A Ransom for Many
Jesus addressed his remarks in our Matthew 20:26-28 to people who would be great and to those who would be first. The world interprets being great and first in terms of position, honor, and power. Jesus inverted this order and interpreted greatness and being first in terms of service. We can be great by serving without power and its related elements.
Leadership and greatness are not synonymous terms, but they are overlapping concepts. We often think, for example, of great leaders. Or, we think people are great because they have extraordinary influence as leaders. Thus, our text becomes a story which raises many leadership issues. All these issues challenge us to think profoundly about what is involved in leading people. The central point of the Matthew story is that service is the indispensable factor in Christian leadership.
In chapter one, we indicated that people could be leaders in the sense of being “ahead,” “a head,” or “the head.” One can be “ahead,” for example, in service without being “a head” or “the head.” Service is the indispensable factor in all three types of servant leadership. However, our discussions of leadership have focused primarily on the latter two types of leadership—being “a head” or “the head” of a group. With regard to them, I presented my own definition of leadership.
The desire to be a leader when service is the indispensable element is a laudable ambition in life. As long as service is put uppermost, the desire to lead is honorable. Service may lead to position and honor, but if not, remember that servant is itself a position and that this position has its own greatness in the kingdom of God.
Those who would lead through service do well when they remember that the ultimate in service is to lay down one's life for others. Our text for this book, Matthew 20:20-28, concludes with the example of Jesus as a ransom for many. We will present the entire text and then will focus on verse 28.
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him.
21 And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to Him, "Command that in
Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your
22 But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to Him, "We are able."
23 He said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father."
24 And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.
25 But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
26 "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant,
27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave;
28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
Verse 28 brings to mind the various theories of atonement. There is a sense in which the atoning work of Christ includes His service as well as His sacrifice of His life. Indeed we might say it includes all that He did from His incarnation to the resurrection. However, we normally focus on the atonement as specifically referring to the death of Christ upon the cross.
There are many theories of the atonement. A full description may draw from several theories, but most evangelicals see the atonement as the vicarious sacrifice of Christ for us in satisfying the demands of the justice of God concerning our sins. Christ is a substitute for us; He took our place upon the cross to atone for our sins. I believe this to be the best explanation.
Jesus is our ideal model in service as well as in all other aspects of life. As a ransom for many, He atoned for our sins, doing what no other person could do. However, we can commit our lives fully to Him. We can follow Him in devoted service. Our topics in this chapter will be (1) the service of Christ and our service, (2) Christ as the ransom for us, and (3) our actions as followers of Christ.
Jesus, the Son of Man, “did not come to be served, but to serve.” The phrases “to be served” and “to serve” are translations of forms of the Greek verb diakoneo. This verb and the noun, diakonos, refer to serving or service of any kind. Waiters on tables, deacons, and ministers of the Gospel are all included. Several points are relevant.
First, Jesus ministered in many ways to the people around Him. Early in His ministry (Luke 4:18-19), Jesus revealed His ministry agenda in the synagogue at Nazareth. He stood up to read, turned to Isaiah, and read this passage:
18 "THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED,
19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD."
The agenda of Jesus was to bring deliverance to the people in all aspects of their lives.
Jesus had the best interests of the people at heart. He knew what they really needed and sought to serve those interests. He did not pander to their baser instincts nor waste His energy in meeting frivolous needs. True service--true ministry--is devoted to the needs of people which really enhance their lives. Ministry which focuses on such needs will always be strong.
Second, Christ did not come to be ministered to, but His disciples on their own initiative did minister to Him. We, too, can minister to the Lord. Let's observe some of the Biblical evidence.
One, the Old Testament speaks of ministry to God. Concerning the Levites, we read in 1 Chronicles 15:2: “Then David said, 'No one is to carry the ark of God but the Levites; for the Lord chose them to carry the ark of God, and to minister to Him forever.'” Similarly, in 1 Chronicles 23:13 we read about Aaron and his sons: “The sons of Amram were Aaron and Moses. And Aaron was set apart to sanctify him as most holy, he and his sons forever, to burn incense before the Lord, to minister to Him and to bless in His name forever.” Aaron and his sons ministered to the Lord through the burning of incense. The Psalmist emphasizes praise. In Psalm 56:12 (KJV), he writes, “I will render praises unto thee.”
Two, although our text emphasizes Christ's ministry to others, we do have some evidence in the New Testament that He accepted ministry to Him. A couple of examples will illustrate how the disciples ministered to Him. As one example, a company of women travelled with Jesus and the twelve disciples. These women ministered to Jesus through their gifts. We read about this in Luke 8:1-3:
1 Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him,
2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,
3 and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.
