[K:NWTS 6/1 (May 1991) 3-15]
This saying is marked as important by the word "verily" so frequently used by our Lord where he wishes to lay special emphasis upon some truth or principle. Here it introduces a saying to which great interest attaches for more than one reason. In the first place, the passages in which our Lord comments upon his own death as a saving transaction are rare in his teaching and their value is, of course, enhanced by this rareness. Although he did refer frequently and emphatically, especially towards the close of his life, to the subject of his death and emphasized that it was certain and necessary, yet an explanation of the purpose which it was to accomplish he did not add except just on two occasions—the one here spoken of and the other the institution of the Supper.
In the second place, it is plain that a unique interest must attach to such a saying not merely because it throws light upon the mystery of the atonement, but particularly because the light comes from the inner mind of Jesus himself. We may feel sure that such a word as this will lead us straight into the heart of the matter and give us some conception of how the process presented itself from within to Jesus' own view. After all he alone could fully understand with the understanding of experience what it meant to die for sinners. What first came to his mind in contemplating his saving death could not fail to be the center and core of it, not some secondary aspect or bearing such as we might perhaps be disposed unduly to emphasize. The atonement becomes illumined with its own inner radiance. It is the consciousness of the cross itself that here speaks to us.
In the third place, this statement has value because it is peculiarly adapted to meet the doubts that have been raised against (often against this key passage) the historicity of the references to the atonement in the teaching of our Lord. Suspicion has been cast upon the gospel account because after a long period of silence it makes our Lord all at once, during the closing days of his life, come forward with this new subject of his death and that in such a mysterious way—positing the fact and not explaining the why. Don't you see, we are asked, that that is just the result of carrying back the later doctrine of Paul and the others into the mind of Jesus himself; and don't you see that it brings him into conflict with his entire previous teaching in which no mention is made of his death as in any way essential to salvation, thus sacrificing the purity and simplicity of his true gospel to the speculations indulged in by the early church upon the tragedy of the crucifixion? Now there is one element in the passage before us that has some bearing on the question here at issue. I refer to the purely incidental fashion after which the principle of the atonement is introduced by our Lord. As you will observe, it is not dwelt upon for its own sake as if the proximate purpose were to communicate truth or give instruction regarding the cross. The cross is simply appealed to by way of illustration of quite a different subject: it serves to furnish an example of the self-sacrificing service which constitutes the law of life for the disciple in the kingdom of God. It seems safe to draw from this the inference that the design of the passage cannot lie in any desire to import the apostolic doctrine of the atonement into the teaching of Jesus where it was originally lacking. For in that case a point would have been made of introducing it after a more positive and unmistakable fashion so as to place upon it the central stress of the statement. One who wanted the authority of Jesus or the doctrine of the atonement would have been sure to make him express it and vouch for it in a far more direct manner than is done here.
In the fourth place, this passage is equally decisive against the view which assumes that the idea of the cross was a late development in the mind of Jesus himself; that at first he contemplated a different method of salvation in which his death played no part and in which there was no provision for atonement, and that only towards the end, when his violent death became to him a certainty did he modify his original belief in accordance with this and as an afterthought put the best possible construction upon his death by making it an atonement for sin. Against such a view also the incidentalness of the statement would seem to be quite conclusive. The incidental nature of the reference shows that to our Lord's mind the conception was long since familiar, however strange it may have been to the mind of the disciples. Jesus had thoroughly accepted it as an established fact. He does not indulge in any reflection upon it, but simply takes it for granted and treats it as one of those things by an appeal to which other things can be confirmed and illustrated.
Advent and Atonement
But even more conclusive on this point is the explicit avowal of the statement itself. For as you will notice our Lord affirms that he came to give his life as a ransom. The verb "came" belongs not merely to the first thing named—the ministering—but it belongs equally (as) much to the second thing named—the giving of the life by way of ransom: the Son of Man came to minister and to give. I beg you to notice this form of the statement sharply because many have tried to put upon it the weakening interpretation: Jesus came to serve and found, in the course of his life, that to serve to the full meant for him to die. But that merely makes the death the outcome of the service.
