“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom [lutron] for many.” Mark 10.43-45
“Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom [lutron] for many.” Matthew 20.26-28
For many centuries, these verses have confused Christian people as to what it is our Lord means when He describes Himself as a ransom. If we look at the immediate context, the disciples are being instructed in the ethic of Christian love as the foundation of Christian leadership. However, as we move to consider the rest of the verse, many questions arise in our minds.These likely include things like; “Who is this ransom paid to?”, “What does this ransom consist of? Is it Christ Himself?”, “Why is a ransom even given?” And many more. The protestant reformers would answer that the ransom was due to the Divine Justice or as the payment to appease God. We have seen previously that this is not what the Scriptures teach us about Divine Justice (The Justice of God). In fact we may be surprised, once more, at what we find when we search the Scriptures and search the depths of the understanding of the fathers of The Church.
The first thing we may notice in going through this text is that there is actually nothing said of a receiving party with regards to this particular ransom. Rather the immediate context is The Lord’s declaration that he will be delivered up and killed and on the third day will rise from the dead. In the accounts given by Sts. Matthew and Mark this is followed by the request of two disciples, the sons of Zebedee, that they may be granted a preeminent position in the Kingdom:
“Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.” Matthew 20.21
“They said to Him, ‘Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.’” Mark 10.37
In this context, Christ says to them that headship is not the same within the Church and that the model for headship will be the self-emptying [kenosis] of the Son of God for the salvation of the world. The baptism with which Christ will be baptized and the cup which He will drink of speaks to His abasement and condescension to our state. This model of self-emptying love is set before these ambitious disciples as the foundation upon which leadership is based. But what of our questions about the object and subject of the ransom?
One hint is given to us in the events immediately after the statement that ‘the Son of man came as ransom for many,’ is the healing of the blind men immediately following. In St. Matthew’s Gospel it is two blind men who beseech the Lord and in St. Mark’s Gospel it is the healing of Bartimaeus. In both accounts of The Gospel they are healed and then follow the Lord on His journey. Here is the account as per St. Mark:
“Now they came to Jericho. As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called. Then they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Be of good cheer. Rise, He is calling you.’ And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus. So Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ The blind man said to Him, ‘Rabboni, that I may receive my sight.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.’” Mark 10.46-52.
What comes directly after this statement by The Lord is His healing of the blind man/men. It would seem that this itself should communicate much to us of what the content and meaning of this ransom is. The Lord says that their faith has made them well but certainly He has not paid anyone to return sight to the blind, He has done this by His own power and love. Deliverance, and not payment, is what the Gospels directly link with ransom. This is not the only place where we see this played out, though. If we explore the content of this same term as employed by the Scriptures and understood by the fathers, we can continue to unpack its meaning. Let us turn to the book of Exodus with the deliverance of the people of Israel from the Egyptians (remember that the Egyptians and Egypt represent sin and death):
“I listened to the groaning of the children of Israel (the affliction with which the Egyptians enslave them) and I remembered the covenant with you. Go, speak to the children of Israel, saying: I am the Lord; and I will lead you forth from the tyranny of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from and I will ransom you (lutrosomai) with a high arm and great judgment. I will take you to me a people for myself and will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the tyranny of the Egyptians.” Exodus 6.5-7
The Lord ransoms His people from the oppressive Egyptians who have taken them as slaves. We should note that this word is the same word that the Lord uses to describe Himself. Therefore it would serve as the background to His hearers as He says to them that the Son of Man came as a ransom. Here we would find it obvious that the Egyptians do not somehow receive payment from God that He might ‘buy-back’ the people. Although, in a certain sense, He does ‘buy them back’ to freedom from the land of slavery and into freedom. Yet there is no payment of funds but rather a deliverance, a freedom from their captors in the land of sin. Even when the Lord is instructing the Israelites that they might proclaim a free release of all slaves and servants of their land in the seventh year they are reminded,
“You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed (elutrousato) you there; therefore I charge you to do this thing. Deuteronomy 15.15.
