When a sports pundit says that a team must “redeem” themselves, straight away we understand they must make amends for a recent underperformance to rescue their reputation, or hopes of winning. Rescue is one of the concepts built into the meaning of redemption.
In a financial context a mortgage is “redeemed” when it is paid in full, meaning the ownership of the house undisputedly lies with the person who has made the payment, and not the bank.
The ideas of rescue, payment in full, and ownership, are all present in the rich Biblical truth of “redemption”. As a working definition we may sum it up as: rescue from adversity by the payment of a price.
The portrait of the redeemer
In the Old Testament redemption was primarily carried out by a third party coming to the aid of someone in need. The prominent Hebrew word associated with redemption is ‘gaol’. God’s law described circumstances in which the ‘gaol’, or ‘family redeemer’ (Holman Christian Standard Bible’s translation of the word) could act to relieve the poverty, or avenge the murder of a family member.
The book of Ruth contains the most extensive illustration of the family redeemer at work. Ruth, the widowed daughter in law of Naomi, and herself a widow, approached Boaz to determine whether he would play the part of the family redeemer. The cultural custom involved Boaz purchasing Naomi’s estate and marrying Ruth, thus delivering Ruth and Naomi from impoverishment, and perpetuating a family line. Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s (Ruth 2:1), followed due process by first offering the role to a closer relative (Ruth 3:12). When the closer relative declined, Boaz became the nearest rightful family redeemer. And being a “mighty man of wealth” (Ruth 2:1), he was well able to fulfil the role. Further, although he could have declined Ruth’s appeal, Boaz’ compassion shone through when he made it clear that he was unreservedly willing to help Ruth (Ruth 3:3). The role of redeemer, then, was fulfilled by the nearest, able and willing relative.
The concept takes on a whole new dimension when we discover that Jehovah repeatedly describes Himself with this very word:
"Fear not, you worm Jacob, You men of Israel! I will help you," says the LORD And your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:14)
In the book of Isaiah alone Jehovah describes Himself in this way at least nine times, in order to comfort His people (Isaiah 43:14, 44:6, 44:24, 48:17, 49:7, 49:26, 54:5, 54:8, 60:16). Israel first experienced Jehovah acting as their redeemer when He delivered them as a nation from the bondage of slavery in Egypt (Exodus 6:6). God etched redemption into their national consciousness by making the month of their redemption the first month of their calendar, and the Passover which commemorated it their first annual feast (Exodus 12:2).
In addition to their consciousness of God as their national redeemer, individual Jews sensed there was yet more: David, Israel’s most cherished king, recognised God as his personal redeemer:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
If a redeemer was to be marked by nearness, then David sensed that Jehovah met this criterion:
I have set the LORD always before me; Because [He is] at my right hand I shall not be moved. (Psalm 16:8)
As to the requirement for willingness on the part of the redeemer, it was David who wrote these words under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, inviting experimental discovery of Jehovah’s willingness to assist those who seek Him in times of trouble:
Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me. (Psalm 50:15)
The last criterion – ability – need hardly be elaborated, for there can be no greater resource than the One who spoke the universe into existence. Accordingly, David, in Psalm 18 paints a graphic picture of his cry for help coming to Jehovah’s attentive ear, and heaven and earth shaking as He unleashes His infinite power on David’s behalf.
If Boaz helps illustrate some of the noble qualities envisaged in the redeemer, then we have at least a faint grasp of a more glorious reality: God is a redeemer: the ultimate redeemer!
The promise of redemption
Jehovah’s promise to send Israel a deliverer is the underlying theme of the entire Old Testament. The New Testament’s cry is that “He that should come” (Luke 7:19) has come (1 John 4:2). Many descriptions were given to Israel by their prophets to enable them to recognise their Messiah when He arrived, and one of these was the, ‘gaol’, the redeemer:
“The Redeemer will come to Zion, And to those who turn from transgression in Jacob," Says the LORD. (Isaiah 59:20)
Luke opens his Gospel with a series of godly Jews who sensed, perhaps through Daniel’s prophecy which gave them a timeframe (Daniel 9:25), that the arrival of the Promised One was imminent. Upon meeting the baby Jesus in the Temple, a godly widow, Anna, recognised the significance of the moment:
And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:38)
Zacharias the father of John Baptist, articulated in an expression of worship exactly what sort of redemption these godly Jews were expecting:
Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: "Blessed [is] the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who [have been] since the world began, That we should be saved from our enemies And from the hand of all who hate us, To perform the mercy [promised] to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. (Luke 1:67-75)
Zacharias’ expectation from this Redeemer was nothing less than the fulfilment of the age-old promises made by God to the descendants of Abraham. He understood their fulfilment to mean Israel’s national security and spiritual revival.
When the Lord Jesus was crucified, those who had pinned their hopes on Him as the promised deliverer were bitterly dashed – until this conversation three days after His death:
But we [two disciples despondent after Christ’s crucifixion, not yet aware of His resurrection] were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, today is the third day since these things happened. ... Then He [the Lord Jesus] said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! "Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:21, 25-27)
Those who hoped for redemption in Jesus Christ were not mistaken – He is the redeemer. What they had not grasped was the timetable of redemption: His first coming was to deal with sin through personal suffering, hence the cross. His second coming will be in the glory they had hoped they might immediately see. Just as Christ fulfilled the first task of the redeemer, so He will fulfil the second: God’s promises are still on track.