The word “contributing” is a translation of a form of diakoneo which, as noted above, means to minister or to serve. They ministered to Jesus and the twelve by giving of their possessions to help the cause.
Another example is that one evening during supper Jesus accepted the ministry of Mary. As John 12:3 records: “Mary therefore took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Judas Iscariot, the treasurer, objected to Mary's action, saying that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Really, he was not concerned about the poor. He was the keeper of the money box, and it was his practice to pilfer from it. Jesus approved Mary's action and said, “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me” (John 12:8).
Another way the disciples ministered to Christ is through helping others. When we help others, we minister to the Lord Himself. Jesus taught His disciples this truth in Matthew 25:31-46 where we read these comments:
31 "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
32 "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;
33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
34 "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
35 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in;
36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'
37 "Then the righteous will answer Him, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink?
38 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You?
39 'When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'
40 "The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'
41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;
42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink;
43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.'
44 "Then they themselves also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?'
45 "Then He will answer them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.'
46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Christ came to minister to others. Thus, our ministry to others harmonizes directly with the purpose for which Christ came. He is our model. It is important for us to see Christ in the faces of the people to whom we minister. Sometimes we help others when we are not sure they are deserving of help. Even so, we must do it as unto Christ. Our help could be a step toward their redemption.
Christ As Ransom
Our text says that Jesus came “to give His life a ransom for many." The apostle Paul adds that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Both the Father and the Son are involved in the redemption of man. They acted out of their own will and compassion.
First, the word “ransom” is a translation of the Greek word lutron. This Greek word is used in the New Testament only here, in the parallel passage in Mark 10:45, and in 1 Timothy 2:6. Before discussing Christ as a ransom, we will consider the general meaning of the term lutron.
According to W. E. Vine, a lutron (ransom) is a means of loosing. Because of this, lutron “is used of the ‘ransom’ for a life, e.g. Ex. 21:30, of the redemption price of a slave, e.g. Lev. 19:20, of land, 25:24, of the price of a captive, Isa. 45:13” (1996, 506). Similarly, the New Bible Dictionary says the purpose of a ransom is to bring about redemption. Through redemption, a person is delivered from some evil. Three examples are given: (1) prisoners of war might be released on payment of a price which was called a “ransom;” (2) slaves might be released by a process of ransom in which they paid their masters for freedom; and (3) among the Hebrews one who commits an unpremeditated murder (Exodus 21:28-30) might redeem his forfeited life with a price. (N. Hillyer, Revision Editor, 1982, 1013).
Second, Jesus described Himself as a “ransom for many.” It is important to consider both the application of the term "ransom" to Christ and the term "many." These two terms give us the hope of eternal life because Christ brought about our deliverance from sin and our separation unto God.
One, applying the concept of ransom to Christ, Vine writes: “That Christ gave up His life in expiatory sacrifice under God's judgment upon sin and thus provided a ‘ransom’ whereby those who receive Him on this ground obtain deliverance from the penalty due to sin, is what Scripture teaches” (1996, 506). The term expiation means “to cover” or “to cleanse” sin. Through Christ’s sacrifice, our sins are cancelled.
The New Bible Dictionary states, “He [God] makes known His strength. Because He loves His people He redeems them at cost to Himself. His effort is regarded as the 'price'” (1982, 1013). Going further, the author states: “When we read of 'redemption through his blood' (Eph. 1:7), the blood of Christ is clearly being regarded as the price of redemption” (Hillyer, Revision Editor, 1982, 1014).
Two, Jesus said He was a ransom for “many.” Some interpreters believe that Christ died only for those who accept Him. However, by using the term “many” Jesus does not exclude anyone. Elsewhere Paul makes it clear that Jesus died for all. In 1 Timothy 2:5-6 Paul writes: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” Jesus died for all people and paid the ransom for them, but all people do not accept Him. Although the price is paid, many people tragically reject Christ and do not avail themselves of the free gift of salvation.
Third, throughout church history, the question has been asked, “To whom was the price of Christ's life paid?” The theories of atonement include several answers to this question.