The Israelites are instructed that they shall let their servants go free in the same manner in which the Lord has offered them freedom from servitude. The word employed again is of the same root as that which Christ uses. As the Israelites were ransomed by the Lord, so too they must offer this same freedom to those who serve them in their own lands.
The prophets will employ this term in the exact same way as the Torah has. Where Moses has proclaimed the liberation of the people through God’s ransoming them, the prophets proclaim the same message in many places. As we know, the Israelite people go on a journey with God that includes many highs and many lows. Many times they are unfaithful and return to God upon which doing, He readily brings them back to Himself. Let us consider two examples of this and pay attention to the language used:
“Therefore thus says the Lord, If you will return, then will I restore you and you shall stand before my face: and if you will bring forth the precious from the worthless, you shall be as my mouth: and they shall return to you; but you shall not return to them. I will make you to this people as a strong brazen wall; and they shall fight against you, but they shall by no means prevail against you; for I am with you to save you and to deliver you out of the hand of wicked men; and I will ransom (lutrosomai) you out of the hand of repulsive men.” Jeremiah 15.19-21
“Rejoice, O daughter of Zion; cry aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem; rejoice and delight yourself with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord has taken away your iniquities, he has ransomed (lelutroutai) you from the hand of your enemies: the Lord, the King of Israel, is in the midst of you: you shall not see evil any more.” Zephaniah 3.14-15.
These are two small examples of the principle we have already seen employed above, that God ransoms or saves His people but we do not expect payment to be exchanged. We do not think that God is somehow telling the Israelites that He will ‘buy them back’ from the hand of wicked man by exchanging with or paying them something. Rather it is victory which is granted to the Israelites and this is what the prophet Zephaniah reminds the people of. God has ransomed them from the enemies and thereby taken away their iniquities and for this reason, the people shall not see evil any more. God has delivered and saved the people from their enemies and this is what the ‘ransom’ consists in, not some payment to their enemies so God could ‘have them back’. Even in the passage of the Prophet Zephaniah we see an intuition of another theme, the ransoming back from corruption and death. The psalms speak of this aspect of ransom in a few places. Take for example:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his praises: who forgives all your transgressions, who heals all thy diseases; who redeems [lutroumenon] your life from corruption; who crowns you with mercy and compassion: who satisfies your desire with good things: so that your youth shall be renewed like that of the eagle.” Psalm 103.1-5 (LXX)
Here the Psalmist proclaims the release of his life from corruption. Again, there is no notion of God having to pay corruption (corruption itself not having an existence but rather being a process which existent things undergo). God redeems us from our corruption by crowning us with life, because of His mercy and compassion.
This is the more complete biblical notion of ransom that the Lord is playing upon when He uses this word as preserved in the Gospel. Given the fact that His hearers would be, for the most-part, knowledgeable in the Scriptures (ie the Old Testament at that point) this serves as the background on which they would have heard the Lord’s statement of His being a ransom. Thus we see that ransom does not necessitate the payment of an opposing figure but rather the bringing back, or perhaps even ‘buying back’, of the human being that God so dearly loves. The Lord is one who saves us from our enemies and from all our adversaries. The psalmist again prays:
“O Lord my God, in thee have I trusted: save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me. Lest at any time the enemy seize my soul as a lion, while there is none to ransom (Lutroumeno), nor to save.” Psalm 7:1-2
The enemy has our soul in his hands as though a lion entrapping its enemies. One could scarcely imagine God paying the lion back for the soul of His human being, nor is this how it is with the Lord’s saving of humanity. The Logos comes and becomes a ransom that He might return us to The Father. This is foretold throughout the Old Testament. In both in the Psalms and in the prophet Hosea we read:
“They have laid them as sheep in Hades; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning, and their help shall fail in Hades from their glory. But God shall deliver [lutrou] my soul from the power of Hades, when he shall receive me.” Psalm 49.14-15
“I will deliver them out of the power of Hades, and will redeem [lutron] them from death: where is thy penalty, O death? O Hades, where is thy sting? comfort is hidden from mine eyes.” Hosea 13.14
