Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

The log in your eye

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus has a sense of humor. He intends for us to laugh at the image of the hypocrite who wants to remove a speck from his brother’s eye without noticing the log in his own eye. With vivid exaggeration, Jesus depicts what happens when someone lives by the Law alone and judges other people according to God’s Law.

The Law is natural in men and women. God placed his Law in our hearts. Each of us has a conscience that tells us the difference between right and wrong. Most religions—and most moral people who have no religion—agree on the basics of what is right and what is wrong. The moral teachings of Jesus win approval from most of the world, but most of the world is blind to two things. First, we sinners are unable to live perfectly by the high standards of Jesus; therefore, his commands condemn us rather than rescuing us. Second, our rescue from condemnation comes through the blessings of God and not through our efforts to obey his commands.

The log in the hypocrite’s eye is refusing to repent of sins and refusing to seek forgiveness through the work of Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees made this mistake. Many people who call themselves Christians make the same mistake. They try to use God’s Law to correct the sins of other people, but they are too blind to realize that the same Law condemns them, warning them that they need a Savior. As long as these people persist trying to improve the lives of other people by the power of the Law, they will be unable to help anyone. Their blindness to God’s plan of salvation sticks like a log out of both their eyes.

God removes the log, not through his commands, but through the promises of the Gospel. When God removes the logs from our eyes, he turns them into a cross where Jesus is crucified. On that cross, the payment for all sins is accomplished. Jesus takes the log from our eyes when he carries our sins to the cross, paying in full to provide us forgiveness. This Gospel promise is the source of our cure, our rescue, and our life.

Jesus has taken away our sins. He has removed the logs from our eyes. We can see clearly now. Seeing clearly, we are able to help other people to see. Equipped with both the commands and the promises of Jesus, we can help our brothers to remove specks for their eyes. “Judge not” does not mean “remain silent about every sin.” “Judge not” means “do not deal with other people only on the basis of God’s Law.” When we are blind to the blessings of God and his forgiveness, we cannot help anyone. When Jesus has removed all impediments to our sight, then we can help. We warn people about their sins, but we also share Christ’s forgiveness with them in the same way we have been forgiven. J.

Forgiveness

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).

In his model prayer, Jesus had us promise to forgive those who sin against us. Now he reinforces that message with a strong warning. These verses frighten some Christians. Can we really lose the forgiveness of God by refusing to forgive another person?

These verses are spoken within the context of the higher expectations Jesus has for us. He says, “When you give… when you pray… when you fast….” He expects us to do these things; he does not make them optional. In the same way, Jesus assumes that because we are forgiven, we will forgive. His blessings have changed our lives; they are making us more like Jesus.

When we refuse to be like Jesus, forgiving the trespasses of those who sin against us, we block the flow of forgiveness through our lives. When a river is dammed, the water behind the dam often stagnates. Jesus warns us of a similar thing that happens in our spiritual lives. When we are unable to forgive as Jesus forgives, we can cause our own spiritual lives to become stagnant and to die.

However, holding a grudge is not the unforgivable sin. Jesus died to rescue us from that sin as well as from all our other sins. We do not earn forgiveness from Jesus by forgiving others. His forgiveness is a blessing; it is a gift. It is not earned. Yes, we can lose that forgiveness by continuing to sin without wanting to change. When we prefer our sins to our Savior, we lose that Savior; he becomes, instead, a Judge. But saying we can lose his forgiveness does not imply that we can earn his forgiveness. In the matter of God’s forgiveness and our obedience to his commands, God always makes the first move. God always goes first.

In the prayer, Jesus employs this order: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” God forgives first, and then we imitate him. God does not limit himself to our level, our ability to forgive. He forgives first, setting the standard, and then he invites us to be like him, offering us the strength to follow his lead.

Let’s imagine that someone has done something dreadful that hurt you. How can you forgive? Not from the goodness of your own heart, but only from the power of God’s gift. Jesus suffered and died on the cross to pay for all sins, including sins that hurt you. When you forgive the sinner who hurt you, you are sharing the promise of Jesus. When you refuse to forgive, you are keeping secret the life-changing promise from Jesus, a promise that every sinner needs to hear.

We cannot make ourselves more forgiving by trying harder to forgive. That road leads nowhere but to despair. We become more forgiving by drawing closer to Jesus, by remembering what he has done, and by believing his promises. When we remember that we are forgiven even for our failures to forgive—since forgiveness is a gift and not something we earn—then we become able to forgive those who sin against us. J.

