What is Redemption?

Today, we often use the word redemption, or redeem, in a rather broad sense, to simply mean bringing good out of bad circumstances.  While there is merit to such a general use of the term, the biblical use of this word is usually much more specific, relating to covenant law and legal ownership.

The most common definition provided for the word redemption is to buy back. However, in studying the use of this word in scripture, this simplified definition is found lacking. While it does provide a nice simple definition for many instances of scriptural redemption, it does not adequately define the word as used in the most significant biblical redemptions. A more accurate definition of redemption, as used in scripture, would be to justly bring about the end of a covenant of bondage by which someone or something belonging to God is being held captive.

Keeping in mind that the purchase and ownership of property was covenant based, and that debt was covenant based, for most common life circumstances involving redemption, the simplified definition and the more accurate definition could be applicably used interchangeably. However, as will become apparent as we further explore this topic, the simplified definition, to buy back, does not fit the case of redemption from a blood covenant which has become bondage.

God provided redemption right for land that had been sold (Leviticus 25:23-34) so that the land could be bought back by the original land owner, or by a near kinsman on his behalf. Essentially, the redemption right allowed the seller to cancel the purchase covenant by refunding the cost of the sale.

In the agrarian society of Old Testament Israel, the ownership of land was essential to livelihood, and the loss of land ownership could leave a family destitute. However, the basis of the requirement of provision for redemption was that the land belongs to God, “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are but aliens and sojourners with Me. Thus for every piece of your property, you are to provide for the redemption of the land” (Leviticus 25:23-24).

God also provided redemption right for someone who had become enslaved as the result of a debt covenant that he could not repay (Leviticus 25:47-55). A near kinsman could redeem the debtor from slavery by repaying the debt on his behalf. The debt payment justly fulfilled the covenant obligation, thus ending the debt covenant. Here, again, the basis given for the redemption right was that they belong to God, “For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 25:42).


The Story of the Great Exodus
~ Redemption of a Nation ~

Pharaoh cut a covenant with Joseph in a ceremony described in Genesis 41:39-45. All subjects of a king are in blood covenant with the king, but the ceremony described and the resulting relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh clearly go far beyond that of a normal subject of the crown, to a blood covenant in which Joseph was treated as an equal to Pharaoh.

Joseph was given a new name, new clothes, a gold necklace, new authority, and Pharaoh’s own signet ring. The new clothes and new name carried significant meaning in a blood covenant ceremony, and the signet ring, in particular, gave Joseph full authority to speak on behalf of Pharaoh. A command issued by Joseph, under the seal of Pharaoh’s signet ring carried the full authority of Pharaoh’s own signature. Pharaoh said that Joseph was now ruler over all the land of Egypt, and equal to Pharaoh in everything except the throne. Though the word covenant is not explicitly used in this passage, it is clear both by reference to covenant rites and by transfer of trust and authority, that Joseph entered into blood covenant with Pharaoh, King of Egypt.

Later, Joseph’s father, brothers, and family moved to Egypt, in order to escape starvation during the seven years of famine. By accepting Pharaoh’s provision, they accepted the protection of Pharaoh’s covenant with Joseph, placing themselves under obligation to that covenant.

Moreover, since covenant is an inheritance from father to son, all of Israel’s descendants and all of Pharaoh’s descendants were in blood covenant with each other. They were family, blood-brothers.

The book of Exodus begins, in Exodus 1:8, with these words, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”

The Hebrew word translated here as know (yada`) is used almost exclusively to denote either the intimate personal empathetic understanding of a covenant partner or special God-given perceptive understanding of a specific topic. This is the same word used, for example, in Genesis 4:1 (NKJV), “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain…”  In this case, it is clearly a covenant reference, indicating that the new Pharaoh was not empathetically disposed toward the family of his covenant partner, Joseph.

The new Pharaoh chose not to honor the covenant with Joseph (did not know Joseph). Rather than acting on behalf of his covenant partners, as was his obligation by sacred oath, he chose rather to enslave them. Because of the change of attitude on the part of the new Pharaoh, Israel was now in a covenant that had become bondage, or slavery. They were in need of redemption from their covenant with Pharaoh, and they had no means of redeeming themselves.

