“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
The question — How did Jesus redeem us? — has been the subject of much theological discussion and many different explanations since the early days of Christianity. Even in the New Testament, many different expressions are used to explain how Jesus’ death brought us salvation. Here we look at the understanding found in Mark’s Gospel, the oldest of the Gospels.
It is noteworthy that Mark’s Gospel makes so little mention of sin. In 2:1–12, it is made clear that Jesus’ concern to forgive sins is central to his ministry. Shockingly, forgiveness occurs without the sinner even asking for it, and certainly without any sacrifice or any other act of atonement. In 3:28, we are told that “all sins will be forgiven” (except the sin of believing that God is evil — the sin against the Holy Spirit).
Although Jesus’ whole ministry is directed towards setting people free — from demons, from sickness and from death — his central teaching on salvation is contained in 8:34–35. To follow Jesus is to follow the same path that he walked: a readiness to give his or her life for the sake of God and for the sake of the Gospel. The rule of life is a paradox: to save your life you must lose it. Thus, there are three reasons given for following Jesus: to save our life (that is, eternal life; cf. 10:30), for Jesus/God, and in order that the gospel may be spread.
But Mark also hints here and there that Jesus brought salvation through his death, and yet does not say clearly how salvation resulted from Jesus’ martyrdom. In 14:24, he speaks of his “blood … poured out for many,” and this is like Paul’s repeated phrase that Jesus died “for us” (1 Thess 5:10; 2 Cor 1:5; Gal 3:13; Rom 5:8; cf. Eph 5:2; Tit 2:14). Both Paul (Rom 3:25) and John (John 1:39) use the image of animal sacrifice at the Temple, an image familiar throughout the ancient world, as a way of describing the death of Jesus as an act of reconciliation with God. For a Jew, a sin offering at the Temple was seen as bringing him or her back into right relationship. It was a powerful and understood image, but it does not explain to us how this reconciliation took place, and this type of imagery is absent from Mark.
Over the history of Christian thought, legal terminology has dominated our explanation of salvation. We have spoken of paying a debt, of satisfaction, of justice (in terms of evening up the scales). It has been suggested that Jesus somehow satisfied the Father, or satisfied justice, or somehow took all our sins on himself (applying the motif of Isa 53 which originally referred to an exiled Israel suffering for the sake of the world). None of these explanations has been fully satisfactory and often leaves an image of God as a demanding judge, or makes unclear why, if Jesus took away all our sins, past and future, we need to be concerned about how to live.
Mark seemed to have a very different view. There is no legal language in his Gospel relating to the reason for Jesus’ death. Rather, as we have seen, salvation first comes from following Jesus and, in 8:31–35, it is clear that life will be obtained only by “saying no” (aparnesastho) to oneself, and doing exactly what Jesus does. What does Jesus do? He gives up everything, to the point of giving his life, for the sake of the gospel (that is, the good news from God; cf. 1:14). However, at the other end of a long section (8:31–10:45) that teaches on the nature of discipleship (with constant reminders of Jesus’ impending execution), Mark puts a scene where Jesus stresses the need to become a slave of others (10:45).
One who gives up everything in order to serve others is one who loves. Is it any wonder then that Mark says that Jesus “must” suffer and die (8:31)? If ‘God is love’, then he is only being true to his nature to give everything for our sake. This Gospel is about self-sacrificing love, although it never speaks directly about the love of God.
In 10:45, Jesus is described as “giving his life as a ransom for many.” The “ransom” (lutron) was originally money paid to free prisoners of war and, by Mark’s time, referred to the payment made to set a slave free. Later thinkers asked to whom was this ransom of Jesus paid (the Devil?). But Mark says no more than Jesus paid a price in order to set many people free. That is what love is like — one who loves pays a price for the sake of others. Real love costs.
For Mark, then, we are set free because Jesus gave everything out of love for us. He did this in order to make the good news of God known. It is the good news about God, and the good news from God (both meanings are possible).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus essentially reveals the Father. Here also, Jesus shows the very nature of God (self-sacrificing love), and our freedom and our salvation comes from following Jesus, that is, by being like him. In 8:33, disciples are urged to think as God thinks. Mark’s Gospel calls us to eternal life by being like God, that is, by saying no to ourselves in loving service of others.
Of course, we cannot do this by our own power. Mark’s Gospel makes clear that, as with Jesus, the Holy Spirit empowers us (cf. 1:8–13). But, for Mark, Jesus is Saviour because, only as God can, he reveals the nature of God and shows us the way to eternal life with him.