Much as the land of Egypt was the land of sin out of which God has ransomed or delivered His people, so too He will ransom us from death and the power of Hades. It is this passage which will be quoted by St. Paul in the New Testament (a text we will return too). Again, this plays on the same themes we have already seen. St. Cyril of Alexandria will certainly present this as the way in which the work of Christ redeems and saves us. Here is passage where he quotes the above text,
“The Saviour, then, underwent death for all of us, and, descending into hell, stripped the devil of his riches, saying to those in bonds, ‘Come out!’ And to those in darkness, ‘show yourselves!’ As the prophet says (Is 49.9). And raising up his three-day temple, the first-fruits of those fallen asleep (1 Cor 15.20), he freed nature from the bonds of death, and, once victorious, taught it to say, ‘O death, where is your victory? O Hell, where is your sting? (Hos 13.14, 1 Cor 15.55)’ And having made Heaven accessible to it through the economy of the Incarnation, he was taken up, presenting himself to the Father as the first-fruits of the human race. And as a sort of pledge to us of the future hope, he bestowed the Spirit, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit (Jn 20.22).’” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter 1. Chapter 6. Cyril, S. (2009). Festal Letters 1-12. CUA Press. p51
It is in this manner of rescue that Christ goes down into Hades and even the bonds of death which cannot hold Him. Much like Moses returns to the captivity of Israel so that he might free them from the hand of Pharaoh, so too Christ enters into Hades by entering the domain of death that He might return God’s people to Him. St. Cyril will later quote from the prophecy of Zacharias in one of his festal letters to communicate this too. Let us look at the prophecy of Zacharias and then St. Cyril’s text:
“Now his [St. John the Baptist] father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: ‘Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed [lutrosin] His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began, That we should be saved from our enemies And from the hand of all who hate us, To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.“And you, child [St. John the Baptist], will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1.67-79
“For I do not think any effort will be required of me to persuade you that the Only-Begotten is inherently willing to show mercy readily; I suppose that you too are quite prepared to agree, since you have considered carefully the extent of his affection for us, and have reflected on how much it is that he has undergone for us. For when all of us who dwell upon this earth had been netted like fish by the irresistible greed of the tyrant demon and faced destruction and perdition, the Only-Begotten became a human being, that he might rescue everyone, ‘and might proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,’ as he himself says somewhere, and might in addition call for ‘an acceptable year of the Lord.’” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter 8, Chapter 4. Pg 146 in CUA press
In the prophecy of Zacharias we see that the Lord has come and redeemed His people but the word used in the Greek is the same as the Lord’s own description of His work in the accounts of Sts. Matthew and Mark. This ransoming will entail our salvation from our enemies. His ransoming or redeeming His people is tied to His coming to visit them so that they may be saved from the hands of their enemies and all who hate them. Interestingly, or maybe obviously, this is what St. Cyril speaks of here too. We too were caught and netted like fish by him who has the power of death (cf. Hebrews 2.14) and faced destruction. Inasmuch then as Moses journeyed to the land of Egypt to free his people from the land of sin and death, so too the Logos enters anew into His people by becoming one of them. In His entrance into our humanity we are no longer captive or blind but delivered by God-made-man.
In this way we can come to actually understand a mysterious and yet enlightening passage by St. Gregory the Theologian. This passage comes from one of his orations on Easter where he takes up the question of ransom. We quote it here at length:
“Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High priest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim (Gen 22.11)? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence. But that brazen serpent (Num 21.9) was hung up as a remedy for the biting serpents, not as a type of Him that suffered for us, but as a contrast; and it saved those that looked upon it, not because they believed it to live, but because it was killed, and killed with it the powers that were subject to it, being destroyed as it deserved. And what is the fitting epitaph for it from us? “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (Hos 13.14, 1 Cor 15.55)” Thou art overthrown by the Cross; thou art slain by Him who is the Giver of life; thou art without breath, dead, without motion, even though thou keepest the form of a serpent lifted up on high on a pole.” St. Gregory the Theologian, Second Oration on Easter, Chapter 22.
