A Ransom for Many
Do you ever wonder why it is that we have a gallows right at the front of our church? Well, of course, we don’t really have a gallows, but what we have would have been just as shocking to first century Jews: a cross. Crosses have become a huge part of our culture; we see them dotted all over the landscape, they mark churches and ambulances and hospitals, and I suspect that they are the most common form of neck ornament in the western world.
But what if, instead of crosses, we wore little electric chairs on chains around our necks? What if we had a gallows or a guillotine at the front of our church? Wouldn’t you think we were being more than a little morbid? After all, crosses were used in the Roman world for the execution of criminals – and not just any criminals, either. Crosses were reserved for the execution of rebels and traitors against the Roman Empire. So it’s more than a little strange that in 1 Corinthians 2:2 Paul says to his Corinthian converts ‘For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified’. Doesn’t it seem a little weird to you that as Paul travelled around the Roman Empire, he chose to make the Cross the centre of his message – the fact that Jesus had been executed as a rebel against Rome? What’s that all about?
Christian teachers and scholars and theologians have been working to try to figure out the meaning of the Cross of Christ for two thousand years, and one thing that’s become very clear to us is that it’s too big a mystery to be summed up in any one explanation or image. Rather, it’s like a diamond with many facets, and all we can do is hold it up to the sunlight, turning it around slowly in our fingers and enjoying the beauty of each individual facet. Even when we put them all together, we haven’t completely summed up all the beauty and wonder of what Jesus accomplished by his death on the Cross. As Paul says in another context, ‘Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I’m not going to attempt this morning to explain all the different images and concepts that theologians have used to try to understand the Cross. Instead I’m going to focus in on one of them, the one that Jesus used in our gospel reading for today: the idea of the Cross as a ransom. But remember – this is not an exhaustive interpretation! It’s one illustration among many; it helps us to grasp one part of the mystery of the Cross, but it won’t give us the whole picture.
The context is a discussion Jesus is having with his disciples when they are on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus has made it plain to them that when he gets there very bad things are going to happen to him, but they aren’t listening. They think he’s going to take over the kingdom of Israel, and they want to make sure that they get the top jobs. James and John even come right out and ask him if they can have the thrones on either side of his! But Jesus rebukes them, because he knows what they don’t know: that the only throne room he’s going to get in Jerusalem will be the hill of Golgotha, and the positions on either side of him will be crosses as well! Then Jesus calls the whole disciple company together, and this is what he says:
‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:42b-45).
Let’s focus in on that last verse: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”. The word ‘ransom’ here is related to the English words ‘redeem’ and ‘redemption’. To ‘redeem’ something is to buy it back by the payment of a price. The ‘ransom’ is the price that is paid for this act of redemption.
Let me give you some illustrations. The first is the illustration of a pawnshop. I don’t know if any of you have ever had to use the services of a pawnshop, so just in case you haven’t, here’s how it works. If you find yourself a little short of cash toward the end of the month, and there are bills to be paid, you can take something you own to a pawnshop – perhaps a watch, or a piece of jewelry. You give it to them as security, and they lend you some money in exchange. At the end of the month when you get paid, you go back to the shop and you ‘redeem’ your watch – that is to say, you pay back what you borrowed, with interest – and the watch is yours again. You have bought it back by payment of a price. On the other hand, if you don’t redeem it within a set time period, it becomes the property of the pawn shop and they can sell it to make a profit.
The word can also be used of people, of course. I remember when I was a boy that I sometimes heard the phrase ‘a king’s ransom’, as in “I had to pay a king’s ransom for it!” What is a ‘king’s ransom’? Well, in the Middle Ages knights were sometimes taken prisoner in battle. When this happened, a message would sometimes be sent to their estates saying “We have Sir Geoffrey; if you want him back, the ransom price will be ten thousand francs”. The price for a king, of course, would be much higher; hence, ‘a king’s ransom’.
These illustrations shed some light on the subject, but the actual background of Jesus’ statement was undoubtedly the slave market. Slavery of course was very common in the ancient world; there were millions of slaves in the Roman Empire in New Testament times. In some situations when a person was about to be sold off as a slave, a member of their family would have the right to ‘redeem’ or ‘ransom’ them – in other words, they could pay the full price to purchase them, and then set them free. That was known as ‘redeeming’ or ‘ransoming’ a slave, and that’s the illustration Jesus has in mind in this passage.
But freedom from what? What exactly is it that Jesus has ‘redeemed’ or ‘set us free’ from? In the Old Testament we read of how God rescued his chosen people from slavery in Egypt, led them out through the Red Sea and brought them into their own promised land. Deuteronomy 7:8 sums up this story in these words: ‘the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt’. Most of the Old Testament references to redemption refer to situations like that: God setting his people free from foreign rule.
But in the New Testament the picture changes: the slavery is no longer literal, but moral. We are in bondage to our sins, and in Jesus ‘we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (Colossians 1:14). We also read that ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law’ (Galatians 3:13) – that is to say, the curse of judgement which the Law pronounces on those who fail to keep it. So we are seen as lawbreakers, as slaves to sin, and the Cross of Christ has set us free from this.
