Forgiveness

Jesus warned his disciples of a future day of judgment and said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). The Greek word that is translated give account, logos (log’-os) refers to something said including the thought, “also reasoning (the mental faculty) or motive; by extension a computation” (G3056). What this seems to suggest is that everything we say is somehow being recorded and when we stand before God to be judged he will use our own statements to determine our innocence or guilt in the things we have done during our lifetimes.

Jesus indicated that people who are bound in sin are loosed by the preaching of the gospel (Matthew 16:16-19) and said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:24-27). The Greek word that is translated save, sozo (sode’-zo) speaks “specifically of salvation from eternal death, sin, and the punishment and misery consequent to sin” (G4982). The point Jesus was making was that it is impossible for someone to save himself. Our sins must be forgiven or we will be separated from God for eternity.

Jesus taught his followers to ask God for forgiveness (Matthew 6:12) and promised them, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15). Peter asked Jesus, “how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). Jesus’ response was meant to indicate that there is no limit to the amount of forgiveness that we can give or receive because God’s grace is sufficient to cover all sins. Jesus used the parable of the unforgiving servant to illustrate his point. He said:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus explained that forgiveness was not based on the amount of debt one owed, but the creditor’s willingness to show compassion to another human being. Jesus said that we must forgive our brother from the heart. In other words, we need to be a compassionate person in order to express compassion to others.

Joseph’s encounter with his brothers when they came to Egypt to buy food during the famine showed that he was initially hard hearted toward them and treated them cruelly (Genesis 42:7-17), but his attitude changed when he saw their remorse. Genesis 21-22 states:

Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has some upon us.” And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

Reuben and the others realized they were guilty of a sin against their brother and they believed God was holding them accountable for it, but they didn’t know that Joseph was the Egyptian governor they were talking to and that he understood everything they were saying because he was using an interpreter to speak to them (Genesis 42:23). After hearing their confession of guilt, it says in Genesis 42:24 that Joseph “turned away from them and wept.”

Joseph’s lamentation for his brothers demonstrated that he felt compassion for them. Instead of making them all stay in prison until their brother Benjamin was brought to Egypt, Joseph only took one of the brothers. “And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey” (Genesis 42:25). Joseph’s change of heart was a result of him seeing and hearing the misery of his brothers’ guilt. In his parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus said, “out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:27). The Greek word that is translated pity, splagchnizomai (splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee) means to feel sympathy (G4697). “Splagchnon are the bowels which were regarded by the Hebrews as the seat of tender affections” (G4698).

The Greek word that is translated mercy in Matthew 18:33, eleeo (el-eh-eh’-o) “means to feel sympathy with the misery of another, especially such sympathy as manifests itself in act (G1653). Eleeo is derived from the word eleos (el’-eh-os). “Eleos is the free gift for the forgiveness of sins and is related to the misery that sin brings. God’s tender sense of our misery displays itself in His efforts to lessen and entirely remove it…It is used of men; for since God is merciful to them, He would have them show mercy to one another” (G1656). After the servant who owed ten thousand talents refused to forgive his fellow servant, Jesus said, “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailors, until he should pay all his debt” (Matthew 18:32-34).

Jesus talked about forgiveness in the context of salvation. The Greek word eleos “is used of God, who is rich in mercy, Ephesians 2:4, and who has provided salvation for all men” (G1656). The act of salvation is sometimes described as being converted. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The Greek word that is translated turn, strepho (stref’-o) means to turn quite around or reverse (G4762) and is similar to the Hebrew word shuwb (shoob). The basic meaning of the verb shuwb is movement back to the point of departure. “The process called conversion or turning to God is in reality a re-turning or a turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us, but whose we are by virtue of creation, preservation and redemption” (H7725).

The Hebrew word shuwb is used in Genesis 42:24 where it says of Joseph, “Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them.” It seems likely that when Joseph turned away from his brothers and wept he was converted; his heart was changed and he was able to forgive his brothers. After that, Joseph showed his brothers mercy by letting them go back home, returning the money they paid for their grain, and giving them provisions for their journey (Genesis 42:25-26). Joseph’s merciful actions prompted his brothers to fear that God’s involvement in their situation would lead to their undoing. When one of the brothers saw that his money was in the mouth of his sack, “He said to his brothers, ‘My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!’ At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, ‘What is this that God has done to us?'”

