Jesus and the Forgiveness of Sins
August 23, 2016
What does it mean to say that Jesus forgives sins?
The standard Christian answer to this question is this: Jesus as the Son of God removed the guilt of sin from all human beings by sacrificing his life to the Father by crucifixion for that very purpose.
Since the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, which were the “constitutional conventions,” as it were, of the Christian Church, the Christian churches have taught that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine as he lived in Israel in the first century CE. That Jesus was truly human is attested by the scriptural accounts that he died of his crucifixion, and indeed, every Christian scripture attests that the earliest Christian communities recognized that his suffering and execution demonstrated his humanity. Further evidence of the Christian communities’ belief in the humanity of Jesus is the addition of two separate and factually inconsistent birth narratives, one to Matthew’s gospel and the other to Luke’s, both composed for the purpose of demonstrating the humanity of Jesus and also the miraculous and divinely intended nature of his birth.
Of the earliest Christian communities’ belief in the divinity of Jesus there is less unanimity. In the earliest gospels—the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke—Jesus never refers to himself as divine, nor does Jesus ever indisputably call himself “Son of God.” In these earliest gospels, Jesus consistently refers to himself in two ways: by using the first person pronoun, I, or by using the phrase, the Son of Man (80 times in the four gospels.) This phrase would translate the Hebrew, bar adam, “son of Adam,” or “son of the man.” Jesus’ use of this phrase appears to show him emphasizing his humanity.
Some scholars see the phrase “Son of Man” as referring to the seventh chapter of the Book of Daniel, in which
There came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Dn, 7:9-14.)
In this passage, an entity appearing to be human is presented to the Almighty and blessed with great power, in order to bring all nations to serve the Almighty. The Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, interpret this passage as an anticipatory declaration of the divine commissioning of Jesus, who is here referred to as “one like a son of man,” and who is believed to have taken that title upon himself, as a proclamation that he himself possessed the divine power and authority over all nations, to bring them to God.
Thus the Second Catholic Edition of the Revised Standard Version provides this note on Dn. 7:13:
a son of man. The same title with which God addressed Ezekiel. Here it means someone who is more than human.
The editors give no explanation for the conclusion expressed in the last sentence of the note. And this conclusion must be challenged. We must ask, “What about the phrase son of man in the Daniel passage indicates that the one described in this way is “more than human”? The phrase in this passage is identical with the phrase in Ezekiel, where God addresses the prophet, who is never in any way characterized as divine or “more than human,” as “son of man” dozens of times. It is obvious that in calling Ezekiel by this title, God is simply calling Ezekiel a human being. In fact, the New Revised Standard Version translates the phrase as “mortal.” For example, “The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, set your face against Mount Seir, and prophesy against it . . . .” (35:1-2.)
There is no evidence for the editors’ conclusion above. In fact, we seem to have in this conclusion a baseless expression of piety affirming the conventional interpretation. It is the editors’ valiant attempt to explain Jesus’ use of “Son of Man” as a confirmation of his self-declared divinity, a la the First Council of Nicea. In other words, the editors here are trying to make this passage in the Jewish Book of Daniel (written in the 2nd century BCE) conform to the Christology of the Christian church of the fourth century CE.
The pious application of Daniel 7:9-13 to Jesus always collapses on the evidence of the same chapter of Daniel, just three verses later, and afterward. When Daniel sees in his vision the terrible beasts which will arise against God and then sees the “one like a son of man” to whom the Almighty gives power and dominion, he turns to a heavenly being and asks the meaning of the vision. The response is:
These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, for ever and ever. (Dn. 7:17-18.)
Again in verse 27, Daniel is told:
And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom and all dominions shall serve and obey them.
It is evident from this that the “one like a son of man” in the first passage represents the nation of Israel as a single individual. Further on, in the succeeding two passages, the one receiving dominion from the Most High is clearly the entire people of Israel, the Chosen People, the “saints of the Most High.”
This way of designating the people of Israel as an individual is used often in the Psalms, when the speaker of the psalm refers to himself as “I” but what is said makes clear that the “I” speaks for the whole nation. For example,
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek, you break the teeth of the wicked. Deliverance belongs to the Lord; your blessing be upon your people! (Ps. 3:6-8.)
Sing praise to the Lord, who dwells in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds! For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the poor. Be gracious to me, O Lord! Behold what I suffer from those who hate me. O you who lift me up from the gates of death, that I may recount all your praises, that in the gates of the daughter of Zion [a public gathering place] I may rejoice in your deliverance. (Ps. 9:11-14.)
The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The Lord is the strength of his people, he is the saving refuge of his anointed. O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them for ever. (Ps. 28:7-9.)
My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth; they shall be given over to the power of the sword [not an individual’s but an army’s], they shall be prey for jackals. But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall glory; for the mouths of liars will be stopped. (Ps. 63:8-11.)
