Christ holds Himself up as an example to be imitated when He explains that true greatness in His kingdom is found in serving others (Mark 10:35–45). Specifically, our Lord calls us to imitate Him in His willingness “to give his life as a ransom for many” (v. 45). We need to be careful, for ransom imagery is atonement language, and clearly Jesus cannot mean that imitating Him in serving others results in our saving ourselves or others from sin and death. As we saw in Mark 10:35–40, the question Jesus asked of James and John about drinking His cup requires a “no” answer. No, James and John could not drink the cup of God’s wrath that Jesus had to drink for our salvation. They would participate in His suffering in the sense that they would be unjustly punished for their fealty to the Lord, just as Jesus was unjustly killed by earthly authorities. Furthermore, that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man makes it impossible that we could give our lives as a ransom for others. If we could, we would be mediators as well as Christ (1 Tim. 2:5).
We can imitate Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, by seeking to meet the needs of others as is appropriate for sinful-but-redeemed human beings. Still, we are left with the intriguing comment that Jesus paid a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Since a ransom is a price paid to secure the release of captives from a captor, we know that Jesus was talking about a price He would pay to release certain prisoners. He would pay a ransom price—His life—to free others.
But to whom was the ransom paid? Some early church fathers, such as Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–254), argued that Jesus paid a ransom to Satan. Though we cannot accept this view, one can perhaps understand why some would endorse it. Scripture does talk in some places about sinners as captives of the devil (2 Tim. 2:26).
Jesus could not have paid a ransom to Satan because that would put Satan in a position whereby he, a creature, could demand something from the Creator, and Jesus is God incarnate (John 1:1–14). Additionally, when Scripture talks about the atonement, it emphasizes God’s demands: the Lord ordered the Suffering Servant to be crushed for our iniquities (Isa. 52:13–53:12). Moreover, Satan could not have taken us captive in the first place without God’s sovereign permission; therefore, if anyone could demand a ransom for our salvation, it would be God. In Christ, God paid to Himself the ransom He justly demanded so that we could have eternal life.