Joseph’s brothers were fearful because they knew they were not being treated the way they should have been. The unusual circumstances of their attempt to buy food in Egypt caused these men’s hearts to fail them. In other words, Joseph’s brothers were caught off guard or you might say tripped up by what was happening to them. Joseph’s course treatment and then his reversal by sending them back home with their money hidden in their bags was not only confusing, but also detrimental to his brothers’ spiritual well-being because they were unaware of what was going on and didn’t know why the Egyptian governor (Joseph) was treating them the way he did.

Jesus warned his disciples about causing others to sin. He said, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). One of the definitions of the Greek word that is translated sin in this verse is “to cause a person to begin to distrust and desert one whom he ought to trust and obey” (G4624). Joseph’s brothers and their families were suffering because of the famine in the land of Canaan and needed food to sustain their lives. Joseph’s harsh treatment of his brothers and his demand that they bring their brother Benjamin to Egypt to prove they weren’t lying to him made it more difficult for them to return to Egypt when their food ran out a second time (Genesis 42:38).

Jesus’ reference to little ones who believe in him in Matthew 18:6 was meant to point out that any person who has faith in God is considered to be just as important and valuable to God as Jesus is. Even though Jesus used the example of a child when he talked about little ones who believe in him (Matthew 18:2, 5), it’s possible he was talking about new or immature believers. He said, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10-11) and then he went on to say:

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18_12-14)

Jesus instructed his disciples to not go among the Gentiles, “but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6) and told the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Therefore, it seems likely that the little ones Jesus was talking about when he warned his disciples not to cause them to sin were the Jews that were supposed to inherit God’s kingdom.

In his parable of the lost sheep, Jesus asked, “If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them had gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” (Matthew 18:12). The Greek word that is translated gone astray, planao (plan-ah’-o) has to do with deception and is used in Revelation 12:9 with a definite article “as a title of the Devil” (G4105). One of the reasons believers go astray is because the devil deceives them and makes them believe a lie (Ephesians 4:14). Paul instructed the Ephesians, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil…Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:25-32).

Joseph’s harsh treatment of his brothers may have been warranted, but it wasn’t helpful and caused a situation that was already difficult to become even worse. Joseph could have revealed his identity to his brothers when he first saw them and let them know that he was put in his position to take care of their physical needs, but instead Joseph took advantage of his brother’s guilty consciences and tortured them into thinking they were unworthy of God’s mercy. Jesus told his disciples, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). Gaining your brother meant that you had won him to Christ or that he had been saved (G2770). Jesus went on to say, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).

Spiritual bondage seems to be associated with a lack of forgiveness, except that the person that suffers is not the one who has committed the sin, but the one who was sinned against. Like the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ parable, Joseph was unwilling to forgive his brothers after God delivered him from prison and placed him a powerful position in Egypt. Instead of forgiving them, Joseph used the position God gave him to torment his brothers and to capitalize on their guilty consciences. Even though he didn’t change his behavior immediately, Joseph did begin to show signs of tenderheartedness when he “turned away from them and wept” (Genesis 42:24) after he overheard his brothers admitting, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother” (Genesis 42:21).

Called

Paul’s letter to the Roman’s is believed to have been written during a three-month stopover in Corinth on his way to Jerusalem. Paul hadn’t been to Rome yet and may have been laying the ground work for his intended preaching of the gospel there. Paul talked about many of the basics of his gospel message including God’s plan of salvation and righteousness for all mankind (The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Introduction pp. 1613-1614). In his elaborate theological essay to the Romans, Paul covered pretty much every doctrinal base by touching on such topics as: “sin, salvation, grace, faith, righteousness, justification, sanctification, redemption, death, resurrection and glorification.” Paul began his letter to the Romans by identifying himself as “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel” (Romans 1:1).

Paul often referred to himself as being called to be an apostle and noted that all believers are called into God’s kingdom. The Greek word Paul used in Romans 1:1 that is translated called, kletos (klay-tos’) means invited (G2822). Paul was pointing out that God is the initiator in the relationship and that we have to respond in order to be saved. Another word Paul used that is also translated called in Romans 4:17 is kaleo (kal-eh’-o). Kaleo means “to call (properly aloud but used in a variety of applications directly or otherwise)” (G2564). The Greek word kaleo is usually used to specify what something is called. For example, it says of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:21 , “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS.”

