With each month’s Work of Mercy, we begin by asking, “How did Christ first do this Work of Mercy to us?” Since we’re called to mirror his work into the world, we need to pay careful attention to what he did and do the same thing, so as to invite the world to grapple again with his grace and mercy.
In the case of ransoming the captive, a central verse is Mark 10:45:
For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
This has raised for many inquiring minds the following question:
To whom did this ransom need to be paid? Satan? God? China? (They own most debt these days, after all. Who’s to say they’re not dabbling in the atonement market?)
As with any matter of what seems to be idle theological speculation, huge swaths of the Internet are filled with no shortage of (typically ill-formed or personal agenda-serving) answers. But as Rich on Faith and Life and Mark M. Mattison each point out:
a. Scripture doesn’t answer the question, and
b. It’s not because God forgot to tell us.
When Scripture doesn’t answer specific questions, the lack of an answer is usually, profoundly, the answer we may not be looking for but really need to hear. In the case of the question of to whom Christ is paid as a ransom, the silence is deeply instructive. The first thing it ought to prompt us to do is to ask, “Is there anywhere else in the Scripture that speaks to this same subject?”
And in this case, indeed there is. As both Rich and Mark point out, Scripture points to the Exodus. Says Rich:
The quintessential story for the writers of the New Testament was the Exodus. In the Exodus the Egyptians are the enemy and they walk away empty handed. They aren’t paid anything for the freedom of the Israelites. This I believe is the single most informative understanding of what redemption and ransom is all about. The story of the Exodus is the story of being set free from slavery.
Consider Deuteronomy 7:8, which says that the Lord “brought you [Israel] out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Did God literally “redeem” Israel from Pharaoh? Did he give Pharaoh (for example) the Hittites in exchange for the Israelites, substituting one race of people for another? Obviously not.
But why in the world does Scripture in neither case answer the question to whom ransom was paid? For the answer to this question, we turn to Pastor Foley’s second Heuristic Helper for the month:
When Scripture doesn’t tell us something, it’s because what it does tell us is so important that we have no need to look beyond it…and every need to look right at it, again and again.
In the case of Christ as ransom, the identity of the ransom is infinitely more important than the identity of the captor and even the identity of the captive. This makes no sense to us, because in the human equation the identity of the captor and the captive are the consequential elements. The only question anyone ever asks about the ransom is: Can we afford to pay it? But when your ransom is GOD–well, you now know everything you need to know. End of story.
As we begin to think through how to carry out the Work of Mercy of ransoming the captive, then, we are now faced with an uncomfortable truth:
The gravity of that work will be found in neither the one bound nor the one who binds, but in the ransom itself–i.e., you, in your work of mirroring and thus re-presenting for the world’s reckoning the greatest Ransom ever paid.