March 4, 2006 - Second Sunday in Lent
The Atonement as a Ransom
Why did Jesus die? The simplest and earliest answer given by the Christian church is based on Jesus’ own words in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45. The death of Jesus was a ransom for sinners. The image of the Atonement as ransom is thus the first and classic picture used by Christians to understand what Christ did.
The Ransom view of the Atonement has its roots in the ancient practice of slavery. A ransom was initially the price paid to redeem a person from enslavement. That is why the New Testament words for ransom are also translated by “redemption.” When one became a slave, either by capture or by being sold, freedom could be obtained by a payment. In Christian thinking about the Atonement, the death of Jesus on the Cross was regarded as that kind of ransom payment.
Jesus paid a ransom with His own life and blood to save us. Because a payment was made, this understanding of the Atonement is sometimes confused with another that came later. On this other view, what is paid is not the price of redemption, but the penalty for sin. God’s justice and wrath is satisfied by the suffering of Jesus in our place. This later image has many names, but is often called the Satisfaction view. Jesus satisfied legal requirements that we could not meet. We need to keep the difference between Ransom and Satisfaction straight. One image is drawn from the slave market; the other from a court of law. We will look at the Satisfaction view and the legal images next week.
A ransom image of the Atonement is a rich way to understand our salvation. By acts of sin we enter into slavery to sin. Think about how difficult it is to break a bad habit—sin is bondage. By becoming slaves to sin we are also bound over to Satan and to the power of death. Without Christ, we have no way to free ourselves. But with the blood of Jesus, God purchased us for Himself, binding us to eternal life of His Trinity and freeing us from the destructive “trinity” of sin, death and the devil.
Some Christians are uncomfortable with the Ransom view because it seems to say that God was forced to make payment to the forces of evil, particularly to Satan. It seems strange to say that God must pay Satan for what rightfully belongs to God. This is one of the reasons later Christians, particularly Anselm, rejected the notion of a “ransom” as such and began to frame the Satisfaction view in more legal terms.
Yet, no matter how we construe it, Scripture clearly calls the Atonement a ransom. Christ has made a payment which frees us. Viewing Jesus’ death and resurrection in this way forces upon us the cost of our salvation. It reminds us that salvation is a gift, not a reward. It reminds us that we are saved from the service of evil to the service of Jesus Christ. We are saved at a great price and the proper response is a service of deep love and gratitude toward the one who paid that price. By our ransom we are called to worship: “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Psalm 107:2.
Your child has been kidnapped. It’s your worst nightmare. His bed was empty when you woke up. The window was open. On his pillow you found a crazy, patchwork note of letters cut from newspapers and magazines. It reads, “If you want to see your little boy again, call this number.” Shaking and weeping, you pick up the phone. A rough voice tells you not to call the police, that they want five hundred thousand dollars, and here is the place to take it and get your son back. What would you do?
You should call the police. That would be the smart thing. But what would your heart say? Pay. Pay. Pay! If you had it in the bank, you would draw it out. You would sell your car, your house. You would beg and borrow from your family, your friends. You might even, like a character in a movie, think about stealing the money. Whatever the price of your child’s life, your heart and soul would cry out to pay it.
God would not do any less than you would. He loves you no less than you love your child. He loves you as much as any parent has ever loved. His heart aches for you as a Father with His child held hostage. And God has no higher power to turn to, no police or law above Himself. So He did pay. He paid with the blood of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 9:15 says, “he has died as a ransom to set them free.”
We are hostages. We have been kidnapped. Not just kidnapped, but sold into slavery. Verse 15 continues, saying that God paid, “to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”
By sinning you and I let ourselves be kidnapped by sin. We know that first covenant. God’s law gave us simple rules to live by. The Ten Commandments. “Worship only God.” “Don’t make idols.” “Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.” “Honor the Sabbath day.” “Honor our parents.” “Don’t murder.” “Don’t commit adultery.” “Don’t steal.” “Don’t lie.” “Don’t covet what belongs to someone else.”
We know those rules, but you and I worship money and power instead of God. We let hobbies or entertainment or sports become idols. We say God’s name and mean nothing by it. We do things that don’t honor God on the Lord’s Day. We disobey or neglect our parents. We hate others, which Jesus said is the same as murder. We lust, which Jesus said is the same as adultery. We get everything we can for ourselves, sometimes taking it from others who need it more. We lie. We are always looking at what others have and wanting more for ourselves. We are, as Paul says in Romans 6, “slaves to sin.” We’ve been kidnapped by it.
You know it’s true. If you’ve ever tried to stop a sin you’ve been doing a long time, you know it’s true. Oh sure, there are the obvious addictions to tobacco, drugs, alcohol or gambling. No one who has ever wrestled with one of those will deny that you were or are in bondage to your addiction. But just try to stop thinking hateful thoughts about someone who has wronged you. Try to give up that pornography you look at on your computer. Try to quit gossiping about your friends. Try to quit dreaming about that attractive person who is not your spouse. Try to eat less. Try to give up wanting a new car or a new house or new clothes. Try to quit lying about your taxes. Try to get free of any of those sins or whatever ones you wrestle with, and you know. It’s slavery. It’s bondage. We’ve been kidnapped, and God wants to set us free.
God has always wanted to set people free from sin. That’s why He gave the Jewish people the ritual mentioned in verses 12 and 13. For a long time, God chose that the blood of goats and bulls, and the ashes of a cow burned in sacrifice, would pay ransom to set His people free from sin. Those sacrifices, in combination with hearts that turned to God and away from sin, paid the price of redemption. God bought His people with the lives of animals.