When you give

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

Although giving to the needy necessarily involves another person, the act of giving still is largely between ourselves and God. In Jesus’ day, giving to the needy did not involve charitable organizations, income tax deductions, and other technicalities. Today the government allocates money to help the needy. As a result, some people lobby the government for more help or for different kinds of help. Hundreds of other organizations also help the needy; they are funded by contributions, which they seek to raise in a variety of ways. Not all the needy get the help they need from the government and from charities. Some beg on the roadsides for money, and others travel from church to church asking for money. Some are truly poor and needy. Others have chosen poverty and begging as a way of life. Many are under the control of addictions or other mental disorders. All the same, in the United States today, more ways of helping the needy exist than ever before in any time or any place.

Because there are so many ways to offer help to the needy—and because we all receive frequent reminders of the help that is needed—we easily forget that the help we give to others is a secret part of our relationship with God. The Lord has given most of us more than we need so we have the privilege of sharing what we have with others. We begin by helping the members of our family and those nearest to us. We continue by seeing what we can do to assist the needy person who crosses our paths. Merely handing out money does not meet the needs of all the needy. Instead, we can provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, clothing for those who lack clothing, and time to visit those who are sick or in prison or lonely. We have different opportunities to serve our Lord by helping the least of our neighbors. When we choose to give to charities, we take time to think—maybe even do some research—to make sure that our money, our time, and our resources are accomplishing the greatest good possible.

If we try to keep for ourselves everything the Lord has provided us, we sin against God and against our neighbors. When we waste our resources—even when we carelessly give to liars and con artists—we sin against God and against our neighbors who have real needs. (Yes, Jesus did say, “Give to everyone who asks.” At the same time, Jesus wants us to be wise stewards of the property he has entrusted to us. He wants each of us to do the most good possible with what we have.) Jesus stresses that, when we give to the needy to call attention to ourselves, we sin. Being self-centered about the help we give to others taints our giving, keeping it from being recognized by God as a good work.

We sin every day. We need God’s forgiveness every day. God forgives us every day. He sends us forgiveness as surely as he sends us daily bread, more than we need, so we can share what we have with others. Jesus sets an example for us to follow. When he healed the sick, he told them not to talk about it. He told them to keep the healing secret. Even today, as Jesus meets our needs for daily bread and daily forgiveness, he does it in a way that other people do not notice. Often, his gifts even escape our attention!

Because our sins are forgiven each day, we are free to be like Jesus. We are free to use what we have to help others. After all, God gave us more than we need so that our help given to others is part of our relationship with God. As we help, we are free to help quietly, so the matter remains secret between ourselves and God. J.

Do not resist

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:38-39)

The Law God delivered through Moses provided a means of restitution and punishment when one person hurt another. An essential part of that Law demanded that the punishment must fit the crime, that a person would suffer no more harm in being punished than he or she had caused. If he put out another man’s eye, his eye would be put out; if she had knocked out another woman’s tooth, her tooth would be knocked out. A murderer would be executed (“A life for a life”). God’s Law did not bring about vigilante justice. Punishment came only after a trial in which evidence was presented and a verdict was determined.

Jesus now says that we should not seek the maximum penalty, the punishment that fits the crime. He says, “Do not resist an evil person.” This principle has been applied various ways: some civil rights demonstrators practice “non-violent resistance” to try to change the laws; other people oppose the death penalty for any crime, even murder. Many people try to apply Christ’s principle of “return evil with good” to their lives. Most of the religions of the world possess this teaching in some form.

Jesus does not strip the government of its responsibility to punish criminals. According to Paul (Romans 13), protection of the innocent and punishment of the guilty is a reason for governments to exist. Jesus is not speaking to governments or to society in general; he is speaking to individual believers. Jesus reminds us that, in a sinful world, we do not need to sink to the level of the sinners that surround us. Let the government punish them as the government sees fit. Instead of demanding the maximum penalty allowed by the law, we are called to forgive those who sin against us.

“Do not resist and evil person.” We are not called to condone evil by silence, but neither are we to prevent evil by “fighting fire with fire.” We seek to overcome hate and anger and lust and dishonesty. We must also overcome any desire for revenge upon those who still practice those sins. We do not make the world better by fighting against evil; we make the world better by being better ourselves.

