The remission of sins

An important requirement of the LORD’s relationship with the people of Israel was that they had to be consecrated or to be made holy in order to have contact with him. The consecration of the priests involved the sacrifice of specific animals, putting on holy garments, being anointed with special oil and with the blood of the ram of ordination on the tip of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot. At the conclusion of this process, Exodus 29:31 states, “You shall take the ram of the ordination and boil its flesh in a holy place. And Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram and the bread that is in the basket in the entrance of the tent of meeting. They shall eat those things with which atonement was made at their ordination and consecration, but an outsider shall not eat of them, because they are holy.” The atonement that was made was of supreme theological importance in the Old Testament as it was central to an Old Testament understanding of the remission of sin. At its most basic level, the word kaphar (kaw-far’) “conveys the notion of covering but not in the sense of merely concealing. Rather, it suggests the imposing of something to change its appearance or nature…The word also communicates God’s covering of sin. Persons made reconciliation with God for their sins by imposing something that would appease the offended party…By this imposition, sin was purged (Psalm 79:9, Isaiah 6:7) and forgiven (Psalm 78:38). The offences were removed, leaving the sinners clothed in righteousness (cf. Zechariah 3:3, 4)” (H3722). Once a year, the process of consecration had to be repeated so that all of the Israelites’ accumulated sins could be atoned for. The Day of Atonement occurred on a specific date and became an axis on which the entire Mosaic Law seemed to revolve. Leviticus 16 describes the events that took place on the Day of Atonement. A critical element of the process was the scapegoat being sent away into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people.

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel…And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:6-10, 20-22)

The confession of sins that took place when Aaron placed both of his hands on the head of the live goat was meant to transfer the guilt from the sinners to live animal so that it could be removed from their consciousness. Leviticus 16:29-30 states, “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.” Afflicting yourself means that you do a type of soul searching that forces you to see yourself as you really are, a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness.

John the Baptist’s ministry bridged the gap between the Mosaic Law and the gospel of Jesus Christ by linking together the concepts of atonement and regeneration through his messages about the remission of sins. Mark 1:4 states, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (KJV). The Greek word that is translated baptism, baptisma (bap’-tis-mah) means something immersed, but metaphorically it can mean “baptism into calamity, i.e. afflictions with which one is oppressed or overwhelmed” (G908). This word may have been used by John to bring to mind thoughts of being drowned by the weight of sin or consumed by the waters of guilt. Mark went on to say, “And all the country of Judea and Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5). People were openly identifying themselves as sinners when they went to John to be baptized, but the key to the remission of their sins was repentance. The Greek word that is translated repentance, metanoia (met-an’-oy-ah) means “a change of mind…implying pious sorrow for unbelief and sin and a turning from them unto God and the gospel of Christ” (G3341).

Luke’s gospel contains a prophecy from John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah that clarifies John’s role and the purpose of remission of sins. It states:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;
For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,
To give knowledge of salvation to His people
By the remission of their sins,
Through the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;
To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79, NKJV)

According to Zechariah’s prophecy, remission of sins was intended to give God’s people knowledge of salvation. In other words, salvation was experienced through the remission of sins. It made salvation real to them so that they could understand how it worked in a more practical way. Zechariah’s prophecy depicted Jesus’ ministry as a source of spiritual light. The term Dayspring which is used in reference to Jesus Christ is derived from the Greek words ana (an-ah’) denoting upward movement (G303) and telos (tel’-os) “a noun meaning an end, a term, a termination, completion. Particularly only in respect to time” (G5056). One way of interpreting Dayspring could be the last sunrise and it seems likely that this term was associated with the prophetic time period known as the last days in which Christ is expected to reign on Earth. Zechariah said that the Dayspring would “give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). The Greek word epiphaino (ep-ee-fah’-ee-no) which is translated give light, when it is used metaphorically means “to be conscious, to be known and manifest” (G2014). The Greek word that is translated darkness, skotos (skot’-os) is spoken of “a dark place where darkness reigns” and is spoken figuratively “of moral darkness, the absence of spiritual light and truth, including the idea of sinfulness and consequent calamity” (G4655). From that standpoint, the darkness could represent the human heart and the light that shines upon it the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The first epistle of John begins with his personal testimony about the eternal life that was made real to him through Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. John said:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

The Greek word that John used that is translated touched, has to do with verification by physical contact (G5584). John wanted his readers to understand that he had experienced physical contact with God through Jesus’ human body. John referred to Jesus as the word of life in order to convey a tangible aspect of eternal life which was Jesus’ ability to walk around on earth and to have conversations with human beings after he was resurrected.