What our Lord affirms is that it was the implication and the avowed end of the service from the outset. What he says carries the knowledge (of) his death and of the saving purpose of his death back into the initial act of his appearance upon earth: his coming was with this end and none other in view. He came to serve not merely to the possible limit of death, but to serve by the absolutely free and deliberate employment of death as the supreme instrument of his service. No one took his life from him. He gave it voluntarily. And he expected to give it from the very moment in which he received it. Hence the writer of the epistle of the Hebrews represents him as entering the world with the words of the Psalmist upon his lips: "Lo I am come to do thy will, O God" (Heb. 10:7, that is, it was God's will that he should suffer). And "a body didst thou prepare for me" (Heb. 10:5, that is, God gave him a body in order that it might be possible for him to experience death as the true sacrifice for sin).
You see, therefore, how all this excludes the view that our Lord only late in his career began to entertain the idea that his death might be a contribution to the success of his work. No—he carried the conviction that his work centered in his death with him in the silence of his inner life all the days of his pilgrimage. From the beginning he set his face deliberately towards this goal and unswervingly shaped his course with reference to its attainment. The gospel in the mind of Jesus did not need first to develop into a gospel of the cross. He took up the cross when he breathed the first breath of his earthly life. Thank God we are justified in reading the gospels with this thought in mind. Jesus did not live the greater part of his life in a naive ignorance and unconsciousness of the web of destiny that was being woven around him. In his case, as in no other case, destiny and conscious purpose were identical. Not only that he died, but that he meant to die for us, this constitutes the preciousness of the gospel story for everyone who reads it with the eye of faith.
Atonement and Self-Sacrifice
The passage speaks of our Lord's atoning death and yet is intended to place before the disciples an example to be followed by them in their own conduct of life. At first sight this might seem to involve an impossibility because the case of Jesus was so peculiar and unique as to be by reason of its very nature and purpose inimitable. Of course it goes without saying that we cannot follow him and are not expected to follow him in this great act of sacrifice whereby he made his death a ransom for sinners. And even when we say it is not the death itself, but the mind of Jesus out of which the act proceeded—the spirit that animated him in his ministry of life and death—even then the example still remains something so altogether by itself, so incomparable in its whole setting and in the attending circumstances that impart to it its high meaning, that one might well feel disposed to ask: How can a weak, sinful man, even though he be regenerated by the grace and controlled by the Spirit of God, ever attempt to reproduce this in his character or conduct? For let us notice that it is not a human act but a divine act—the act of a divine subject that is here set before us as an ideal to model our mind upon. Just as in Paul's statement in the 2nd chapter of Philippians where we read that Christ made himself of no reputation, emptied himself (Phil. 2:7); and in the other statement of the same apostle in the 2nd epistle to the Corinthians to the effect that for our sake the Lord became poor when he was rich (2 Cor. 8:9): just as in these two instances, the reference in our passage is to a self-denial, a self-sacrifice, a self-humiliation which coincides with the entrance upon the incarnate state and therefore, strictly speaking, precedes the incarnate state and is predicated of the divine person who condescends to enter into that state. Our Lord says that he came into the world to give his life for ransom; not as a man who had come, but as God who was in the act of coming did he set us this example.
Son of Man
Let us not, nor must we, overlook the contrast in which the state of ministry and of death is placed with the state and manner of life previously possessed by him through the significant use of the name Son-of-Man in the subject of the statement: The Son of Man came to minister and to die. This name (Son-of-Man) points back to the glorious, heavenly figure that appeared in Daniel's vision (Dan. 7:13-14); the one to whom the earth and its fullness belonged; for whom the service of all nations was destined as his rightful inheritance; this Son-of-Man came to submit to and seek the very opposite—service, obedience, death. Thus the title Son-of-Man brings before us as nothing else could do the unspeakable grace of our Lord who being rich as God alone can be rich yet for our sakes became poor as only a dying creature can be poor that by his poverty we might be made rich.
