Redemption: What Does It Mean?
Christians who lived when the New Testament was written would have understood the more precise meaning of the redemption words, since for them, these were not necessarily religious words, but words that were part of their everyday language and experience. For the Greeks, the redemption words were used, first of all, for the buying back of prisoners of war by paying a ransom for them, but they were also used for other ways of freeing people. When a slave was set free, for instance, the redemption words could be used even when no money was exchanged.
The early Christian writers, with their Jewish backgrounds, would have been acquainted with the way the idea of redemption was used in the Old Testament, so it's probably a safe bet to say that the Old Testament usage of the words coloured the meaning they gave to the word more than the specific Greek cultural usage. When they read the Septuagint, they would find the Greek redemption words used to translate certain Hebrew words whenever the idea of releasing something by the payment of a price was present.
This idea of payment might not be obvious every time the redemption words are used in the Old Testament, because sometimes the words are used metaphorically. For instance, God is said to have redeemed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. Now I've read the story, and nowhere do I see that Pharoah received money or any other benefit from God in exchange for the Israelites' freedom. It wasn't really a business transaction, was it?
Yet, as Leon Morris points out, there are some intriguing phrases that often accompany the idea of God's redemption of the Israelites that shows that while this might not be a redemption exchange, it still carried the idea of payment. God is said to redeem his people "with an outstretched arm" (Exodus 6:6) and "with your arm" (Psalm 77:15). It is God's might or power that's in mind here, and God exerts his power on behalf of his people.
. . .[B]ecause he loves his people he puts forth his power. He saves them at cost. It is this that gives the use of the redemption terminology its point. . . . The term may be used metaphorically but the metaphor retains its point. The idea of price-paying is not out of mind.1You might say that God expended his power to free the Israelites from slavery, just as long as you don't understand this to mean that God had less power after their redemption than before.
Against the backdrop of the Old Testament, early Christian writers and readers would have understood that redemption and all the associated words had to do with being released by the payment of a price. It wasn't simply deliverance in general, but deliverance that came about at cost to the one redeeming.
Now that we've done a little defining of the biblical term redemption in this post, the plan is to move on in the next to consider from what it is that redemption delivers, and how it is that people are redeemed.
1The Atonement: It's Meaning and Significance, Leon Morris, page 114.