One, as Morris points out, the early church Fathers tended to answer that the price was paid to “Satan.” Morris writes:
Some of them worked out quite a theory of the way redemption works. They held that because of our sin we were all destined for hell. Sinners belong to Satan. In that situation God, in effect, offered to do a deal with Satan. He would give his Son in exchange for sinners. Satan realized that he would be making a fine profit on this transaction and was happy to accept the offer. The death of Jesus on the cross represented the handing of the Son over to Satan. But when Satan got Jesus down into hell he found (in the modern elegant idiom) that he had bitten off more than he could chew. On the third day Christ rose triumphant and Satan was left lamenting, having lost both the sinners he previously had and him whom he had accepted in exchange for them. (1983, 129)
This view has little support, if any, today. God was not obligated to Satan for anything. Moreover, God is all-powerful and had no need of paying a ransom to someone else to achieve His objective.
Two, according to Morris, the word ransom means that Christ gave His life as a price, but the New Testament does not name a recipient of the price. He declares that:
In the New Testament there is never any hint of a recipient of the ransom. In other words we must understand redemption as a useful metaphor which enables us to see some aspects of Christ's great saving work with clarity but which is not an exact description of the whole process of salvation. We must not press it beyond what the New Testament tells us about it. To look for a recipient of the ransom is illegitimate. We have no reason for pressing every detail. We must use the metaphor in the way the New Testament writers did or we fall into error.
This does not mean that we should water down the meaning of redemption. It is necessary for us to see the main thrust of the metaphor. This way of looking at the cross brings out the magnitude of the price paid for our salvation. It shows us that the death of Christ was meaningful. It was more than the martyrdom of a good man who was not strong enough to resist the machinations of evil people. Rather it was the outworking of the love of God. It was God's costly way of overcoming evil. Looked at in this way Christ's death was the effective payment that removed our bondage to evil. (1983, 129-130)
Three, other interpreters, such as R. W. Lyon, seem to go further. Lyon rejects the idea of the ransom of Christ being a transaction with a price. Rather, he puts the emphasis on the power of the cross to deliver men from their bondage and sins. He states:
The ideas [about ransom] are rooted in the ancient world where slaves and captured soldiers were given their freedom upon the payment of a price. In the OT ransom is linked again with slaves, but also with varied aspects of the cultures as well as the duties of kinsmen (cf. Ruth 4). Most importantly the idea of ransom (redeem) is also linked with the deliverance out of Egypt (e.g., Deut. 7:8) and the return of the exiles (e.g. Isa. 35:10). In both settings the focus is no longer on the price paid but on the deliverance achieved and the freedom obtained. Now the focus is on the activity of God and his power to set his people free. When the ideas of ransom are linked to the saving activity of God, the idea of price is not present.
When the NT, therefore, speaks of ransom with reference to the work of Christ, the idea is not one of transaction, as though a deal is arranged and a price paid. Rather the focus is on the power (I Cor. 1:18) of the cross to save. In the famous ransom saying of Mark 10:45 Jesus speaks of his coming death as the means of release for many. The contrast is between his own solitary death and the deliverance of the many. In the NT the terms of ransom and purchase, which in other contexts suggest an economic or financial exchange, speak of the consequences or results (cf. I Cor. 7:23). The release is from judgment (Rom. 3:25-26), sin (Eph. 1:7), death (Rom. 8:2). (1984, 907-908)
Four, another view, which I accept, is that the price was paid to God. Hebrews 9:14 gives some support to this approach. Here, we read: “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” We note that Christ offered Himself “to God.” He did this in order to atone for our sins.
Other passages indicate that Jesus “bought” us. Acts 20:28 speaks about the “church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” In addition Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:20 that “you have been bought with a price” (compare 1 Corinthians 7:23). Although these passages do not specifically say that the price was paid to God, they certainly harmonize with this position.
Because the ransom is an aspect of the atonement, an issue arises concerning the ransom and the penal substitution view of the atonement. The question is: “Does the penal substitution view require that the price was paid to God? As stated above, Morris holds that a price was paid for our redemption, but that a recipient is not named. However, the view that the ransom was paid to God certainly harmonizes with the penal substitution view.
The vicarious substitution position is that God is just and, because He is just, the penalty for sin had to be paid. This price was necessary in order for God to sustain the moral order of His universe. Consequently, Christ died as a substitute for us. Because men have sinned, they should pay the penalty, but God chose to pay it Himself in order to redeem them.
Some people believe that substitutionary atonement is immoral and unjust. It would be unjust, they say, for an innocent party to be sentenced by a court and be punished for a guilty person. However, as Millard Erickson states:
There are two answers to this objection. One is the voluntary character of the sacrifice. . . . Jesus was not compelled by the Father to lay down his life. He did so voluntarily and thus pleased the Father. It hardly need be said that taking someone who willingly volunteers is preferable to conscripting someone for punishment.
