Thursday, September 10, 2009

Homeward Bound

The ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

                        Isaiah 51.11

Our Purchase

“You were bought at a price,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7.23, adding, “Do not become slaves of men.” The statement’s resonance with us can’t compare with what it means to residents of the cosmopolitan, class-conscious city of Corinth. Slavery is a way of life for them. They’re intimate with its nuances, e.g., the relationship between slave and master, the slave’s reliance on the owner for survival, the master’s duty to care for his servants, the slave’s identification with the master’s name, his/her duties to avoid bringing shame on the master’s house, etc. When Paul reminds the Corinthians they were bought “at a price,” he refers to Jesus’s sacrifice as the cost of their redemption from sin. Dying to buy another’s freedom is unthinkably exorbitant. Yet that’s the price Jesus paid.

Our purchase is a recurrent theme for Paul. In 1 Timothy 2.5-6, he frames it as the price to reunite us with God: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men.” It’s telling that Paul adjusts his metaphor from 1 Corinthians' price of freedom for slaves to the Judeo-centric concept of “ransom” here. For a young Jewish evangelist like Timothy, the term evokes deeply embedded cultural memories of captivity—most notably, the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE. It summons the Jews’ profound hope in Messianic promises like that in Isaiah 51.11: “The ransomed of the LORD will return.” Thus, Paul names Christ as the Mediator Who negotiated our release as hostages by giving His life in ransom for our return. The difference between the two metaphors seems minimal—almost cosmetic—at first. A closer look, however, reveals an important distinction that speaks to non-believers on one hand and exiled believers on the other.

Freedom Given, Freedom Regained

Choosing slavery to illustrate the price for our freedom and new life in Christ describes spiritual conversion. Jews and Gentiles in Corinth implicitly read the comparison to mean a life-altering gift of compassion and mercy. Indentured servants comprise the lowest caste in a multilevel class system. From birth to death, they are without financial or legal means to raise their status. Slavery is all a slave ever knows—unless a master grants his/her freedom or a third-party benefactor buys the slave’s liberty. This is why the reference to purchase price rings with amazing love and grace. It’s an undue act, freedom given, more than a slave expects and one every follower of Jesus should be humbly grateful to receive. Because the cost surpasses any mortal’s ability to pay, Paul warns the Corinthians, “Do not becomes slaves of men.” Backsliding into pagan or legalistic mindsets devalues the believer and constitutes rank ingratitude for the unprecedented price of freedom from spiritual bondage.

While Paul explains redemption in Corinthians as freedom given, by alluding to it as a ransom to Timothy, he defines it as freedom regained. The emphasis shifts from conversion to restoration. Christ’s sacrifice buys back stolen status and identity as God’s chosen people. The “ransomed of the LORD” Isaiah talks about have been forcibly removed by political conflicts. As far as Babylonian exile goes, their existence isn’t bad. They’re treated fairly and many Jews—Daniel, for instance—climb high on the sociopolitical ladder. All the same, success doesn’t change the fact they’re hostages. And news from home via letters and merchants compounds their grief. Through no fault of their own, they’re stranded at a distance, looking in. Now the powerful resonance of “ransom” becomes clear. Paul values Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate cost to restore what we lose to circumstances beyond our control. Through Him, stolen freedom and identity are regained. Because of His love, we’re homeward bound.

Between Home and Us

Christians coping with religious alienation need only believe their ransom was negotiated and paid in full at Calvary. Since that day, no earthly power holds sufficient authority to rescind our freedom to believe and right of redemption. Jesus gave His life as a ransom for all. No one is excluded. No hierarchy or individual can deny our right to liberty and life in Christ. No border can bar us from returning to lives we knew as active, upstanding citizens of His kingdom. We are all that stands between home and us.

It’s time we get over ourselves and start back home. Isaiah assures us the journey will be filled with joy. “They will enter Zion singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” We may have to travel many miles and days to get home. But well ahead of reaching the life we long for, joy and gladness will reach us. They’ll overtake us, Isaiah says, driving away sorrow and nostalgia presently affixed to our hope. Since Calvary, there’s no reason to live as slaves and hostages. Settling in exile is a matter of choice. Should we remain bound by sin and exile or be homeward bound? It’s a decision that decides itself.

The unsurpassable price Jesus paid bought our liberty from sin and restored identity as His people. We are all that stands between home and us.

(Tomorrow: Had It Not Been—A Personal Reflection)


johnmichael said...

Despite some of it's ups and downs, this journey back home has been wonderful and eye opening. I know that many of the downs are due to the circumstances that I've gotten myself into, so it shouldn't really count as my journey with Christ. So in reality, the journey has been amazing..

Tim said...

JM, the downs ARE part of the journey and often they become the most amazing moments, because they enable us to experience Christ's power to lift us. Even in our most trying times, the promise of joy and gladness remains. And, sure enough, they come back.

Thank you so much for your comment. It inspires and refreshes--and makes me joyful and glad to be with you on this amazing journey!