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. (Matthew 6.14-15)
Hello everyone. This week, you’ve caught me out west, doing a nine-day series in a university town for a small church. I was recently reminded of this verse by a confused (but sincere) soul who was genuinely wrestling with his beliefs. Does God, he wondered, really relate to us in the way we see Jesus relating to those he came into contact with? I can’t tell you how many times over the last twenty years I have met dear people struggling with this week’s verse. So, what do we do? Well, here’s an eSight on it for starters.
First, let’s start off on the right footing. After three years of being mentored by Jesus, one of Jesus’ closest disciples summed up the revelation of God we get through Jesus in three words: “God is love.” (I John 4.8) John goes on to say that “We love, because He first loved us.” This is the principle that love can only be awakened by love. It cannot be coerced, manipulated, or contrived. It can only be awakened, and it can only be awakened by encountering love itself.
This is just as true of forgiveness. We forgive others because He first forgave us. But how many of you reading this week have struggled for your entire lives to believe that God truly forgives you?
Many who read our featured passage interpret it in ways that lead them into a sick, downward-spiraling cycle of thinking: “I can’t forgive. So I know God doesn’t forgive me.”
Let’s back up and make sure we correctly understand Jesus’ words here.
A text that is presented without its cultural context is a sure sign that we are being conned. What was it, exactly, that Jesus was addressing? I want to go on record as believing that Jesus was not speaking about the paradigm our own privatized, individual, and personal sins through which many of us today read this passage. When Jesus speaks of forgiveness here, He is referring to the Hebrew definition of forgiveness in His day. “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished, he will keep you in exile no longer…” (Lamentations 4.22) When Jesus spoke of “forgiveness,” His audience was not the patrons to the philosophy of Western Individualism that many are today. They would not have heard, “God will forgive my private, individual sins.” They would have understood Jesus as saying, “If we want to our exileto be lifted, if we want the sins of Israel to be forgiven, the pathway out of this is not the road of eye-for-an-eye, militaristic, violent revolt against Rome, such as Judah Maccabee led our ancestors in against the Greeks. The pathway to the restoration of Israel is through embracing the Romans, loving the Romans, and forgiving the Romans, all on our own initiative. This nonviolent Messiah, by preaching restorative justice, is teaching that we are not going to see Israel restored by defeating these Romans, but rather by winning them over, so that they will follow this radically different Messiah too!”
Now whether Jesus’ audience would buy into this or not was yet to be seen. But this is what Jesus was saying. Jesus was offering them what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who learned of this idea from Jesus) called a “double victory”—a victory in which Israel would not only win its “freedom,” but would win Rome “with it.” (See King’s A Christmas Sermon for Peace. Sunday, December 24, 1967.)
Yet, the very real fear among those listening to Jesus’ teachings was that Rome, instead of responding to their forgiveness and their enemy-embracing love, would simply take advantage of it, using it to walk all over Israel even more frequently. Jesus’ audience was tempted to fear that Jesus was planning to turn Israel into Rome’s doormat.
As Jesus both assured and warned them, “If you forgive others their trespasses [e.g., the Romans], your heavenly Father will also forgive you [Your exile will be lifted!]; but if you do not forgive others [the Romans], neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [You will remain in your present state or possibly worse.] (Matthew 6.14-15)
We know from this side history that Jesus’ audience chose not to believe in him (c.f., John 3.16-17). They chose the path of violence, of eye-for-an-eye, retaliation, and retributive justice. They chose, instead of following Jesus, to take the broad pathway that ends in destruction. They chose not the way of enemy-forgiveness, but the way of war. From A.D. 66-69, there would be a Jewish-Roman War that would climax in the horrific nightmare of Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70. (See Josephus’ War of the Jews.) Jesus’ words of Matthew 6.14-15 would come true. (See also the parable in Matthew 18.23-35, and remember that Jesus is speaking of His audience’s attitude toward the Romans.)
So if Jesus wasn’t talking about individual, privatized sin in Matthew 6, where does he teach about that?
Well, actually, he spent his whole life putting that teaching on display: from the woman caught in adultery, to whom before she repented, Jesus whispered, “I am not condemning you,” to the woman at the well, to whom he said, “I know everything about you and my offer is still on the table.” Jesus walked the Earth displaying the radical and—to some—“dangerous” favor of God. The God that Jesus reveals is not one who is against us, and who must be won through our groveling and repentance. Instead, Jesus reveals a God who is and always has been for us, on our side. This God forgives us, for we know not what we do, and seeks to win us away from our current path, which will in death, and guide us to the path, narrow as it may be, that resembles Jesus (see John 14.6) and that ends in life.
Wanna know what Jesus taught about individual, privatized sin? Go back and contemplate His words to the paralytic. Jesus offers this man no “if/then” conditions. Instead, He initiates the man’s healing by introducing him to the truth: “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 5.20, c.f., 5.23; 7.48)
What Jesus is offering us in Matthew 6 is the beginning of a whole new world changed by the reign of Jesus. With our forgiving of others, God will make sure that what we have done to others will be forgiven by them. Jesus is not saying that God will harbor ill feelings toward you until you muster up enough strength to forgive others. He is saying that by our letting others off the hook, by believing the best about them, by giving them second chances, and by seeking to restore the rights of other victims rather than always defending our own, we are creating a new world. We are setting into motion a more forgiving world where through our forgiveness, the forgiveness in others is awakened. One day, this forgiveness will work its way back into the hearts of those whom we have offended. Then, God will be able to win them, too, into this new world, so that they may forgive us.
Some will say they highly doubt that they will see such a change in the world in their own lifetimes, and that may be true. But, in the words of the famous Stevie Wonder song, “Maybe not in time for you and me, but someday,” this world will be renewed. We should live our lives, putting on display what a world changed by Jesus will look like, hoping against all hope that Christ will one day reign unobstructed here again: a world where God’s Kingdom of love has come, on Earth, like it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6.10; 5.5) If we have passed on and are not alive to see that day that we have all lived and died to see come to fruition, we need not despair. We have been promised to be resurrected and to live in that Kingdom, here on Earth, forever. (Revelation 21.3)
For today, remember that faith in what we do not see is not about the existence of God or a place called Heaven. It is about believing that Christ’s Kingdom has come, that Earth has a new King, and that one day, the only world that will remain is a world where love reigns. (Matthew 28.18-19) Even when we look around and “see” very little evidence, one day it will all be so. (Acts 3.21; 1 Corinthians 15-25-28)
1. This week, I want you prayerfully come up with five names: five people who are fulfilling the role of “the Romans” in your life today.
2. I want you to dedicate time each day, for the next seven days, to praying blessings on them. You don’t have to feel anything positive for them in your heart, yet. Just pray for them. Take notes of the fears and the “what-ifs” that surface in your heart. Write those down. Submit them to Jesus and then stop, watch, and listen to what He says about each one.
3. Share what Jesus shows you concerning the forgiveness of others with your HeartGroup in this upcoming week.
Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns,
I love you guys.
See you next week.