I know: true forgiveness is hard.
But as we see over and over in the gospel of Matthew, the forgiveness of sin is central to the mission of Jesus and to the conduct of his followers.
- Consider the Lord’s Prayer: we are taught to pray to God for the forgiveness of our own sins. But note that the language of that prayer suggests that we approach God with that request on the basis of being forgiving people ourselves. And as if to make the point even stronger, Jesus tells his disciples that the Father won’t forgive their sins if they don’t forgive the sins of others (Matt 6:12-15). I don’t think he means that forgiving others earns us God’s forgiveness. But it does suggest that we haven’t really understood what it means to be the recipients of God’s mercy if we’re not in the habit of offering that mercy to others in turn.
- Before Jesus healed the paralytic who had been brought to him by friends (9:1-7), he began by forgiving the man’s sins. This earned him the wrath of some of the onlookers, who accused him of blasphemy. Jesus responded by miraculously healing the man, not just for the paralytic’s sake, but so that others would know that he did indeed possess the divine authority to forgive sins.
- When Peter came to Jesus to ask how many times he had to forgive a brother or sister who had sinned against him, Jesus told the story of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven an astronomical debt by a merciful and compassionate master (18:21-35). This was meant to be a lesson in the nature of God’s kingdom: You received immense mercy; go and do likewise. And the punchline to the story was similar to how Jesus had framed the Lord’s Prayer: don’t expect forgiveness from the Father if you’re not forgiving others from your heart (vs. 35).
- As we remember to pray the Lord’s Prayer, so too do we remember to observe the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gave his disciples the bread which represented his broken body, and then the cup, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (26:27-28, CEB).
John’s gospel, likely written after Matthew’s, has none of this. But what we do have is the resurrected Jesus giving the apostles the Holy Spirit, and then telling them, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven” (John 20:23).
This cannot mean lording their spiritual authority over others. Nor can it mean that they belong to a special club in which they are exempt from having to be merciful toward others, or only have to forgive others when they feel like it. Indeed, quite the contrary: to the extent that they are being sent out to carry on the mission of Jesus in the power of his Spirit, they must embody the character of the man who prayed from the cross for the forgiveness of those who put him there (Luke 23:34).
But what can it mean?
We’ll explore that Thursday, in the final post of this series.