Author: Kevin George
This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!
The words “ransom” and “redeem” are mercantile terms, but they are frequently used metaphorically to describe releasing or freeing from what or who is holding the person in bondage.
For example, “redeeming the time” (Eph. 5:16), “redeemed us from the curse” (Gal. 3:13), “redeem those under the law” (Gal. 4:5), “redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14), and “redeemed from the empty way of life” (1 Peter 1:18). None of these statements involve a transfer of a payment from one party to another. They are all picturing a release. (See also Exodus 6:6, 15:13, Psalm 74:2, Rev. 5:9.)
These are metaphors like when we read “heavy heart”, “my yoke is easy”, being a “slave to sin”, or “dead to sin”. “Ransom”, “redeem”, and “purchase” are also metaphors, as Jesus did not make a literal transaction. Jesus redeemed us, set us free from the bondage, the addiction of sin, so we would be the servants of God and display God’s righteousness. For this reason, God is justified, righteous, in passing over our former sins (Romans 3:25).
Psalm 74:2 is a good example of “purchase” and “redeem” being metaphors. “Remember Your congregation, which You have purchased of old, which You have redeemed to be the tribe of Your inheritance; and this Mount Zion, where You have dwelt.” The point here is that Israel belongs to God because God is the one who directly intervened to do what was needed to liberate Israel from bondage. In Psalm 74:2 the psalmist is praying and requesting God to remember that Israel belongs to Him because it was He who set them free from their bondage.
For whatever reason, most people are taught that to redeem is primarily to make a payment. But what was paid? To whom was it paid? No, to redeem is primarily to set something free. Sometimes “purchase” and “redeem” involve a literal payment, but nobody literally paid anything when Israel was set free from Egypt.
A similar verse is Exodus 15:13, part of the song of Moses immediately after the Red Sea crossing, “Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed: thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation.” Was Moses saying God made some literal payment to Pharaoh in a literal redemptive purchase? No, the word “redeemed” is being used to show freedom, liberty, or release, not a payment.
Moses himself is said to be the redeemer in Acts 7:35 “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer [lytrōtēn] by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.” ESV Did Moses purchase the people of Israel from Egypt, or was Moses their liberator as God’s agent? The answer should be obvious, the Biblical use of “redeem” is to liberate, to free, not to pay.
With this in mind, let’s consider verses commonly used regarding Jesus giving a ransom or redemption for us…
Matthew 20:28 “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for [anti] many.” NASB
Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for [anti] many.”
The word translated as “ransom” here is the Greek “lytron”, which when taken literally does mean “ransom.” But figuratively, it means to loosen from bondage. Now, does it make sense to think that Jesus made a literal ransom payment to someone, like Satan, in order to liberate us? Or, does it make more sense that Jesus figuratively paid the maximum price, his life, to free us from our figurative bondage to sin? Jesus redeemed us, set us free, from the bondage of sin so we would be the servants of God and display God’s righteousness.
Both of these passages of Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 may have a translation problem when they are read in their full context, copied below. Both are parallel passages of an account when there was a discussion about future positions in the coming kingdom of Christ, yet Jesus turned their dreams upside down with his response – but his response is still within the original topic under discussion. Please take notice that the topic under discussion had nothing to do with atonement or sin, it was position and power.
Another clue to the translation problem, but only visible in the Greek language, is the word “anti” in the final phrase translated as “ransom for [anti] many.” This word means “against, contrary, in opposition to, in contrast to, opposite to, etc.”. When the phrase is changed to “as a ransom, in contrast to many”, it is easily seen that he was contrasting his ultimate end with what he was asking from his followers. He offered his followers lives of servants in contrast to positions of power, and as for himself, he would end up giving his own life as a ransom in contrast to others who want to keep their life. The ransom price of giving up his life, if we are to read it semi-literally, would be the only way out of the legal and political trouble that he was getting into – he was going to die, as he had previously already disclosed to them (Matthew 16:21). Here is the full context copied from the NASB, but with the final word “for” switched with “, in contrast to”. (“Instead of many” may also be an acceptable option in this passage.)
“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you desire?” She said to Him, “Say that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine shall sit, one at Your right, and one at Your left.” But Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They *said to Him, “We are able.” He *said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit at My right and at My left left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” And after hearing this, the other ten disciples became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles domineer over them, and those in high position exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wants to become prominent among you shall be your servant, and whoever desires to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom, in contrast to many.” Matthew 20:20-28 NASB
Many people, probably most people, are not willing to give their life as a ransom in martyrdom for a cause. But in contrast to the majority, Jesus was willing to die for his cause, in obedience to his Father. Indeed, he did this a few days after this discussion.
Note also that verse 28 starts with “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,…”. The “just as” indicates a continuation of what he had just asked them to do, to be a slave in service for others. The entire topic was a contrast between a worldly pursuit of power versus being willing to be a slave, and obedience unto death. Nothing in this passage indicates that the topic of atonement was even remotely under consideration. Furthermore, the idea of penal, substitutionary atonement had never even been taught in the Old Testament and was not a part of Jewish theology, so they had no reason to think along that line at all. They believed that Jesus was going to take the throne and rule as Messiah; they had no thought of him dying to pay a literal ransom for sin.