St. Gregory the Theologian’s passage is, in a way, prophetic. Many centuries before any Christian would have ever have thought of asking if the ransom was paid to the Father, he has adamantly said this could not be the case. It could not be ‘paid’ to the Father for He was not the one detaining us in bondage or oppressing us. How would the Father require ransom from His Son when He did not require the death of Isaac at the hands of Abraham? One can imagine St. Gregory the Theologian saying that it would be ridiculous to consider God The Father as though Pharaoh who held the people in bondage and slavery. God is not Pharaoh. Ultimately the Christian story has always told us that God is Father and we the sheep of His pasture. What then can we say about who this ransom is paid to? St. Gregory the Theologian appears, at first glance, to have left us without an answer. Yet if we ponder his words, we will find he has given us an answer that we did not expect.
The result of this ransom is the overthrow and destruction of death. Christ has slain death because He is the Giver of Life. This is come to be because humanity ‘must be sanctified by the humanity of God’. Having come into the flesh and entering into death as one of us, the Logos conquers death for it cannot contain Him. In Him, it cannot contain any of us for we too share in His being in that He is become a human being as one of us. Much like God ransomed the Israelites and led them through the red sea which then destroyed the powers of sin -the Egyptians- so too Christ is come into the depths of human death and conquered. This is the ransom that the Son of Man is come to become. It is this destruction of death that becomes the central focus of the fathers of the Church as they speak of the work of Christ, even, or rather especially, when they speak of the ransom. Christ does not ransom us from the Father nor does He pay wages to the devil for His own human beings, rather He conquers death. Therefore St. Cyril of Alexandria will say,
“But the Lord Jesus Christ, seeing that the death which had long tyrannized over us was already trembling and falling (for it was to be completely destroyed by the death of the holy flesh), took no account of the reproaches of the Jews [as He was being crucified]. For His purpose was to remove from sin both the living and the dead, and to renew once again for human nature the ascent to incorruptibility; and that is what happened. For he despoiled Hades with his divine and gracious command, saying to those there, ‘come out and show yourselves! (Is 49.9)’ And having raised himself on the third day, the first-fruits of those fallen asleep (1 Cor 15.20), Christ was taken up (Mk 16.19) to the Father, an intercessor for us.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Festal Letter 10, Chapter 4. Pg 193 from text already cited.
Again, whether following the trope of Moses and the exodus from Egypt or one of the prophets and the return of the Israelites to their native land, we see Christ as entering into death to destroy it and to despoil Hades. In this way, many of the fathers of the Church will actually speak of Christ’s ransom being paid to death or of Christ’s ransoming us from death. Either of these usages should be appropriated in the same way the Biblical text has used the word ‘ransom’ which has typically been emblematic of God’s deliverance of His people. St. Basil the Great uses the term in this way in one of his letters where he defends the true humanity of Christ against those would would say He did not truly take human flesh:
“If, then, the sojourn of the Lord in flesh has never taken place, the Redeemer paid not the fine (lutrotees) to death on our behalf, nor through Himself destroyed death’s reign. For if what was reigned over by death was not that which was assumed by the Lord, death would not have ceased working his own ends, nor would the sufferings of the God-bearing flesh have been made our gain; He would not have killed sin in the flesh: we who had died in Adam should not have been made alive in Christ; the fallen to pieces would not have been framed again; the shattered would not have been set up again; that which by the serpent’s trick had been estranged from God would never have been made once more His own.” St. Basil the Great, Letter CCXLI which is the letter to the Sozopolitans
Note how closely tied are the ideas of the Lord’s ransom being paid to death and of His destruction of the reign of death. Indeed these are different aspects of the self-same salvation which is afforded to us. The word employed by St. Basil is the same as that which the Lord uses even if the English translators have rendered it with a different English word. Because the Lord has sojourned in the same flesh as every one of us, He is able to bring about the destruction and death of death. St. Athanasius will say similarly in one of his letters:
“But this is our Orthodox faith, starting both from the teaching of the Apostles and the Tradition of the Fathers, being confirmed both by the New and Old Testament: for the Prophets say, ‘Send out thy word and thy truth (Ps 42.3), and, ‘Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted God with us (Is 7.14).’ But what is this, if not that God has come in the flesh? While the Apostolic tradition teaches, in the words of blessed Peter, ‘Forasmuch, then, as Christ suffered for us in the flesh (1 Pet 4.1)’ and in what Paul writes, ‘Looking for the blessed hope and appearing of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ who gave Himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, and zealous of good works (Tit 2.13).’ How, then, has he given himself for us, if he had not put on flesh? For having offered it, he gave Himself for us, in order that taking death upon him in it, he might bring to nought the devil who had the power of death. Hence, we always offer the Eucharist in the name of Jesus Christ, and we do not disregard the grace which came to us through Him. For the Saviour’s incarnate presence has been ransom for death (thanatou lutron) and salvation for all creation.” St. Athanasius, Letter to Adelphius, 6.