Paul’s conversion, which is recorded in Acts 9:4-5, indicated that Jesus called Paul by name when he confronted him on the road to Damascus. It states: “Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.'” One of the unusual characteristics of Paul’s encounter with Jesus was that he didn’t recognize the voice of the person speaking to him. It is possible that Paul’s understanding of his conversion was that he was involuntarily recruited to be God’s servant. That may have been why Paul pointed out numerous times that he was called to be an apostle rather than choosing the position for himself.

Jesus described his attempt to convert Paul as a goad and said, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5). The picture Jesus was most likely painting for Paul was one of a donkey that bucks against his masters’ prompting to move forward. In other words, Jesus was implying that Paul was acting like a stubborn mule. The Greek word translated goads, kintron is used figuratively to signify divine impulse, “‘a prick,” Acts 9:5; 26:14, said of the promptings and conscience ‘stings’ which Saul of Tarsus felt before conversion, possibly at approving and witnessing the stoning death of Stephen” (G2759). Even though God prompts us to answer his calling, he doesn’t force us to be converted. We must respond voluntarily to the divine impulse that draws us into God’s kingdom.

The revelation of Jesus Christ

Paul’s letter to the Galatians opened with a brief testimony of how he became an apostle of Jesus Christ. The primary reason Paul felt it was necessary to share his experience of conversion was because his teaching was being contradicted and its authenticity challenged by Jews that Paul claimed were perverting the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:7). Paul argued, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Paul went on to boldly declare that his message came directly from Jesus and plainly stated, “But I certify to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12).

The importance of Paul having received his message through a revelation of Jesus Christ was that its distinct content could not be verified by anyone else. Whereas, Jesus’ twelve apostles could vouch for the authenticity of each other’s messages, Paul had no one to back him up. Paul explained his situation as being appointed by God for a particular mission, specifically to preach the gospel to the non-Jewish races. He said, “But when it pleased God who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:15-19).

It appears that Paul received his revelation from Jesus during the time he was in the Arabian desert, because according to Acts 9:20, Paul began preaching the gospel while he was in Damascus, before he went up to Jerusalem to see Peter. Paul’s account of his conversion demonstrated that God was solely responsible for his salvation. Paul didn’t seek to become an apostle of Jesus Christ, he was “called” just as Jesus’ twelve apostles had been. The Greek word Paul used that is translated called, kaleo (kal-eh’-o) means to call aloud (G25640. Paul was therefore most likely referring to the voice he heard on the road to Damascus that had asked him the pointed question, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4). After Jesus identified himself, Paul asked him, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6), an indication that Paul’s conversion took place after Jesus had identified himself and Paul was able to associate him with the voice he believed to be God’s.

A spiritual revolution (part one)

Paul’s first missionary journey quickly changed the focus of his attention. Initially, Paul followed the course of Jesus’ apostles and taught in Jewish synagogues about the fulfilled promise of a Savior for God’s chosen people (Acts 13:23), but then he turned to the Gentiles and faced a great deal of persecution from the Jews. Paul’s straightforward message was good news to the Gentiles because they understood they were being included in God’s plan of salvation. After hearing his teaching in Antioch in Pisidia, the Gentiles wanted Paul to preach to them the next week also and Luke reported, “the next sabbath came almost the whole city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming” (Acts 13:44).

Paul and Barnabas’ objective in turning to the Gentiles was to fulfill God’s great commission to take Jesus’ gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28:19). Their succinct explanation of the situation showed that Paul and Barnabas were only interested in doing God’s will. Speaking to the Jews in Antioch in Pisidia, Luke reported, “Then Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you: but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles. For so hath the Lord commanded us, saying, I have set thee to be a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:46-47). Paul and Barnabas placed the blame on the Jews for their rejection of God’s free gift of salvation. The Greek word translated unworthy, axios has to do with deserving God’s blessing (G514). Although the Jews were destined for salvation, their rejection of Jesus caused them to lose the preferential treatment they previously had through the Old Covenant. According to the prophet Jeremiah, Israel will be restored at some point in the future and will serve God as they were originally intended to (Jeremiah 30:9).

