A Ransom for Many
In my last post, I discussed the statement of Jesus: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). I talked about how this idea of the serving Son of Man was radically inconsistent with first-century Jewish expectations. But even more shocking was Jesus’ revelation that he, as the Son of Man, was going to give his life “a ransom for many.” Where in the world did Jesus get this idea? And what did he mean by “a ransom for many”?
Jesus wasn’t the first Jew in his time of history to speak of giving up one’s life for the sake of others. A century and a half before Jesus, Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, urged his sons to “show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors (1 Maccabees 2:50). The Maccabean brothers were to fight to the death for the sake of their faith. Even closer to Jesus’ understanding of his sacrifice is a description of martyrdom found in 4 Maccabees: “[Those who died] having become, as it were, a ransom [antipsychon] for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated” (4 Macc 4:21-22). Here the willingness of Jewish people to suffer and die rather than compromise their faithfulness to God is seen as making up for the sin of the Jewish people, which in turn motivated God to preserve the nation.
These texts from the Maccabean literature and Jesus’ description of his own sacrifice in Mark 10 were inspired by two crucial chapters from the prophet Isaiah. These chapters begin with a hopeful vision of the coming of God’s kingdom:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isa 52:7)
But then the passage takes an unexpected turn, picturing God’s servant as anything but attractive (52:14-53:2):
He was despised and rejected by others
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account. (53:3)
Yet this Suffering Servant endured such scorn for the sake of others:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases; . . .
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him as the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed. . . .
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many, . . . (53:4-5, 12)
Although this passage from Isaiah does not use the word “ransom” (lutron in Mark 10:45), it clearly conveys the idea of one who suffers for the sake of others, so that they might be made whole. Through his painful death, the Servant of God bears the sins of others. And somehow this is part and parcel of the coming of God’s kingdom announced at the beginning of Isaiah 52.
Of course what makes Jesus’ statement in Mark 10:45 so curious is that he doesn’t speak of the Servant of God giving his life as a ransom for many. Rather, the Son of Man fills this role. There’s nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures to suggest that the Son of Man would bring the kingdom through some sort of sacrificial death. We don’t find this connection in the Maccabean literature or in other Jewish writings either. Jesus is weaving together disparate strands of Jewish tradition to create a unique tapestry of the coming kingdom. He, as Messiah and Son of Man, will bring the kingdom, but only by fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53. For the first time in the Gospels we see clearly a part of Jesus’ rationale for suffering and dying. He will bear the sin of many in order to bring the healing and forgiveness of God’s kingdom.