“For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:9–10). What a song. What a Savior! Jesus Christ is the object of our praise because we were the objects of His passion. He gave Himself for us, and so we give ourselves for Him. And we should go on singing this song to this Savior for this reason forever and ever. And we will. Yet in this age, there is controversy. Not all Christians believe that Jesus died intentionally and efficaciously for His people alone. As we come to the end of this series on Christ’s death to satisfy the justice of God, the big question is, for whom did Christ die? I want to examine with you how this song of the saints in heaven answers this complex theological question.
The Biblical Descriptions
Notice two things described in Revelation 5:9–10 that are described by many other biblical passages as well. First, the Bible describes Jesus Christ as dying to accomplish every aspect of our salvation. The heavenly choirs praise the Lamb. And in their praise we see the connection between what Christ did—“For you were slain . . . you ransomed people for God”—and what it has accomplished—“you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God”—and what it will accomplish in the future—“they shall reign on the earth.” The eternal song does not say merely that Jesus died. The song also does not say that Christ died only to make redemption a hypothetical for all who choose to believe or a potential salvation for every single man, woman, and child. In other words, this song does not say Jesus died with the intent to make all people savable but to save no one in particular. No, the reason for praise is that Jesus “ransomed people for God.” He actually paid the price to set particular captives free, to release specific prisoners. Jesus actually “made them a kingdom and priests to our God.” Jesus’ death definitively accomplished something.
There are several more descriptions akin to this one. For example, Jesus Christ’s death is described in the following ways throughout Scripture:
- As accomplishing the obedience God required for us (Rom. 5:19)
- As accomplishing expiation—the removing and sending away of our sins from before the face of God (Heb. 1:3; 9:14; 10:10, 14)
- As accomplishing propitiation—the turning away of the justice and wrath of God toward us (Rom. 3:25)
- As accomplishing reconciliation—the bringing together of God and us into a relationship of peace and love (Rom. 5:10)
- As accomplishing redemption—leading us out of the slavery of sin (Matt. 20:28; Rom. 3:24–25; 1 Cor. 1:30; Gal. 3:13; Col. 1:13–14; Heb. 9:12; 1 Peter 1:18–19)
The second aspect to the description of Jesus Christ’s death in Revelation 5:9–10 is that He actually died in the place of particular people. Let me illustrate. It’s hard for us to make the connection between what happened decades ago on D-Day on the beaches of Normandy and ourselves today. That is, we have a hard time thinking of those men so long ago as dying in our place. For the most part, we don’t know them, and they didn’t know us. But when someone in our lives actually steps in front of a car, comes between us and a bullet, or enters a fire to rescue us, it’s personal and it’s powerful. That’s what Jesus did. He is not an abstract person who died for an abstract, faceless mass of people He did not know personally and individually. No, He personally died for each and every one of those He loved from before the foundation of the world.
We hear this in the heartfelt cries of heaven praising the Savior who actually “ransomed people for God,” but notice how specific this ransom was for particular people. The song goes on to say that the ransomed people come “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Literally, the text says the Lamb redeemed “out of every tribe and out of every language and out of every people and out of every nation.” He gave His life for those people specifically, and not others. Even more, the song celebrates this with the pronouns: “You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10, emphasis added).
Again, there are many more descriptions just like this one throughout the Bible. Read the following passages and see how they describe Jesus as dying effectually for a particular people:
Jesus did not just make salvation possible for all, but those He saves, He effectually saves: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph. 1:7).
Jesus laid down His life for His people: “And you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68). “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Jesus laid down His life for His sheep: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14–15).
Jesus gave His life for many, not all: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).
Jesus laid down His life for His church: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27).
Jesus laid down His life for His elect: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8:32–35).
Jesus prays for His people, not for the world: “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9).
All this shows us is that Jesus’ death was a substitution. If He died in the place of all people, then all people will be saved. If He was substituted for some, then those will be saved.