And there is still another aspect in which the proportions of the example are equally overwhelming. When it is said that the Son-of-Man came to minister, this form of statement makes the purpose of ministering cover his entire earthly life. Our Lord's incarnate life not merely had this purpose among others, it had this purpose exclusively. It consisted in this—was exhausted by this. There never was in human history such an absolute concentration of life upon the single specific task as our Lord here and elsewhere ascribes to himself. Everything else was with him swallowed up in the one great intent to accomplish this ministry. All the forces of his life flowed into this. Of course in this also there was something unique, something that can never be reproduced precisely in this form in the life of even the most consecrated servant of God. There was something absolutely unrepeatable in the manner in which our Lord made the sacrifice of his life redound to the service of others. He gave his life as a ransom in exchange for other lives. He died not merely for their benefit, but died in their place. This was a transaction which, strictly speaking, was possible to him alone. Others might minister unto death, or minister by their death, but no one else can minister through the payment of his death as a ransom in the literal, vicarious sense.
Service to Others
There enters then into the ministry of Jesus all these elements of uniqueness by which it is and must ever remain something apart and incapable of reproduction by us. And yet after this is said, it ought to be equally noted on the other hand that precisely in the incomparable manner of his service and the unapproachable limit to which our Lord carried his service lies its force as an example for our conduct. For these unique features all point in one direction; they all have the one effect of imparting to Jesus's life the character of a service greater and more intense and more comprehensive and more absolute than which nothing can possibly be conceived. Though therefore the concrete circumstances are unreproducible in our case, this not only does not hinder them from being but is the very cause of their becoming the most powerful incentives to us to make our self-denying service of others as unlimited and unqualified as it is possible within the range of our powers and opportunities to make it. We cannot, like the Son of Man, inaugurate our ministry by coming down from a heavenly state of glory; but precisely because he was willing to make this sacrifice in which we can never equal him, what limit would we dare to set upon the poor little self-denial which the conditions of our earthly life do enable us to practice? We cannot concentrate our whole existence upon the one purpose of saving sinners, but precisely because our Lord condescended to shut up all the riches of his infinite life within this narrow compass, how can we ever dare to urge the excuse that the Christian life, with its constant thoughts of others and its consequent forgetfulness of self, is too narrowing and stagnant a thing for us to submit to? We cannot put ourselves in the place of others as the bearers of their sin, nor receive into ourselves the punishment of their transgression with all the dreadful experiences which the atonement involved for our Lord; but precisely because he did not shrink from entering into these depths of shame and death and exposure to the wrath of God and to the hiding of his Father's face, how can we ever plead that any degree of humiliation, any extent of entering into the sorrow and shame and sin of man makes too great a demand upon our peace and purity to comply with it? And so the impossibility of our doing what Jesus did furnishes the most constraining argument for making the spirit in which he did it the supreme, governing principle of our Christian life and for recognizing that there simply are no limits which we can set upon its application.
What has been said will become clearer still if we look for a few moments into the supreme end of our Lord's service and the method pursued towards accomplishing this. His ministry had for its supreme end the procuring of freedom of those for whom he gave his life. It was a ministry with that specific thing in view. It was not to help them generally but to set them free. This is clearly given with the contrast between what he does and what the rulers of the Gentiles do (Mk. 10:42). They lord it over them and exercise authority. That is to say: their striving is to make their subjects minister unto them and more and more to reduce them to a state of bondage. Jesus' purpose is the opposite. He came to minister unto men so as to place them in a state of freedom. But the same thing is also explicitly stated in the figure of the ransom-giving here employed by our Lord. A ransom is that which buys the freedom of a person. The many, therefore, for whom our Lord gives his life are in a state of bondage and his death procures their liberation. What then is this bondage? People have been over-quick to answer: it is the bondage of sin as a power reigning in the heart and life of man. While it is, of course, perfectly true that our Lord's work and also his death deliver us in this sense from the power of sin, I do not think that the answer exactly reproduces what Jesus had in mind on this occasion. We must try to refrain from inserting our general ideas into his words and endeavor to get at his own point of view. And the way to get at this is to ask: Is there any other occasion on which he speaks of the giving of a ransom; and if so, the sense which he there connects with the figure will be entitled to the preference over all other interpretations in the present case.