In Leviticus, the third book in the Old Testament, you find this plan for ransoming sinners through animal sacrifices. Chapter 16 tells how the high priest should enter once a year into the holy of holies, carrying blood to atone for his own sins and then the sins of the people. It had to be done every year. Animal blood only set them free for so long. Like rehab for an addiction, one time was usually not enough. They kept falling back into sin, kept getting kidnapped all over again.
In the blood of Jesus, that old plan for ransom was superseded and fulfilled. First, in verse 11 we learn that Christ did not enter any structure made with human hands. His atonement, His ransom, was carried into the tabernacle in heaven which is the presence of God.
Second, in verse 12, He did not pay the ransom with animal blood. Christ poured out His own blood on the Cross.
Third, still in verse 12, He did not need to do it more than once. The ransom Jesus paid was once for all. The redemption He obtained for us was eternal. Christ put the high priest out of a job. When He was done, there was nothing more to do. The ransom had been completely paid. And the power of the kidnapper had been broken. In Jesus we are set free and do not have to sin anymore.
There are a couple questions we all want to ask now. One big one is just, “How?” How does this all work? How could the blood of Jesus ransom you and me? Isn’t God just being sadistic? Isn’t the Cross, as some have said lately, just a kind of cosmic child abuse? Why all this talk of blood and kidnapping and paying ransom? Why not lighten up and focus on love and grace and forgiveness?
You and I cannot understand God’s love and grace and forgiveness for our sins, unless we grasp what it cost. Until we really feel what it means that Christ paid in His own blood, we won’t truly find the freedom He bought for us.
So early Christians talked often and much about the ransom Jesus paid and what it meant. They lived in a world where people were literally slaves. They lived in cities where they knew they could, at any time, be captured by a foreign army or by bandits along the highway and be forced into slavery. Many of them were or had been slaves themselves. So they took the idea of ransom to heart and saw it as a great divine anti-terrorist strategy to rescue hostages from sin and the devil.
The early Christians used their own pictures to explain how Jesus’ ransom worked, but you and I would talk about setting a trap for the kidnappers. Pay the ransom, but have the drop site completely surrounded by the FBI. So when the kidnapper picks up his payment, he’s caught. Jesus pays the ransom, but when sin and the devil try to collect, they get nailed.
I love Gregory of Nyssa’s way of putting it. For Him the blood of Jesus was fishbait. It was dropped down as if on a line held in the hand of God. When Satan gulped down the life of Jesus like a greedy fish, he got a surprise. Satan thought Jesus was a man and so He could be killed. But Jesus was also God. His divinity was the hook buried in the flesh of the man. Jesus Christ died and entered into Satan’s realm only to rise and catch up sin and the devil dangling on His hook.
Augustine had a similar image. He said the Cross was a mousetrap baited with the blood of Jesus. Satan the rodent was caught in the trap. We are set free, and the one who held us captive was captured.
Perhaps those pictures help you. Perhaps not. God wired us each a little differently. Some of us respond to some images and some to others. So this isn’t the only way to talk about the great work of Christ. The Bible uses many different pictures to communicate to us what God has done for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. You may be helped more by some of the other ways we will look at His Atonement in the next few weeks.
Nonetheless, this one seems basic. It appears over and over. Jesus said in Mark 10:45 that He came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” We opened our worship with words from Revelation which proclaim Jesus worthy because He ransomed us for God. The great price of our salvation is at the heart of what we believe.
That amazing ransom is at the heart of our faith because it makes a huge difference in how we respond to our Lord. If you and I will only realize and accept the deep implications of the fact that we have been bought, dearly bought, then it will change how we live. It will make us into something new.
In I Corinthians 6 and 7, Paul is concerned with morality in the church. Right in the middle of trying to get them free of all kinds of sexual immorality, he reminds them not once, but twice, that as Christians they have been bought. I Corinthians 6:20 and in 7:23 he says, “you were bought at a price.” He meant the memory of that price to make a difference, to make them live differently. He meant the purchase price of their redemption to call them out of their sin and change their behavior.
That’s why we constantly recall what Jesus paid. We remember it every time we come to this table around which we are gathered this morning. The broken body. The shed blood. This was the price. He paid it. He bought you. He bought you for Himself. Now He asks you to live that way, as people who belong to Him.
I’d like to end this morning with the opening scene from the 1998 film of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. Jean Valjean has just been released after being imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing food. As he wanders from town to town, a kindly old bishop feeds him dinner and gives him a bed for the night. In return Jean assaults the bishop and steals his silverware. But the police pick up Jean and find the silver. They haul him to the Bishop’s house and find him in his garden with a bandage on his head. They present Valjean and order him to return the silver before they take him off to prison again. But the bishop says it was all a misunderstanding and the silver was a gift. He adds to Jean’s bag a pair of silver candlesticks which he says had been given as well, but Jean forgot.
The Bishop sends his housekeeper inside with the police to serve them some wine. Jean is left standing dumbfounded before the bishop who says, “And don’t forget… don’t ever forget you’ve promised to become a new man.”
“Why are you doing this?” asks Jean.
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I’ve bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred. Now I give you back to God.”
Jean had been bought. He was to go and live like a new man, not a thief, not a sinner, but a new man, a good man. If you’ve seen the film or read the book, you know that he did live that way. From that moment on, he started a new life. The price paid for him transformed him.
Will the price Jesus paid transform you?
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj