Word Study #7: “Forgiveness of sins”: Welcome, or weapon?

May 28, 2009

John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judaea, announcing, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the ‘sin’ (failures, faults, shortcomings, offences) of the world!”  From that time, Jesus proceeded to welcome all who chose to follow him, as members of his family, citizens of his Kingdom, participants in a community of folks who were in the process of being redeemed, transformed, re-created as members of the Body of Christ!

Ironically, high on the list of topics co-opted by the creators of creed and dogma as weapons or ammunition for laying heavy and unwarranted guilt-trips on those people is the concept of “forgiveness of sins.”  Their signal success at distorting the message of Jesus in this regard (whether deliberately or inadvertently is not mine to judge) is due to a serious misunderstanding of both words.  Each represents an instance of multiple Greek words (and therefore very different ideas) having been lumped together and expressed by one single word in most English translations.

There are three different words which have been rendered “forgive” by most translators:  apoluo (translated “forgive” only twice, out of 69 appearances in the New Testament), which most frequently signifies simple departure from a place, or sending away;  charizomai (translated “forgive”  in 11 of 23 occurrences), more often used of the gracious gifts of God for the needs and service of his people;   and  aphiemi  (47 out of 144 occurrences), for which the most common translation is simply “leave.”  It is interesting to note that none of these includes any implication of “forget”, with which it is so frequently paired in modern rhetoric.

Although the gracious generosity inherent in charizomai  is an important component of a correct understanding of forgiveness, and noted in Eph.4:32 and Col.3:13 as the model for our treatment of one another, I choose here to focus on the more usual term, aphiemi, because it has been so grossly misunderstood.

Etymologically, aphiemi is made up of a prefix, apo, “away from”, and the verb, hiemi, “to send away, to discharge, to set free, to release, to dismiss, to acquit of a charge, to put away or divorce, to get rid of, to leave, to cancel.”  Adding a prefix to such a word tends to strengthen it in the direction of the prefix (“away from”), indicating a sense of removal.  Notice, “ignore” is NOT on that list of definitions.  Nobody is saying, “Oh, that’s ok, it doesn’t matter.”  It DOES matter:  it matters so much that the situation in question needs to be removed — taken away — disposed-of.   (please see posting #6.)   Aphiemi does not describe a clever lawyer getting his client off the hook without penalty for his crimes.  It is the error  that is removed.

But what is that “error” that is being removed?  The misunderstanding is even greater when it comes to the concept of “sin.”  This English word also is used for three different Greek words:  hamartia (175 times), hamartema (only 4 times), and paraptoma (23 times).  To complicate the situation, theology and dogma have added the baggage contained in three more words, none of which are ever translated that way!

Hamartia, by far the most common, very seldom carries the indication of a deliberate offence.    The lexicons include: “to miss a target, to fail of one’s purpose, to be deprived of something needful, to fail or neglect an assigned task, to err or to do wrong, to be mistaken.”  These are primarily the errors of immaturity or ignorance.  This is the word that appears most frequently with aphiemi.  (Interestingly, the second most common is not an offence at all, but debt. )   Hamartia is also the word associated with Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees over his authority to “forgive” (remember, that word means to remove, dismiss, or get rid of) “sins”. (Matthew 9:6, Mk.2:7,10, and Lk.5:21-24.)  Note two things:  (1) Jesus is speaking in the present tense — he HAS authority, and (2) Jesus does not dispute the statement that “only God” can do that.  It is precisely because he is God Incarnate that he has that authority!  Jesus makes  no mention of his death as being associated with his right to forgive.

Stephen (Ac.7:60) prays that his executioners be “forgiven” for their hamartia — acknowledging, as did Jesus on the cross, Peter in Ac.3:17, and Paul on several occasions, that they were acting in ignorance.  Peter’s question regarding forgiving his brother uses hamartia (Mt:18:21), but Jesus’ parable in reply shifts the focus to one of debt.  This incident has often been viewed as parallel to the teaching in Luke 17:3-4, which was initiated by Jesus, but makes no mention of Peter.  The Luke account is dealing with a very different scenario, although it also uses hamartia.  Here, Jesus is referring to “straightening out” a brother who has taken a wrong turn, and the command to forgive is prefaced by a conditional clause indicated by the use of the particle ean with a subjunctive verb.  “IF he repents (see Word Study #6) — changes his direction” — he is to be forgiven.  Acknowledging that this may take several tries does not remove the condition:  it is embedded in the structure of the sentence.  It describes a situation similar to the restoration (II Cor.2:7-10) of the person who was disciplined in I Cor.5.