God told Moses, “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments’” (Exodus 6:6).

Note that God listed deliver and redeem as two separate actions He would perform on behalf of His people, Israel. To this day, Jewish Passover traditions, designed by God to commemorate this historic event, include four cups of wine to be drunk at specific intervals in the meal, with the cup of redemption and the cup of deliverance recognized as two separate acts to be celebrated. Nor is this unique to the Exodus story. The words deliver and redeem are often paired in scripture as two separate but closely related actions or events (Job 6:23, Jeremiah 15:21).

Deliverance speaks of God’s protection and provision as Israel was brought out of Egypt and journeyed to the promised land. Redemption speaks of Israel being justly released from their covenant obligations to Pharaoh.

God’s plan for Israel, as revealed to Moses, was to redeem Israel from their blood covenant with Pharaoh. When Israel left Egypt, they were to leave with no covenant ties, no covenant obligations, no debts or allegiance owed to Pharaoh.

But what was the redemption payment? At what price was the covenant obligation fulfilled? How can a price even be set for a blood covenant? Did God pay Pharaoh some ransom price for the freedom of Israel?

God said He would redeem Israel, “with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.”

In reading the Exodus story, three truths stand out clearly:

  1. God was in complete control from start to finish. Even when Pharaoh appeared to be in the position of authority, God was working out His plan through Pharaoh’s choices.
  2. Israel was not leaving Egypt without Pharaoh’s permission, not even for a few days. Over and over, God sent Moses back to Pharaoh asking permission for Israel to leave Egypt for just a few days.
  3. Israel was not leaving Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. Each time, God caused Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened, so that Pharaoh refused to let Israel go, even as plague after plague continued to roll over the land of Egypt.

God could have delivered Israel without Pharaoh’s permission. So, why was Pharaoh’s permission required? And why, if Pharaoh’s permission was required, did God cause Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened, so that he consistently refused to let Israel go, until after the plague of the death of the first-born?

The answers are found in Exodus 6:1, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for under compulsion he will let them go, and under compulsion he will drive them out of his land.’”

When Pharaoh chose to “drive them out of his land” Israel was released from their covenant obligation. At that moment, Israel was divorced from Egypt. The covenant was dissolved, and Israel was free to proceed to the Promised Land with no obligation of allegiance to Egypt.

In fact, the Hebrew words translated here as the phrases let them go (shalach) and drive them out (garash) are both translated elsewhere as divorce (Malachi 2:16, Leviticus 21:14).

By the manner in which God redeemed Israel from Egypt, He gave new meaning to the word redemption. No ransom price was paid, yet the covenant of bondage was dissolved, in a manner that was just. As their redeemer, God justly caused Israel’s blood covenant with Egypt to be dissolved, so that Israel was no longer in a covenant of bondage to Egypt.

God brought about the divorce of Israel from Egypt, and God called it redemption.


The Story of the Second Great Exodus
~ Redemption of Mankind ~

The New Testament tells another story of redemption, the redemption of the race of mankind from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness.

The Bible tells us much about the earthly ministry of Jesus and the work that Christ accomplished on the cross. It tells us very little of what happened during the three days that Jesus was in the grave.

The story recorded in Exodus, of Israel’s redemption from their covenant with Egypt, is both a record of an historical event and a picture foretelling how Christ would redeem mankind from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness. We have been given the details of how God dealt with Egypt, with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. We can surmise that the judgments of Christ, the Arm of the Lord (Isaiah 53:1) in Sheol (the place of the dead) were as compelling to Satan as the centuries earlier judgments of plagues had been to Pharaoh.

This much we know for certain: Jesus redeemed us from Adam’s covenant of bondage to the kingdom of darkness, and in that redemption no ransom payment was made to Satan.

