The Lord Jesus stated that he came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45)1 and that his blood “is shed for many” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24). The inspired writer of Hebrews also affirmed, “so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many …” (Hebrews 9:28). So did Jesus die only for the sins of some but not for all?
Note the Jewish context of each of these statements as Jesus, the Hebrews author, and their respective audiences all viewed things from a Jewish perspective in light of the Hebrew scriptures. Each of the above statements appears to be an allusion to the prophetic teaching of Isaiah 53, one of the clearest messianic prophecies in the Old Testament,2 wherein God’s messianic servant prophetically “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (v. 12). In both the Hebrew and Aramaic languages there is no word for “all” in the plural, therefore the Hebrew adjective rab (“many”) functions analogously. The sense is not exclusive ('some instead of all') but rather inclusive ('all in contrast to one'), a common semitic idiom.3
The nearest equivalent in the Greek New Testament is polloi (plural of polus), simply denoting the large number of something with no implicit exclusionary contrast.4 For example, when the Lord said, “you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7), the gist of the word “many” (polloi) here is the vast number of sparrows (= “all”), but it certainly does not imply that there are some sparrows of greater value than the Lord’s disciples. To reason otherwise is to force the terminology beyond its customary usage and original intent.
Since the Bible is its own best commentary, note comparable affirmations addressed to non-Jewish audiences (unfamiliar with semitic idioms): “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time…” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). See also Romans 5:18; 8:32; 1 John 4:14.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 All scripture quotations are from the NKJV, with emphasis added in italics.
2 See Matthew 8:17; Mark 15:28; Luke 22:37; John 12:38; Acts 8:30-35; Romans 10:16; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 2:22, 24; cf. 1 John 3:5; Revelation 5:6.
3 D. E. Nineham, The Gospel of Saint Mark (New York: Penguin, 1963): 386. Compare Hebrews 2:9 and 9:28.
4 W. Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies (McLean, VA: MacDonald, n.d.): 268. Note Romans 5:15-19.