Atonement and Satisfaction
Now our Lord does speak in terms of this same figure in the well-known passage where he urges upon the disciples the necessity of taking up the cross and following him (Mt. 16:24). He enforces this with the reminder that whosoever would save his life shall lose it and whosoever is willing to lose his life shall save it, viz, in the day of judgment. And then he adds: "For what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what shall a man give in exchange (ransom) for his life? For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with the angels, and then shall he render every man according to his deeds" (Mt. 16:26-27). That is to say—in the hour of judgment when the Lord of the judgment shall declare a man's life forfeited, shall impose upon him the awful sentence of eternal death—in that hour, it will not avail a man having gained the whole world for himself if he were to bring this world with all its riches in his hands and offer it to God as a ransom for his lost soul. The offer would not be accepted for not a whole world can satisfy God. His justice demands not gold or silver but the soul, the spirit, the life of man because sin is a spiritual thing and it must be paid for in kind by the life of the sinner.
Here then it is perfectly plain what the ransom means, to whom it would be paid and what it would have to pay for (if such a thing were possible—a possibility which our Lord denies so far as all material riches are concerned). The ransom is nothing else but the price paid to God the Judge in the last day for the deliverance of a soul from eternal retribution. That this is actually the meaning of the passage becomes still clearer if we consider that in speaking these solemn words, our Lord plainly had in mind an Old Testament statement found in the 49th Psalm, where the Psalmist declares of the rich men who trust in their wealth that when God comes to judge, not one of them shall by any means be able to redeem his brother nor to give to God a ransom for him and then assigns as the reason for this impossibility—the redemption of their life is too precious, it must be let alone forever (Ps. 49:6ff.). Here then we have the same thought as formulated by our Lord in his own words: No material riches can avail as a ransom to satisfy the demands of God in the judgment. If now, in the word we are considering, our Lord speaks of a ransom paid for the life of many, it must be in the same sense and with the same situation in mind. He will pay in the judgment for sinners whose life is forfeited to God.
But how, we ask, can he here declare such a ransom-giving possible, whilst in the other connection he emphatically denied, as the Psalmist had denied, that such an offer could be ever accepted or that enough could be offered to induce God to accept it? The answer is found in this, that in the one case where the impossibility is affirmed, the reference is to be a ransom consisting of material things—silver, gold, the whole world—none of which can pay for a life; whilst here, where the transaction is represented as actually to occur, the ransom consists of a spiritual thing—the life itself and not merely life in general—but of the precious inestimable life of the Son-of-Man who is the Son-of-God. Therein lies all the difference. What the whole world could not pay for, the life-giving of the Son-of-Man will pay for. For when it becomes a question of such a life for that of sinners, God will consider the ransom sufficient and set the prisoner of his justice free. And as for the impossibility in the former case, our Lord could refer to an Old Testament passage in the Psalter, so for the possibility of the transaction in this other case he could have appealed (and possibly did refer in his own mind) to a passage in the book of Job. In the 33rd chapter of this book we read of the man who lies under the judgment of the Almighty—how he is chastened with pain and with strife in his bones, his flesh consumed away so that his soul draws nigh unto the pit and his life to the destroyer and all hope of his deliverance has been abandoned. But having shown him in that extremity, the writer suddenly reverses the picture: "If there be with him an angel, an interpreter, one among a thousand, to show what is right for him, then God is gracious unto him and says: Deliver him from the pit, I have found a ransom. His flesh shall be fresher than a child, he returns to the days of his youth" (Job 33:23-25). That is to say: what gold and silver and the world cannot purchase might be purchased if a mediator, an angel, one among (a) thousand were able to say to God, I have found a ransom. Such a mediator, such an angel, such a one among a thousand was our Lord Jesus Christ; and the ransom that he has paid and which he felt sure God would not disdain was none other than his own life.