The Biblical Objection
What about all the “all” passages in the Bible that, some say, suggest Jesus died for everyone without exception? There are several passages, but what I want to say is that the “all” passages must be read with their context in mind as well as with all the rest of Scripture in mind. As I mentioned before, “all” doesn’t always mean all people without exception, or every single individual who has ever lived. Sometimes “all” means what it means here in Revelation 5:9–10, where all kinds of people are being described as redeemed. Other times, “all” means all nations—the Jews along with the gentiles. Alongside the passages that speak of the particularity of Christ’s death, you can see that the best reading of Scripture is that Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all kinds of people, Jews and gentiles, “from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
Look at John 3:16–17. Notice that the purpose of God’s sending His Son is explained with two purposes clauses: “that whoever believes in him should . . . have eternal life” and “in order that the world might be saved through him” (emphasis added). If the “world” in verse 16 is every human being, then every human will be saved, because verse 17 says He saves the world. We know that cannot be the case because not everyone is saved. So, the “world” must refer not to all people but to something else. What is the “world?” It’s the “world” of darkness and unbelief (see John 1:10). God loved this world of fallen and rebellious sinners despite its hatred of Him. Even further, God’s love extends not only to sinful Jews but to the entire world of sinners, including the gentiles in all corners of the earth (John 4:42; 11:51–52; 12:32; Rev. 5:9). The point of John 3:16–17 is that God’s love is so immense that any sinner who believes shall be saved. It speaks of the sufficiency of Jesus.
Look also at 1 John 2:1–2. The nature of “propitiation” is to turn away God’s wrath. If this text means every human, then it means the wrath of Almighty God is no longer upon anyone. When John says, “and not for ours only, but . . . the whole world,” he is speaking either as he spoke in John 3:16–17 of the sufficiency of Jesus or as he echoed our Lord’s words in John 17:20: “I do not ask for [the disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”
Finally, look at 1 Timothy 2:4–6. The context is not Christ’s death but prayer in public worship. Paul commands prayer “for all people” (v. 1). His concern is not for every individual person, but for all “all sorts and conditions of men” (Book of Common Prayer). He specifies prayer for government officials as if to say, “Pray for them so that we can continue praying for everyone else.” God does desire the salvation of “all people,” that is, all kinds of people. He is concerned not only with Jews but with gentiles, with the rich and the poor, with white and black, with aristocrats and workers, with men and women. If God’s will or desire here concerns every individual, then what about other texts of Scripture that speak of His will or desire in choosing some and not others? God is not confused, so His desire for the salvation of all is reconciled with His electing choice when we understand that He wants all kinds of people saved.
The Biblical Benefits
Why does all this matter? I want to conclude by offering three biblical benefits to affirming the intentional and effectual satisfaction of God’s justice by Jesus Christ on the cross for His elect.
First, it gives us assurance and confidence that our Savior has been for us from eternity, on the cross, and into eternity. That assurance and confidence can say, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain” for me, “and by your blood you ransomed” me “for God from” this “tribe and” this “language and” this “people and” this “nation, and you have made” me “a kingdom and” a “priest to our God, and” I “shall reign on the earth.”
Second, it gives us reason to worship. He actually and personally died for me to actually and powerfully accomplish my redemption from the slavery of sin and the kingdom of Satan.
Third, it gives us reason to preach, evangelize, and bear witness in the world. If Jesus Christ actually, personally, and powerfully died for some “out of every tribe and out of every language and out of every people and out of every nation,” then there are particular people in every tribe, every language, every people, and every nation who must come to repentance and faith.
What a song is being sung in heaven even now. Let’s make it our song here on earth. This part of the Canons of Dort ends with these words:
This plan, arising out of God’s eternal love for his chosen ones, from the beginning of the world to the present time has been powerfully carried out and will also be carried out in the future, the gates of hell seeking vainly to prevail against it. As a result, the chosen are gathered into one, all in their own time, and there is always a church of believers founded on Christ’s blood, a church which steadfastly loves, persistently worships, and—here and in all eternity—praises him as her Savior who laid down his life for her on the cross, as a bridegroom for his bride. (2.9)
The tribes, languages, peoples, and nations are right outside our doors. What are we waiting for? Jesus’ death is sufficient for an infinite number of worlds of sinners; tell them, knowing that God will effectually apply it to His people by His mighty grace.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Synod of Dort and was first published on May 23, 2018. Previous post.