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God as Redeemer


The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses the title “Redeemer” eighteen times and all of these are in the OT, hence Jesus is not once addressed as “Redeemer.” It’s quite amazing really how quickly Christians began using “Redeemer” as a title for Jesus, especially considering that the title is never applied to him in the NT.[1] All eighteen of the OT texts use the Hebrew participle (go’el), which is from a verb found within family and ancient social customs (for example, slavery, property). The go’el was a kinsman who delivered a relative from debt or some other predicament (for example, a childless widow). Boaz is the classic example of a “kinsman redeemer” (Ruth 4:1-8). So the basic idea is Deliverer, Rescuer, or even Savior.

Generally the title is applied to God: “O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Ps 19:14); “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel (Isa 43:14).  God is the redeemer of the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor (Deut 24.17-18; Ps 72.12-14 [referring to the king as God’s agent]; Prov 23.10-11). To translate go’el,the Septuagint (the ancient Greek OT) used the participle of lutroō (emancipate, redeem, deliver, rescue) or rhuomai (rescue, deliver, preserve). However, these words are not common in the Gospels with one outstanding exception where the cognate noun lutron (ransom, payment for release) is used, namely, Mark 10:45 (Matt 20:28).

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom (lutron)for many” (Mark10:45). The first thing we should note is that “many” does not mean “most,” but “all” in contrast with one—the one for the many, that is, all others. This is developed in Paul’s inimitable style in Rom 5:15-19. In these few verses “one” is used 11 times and “many” or “all” is used seven times.[2] The fact that “many” (vv. 15c, 19) and “all” (v. 18) are used interchangeably confirms that “many” means “all” both in Rom 5:15-19 and in Mark 10:45.

Secondly, the idea of payment should not be over-emphasized. Some early church leaders thought it meant payment to the devil. The reformers (especially Calvin) had the idea of a payment to God’s justice. It is truer to the nature of God to think more of cost (intransitive) than payment (transitive). The pamphlet correctly notes that “the atonement of Christ was not offered to persuade the Father to love those whom He otherwise hated. The death of Christ did not bring forth a love that was not already in existence. Rather, it was a manifestation of the love that was eternally in God’s heart” (Sunday’s comment).

Thirdly, of course the “one man’s trespass/sin/disobedience” (vv. 15, 16, 17, 18, 19) is the transgression of Adam in Genesis 3.[3] In contrast, the following phrases–the free gift in the grace of the one man, Christ (v. 15), the free gift of righteousness (v. 17), one man’s act of righteousness (v. 18), one man’s obedience (v. 19)–all refer to the single act of Christ’s death on the cross (vv. 6-11). The background for the word “ransom” is diverse and rich, but at a minimum it indicates that Jesus was willing to give up his own life to release those in bondage to the evil one.

The pamphlet also rightly observes that the Eucharist, which Jesus himself instituted, is a memorial not so much of his incarnation as of his death. The Synoptic Gospels (the first three) present this powerfully at the commencement of the Passion Week. Yet the Fourth Gospel gives scant attention to the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, if lutroō (including the nouns lutron, (apo)lutrōsis and lutrōtēs) and rhuomai are rare in the Synoptics (see for example, Luke 1:68-69; 21:28; 24:21), they are totally absent from the Fourth Gospel.[4] Yet it is to this enigmatic Gospel that we now turn.[5]

I grew up in an urban and entirely secular environment. Nothing in my childhood or youth prepared me for some of the more vivid Christian images. Neither the sacrificial death of my father in action during WW II, nor the sight of my farmer cousin humanely slaughtering a sheep, readied me for William Cowper’s words:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Maybe my mind is too imaginative, but a swimming pool filled with blood bled from Jesus’ veins sounds grotesque to me.[6] Hence my sympathies are very much with the many disciples, who protested at the words of Jesus: “This teaching is difficult who can accept [hear] it?” (John 6:60 NRSV). What had Jesus said to cause such consternation among his followers?

Well he had pointed out that the Hebrews who ate the manna in the wilderness had died (vv. 49, 58), but “whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (v. 51a). There’s nothing too offensive in that. But Jesus went on to say the bread that came down from heaven, the bread that he gives for the life of the world, is his flesh (v. 51b). The identifying of his flesh with the true bread from heaven (v. 32), which Jesus urged the Jews to eat (vv. 50-51), caused a dispute[7] among them and the more skeptical asked: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52).

 Jesus’ reply was calculated to make his words even more offensive. Previously Jesus had spoken of the bread from heaven that satisfies so that none would be hungry or thirsty (v. 35), which language comes from the Exodus period when God provided manna and water for the Hebrews in the wilderness (see Exod 16:4; 17:3; Deut 8:15-16; Neh 9:15; Ps 78:15-16, 20-25). Eating bread and drinking water is one thing, even eating flesh (Deut 12:15), but eating “my flesh” is another thing entirely. But worse is to come.

“So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’” (v. 53). Then to make sure the shock is sustained, Jesus repeats the indispensible nature of this ingesting of his flesh and blood (see vv. 54, 55, 56, 57), and this was said to a people who was forbidden by the Law of Moses to eat meat with its blood, let alone drink it! (Gen 9:4; Lev 17:10-14; Deut 12:16, 23-25). Notice the repeated “my” or “me” in these verses; the “unless” of verse 53 is emphatic (as it was to Nicodemus in John 3:3)—“my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (v. 55), and “so whoever eats me will live because of me” (v. 57).

