV. So, to live out the truth of redemption is to realize that we are now under new ownership and we should live in a way which honours our new Master. But we must not think we are swapping one life of drudgery for another. Paul is eager to remind us that it is for freedom Christ has set us free, Gal. 5. 1.The new life Jesus has bought for us is characterized by true freedom to live lives which honour and, ultimately, glorify Him.

Behind all this there should be a sense of deep (and deepening) gratitude. Imagine the joy the Roman slave felt knowing he had been set free and the love he would have for his redeemer. So it should be for us, and to far greater extent, as we consider our redemption that we respond with hearts of thankfulness and worship.