The price of redemption
A friend stranded at a London airport after his flight was cancelled explained to me that, rather than wait till the next day for the rescheduled flight, he paid for flights that night with an alternative airline. The prices involved were eye-watering – both to him and me – but because it was so important to him to get home that night, he paid it. Pause then to consider the significance of the price God paid in order to provide redemption for people like us:
…you were not redeemed with corruptible things, [like] silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [received] by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Peter 1:18-19)
…the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace (Ephesians 1:6b, 7)
…the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13b, 14)
And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 5:9)
In these examples three Greek words are used: “agorazo”, which simply means to buy something (Revelation 5:9); “lutroo” (1 Peter 1:18), and “apolutrosis” (Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:14), which signify the release that occurs upon payment of a ransom price.
The blood of Jesus Christ is both the price God paid to purchase a people for Himself, and it is the means of liberating those thus purchased.
A greater price could not be conceived. In giving His beloved Son to redeem sinners, the Father gave His all. We must then conclude His love for sinners is great:
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son [to be] the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
A lesser price would never do. From the beginning of the world God made it clear that in His court sin carries the death penalty (Genesis 2:17). It therefore takes a death to atone for sin. It was for this reason that the Son of God was manifest in flesh – to pour out His life in a sin sacrifice on behalf of guilty sinners:
For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13-14)
The purpose of redemption
To deliver us from eternal torment
God had definite purpose in redeeming. At the most basic level redemption fixes a problem, and the Bible confronts us with the uncomfortable problem all humans share in: we are cursed because of our inability to live up to the requirements of God’s law:
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, "Cursed [is] everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them." (Galatians 3:10)
Man’s inability to keep God’s law perfectly was illustrated once and for all by the Jewish nation who were directly under that law; but all the world is implicated in their failure, because we are all made of the same stuff (Romans 3:19). Admittedly all people have not lived under the explicit standard of God’s law like the Jewish nation has, but all of us have the “work of the law” written in our hearts – that inner voice which tells us that, at the very least, we fail to do what we instinctively know is right, and (who would deny?), that we sometimes do what we instinctively know is wrong (Romans 2:15). That is a problem, because God’s standard is perfection: all the time and without exception. Not even once (James 2:10).
Those who are under God’s curse have the terrible prospect of eternal separation from the goodness of God, and exposure instead to His wrath (Matthew 25:41). But the glory of the Gospel is that Christ’s death grants rescue from eternal torment to all who receive Him:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed [is] everyone who hangs on a tree") (Galatians 3:13)
To deliver us from ungodliness
As a result of our fallen nature the default disposition of the human heart is to kick against God. We have an underlying resistance to His claims over us – sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle. It not only affects how we live, it means we are fundamentally incapable of pleasing God. This brings inevitable misery into the human experience. But liberation from our enslavement to ungodliness is available on account of Christ’s death:
(Jesus Christ) who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself [His] own special people, zealous for good works.(Titus 2:14)
Those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus become the objects of His special interest. He acts in their lives to purify them “for Himself”, and to fill them with a passion for “good works”. Good in the absolute sense is that which is in harmony with God’s essential nature. For the Christian, living to please God is not simply an aspirational life choice; it is a moral obligation following on from redemption:
For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's. (1 Corinthians 6:20)
To deliver us from a frustrated existence
Redemption delivers from the eternal consequences of sin, but it also gives life an immediate purpose. As if to underline this point, Peter sums up life before coming to know God through Jesus Christ as “aimless”:
knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, [like] silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [received] by tradition from your fathers (1Peter 1:18)
What is the secret of a meaningful life? Is it to accumulate wealth? Is it to provide well for yourself and your family? Is it to acquire desirable possessions? Is it to reach the pinnacle of your chosen career? Is it to be marked by virtue? The Lord Jesus gave the simple answer:
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. (John 17:3)
Ultimately everything in life is meaningless unless we know God through Jesus Christ. Everything in this life will pass away and we will before long meet our maker and be judged on the basis of what we have done with His Son, Jesus Christ. To know Him is to be eternally safe. Not to know Him is to be eternally lost.
When speaking of the Christ’s redemption, the end result Peter reached is a life lived in dependence on God in the here and now:
…who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God." (1 Peter 1:21)
Living in this world with our confidence in Him, no matter what we may encounter in life, is God’s express will for all His people on earth. God would have us live with a sense of His reality right now, with our confidence fully in Him for all that belongs to this life, and all that belongs to the next. The whole Christian experience can be summed up in this scripture, thrice-quoted in the New Testament:
"The just shall live by faith."(Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38)
Placing one’s faith in the Lord Jesus Christ to redeem, to save, to justify, to forgive us – there are many ways we could say it – is the door into the Christian life. We enter God’s blessings by faith in Christ, and we continue to enjoy them by faith – which simply means to take God at His word as revealed in the Bible.
To deliver us from decaying bodies
There is a future aspect to redemption which all those who are God’s eagerly anticipate. He has promised His people a new body free from the deathward tendency which so evidently binds us right now. He has planned the moment so that it will take place against the fitting backdrop of a truly universal celebration of all that Christ achieved by His suffering for sin:
"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy [to be compared] with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected [it] in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only [that], but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body." (Rom 8:18-23)
It will be a moment of scarcely imaginable glory, celebrated by all creation which too will experience deliverance!
To showcase God’s glorious grace
In the ultimate sense we may ask: why? Why did God provide redemption for sinners at such cost? The Bible gives the answer:
In whom also (Jesus Christ), having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
God did it because it was the ideal way of demonstrating what He is like. The “redemption that is in Christ Jesus” showcases, like nothing else could, the gracious disposition of God toward the underserving. For all eternity those who receive God’s gift of redemption through His Son will be the standing proof of His glorious grace, and for it they will never tire singing His praise:
"And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, And have made us kings and priests to our God; And we shall reign on the earth." (Revelation 5:9,10)