What is forgiveness? (Matthew 9:5-6)

If you think of forgiveness as dealing with your personal guilt, you’ve only got part of the story.

Open Matthew 9:5-6.

Jubilee. What a joyful word! It’s the Hebrew word yôbēl carried over into English.

The way God designed it, Israel’s economy was to be reset every 50 years. Slaves would be freed. Debts would be forgiven. Property sold in tragedy would be returned. Obligations would be released.

A couple of centuries before Jesus, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, and they chose an interesting word for yôbēl. It’s Greek word ἄφεσις (AH-fe-sis), meaning forgiveness. That’s right: in the Septuagint, the Jubilee year was known as the Forgiveness year.

That’s foreign to us. In our culture, forgiveness means no longer having to feel guilty. When a friend forgives my “bad”, I no longer need to feel guilty about it, though I may still struggle to “forgive myself.” For us, forgiveness is primarily about something that happens inside of me: it’s about whether I still have guilt feelings.

It meant something quite different in Jesus’ world. His culture wasn’t focused on the individual and my feelings, but on the community and communal obligations. In doing something wrong, I brought shame on myself, my family, my friends, and my village. I had a social obligation to set things right. I may also have to a legal obligation, a debt of restitution.

In Old Testament times, the elders would sit at the town gates. As you returned home, they would stop you, along with the person you had aggrieved. Together, you would negotiate an agreement on how to meet your obligation. Once you’d complied, you were released from your obligation.

If you were unable to meet your obligation, you may be given time to comply, in which case you were not yet forgiven. But what if you had no chance to satisfy the person you had wronged? If they were unusually generous, they could forgive you, i.e. they could revoke your obligation in this matter. More likely, they could sell off your assets and require you to work without pay (as a slave) for as long as it took to meet your obligation.

So slavery was permitted in the Old Testament, but only until the debt was discharged, with a maximum of 7 years. You were then released from your obligation. And when the Jubilee year came round, everybody was released.

That’s what forgiveness meant in Jesus’ world: release from obligation. The verb forgive in the New Testament is ἀφίημι (a-FEE-em-ee). It had several meanings; most of the time it’s translated in the more general sense of releasing or leaving. It can be as neutral as saying that the fishermen left their nets to follow Jesus (4:20, 22).

In other contexts, it has the more specific meaning of release from obligation:

Matthew 6:12–15 (ESV)
12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. … 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

The debt is an obligation, whether financial or social. According to Jesus, if we do not release people from their unmet obligations to us, we can’t expect our heavenly Father to release us from our unmet obligations to him. We will never know what it’s like to be the community that’s released from our unmet obligations to our sovereign (forgiven) if we don’t release each other from our unmet obligations (forgiving).

In a kingdom, people incur obligations not only to each other, but also to their sovereign. The kingdom was established by means of a covenant. The covenant stipulated the obligations of the people towards their king and the obligations of the king towards his people (Exodus 6:6-8; 19:4-6; 24:3-7; Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4-5 etc.).

But what happens when the covenant people fail to meet their obligations? Built into the covenant was a mechanism for maintaining relationship between the sovereign and his people, by offering gifts (sacrifices). But what if they reject their sovereign, refuse to follow him, refuse their obligations, or completely violate the covenant by giving themselves to other rulers instead? What will their heavenly sovereign do then?

The heavenly sovereign’s most common response was to send a messenger (prophet) to remind the people of their obligations, promising forgiveness (release from unmet obligations) if they return to him, warning of the dire consequences if they persist in refusing to meet their covenant obligations.

There is a really tragic way to release someone from their obligation. It’s called divorce. It is a release from obligation, but it’s the opposite of what we think of as forgiveness. Nevertheless, the word ἀφίημι is be used for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:11-13. We need to understand ἀφίημι as release, particularly release from obligation.

According to Jeremiah 3:8, God had divorced Israel (the northern confederacy of the divided kingdom), and the bit of the nation that was left (Judah) was in such flagrant violation of her covenant obligations that it looked like she might end up with a similar fate. We’ve already seen that God is not the kind of king to force himself on people, so he gives his people what they want. The Babylonian exile was God giving his bride over to live with other rulers instead of him, because that’s what she wanted.

In Jesus’ time, God had left them under foreign rulers for six centuries. Is the marriage even recoverable after that kind of separation? Had the covenant violation been so great that she could never be released from her obligation (forgiven)?

That’s the issue Jesus is addressing when he makes this astounding claim:

Matthew 9:6 (NIV)
But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.

What? This particular Jewish man has been given the authority to release his people from the devastating and enduring effects of centuries of unmet covenant obligations? That’s an enormous claim!

But it’s even bigger than that! Jesus has the authority to release the earth from the enslavement to sin, millennia of humans failing to meet their obligations to the heavenly king.

If you think of forgiveness as overcoming your personal guilt feelings, you’ve missed the point really. Yes, it includes you, but the message is much bigger than you. It’s the restoration of the earth as the kingdom of God. That’s the authority Jesus has!

So what?

Why does this matter? If you get this wrong, you’ll be frustrated that people don’t feel the guilt they should be feeling before God. Your preaching (or your gospel proclamation) will therefore be aimed at inducing the feelings of guilt that you think the gospel saves them from. Swapping the world-changing good news of King Jesus for invoking personal guilt is a serious mistake.


What others are saying

Carey Nieuwhof. Three Things Christians Do That Non-Christians Despise, 2017

It doesn’t take long for non-Christians to tell you how much they hate the way Christians judge other people.
Another two minutes on social media will reveal Christians and preachers condemning unchurched people for their sexual habits and preferences, life-style choices and even political views. I doubt this is what Jesus had in mind when he gave his life in love for the world. …
I realized years ago that very few people get judged into life change. Far more get loved into it.

Matthew W. Bates. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 4–5:

The Jewish general Josephus, in his autobiographical recounting of the events of the Jewish-Roman war in AD 66, reports an incident where he urged a rebel leader to “repent and believe in me,” using language nearly identical to what we find in the Gospel of Mark with respect to Jesus’s proclamation, “The kingdom of God is near! Repent and believe the good news” (1: 15). Our own cultural experiences might lead us to think that “repent” means to turn away from private sins such as adultery, greed, and exploitation. Meanwhile, in Christian circles “believe” is so often linked to Jesus and the forgiveness of sins that it may be hard to weigh what it means in this example featuring Josephus. But Wright’s point is that Josephus was not trying to convince this rebel to turn away from private sins or to “believe” that God can forgive, rather Josephus wanted this man to join him in supporting the Jewish cause— that is, as I would put it, to show allegiance. So, what “repent and believe in me” means for Josephus in this context is “turn away from your present course of action and become loyal to me.”

H. Leroy. “ἀφίημι” in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990–), 181-182:

ἀφίημι   aphiēmi   let go, leave, leave alone, release, forgive …

The word has a wide variety of meanings in the NT: a) release, dismiss, leave, … b) leave behind, … c) leave alone, … d) permit, allow,

The noun ἄφεσις is used in the sense of forgiveness in the LXX only in Lev 16:26. Elsewhere it is the translation of Heb. yôḇēl, “jubilee” … and šemiṭṭâ, “release” … In Lev 25:10 it is used for “emancipation” … In Trito-Isaiah it means “liberation” in an eschatological sense.

Senses of the Greek word for forgive — Logos Bible Software

[previous: What about sin?]

[next: Jesus’ authority on earth]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

4 thoughts on “What is forgiveness? (Matthew 9:5-6)”

  1. Another excellent post, Allen. “The Babylonian exile was God giving his bride over to live with other rulers instead of him, because that’s what she wanted.” That puts so much into perspective, including Israel’s redemption (forgiveness) offered through Jesus.

    Just one point I’m lost on. You mention Jesus healing of the paralysed man in Matthew 9, by ‘forgiving’ his sins. How does this case of individual healing/forgiveness fit in with the larger picture you’ve painted? In this case it’s an individual who benefits, not Israel as a whole. On first look it seems to work against the individual/privatised forgiveness the rest of the article is trying to correct.


    1. Great question, Sheridan. The point that Matthew is making is “that the Son of Man has authority *on earth* to forgive sins” (9:5). It’s not just an individual here or an individual there. It’s the global authority of Jesus he has in view. And that, of course, is the goal of Matthew’s whole Gospel, the closing statement (28:18ff).
      Yes, of course, the global authority of Christ makes a difference for individuals. To show those who doubt it that he has this authority, Jesus makes a difference to the paralytic. To show his authority over the demonic powers that bind God’s good world, Jesus makes a difference to the demon-bound man in gentile territory, and the locals understood that larger claim, which is why they asked him to leave their boundaries (8:34).
      The Good News is that Jesus is appointed ruler. His authority as king cannot be reduced to the sum of individual experiences: the whole restoration story is *much* larger than that. It’s not merely that some individuals found personal forgiveness or healing or release (as wonderful as that is), it’s the wonderful story of restored creation. These individual experiences are *signs* pointing forward to the end game, samples of a world set right under Jesus’ authority. It’s about the kingdom of God breaking into history, not merely a few individuals experiencing some repairs before they die.
      When the war is finally over in Syria, a film crew might track a young woman returning to Aleppo, seeing her demolished house, hearing how her relatives died, listening to her questions of how she can ever rebuild. But if the film crew doesn’t tell the bigger story that her experience points to (namely the end of the war), they’ve missed the main point. Jesus doesn’t just help a few individuals: he ends the hostilities, restoring everything (Eph 2:16).
      The significance for individuals is found in the story of the kingdom, not the other way around.


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