One of my least favourite jobs when I was in the police was taking prisoners to or from the “BIG HOOSE,” The Big Hoose wasn’t a large mansion, it is the nickname for Scotland’s largest prison, HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow. I always felt there was an oppressive atmosphere of depression and hopelessness around Barlinnie Prison. Loss of freedom does that to people, it robs them of hope and dignity. Yet in among all of that atmospheric mixture of oppression and depression you did see happy people at Barlinnie. In fact, some of the happiest people I have ever seen I saw at the Big Hoose. They were the prisoners who were released at the front gate. Freedom is joyful experience.
The themes of captivity, oppression and then liberation form a big part of the Old Testament experience of God’s people. God’s people were held in slavery by Egypt, an oppressive foreign power, till God intervened to set them free. God also intervened to liberate his people from their captivity in Babylon. The living God is a God of liberation. He breaks the power of those who enslave and sets captives free.
When the writers of the New Testament began to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection they drew on this experience of captivity, oppression and liberation that was at the heart of the Old Testament. In their day too, God’s people were ruled by a foreign oppressor with their freedom severely curtailed. Just like the children of Israel in the past, they longed for freedom from the power of Rome. The Apostles also knew that a deeper level all humanity was held captive by the power sin and longed for freedom from it.
So, what you find in the New Testament is this human experience of captivity, longing for freedom and liberation is one of the main ways the meaning of Jesus saving work is connected to our lives and experience. As surely as Israelites were in Egypt, and then later in Babylon, all of us as human beings are held captive and oppressed, not by a nation, but by the all-pervading power of sin and the forces of evil that lie behind it. This according to the writers of Scripture is the essence of the human predicament, we are held captive by enslaving forces from which we are incapable of freeing ourselves.
The New Testament uses the related words “ransom” and “redemption” to help us understand and experience how Jesus, through his death and resurrection, sets us free from the enslaving power of sin, death and the devil. The use of these metaphors goes right back to Jesus himself. Just listen to his words,
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ Mark 10:45
Jesus explained the significance of his fast-approaching death by calling it a “ransom.” There are probably a couple of ideas we need to think about to fully understand Jesus’ use of these metaphors of ransom and redemption and their implications for us.
FREEDOM …. in the ancient world, as it still is today, a ransom was the price paid to set someone free, perhaps an important prisoner of war, someone kidnapped by pirates or even a slave. So, Jesus is saying that he is willing to give his life, to set us free. As surely as the old Victorian gates of Barlinnie prison opened to allow prisoners to begin a new life of freedom, the cross and the empty tomb provide for us a way to a life freed from the power and penalty of sin.
VALUE …. Julius Caesar was once captured and held for ransom by some pirates. He was famously furious when he heard the price the pirates were asking for his freedom. Caesar said it was an insult, he believed it was far too low. He believed he was so important that that fact should be reflected in the ransom paid for him. The more valuable the person held in captivity, the more costly the ransom to set them free. Jesus is saying in that verse in Mark that you are so precious, so valuable to him, that he was willing to give the most precious thing he had to set you free, his very life.
A LITTLE EXERCISE
These metaphors of ransom and redemption that Scripture uses to help us understand our salvation are meant not just to inform our heads but also stir our hearts.
I want you to imagine that you have been kidnapped and just like many of those kidnapped in Beirut in the 80s you have been kept chained to a radiator for years. When you heard the amount of money your captives wanted for your ransom you knew neither you nor your friends or family were capable of paying it. You could see no path to freedom.
- Imagine what your emotions would have been in that situation.
Then one day your captors come into your room and unlock your chains. They tell you that someone has paid their extortionate ransom in full and so you are free.
- What would your emotions be then?
- What would your emotions and attitude be towards the person who had paid your ransom?
Now reflect deeply and slowly on these words from Peter
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect 1 Peter 1:18-19
- What do these verses tell you about what Jesus has done for you?
- What do these verses tell you about your value in the eyes of Jesus?
- What emotions do these verses stir in your heart?
Charles Wesley reflecting on these ideas of redemption and ransomed wrote these words in famous hymn.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light,
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
- How do those words express your experience as a Christian?