Three themes repeatedly come up in Exodus: salvation, holiness and God’s people. Salvation is shown in how God consistently saves His people, the Israelites, who were led to God after He took them out of slavery in Egypt. This shows us that God’s people have a covenant with Him.
With the benefit of the hindsight we have today, we can see that while the laws were good for people to live in accordance to God, they also pointed to Jesus. This leads us to consider two questions: What is a Christian? What makes a Christian a Christian?
(A) Taking Census: The Lord of a people numbers those who are his
What is a census and who can take a census? In the simplest of terms, a census is a count and involves the registering of people. The Biblical phrase used is the numbering of people, and it was prevalent in history, such as in the census carried out in Ezra 2 and the census during the time of King Herod.
Who can take a census? It would have been someone appointed to lead, typically someone in a position of sufficient authority or lordship. The people counted are numbered among those who belong to that authority and eligible for his protection. The Israelites can only say that they belong to Yahweh because they are counted among His people. Man only has the right to count what belongs to him, because linked in is the possibility of pride that they would forget who they really belonged to. They might be tempted to think that the great numbers under them are to their own credit.
Who was involved in the census? Everyone 20 years old and above was counted, and it involved a payment for the ransom of their lives (Exo 30:14). This payment was half a shekel, worth two days’ of wages, which weighed around 5.5g and was measured according to the shekel of the sanctuary. All who was numbered “shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD” (Exo 30:12). Notice how this payment was directed to God.
(B) Paying the Price: A precious, personal and foundational Ransom
This is different from other cases where Israelites are called to give from their own ability: this applies as a regressive tax applied the same to everyone because it was meant to make atonement. It was not the money that was atonement, but it marked those who atoned. This principle of imposing a flat tax shows that all life is worth equal value, but at the same time that we are all sinful regardless of wealth or status.
Matthew Henry explains it this way:
“The rich were not to give more, nor the poor less (v. 15), to intimate that the souls of the rich and poor are alike precious, and that God is no respecter of persons, Acts. 10:34 ; Job. 34:19 . In other offerings men were to give according to their ability; but this, which was the ransom of the soul, must be alike for all; for the rich have as much need of Christ as the poor, and the poor are as welcome to him as the rich. They both alike contributed to the maintenance of the temple-service, because both were to have a like interest in it and benefit by it. In Christ and his ordinances rich and poor meet together; the Lord is the Maker, the Lord Christ is the Redeemer of them both … “
What does the need for a ransom show? The payment of a ransom showed that Israel was in some form of debt to God that would atone for their lives and redeem what they owed. The monetary ransom itself was not costly: it was only two days of wages, which eventually evolved into the annual temple tax. As Ps 49:7-15 points out, it cannot save a soul from Hell, and only God can save a person from death. The ransom should be paid without money, but what then is the ransom?
1 Peter 1:18-19 states, “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” The ransom will not be made with perishable things like silver or gold, but it is Christ’s atoning sacrifice that saves us from the pit. This links in to our first point: that the ransom is precious, because silver is a precious metal that does not lose weight if it is thrown into the fire, and of course because the blood of Christ is beyond value.
Do not miss how the ransom is personal. Everyone had to pay for the ransom on their own behalf: one could not offer to pool the money and send one person to pay for a few. Each had to account individually for his own atonement, and faith is not transferable.
There was a specific use for the money. The money was used to make atonement for the people, to be put to service in the Tabernacle (Exo 38:25-27), and to lead the people of Israel to remembrance before God. We will read later in Exo 38 that the foundations of the Tabernacle were built using money from the ransom: it was built on the atonement that was paid. Since all the tribes of Israel would gather around the Tabernacle, it became the foundation for those who were gathered, numbered and counted. All these things show that the atonement is the foundation upon which things are called to be holy. This shows the third characteristic of the ransom, that it is foundational.
(C ) Bought at a Price: we are not our own
How are the redeemed of the Lord called to live? We cannot be counted among the Lord’s people unless we pay a ransom. Yet though we have been redeemed it doesn’t mean we’re free to act as we please—redemption is a transfer to ownership to God. This emphasizes how we are not our own.
Our hearts are sinful and deceptive. All our strivings are nothing if not based in God. He promises that His spirit will help us even when we struggle. So much of what we do in church observes this idea of atonement. If we proclaim Christ as atonement, which Christ do we hold up? The one who promises blessings, or the one who came to die for us?
We gather to proclaim one thing: Christ crucified. We can buy health and wealth and money, but not Christ’s sacrifice. On going back to our original question: a Christian is one for whom a price has been paid and now belongs to God. We must strive to line the way for the glory of God, and not our own holiness.