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In Genesis 15, God makes a promise to Abraham. His descendants will inherit the land of Canaan. God also revealed to Abraham that it would be 400 years, after the iniquity of the Amorites was completed, before his descendants inherited the land. It was Abraham’s descendants through whom the whole world would be blessed.
Abraham had a son, Isaac, who had a son, Jacob. Jacob wrestled with God and was given the name Israel. Jacob had a son, Joseph, who was given authority in Egypt to help prevent starvation in the land because of a coming famine. Joseph brought his family to Egypt. Over time, the descendants of Jacob, the Israelites, became slaves. 400 years after God made His promise to Abraham, He delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He did this by hardening Pharaoh’s heart and by plaguing Egypt. In the final plague, the firstborn son of every Egyptian household, along with the firstborn of all the Egyptian cattle, was killed. God delivered the Israelites as the Egyptian army followed behind.
In Exodus 13, as Egypt pursued and before the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, God gave this command:
“When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and gives it to you, you are to present to the Lord every firstborn male of the womb. All firstborn offspring of the livestock you own that are males will be the Lord’s. You must redeem every firstborn of a donkey with a flock animal, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. However, you must redeem every firstborn among your sons.
In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘By the strength of His hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of man to the firstborn of livestock. That is why I sacrifice to the Lord all the firstborn of the womb that are males, but I redeem all the firstborn of my sons.’ So let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead, for the Lord brought us out of Egypt by the strength of His hand” (Exodus 13:11-16).
To be redeemed was to be purchased from death. When we ask, “What does this mean,” the Scriptures answer that question by revealing something very specific about God. He bought the Israelites from slavery. The Israelites gave these redemption offerings to the Lord because the Lord bought Israel for Himself. In Numbers 3, we read that the Levite tribe will take the place of the firstborn of all of Israel, serving the Lord as priests. The Levite tribe became the redemption offering for the people of Israel. Where the firstborn sons outnumbered the Levites, the remaining redemption price was to be paid to the sons of Aaron as a tax.
We fast forward to the New Testament. Jesus teaches that He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life — a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul would clarify that Jesus gave His life as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:6). 1 Corinthians 6:20 testifies, “You were bought at a price.” Just as God bought Israel for Himself, so He bought at least the elect; but probably all people. Humanity belongs to God, not only by right of creation but also now because God paid for us.
Israel served as a living parable, the proclamation of divine truth through actual, historical events. Israel’s history is a testimony of God’s gospel of grace. God painted a material picture of His eternal plan. God sold Israel into slavery. God delivers all people over to disobedience (Romans 11:32). He did this so that He may show mercy to all (also Romans 11:32). Sin revealed our unrighteousness. Since all people are unrighteous (Romans 3:10), all people sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). They are justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24). Just as God redeemed Israel out of the slavery He brought them to, so He redeems people out of the sin that He hands them over to. The result is that God shows mercy to all people.
If we stop here, we are in danger of assuming some sort of universalism. We read ahead to Romans 3:26, which says that Christ is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Him. The price of eternal redemption, the price to buy humanity from the consequence of death, was sufficient to pay for all sin. In fact, all sin was paid in full because the redemption price, Christ, was sufficient to do so. Not all people, though, are clothed with Christ’s righteousness- only those who have faith in Jesus apart from works of the Law, apart from mere religiosity (Romans 3:28).
Answering the question, “Did Christ die for all people?” is a messy question to answer. It should not be answered with a simple yes or no. Jesus paid for all sin with His death. All those who have faith in Jesus are saved. All those who do not have faith in Jesus are not saved. While the redemption price has been paid to deal with all sin, sin is not the main issue God is dealing with. That is going to be a surprise for many. God handed us over to sin for a reason. He is doing a work much greater than the crushing of human sin. He is causing us to recognize our unrighteousness by delivering us over to sin. He has paid the redemption price for that sin. He is clothing His chosen people with His righteousness. He is the only one who receives glory in this process.