At its worst, it's a Christianese word. It gets thrown around in theological circles and church services. More likely you'd hear its cousin, "Redeemer." As in, "Jesus is my Redeemer." That may be true and correct, but what does it mean? In common usage the statement "Jesus is my Redeemer" doesn't seem to mean anything different than "Jesus is my Savior." It's just a comforting way for me to think that I'm important enough that Jesus died on the cross for me.
And that is good and true. But what does the word "redeem" actually mean?
Last fall I bought 40 acres of land. I remember the first time I saw this plot, about three years ago. I thought, "Why would anyone want that patch of scrub?" In late March I moved onto this piece of land, and I have slept nearly every night since here, mostly in a big-enough-for-me camper. I've come to love this land, though I recognize its shortcomings. It is covered with weeds, including some really nasty ones like thistles and cockleburs. The soil is so sandy it needs rain about every three days or things don't grow well. (This summer has been miserable that way.) The one building on the property is a decrepit metal barn that needs a lot of attention. When I moved in, there was no accessible source of water. There was a ton (literally) of garbage scattered between the barn and the tree rows. There was no functional electricity on the property.
Lots of people had looked at the property and turned up their noses. The listing realtor is a dear friend of mine, and he told me. His authority as listing agent had also expired when I came to buy this land, because nobody wanted it.
That's a lot of what the word "redeem" is about. If something is going to be redeemed, it begins without value.
The only way we use the word "redeem" these days is in regard to coupons. I remember Mom clipping coupons when I was young. We didn't have a lot of money, and coupons stretched the grocery budget considerably. I was amazed that a piece of newsprint, cut (sometimes torn) out of the advertisements, somehow got us a dollar off that box of Cheerios. How was that possible?
When you turn in a coupon, you "redeem" it. You and the grocer make an agreement that the piece of newsprint is valuable. It is not valuable in terms of cash. There is a long, complicated reason why most coupons include a line about "cash value 1/20th of one cent" in the fine print. It's not very interesting. But beyond that, there's no real value to that coupon.
No value, that is, until you redeem it. You take what is of no value, and between you and the grocer you agree that it has value.
In the Old Testament, there is a complicated system around something called a "kinsman redeemer." You see it in the story of Ruth, for example. The idea was that any property (a field, maybe, or a woman) that was unwanted could be redeemed by a close relative. In other words, if that piece of property was considered valueless, the kinsman-redeemer could give it value by claiming it as his own. So Boaz has to jump through some hoops when he wants to marry Ruth (read it, it's a great story) because there's a closer relative that has the right to redeem both Ruth and a certain field. But that relative doesn't want to take on the responsibility, so Boaz and Ruth get married. Ruth was a foreigner, dependent on a widow of no means, unwanted among the Israelites. Boaz redeemed her and declared her valuable.
When I moved into this property, some fantastic friends pitched in and helped me along the way. We cleaned out the barn, dug up rotten posts, hauled a ton of garbage to the dump, replaced a decrepit overhead door on one end of the old metal barn. I invested in a well and a septic system. (You know thing are pretty valueless when an outhouse is a great improvement! The septic system seemed light years ahead.) Bit by bit, it became obvious that some people loved this place. The weeds got sprayed and cut down. We planted a garden. Recently I had the waterhole in the pasture re-dug and expanded, hoping that someday horses may use it. In the meantime, the deer and birds are grateful.
What seemed valueless and unloved has become greatly loved. I've had people ask if I'm interested in selling, because suddenly the property looks valuable. It's being redeemed.
And so we come to the heart of what the word means. At the heart, saying that Jesus is your Redeemer means that once you were without value. You were cast aside, rejected, unwanted. But Jesus declared you valuable. Just like this land, just like that Cheerios coupon, he "deemed" (an old English word meaning to decide, to evaluate) that you were infinitely valuable. You are so valuable that he spent himself, his own authority and his very life, to show how valuable you are.
It's one of the best things about knowing Jesus personally and hanging out with others who know him in that way: You experience, day by day, the reality that you have been redeemed.