How are we to understand this? Well, let’s remember that the Lord’s Prayer uses the illustration of sin as an unpaid debt. What is the debt that we owe to God? Jesus spells it out for us very clearly: we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. These are the two great commandments. Have you kept them? I know I haven’t. Never in a million years could I keep them perfectly! I am therefore a debtor to God.
In New Testament times it was common for debtors and their families to be sold into slavery to recover unpaid debts. Imagine if you were in that situation! Perhaps you’ve made some foolish choices about money, and now your whole family has to suffer the consequences. There you all are, stripped naked and standing up on the auction block while the auctioneer sells you off to the highest bidder. But then to your surprise you see a distant relative in the crowd. He identifies you as his relatives and claims the right to be your kinsman-redeemer. He pays the full price of your debts, and so ‘redeems’ you – buys you back out of slavery. You are free again! Imagine your gratitude to this kinsman-redeemer for what he has done for you.
In New Testament terms, that’s the position I’m in. I’m the one who was about to be sold into slavery because of my unpaid debt to God. But Jesus is my kinsman-redeemer; he has paid the price for my ransom by his death on the Cross. He has set me free.
But what exactly is the ransom price? You may know that when King Richard the Lion Heart was captured in France on his way back from the Crusades, the ransom-price that was demanded of the nation of England was so huge that it would have beggared the kingdom – a ‘King’s ransom’ indeed! But the ransom price paid to redeem you and me from sin and death is greater still. Peter explains it to us like this:
‘You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish’ (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Jesus’ death, in other words, is the price God paid to set us free.
Note that this is just an illustration, and we shouldn’t try to make it into a complete explanation of the cross by trying to make all the details fit. For instance, in the Middle Ages theologians speculated about who it was that the price had been paid to – was it the devil, for instance? But the New Testament never speculates about that, because it’s giving us an illustration, not a theological explanation.
What’s being emphasized here is the value that God puts on his human children, including you and me. One of the French knights captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was not ransomed for over thirty-five years; obviously his people didn’t put great value on him! But what does it tell you about the value that God places on us, that God the Son came to earth and poured out his very lifeblood on the Cross to set us free? So don’t ever be tempted to think, “I don’t matter to God”! The Cross tells us that we do matter – we matter immensely to God. In the words of a plaque we used to have on our wall: ‘I asked God, “How much do you love me?” “This much”, he said, and he stretched out his arms and died’.
‘For freedom Christ has set us free’, says Paul in his letter to the Galatians. In Galatians he’s thinking of two particular things: first, our deliverance from the due penalty of our sins, by Christ’s death on the Cross, and second, our daily deliverance from the power of sin as the Holy Spirit fills us and helps us to break free from old habits and learn a new way of life. Paul wants us to enjoy the fruits of this deliverance to the full, so he goes on to say, ‘Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’ (Galatians 5:1).
This leads us to one final question. Yes, Jesus’ Cross has ransomed us, has set us free, but what is true freedom? As we look for an answer, let’s go back to our gospel reading and hear again the words of Jesus:
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42b-44).
A slave who has been set free probably celebrates the fact that he never has to serve anyone else ever again, but curiously, we Christians are not in that position. Since God has paid the price to set us free, we are now God’s property, and God has a plan for us. He wants us to learn that the most wonderful place to be in the world is not the place where everyone else is waiting on us hand and foot. Rather, it’s the place of loving service, after the example of the one who gave his life for us.
Look carefully at what Jesus is saying here. He’s not saying, ‘If you want to be great, serve other people, and then God will reward you by making you great so that you won’t have to serve others any more’. Rather, he’s saying, ‘If you want to be great, live the life of a servant of others, because that is the greatest position on offer in the Kingdom of God’. After all, if even the King sees himself as a servant, that should tell you something pretty fundamental about what the Kingdom of God is all about.
It’s a tragedy that so often in the Church we’ve gotten into the same old way of thinking that Jesus came to set us free from – the idea that there are higher-ups and lower-downs, and that the higher-ups get to lord it over everyone else while the lower downs get to serve the higher-ups. After all, if we really took Jesus seriously here, we’d all be rushing to get to the bottom of the ladder, not the top! That’s why Mennonite writer Donald Kraybill called the Kingdom of God ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’.
Let’s close as we began, by considering the fact that we have put a Cross at the highest place at the front of our church. Let’s also remember the reason Jesus gave us this sacrament of Holy Communion. Paul says, ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Corinthians 11:26). There was a man who used to come to this church years ago who reminded me of this every week. He would come to the front for communion; I would put the bread in his hands and say, ‘The Body of Christ broken for you’; he would say ‘Amen’, and then, just before he ate the bread, he would look up at the Cross – reminding himself, I suspect, of what this service is all about.
So as you come to communion today, why not look up at the Cross and remind yourself of what this service is all about? Look up with thankfulness, remembering that Christ has given himself as a ransom to set you free from the guilt and power of sin. And look up also in commitment, remembering that the Son of Man came to lead us in a life of service to others. So, no race for the top of the ladder for us! Rather, as Jesus said,
“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”.