Even as we hunger and thirst for righteousness, even as we are active as peacemakers, we strive to follow the pattern of Jesus. He rescued us from evil by being a victim of evil. He did not use truth and justice to defend himself in his trials. His case spoke for itself; his innocence was obvious. Jesus was condemned, though, and sent to his death. His silence puzzled Governor Pontius Pilate. The silence of Jesus was different from the protestations of innocence Pilate usually heard in the courtroom. Jesus wants this difference to be seen in our lives as we imitate him.

Evil has already lost the fight. Jesus has won the war against evil by his suffering and death and resurrection. He now makes us his partners in that victory. We do not need to resist evil. We live our lives, confident of victory. Rather than sinking to the level of sinners as we fight against sin, we rise to the level of Jesus by his victory over sin. J.

Be reconciled

“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” (Matthew 5:23-24).

These words teach us that Jesus cares deeply about how we get along with one another. Jesus says being reconciled to a brother (a fellow Christian) is a higher priority than giving gifts to God. Jesus does not say that reconciliation can replace our gifts to God; the gifts are still offered, but reconciliation comes first. Jesus hints that our relationship with God can be blocked by problems between us and our fellow believers. Jesus does not say outright that God will reject our gifts if we are at strife with other Christians, but the implication is present, and many Christians assume that is what Jesus means. Jesus clearly insists upon the importance of being reconciled to any brother who has something against us.

Most religions of the world encourage such behavior. Take responsibility for your mistakes. If you have hurt someone, perform restitution. Our goal is to do no harm; but when we have done harm, we want to pay for our mistakes and failures.

Jesus appears to be teaching the same message with these words. After all, he is not talking here about offering forgiveness to those who have sinned against us—that topic arises later in his sermon. Jesus describes instead a situation in which your brother has something against you. If you have done wrong, Jesus says, you have an obligation to go and be reconciled to your brother.

How does this teaching conform to the message Jesus delivers about Christians being blessed, being recipients of gifts? Has Jesus changed his mind already about his gifts? Is he restricting the gift, attaching strings to the gift, setting requirements we must meet before we receive the gift? From the entire message of the Bible, we know that Jesus would not withhold forgiveness from a believer who failed to apologize to a fellow Christian. The gifts of Jesus are not left at the altar during reconciliation; our gift to God sits for a time at the altar. When Jesus says, “go, be reconciled to your brother,” this too is part of the Gospel promise, the blessing, the gifts he provides each of us. Since Jesus has already forgiven us for all our sins, his forgiveness is able to reconcile each of us to whichever brothers we have harmed. Jesus will bless them also with the gift of mercy, the ability to forgive us for our sins.

Every injury done to another person is a sin against God. Every such sin is forgiven at the cross of Jesus Christ. Instead of ignoring our relationships with others as we focus on our relationship with God, Jesus wants us to know that those relationships are fixed through our relationship with God. “Go, be reconciled to your brother,” Jesus says, and the gift of grace smiles at us through these words. When Jesus told a lame man to walk, the power of his word made that man able to stand and walk. When Jesus tells us to be reconciled, the power of his word makes reconciliation happen. J.

When a wise man lost his head

When I was a child, my parents did not play Christmas music until Thanksgiving Day. That tradition continues in my household. On the other hand, Thanksgiving weekend always saw the appearance of the ceramic manger scene, another tradition I have continued. The manger scene belongs to the twelve days of Christmas, not to the season of Advent. Moreover, the manger scene is historically inaccurate, with the wise men arriving in Bethlehem at the same time as the shepherds. (Matthew 2 records that the wise men found Mary and the child (not newborn infant) in a house in Bethlehem.) The church I attend has solved the later problem by placing the wise men and their camels across the chancel from the manger scene with shepherds, sheep, and other barnyard animals. But my display at home has them all: Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, and assorted animals.

Most of the scene consists of ceramic pieces made for the family by my mother-in-law some years ago. But two of the angels are Lladro figures. Their colors nicely match the style of the other figures, so we have always included them in the scene.

These ceramic pieces all survived the Cinco de Mayo fire of 2017. Our insurance company paid to have them professionally cleaned. They came back individually wrapped in bubble wrap, each surrounded by a layer of paper. I’ve chosen to keep the same wrappings, although prior to that they were wrapped only in tissue paper and never came to any harm.