In this passage we see St. Athanasius speaking of the offering of Christ of His own flesh. He Who came as a redemption, redeeming us from all iniquity, offers His own flesh as a ransom for death that He might put death to death. To this effect we continue to be ransomed from death when we offer the body and blood, the life of the Lord being infused in us that we might partake of life once more. Much as the Israelites were meant to be delivered from death and destruction, we the new Israel, are delivered from the bounds and chains of death and sin through the Lord’s infusing life into this dead form of existence. Even here we can see the parallels with the exodus from Egypt. There we see the Israelites first being delivered but then being sustained by the bread from Heaven. In The Christian creed, we now have the true bread of life (and in the Coptic Orthodox tradition this is the hymn sung during the distribution of the mysteries). While this whole economy is ministered to us through the life, baptism, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord and the descent of the Holy Spirit it is also given to us to partake of in the sacramental life of the Church. In speaking to the catechumens awaiting baptism St. Gregory of Nyssa says:
“Now He who holds nature together in existence is transfused in us; while at that other time He was transfused throughout our nature, in order that our nature might by this transfusion of the divine become itself divine, rescued as it was from death, and put beyond the reach of the caprice of the antagonist. For His return from death becomes to our mortal race the commencement of our return to the immortal life.” St. Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 25.
The Lord’s entry into our life and therefore our entry into His Life is the true ransom which He offered on our behalf. Yes, He performs this to the goodwill of God the Father and offers it to Him. But what Christ offers to the Father is not a reparation of His offended dignity nor a price for the securing of humanity. Rather The Lord offers the deliverance of His people unto the Father for this is the good pleasure of the Father. After all, St. Paul teach does teach us:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God [the Father] was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5.18,19
This divine work of the Trinity is the return of humanity to the bosom of the Father where the Son ever abides through the indwelling of The Holy Spirit. This is where Life is, this is life. Because of this, St. Clement of Alexandria can say:
“For ‘the Sun of Righteousness,’ who drives His chariot over all, pervades equally all humanity, like ‘His Father, who makes His sun to rise on all men,’ and distils on them the dew of the truth. He has changed sunset into sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and having wrenched man from destruction, He has raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality, and translating earth to heaven… having bestowed on us the truly great, divine, and inalienable inheritance of the Father, deifying man by heavenly teaching, putting His laws into our minds, and writing them on our hearts.” St. Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus (The Exhortation), Chapter 11.
The Lord Jesus Christ has brought death to life, having wrenched us from destruction raising us to Heaven in His own ascension in the flesh and having brought the Heavens to earth in the sending of The Holy Spirit. One could even imagine in St. Clement’s mind the analogous deliverance of the Israelites out of the hand of death which passed by their homes in the Passover and their subsequent journey to the land of the living. The journey of the Israelites is, of course, much more troubled than this idyllic representation shows but the analogies journeys from sin and death to life are present and it is no accident that the terminology employed is the same. One more passage from St. Irenaeus of Lyons will bring this all together for us:
We have received, in the times known beforehand, [the blessings of salvation] according to the ministration of the Word, who is perfect in all things, as the mighty Word, and very man, who, redeeming us by His own blood in a manner consonant to reason, gave Himself as a redemption for those who had been led into captivity. And since the apostasy tyrannized over us unjustly, and, though we were by nature the property of the omnipotent God, alienated us contrary to nature, rendering us its own disciples, the Word of God, powerful in all things, and not defective with regard to His own justice, did righteously turn against that apostasy, and redeem from it His own property, not by violent means, as the [apostasy] had obtained dominion over us at the beginning, when it insatiably snatched away what was not its own, but by means of persuasion, as became a God of counsel, who does not use violent means to obtain what He desires; so that neither should justice be infringed upon, nor the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction. Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God,—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin.” St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter 1, Tract 1.
