“Redeem,” redeemer,” redeeming,” and “redemption” are variant forms of a word in the Bible that we tend to take for granted because of their familiarity and frequency of occurrence. Several of our hymns use some form of the word in titles such as “There Is a Redeemer,” “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” or simply “Redeemed.” Or it may appear frequently within songs of a different title, such as “Jesus, our blessed Redeemer” in “Praise Him! Praise Him,” or the concluding line of another hymn, “We sing the song of the redeemed.”
Of course, we’re all familiar with the secular meaning of the word in the context of a pawn shop, when someone buys back, or redeems, a valuable object temporarily surrendered for a loan. Yet this concept plays such an important role throughout Scripture that the conservative Bible scholar John Stott included “redemption as one of the four major outcomes of the crucifixion, along with propitiation (atoning sacrifice), justification, and reconciliation.” The doctrine of redemption throughout the Bible can be divided into two major categories: human and divine.
Redemption on the human level sometimes involved the redemption of Hebrew slaves. One use of the term involved redeeming a daughter sold as a servant. As unsavory as this practice seems to us, at least some protection for the daughter was retained in the requirement that the father must redeem her (buy her back) if she did not please her master. She must not be sold to a foreigner (Exod. 21:7-8). If poor Israelites got sold to a foreigner, “One of their relatives may redeem them,” including any blood relative in their clan (Lev. 25:48-49 NIV). But even if they were not redeemed by relatives, they would automatically be redeemed in the year of Jubilee, the end of the 50-year cycle (v. 54). The same policy applied to redemption of land which impoverished Israelites were forced to sell (Lev 25).
This leads us to the second and more important use of the redemption theme in the Bible, divine intervention. The Hebrew application of this theme is effectively expressed in Isaiah 43:1: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” Later in the same chapter the prophet described God as “the Lord your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (41:14). Just as God had redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, he would redeem, or rescue, Israel from her immediate enemies, the Assyrians, and ultimately from the Babylonians, who would temporarily carry them away to Babylon as a punishment for their sins (43:14).
In the New Testament the emphasis falls on the ultimate meaning of redemption, divine intervention to rescue humanity from eternal damnation. This application may have been hinted at as early as Job’s agonized outcry, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth” (19:25), depending on one’s interpretation of the verse.
Although The Redeemer concept is used somewhat sparingly in the Gospels, three examples carry considerable significance, one at the beginning of Luke and two near the end. In 1:68 Zechariah praised “the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them”; in 21:28 Jesus told his disciples, “Lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near”; and the two travelers on the Emmaus Road expressed the hope that the crucified (but resurrected) Jesus “was going to redeem Israel” (22:8). The first and third of these probably refer to the Jews’ longing for deliverance from Roman oppression through a Messiah, while Jesus’ exhortation refers to ultimate spiritual redemption, the climax of this theme.
It therefore follows logically that the epistles make more extensive use of the word grouping than the Gospel writers, especially the letters of Paul. One of his most dramatic uses of the term appears in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” through the shame of crucifixion (3:13-14). He also wrote to Titus that Jesus Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own (2:14). The redemption theme comes to its conclusion in Revelation when John referred to the symbolic 144,000 saints who had been “redeemed [rescued, bought back] from the earth” (14:3).
The examples discussed above represent only a sampling of the Redemption word grouping used throughout the Bible. Yet it reveals an underlying pattern that confirms the unity and validity of the inspired narrative through many centuries. It begins with the redemption of Israel from Egypt, the redemption of Judah from Assyrian-Babylonian captivity, the longing for an earthly Messiah to redeem the Jews from Roman oppression, ant the ultimate redemption from slavery to sin and damnation through the Great Redeemer himself, Jesus Christ.