Friday, February 8, 2013

Redemption: What Does It Mean?

This is the first post of a series of three on biblical redemption. At least that's what I have planned. Look for the next post in the series two weeks from now when it's my turn to post here again.

In him we have redemption through his blood....

What do you think of when you hear the word redemption? It isn't a word we use much except in a religious context. Sometimes people talk about redeeming coupons or bonds, but that usage is not as common as it once was. My mother may have redeemed her coupons and bonds; I use my coupons and cash in my bonds.

My dictionary defines redemption, used in the religious sense, as a synonym for salvation. But biblically, those are not exact synonyms. Yes, redemption is salvation, but it is salvation accomplished in a particular way.

Christians who lived when the New Testament was written would have understood the more precise meaning of redemption, because that's the way the word was used in their everyday language. For Greeks, to redeem meant, first, to buy back a prisoner of war by paying a ransom, but it was also used for other ways of freeing people. When a slave was set free, for instance, they might say he was redeemed, even when no money was exchanged.

Early Christian writers, with their Jewish backgrounds, would have understood how words of redemption were used in the Old Testament. When they read the Septuagint, they saw Greek words related to redemption used to translate certain Hebrew words describing the release of someone or something by the payment of a price. This Old Testament usage probably influenced their use of the word redemption even more than Greek cultural usage.

The idea of payment is not obvious every time redemption language is used in the Old Testament, because sometimes the language is used metaphorically. For instance, the text says God redeemed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, but nowhere does it say that Pharoah received money or any other benefit from God in exchange for the Israelites' freedom. It wasn't really a business transaction, was it?

But as Leon Morris points out, there are a few intriguing phrases that accompany Old Testament mentions of God's redemption of the Israelites, phrases that show us that while it might not have been a redemption exchange, it was still, in some sense, a payment. God redeemed his people "with an outstretched arm" (Exodus 6:6, see also Psalm 77:15). It is God's might or power that's in view; God exerted his power on behalf of his people. 
. . .[B]ecause he loves his people he puts forth his power. He saves them at cost. It is this that gives the use of the redemption terminology its point. . . . The term may be used metaphorically but the metaphor retains its point. The idea of price-paying is not out of mind.1
You might say that God expended his power to deliver the Israelites from slavery. He used something of great value to free his people.

Against this Old Testament backdrop, early Christian writers and their readers would have understood that redemption meant "release by the payment of a price." It wasn't simply deliverance in general, but deliverance accomplished at cost to the one redeeming.

The New Testament tells us that believers have been redeemed "through [Christ's] blood," and that Christ gave "his life as a ransom" (Ransom is also redemption language.) Christ freed us by giving something of great value — his own life — in exchange for us.

In two weeks, I plan to follow this up with a post on what it is Christ freed us from. What does his redemption deliver us from?

1The Atonement: It's Meaning and Significance, Leon Morris, page 114. 

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