Unlike Peter’s experience with the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:17-48), Paul and Barnabas’ impact on the Gentiles in Antioch in Pisidia appeared to be the result of the moving of the Holy Spirit rather than an answer to prayer. Luke said of Paul’s message of salvation, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). The expression “ordained to eternal life” indicates that “eternal life involves both human faith and divine appointment” (note on Acts 10:48). The Greek word translated ordained, tasso means “to arrange in an orderly manner, i.e. assign or dispose (to a certain position or lot)” (G5021). Tasso is associated with positions of military and civil authority over others and is used in Luke 7:8 to describe the assignment of soldiers to a particular location and activity. The centurion stated, “For I also am a man set (tasso) under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it” (Luke 7:8). Therefore, it seems likely that God’s divine appointment of certain individuals to salvation has something to do with spiritual warfare and the orderly government of his kingdom.

Chosen by God

Saul of Tarsus, who later became known as the Apostle Paul, started out as a vicious enemy of the church that was located in Jerusalem. When Stephen was martyred for his candid preaching of the gospel, it says in Acts 7:58 that those who stoned him “laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” Saul was thought of as the “arch-persecutor” of the church (Roman Damascus, p. 1572) because of his violent treatment of believers. Saul’s plan to stamp-out Christianity before it was spread abroad caused him to seek letters from the high priest to the synagogues in Damascus “that if he found any of this way; whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). Saul’s reference to Christianity as “the way” may have been meant as a derogatory comment against its gospel message. The night before he was crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). It is likely Saul had heard Jesus’ words repeated by his apostles and was determined to prove them wrong.

Luke’s account of Saul’s conversion showed that he was stopped dead in his tracks as he proceeded to carry out his plan of preventing the gospel from spreading through Damascus, the hub of a vast commercial network with far-flung lines of caravan trade reaching into north Syria, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Persia, and Arabia (Roman Damascus, p. 1572). Luke said:

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: and he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus, whom thou persecutes: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. (Acts 9:3-5)

Jesus’ message to Saul was intended to make him aware of the fact that he wasn’t doing God’s work, he was hindering it. The statement “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” could be simply translated as “Saul, you’re going the wrong way!” Saul’s immediate submission to Jesus’ authority is apparent in his question, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).

Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus resulted in him being blind for three days until a man named Ananias came and laid his hands on him (Acts 9:9, 17). During that time, people may have wondered if Saul had lost him mind or was having a nervous break down. There was no apparent explanation as to why Saul suddenly changed his mind about arresting the Christians in Damascus. The only one who knew what was going on was a man named Ananias, who had received a message from the Lord about Saul’s conversion. Ananias was directed to go to Saul’s location and was told to put his hands on him so that he could recover his sight (Acts 9:11-12), but Luke indicated Ananias was reluctant to obey the Lord’s command because of Saul’s bad reputation. He said:

Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. (Acts 9:13-16)

 

An unusual conversion

Philip, one of the other seven men besides Stephen who was selected to oversee the church in Jerusalem, was bold enough to go down to the city of Samaria and preach the gospel to them (Acts 8:5). Samaritans were despised by the Jews because of their unwelcome presence in the former capital of the nation of Israel. There were many opportunities for Philip to perform miracles in Samaria because of it’s pagan history and continued worship of idols. After the Israelites were expelled from this territory and taken into captivity by the Assyrians, Samaria was resettled by “men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim” (2 Kings 17:24). These men respected God, but did not serve him. They served their own gods by setting them up in the places where the Israelites had previously worshipped Jehovah (2 Kings 17:29-33).

The many miracles Philip performed in Samaria got the peoples’ attention and caused them to believe in Jesus. It says in Luke 8:9-13:

But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.

Simon’s conversion appeared to be genuine, but he didn’t seem to understand that the power of God couldn’t be obtained by external means. After Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given to believers, he offered the apostles money in order to obtain the same ability (Acts 8:18-19).

Peter’s response to Simon’s request indicated there was a spiritual problem affecting Simon’s thinking. Peter said, “Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, If perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity” (Acts 8:22-23). The Greek terms that are translated gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity suggest that Simon was still in spiritual bondage even though he appeared to be saved. One way to describe what was going on would be to say that Simon’s mind had been poisoned, somewhat like a person that has been brainwashed. According to Peter, the answer to Simon’s spiritual problem was to repent and fully submit himself to God. It’s unclear whether or not Simon took that step because his final request made it seem as though his faith had not been genuine. Simon asked Peter, “Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me” (Acts 8:24).