John conveyed an important point about the remission of sins by utilizing the metaphor of light and darkness that was introduced through Zechariah’s prophecy. John said:

This is the message that we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

John associated the remission of sins with walking in the light. It seems likely that John was referring to the regular confession of sin when he talked about walking in the light as God is in the light, but it’s possible that he was referring to the repeated practice of memorizing scripture. John contrasted walking in the light with walking in darkness. The Greek word that is translated darkness in John 1:6, skotos (skot’-os) is used figuratively to refer to “persons in a state of moral darkness, wicked men under the influence of Satan” (G4655). From that standpoint, walking in the light could mean being under the influence of the Holy Spirt. In whatever way you look at it, John was making it clear that the blood of Jesus does not cleanse us from sin unless we do something to initiate the process.

John indicated that practicing the truth was necessary for fellowship with God. The Greek word poieo (poy-eh’-o) is used figuratively “of a state or condition, or of things intangible and incorporeal, and generally of such things as are produced by an inward act of the mind or will” (G4160). Therefore, practicing the truth has to do with a conscious decision that we make to do what Jesus commanded us to. When he instituted the New Covenant, Jesus gave his disciples specific instructions about how they were to deal with sin from that point forward. Matthew’s gospel tells us:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29, NKJV)

Jesus indicated that his blood was being shed for the remission of sins and Paul pointed out in his first letter to the Corinthians that it is the remembrance of Jesus’ sacrificial act that we are to practice on a regular basis (1 Corinthians 11:25). Paul added, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). One of the meanings of the Greek word kataggello (kat-ang-gel’-lo), which is translated proclaim in 1 Corinthians 11:26, is “to implant in the mind by repetition” (G2603).

The point of Jesus’ blood being shed for the remission of sins was that it contained the essence of his divine nature in a form that was connected to the animating force of human life. Leviticus 17:10-11 explains the function of blood in the atonement for sins. It states:

“If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.”

The King James Version of the Bible translates the Hebrew word nephesh (neh’-fesh) as both life and soul, whereas the English Standard Version uses the words person, life, and souls interchangeably. Nephesh is properly translated as “a breathing creature, i.e. animal or (abstract) vitality…When this word is applied to a person, it doesn’t refer to a specific part of a human being. The scriptures view a person as a composite whole, fully relating to God and not divided in any way (Deuteronomy 6:5; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:23)” (H5315).

John concluded his discussion about walking in the light with an admonition to confess our sins so that the cleansing or atoning power of Jesus’ blood can be applied to them. John said:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

Jesus’ ability to cleanse us from all unrighteousness is based on his blood being sufficient to propitiate or reconcile us to God completely because it satisfies God’s requirements for atonement perfectly. Paul explained Jesus’ once and for all transaction of redemption in his letter to the Romans. Paul said:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

God’s divine forbearance is witnessed to by the Holy Spirit because of his ability to convict us of our sins (Hebrews 10:15-18). Remission of our sins results in us having a clear conscience.

John noted that there was a condition to the remission of our sins. John said, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, emphasis mine). To confess our sins means that our lives “say the same things” that Jesus did. In essence, you could say that remission of sins is an indicator of a life that has been aligned with God’s word. God is able cleanse us from all unrighteousness because Jesus took our guilt upon himself when he died on the cross. In a similar way to the goat that was sent away in the wilderness on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:21-22), our sins are removed from our consciousness as if they had never been committed and we are able to start fresh in our walk with the Lord.

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