Paraptoma, on the other hand, carries more of the freight of a deliberate offense.    Alternate translations include “fall (2x), fault(2x), offense(7x), sin(3x), and trespass(9x). ” Lexicons add “a false step, a blunder, defeat, transgression, trespass.”  The references are about evenly divided between offenses against people and against God, but are generally deliberate in both cases.  It appears frequently in Romans 4, 5, and 11 regarding Israel’s refusal of Jesus; and in Ephesians and Colossians regarding the excesses of pagan life before conversion.   In Eph.2:1, Paul refers to both of the words together, making clear that they comprise two different classes of offenses.

Entirely missing from any of these concepts are situations where one has deliberately chosen to do — or to yield to the control  of — what is overtly evil.  Kakia (11 times): “evil, malice, maliciousness, wickedness”; kakos (35 times) “ugly, base, craven, worthless, evil, pernicious, abusive, foul”; and poneros (23 times) : “evil, harm, wicked, wickedness, the Evil One”; occur far less frequently. They have in no case been translated “sin”, and with a single exception, never appear in connection with aphiemi or any of the other forgiveness terms.   The exception is found in Ac.8:22, the interview between Peter and Simon the magician in Samaria who tried to “buy” the ability to confer the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter does not sound really confident that “forgiveness” will be extended in this situation.  His analysis is stern;  Simon has showed himself to be quite alien to the spirit of true discipleship.  Please note that this indictment is completely unique to this one situation.  There is no parallel anywhere in the New Testament, unless it be the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Ac.5), where there is not even any suggestion of the possibility of redemption.  An accusation of having deliberately chosen evil is the most serious of charges.  Reducing it to a routine recitation is irresponsible in the extreme.

Loyal disciples of Jesus find themselves at many different levels of maturity, understanding, and conformity to the Lord’s ways.  John, in his first letter, assumes that as we mature, we will continue to discover things that need to be “taken away” from our experience, assuring his readers that the Lord is ready and willing to take care of that if they will cooperate.  However, requiring committed disciples repeatedly to “confess” guilt for offenses that they have neither committed nor even considered, in order to be pronounced “forgiven” by someone in a hierarchical structure (which the Lord Jesus categorically forbade — see Mt.23:1-12), is a gross distortion — even a denial — of his gracious provision for the people he has redeemed for himself and called to populate his Kingdom!

“Behold the Lamb of God who TAKES AWAY the failures, faults, shortcomings,stumblings, and offenses of the world!”  This is part of his program to re-create his people in his own image, and directly connected to the call to “Repent/change direction.”  His authority and power to accomplish this monumental task reside in his very BEING — the King of Kings and Lord of Lords — “because in him, all the fullness of deity has its bodily, permanent residence (Col.2:9)!”

Glory to him forever!

Word Study #6 — “Repent” does NOT mean “Grovel!”

May 18, 2009

Nearly thirty years had passed since all the wonderful events recorded in the introductions to Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the ministry of Jesus. After so long, did even the participants begin to wonder if it had all been just a beautiful dream? That can happen so easily, when hope is long deferred. Did anyone remember the prophecies, the promises, the wonder of those days?

Then, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a strange figure appeared at the edge of the Judaean desert, reminiscent of the prophets many centuries before, both in his rather scruffy appearance, his odd behavior, and his compelling, unequivocating message.

Metanoeite!” he thundered. “The promised Kingdom has arrived!” English expositors have rendered that command, “Repent!”, and subsequently distorted it into a demand for repetitive, coerced assent to the sentence of guilt that they have concocted against their target audience. Oddly, neither Jesus, nor John, nor any of the later messengers, associated that call, either with violations of any list of forbidden thought or behavior, or with any convoluted connection to Adam and Eve in the garden. The word they chose was much more vital than either. Interestingly, it appears only 34 times in the entire New Testament, but the idea is pervasive.

