Mark 10:45, (Isaiah 35) Hosea 1-3
We are well aware of the word “Ransom” in our day. It occurs with the highjacking of airplanes, when terrorists demand something in exchange for their hostages. It occurs when members of wealthy families are kidnapped and restored only after the payment of a ransom.
But that understanding of the word is a fairly new reading of an old word. It is a word that has frequent use in the Old Testament
1. Old Testament images
The Old Testament reflects a world where slavery was frequent. In times of war, people from another nation or tribe were captured and enslaved. In tough economic times when a person could not find work and support his family, he would sell himself into slavery, so at least he and his family could eat.
But slavery was always a difficult thing. And most people who were slaves longed for their freedom. And in the law of Israel, slaves could get their freedom. Some slaves might earn or save enough money to buy their own freedom. But that was rare and difficult. It is tough to earn money when you are not paid for your work.
But there was another way. A relative could buy you back at the set price. This relative was called a Kinsman. And it was an obligation of the nearest kinsman to ransom the slave from his owner. If the nearest relative could not do it, then the next closest relative would be approached to be the kinsman. Another name for this kinsman was “redeemer” – the one who buys back.
But it was not only people that were given their freedom by the kinsman-redeemer. It was applied to property as well. (Leviticus 25:25-28. Jeremiah 32:6-8) Each family in Israel had been given ancestral land, the family farm. The intention was that the farm would stay in the family, generation after generation. But in difficult economic times some had to sell the family holdings. It was a sad day when that took place. But there was a law that acknowledged that to be an abnormal situation, and so a kinsman at anytime could approach the new owner and buy back the family farm and return it to the family to whom it had belonged throughout the years. The relative had “ransomed” the forfeited property. He had redeemed it.
There were two unique moments in Israel’s history that filled out the meaning of this word “ransom”. One takes place at the beginning of the Old Testament. Israel had fallen into slavery while they were refugees in the land of Egypt. They had been taken over lock, stock and barrel and made into slaves of the Egyptian government. The great dilemma was that they were locked into perpetual imprisonment with no chance for parole or pardon. They had no kinsman to free them. They were stuck in a slavery that had no end.
Then God declared Himself to be their kinsman. He came to deliver this nation of slaves. And since Pharaoh would not participate in a negotiated settlement, or listen to justice, mercy or reason, God “ransomed” and “redeemed” his people by his own unlimited power and authority. And forever after, when Israel thought of the word “ransom” they thought of God their kinsman who had rescued them from the highjacking they had endured.
There is a second event. It takes place near the end of the Old Testament. Israel has sold its soul to the Babylonians. They had in the process become captive and had been exiled from their home, their ancestral lands. They now eked out their days in slavery that also seems to be endless. And their relatives back in Palestine were so bankrupt that they could provide no help.
Then once more, God breaks into their history and offers himself as their Kinsman. The Kinsman that they had rejected and despised, but who had remained willing to ransom and redeem them. And God gave to Cyrus the Persian, the entire Babylonian Empire as the price of letting His people return to their home. And Israel returned to their ancient lands singing the song of “the redeemed”. Isaiah is their spokesman as he writes the song: (Isaiah 35)
“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the way of holiness….
The redeemed shall walk there,
and the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come with singing unto Zion,
and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
Israel has been ransomed and redeemed and it brought unutterable joy.
2. The Death of Jesus as a Ransom
Those were the images in the Old Testament whenever the word “ransom” was used. But one day, an event took place among the same people that was as meaningless as events go. Jesus, the man who had mirrored goodness and integrity, was rushed out at night to a kangaroo court, found guilty on trumped up charges, and in quick order was hurried off to execution on a cross. Twelve men, who had followed him as disciples, as well as hundreds of others, were shattered by the event.
Three days later, however, Jesus rose from the dead, and began to explain to his followers the meaning of his death. It had not been pure tragedy, for which the resurrection had simply been a reversal. His death had been expected, it had been anticipated, it had been willingly chosen. But what meaning could it have? How could His death be meaningful? Jesus was the first one to interpret the significance of His own death. He had said it to them well before his death, but the twelve disciples had not been listening.
They had been arguing about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God and who would get the places of honour. He had responded with the gentle rebuke: “The son of Man did not come to be served, but to be of service, and to give his life a ransom for the many.” Those are His own words. “To give his life as a ransom.”
Why does he choose to use the word? It came out of his diagnosis of the human predicament. He knew that we had become enslaved. We had lost our ancient heritage. We found ourselves exiled from God and from home.
He had said as much to the religious leaders of His day:
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
They answered him.
“We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.
What do you mean, “You will be made free?”
Jesus responded, “I tell you the truth,
everyone who commits sin in a slave to sin, but if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
He knew that we were slaves. Caught up in a bondage often of our own making and often by circumstances beyond our control. Some of us were born into slavery but many of us sold ourselves to life’s highest bidder. We had become trapped and could not extricate ourselves. We had lost our old inheritance as the heirs of God and knew of no way to regain what had been lost. We found ourselves captured by culture and the crowd so that we were only free in our fantasies.