Lest anyone misunderstand, let me hasten to clarify that Jesus paid a tremendous price for our salvation. He left the glory of Heaven to become flesh and dwell among men. He suffered physical torture and death. He bore our sins on the cross, suffering the consequences of sin on our behalf. He made atonement for our transgressions. Through the pouring out of His own life blood and the rending of His own flesh, Jesus cut a new covenant with the Father on our behalf.

I do not want to minimize, in any way, the tremendous sacrifice that Jesus made for us and through which He justly brought about the end of our covenant of bondage to the kingdom of darkness, while enacting a new covenant with the Father, through which we might be restored to right relationship with God.

However, no ransom payment was made to the kingdom of darkness from which we were redeemed. Justice was done and that justice was tremendously costly. Yet, when Jesus led the exodus from Sheol, the only thing delivered to Satan was a Paid in Full notice.

Just as God brought about the divorce of Israel from Egypt, Jesus brought about mankind’s divorce from the kingdom of darkness, and called it redemption.

Thank God, He is still in the business of redeeming His children from covenants of bondage!


Author’s Note: This page is comprised largely of excerpts from my book, So You are a Believer…Who has been through Divorce…  To read more, click here.


12 thoughts on “What is Redemption?

  1. Pingback: The Seed of Eve | His Loving Embrace

  2. Pingback: Divorce is Sin… Says Who? – Guest Article by Joe Pote | A Cry For Justice

  3. “God brought about the divorce of Israel from Egypt, and God called it redemption.”
    “Just as God brought about the divorce of Israel from Egypt, Jesus brought about mankind’s divorce from the kingdom of darkness, and called it redemption.”
    Thank you, Joe, for this clarification. It is totally applicable to the abusive marriage situation some Christians find themselves trapped in. Thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU!

    • Yes! Totally applicable to abusive marriages.

      God makes it very clear that He provides redemption and deliverance for His children who are enslaved in abusive covenants.

      Thank YOU, Hope! 🙂

  4. I happened upon this in studying Jeremiah 32, and was so blessed. It really filled in some holes in my understanding of our redemption in Christ. Thank you.

    I’d like your opinion of the following: I read recently that in the Jewish and Roman world, death canceled all debts, so Christ’s substitutionary death redeemed through debt cancellation.

    • Thank you, Abby, for stopping by and for commenting. I’m glad the page was beneficial to you.

      In regard to your question, the position you’ve referenced sounds a bit confused, to me. I know of no biblical or historical record to indicate debts were canceled upon death in either Jewish or Roman society. On the contrary, it is quite clear that the cultures described in the Bible placed a strong emphasis on covenant obligations being carried out by close family members upon an individual’s death.

      We can see one example in how God harshly judged Judah’s son, Onan, for refusing to fulfil his brother’s obligation in providing an heir to his deceased brother’s wife, Tamar (Genesis 38).

      We see another example in how King David honored his covenant with Jonathan (1 Samuel 20) after Jonathan’s death by befriending Mephiposheth (2 Samuel 9).

      In both these cases (as well as numerous other examples), the covenant obligation (debt) extended beyond death.

      Furthermore, if death canceled all debts then there would have been no need for Christ to die, as we would each have our own sin debt canceled upon our own death.

      I suspect the stated position may have come from misunderstanding Romans 7 which speaks of the law having jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives. In this chapter, Paul is discussing how, as believers, we have died to sin (been redeemed from Adam’s covenant with the kingdom of darkness) and been joined to (entered into covenant with) Christ. Paul is emphasizing how it was necessary first to be redeemed from sin before we could enter into a new covenant with Christ.

      You might be interested in this page where I give a brief overview of the gospel message from the perspective of covenants and redemption: http://josephjpote.com/the-essential-gospel-message/

      Thanks, and God bless you!

  5. Thanks for your reply. I see my question was not accurate. What I read was that in Roman and Jewish Law (not world), death pays all debts. This is in N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans regarding v. 7:1 (“…do you not know that the law only rules over someone during their lifetime?”) I have great respect for him but I cannot find any further explanation of that comment.