Another “redeemed” passage is 1 Peter 1:18-19. [Greek “elytrōthēte” ] This passage reads:
1 Peter 1:18-19 “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” NASB
Notice that in this passage the “redemption” has to do with freeing, releasing, from sin, “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers”. “Redeemed” here is used metaphorically. Yes, we were redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, but we were redeemed, set free, from bondage to sin, not from bondage to God or the Devil or any other literal person.
If redeem is to be understood literally, then these questions and maybe others have to be dealt with:
1. What exactly was literally bought?
2. Who bought us, Jesus or God? (Contrast Acts 20:28 “He purchased with His own blood” versus Revelation 5:9 “you ransomed people for God”.)
3. Who sold us – God? Satan?
4. Where do we read about this transaction?
5. How did the previous person gain legal custody to be able to sell us?
6. If someone turns from the faith, are they sold back? Does the original seller get a refund?
Now, let’s look at another verse that is frequently brought up…
Acts 20:28 “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” NASB The primary meaning of this Greek word for “purchased”, or “bought” in some translations, is “acquired”, “got”, “gained”, or “obtained”. (It is the Greek word “periepoiēsato”.) A literal purchase is not required in the definition of this word.
Now, let’s read Acts 20:28 again, but in its greater context, verses 28-31:
“28 Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood. 29 I know that after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number, men will rise up and distort the truth to draw away disciples after them. Therefore be alert and remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.”
The greater context of Acts 20:28-31 intends for the reader to understand that it relates to being a good shepherd in contrast to wolves who will lead the flock away, thus also “purchasing” or “getting” their own flock. The phrase “purchased, or acquired, with his own blood” is not used with any literal payment for sin idea at all! In fact, that is not even the topic under discussion! Paul’s point is that the church belongs to God, not to false shepherds, described as wolves, and to not forget the cost involved by God in acquiring the church, with the life’s blood of His own Son. So again, this passage has nothing to do with the topic of sin or atonement, it is about keeping the church loyal to God versus losing the church to false shepherds.
The problem with using the word “purchased” here is that when it is understood literally it results in absurdities. What exactly was literally bought, and from whom? Is God in the business of literally buying and selling people? Who would have literally owned these people before God bought them? Did God make a literal deal with the Devil? Is that the claim?
Two additional verses which are often referenced on this topic are 1 Corinthians 7:23 and Revelation 5:9. They both use a Greek word which is more literal as “purchase”, as compared to the Greek word in Acts 20:28, but again, it only makes sense in its context when used figuratively. [“Egorasthēte” is literally as “purchase”, as compared to the Greek word “periepoiēsato” in Acts 20:28.]
1 Corinthians 7:23 “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.”
The literal translation of the Greek word here is “bought” or “purchased”, however, to take it literally begs the questions again, from whom? Where do we read about this deal, this transaction? Was the Devil present at the cross, selling us to Jesus? No, Paul is simply saying that “You were figuratively slaves to sin, you have been figuratively bought out of that life by the price which Jesus paid, so do not go back into slavery.”
If this was a literal slavery and a literal purchase, then to go back into this slavery would require a reversal of the purchase, a new deal would have to be made whereby the previous literal owner literally buys back his slave or issues a refund. This shows that Paul is intending this to be understood in a figurative sense, as understanding it literally just does not work.
Revelation 5:9 “And they are singing a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, because You were slain, and You purchased to God by Your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
This phrase “purchased to God” has problems when used literally. It would mean that someone sold us to Jesus, and he then gave us to God. But who literally sold us? Did Jesus make this purchase deal with someone or did God arrange a deal? Why would Jesus or God even have to make a deal and do a literal transaction to acquire us? And, by what means did this other entity, the seller, gain a literal ownership of us in the first place, as literal property which can be bought and sold? There is nothing in the Bible about any of this. However, there are no problems with this verse if the “purchased to God” is understood figuratively.
Another passage which frequently comes up is Revelation 14:3-4, which uses the word “purchased” twice. But first it is “purchased from the earth” and then as “purchased from among men”. Neither of these phrases make any sense when taken literally.
To take the words “purchase”, “ransom” and “redeem” literally leads to other distortions such as thinking that Jesus literally paid for all sins past, present and future. Therefore, regardless of how much or how little we sin, it does not matter much because all sins have already been literally paid for in advance anyway.
Many have concluded that Jesus literally paid God so that we can be forgiven. But this would be just as corrupt and unethical as a President or a Governor accepting a payment for a pardon. It is wrong to sell pardons for payment. It is also unscriptural:
“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.” Deuteronomy 10:17 ESV
“Woe to those…who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right!” Isaiah 5:23 ESV
God told us when and how he forgives sin, and it is when we stop sinning by repenting, turning around and taking the path of righteous living. We read:
“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” Isaiah 55:7 ESV
A literal understanding of “redeem”, “ransom”, or “purchase” leads to logical absurdities. God wants a changed heart, a changed behavior, not a payment.