Did you hear the lies that were told by those who were arguing with Jesus? “We are the descendants of Abraham. We have never been slaves to anyone?” Don’t they remember Egypt and Babylon? Don’t they see the Roman armies that even at that moment occupy their land and deprive them of freedom? They were not free at all, but were too dull witted to see it. It is to those who have been ensnared and enslaved that Jesus offers release, freedom, emancipation, redemption.
He had come to ransom them. If only they could understand it. But a note needs to be sounded. Jesus is aware that his teachings or his life will not provide the ransom. There is a costlier price to be paid. The ultimate price. He has come as the elder brother to those who are sold into slavery, and has offered to pay “whatever it costs” to ransom all those who desire to be free indeed.
The price is his life.
Centuries ago, Taiwan had a Chinese governor named Goho. He convinced the savage tribes of Taiwan to abandon human sacrifice. But after 40 years there came an unusually bad harvest and people demanded a human sacrifice. He yielded to their demands with the following condition. “Go tomorrow morning to the vacant clearing in the forest. You will find the victim ready, tied to a tree, wearing the red robe of sacrifice, and a red cloth over his head. Strike quickly! He is the victim. The next morning, the men emerged from the forest into the clearing, and saw the victim as described to them. They rushed in and sliced off his head, only to discover the identity of the victim. It was Goho himself. His death forever stopped human sacrifice on the island of Taiwan. By his death the governor saved others and changed the attitude of his people forever.
In much the same way Jesus gave himself. God gave Himself in His son, to demonstrate beyond a doubt that God was our kinsman who would spare nothing to rescue us from our slavery to sin and self.
3. To Whom was the ransom paid
There has been a silly debate that has gone on for centuries. It rotates around the question, “To whom was the ransom paid?”
Some say it was paid to the devil to get us out of his control. Unbelievable! God paid nothing to Pharaoh to get Israel free, and neither did the evil one gain one iota from God.
Others have said that the ransom was paid to death to let us go. Again unbelievably silly. Death is not a person to whom we pay death taxes. Death is not the Riverboat ferryman to whom we must pay for passage to heaven. Death was no beneficiary of His death, but His death broke the powers of death for us all.
Others have suggested that the Ransom was paid by Jesus to God. It is as though God was threatening us with eternal damnation, and Jesus buys him off with the biggest gift he can give. His own life. That may make Jesus look like a hero, but it makes God look like a villain, and that is not even close to true. If the truth be told, “God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that whoever would trust in Him need not perish.” God is the ransom provider.
The ransom was paid, but it was paid to no one. Let me tell you of the terrible misunderstanding that has prevailed throughout history. We have known ourselves to be in trouble. In trouble with life and in trouble with God. We always felt that we could buy ourselves out of trouble by making big enough sacrifices. If we do enough good things, we could buy our freedom from our troubles. We were like slaves trying to earn enough points to finally win our own liberation. But earning our freedom was a never ending process that just tied us up even more. But we figured that getting free was up to us, and if we could do enough of the right things, we could buy the help of God to liberate us.
Then God interrupted our folly and said “Excuse me. You will never extricate yourselves that way. You will just dig a deeper hole. Quit trying to buy my help, trying to raise your own ransom. I am your kinsman. I am willing to pay whatever it takes to free you. There is nothing I am prepared to withhold for your ransom. “Oh yeah? Prove it” we say in our skepticism. God says, “I already did. I gave myself, in my Son, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I have paid the price. Paid the price to no one, but to you, who were the victims. You are now the beneficiaries. The price wasn’t paid to the devil, or to death or to me. It was paid out to you, in life and health and freedom and forgiveness.”
There is one more story about ransoming that comes from the Old Testament. It is the story of Hosea and Gomer. Hosea is a prophet. A man of God. A Godly man. He marries Gomer, a beautiful lady. They have a child, a son named “Jezreel”. There is a second child born, a daughter named “Lo-Ruhamah.” But with this birth there is no indication that the child is his. Then a third child is born, a son named “Lo-Ammi” meaning “Not mine”. The beautiful Gomer has been unfaithful to Hosea. Then she leaves Hosea with the three kids, and heads out with her multiple lovers. But as the months and years go by, this profligate woman is passed from man to man, until finally she is discarded by her wealthy lovers, and is sold off as a slave prostitute to ply her trade for her pimp. Sold into slavery!
Then God says to Hosea, I want to you go to the slave market and ransom Gomer, redeem her. Pay the price for her and bring her back home as your wife. And Hosea does that very thing. And when his friends ask him what on earth he is doing, he tells them that he is simply doing what God has always done for his people, times beyond counting. Gomer can pay nothing. Hosea has paid it all. By the way, the cost to the prophet was greater than the money paid out. But Love pays whatever it takes, to restore the relationship that is broken.
And God says in the death of Christ. I have loved you with an everlasting love, without thought to the cost. Isn’t it time you came home?
Hymn #336. “Jesus, I Come to Thee”