But this year, when I checked to make sure I had the right box, the top figure made a clanging sound as I unwrapped it. Seeing that it was one of the Lladro angels, I feared the worst. But when I got the box inside and fully unwrapped the angel, I saw that she had dropped her harp. It had been glued to her hands, and the summer heat must have softened the glue. No harm done, so far.

I continued unwrapping figures and placing them into the scene. Then I came across a piece that had broken, in spite of the bubble wrap and paper protection. I gasped or sighed, I don’t recall which. A voice from the bedroom called, “What’s broken?” I answered, “A wise man lost his head.”

A wise man lost his head. It happens sometimes. In this case it was a clean break and can be repaired with glue. Other times when a wise man loses his head, the damage is not so easily fixed. Insults shouted in a fit of anger are not easily erased. False charges and accusations do not easily fade, even after a sincere apology. One might argue that a truly wise man or woman would never fly off the handle in such a manner, but these things happen. We try to be wise; we try to watch our words. On some occasions, though, we fail.

Christians live under forgiveness. Christ has atoned on the cross for all our sins. Christians also share forgiveness. Jesus told his followers to forgive, not seventy-seven times, or even seventy times seven times (490), but an imaginary number that might as well be translated “seventyleven times.” We remain sinners, living in a sin-polluted world. From time to time, even the best of us lose our heads. Thanks to God’s grace, forgiveness is the glue that puts our heads back where they belong. J.

Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.

Advent thoughts: December 21

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2—read Micah 5:1-6).

Once again Matthew assures us that a verse prophesies the coming of the Messiah, even though a quick reading of the chapter would seem to suggest that it concerns the days of the tribes of Israel being invaded by the Assyrian Empire. Matthew even makes a subtle change in his translation of the verse, rendering it, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The shepherd reference is borrowed from Micah 5:4, but the change from “too little” to “by no means least” would seem to be a contradiction and not a paraphrase.

“Too little to be among the clans,” but, “by no means least” fit together because of the meaning of the rest of the verse. Bethlehem was a small town; but it has become the most famous small town in the world because Jesus was born there. The victory Jesus was born to win was far bigger than any victory over an Assyrian army. Jesus defeated all the forces of evil, including our sins and the power of death. For that reason, the prophet Micah looked beyond the fearsome invaders of his time to focus on the victory that matters more than any other, because it defeats the forces that cause wars and other violence on earth.

The Bible experts used Micah’s prophecy to tell King Herod where the Messiah would be born. They chose a simple verse for a king who ruled over the Jews but did not understand their faith. The experts knew that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, not because of a single verse in Micah, but because of the promise God made to David. God told David that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. To inherit the throne of David, the Savior-King had to be born in David’s hometown. Sharing a birthplace was necessary because of the terms of the old covenant.

God stressed a connection between his chosen people and the Promised Land. Each plot of land was to remain the property of the same family. They could not sell land; they could only rent it out for a time if they needed money. God wanted his people to be good stewards of the land. His concern for stewardship of the land was expressed already to Adam and Eve in the beginning. They and all their descendants were to care for the planet and especially for its living beings. God did not say that people could do whatever they want with the land and with plants and animals. Part of the Judgment to be announced on the Day of the Lord will be the matter of how well or how poorly we have cared for the planet.

We must confess that we have not, for the most part, been good stewards of God’s creation. Some areas have been farmed to exhaustion and have become human-made deserts. Others have been poisoned by human-made pollution. Habitats have been stolen for human use. Habitat loss and careless hunting has driven many species into extinction. When Jesus is seen on his throne of judgment, he will have things to say about the way we treated his world.

Yet the forgiveness of Jesus covers even our sins against the planet. One reason Jesus went to the cross was to pay the penalty for all the times we have damaged and destroyed the world he created.  Jesus is not pleased to see mismanagement of his creation, but that sin is forgiven through his life and death and resurrection. Forgiveness is not license to continue sinning; forgiveness gives us power to reverse our mistakes, to do what is right instead of what is wrong.

The King who inherits David’s throne is also a Shepherd to protect his flock so we live in safety and are not threatened by our enemies. He is our peace—through him we are at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation. Coming from ancient times—indeed, from outside of time—Jesus comes to rescue us and to claim us. We belong to him and his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.