Metanoeite, a present imperative form, never carried any implication of “I’m so sorry I was naughty — I must be a terrible person!” or “oops! I was caught!”. Metanoeite indicates a total and radical change of one’s mind / orientation / behavior / purpose — and results in a complete transformation of life. It represents a shift of focus from one’s former, self-centered concerns to a singular focus on the ways and goals of the Kingdom. Such a transformation takes a while — thus the use of the present tenses. Remember that the present tense, especially in the imperative mood, indicates a sustained, not punctiliar action. But that the results are expected to be seen in one’s behavior was well understood. This is obvious in the question posed by John’s listeners: “What shall we do?” Look at the description of his interviews in Luke 3:10-14.

–People in the crowd are expected to share food and clothing with those who lack either.

–Tax collectors are to quit cheating!

–Soldiers are forbidden to do violence to anyone!

Not a word is said about what they were supposed to “believe”!

And although the word appears very rarely in Paul’s writings, (as a verb only once, and as a noun four times), the understanding and expectation clearly persisted in the early church, as evidenced by the exhortations to the churches of Revelation. The folks at Ephesus are urged (Rv.2:5) to return to the loving behavior they had exhibited at the beginning; those at Pergamon (2:16) and Thyatira (2:22) to turn from the idol-worship they had come to tolerate; those in Sardis (3:3) to return to the way of life they had adopted at their conversion; and in Laodicea (3:19) to quit bragging about their financial prosperity and return to their dependence on the Lord’s provision. These expectations echo Jesus’ own statements, when he compared the responses of various groups to his message, with comparable historical situations — see Matthew 11:20-21 and 12:41, and parallels in Luke 10 and 11, and also Lk.13:3-5. It is behavior — “lifestyle” if you prefer — that is addressed in every situation: and metanoeite requires an all-encompassing change.

The noun form, metanoia, occurs only 24 times, and presents similar expectations. Both John (Mt.3:8 and Lk.3:8) and Jesus (Mt.9:13, Mk.2:17, Lk.5:22) insisted upon observable evidence of one’s having made a change, as do Peter and Paul in sermons and epistles. Consistently, metanoia refers either to a person’s initial ceding of his life to the Lord’s control, or to a major course-correction by a person or group that had (either deliberately or inadvertently) turned away. In either case, again, a drastic change of direction is in view.

A new Kingdom was being inaugurated — one with markedly different norms of behavior and citizenship from the prevailing culture — of the first, and every subsequent century! I have dealt with some of these counter-cultural issues in greater detail in an earlier volume, Citizens of the Kingdom, 1993.

The call, “metanoeite” constituted, in essence, an invitation to citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom, which he was creating for the purpose of demonstrating the original intentions, and the transforming power, of God. The whole of the New Testament is intended as a “user’s manual” for Kingdom living!

Perhaps the most significant reference, in light of present day teaching and practice, is found in Hebrews 6:1. Metanoia — traditionally translated “repentance” — (I have chosen to use “a changed life”) — heads the list of “foundational” things that, the writer urges, once established, need to be “laid aside” in order to move on to maturity! Not abrogated; not denied; definitely assumed, but nevertheless laid aside, no longer the primary focus. Why then are committed followers of the Lord Jesus constantly berated — and in liturgical circles, continually expected to repeat profuse apologies and pleas for “forgiveness” (another needed study)– about an assortment of supposed deliberate offenses against God — none of which could possibly be a part of a life that had truly changed direction! The same writer does have some very sobering things to say about turning one’s back on the gracious gift of life (Heb.6:4-7), but quickly adds (v.9) that such behavior is not assumed among the faithful!

I submit that continually groveling in one’s supposed “sinfulness” constitutes a denial of the life-changing grace of God! True, at the point of initial commitment, we have not instantly reached maturity. We have been born into a new life, which needs to grow and develop. We may even stumble, or fall flat on our faces, like children learning to walk. But we are expected to be headed in the direction our Lord has indicated, urging and helping one another along the way (Heb.3:12-14.)

“Repentance” and “forgiveness” are NOT the sum total of the gospel message, as is implied when an “accredited official” needs to pronounce the audience “forgiven” at every meeting, and to state that this “news” represents the “gospel” that they are to “believe.” That is only the beginning of the message. Jesus’ invitation is to participation in the work of his Kingdom — to life the way he created it to be lived — in company with all the others he has called.

Metanoeite! Continually engage in the process of changing life to conform to his pattern! With the Spirit of the Lord enabling the Body of Christ, it can be done!

