What about the idea of ransom? While the concept of ransom is probably most evident in the New Testament, we find it present in the Old Testament as well. Related to ransom, there are two primary Hebrew verbs. The first one is padah, which means the substitution of a required person or an animal for something that belongs to God. The firstborn of the livestock and the firstborn child belonged to God, as we see in Exodus 13. That was the requirement of the law; the firstborn of the livestock was to be either redeemed or sacrificed. You could redeem the firstborn animal and bring it back to yourself rather than have it sacrificed. This was similarly true with children. The firstborn child belonged to the LORD, but you could redeem them by paying a price and bringing them back to yourself. That was the first idea of ransom.
The second major Hebrew word used for ransom in the Old Testament is ga’al. The ga’al is a legal term for the deliverance of someone as property through family relation. It worked like this: if someone in your family was enslaved, or brought into servitude because they became indebted to someone, a kinsman redeemer (ga’al) could come and pay for the family member’s release from servitude. Similar to the idea of padah, the ga’al is the payment of a price for bringing someone back into a former relationship or restoring their former status. This word is found 13 times in Isaiah. The literal translation is redeemer; a person who buys the right to bring someone back into relationship. Probably the most well-known example of kinsman redeemer is found in the book of Ruth. In this story Ruth is redeemed by her relative Boaz from another relative who had familial rights to take her as his own. Boaz pays that other relative so he can bring Ruth into his family for her good.
During the time of the New Testament, the idea of Messiah coming to rescue His people from Roman oppression and restoring them to the glory of the kingdom established by David and Solomon undergirded everything the Jews thought about God. As Jesus reveals his messianic identity and mission, people expected Him as Messiah to rescue them from their oppressors and restore them to the glories of the Davidic kingdom. Most Jews in first-century Palestine knew they needed rescue from the political and military might of the Romans and they expected that to come from a political and military Messiah. So when Jesus is called Messiah by others and does not deny it, and when he claims that the kingdom is here and redemption has begun but then does nothing to overthrow the Romans, what kind of response might you expect from the Jewish people? Confusion, uncertainty, skepticism, anger?
We see this confusion in John the Baptist’s life in Matthew 11 and Luke 7 when he was imprisoned by King Herod. John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the Messiah?” John the Baptist’s ministry had been built on proclaiming Jesus as Messiah and making straight the way for Him. Why would John now ask this honest question? Clearly, his expectations of what the Messiah would do had not been met. The Romans were still in power. In fact, he was suffering because of it. So it makes perfect sense that John would send his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the Messiah? Are you really the one who is going to rescue and restore the nation of Israel?”
The apostle Paul fills out this language of redemption as rescue and restoration. In Galatians 1:3-4, Paul writes, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever.” Then in Colossians 1:13-14 he writes, “For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the Kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Here the language of redemption is clearly seen. The Lord has rescued us from the dominion of darkness, where we were trapped in our blindness, and then brought us into the kingdom of His Son. It is by the Son that we have redemption from sin.
The idea of ransom as payment for sin is prevalent in the New Testament. Previously, we looked at Mark 10:45 to see this language used clearly. In this passage, Jesus says, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Paul also plainly states in I Timothy 2:5-6, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all people.” You can see the use of the financial metaphor for ransom in 1 Corinthians 6:19, “You are not your own, you are bought with a price.” That same language is very powerfully used in the Apostle John’s vision in Revelation 5. In the heavenly throne room, there is a scroll that must be unrolled, a metaphor for the unfolding of human history. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to unroll the scroll?” meaning who is worthy to bring about the end of human history? They look but no one can be found. Finally, they see the Lamb who was slain, and He is deemed to be worthy to open the scroll. In Revelation 5:9-10, all those in the heavenly throne room sang a new song of worship to the Lamb, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.
What is it that Jesus purchased with His blood? What does the Messiah accomplish through this payment of ransom? It is this: humanity has been rescued from the curse of sin, which is death, and can now be restored to life in fellowship with God. Anyone who expresses faith in the one true God and finds life in Him, does so because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Therefore, the language of being born again, given new life, is only possible because of the ransom paid by the Son. Rescue, restoration, ransom—that is the language of redemption.
The People of God on Mission
Now let’s turn to the idea of how God accomplishes His redemptive mission through His people. Looking back at the creation narrative, we talked about how God delegated His reign over the earth to His image bearers, to humanity. They were to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and rule over it. Scripture never tells us why God chose to entrust His reign over creation to mere mortals. In the same way, Scripture never tells us why He delegates the execution of His redemptive mission to humanity, to His own people. When we talk about His people, we see that both the Old and New Testaments present a clear distinction between those who are the people of God and everyone else.
In that God creates unto Himself a people, we might be tempted to think that God has set aside His desire for all of creation to know and worship Him. But that’s not the case. God’s desire to be known is universal. God’s desire to be worshipped is universal. When God focuses His attention on a particular people, He is not setting aside His desire for all people to know and worship Him.
Early in my Christian journey, I thought the Old Testament was just about the nation of Israel, and the end of human history in Revelation was only about the restoration of Israel’s kingdom. I thought everybody else was part of some kind of plan B, in that when the nation of Israel rejected God, He went to plan B, the adoption of Gentiles. At the time, as I studied the Old Testament, I read it as if God’s sole concern was Israel. Then I began to realize that the Bible from Genesis to Revelation actually tells the story of God’s redemptive mission for all of humanity. God’s concern is always for all people. When he creates for Himself a particular people—Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament—He does so to fulfill his desire that all people know and worship Him. God’s plan is that His universal redemptive mission will be accomplished through His particular people.
