Being a common word that is used frequently when we talk about salvation, it’s easy to forget that redeem is a fiscal term. It is first used to describe the Israelites salvation from slavery to the Egyptians (Ex. 6:6). In a normal slave transaction, humans are bought and sold. If a person wants to free a slave, it would be necessary to first purchase (redeem) the slave from the current owner and then set him or her free. This is the classic fiscal meaning of the term “redemption.”
Of course, that’s not at all what happened to the Israelites. At first Moses politely demanded that the Israelites be set free (Ex. 5:1). Egypt’s Pharaoh refused and a battle of wills and disaster ensued. Each time the Pharaoh refused, another plague came upon Egypt (Ex. 5-12). In the end, not only did the Israelites leave Egypt, the Egyptians gave them jewelry and gold on their way out (Ex. 3:21-22), lost their first born (Ex. 12:29) and their army (Ex. 14:26-30). This is not a redemption from slavery at all if we think of it in fiscal terms. The slave owners (the Egyptians) were plundered and utterly defeated, so if anyone paid, it was the Egyptians.
Israel’s redemption from slavery is therefore more ironic than literal. It might be better say that they were “redeemed” from Egypt, the double quotes not implying that it did not happen, but rather that the transaction went in the opposite direction, the Egyptians paying for the privilege of releasing the Israelites from slavery.
There’s another monetary term that’s used three times in the New Testament, once by Jesus (in Mk 10:45 and Mt 20:28, in parallel passages) and 1 Tim. 2:6. Mark 10:45 says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” This phrase has led to a great deal of speculation about who was being paid the ransom. Among the ideas floated about is that it is either the Devil (more common in the Christian West) or Death itself (more common in the Christian East) that is on the other end of the transaction. In response, the rest of the commentators are a bit horrified by the idea that Christ was paying a ransom to Death or the Devil in order to buy us out of slavery. So this is a controversial topic.
But it doesn’t have to be if we keep in mind two things: first, that “ransom” is, in a sense, the noun form of the verb “to redeem,” and second, what actually happened when the Israelites were “redeemed.” In other words, if we maintain the ironic character of this ransom, it’s not a problem. The Pashcal Troparian (or hymn, if you want a more common term in English) that is sung throughout the Easter season in the Orthodox Church, and sung several dozen times during the Pascha service itself (with either the priest or the choir randomly breaking out in song during the service as a sort of celebratory exclamation point), says, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” This hymn gets to the heart of the matter.
Like the Israelites “far down in Egypt land,” this is redemption language turned on its head. We are “ransomed” or “redeemed” from Death, but ironically, it is Death who ultimately pays – not Christ, not us – and is therefore ultimately defeated.
And then the Exodus imagery is extended even further. Death is not only defeated, Death becomes an important and even vital tool for Life. Paul says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Colossians is even more specific. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)” (3:5). And then the text goes on to pick up another Big Salvation Word (see this post) in the next verse: “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.”
So, in the beginning (that is, the three days Jesus is in the tomb), Death pays for the privilege of giving us life and releasing us. And then, Death keeps on paying by becoming the tool that we use “to work out our salvation” and ridding ourselves of the passions that would otherwise prevent us from becoming Christ-like in this life.
And this is the delicious irony of our redemption: It’s a “ransom” … It is God’s act of making Death work against itself in order to give us victory and life.