What Does Salvation Really Mean? (Part Two)

In part one of this study on salvation, I wrote about the confusion that we 21st century folks run into when we read the Bible.  We often read meanings into words that are really not there in the original languages.   Even when we do understand the original meanings of the words, we often add meanings
from our 21st century Christian traditions that the author of those words never intended to convey. We do this so easily that we are not even aware of it.

The word “salvation” is a prime example.  When many Christians hear the word salvation, they tend to think of God’s actions in forgiving our sins, giving us His Divine life and placing us in his family.  While it is true that God does all these things for us, the Biblical word salvation in both the Old and New Testaments simply means “rescue.”  I think it is important to reclaim the true Biblical definitions of words like “salvation”, “repentance” and “kingdom” to help us remove the layers of religious tradition that cover and obscure the powerful truths of the scriptures.

Here in part two of this study on the Biblical meaning of the term salvation, I want us to briefly look at the use of the word “salvation” in the Old Testament and then move back to the New Testament again.   

Old Testament Words for Salvation

In the Old Testament Hebrew there are three words that are most often translated salvation (I have included the numbers from Strong’s Concordance for reference):

  • Yeshuwah (Strongs 3444) “deliverance”, “victory”, “health” “salvation” (closely related to  the name Yeshuwa , Strongs 3442, which is the name of ten individuals in the Old Testament, and closely related to the name Jesus in the New Testament).  This word appears 63 times in the Old Testament.  Here is one example from Isaiah 12:2:

"Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.
 The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense;
 he has become my salvation.” (ESV)

  • Yesha’ (Strongs 3468) “deliverance.”  This noun appears 36 times in the Old Testament.  One appearance is Psalm 50:23, 

            “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”  (ESV)

  • Teshu’ah (Strongs 8668) “deliverance.”  Teshu’ah occurs 34 times in the Old Testament.  One example is Isaiah 45:17, 

         “But Israel is saved by the Lord with everlasting salvation; you shall not be put to shame or confounded for all eternity.”  (ESV)

The root Hebrew word for all three of these words is yasha, meaning “to be saved”, and “to be delivered” in the niphal form, and meaning “save, deliver, give victory, help, be safe, take vengeance, or preserve” in the hiphal form. 

The derivatives of yasha are these:

  • Yesha = salvation, deliverance
  • Yeshua = salvation
  • Shoa = independent, noble
  • Mosha’a = saving acts (Psalm 68:21)
  • Teshua = salvation, deliverance

According to Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (edited by Harris, Archer and Waltke), yasha and its derivatives are used 353 times in the Old Testament, and  “…the majority of references to salvation speak of Yahweh granting deliverance from real enemies and out of real catastrophes.”  (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Volume 1, p.414)

The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the words soteria and soterion (meaning salvation, preservation, deliverance) to translate those three Hebrew words.  We looked at those words in our last study.

So there is no overt religious meaning to the Hebrew words translated as “salvation” in our English Old Testament.  The word simply means to be rescued  or delivered from danger.   It is applied to God as Savior in the Old Testament when He delivers his covenant people from physical enemies, from sickness and from physical destruction.

New Testament Concepts of Salvation

It is in the New Testament that the concept of salvation is broadened to include rescue from spiritual enemies and conditions as well as from physical enemies.   Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as the one who will rescue (save) us from our sins.  The angel tells Joseph that his wife Mary “…will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:21)  Sin is a spiritual enemy - it is disobedience to God in our thoughts, words and actions.  

Luke records these words of Jesus, in talking about his own mission, “For the son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10).  The immediate context there is that Jesus saved a man named Zaccheus from greed.  Zaccheus was lost in the sense that he was so caught up in the sin of greed that he was unable to find and pursue his God-given purpose.  Zaccheus was a corrupt tax collector who was taking profits for himself and stealing from the people.  After his encounter with Jesus, Zaccheus vowed to give half of his money to the poor and to restore four times all of what he had stolen from the people.  Jesus remarked, “Today salvation has come to this house.”   What was Zaccheus saved from?  He was saved from his own selfishness and greed.  So this is a clear example of rescue from a spiritual enemy, not a physical one.  Again, in this passage, the term “salvation” has nothing to do with “going to heaven” or “escaping from hell” as we so often hear about in Christian circles today.

