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The Redeemer as an Avenger: Jesus is More Than a Savior

It’s politically correct to celebrate Jesus as a holy man and enlightened figure, even among unbelievers. Social activists look to his example as support for struggle against oppression and injustice, and to his healings and mercy as a call to help those who are sick and poor. Even other religions sometimes accommodate him; he is considered a prophet in Islam and an avatar or holy person in Hinduism, among others.

Of course, Christians respond, properly, and say that you can’t ignore the reality of his saving work. Jesus came to die and be raised again, we point out: he came to save, not merely from the problems of the world, but from sin and death itself. He came to make a holy people, not just a free or a healthy or a well-governed people. He is a Redeemer. He came to redeem people from sin.

And yet, even as we correctly uphold Jesus’ saving mission, it’s easy to forget that there is an aspect to Christ’s work that is less pleasant to speak about. Indeed, it’s so unpleasant that many churches de-emphasize it. That aspect is Jesus as Judge, as avenger of evil. Jesus is coming to save, yes, but he is also coming to destroy.

The biblical teaching associated with this truth of Jesus as avenger is quite unpopular. Witness the recent political controversy about a political candidate who, in his work as a pastor, wrote about the doctrine of hell. He was excoriated for his views, and yet, this final and eternal judgment for the wicked is a crucial part of our faith. Our culture does not want to hear that, however.

And given how “fire and brimstone” teaching has been criticized even in the church, and given how there are leading theologians like the late John Stott who wish to redefine hell as something less than eternal or conscious punishment, it’s not hard to conclude that many in the church are uncomfortable hearing it, either.

Part of the problem is that we have become accustomed, in our age of biblical illiteracy, to thinking of Jesus simply as he is described in the Gospel accounts. While these accounts are certainly and perfectly true, they aren’t all the revelation we have. Indeed, Jesus’ ministry on earth was foretold and prefigured throughout the Old Testament, and its implications explained in detail in the letters of the New Testament. It’s simply wrong to limit one’s conception of Jesus to what we find in the Gospel stories, but when we fail to cultivate an appreciation for the whole Bible, including the Old Testament, that is what we do.

One important biblical metaphor that typifies (that is, prefigures or anticipates or points forward to) Jesus’s ministry is the Old Testament idea of a go’el or “kinsman redeemer.” The go’el was a representative of a family or clan, a person who had the responsibility to look out for and promote the interests of the family and of its individual members.

Our English idea of “redeemer” reflects one of the responsibilities of a go’el: if a family member wound up in slavery, the kinsman-redeemer’s obligation was to secure that relative’s release. Or, in other words, “redeem” him or her. Similarly, a go’el would redeem land that had passed out of family control on behalf of relatives who could not afford to buy it back and who needed help.

That conception, of a “redeemer” who frees from slavery or external control, is really the essence of the English word—and, similarly, of the popular Christian conception of a redeemer. Yet it is incomplete. Jesus was not just the fulfillment of a redeemer in the English word’s narrow and focused sense. He was the fulfillment of the Hebrew concept of the go’el, which was broader.

One key element of this expanded concept of a redeemer can be seen in this passage from Numbers 35:

The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. And if he pushed him out of hatred or hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait or used a stone that could cause death, and without seeing him dropped it on him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy and did not seek his harm, then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil.

While the word “go’el” is not used here, the context makes the connection for us. This passage explains how “prosecutions” for murder would take place in ancient Israel. In a time without formal courts or police services, and without even a king to rule in the land, Israel would rely on the “congregation” or assembly of a community to act as the courts, and on an “avenger of blood” to act as prosecutor and executioner. Who was this avenger of blood? Not a member of the congregation, for the congregation is here described as delivering the killer from his hand. Rather, the practice of the time was for a relative, a next of kin or some other close relation, to see the family’s desire for justice be fulfilled. This avenger of blood, then, is really the same as the go’el.

So the Old Testament conception of a redeemer included two elements related to judgment:

First, he acted as a prosecuting attorney. The avenger, the go’el, would lay out the case against the killer before the congregation. He would try to convince them of the killer’s guilt.

Second, he acted as executioner. God commanded the “avenger of blood” to kill the offender, not the city or congregation. It was this man’s responsibility to see to it that justice was carried out.

Ever wonder why God bothered giving us a Bible that was filled with laws from a time so totally different than our own? Have you ever found yourself asking why these strange codes and regulations matter to your Christian walk? These instructions about the “avenger of blood” are a good example of one of those seemingly arcane ancient instructions. And yet, when we understand that Christ is the fulfillment of the law, we see that Jesus is the Avenger of Blood, par excellence.

That has deep implications for us. First, it reminds us who vengeance truly belongs to. Jesus Christ will avenge the wrongs done to us—or, bear the vengeance himself, in his body, on the Cross. Understanding our go’el Jesus as our avenger of blood helps us turn the other cheek and refrain from revenge.

Second, it corrects a potentially unbiblical view of Satan. Satan is revealed to us as the “accuser.” This is because he accuses the righteous before God. But don’t let that limited scope of activity deceive you into thinking that Satan is somehow God’s special prosecutor or something. Satan, as a wicked, fallen, sinful rebel, is unworthy of such a privilege and incompetent to fulfill such an office. He condemns from spite, not divine appointment. Instead, it is Jesus Christ who not only intercedes for us, but also accuses the unredeemed wicked. That role was on full display during his earthly ministry as he condemned the religious establishment of the day.

Third, it reminds us that, because civil governments have been established by God to punish the wicked, the imperfect actions of our justice system are nonetheless a reflection (however distorted it may seem at times) of the image of God. And as they reflect a key element of Jesus’ mission, they are an example of God’s common grace in general revelation, a pointer to Christ and our need for a perfect Judge and the perfect justice only he can bring.

Fourth, it reminds us that Jesus is not to be trifled with. God is love and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, yes. And Jesus is also the one who will appear one day to put all things under his feet and to cast all those who oppose him into the lake of fire. As “shocking” as that may seem to some people, it’s the truth. We must take him most seriously. He offers salvation freely now, and so we call every person to seek refuge in him while that salvation will be found. The time is coming when that opportunity will pass and Christ will be present in judgment. And when that happens, there will be no city of refuge to save the wicked.

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