One sinner

As Jesus passed through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem, he came across a man that was eager to meet him (Luke 19:3-4). Luke identified Zaccheus as a chief tax collector and noted that he was rich (Luke 19:2). Zaccheus’ occupation is “referred to only here in the Bible, probably designating one in charge of a district, with other tax collectors under him. The region was prosperous at this time, so it is no wonder that Zaccheus had grown rich” (note on Luke 19:2). The problem with Zaccheus’ profession was that he worked for the Roman government and was probably perceived to be a traitor. It is likely that everyone hated Zaccheus except for those who worked in the same profession. When Jesus decided to stay at Zaccheus’ house, the crowd complained about it, saying, “That he has gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner” (Luke 19:7).

Tax collectors and sinners were often associated with one another (Matthew 9:10, 11:19, Mark 2:15, Luke 5:30); most likely because they were both perceived to be the outcasts of society. The assumption that Zaccheus was a sinner may have been based on him having a reputation for stealing money from his constituents. When Jesus told Zaccheus he was going to stay at his house, it says in Luke 19:8 that “Zaccheus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.” Jesus responded to Zaccheus’ gesture by stating, “This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:9-10).

The Greek word translated lost in Luke 19:10 is apollumi. The idea apollumi conveys “is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being” (G622). In Zaccheus’ case, it could have meant being separated from loved ones or isolated from the community because of his job as a chief tax collector. According to the Apostle Paul, the destruction of unbelievers is “not annihilation, but exclusion from the Lord’s presence (2 Thessalonians 1:9); thus the ruin of life and all its proud accomplishments” (note on 1 Thessalonians 5:3). In that sense, you could say that a sinner’s life is wasted because all that is accomplished is lost at the time of his death. The Greek term that is usually translated sin, harmartano is properly translated “to miss the mark (and so not share in the prize)” (G264).

Jesus likened his mission of seeking and saving the lost to a shepherd searching for his one lost sheep. He asked his listeners, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” (Luke 15:4). Jesus went on to say that repentance from sin was a cause for celebration and was witnessed by those who are in heaven. He told his audience, “Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:10). Zaccheus’ conversion is an important example of God’s unbiased desire to reverse the effects of sin in any and every person’s life that is willing to admit he had missed the mark and alienated himself from God. As a result of his repentance, not only was Zaccheus saved, but his entire family was also (Luke 19:9).

The lost sheep

Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep was set in the context of an argument that was going on between his disciples about who was the greatest among them. It is likely their argument was the result of an incident in which some of Jesus’ disciples were unable to cast out a demon because of their unbelief (Matthew 17:20). Perhaps, James and John who had just returned from a mountaintop experience in which Jesus was transfigured were taunting the other disciples because of their lack of spiritual experience or were boasting about having just seen Moses and Elijah with Jesus as his face shined like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). Jesus rebuked his disciples by setting a little child in the middle of them and saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Jesus established that the first step in serving God was to be converted or renewed in one’s relationship with the LORD. Jesus’ disciples didn’t seem to understand that God wasn’t looking for miracle workers, but children that wanted to spend time with him. Jesus began his teaching about restored fellowship with the warning, “Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). The point Jesus was making was that a small child that was unable to do anything to impress God was so important to his Father that he kept himself constantly updated on their physical well-being and spiritual growth. Jesus then reminded his disciples, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (Matthew 18:11).

The Greek word Jesus used to describe someone that was lost, apollumi (ap-ol’-loo-mee) is derived from two other words that depict separation and ruin, that is punishment by death (575/3639). Jesus was talking about someone that was going to hell for eternity, an eternal separation from God. After establishing his purpose and specific assignment from God, Jesus said, “How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? (Matthew 18:12). Jesus’ reference to going into the mountains may have been an indication that the lost sheep(s) he was referring to were the three disciples that were taken with him on the mountain to witness his transfiguration. The point being that James, John, and Peter were not more righteous than the other disciples, but more at risk of eternal damnation.

Jesus concluded his teaching about fellowship with an illustration of the benefit of working together with other believers rather than competing against them for God’s attention. He declared, “Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:19-20). The lesson that may have been hidden or tucked away within Jesus’ teaching about fellowship was the way that we are able to do more for God’s kingdom. Although two people agreeing about something may not seem like that difficult of a task, the argument between Jesus’ disciples about who was the greatest showed that they were at odds with each other and didn’t want to admit that they were all lost, separated from God and in need of a savior.

