Jesus' Death: Ransom or Sacrifice?

Many Christians see Jesus' death as a payment or sacrifice for sin. But this meaning isn't found in Mark's gospel.

Reprinted from "The Last Week" with permission of HarperSanFrancisco.

A common Christian understanding of Jesus's death is that it was a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. As we reflect on the extent to which this is present in Mark, we distinguish between a broad and a more specific meaning of the word "sacrifice."

The broad meaning refers to sacrificing one's life for a cause. It is common to refer to Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Oscar Romero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as sacrificing their lives for the causes to which they were devoted. Soldiers killed in action are often described as sacrificing their lives for their country. In this sense, one may speak of Jesus sacrificing his life for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God.

The more specific meaning of sacrifice in relation to Jesus' death speaks of it as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, a dying for the sins of the world. This understanding is absent from Mark's story of Good Friday; it is not there at all.

Indeed, this understanding may be absent from Mark's gospel as a whole. The three anticipations of Jesus' death in the central section of Mark do not say that Jesus must go to Jerusalem in order to die for the sins of the world. Rather, they refer to Jerusalem as the place of execution by the authorities. There is only one passage in all of Mark that might have a substitutionary sacrificial meaning. It is the passage in which, after the third anticipation of his death, as the Jesus of Mark speaks to his followers a third time about what it means to follow him, he says: "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (10:45).

To many Christians, the word "ransom" sounds like sacrificial language, for we sometimes speak of Jesus as the ransom for our sins. But it almost certainly does not have this meaning in Mark. The Greek word translated as "ransom" (lutron) is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives (often from captivity in war) or slaves (often from debt slavery). A lutron is a means of liberation from bondage.


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