Three days ago I had a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses arrive at my door. We talked about this and that including whether the Law of Moses was really addressing blood transfusion. I then asked them how they understood Jesus’ words that unless we drank his blood we have no life in us (v. 53). “It’s symbolic,” they said. “Yes,” I agreed, “but can you not feel the pain of the Jews on hearing such symbolic language?” “And why,” I added, “use such an offensive metaphor in the first place?” I think the young lady saw my point, but the young man was satisfied with his learned response, “It’s symbolic;” that solved the problem for him, but not for me, a secular convert to Christianity.

Aware that his disciples were complaining about this saying, he asked them: “Does this offend (skandalizei) you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (vv. 61-62). Clearly Jesus expected his return to the Father to cause more offense than the eating of his flesh and the drinking of his blood–but why? It is because in John, the ascension always includes his death. His going up to (katabainō) and his departing to (hupagō) the Father always infer his being lifted up or exalted to the cross.(3:13-15; 7:37-39; 8:28; 12:23, 28, 32-33; 13:31-32).

John has been guiding us towards the offence of the crucifixion (Gal 5:11; 6:12; 1 Cor 1:23) from the beginning of chapter six when he casually mentions that the time of the Passover was near (v. 4).[8]  The Passover in John is always redolent of the Passion. This hint is reinforced when Jesus speaks of giving his flesh for the life of the world (v. 51). It is then expanded through the intense use of eucharistic language (given thanks, v. 11; bread, flesh, eat, blood, drink, vv. 53-58). This is coupled with the title “Son of Man” (v. 53), which generally in John implies Jesus’ death (3:13-14; 8:28; 12:23, 34; 13:31), so again we are pointed to the cross.[9] John’s use of eucharistic language does not mean he had a sacramental view of the Lord’s Supper. Verse 63 (“It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless”) warns us against taking that view. No, “this is how John presents the offence of the cross. The hard saying therefore is the talk of Jesus’ incarnation and his death.”[10]

Jesus opens the discourse with a question (“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” v. 5), and he finishes it with a question (“I chose you twelve, didn’t I? But one of you is a devil,” v. 70).[11] However, the final question seems odd and out of place, until we recall the steady emphasis on Jesus’ death throughout the discourse. Jesus obviously spoke of Judas Iscariot, who was going to betray him, despite being one of the twelve that he himself had chosen. The narrator makes sure that the reader does not miss the obvious by stating it (v. 71). Now added to the nearness (eggus) of the Passover is the ominous imminence of Jesus’ betrayal (“this man was going to (emellen) betray him,” v. 71) and the not-too-distant Passion Week.

The link for John with chapter six is the way in which Jesus identified his betrayer. The sign was the giving of a piece of bread, and as Judas took it Satan entered into him (John 13:26-29). “So after receiving the bread, he immediately went out. And it was night (v. 30). John then forthwith informs us that the Jews in Jerusalem were earnestly seeking to put Jesus to death (7:1). “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (1:11). Yet he gave his life, his flesh, for the world (6:33, 51).

It is true that we eat his flesh and drink his blood by coming to him or seeing him and believing in him (vv. 35, 40, 47). However, we must not tame Jesus’ provocative language in vv. 53-58, nor must we try to deny that his words are indeed “a hard saying” (v. 60). To do so is to pretend a crucified Savior or Messiah is not at all offensive. In 1857 a piece of graffiti was uncovered near Rome. It depicts a crucified human with the head of an ass and has an inscription in poor Greek (good grammar not being a requirement for graffiti scribes) that reads “Alexamenos worships his God.” That tells us what the ancients thought of Christians, who call their crucified Savior, Lord; and I suspect it is the view of some of Christianity’s celebrated contemporary opponents. So be it, “for Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:22-24).

[1]The earliest extant occurrence is in Justin Martyr (circ 160 C.E.), Dialogue with Trypho, 30. 3. This is not of course the earliest occurrence as Justin seems to use it as a term already in circulation among Christians.

[2]I exclude the idiom “much more” in v. 17.

[3]Paul’s use of the Adam story does not necessarily require modern readers to treat Genesis 3 as history.

[4]That is “I redeem” (“ransom,” “redemption,” “redeemer”), and “I rescue.”

[5]My use of “John” leaves open the issue of the Fourth Gospel’s literary history.

[6] Calvin’s language is hardly less extreme: “In the presence of the Father the blood of Christ is always in a sense distilling for the irrigation of heaven and earth” (Calvin Commentaries, ed. by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance [Grand Rapids, 1963] 12.140-41).

[7]The Greek machomai has the basic meaning “to fight,” indeed to fight in combat, so the altercation was rather serious. See also verses 41, 43, 61, which use the Greek word for “grumble” or “complain” (gogguzō).

[8]In fact “throughout the Gospel we hear the steady drum-beat of approaching death (ii.4; vii.30; viii.20; xii.23, 27; xiii.1; xvii.1)…” (J. D. G. Dunn, “John VI — A Eucharistic Discourse?” New Testament Studies 17 [1970-71] 336).

[9]C. K. Barrett correctly links the Son of Man reference in John 6:53 with the Son of Man in Mark 10:45, so we still with the pamphlet (page 26) (“‘The Flesh of the Son of Man’ John 6.53,” in C. K. Barrett, Essays on John [London: SPCK, 1982] 48).

[10] Dunn, “John VI — A Eucharistic Discourse?” 331. Italics are original.

[11]Author’s translation. The question anticipates an affirmative reply.

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