The explanation for how the atonement works found in Matthew and Mark is found in —
(Mat 20:26-28 ESV) 26 “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mar 10:43-45 ESV) 43 “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
What does “ransom” mean? To modern ears, a ransom is what you pay a kidnapper. How does that make any sense at all?
In the Torah, we find “ransom” used of a price paid to free a murderer (not allowed). The same word is used for the freeing of a slave by the payment of a price.
As a result, Jesus’ giving of his life for a “ransom” means he paid the price for our freedom — from slavery or perhaps from a death sentence. Both images work.
But this is, of course, entirely consistent with God himself paying the price for our violation of Abraham’s covenant with God. The price is not human blood — but God’s blood.
Before we look into additional explanations or theories, I’ll put forward another unconventional explanation. The best I can recall, I first read this in C. S. Lewis, but I can’t find the citation.
The critical text is —
(Heb 5:7-10 ESV) 7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.
Notice the logic. Jesus learned obedience by submitting to death on the cross, despite being fully aware of how awful that death would be.
While living in heaven, Jesus could never truly be obedient, because there was no temptation to be otherwise. There was no pain and no death and so no reason to disobey out of fear.
But on earth, Jesus learned the pain of human suffering and death, and when confronted with the reality of crucifixion, he obeyed — in a way that he’d never been able to obey before.
This obedience made him “perfect” or, perhaps better, finished or complete. And it made him the source of eternal salvation.
Now that Jesus lives in heaven, he sends us his Holy Spirit, to shape our hearts and minds to be more like Jesus. Where did the Spirit learn to teach us to be like Jesus? Well, from Jesus.
(John 16:13-14 ESV) 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
The Spirit takes what belongs to Jesus — obedience, among other things — and teaches God’s children how to also obey.
Until Jesus was perfected by the crucifixion, God could not call us to live submissive, sacrificial lives. He could not call us to be truly righteous, because God had never honored the covenant from the human side. He’d never suffered. He’d never died.
But God’s children are called to be like God. You see, we’re saved by faith, and faith in Romans and Galatian includes the idea of “faithfulness,” and we’re also saved by the faithfulness of Jesus, as shown on the cross.
Paul first declares that God’s righteousness — his faithfulness — is not undone by our lack of faithfulness.
(Rom 3:3 NET) 3 What then? If some did not believe [were not faithful], does their unbelief [unfaithfulness] nullify the faithfulness of God?
No, although many Jews rejected Jesus, not having faith in/being faithful to Jesus, God remained faithful.
(Rom 3:26 NET) 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be [righteous] and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness.
Jesus’ obedience on the cross allows Christians to also be faithful. God is faithful, a faithfulness that is completed in Jesus on the cross.
(Rom 3:28 NET) 28 For we consider that a person is declared righteous by faith[fulness] apart from the works of the law.
Our faithfulness parallels the faithfulness of Jesus. God is faithful to the covenant. Therefore, Jesus is faithful, too, and completed his (and God’s) faithfulness on the cross. And we who are faithful, and who are being transformed by God’s Spirit, are saved by our faithfulness.
Indeed, in our faithfulness, we die daily for Jesus, becoming living sacrifices. We walk through the blood with God. Indeed, we become the sacrifices along with Jesus.