 

Conversion

Jesus told his disciples, “Verily, I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become like little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The Greek word Jesus used that is translated converted in this verse, strepho (stref’-o) is typically translated as turn or turned. Strepho means “to turn quite around or reverse” (4762). At the time when Jesus spoke these words, there was a little child standing in the midst of his twelve apostles and they were discussing who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. What Jesus likely meant by becoming like little children was the reversal of his disciples spiritual development. He wanted them to start from the beginning and learn all over again what they knew about God.

Jesus said emphatically, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). The word humble had a specific connotation to God’s people because of their history as slaves in Egypt. The Greek word Jesus used, tapeinoo (tap-i-no’-o) is used figuratively to express humiliation and it suggests that he wanted his disciples to be willing to humiliate themselves in order to please God. Mark’s record of this conversation indicated a responsibility on the part of Jesus’ disciples to keep themselves from leading others into sin by way of their bad behavior (arguing about who was the greatest Mark 9:34). Jesus said, “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believeth in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea” (Mark 9:42). This may have been a picture of the typical burial of a worthless servant.

Jesus’ lesson about true discipleship was an extension of his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in which he warned against anger, adultery, and divorce. Jesus was intentionally reminding his disciples that the slightest infraction of the law was considered to be enough to bring judgment against an individual. Jesus said about the sin of adultery, “That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). Jesus’ repetition of this illustration (Matthew 18:9) of the drastic measures that needed to be taken in order to avoid sin in his lesson about true discipleship was no doubt meant to jolt his disciples back into reality and make them aware of the fact that their status in God’s kingdom was not based on spiritual accomplishments. Conversion, “turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us” (7725) is a lifelong process that ultimately brings us to the conclusion that our only purpose as members of God’s kingdom while we are alive on earth is to preach the gospel to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 9:16).

Spiritual food

Jesus often used physical illustrations to portray spiritual concepts that were difficult to understand. One of his most obscure lessons had to do with spiritual sustenance or what Jesus referred to as the bread of life (John 6:35). The context of this conversation was a miracle Jesus performed in which he fed more than 5,000 men, women, and children with five barley loaves, and two small fishes (John 6:9). Afterward, many people followed Jesus across the sea of Galilee to Capernaum because of the meal he had provided them. Reprimanding the people for their focus on temporary satisfaction, Jesus said, “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:27). The Greek term translated meat, brosis refers generically to the intake of food (1035), but it is also associated with animals grazing in a pasture, such as sheep, one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors for God’s children. What Jesus was telling the people was that spiritual food was more important than physical food in terms of what he could provide for them. With regards to his purpose for being on earth, Jesus’ primary objective was to educate people about God’s kingdom and to assure them of eternal life.

Jesus said of himself, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Jesus emphatically stated that spiritual hunger and thirst could be eliminated by means of a relationship with him, but then he made it clear that not everyone had been given access to this provision. It was first necessary for God to draw or choose someone to be a member of his heavenly kingdom (John 6:44). Jesus’ implication that God would exclude some people from his kingdom was probably intended to deter those who thought that partaking of the spiritual food he provided meant automatic entrance into heaven. In reality, eternal life was something that few people were interested in. The word Jesus used to describe God’s part in the conversion process “draw,” or helkuo helko in the Greek, literally means “to drag” (1670). In other words, God takes people against their will and causes them (most likely through unpleasant circumstances) to want to go to heaven. A related word that provides additional clarity about God’s selection process is the Greek word helisso which means to coil or wrap (1667), suggesting that God must first tie the person up in order to drag him or her into his kingdom.

Jesus probably added further confusion to people’s understanding of spiritual food when he said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world” (John 6:51). The Greek term translated flesh, sarx refers to the meat of an animal that is used as food (4561). The point Jesus was making was that his death on the cross would be the thing that all believers would have to eat, or in a spiritual sense, partake of in order to receive eternal life. Ultimately, Jesus’ death was the key to salvation, and therefore, the food that brought eternal life, but what Jesus wanted people to understand was that “eating” meant they would have to fully digest or comprehend the sacrifice he made in order to get the benefit of it. It was the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross that gave believers access to heaven, but it was through the individual’s personal comprehension of his sacrificial act that God granted salvation. In other words, it was through an internal, invisible process, like the digestion of food, a person received salvation, God’s gift of eternal life.