N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplish our salvation.
Jesus as Ransom
(Matt. 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.”
(1 Tim. 2:5-6 ESV) 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
Matthew, Mark (10:45 is parallel with the quoted Matthew passage), and Paul all refer to Jesus giving his life as a “ransom.” And it’s never made much sense to me, because, well, who was kidnapped? I mean, in contemporary English, “ransom” is what you pay to get a kidnapped loved one back from the kidnappers. We now have computer hackers who load “ransomware” on computers, locking up a corporate system until the company pays a ransom. So how on earth could Jesus be a ransom?
BDAG (today’s preeminent NT Greek lexicon) explains that “ransom” (lutron) refers to a price paid for freedom, “esp. also the ransom money for the manumission of slaves.” Think “slave price” or “price for freedom.”
Frankly, very few Americans would understand “ransom” in those terms, and so it’s a poor but very traditional translation, going back to Tyndale in the case of 1 Tim 2:6.
It’s important to realize that much of the NT’s language refers to slavery. The translators and familiarity have softened the terms in our minds. For example, “redeem” refers to paying the slave-price (ransom) for a slave to go free. Most of the time, “servant” translates doulos, meaning a bond-servant — essentially someone sold into slavery, often for a fixed term similar to British indentured servitude practiced in America prior to the Revolutionary War.
But slavery has become a deservedly distasteful word and concept, and so we ignore these meanings and religious-fy the words, thinking of them as theological concepts when the NT writers expected to be understood as referring either to Israelite slavery at the hands of the Egyptians or then-current Greco-Roman slavery, which was a very common practice in the First Century.
Wright explains that “ransom” in the NT refers to a very different kind of ransom —
A new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love. This is the heart of the revolution that was launched on Good Friday. You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means. If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins. Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love, which, in obedience to the ancient prophetic vocation, will give its life “as a ransom for many.”
Exactly as in Isaiah 53, to which that phrase alludes, the death of the one on behalf of the many will be the key by which the powers are overthrown, the kingdom of God ushered in (with the glorious divine Presence seen in plain sight by the watchmen on Jerusalem’s walls), the covenant renewed, and creation itself restored to its original purpose.
Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (Kindle Locations 3623-3629). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
A ‘ransom’, in that world, is what someone might pay to give freedom to a slave. Jesus saw his approaching fate as the payment that would set free those who were enslaved in sin and wickedness, not least those who were in the grips of the lust for power and position—yes, people like James and John.
The original Quest for the Holy Grail, then, was Jesus’ own calling: to follow God’s leading, as indicated in scripture, to the point of death. James and John might indeed suffer the same fate in their turn (James was killed quite early in the Christian movement, according to Acts 12:2). When Jesus was enthroned as King of Israel there would indeed be one at his right and one at his left (27:38). But what they would be sharing was not glory and power but shame and death.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 61.
What was the “ransom”? The language just has to be an allusion to the Exodus, and yet God and Israel did not pay Pharaoh for their freedom. Pharaoh paid dearly for not granting God’s elect people their freedom! What did Israel pay? Well, they paid for their freedom at the foot of Mt. Sinai by submitting to God’s covenant laws (Exo 24). The ransom was their submission to YHWH as Lord.
What price did Jesus pay for our freedom? Well, he died on the cross. But that’s not all. He also washed the feet of Judas Iscariot. As the Being given all authority over the earth, he gave up his glory in order to serve others — even dying for them. He submitted both to God and to man and suffered in ways that weren’t remotely fair, just, or right — in order to be a servant.
(Isa. 53:3-8 ESV) 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned– every one– to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
The ransom paid is that Jesus obeyed and submitted in place of Israel. With all its sins piled up and prominently on public display, despite injustice piled on top of injustice, Jesus bore the guilt of the people’s sin — as their King — and emptied himself despite having the authority and power of God Almighty.
This was the price of our freedom from Sin and Death. The price is not merely blood — although blood is very much a part of it — it’s the self-emptying Paul sings about in Phil 2:
(Phil. 2:5-11 ESV) 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [doulos = slave], being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
What did our salvation cost Jesus? He didn’t just die on a cross. The practice was to crucify criminals naked. The agony of asphyxiation on a cross empties the victims bowels and bladder. He died shamed, humiliated, and covered in filth, because the price to defeat Sin and Death is honor, pride, and dignity — as well as blood. It’s not just that he died, but that he died in abject defeat and surrender to evil, while existing as both fully man and fully God. As the hymn goes, he could have called ten thousand angels.