Redeemed! How We Love to Proclaim It: But Do We Really Understand What It Means?
The problem with language, like almost anything else, is that it eventually becomes antiquated. Powerful words occasionally lose their impact due to the passage of time. As customs and perspectives change with the culture, the meanings of certain words can become either mundane or obscure. The Bible contains many examples of these words, both in the context of our own English and in the original languages. But when properly understood, these often beautiful words are no less profound than they were two thousand years ago. The key, of course, is in properly understanding them.
One example of a word that has lost some of its power is the word “redeemed.” In a non-religious context, the word today has largely been relegated to the fine print of coupons. A worthless piece of paper can be “redeemed” for some sort of discount on a certain product. Unfortunately, this understanding of the word “redeemed” does absolutely no justice its actual meaning, which is“to buy something back.”
A slightly better understanding of redemption existed several decades ago, when pawn shops were a more common presence on the streets of America. If in need of some immediate cash, you could go to a pawn shop and sell a necklace. The pawn shop would agree to hold the necklace for a certain period of time before they would be able to sell it to someone else. But within that set period of time, you could purchase the necklace back from the pawn shop using “redemption money” – the price that you sold it for, plus an additional percentage. In other words, you could “redeem” your jewelry.
While the pawn shop illustration serves as an adequate way to explain the modern definition of redemption, it falls far short in explaining the biblical concept behind the word. The Bible is a book that was written within an historical context, and it must be interpreted with this fact in mind. Even though the truth of God’s Word is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago, our contemporary understanding of certain biblical concepts is often inadequate in interpreting that truth. The New Testament is full of vivid word pictures that, when understood within the context of Ancient Middle Eastern customs, lend a far greater understanding to the doctrines of Christianity.
In the Greco-Roman world, the language of redemption was common in the economic sphere. One of the most prevalent ways that this type of language was used was in regard to the redemption of slaves. In the first century, slavery was simply a part of life. In fact, the practice was so prominent that slaves constituted approximately one third of the imperialist population. The interesting thing about Roman slavery, however, is the way in which many individuals became slaves. While certain slaves were representatives of conquered nations, many of them were actually former Roman citizens.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are a freeman living in first century Rome. Now suppose that you wanted to begin a business venture of some kind, but lacked the capital with which to do it. Any number of money lenders would be willing to offer you a loan, and with the money you borrowed you would be able to go into business. But now, imagine that your business did not work out and you lost everything. There are no laws to protect you from bankruptcy, and now you owe a great debt to a money lender – a debt that you are totally incapable of paying back. There really are not many options afforded to you under Roman Law. In fact, there is really only one: you can sell yourself (and/or your family) into slavery. The chances are that the money lender himself does not actually need a slave. So once you have “sold” yourself to him, he will find someone who is willing to buy you. In this way, your monetary debt to the money lender is paid when you are purchased by your new master.
It is important to understand a few things about how this transaction works, and about the status of a slave. First of all, selling yourself into slavery does not mean that you will serve as a slave for a period of time until you can work of your debt. Rather, YOU are the payment for your debt, and not the work that you will do as a slave. Secondly, selling yourself into slavery is not temporary; in all likelihood, you will spend the rest of your life as a slave. Thirdly, you no longer have any rights as a Roman citizen. In fact, in the eyes of the government, you are not even considered a person anymore; you are nothing more than a piece of property. Slavery was a very serious thing in the Empire: it was a major part of the economic culture, and a sad reality for thousands of former citizens who had fallen upon hard times. And for most people, it was the end.
Now suppose that you have a wealthy relative that lives a few days’ journey from where you are living as a slave. This relative hears of your dire plight, and decides to do something about your situation. He travels to your master’s house, and speaks to him about buying you back. There are many provisions for this in Roman law, and your master knows that he can make a profit of off you. Your relative and your master agree on a price, but your relative does not pay your master. Instead, he goes to the temple of your city’s pagan deity and seeks out a temple official to handle the transaction. The temple official takes your relative’s money (plus an extra “handling” percentage, which could often be very expensive), and buys you from your master. Now, you are no longer your master’s slave. You are the property of that temple’s god.
Before you get depressed (you are technically still a slave, after all), there is something that you must realize. The pagan deity is not real. He is worshiped as a god, but he never speaks. He will never give you anything to do. For all intents and purpose, you are free to live your life and to do as you wish. As far as the human sphere is concerned, you have attained your liberty. For the most part, you are still a slave in the eyes of the government (this standing is largely irreversible), but you are a “free slave” without a captor. You have become a part of what is referred to as a “legal fiction,” or a written loophole. And you have been redeemed – redeemed from your life of destitution and servitude; and redeemed to the freedom of “serving” an imaginary god.