We saw in our last study that the Greek word translated “save” or “saved” in the gospels can also mean rescue from sickness as well as rescue from sin and rescue from national judgment. 

Let’s move on now to the book of Acts.  The book of Acts was written by Luke, and it chronicles the development of the early church through the lives of Peter and Paul and other followers of Jesus.   In Acts chapter two we read of a remarkable event where the Holy Spirit of God comes upon 120 believers gathered in prayer in Jerusalem.   Due to God's powerful presence, supernatural manifestations begin to take place and a crowd quickly gathers.  Peter speaks to the crowd and he points them to Jesus, the man who was just crucified and has risen from the dead.   He declares that Jesus is the promised Messiah (anointed one), God has exalted him by raising him from the dead, and God has made him Lord (ruler) of the world.  (Acts 2:32-36).  In this message Peter also quotes from an Old Testament prophet named Joel when he repeats this line from Joel:

“Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”   (Acts 2:21).   

If we go back and read the passage in Joel, (2:32) we find out that Joel was predicting a great national judgment against the land of Israel that would come through the invasion of foreign armies, but that those who called upon the name of the Lord (prayed to the Lord) would be rescued (saved) from that judgment.  Joel goes on to say in verse 33, “For in mount Zion (a section of Jerusalem) and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.”   So the phrase, “those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” is intended by Joel to represent those who escape this national judgment through prayer and trust in the Lord.

Peter takes this passage and applies it under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to the supernatural events taking place that day in Jerusalem in 30 AD, (or 33 AD, whichever timeline you prefer) and he tells us later in the passage what the people are being saved from:

Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”  (Acts 2:40).   

Peter was telling the people that by trusting in Jesus as their Messiah they could be rescued from the sinfulness and corruption of their present generation.   He may also have been suggesting that by calling upon the name of Jesus, the people would be rescued from the judgment that was about to come upon that generation of Jewish people in Jerusalem.  We know that the promised judgment did come about 40 years later when the Roman armies under Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in 70 AD. (This destruction of the Jewish Temple is exactly what Jesus had predicted would happen in his Olivet discourse in the gospel of Matthew chapter 24.) 

In another powerful passage in the book of Acts, Peter and some other disciples of Jesus have been arrested by the Jewish religious leaders. The Jesus-followers (who were also devout Jews) had healed a lame man using the Name of Jesus, and they were proclaiming that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  This greatly angered the Sadducees (Jewish religious leaders who did not believe in the resurrection in general, much less in the resurrection of the Jewish rabbi Jesus).   The next day the Jewish religious leaders held a hearing and the man who was miraculously healed was standing there with the disciples.   The religious leaders want to know what power the disciples used to heal the lame man.  Peter tells them,

“…let it be known to all of you and to the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Messiah of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him, this man is standing before you well.   This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”    (Acts 4:10-12)

When Peter used the term salvation here, and connected it with the name of Jesus, he is saying that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  He is also connecting Jesus with the messianic expectation of national salvation for Israel.  His listeners were not thinking, “oh  yeah – salvation – that means my sins can be forgiven so I can go to heaven!”   The idea of salvation in second temple Judaism (the Jewish religion of the time) was more of a corporate and political salvation – to them it meant that the land of Israel would be rescued from Roman oppression, the temple would be restored to its former glory, and their Messiah-King would come and restore the political independence and military strength of the nation of Israel like it was under the reign of David.   In other words “salvation” was connected with the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) and the “restoration of the Kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6) that the devout Jewish people of that time were looking forward to.   We don’t have space to develop these ideas in greater depth here, but the Jewish concept of “God's salvation” at the time was corporate and political.  These are all thoughts that would have come to Peter’s listeners when they heard him use the term “salvation”.

I think that Peter himself was beginning to understand that Jesus was not a political Messiah but a spiritual one.  He had come to rescue those who trusted in Him from their sin and from the coming national judgment.  He had not promised that he would restore the political kingdom to Israel, but He had promised the provision of His Spirit to indwell his followers and produce the life of His spiritual Kingdom within their hearts and lives. (see Acts 1:6-8)  It was this new life within them that would rescue his followers from sin, disease and spiritual imprisonment.  Not only were his followers saved from these things - they were brought into a new life of liberty and purpose, being carriers of the very life and love of God.  In our next study we’ll look at the term salvation in the remainder of the New Testament.


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