Forgiven and Forgiving – Pt. 4

Posted: February 19, 2014 in Bible Study, Bible Study - Matthew, Discipleship, Misused Bible verses
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Threat of excommunication to thieves of books in the library of the university of Salamanca

Threat of excommunication to thieves of books in the library of the university of Salamanca.

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3

The freedom to forgive

Offering forgiveness through the Gospel

John 20:19-23 is what some Bible Scholars have called, ‘John’s Pentecost’:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)

It is, in a sense, a ‘preemptive strike by Jesus, in anticipation of the day of Pentecost. John’s Gospel opened with language to takes the reader right back to Genesis 1: ‘In the beginning …God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1) / …was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’ (John 1:1)

Here, Jesus’ actions in breathing on his disciples mirror the ending of Genesis 1:1, ‘…the Spirit of God (Hebrew: great wind, breath) was hovering over the waters.’ Jesus’ death and resurrection has brought about the New Creation, in which the Spirit comes in power as He did in the beginning, this time to never be taken away from those who are pert of the new humanity in Christ. And, just as the Spirit was at work in the dark, formless void to bring forth a creation with order and goodness as the Father spoke the word of command, and the Son – the Word – joyfully obeyed so that ‘all things were created through Him and for Him’ (Colossians 1:16), so now the Spirit is at work to bring order out of the chaos of darkness and death that sin and sinners have brought about in this world. This action of bringing order from chaos is the action of forgiveness.

This passage is also John’s ‘Great Commission.’ Jesus sends his disciples into the world, just as the Father sent Him, and in the same way that Jesus could declare to people, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ (Luke 5:20, 7:48) our commission is to likewise declare the forgiveness of sins through the proclamation of the Gospel. Yet it is more than just declaration; it is the practice of forgiveness. Jesus makes it clear that their action will actually produce the result of forgiveness in people’s lives: ‘…if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ (v. 23).

It is important to see here that this is not the giving of spiritual power of one person over another, implying that someone could effectively determine another individual’s salvation. This commission is given corporately to the disciples, and through their apostolic authority, to the whole church. The mission of the church is to herald the Gospel among the nations, to those who have not yet heard, so that they too may call on the Lord and be saved. This is a solemn duty. Without the proclamation of the Gospel, people will not know the forgiveness that come by Christ; and so to withhold our proclamation is effectively to cut them off from God’s grace. The two verbs in this verse are effectively, ‘send forth’ and ‘hold back’, which convey the contrasting images of generosity and mean spiritedness.

So, God’s forgiveness comes to people in the context of Gospel proclamation and application. As we saw in the last study, true Christian forgiveness must always be in the basis of Jesus’ atoning death. Our sins may be forgiven not because God no longer considers them to be serious enough for Him to judge, but because the God-Man Jesus has taken upon Himself the terrible judgement our sins deserve, and so they have been cancelled out. And so just as the Gospel is the basis for forgiveness, so also a Gospel that is proclaimed without the declaration and assurance of forgiveness through faith in Jesus is not a real Gospel.

Forgiveness is both a personal and corporate act

Jesus rarely gave methodological instruction (ie. a step-by-step process) in his moral teaching, as opposed to general principles, however in the area of forgiveness he seems very precise, as we saw last time with his instructions on seeking forgiveness from another (Matthew 5:21-26), and later in his instructions about offering forgiveness:

“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. ’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:15-20)

The matter of unforgiveness may start on a personal level, but it has implications for the community of the church. Two people who are in Christ are united to one another and to all the member of the church, and so a division between individuals really constitutes a division in the body. Sadly, personal disputes, especially among leaders, have been the catalyst for church splits and even dissolution; but this is a situation not of differences in theology, methodology or opinion, but of action that can be clearly identified as sin.

Verse 15

The aim of speaking privately between the two is not about justice, but reconciliation. The NIV, maybe to avoid gender specific language, misses this personal dimension; the text literally says, ‘…you have gained your brother.’ It is not about winning the argument, or proving who was in the wrong, but winning the relationship. By seeking to deal with the matter privately, I avoid bearing false witness against my neighbour (The 9th commandment, Exodus 20:16) Forgiveness here is not merely settling or neutralising a matter and agreeing to not let it bother us again. It must result in a transformation of the relationship from hostility to love.

Verse 16

Jesus invokes the Law (Deuteronomy 19:15), as he frequently does, which doesn’t just give a justification for getting others involved in an unresolved issue, but an assurance that God is present in all His authority when His Word is honoured in this way, which is why he assures us in verse 20, ‘For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.’ (A promise that really has very little to do with poorly attended church prayer meetings!)

This step does not necessarily mean that my case will be ‘proven in my favour’. The witnesses may show my brother or sister their sin more clearly, or their perspective may help me see things differently, and in that sense the ‘witnesses’ may also be ‘mediators’.

Verse 17

As we saw above, unresolved division between individuals affects the church whether we like (or notice) it or not. This is not a name-and-shame exercise; in fact the language implies (‘tell it to,’ not ‘bring him before’) that the offender may not be present. It is an open explanation of a rift that has happened, and which may have caused ripples of unease among the community. It is also a confession of my own weakness; because I have been unable to effect reconciliation with my brother or sister, I now need the help of the community – my family – to work out that reconciliation on my behalf.

The final step is not ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance. We need to remember that the one recording the words, ‘…let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,’ was himself a tax collector until he was confronted with and called by Jesus. It would be a bizarre thing if Matthew were to include in his Gospel an instruction that meant that he himself had no right to be a disciple, let alone an Apostle and writer of Scripture! Jesus himself showed by example what the right approach is for a child of God towards ‘these people’ – love, mercy and compassion, mixed with a firmness about sin, and the call to repent and believe. Excommunication is always with the aim of reconciliation; it does not even mean exclusion from meetings.

Verses 18-20

Three parallel promises give us assurance of both the importance of seeking reconciliation through forgiveness. Verse 18 is a parallel verse to John 20:23, emphasising that forgiveness is communicated, and even mediated to us through our brothers and sisters as we living in a Gospel shaped community. (It has nothing to do with demons and ‘spiritual warfare’). Verse 19 is not about a technique for effective prayer, but an assurance that God the Father stands behind His word, and when His word is spoken and applied (here it is the command in Deuteronomy 19:15 about witnesses) we may be confident that He is active through His word. (See Isaiah 55:10-11) The Father will achieve the purpose for which He spoke His word and bring resolution. We need to be ready to accept the resolution His word brings; it may be personal reconciliation with our brother or sister, or it may simply be a clarification about their spiritual state and their willingness to submit to the message of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 24:47)

Paul gives some very confronting guidance to the Corinthians, who faced disputed with one another that seemed to them resolvable only by going to court:

If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. (1 Corinthians 6:1-8)

Again this emphasises relationships over personal justice. Are we willing – even happy – once the church community is acting in loving discipline towards our brother or sister, to just leave it, even if it involves great personal loss? When we are commanded, ‘…if one has a complaint against another, [forgive] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13) are we willing to forgive in the same way that we have been forgiven? God, in forgiving us, bore in himself at the cross, the great cost that our sin incurred. Similarly, if we are to reflect the grace of Jesus, forgiveness and reconciliation with our brothers and sister may well be a great personal cost; yet what we gain in return is far greater by comparison.

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Comments
  1. Trevor says:

    very good James. Thanks. These quality insights out-teach a lot of unclear teaching regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, especially a lot of the nonsense that takes place within a congregation.

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