Thursday, April 2, 2009

Freedom and Forgiveness Pt. 2: Forgiveness from the Lips of Jesus

“Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God was at hand, i.e. that God had forgiven Israel of her sins and that he was returning to be her King and her God.”

Someone asked me to provide the scriptural basis for that, particularly for the “God had forgiven Israel of her sins” part, which is fair. It’s just not simple; to understand that statement requires us to delve into the full sweep of Israel’s relationship with Yahweh recorded in the Old Testament. But that's what we're here for, so let's give it a shot.

First of all, that statement refers to collective sin, collective judgment, and collective forgiveness, and that is not a concept that we as Americans understand very well. With our individualist mindsets, we understand sin as something the individual commits, and forgiveness as something the individual must seek and receive.

There is such a thing, however, as national sin and national judgment. Lincoln referred to it in his second inaugural address: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

What is interesting is how little Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the gospels, particularly with regard to God forgiving people of their sins. There are the two incidents I mentioned in the last post, the healing of the paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8 Luke 5:17-26; Mark 2:1-12) and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), where Jesus says to them both, “Your sins are forgiven.” There is Jesus statement about the unavailability of forgiveness for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10). There is Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Supper, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:27-28) Interestingly, Matthew is the only gospel writer who has the words about forgiveness; in Mark and Luke Jesus simply says that it is the blood of the covenant poured out for you (Luke) or for many (Mark.) Paul also does not include the words “for the forgiveness of sins” but simply echoes Mark’s wording (or the other way around, since Paul was probably already martyred before Mark was written). There is Jesus’ prayer on the cross found in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There is Jesus’ statement in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others”, found in basically the same form in both Matthew and Luke. Matthew adds, however, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” tying our forgiveness from God with our willingness to forgive others. The rest of the times we see Jesus speaking about forgiveness, it is about the need for us to forgive one another, and he often links God’s forgiveness to our willingness to forgive others (Matt. 18-21-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37).

You will notice that I’ve not referenced John’s gospel; that is because in John Jesus speaks of forgiveness only once, in 20:23, in a post-resurrection appearance to the disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

There are a couple of other passages where forgiveness is either implied or assumed without the word being used: Matthew 18:15: "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one”; and John 8:24: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he."

But that’s it. That’s all that Jesus had to say about God’s forgiveness. He only spoke about it seven times. The rest of the times he speaks about forgiveness it’s in reference to forgiving one another.

So, if the forgiveness of humanity’s sins by God was such a big part of Jesus’ mission, one is forced to ask why he spoke of it so seldom. Well, as I indicated in my opening statement, I think it was included in the many things that Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God would have meant for a 1st century Jew. And to understand that you need a big-picture understanding of the Old Testament.

© 2009 by Larry L. Eubanks

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