The second answer is that the work of Jesus Christ in giving his life also involved the Father. . . . In terms of our courtroom analogy, it is not as if the judge passes sentence on the defendant, and some innocent and hitherto uninvolved party then appears to pay the fine or serve the sentence. Rather, it is as if the judge passes sentence upon the defendant, then removes his robes and goes off to serve the sentence in the defendant's place. (1983, 817)
Followers of Christ
As followers of Christ, how shall we act? Our answer involves our own needs, the gifts God has given us to minster to others, our role with regard to Christ as the ransom, and the redemptive purpose of leadership.
First, because we are completely human, we have great needs. Jesus came to meet those needs. As leaders, we must recognize that we have needs and be willing to accept help when we need it. We must receive ministry as well as give ministry. Sometimes our pride keeps us from receiving what we need. We must remember that even Christ accepted the ministrations of His disciples.
Second, as Christian leaders, our purpose is to minister to others. Just as Christ came to minister, we must put our emphasis on ministry. We should not make position and honor our highest priority. Whatever role God has for us, we should accept it and serve well.
God has given us a whole constellation of gifts with which to minister. We read about them in Romans 12:1-8, Ephesians 4:11-12, and 1 Corinthians 12:1-31. The Spirit of God distributes the gifts as He desires, but no one is left out (1 Corinthians 12:11). If anyone should think he has been overlooked, he should read 1 Corinthians 12:28 where “helps” is named. Everyone can exercise this gift! Some people, however, are especially outstanding in being a help to others in virtually every situation.
Third, at this point we might ask, “In what sense can we follow Christ in being a ‘ransom’ for many?” Obviously, we cannot atone for sins. Only Christ was worthy to pay the price to satisfy the justice of God. In addition the writer of Hebrews tells us that Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28). The price is paid for all, and it is paid for all eternity. Christ will not have to pay the price again.
We are not required to do what Christ alone could do. We can, however, pay the price of fulfilling our role in the kingdom of God. All of us, for example, are to be witnesses to the redeeming work of Christ. The ministry of witnessing can exact a great price. For example, there is the price of being looked down upon by segments of our society. In many countries the price is much greater.
Throughout the history of the church, many witnesses have given their lives for the cause of Christ. The English word witness is translated from the Greek word martus. This word is sometimes translated as “martyr.” The connection is not accidental. Many of the early witnesses became martyrs. Today, across the world there are many witnesses who become martyrs.
Fourth, we have been saying that the indispensable element of Christian leadership is service. People may serve for many reasons, but we must add that the purpose of service in Christian leadership is redemption. Richard Wolff lays the foundation for this thought with these comments: “The ultimate purpose of Christ was redemptive. . . . Through redemption, man is set free from the controlling power of sin, thus enabled to serve God and man” (1970, 34). Then, he says: “True Christian leadership is redemptive, i.e. liberating! The purpose is never to enslave or to subjugate” (1970, 35).
God could have chosen to disdain man, to create other creatures who would serve Him, or to abide alone in all His glory. Instead He chose to take on the form of man and to dwell among us in the person of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11). He did this in order that He might lead us out of bondage into freedom. Because Christ was willing to suffer and to die, He will reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
Several points stand out. One, Christ, the Second Person of the Godhead, was ultimately worthy to be the sacrifice for sins. He was without sin! Two, Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice. He emptied Himself and became man. He took upon Himself the form of a slave or bond-servant. Then, He suffered and died for us. Three, Christ is the ultimate leader. He rose from the grave and is the head of the church. He is coming back in power and in glory to be the King.
Christ was unique! We cannot match Him in any way, but we can follow His example. Paul exhorts us to: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). When we have the attitude of Christ, we will be willing to pay any price to tell the story of redemption.
Paul's Example. The apostle Paul is an example for us. He said, “I bear on my body the brand-marks [stigmata] of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). Paul bore the literal scars on his body of his many beatings. In addition he bore the marks in a figurative way. The word “brand-marks” is a translation of the Greek word stigmata. We take our English word stigma from this Greek word. Paul accepted the stigma of the cross and was a faithful witness.
Our Lord calls upon us to invest our lives in redemptive service. Through our service people are blessed and their lives are changed. Sometimes this service demands a price, but we can be confident that our Lord will reward us. We have a great future! The apostle Paul, who was both a leader and was great, declared: "If we endure, we shall also reign with Him" (2 Timothy 2:12).