When understanding this process of redemption in the light of Rome’s economic culture, it is much easier to understand the theology of men like the Apostle Paul. In his epistles, he speaks often of the concept of redemption. In Romans, he speaks of “being justified freely through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ (3:24).” In Ephesians, he makes mention of having “redemption through [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of sin, according to the riches of His grace (1:7).” This concept of “redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins” is mentioned again, in I Corinthians 1:14. Paul, in his writings, made it very clear that we are “a purchased possession (Eph. 1:14),” procured at an infinitely high price: the shed blood of Christ, and His resurrection from the dead. We have been set free from the slave market of sin, “the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13),” and the chains of spiritual death. But we have also been redeemed to the service of a Living God, “unto the praise of His glory (Eph. 1:14).”
While most Christians today associate the idea of redemption with absolute freedom, this was never the case with Paul. He refers to himself on many occasions as the δοῦλος (doulos, lit. “bond-slave“) of Christ (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10, Tit. 1:10; cf. Ja. 1:1). This word δοῦλος is often translated as “servant,” but is better understood to mean “slave,” as in Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22 (which both deal with the relationship between a master and his slave). In other words, Paul viewed himself as God’s slave. Many Christians would probably balk at this idea, as it supposedly limits their individual freedom and flies in the face of their limited understanding of biblical salvation. But when viewed in the light of redemption language as Paul would have understood it, his view (and ultimately, God’s view) make perfect sense. This is why Paul could speak of his freedom in Christ (I Cor. 6), and still refer to himself as His slave. He had been liberated from the curse of the law, and he had attained the freedom in God’s economy to live his life by faith. He understood that he was God’s purchased possession, and he chose to live his life in accordance with that reality. He was God’s servant because he had been redeemed, and he gladly accepted the yoke of Christ and took up his cross to follow after his Master. It was the least he could do for the One Who had paid off his debt – the One Who had offered up His blood to an holy God on Paul’s behalf.
Now return with me to your situation as the slave of a pagan deity. Technically, you “belong” to the god of the temple where you were purchased from your old master. But, in reality, you answer to the official that runs the temple’s affairs. There was a provision in the law that you could be restored to Roman citizenship – restored to complete and total freedom within the Empire. But the only way this could be done was if the temple official saw fit to honor you with this great privilege. There were certain rules that had to be followed in order to bestow such an honor honor, but it could be done. Typically, it was done because the official had come to view you as a friend and respected you as his equal. Instances such as this were exceedingly rare, but they did occur. And in those rare occasions when a slave was restored to his former standing, he would regain all of the rights of a Roman citizen. But even more importantly, he would gain a very influential friend who had acted on his behalf. When this occurred, the process of a slave’s redemption was totally complete.
The Apostle Paul spoke of the “redemption of the body” in Romans 8:23. He also wrote, in Galatians 4:7, that we are “no more … servant[s], but… son[s]; and if… son [s], then… heir[s] of God through Christ.” When Christ died on Calvary’s cross and rose again from the dead, he accomplished the beginning of our redemption – liberation from the bonds of sin and death. Jesus paid the price to redeem us to the Father. But redemption, even in the Roman economy, is an ongoing process. For the believer, it does not begin with Christ’s death and end with the moment of his salvation. On the contrary, in the moment when a sinner becomes a believer, the process of redemption begins.
We have been liberated and redeemed to the service of a God Who loves us unconditionally. We are no more prisoners; the terrible debt which had once made us slaves to the curse has been paid in the Person of Jesus Christ. But the shadows of that curse remain: our bodies still grow old and die, and our sinful natures still struggle with the new creation. But there is coming a day when the process of redemption will be complete. There is coming a day when even physical death will be banished, buried forever in the glory of Resurrection. There is coming a day when sin will no longer hold any sway in the affairs of the earth. There is coming a day when God will welcome His servants into His everlasting joy. And when the process of redemption is completed, we will fully realize another aspect of so great salvation that we possess: we have also been adopted. We will stand before God, shrouded in the righteousness of His Son. We will be eternal partakers in Christ’s inheritance as the Firstborn of All Creation. And then redemption will be complete. We will be entirely, beautifully, and miraculously freed – all to the glory of God.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts