In a recent blog post I talked about how death is a necessary consequence of sin. But if death is necessary that means that there is a problem. How does one forgive sins?
This is gonna sound weird, but someone's gotta die. And here's why.
What does it mean to forgive?
Don't worry. We don't have to go into ancient etymology for this one. We're gonna do something even more difficult. We're going to analyze one of the Lord's parables.
"Difficult? I thought Jesus used parables to make it easier for people to understand him?"
The answer for this question, as with many questions where God is concerned, "Yes and no."
Yes, because people have a much easier time remembering stories rather than lectures. Much of Jesus’ teaching material appears to have been composed precisely in order to be wedged in memory. Werner Kelber notes “the extraordinary degree to which the sayings of Jesus have kept faith with heavily patterned speech forms, abounding in alliteration, paronomasia, appositional equivalence, proverbial and aphoristic diction, contrasts and antitheses, synonymous, antithetical, synthetic, and tautologic parallelism and the like.” Poetry with rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance probably has a greater chance of making a lasting cognitive impact on an audience than plain uninflected discourse.(1)
Jesus, therefore, seemed focused on delivering his teaching in a way for it to be easier to accurately remember.
However! That doesn't mean that Jesus' parables were easy to understand. As is indicated by our fearless first century builders of the church. Jesus' own disciples. Who frequently would ask Jesus to explain His parables. To the point of provoking Jesus to reply, "Are you still so dull?" (Matt 5:16)
Just to further support this, when the disciples asked why Jesus spoke to the people in parables he answered, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them."
And it is into this difficult, rich and deep portion of Christianity that we are diving. Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to us Christians.
Up to seven times?
When asked about forgiving people, Jesus responded by giving a parable about a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants (Matt 18:23-35). The king demands Servant A to pay back a huge debt but ends up forgiving the servant after he begs for more time. Servant A then demands Servant B to pay back a much smaller debt. Servant B begs for more time but Servant A refuses to forgive. Upon hearing about this the king punishes Servant A for not showing the same mercy that the king had given him.
I'd first like to take a moment to appreciate Jesus' genius. It's amazing how much he packed into this parable. And please be sure to read the passage yourself because my CliffsNotes don't perfectly articulate it. We won't be able go into everything here but we'll get to what is relevant to this post.
Let's start by figuring out what the symbols in this parable represent. We're going to start off pretty basic, but it's important. The king, of course, is God. The servants are God's creatures. I merely say "creatures" here because it's not specified that the servants are all humans and don't also include angels.
A slightly more tricky question is, "what does the 'debt' represent?" The point of the parable is to answer the question regarding forgiveness. Peter's question was specifically, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" So, the "debt" that is forgiven in the parable is sin.
If sin is the debt then what does the money represent? In Is Death an Appropriate Punishment for Sin?, we determined that sin is basically understood to be a failure to love. If that's true, then the money in the parable is love.
A very important aspect to understand about this parable is how debt is accrued and how it is forgiven. In the context of this parable, debt is accrued when someone is given a loan. The king gave the servant a ten thousand talent loan. That's like when a bank gives someone a huge loan causing the person to owe the bank about a million dollars.
What happens when a debt is forgiven? What happens to the money that was spent?
When a bank forgives a debt, the money doesn’t return to the bank’s account. Instead, the bank has taken on that debt itself. Likewise, when God forgives our debt He takes it on Himself. He takes the sin on Himself.
Why is the debt we owe God so big? Because the amount of love we owe God is the amount to which He loves us in our relationship with Him. Specifically, He gives loves with all of His heart, mind, soul and strength. When we fail to love God with anything less, it is the accrual of debt. It is sin. The end of which, as we discussed, being separation from God. Separation from the God of goodness, life and love.
What is amazing is that when God forgives the sin. That separation must still happen. So who must be separated from the God of goodness, life and love? As strange as it seems; it must be God. And this is why God must also be multi-personal. But we'll leave arguments for the trinity for another day.
God is owed the love that He puts in to His relationships but He doesn't receive that love back from us. What must He do if He forgives that kind of debt? God actually gives more love to cover the sin of His servant. He gives this additional love in the form of grace and mercy.
"But doesn't this just increase His servant's debt?"
Nope! The difference is that this type of love is given as a free gift. A gift that His servant doesn't have to pay back. This is the "free gift" that Paul mentions in Romans chapter 5 and 6.
So, in the end, the king in Jesus' parable gave Servant A twice as much money as Servant A owed. The ten thousand talents for the loan and then another ten thousand talents to pay back the loan. While the king was left being ten thousand talents poorer. The king is left with the debt. In the same way, when God forgives His people, they receive a double portion of God's love and God is left with the sin. In Isaiah 61:7 we read:
"Instead of their shame my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in their land, and everlasting joy will be theirs."
Jesus reads from this passage of scripture (from Isaiah 61) to announce the beginning of His mission in Luke 4:11. And what was Jesus' mission?
“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luke 4:43)
And a major part of the good news was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." (Luke 3:3) And in Matthew 26 we learn what that forgiveness looks like, "And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
Shortly after that Jesus went to the cross and "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree". (1Pe 2:24) Jesus took our sins and experienced the separation from God that we deserve.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" - Matthew 27:46
On the cross Jesus was separated from the God of goodness, life and love. On the cross God gave us the free gift of His love to cover the debt of our sin.
"There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." (John 15:13)
He received the separation that sin causes. On the cross, God was separated from God. And that is what death is.
"How come we don't have to die when we forgive someone who sins against us?"
That's a great question! But it will have to wait until the next post.
Bird, Michael F.. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (pp. 40-41). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.