Metanoeite!! Reject the Accuser, recognizing that it is he who insists that you are “not worthy”. Turn to the Redeemer, instead, who has said that you ARE (Col.1:12)!

Metanoeite!! Stop groveling at the gate! Stand up on your feet, and with thanksgiving, join the triumphal procession of the King!

Word Study #5 –“Salvation:” past? present? future?

May 15, 2009

The time was many years ago, when we were still sufficiently inexperienced at the discipline of Word Study that we expected it to be able to answer most, if not all, of our questions. (It can’t.)
We were leading a group in the study of Philippians, and stopped short at Philippians 1:19, where Paul comments, (KJV) “For I know that this will turn out for my salvation…”
“Whoa! Wait a minute!” one student exclaimed. “Wasn’t Paul already ‘saved’?” Well, we all thought so, having at that time subscribed to the definition that equated the term with one’s initial “commitment to Christ.” But then, what was Paul saying? The curious among us needed to find out.

Out came the concordances, grammars, and lexicons.   Out did NOT come total clarity with which to clobber any and all dissent.   “What does the text SAY?”

Let’s start with the historical uses of the words. The compilers of the Oxford lexicon list for the verb form, sozo:
–to save from death, keep alive, preserve
–to escape destruction
–to be healed, to recover from sickness
–to save or recover an opportunity
–to observe or maintain laws or customs
–to keep in mind, to remember
–to bring one safely to a place
–to rescue from captivity or danger

and for the noun form, soteria (or soterion):
–deliverance or preservation
–a way or means of safety
–safe return, or keeping safe
–security, or a guarantee of safety
–bodily health, well-being
–an offering in thanks for deliverance
–a physician’s fee!

Both are frustratingly broad, very like the widely trumpeted teachings about the Hebrew “shalom”.  All, strangely, have the flavor of practical, tangible experience: there is historically no hint of any reference to one’s “eternal destiny,” although that may be deduced from a few (by no means all) of the New Testament references.

This appears to be one of the cases where the New Testament writers took a commonly used and understood word, and poured into it additional meaning that did not originally exist. Please note that they did not abrogate the original intent; it still referred to physical healings, rescue from storms and shipwrecks, deliverance from enemies and persecutors.   But a new dimension was added, when any of these included or resulted from one’s relatedness to Jesus.

The tenses of verbs used add considerable light to the subject. The vast majority of active voice references occur in purpose constructions, and are cast in the aorist tense, whether subjunctive, imperative, or infinitive forms are used. (Please see the appendix to the Translation Notes for further explanation.) They speak of the Lord’s intentions, his purpose, in coming to rescue his people from their wanderings, or, as he put it, “to save men’s lives, not to destroy them” (Lk.9:56 and parallels). Jesus himself uses it in reference to many of his healings.

Nearly an equal number of uses are in the passive voice, focusing on the receiver, rather than the doer, of the action. Among these, the predominant tenses are present (continuous action) and future. People “will be” or “are in the process of being” saved or rescued, except for a few purpose constructions that retain the aorist (implying, I think, the completion of the process.)

When attention shifts to the noun form, soteria, the accompanying verbs shift markedly to the present and future, except for two very interesting exceptions: Jesus’ comment (Lk.19:9) upon Zacchaeus’ announcement of his change of purpose and intention, that “Soteria has happened” on that day, and the song of praise in Rev.12:10, that it “has arrived” when the Accuser has finally been “cast down.” All the rest refer clearly to a work in progress, especially when Paul urges the Philippian brethren (2:12) to “keep on working” at it, or reminds those in Rome (13:11) that it is now “nearer” than at the beginning of their/our faithfulness.

With the linguistic prevalence of references to rescue or deliverance, it is also interesting to compare what folks are urged to be “saved from” with common “understandings.” Very seldom are the NT writers specific about that (except in the case of healings), unlike their modern counterparts, who would not even consider it to be a question. (Everyone needs to be saved from hell, right? “Just sign up for this guaranteed fire-insurance policy!”) As a matter of fact, that warning does not appear even once in the New Testament! Neither does “Where will you be if you die tonight?”  New Testament “salvation” is about living, not dying! In fact, the word only occurs one single time paired with aionion, the word usually translated “eternal” (which needs its own study.) This would lead one to believe that at least it is not the primary emphasis.