The Measure of Christ's Service
Now in the light of this let us consider once more the extent to which our Lord went in his service; and I think we shall once more be prepared to say that it is beyond computation. We do not measure it by saying that he gave up his life; the mere doing of that might have been a small thing which others have done before and after him. No, what he did was to give that life as a ransom. That is to say he deliberately took his life and put it into the bondage of guilt and shame and death in which our lives were held by the divine justice. To become a ransom means to take the place of the other and accept all the consequences. And this Jesus did. I am afraid that as a rule we do not penetrate far enough into the mystery of the cross to realize this situation. What must it have meant to the Son of God whose blessed life had never been disturbed by the least cloud of trouble to enter into that tremendous strain of the divine justice, to feel the waves of guilt and wrath unleashing their fury upon him, so that he cried out in the bitterness of his anguish: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" All this and more than we can possibly realize lies in this single phrase—that he gave his life a ransom for many. But only in the same proportion that we realize something of all this shall we begin to measure what is meant by the other phrase that he came to minister, and what is the unique force of the admonition that we should minister not like, but at an infinite distance minister as he did minister.
Let me in conclusion call your attention to two other points implied in this statement. The first follows directly from what has just been said. It is this—that underneath the service rendered by Jesus to men lay a service rendered to God. He gave his life for men, but he gave it to God. The ransom which effected our freedom was paid to the divine justice, paid to satisfy God. And our Lord did not look upon this satisfaction of God as a hard necessity that could not be evaded if man was to be helped but in which he took no further interest. On the contrary, in this, as in all other matters with him, the service of God took precedence over the service, even over the salvation of men. He put his heart into the cross equally, nay more on account of what it meant for God than on account of what it meant for mankind. In dying, as in all else he did, he hallowed God's name. That he was willing to make himself a ransom was a supreme act of love for God no less than for man. Let us not forget this. There is so much talk of service at the present day and it (is) so often deplorably noticeable that the idea people connect with this word is purely that of benevolence and helpfulness to man. If that is the meaning then the word is not fit to be the synonym of religion. Only such service is true religious service as puts foremost and guards foremost the supreme interest of God. That and nothing else is a true copy of the ministry of Jesus.
In the second place and lastly, because the service of Jesus was supremely a service of God, it had connected with it the promise of abounding fruitfulness. Notice the words: a ransom for many: words are not of course meant to limit the atonement as if the meaning were not for all. This question, whether it is for all or not for all, lies altogether beside our Lord's intent. What he means to say is that the self-sacrifice of the one, because it was the sacrifice of the Son-of-Man (of transcendent value inherently and brought to bear at the central point), would buy the freedom not of one but of many. It is the same thought that Paul expressed when he said that they who received the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one and that through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life (Rom. 5:15-19). Because Jesus directed his service to this one central point where the source of all evil and misery lies—the guilt-relation of man to God—therefore in remedying this fundamental evil, he ministered unto mankind on the largest and thoroughgoing and most comprehensive scale—the ransom of the one became the liberty of the countless many. There is a lesson in this for us. We in our own way also should see to it that we do not foolishly squander our efforts at serving men in a thousand various directions when they will touch only the periphery of the evil of this world and can hardly expect to make a transitory ripple on the great sea of its sorrow. Rather let us concentrate our energies where alone they can permanently tell for the true betterment of things not for time merely but for eternity. Let us work for the salvation of souls from the judgment of God. If this is attained, then by the grace of God all the other regenerative and cleansing and uplifting effects are bound to follow in the wake of our service. The law from the one to the many as illustrated in the atonement of our Lord will repeat itself in our experience—we shall see of the travail of our souls and be satisfied.
October 12,1913—Conference Sunday
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, New Jersey