Lessons from the Gospels
Taking a closer look at Jesus’ practical dealings with issues relating to sin and repentance.
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Jesus singled out for particular criticism two patterns of behaviour that, whilst appearing good and godly, are really dangerous deceptions.
In his first letter John stresses that anyone who claims to be ‘without sin’ is deceiving themself (1Jn 1:8). Jesus had a similar view of such people. Consider this…
He spoke also this parable to certain people who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others.”Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this: ‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luk 18:9-14)
The parable is heavy with sarcasm. “The Pharisee stood and prayed to (or by) himself.” He was taking the place of God by setting himself up as his own standard of righteousness. And God wasn’t even listening; because of the arrogance of his claim. This should be a strong warning to anyone claiming to have reached a state of sinless perfection, imagining that their life measures up to God’s standards or just thinking that they are more deserving of God’s favour than others.
But note that Jesus himself was different. On one occasion he actually turned on his bitterest enemies and demanded, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” Evidently, they couldn’t; as they instead resorted to an unsubstantiated claim that, “you are a Samaritan, and have a demon.”(Jn 8:46-48)
Some professing Christians have been led to suppose that all they have to do is to welcome Jesus as their Saviour, and they are free from any risk of God’s judgement for ever after. In the sense that there is nothing left for us to do in order to earn our salvation, that is absolutely true. But to suggest that Jesus is not expecting any further change in our lives is a deadly deception. Let me illustrate…
Following his rejection at Nazareth, Jesus went to Capernaum (Lk 4:16 & Lk 4:29-31), which became his new home (Mt 4:13). Simon, Andrew, James, John and Philip all came from the area around Capernaum and Bethsaida (Jn 1:44; Mk 1:16-29). Jesus performed many miracles in that area (Mt 8:5; Mk 1:30-34; Mk 2:1-12). After the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus was so popular that the people wanted to make him king, by force if necessary: but Jesus left them (Jn 6:14-15). They tracked him down again at the synagogue in Capernaum (Jn 6:24; Jn 6:59), professing themselves to be eager to do God’s work (Jn 6:28). But Jesus started to explain that their priorities were all wrong; that he was from heaven; that following him required a total change of outlook and a constant ‘feeding’ on Him for life and strength that only He could supply; and that he would have to die to make all this possible (Jn 6:27-58). This made no sense at all from their materialistic viewpoint; and they were not willing to change. The immediate result was that most of these professing disciples abandoned him (Jn 6:61-66).
These people had been happy to have Jesus with them while he was blessing them, healing them, setting people free, and supplying their needs: but they were not willing to change their perspective or their priorities. In short, most of them had never really repented. Jesus knew it: and their failure to do so had eternal consequences.
Then he began to denounce the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they didn’t repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you.” (Mat 11:20-24)
But please note that the crucial issue here was neither their lack of understanding of Jesus’ message, nor their bad behaviour. At that stage, the disciples who remained with Jesus also had little (if any) idea what Jesus’ talk of ‘feeding’ on him, or giving his life for the world, actually meant (Mt 16:21-23; Lk 18:31-34). And their own conduct still left much to be desired (Mk 9:33-34; Mk 10:13-14; Mk 14:50, Mk 14:66-72). But in spite of their shortcomings, they had been persuaded that Jesus was ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ and that he had ‘the words of eternal life.’ Because of this, they were committed to following him. (Jn 6:68-69).
True repentance is about being committed to follow Jesus; and to change the way we think and act, so that we can become progressively more like him in both our outlook and behaviour. Anything less is a dangerous counterfeit.
We have seen how Jesus deliberately raised the standard of behaviour expected from his disciples, ultimately telling them that they should “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). Yet he was dismissive of those who claimed to already be good enough (Lk 18:9-14). We have also noted that John acknowledges the possibility of sin whilst reassuring us that those who are seeking to follow Jesus can know constant forgiveness and freedom from a sense of condemnation and failure. Does this tally with Jesus’ own message and example?
One of the features of Jesus’ ministry that most antagonized the religious establishment was his readiness to forgive people’s sins. They recognized this as a claim to Divinity (‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ – Mk 2:7). But despite the risk to himself, Jesus was quick to declare his forgiveness.
Four people came, carrying a paralytic to him. When they could not come near to him for the crowd, they removed the roof where he was. When they had broken it up, they let down the mat that the paralytic was lying on. Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” (Mar 2:3-5)
But there were some of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak blasphemies like that? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mar 2:6-7)
Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to tell the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven;’ or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your bed, and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” -he said to the paralytic- “I tell you, arise, take up your mat, and go to your house.” (Mar 2:8-11)
Jesus even forgave sins that were punishable by death under Jewish law. See Lk 7:37-50 & Jn 8:3-11.
We have already noted that there were occasions when Jesus told people to ‘Sin no more’ (Jn 5:14 & Jn 8:11). But does this mean that he was not prepared to give them another chance? Consider this:
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21-22)
Jesus followed this up with the parable of the unforgiving servant(Mt 18:23-35), ending with the words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.” (Mt 18:35). The parable compares God to a king, who has been deprived of a sum so vast that it must have accumulated over a very long period, with a servant owed a much smaller amount. Jesus is effectively saying, ‘My Father has been far more longsuffering with you than you could ever be with your brother. That is His standard of forgiveness towards you; so you must do the same.’
But there is a caveat here. Jesus also said:
Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.” (Luk 17:3-4)
It is very likely that this was the saying Peter was quoting back to Jesus. Jesus’ response is to say that there is no effective numerical limit: but this saying also makes a point about the place of repentance in this. If a person repeatedly commits the same offence this casts doubt on the genuineness of their repentance. But Jesus’ instruction to us is that we should accept their words at face value and forgive. We are not qualified to judge their hearts: but God can and will judge both their hearts and ours.
“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with whatever measure you measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but don’t consider the beam that is in your own eye? “(Mat 7:1-3)
If we look at the disciples during the time that Jesus was with them, they were far from perfect. They argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest (Mk 9:33-37). James and John tried to trick Jesus into giving them the top two positions (Mk 10:35-45). The same two wanted to call down fire from heaven because they were not made welcome in a Samaritan village (Lk 9:51-56). They told the mums to stop pestering Jesus with their kids; which really upset Jesus (Mk 10:13-16). After a day’s ministry, Jesus was sleeping in the boat during a storm; and they accused Jesus of not caring if they drowned (Mk 4:33-38). Peter became a virtual mouthpiece of Satan at one point (Mt 16:21-23). He bragged that he would never forsake Jesus (Mk 14:27-31) and, shortly afterwards, they all did (Mk 14:50). Peter even cursed, swore and denied ever knowing him (Mt 26:69-75).
Jesus did not hesitate to confront these issues as and when they arose. But, having rebuked them, he never held it against them. And, in spite of Peter’s failure, Jesus still appointed him to lead the disciples (Lk 22:31-32; Jn 21:15-19).