    However, on the strength of Rom. 7:1 alone, wouldn’t it mean that our dying with Christ discharges us from any obligation incurred, in other words, breaks the covenant with sin?

    • Yes, absolutely!

      In Romans 6, Paul gave a detailed description of how we, through Christ, die to sin to be resurrected to newness of life in Christ. Paul used the covenant ceremony of baptism to illustrate this:

      “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1-4)

      Then, in verses 8-11, Paul continues:

      “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

      Then in verse 23, he sums it up:

      “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

      Jesus provided for both our redemption and our deliverance. He redeemed us from Adam’s covenant with sin and death and He delivers us into new covenant with the Father.

      In Romans 6 & 7, Paul emphasizes it is God’s grace from start to finish while also emphasizing that the dying to sin (redemption from the kingdom of darkness) is as essential as the rising to newness of life with our new covenant partner. He then goes on to say we must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies (must not knowingly continue in sin) because we are dead to sin and alive in Christ.

      James makes a very similar statement in James 4:4, using the covenant terms ‘friend,’ ‘enemy,’ and ‘adulteress’:

      “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

      And John’s entire first epistle is dedicated to comparing the difference between walking in covenant with Christ and walking in the old covenant with sin and death from which Christ has redeemed us.

      Good observations! Thank you, Abby, for bringing out that aspect.

    • Another observation…

      The covenant ceremonies and traditions are rich in symbolism. The Walk-thru-Death, the drinking each others wine, the feeding each other bread, the exchange of clothes, the exchange of names, the exchange of gifts and weapons are all richly symbolic of the covenant union…the partaking of each others nature and strength…the joining of common causes, common friends and common enemies.

      The rich symbolism is intended to act as a constant reminder of the vows and the intended goals. Although we know we will never fully attain the level of union reflected in the ceremonial symbolism, we nonetheless know to continually strive toward that goal.

      However, in Christ, all the covenant symbolism becomes reality.

      Jesus truly did take on our nature when He became a man.

      Jesus truly did die…not just symbolically but in physical death.

      Jesus redeemed us from Adam’s covenant with sin and death through His actual death…not just symbolism.

      Jesus cut a new covenant with the Father, not through animal carcasses and not through a drop of His blood, but through the pouring out of His very life blood.

      And through the power of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, we can be indwelt by the Holy Spirit…God’s nature indwelling us…not just symbolically but His own nature in us. We truly become children of God.

      And, someday, we will be physically resurrected in Him.

      In Christ, all the rich symbolism of covenant becomes reality.

  6. Thanks so much for your detailed explanation. It looks like we are in strong agreement about redemption. What I still have a question about, perhaps I missed it in your reply, is how Christ’s dying to sin fits in with your analogy of the 2 Exodus’ and the divorce aspect. How was Sin’s hold on Adam analogous to the covenant of Pharoah and Joseph and how do you see Sin releasing/divorcing Adam through Christ’s death.

    • The Exodus account of Israel’s redemption and deliverance from Egypt is very clear. God redeemed Israel “with an outstretched arm and with great judgments” (Exodus 6:6) resulting in Pharoah, “under compulsion” letting them go and driving them out (Exodus 6:1)…covenant release…redemption.

      Jesus was called “the Arm of the Lord” (Isaiah 53:1) and there are several passages indicating that Jesus’ arrival in Sheol was with judgments. Isaiah 28:14-18 in particular speaks of Christ’s judgment cancelling the covenant with death and sheol.

      Although we’re told very little of what transpired during Jesus’ three days in Sheol, I expect it was quite uncomfortable for Satan. I expect Jesus immediately began dismanteling Satan’s stronghold and exposing Satan’s lies much as He had done during His ministry on Earth. And I expect that as a result of those judgments, under compulsion, Satan released the OT saints who had been held imprisoned in Sheol. Jesus left thru the front gates leading a host of saints…and He left the gates open for us.

      Propitiation for our sin…redemption and deliverance from slavery to sin…and a new covenant with the Father…all accomplished thru Christ’s death, burial and resurrection!

      That’s how I see it…

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