Christianity 201

December 19, 2012

What the Bible Means by ‘Redeemer’

K. W. Leslie is doing a series on his blog on Christianese, the words we in the church toss out as a type of code that is largely not understood by the world at large. You might think you know what the Bible means by ‘redeemer’ until you read this, which I encourage you to do at his blog, More Christ, where this appeared recently.

Redeemer. [ri·DĒ·mər, noun] Rescuer. One who atones for sin, error, or evil. Usually Jesus.

To most people’s minds, “redeem” is a word we use when talking about recycling cans or bottles: The redemption value of a recyclable container is the extra amount we paid when we bought the item, which we’re supposed to get back after we’ve taken the container to a recycling center.

Christian redemption isn’t quite like that. (Though I’ve actually heard a sermon about Jesus recycling sinners.) The original word for redeemer, ga’al, was a family member who, when you were in trouble, helped get you out of it.

If you were in debt and had to sell your property, your redeemer would buy it back. (Lv 25.25) If you were obligated to sell yourself—for slavery was an option in bible times—your redeemer would buy you back. (Lv 25.48) If you were a poor widow or orphan, your redeemer was expected to look after you, or even marry you. (Ru 4.1-10) If you were murdered, your redeemer was obligated to find your murderer and execute him (Nu 35.21) —unless your murderer went to a nearby city and requested a trial. But if found guilty, the redeemer would still execute him. (Nu 35.25)

For the Christian, Jesus is our redeemer. We were slaves to sin, but God has adopted us as his children, (Jn 1.12) and our brother and redeemer Jesus has purchased us out of that slavery. Yes, Paul described us as slaves to God, (Ro 6.22) but that’s because he was mixing his metaphors. If you prefer the idea we’ve been bought by God as his slaves, fine. If you prefer the idea we’ve been freed by Jesus so we can now freely follow him, fine. (Ga 4.5) There’s no specific formula for how God’s salvation works, so the scriptures describe it in a few different ways. And most Christians like the redemption idea ’cause it means we’re free. “If the Son sets you free, you are truly free.” (Jn 8.36)

When we talk or sing of how our Redeemer lives, that’s actually a quote from Job:

But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,
and he will stand upon the earth at last.
And after my body has decayed,
yet in my body I will see God!
I will see him for myself.
Yes, I will see him with my own eyes.
I am overwhelmed at the thought!

—Job, Job 19.25-27 NLT

Job was an Edomite, so the customs of Edomite redeemers were a bit different from the rules for Israelite redeemers. Nevertheless, they were family members who would rescue you from your troubles—and here Job clearly recognized God was his rescuer, and that he’d come to save him. Christians sometimes interpret this as a Messianic prophecy, though it’s not: Everyone who believes in resurrection understands how after we’re raised, we’ll see God with our own two eyes. Christians just happen to know he’ll be Jesus. Job didn’t necessarily know this. All he did know—correctly—is God was his redeemer: He was an adopted son of God, so God was family.

As are we. That’s why we can borrow Job’s quote and say the same thing: Jesus is alive, he’s bought our freedom, and at the End we’ll see him with our own two resurrected eyes. Eventually.

K. W. Leslie

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