Forgiven and Forgiving – Pt. 3

Posted: February 10, 2014 in Bible Study, Bible Study - Matthew, Discipleship, Misused Bible verses
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This is the third of four in this series on forgiveness, shared at the Flinders ES Summer Series over January and February this year. Part one is here and Part two is here

3. The freedom to be forgiven

Where we have come so far:
  1. Forgiveness is of utmost importance; without it there is no reconciliation between us and God, nor between us and our neighbour. (Matthew 5:43-48)
  2. Knowing God’s forgiveness is of primary importance if we are to be forgiving people; without this assurance our forgiveness of others will at best be partial and at worst, absent. (Genesis 4:1-16)
  3. The Law shows us that forgiveness from the Father is conditional on perfect righteousness; the Gospel declares to us that Jesus has met this condition on our behalf in his death and resurrection, and so forgiveness comes to us as a free gift of grace. (Romans 3:22-27)
  4. Knowledge of this lavish grace of God in cancelling our unimaginably unpayable debt should inevitably lead us to show mercy towards others. (Matthew 18:21-35)
 The grace of being forgiven

The matter of forgiveness of our neighbour affects us from two directions as persons:

  1. The need to know forgiveness from those we have offended
  2. The need to offer forgiveness to those who have offended us

Jesus deals with the first scenario in Matthew 5:21-26:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. ’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool! ’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:21-26 ESV)

This passage falls into three sections, and sometimes we may only deal with one in isolation from the others, however Jesus is presenting this as a unified approach to being forgiven by your brother.

21-22

As with his teaching later in this sermon on prayer, we need to initially see this in the sense of the first use of the Law: something that reveals our sin and our inability to attain to this standard of righteousness. We cannot absolve ourselves from the guilt of breaking the 6th commandment (Exodus 20:13) by simply saying, ‘I have not killed anyone, therefore I am not a murderer.’ Jesus raises the bar to the level of thoughts of anger and rashly spoken words. Immediately this makes everyone guilty of murder. And while we may be taken to an earthly court (the council) for the crime of slander (‘rhaka’ literally means ‘You worthless one’ or ‘you empty person.’  – the most extreme form of vilification of the day, implying a complete absence of any moral virtue.), the ‘lesser’ crime of calling someone a fool (‘moros’, from which we get the word ‘moron’, simply saying someone is less intelligent than I) is still seen by God as serious enough to warrant the fire of Hell!

23-24

However, Jesus’s command does not immediately seem to flow logically. ‘So’ means that what he says is a direct application of verse 22, but while we might expect him to say, ‘…if you remember that you have something against your brother…’ he instead says, ‘…your brother has something against you…’. Who, in this scenario, is guilty of the sin of murder through their anger/slander?

Jesus also gives this example in a very specific setting – as you are offering your gift at the altar. For the Jew, the altar was the place of forgiveness. Their offerings, unlike the pagan sacrifices, were not bribes to manipulate God to do what they want. Rather, the sacrificial system was a gift to them from God to be an illustration, a ‘multi-sensory’ experience, that spoke to them of two things:

  • The seriousness of sin – in that a life must be taken to pay for it, and
  • The grace of God in granting forgiveness on the basis of a substitutionary death (which all pointed to the cross of Jesus).

The worshipper was to both approach and leave the Temple with a profound sense of gratitude for God’s mercy to them in forgiving them.

Jesus is anticipating His own fulfilment of the Law in this command. The righteous demand of the law has been met by him; and so it is his action in the cross that becomes that basis for the Father forgiving and accepting us. This then become the basis for forgiveness between us and our neighbour. If God is the ultimate judge of my sin, then He is also the ultimate judge of my neighbour’s sin; if all my sin may be forgiven by the Father on the basis of Jesus’ sacrifice, then all of my neighbour’s sin – including those against me – may also be forgiven on the same basis. So, in light of the cross, I have no grounds for holding any sin against my neighbour; who am I to say that Jesus’ sacrifice was not enough to deal with that one sin?

The Gospel gives a glorious freedom not just from the judgement we deserve, but from the sinful tendency to be judgemental of others.

It is this setting of grace that Jesus calls us to desire the same experience of grace for our brother or sister – our neighbour. How can we know the joy of the Father’s forgiveness and not desire that others may share in that joy? Even more so, how can we even consider that our actions may, in some way, have caused our brother to stumble into sin and lose their joy by having a reason to be angry with us?

Jesus is highlighting here the radical other-person-centred ethic of the Law. Someone who has been set free by grace to love the Law will be acting in concern for the spiritual well-being of others even before their own! What is more important: That you fulfill a ‘religious duty’ at the temple (or church), or that you facilitate the reconciliation of your neighbour to their brother or sister (you), and to God?

25-26

Jesus then stress that true reconciliation is personal, not merely functional. The goal of the Law is not justice for justice’s sake, but love for God and neighbour. The whole process of going to court may result in justice being done (ie. you end up in prison until you pay the fine), but it will not result in love. Your accuser will be repaid for the harm you caused, but they may still remain your enemy. Rather, seeking personal reconciliation before you even go to court opens the way for love, and for your neighbour to know the joy of being able to forgive, and thus have a clear conscience before God.

The high call of being forgiven

It is probably true that accepting forgiveness is sometimes harder than offering it.

Firstly, it requires an open, humble acknowledgement before our neighbour of our own sin, with a genuine desire that they will agree with us about the sinfulness of our actions. This is necessary if their forgiveness is to be genuine, yet it carries a risk that they will not take that second step instead of holding on to their resentment. Are we prepared to take that risk?

Secondly, it requires accepting their offered forgiveness even when we cannot know the full motives of their own heart; it means moving forward to relate to them as a friend instead of an enemy. Are we prepared to invest in an ongoing relationship with them, rather than seeing this as merely a way to ease our own conscience and to avoid having to think about them again?

Thirdly, being forgiven places on us the responsibility to give freely to others what has been freely given to us. “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.’ (Matthew 7:12). The indication that our seeking forgiveness is not just a quick-fix for our conscience is that we practice the same level of grace that we require of others.

All three of these ‘hurdles’ can only be overcome through the Gospel, and a renewed and transformed heart that has been born again by the working of the Holy Spirit as He applies to us the benefits of Jesus’ cross and resurrection.

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