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First Century Forgiveness


Although we communicate in many ways, words are our most important format of communication.  It's therefore important for us to understand the meaning of the words we use. It's also important to understand how others define the words they use.  If we don't, we'll misunderstand what they are saying, which is often the case.


One reason why we fail to communicate well is because  One reason why we fail to communicate well is because we interpret what others say using our definition to their words and not their definitions.  I’ve used this analogy before but it fits here.  While living in Virginia as a Canadian I asked for a cup of tea, expecting to receive a hot cup of tea.  What I got was a glass of ice cold tea because to Virginians tea is ice tea.  To Canadians tea is always hot.  If Canadians want ice tea, we ask for ice tea.  By default, tea in Canada is hot and tea in Virginia is cold.  So we’ve got a bit of a communication problem based on differing definitions of the word tea



To best understand certain Biblical words you need to know what those words meant to the writer of the words.   There’s no use trying to understand what Bible writers wrote if we’re going to use our  21st century definitions to their words.  The New Testament was written in the 1st century Roman Empire, using street level Greek.  You might well imagine then that the meaning of certain words they used may differ from ours.  If we insert our definition of certain words into their writings, we change the intent of what they’re saying. Therefore what we thing they’re saying is not what they’re saying at all.  Even though Bible translators try to account for changes in meanings of words, there’s still some difficulties to overcome on our part.


Take the word “forgive” for example.  Webster’s online dictionary defines “forgive” as, “to give up resentment, to cease to feel resentment, or to grant relief from a payment”. If you understand forgive as “letting go of resentment” as Webster partly defines it, then when Jesus tells you to forgive, you’ll think He’s telling you to let go of your resentments towards your offender.  If this is your definition of the word forgive, then I completely understand your position, and that it differs from mine.  You believe forgiveness is letting go of your resentments because that seems to be the consensus of what forgive means today.  I understand forgiveness to be the erasing or canceling of sin so there is no more record of it, and no accounting for it, much like the second half of Webster’s definition.   


It doesn’t really matter how we in modern society define the word forgive.  What matters is how Jesus and the New Testament writers defined the word when they spoke it.  Jesus’ concept of forgiveness is more important than ours or Webster’s.  The word forgive in our English New Testament is translated from the Greek word “aphaimi”.  If you look up “aphaimi” in Webster’s, you won’t find it.  


If you look up “aphaimi” in a Greek Dictionary of Theological words found in the New Testament you’ll see that its simplest definition is “to send away” or “to release”.  That’s as simple as it gets, and I prefer simplicity. 


The New Testament connects “aphaimi” or “forgive” with sin.  You often see the phrase “forgiveness of sin”.  This simply means that sins are forgiven, are sent away, cancelled, or erased.  The New Testament concept of forgiveness is more about sending away sin than it is about sending away our resentments.  Releasing your  resentment is important but it’s not forgiveness.    


I therefore look at our modern understanding of forgive as releasing our resentment and then I look at what appears to be the 1st century understanding of  “aphaimi” which is the  erasing of sin and conclude that when Jesus was speaking of forgiving sin, He was thinking of sending sin away, or canceling sin. He was not thinking of sending your resentment away.  “Sending away” is in reference to sin, not resentment.  That’s how  1st century people understood the word forgive.  It may not be our understanding today, but our understanding doesn’t count in this situation. 


Another point to be made is that 1st century Rabbinical  law stated that if an offender repents 3 times, you cancel his sin 3 times.  But if he sins against you again, you do not cancel his sin.  He only gets 3 chances at forgiveness.   This is Rabbinical law.  This is not Scripture, but this does show the common consensus of the day, that forgiveness had to do with canceling sin upon genuine repentance.  This is what Jewish people like Peter would have been taught.     


So with this in mind, and if you are able to follow this line of thinking, forgiveness simply means to cancel a sin so there is no more record of it, and no accounting for it.  Anything beyond this understanding is based on our perception, and not the perception of the New Testament writers. 


Once we understand forgiveness in light of 1st century thinking, we then can take the next step to understand other related words such as repent and reconciliation, which are just as important to understand from a 1st century Biblical perspective.  If we don’t understand the word forgive, then when it comes to these related words, we’ll add to our misunderstanding.  It is important to know that the concept of forgiveness doesn’t stand alone in the New Testament.  It’s closely related to other words as well. 


Once again, how we understand words is vital to a good understanding of Biblical truth.  We’re not conditioned to think in our post modern generation.  As the title of a popular book says, “we’ve been dumbed down”.   We’ve been programmed to be lazy in our thinking processes.   We only want to know in vague generalities and forgo the details.  You wouldn’t want your auto mechanic to work on your car with a vague understanding of cars, would you?  So why should we approach the Bible this way? 


Next week I’ll present you with the word “believe”.  This is another fundamental word to our belief system that is misunderstood too often because of a 21st century perspective and not a 1st century perspective, causing much harm in my opinion.                                 

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