I once read about a preacher who stirred up the curiosity of the congregation when he walked into the pulpit carrying an old bird cage. He began his sermon by telling how he acquired the cage earlier that week. While taking a walk, he happened to see a mischievous boy in an alley with a cage full of small, scared birds. The preacher asked the boy how he acquired the birds. "I trapped them," the boy replied. The preacher then asked, "What are you going to do with them?" "Play with them and have fun with them," the boy stated. The preacher presented another question, "Well, what are you going to do with them when you get tired of them?" The boy thought for a moment and concluded, "I have cats at home. Cats like birds. I'll feed them to my cats."
The preacher then asked the boy if he would sell him the birds. "Mister," the boy said, "you don't want to buy these ugly birds. They're just plain, old field birds. They're ugly." Again, the preacher asked him if he would sell the birds and how much he wanted for them. The boy hesitated, calculated, squinted one eye, and then settled on $5. The preacher quickly paid him the money, and the boy ran away down the alley. The preacher then set the cage on the ground, opened the door, and backed away from the birds. He watched as the frightened little creatures all found their freedom! The preacher left the alley after picking up the empty bird cage.
The preacher then told another story to the congregation. Jesus and the devil were talking. The devil had set a trap in the Garden of Eden and had caught the whole world through sin. Jesus asked the devil what he was going to do with mankind. He stated that he would tease them, play with them, tempt them, and encourage them to destroy each other. The Lord then asked, "What will you do when you get tired of them?" "I will kill them," Satan replied, "they're no good anyway." Jesus then asked the devil how much he wanted for them. The devil asked Jesus if He was truly serious. "If I sell them to you, they will just spit on you and hate you. They're no good." The Lord asked again for a price. "All your tears and your blood," the devil answered. Jesus paid the price, opened the door, and let mankind go free.
This illustration accurately depicts what is known as the ransom theory of atonement. This theory stresses the idea that the devil had dominion over man after the fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden. However, freedom for mankind has once again been made possible through the cross of Christ. Historically, some early forms of this theory depict the cross as a trap which backfired on the devil. He thought he was winning by having Jesus killed on the cross, but when the resurrection occurred, it became apparent that the cross was actually his downfall.
This theory of atonement was exceedingly popular during the first several centuries of the early church. There is certainly a lot of truth to the theory. For instance, it is correct in showing Satan as the master of those who sin. Consider these passages - "He who sins is of the devil..." (I John 3:8). "In which you once walked according to the course of this world according to the prince of the power of the air [i.e., the devil], the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). Romans 6:16ff speaks of those who are enslaved to sin. Clearly, there is a battle in our world today between the forces of evil and the forces of good. The cross is a great victory for the side of righteousness. The devil was defeated to the extent that his ultimate downfall is undeniable. Additionally, the New Testament describes the cross and the atonement in terms of a price, a ransom price - "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Paul wrote in I Corinthians 6:19,20 - "Do you not know that...you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit which are God's."
However, the ransom theory of atonement also has some difficulties Biblically that we must point out. We must be careful not to make too much out of the devil. He is certainly pictured in the Scriptures as being a dangerous and powerful being, but, in comparison with God, he is nothing! Christians should view the devil as their chief adversary who "walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (I Pet. 5:8). But, they must simultaneously remember that if they "submit to God" and "resist the devil", he will flee from them (James 4:7).
We will ponder another theory of atonement in our next lesson.