Altogether, we see the redemption of the human being, snatched from God by various and nefarious methods, paired directly with the union of God and man and the imparting of The Holy Spirit. This ransom is consonant with and accomplishes the same end as the Spirit Who now dwells in us for the economy is one and the same. One may note that God’s justice in this text is His salvation of His humanity not His demands or requirements to fulfill it (The Justice of God). St. Cyril of Alexandria will describe how the descent of Life Himself into death and Hades results in its destruction:
“After all, he humbled himself, as it is written, being found in appearance as a man for our sakes (Phil 2.7) so that when he was first restored to his rule, he might be made a beginning for us and a glorious way into his kingdom. Though he is life by nature, he descended for us into death according to the flesh in the place of all so that he might deliver us from both death and decay. He did this by mixing us with Himself, so to speak, by his likeness with us, and so rendering us participants in eternal life. In the same way, even though as God he is the Lord of glory, he conforms himself to our dishonour in order to raise up human nature to royal honour. He has become ‘preeminent in everything.’ As Paul says (Col 1.18), the way, the door, the first fruits of the blessings for human nature from death to life, from decay to incorruption, from weakness to strength, from slavery to sonship, from dishonour and ignominy to honour and royal glory. Therefore, when the Son clearly receives as man what he already had as God, let us not at all be offended, but let us bring to mind the way of the oikonomia that is for us and in our place.” St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 2, Chapter 4, On John 3.35.
Even when we speak of Christ being put to death in place of all, St. Cyril interprets this as His work to deliver us from death and decay. The ransom is not to pay the devil nor is it to pay the Father but it is offered, in place of all, to render us participants in eternal life through Christ’s bestowal of His eternal life on our mortal nature. Although we read that Christ descends ‘in place of all’ St. Cyril has not understood this as ‘instead of’ which seems more intuitive to our own ears today. Rather we see this same theme of being delivered by the descent of life into the realm of death.
Therefore, we see that the term ransom, so full and ripe with meaning, can best be understood in a manner not necessarily intuitive to us. The Son of man’s coming as a ransom is not to effect a payment on our behalf or to repay an enemy, or The Father, on our behalf. Rather the Lord’s ransom is considered by many of the fathers as a ransom for death. It is by His entry into humanity and our death and decay that the Lord can bring Life and healing to it. This is how He can bring Himself into it (and therefore us into Him) and by this He heals this condition, he ransoms it. This theology comes out consistently throughout the Scripture especially as the fathers of the Church read it (He Took Our Infirmities and Bore Our Diseases – A Theology of Healing). We have been ransomed from our enemies and from that tyrant death through the whole of the life of Christ (see the major feasts of the Alexandrian tradition for the peaks of this salvific economy; Annunciation, Nativity, Theophany, Palm Sunday, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost) and brought into newness of Life. This Life is ministered to us by the Indwelling of The Holy Spirit and the Eucharist which renders us participants in the Life of God. The ascetical life, which is the vocation of all Christians, is the means by which we come to appropriate and enter into this union with the Divine. This continue to be our redemption or ransom from sin and death. For how true it is that we can easily fall under the reign of death and become ungrateful as did the Israelites who, shortly after being miraculously brought across the red sea, complain that their stomachs are not full and that slavery is the better state. Let us not allow the passions to chain us back into slavery once our Lord has offered us an eternal redemption (Lutrosis) (Cf. Heb 9.15). Let us pursue the ascetical practices offered us by our fathers and through the rites of the Church that we might have life and have it abundantly (Cf. John 10.10) now that we have been ransomed from our sins and death. Much as the Egyptians are eventually destroyed as God ransoms them through Moses, so too Christ destroys death by His death. We too can participate in this by our own death to death and this is effected in our baptism and ongoing repentance in the life of the Church.