In Zachariah’s prophecy when John the Baptist was born, he spoke of “deliverance from our enemies, and from all who hate us,” (Lk.1:71), and in 74-75 “the privilege to worship him (God) in purity and justice without fear!”  Only secondarily does he refer to the “taking away of their hamartia” which has mistakenly been associated with paraptoma (deliberate transgressions) under the label of “sins.”  This also requires its own study, but hamartia basically refers to failure to attain a goal or standard.    Zachariah focuses wholly on the gracious mercy of God.

In Peter’s evangelistic sermon at Pentecost, he urged his listeners to (Ac.2:40) “be rescued (saved) from this crooked generation!”  He also notes the result: (41) those who responded were “added”  to the brotherhood (see also Ac.2:42-47.)
Paul does mention in Rom.5:9 being “saved from wrath,” but he does not specify whether that “wrath” is God’s, or simply the constant state of those who ignore him.
James refers to “saving from death” the life (psuche is another good study) of a person who is headed in the wrong direction.

SO — back to the question that started all of this:  Wasn’t Paul already “saved?” Are we? Is anyone?
What does the text SAY?
Jesus has already protected and rescued us many times, from many perils (some of our own making, some not.) He has healed and restored many of us, both physically and in terms of broken relationships. He has already (Col.1:13) “delivered us from the power of darkness, and transported us into his Kingdom” (the word used here is not sozo, but a much stronger errusato).

Still, there is much that is yet to be realized, if we consider all those future tenses, as well as the present progressives, and the beautiful goals he has outlined for the life of his people.  There had to be a beginning, of course:  but, in the vernacular of centuries later, “We ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

So, “Brother, are you saved?”

Word Study #4 –“Lord and Savior” — Our pledge of allegiance!

May 6, 2009

Acknowledging Jesus Christ as “our Lord and Savior”, for first century followers, was a far cry from the creedal recitation that it has become in subsequent generations. It was a powerful declaration of allegiance to Jesus’ new Kingdom — one that could, and frequently did, cost the life of the person involved! These were titles that the Roman emperors, drunk with power, had reserved for themselves, as symbols of their self-proclaimed deity! The two words in combination appear less than a dozen times in the New Testament, but used individually, they carry the same freight.

Kurios — Lord — in first century usage, could be as non-threatening as the polite form of address, “sir” or “mister”. It could refer to the master of a household, the head of a family, or any person with authority over another. It was common in both masculine and feminine forms, as the respectful way to address any person of social standing, beyond their mid-teens.  It could also, of course, refer to the master of slaves or servants, over whom he had absolute power — even that of life or death.  He offered protection and care, but at the price of absolute and unquestioning obedience.

Throughout history,  it also referred to government officials, guardians or trustees, or to those who held sovereign power over a city or state. By the first century BC, it also referred to the deified rulers of nations or empires. “Caesar is Lord” was the commonly required oath of allegiance in the Roman Empire.

This casts a glaring light on Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 12:3, that “No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” A person on trial for his life could only escape the death sentence by replacing that confession with “Caesar is Lord; Jesus is cursed,” and burning incense at the imperial temple. A choice had to be made, which kingdom one would serve.

Soter, “savior”, likewise started out as a relatively low-key term. (Its related words will be considered in another posting.) “Savior,” “deliverer,” or “rescuer” might designate anyone who protected another from disease, death, or other disaster. It, too, however, as early as the writings of Homer, began to be applied, first to Zeus, and then to other gods, who were honored with temple sacrifices after a military victory or perilous sea journey, by those who had returned safely. Nearly every harbor town had a shrine available for such a purpose.
In both the LXX and the New Testament, God is called “savior”, in acknowledging the deliverance of his people.
Consequently, it was not a stretch for the emperors to adopt that title as well. Jesus hinted at that practice when he noted that “The kings of the nations … who flaunt their authority, are called benefactors…” (Luke 22:25). Eventually, only the emperor dared lay claim to that title.

It is interesting that the later New Testament epistles — Timothy, Titus, and II Peter — are the setting for most of the uses of the combined terms “Lord and Savior.” These were written at a time when persecution had become extremely intense, and lives were on the line daily: the ultimate test of loyalty to the King of Kings lay in that statement.

When will folks who weekly repeat declarations that Jesus is “Lord and Savior” — while displaying in their places of “worship” the symbols of “Caesar” (their earthly nation)! — dare to consider the far-reaching implications of making a faithful –and fate-ful –choice? Who is your King?