The encouragement which Daniel 7:9-13 offers, in the form of the victorious “one like a son of man,” makes sense historically. The Book of Daniel is the only apocalyptic writing in the Jewish scripture, and it was composed during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, amid terrible persecution of individuals and of the Jewish national values. (He was the merciless overlord who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem by placing the “horrible abomination” on its altar.) During this time of fear and distress, when the temptation to abandon the persecuted faith was strong and destruction of the nation loomed, the people needed affirmation and God’s promise of conquest. In response to this need, the Book of Daniel was written, and in the passage under discussion, the people received in Daniel’s divine vision the affirmation that the Most High would not abandon his chosen people but would lead them to dominion over their enemies.
In light of all this, chapter seven clearly does not portray an individual person receiving divine commission from the Almighty. Rather, the writer’s whole intention is to address the people of Israel and to give them hope amid their suffering.
Where does this leave us with regard to the question of Jesus’ use of the term “Son of Man”? The more likely explanation is that the man Jesus, attracting like a magnet the hopes of the hopeless around him—not only the diseased and grieving and outcast, but also the oppressed, the angry rebels, the Jewish nationalists, the seekers after God whose hope for a Jewish national theocracy was being dashed by the Roman legions—had to temper the expectations of so various and so perturbed a crowd—a crowd which, if the story is accurate, at least once tried to make Jesus king—and attempt to adjust their vision to his.
Jesus saw his mission as being to bring an effective way of life to the Jewish people—a life of peace and joy among one another. He desired to bring to his people a new way of life—the way of self-sacrificing love—in order that, regardless of the external circumstances, the internal Jewish community could have peace of heart and communal comfort and strength.
Jesus’ prescription for the Jewish national ills was not to offer military leadership nor to lead a rebellion against the occupying Roman forces. It was not a new religion or a different style of worship. It was simply the essence of Judaism: love God, and love each other in a strong, self-healing community. Give the Romans and the Jewish collaborators what they want, because what they want does not lead to God. It is simply money and power. Give them what they want, including your lives, if necessary. But do not give them your freedom, or your joy in the Almighty, or your care for each other. Freedom and joy and love are the way to union with God. I know, says Jesus, because I have joined with the Father already. I and the Father are one. And if you follow me to God by loving one another and living the life of communal sharing and peace, you will find the Almighty to be one with you as well. So come, follow me into loving harmony and mercy toward all, and into truth-telling, and into right focus on the One who creates us in love. Celebrate together! Live in love of one another! And rejoice, because you are then free to be one with your God!
Jesus’ focus was on a strong, thriving Jewish community of service and love, in which its members find mystical union with the Most High. That was his solution to the problems of first- century Israel. And that was his solution to the endless ills of humanity. His solution comes down to this: Give up trying to govern or to plan your own lives or the lives of others. Give up greed and adultery and malicious thoughts against each other—those worms which eat away, from within, the interdependence of a strong community. Give up everything that inhibits the Almighty from controlling your life. Live with generosity and respect and willingness to serve the people around you. In that way you will find freedom for yourself in the free community around you.
Jesus’ insistent proclamation that he is “just a guy, like you” (a valid translation of the phrase “Son of Man”) is the strongest evidence that he is not divine in the sense of carrying the “God genes” in his cells or spirit, which set him apart as a special version of homo sapiens who is the Creator. He never suggests anything of the sort. In fact, in at least two places he admits that he does not have the universal authority of the Father. In Mt. 24:36 he says,
But of that day and hour [of his Second Coming] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
And again he says to James and John and their mother,
. . . but to sit at my right hand or at my left [in heaven] is not mine to grant. (Mk. 10:40)
Now, if what Jesus says is always spoken in truth, then in these two places he is saying that he is not the equal of the Father; he is not the Almighty. Rather, he is, if he is in any way “genetically” divine, somehow at a lower rank than the Most High.
What, then, is Jesus’ relation to the One whom he calls Father? He tells us simply, over and over in the early gospels, especially in Matthew, that everything is gift—everything comes to us from God. The “birds of the air” don’t labor, he says, but still God provides sustenance for them. Everything is gift from God. Jesus learned simply to accept whatever gifts and opportunities he was presented with, to recognize God as being present in the giving of the gift, and to make the best of the gift, in the context of the faith of the community around him. John’s gospel captures the Way of Jesus concisely:
I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. (Jn. 8:28.)
You might object, Didn’t Jesus “rise from the dead” as God returning to God? Isn’t resurrection a proof of his divinity?
I answer: The meaning of the term “rise from the dead” is an open question. Is the term literal or metaphoric? If literal, does it mean to be restored to life, or to come into a different form of life? And so on. Discussion of these questions would lead us far afield from the question at hand. Let us say simply, in view of the present discussion, that if Jesus literally returned to life or assumed a new life after he had died and was palpably present as a living, corporeal being, then that too was a gift from God. Such a resurrection, in itself, is not a proof of divinity—at least not until the phrase “he has risen” is interpreted to mean “he has risen under his own divine power, conquering the power of death.” But in view of what has been shown here about Jesus’ denial of his divinity, this interpretation is not supported in scripture, and I conclude that it should be regarded as “pious but fanciful.”