How does God accomplish His redemptive mission through His people? First and foremost He does this through the redeemer, Jesus, who was fully human and descended from Abraham, the patriarch of God’s own people. God also fulfills His mission through the redeemed, those who have experienced God’s redemptive acts and are now charged to live in ways that reveal Him to all the nations. Through the testimony of His people, people from all nations can come to know and worship the One True God. The mission of God is executed by the people of God who are to live in such a way that the redeemer God is made known to all people.
The mission of God’s people is established when God forms His people through the call and promise to Abram found in Genesis 12:1-3. It is reiterated and carried out through the rest of the Bible. This key passage, Genesis 12:1-3, can be seen as one of the most important events in biblical history.
At the end of Genesis 11, we find the human race judged, scattered, and worshiping false gods. That reality makes us ask whether God’s desire to be known and worshiped by all has failed. What He intended for humanity is not happening. However, having described the diversity of people in Genesis 10, the narrative focuses its attention on a single family at the end of chapter 11. That family becomes the focal point of the biblical narrative. “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’” (Genesis 12:1).
Who is this Abram and why does he suddenly become a central figure in the story? He first appears in Genesis 11:27, “This is the account of Terah’s family line. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot.” So Abram, the son of Terah, lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. Joshua 24:2 describes Abram’s family. “Joshua said to all the people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshipped other gods.’” Abram’s father Terah is identified as someone who worshipped false gods. So what is the likelihood that Abram also worshipped false gods? Based on where they lived, it is a high probability that they worshipped astral entities - the stars or moon. So why did God choose Abram to be the one through whom he would create a people for Himself? What makes him so special? Scripture never tells us. It gives no hint as to why God revealed Himself to Abram and, out of all of humanity, called him to be the founder of God’s people. The text only tells us Abram responded to God’s call by faith.
The first word God utters to Abram in Genesis 12:1 is a command, what grammarians call an imperative. “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go.’” The verb form used here creates intensity in this command. We might translate it like this, “Get yourself up and get out of here!” I think one of the most surprising verses in all of Scripture is Genesis 12:4 where we read, “So Abram went.” He obeyed, fully trusting God. Now look at the whole of verse one, “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” When God asks Abram to leave his country, his people, and his household, He is asking Abram to give up his identity, his security, his livelihood. What will his future be? Fundamentally, everything that Abram would have used to define himself, God is telling him to leave. That is why verse 4 is so remarkable! Not only does God tell him to leave everything behind, He also says, “Go to the land I will show you.” God doesn’t even tell Abram where he is going. So basically, the command is, “Leave everything, and entrust your future to me.”
In between God’s call and Abram’s response, we hear the LORD make some significant promises to Abram. Perhaps these provide a little more insight into why Abram was willing to go. God says to him in Genesis 12:2, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; and I will make your name great.” Think about what that means. “A great nation” implies that there will be a group of people with geographical and political identity that will be known as the people of Abraham. God could have said, “I will make you into a great family,” or “I will make you into a great clan.” But no, He says, “I will make you into a great nation.”
The following promise in verse 2 is, “I will bless you.” Blessings in the Old Testament almost always involved material prosperity. The next promise refers to how Abram will be known, “I will make your name great.” There was nothing more valuable in the ancient near East than a good reputation. God is basically telling Abram that others will speak well of him and consider him someone to be honored. Honor was more valuable than camels, more valuable than gold, more valuable than any earthly possession of that era. The implication of these first promises is, if Abram becomes a nation, if he is blessed, and if his name is great, God’s reputation and His name, will be great as well, blessed and praised because of what He will do for Abram.
Now, look carefully at the next phrase of Genesis 12:2. In most English translations, the very next line starts with “and.” The NIV states, “and you will be a blessing.” That is a legitimate translation but, literally, this line is a second command to Abram, “and be a blessing.” So the verses essentially read like this, “Get yourself up and go. I’m going to do these three things for you. Be a blessing.” Verse 3 follows with, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” God promises that he will protect Abram. Those who speak ill of him and seek to do him harm, God will respond accordingly against them. The idea here is this: how people respond to Abram and his God is how God will respond to those people.
In the Hebrew text, the grammatical structure of this passage is symmetrical and very powerful. There are two commands: go and be. Each command is followed by three supporting verbs. Following the first command are the promises: I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, and I will make your name great. Following the second command are the promises: I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who curse you, and all nations will be blessed through you. This Hebrew structure implies that each command has a purpose. When put together, it points us to the last line of the pattern which gives the ultimate purpose or outcome of both commands, “And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).
The LORD’S promise to Abram, that he will become a great nation, is God’s creation of a people for Himself. The purpose, the intention of this special people is that all peoples of the earth will be blessed by and through them. Whatever God does for, to, among, or against His people, it is always for the sake that He be known and worshipped by all people. The same is true today. Everything we experience as the people of God, as we faithfully follow Him or even when we need to be corrected by Him, is for our benefit but never just for our sake. That basic alteration in understanding how God relates to His people changes the way we read the Bible. It changes the way we think about the Christian life, our future, and our calling. It can even change the way we think about our own sin. This new mindset changes everything, because now I’m not God’s sole focus. Whatever God does for me is always for the sake of others. That is why the bulk of the pages of Scripture are devoted to the shaping of God’s people for participation in His redemptive mission.