In light of last week’s post, how do we understand “forgiveness of sins”? Jesus says in Matthew 26, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
This is a prime example of the importance of reading an ancient text from the original audience’s context.
In popular Christian parlance, “forgiveness of sins” usually refers to the personal experience an individual has when one repents and asks God’s forgiveness for wicked deeds committed or good deeds omitted. The modern understanding of “forgiveness of sins” is primarily about one’s personal morality and relationship with God.
Within the biblical narrative, “forgiveness of sins” includes this aspect, but is far, far more.
First, “forgiveness of sins” has a primarily Jewish dimension. God’s covenant with Israel warned that idolatry and sin would eventually lead to their exile from the Land he had given them. Israel’s continued idolatry and sin lead to an invasion by Assyria and the northern Kingdom of Israel being led away into captivity by 722 BC. Around 586 BC, Babylon invaded the Kingdom of Judah, destroying the Temple and leading the rest of Israel away into captivity. Like Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden, Israel is exiled from their Land and Temple.
A generation later, a small remnant returns to the Land and eventually rebuilds the Temple. But God’s glory never returns to the Temple as promised and Israel remains under foreign domination. By the time of Jesus, most Jews understood that while they had physically returned to their land, they were still in exile.
God’s covenant with Israel clearly expressed that exile was the result of Israel’s sins. So the return from exile would be God’s “forgiveness of sins.” This phrase virtually became a technical term for Israel’s return from exile. The phrase meant God’s faithfulness to his covenant as he would restore Israel by forgiving their national sins, driving out their foreign oppressors, and returning personally to their Temple. This is how Jesus’ audience heard the phrase.
Second, “forgiveness of sins” has a global dimension. Within God’s covenant with Israel, Israel’s vocation was to be God’s royal priesthood. Through this amplified and restorative version of humanity’s vocation as God’s image-bearer, Israel was to ultimately undo Adam’s sins and rescue the nations from their enslavement to idolatry. So with Israel’s restoration, the “forgiveness of sins” also has a global dimension as the nations are now free to turn from their idolatry, turn to Israel’s God, and be included in God’s restored people. As Psalm 47:9 states, “The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted.”
It is within this Israel-centric and global understanding that “forgiveness of sins” has a personal dimension. Because God has forgiven Israel and therefore forgiven humanity, we may now experience God’s forgiveness of our personal sins. That means Jesus has rescued you and me from our idolatry and sins that continue to enslave and dehumanize us. Jesus has rescued you and me back to our vocation as God’s image-bearers. Our enslavement and exile are over so we may turn from our idolatry and sins and serve the living God as his royal priests in his New Creation.
All of this and more are contained in the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” I’m going to quote heavily from N.T. Wright’s book, The Day The Revolution Began, since he says it far better than I could:
“The larger reality is that something has happened within the actual space, time, and matter, as a result of which everything is different. By six o’clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically. Heaven and earth were brought together, creating the cosmic ‘new temple’: ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in the Messiah’ (2Cor 5:19)…
“Within that new reality, the ‘forgiveness of sins’ was neither simply a personal experience nor a moral command, though it was of course to be felt as the former and obeyed as the latter. It was the name of a new state of being, a new world, the world of resurrection, resurrection itself being the archetypal forgiveness-of-sins moment, the moment when the prison door is flung open, indicating that the jailer has already been overpowered. As Paul said, if the Messiah is not raised, ‘your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins’ (1Cor 15:17).
“‘Forgiveness of sins,’ for the first disciples, was now to be seen as a fact about the way the world was, a fact rooted in the one-off accomplishment of Jesus’ death, then revealed in his resurrection, and then put to work through the Spirit in the transformed lives of his followers. Forgiveness of sins became another way of saying ‘Passover’ or ‘new Exodus.’ Or, as in Isaiah 54-55, following hard on the heels of the kingdom announcement of chapter 52 and the ‘servant’s’ work in chapter 53, it would come to mean ‘new covenant’ and ‘new creation.’ The gospel was the announcement of this new reality.”
Wright continues to say that this new reality, was designed to find its ultimate fulfillment in the imminent new creation, the new heavens and new earth in which Ephesians 1:10 describes as God’s plan to unite all things in the Messiah, things in heaven and on earth. He then continues:
“The final scene in Revelation (chaps. 21–22) spells it out: the new heavens and new earth function as the ultimate Temple, the new world in which God will wipe away all tears from all eyes. First Corinthians 15 describes the accomplishment of this final reality under the image of the messianic battle: Jesus, having already conquered sin and death, will reign until these and all other enemies are totally destroyed. Romans 8 describes it as the birth of the new creation from the womb of the old, weaving into that great metaphor a powerful allusion to the events of the Exodus, so that creation itself will have its own ‘Exodus’ at last, being set free from its slavery to corruption and sharing the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified. That is the ultimate hope.
“All of this is the ‘goal’ of God’s rescue operation accomplished through Jesus. All of this is in direct fulfillment of the ancient hopes of Israel: it is all ‘according to the Bible’—though it was quite unexpected.”
So while forgiveness of sin has an extremely important personal dimension, it is wrapped up in a new reality that is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Israel and transforms the cosmos. And thus our personal lives are swept up into the God’s larger story and purpose for his creation.