[Without straying too far from the present question, please remember how crucially important it was to the bishops of the Emperor Constantine’s court that the divinity of Jesus be unquestionably affirmed. Before Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 CE, the Christian community had no political status or power, though it had developed a theology which claimed that its leaders had divine authority to speak for God in the world. This divine authority hinged on the acceptance of Jesus as equal in divinity with the Father, so that the powers which the gospels record him giving to the apostles/bishops could be defended as absolutely divine. In light of this very strong basis for political power, the Emperor, on becoming himself a Christian, wanted the “orthodox” Christian bishops to assume political authority in his domain.
[However, the interpretation of Jesus and Christianity known as Arianism challenged the foundation of the Church leaders’ authority, for Arianism called into question whether Jesus was equally divine with the Most High or was a lower-ranking, less pure form of Divinity. And Arianism was a widespread version of Christianity at the time when Constantine legitimized Christianity. Scholars say that at one point in this period there was a greater number of Arian bishops than there was of “orthodox” bishops. And so, since Arianism threatened the divinely-given authority of the bishops, Constantine convened the first of the the great ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. In these councils, the “orthodox” bishops had their Imperially-sponsored opportunity to crush Arianism.
[And so it happened. The Emperors convened the councils, the arguments were heard, the decisions were made, the documents were written, and after the defeat of Arianism, all but a few die-hard Arian bishops fell into line behind their orthodox victors. Nearly three hundred years after the death of Jesus, the decision which the original followers of Jesus could not reach was made by majority vote. (!) Jesus was declared to be divine—equally divine with the Father—by men who had never stood in the presence of the living human Jesus nor personally known anyone who had. Arianism was defeated by arguments from scripture as it was interpreted by theologians, who themselves were fighting to earn and then to defend their jobs—and their power—just as the bishops were.]
So, since those who knew Jesus as a friend and brother found it difficult to agree on the meaning of the term “Son of God,” we too should follow their lead and conclude that the divinity of Jesus is to this day an open question, not to be settled by simple proclamations.
It’s true that Jesus did allow himself to be called Messiah, which means “one sent by God to accomplish a mighty work leading to salvation.” But Messiah is not a title for Divinity. It is a title for a human being anointed by God to perform a saving task. Thus, Moses and David and Solomon and Sampson, and even King Cyrus the gentile, and many others in the Jewish Scriptures were considered messiahs.
As a Messiah, Jesus’ mighty work was not to die. All humans die. No, Jesus’ messianic work was to teach us how to live the Godly life in which we become one with God. He did this by establishing the community of self-sacrificing love where that life is led by its members, and then he invited everyone—Jew and Gentiles, men and women, rich and poor—to become members of the community and to live the life of love. The Christian Community, then, is the legacy of Jesus. And the great symbol of the boundless, loving sharing of oneself which is the guiding principle of the Christian Community is the Cross of Christ—not an empty cross, which celebrates life elsewhere than in this present age, but a cross with the dead or dying man hanging on it, which celebrates the boundlessness of every completely Christian person’s self-sacrificing love. The power of that love is what adheres each of its members to each other and to the community.
Does the death of Jesus save us from sin? Only in the pious but fanciful theology which we observed in the opening paragraph of this essay—a theology which Jesus attempts over and over again to deny—is death the source of life. If we overlook this theology and if we overlook what prompts it—the “high Christology” of the gospel of John, which was written seventy years after the death of Jesus and in a completely different spiritual and historical context—then we can accept Jesus as he presents himself in the earliest gospels—as a man, blessed by God with great understanding of human beings, and of the Most High as well, a mystic of very great depth who learned to live the perfectly human life of union with God in the bond of love, a man who inspired the faith of people, even to the point of faith-healings and other marvelous deeds, a man who knew how to lead people on the Way to God which Jesus himself walked and which he exemplified—the Way of the self-sacrificing community dedicated to love of God and love of one another.
The genuinely lived life of Christian community is the simple answer to our title question: How does Jesus save us from sin? He gave us a practical way to live life in harmony with one another and in mystical union with God. When we live that life, we do not often sin against one another. And when we do, we can reconcile with our brothers and sisters because we are brothers and sisters in Christian love. When this Way of Christian Love spreads throughout the world, as Jesus explicitly intended it to do, then sin will virtually vanish. When every person accepts and genuinely lives the Life of Christ, being Christ to others, there will be no more sin.
This is the forgiveness of sin that Jesus offers us: the way of other-centered love, in which we strive to offend no one, and when we do, we strive to reconcile with the victims of our offense, knowing that they also wish to return to harmony.
It’s so simple.
It’s so Jesus.
Copyright © 2016 by goddesire.com