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.

King Herod

Herod the tetrarch had jurisdiction over the territory of Galilee during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Sometime not long after Jesus’ ministry was launched, Luke tells us that Herod shut up John the Baptist in prison because he had reproved him for marrying his brother Philip’s wife (Luke 3:19-20). King Herod knew John was a righteous man and because he was thought to be a prophet by most of the people, Herod didn’t kill John, but kept him in prison and listened to him preach with pleasure (Mark 6:20). That is, until his birthday, when Herod was enticed into beheading John in order to satisfy the wish of his step-daughter, who had danced for Herod and all his officials at a birthday supper (Mark 6:21).

Herod’s lack of moral conviction was revealed by his decision to grant his step-daughter’s request rather than be embarrassed in front of his dinner guests. Herod’s demonstration of his low regard for John’s life also showed that his teaching had not penetrated Herod’s hardened heart. Mark’s description of the situation suggested that Herod’ was glad when his step-daughter asked him to kill John because that meant he wouldn’t have to take the blame for his death. Mark said it was “a convenient day,” meaning it was well timed that is opportune (2121) for Herod to do what his step-daughter asked him to.

It’s possible that Herod staged the whole birthday incident, just so that he could get rid of John without any reprisal from the people that recognized him as a prophet. Matthew’s account of John’s death says that when Herod asked his step-daughter what she wanted for her service to him and his guests, “she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger” (Matthew 14:8). More than likely, it was not Herod’s opportunity, but that of his wife, Herodias that was taken advantage of that night. After Herod was asked for John’s head on a platter, Matthew said, “And the king was very sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be giver her” (Matthew 14:9).

The tragic death of John the Baptist was a major setback for Jesus’ ministry in that it hurt him and his disciples deeply and discouraged them from preaching the gospel in public. Matthew stated, “When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart” (Matthew 14:13). The Greek word translated apart, idios (id’-ee-os) suggests that Jesus was looking for some privacy so he could mourn the loss of his cousin John. In spite of his effort to get away for awhile, the people followed Jesus and his disciples on foot and met them when they landed on the opposite shore (Matthew 14:13-14). Later, when Herod heard of Jesus’ fame, he said, “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him” (Matthew 14:1-2).

Transition

John the Baptist played an important role in the transition that took place during Jesus’ three-year ministry on earth. John marked the end of the old economy in which sacrifices for sins had to be made on an ongoing basis. John’s statement, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) indicated that Jesus would radically change the way God’s people worshipped him. At the end of his life, after he had been imprisoned for his message of repentance, John began to have doubts and became deeply discouraged. Because of his confusion about the situation, John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matthew11:3). Jesus told John’s disciples to remind him of all the things that were happening. He said, “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5).

Jesus’ controversial message brought fear and doubt to many people because they didn’t understand God’s plan of salvation. The transition from works of righteousness through sacrifice to God’s free gift of redemption was a hard one, mostly because it meant that anyone could enter into God’s kingdom, if he was willing to admit he was a sinner and couldn’t save himself. The hyper-critical Pharisees in particular, thought they were keeping the law and were perfect in God’s sight. Jesus exposed these men’s judgmental attitudes and cautioned his followers. Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The problem was that no one believed it was possible to be more righteous than a Pharisee. The Greek words Jesus used for exceed, perisseuo (per-is-syoo´-o) pleion (pli´-own) mean to superabound, to be greater than or in excess of what is required (4052/4119).

During the transition from the Old Covenant, the Mosaic Law, to the New Covenant, salvation by grace, Jesus emphasized the importance of the Jews attitude toward what they thought was sinful behavior. He stated, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children” (Matthew 11:18-19). The point Jesus was trying to make was that the people were not content with their new situation. They wanted everything to be as they liked, comfortable and easy to handle. In essence, they thought Jesus and John the Baptist were too radical. The Jews were looking for a nice, middle of the road viewpoint to follow. The statement, “But wisdom is justified of her children” (Matthew 11:19) was meant as a criticism of the Jews lack of awareness of the extreme sacrifice Jesus was making by taking upon himself the responsibility for saving the world.

How much?

Jesus paid tribute to John the Baptist and said of him, “Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28). Jesus’ acknowledgment of John was meant to be understood in the context of all the Israelites that lived under the Old Covenant, or more specifically, the promises God made that were fulfilled prior to his birth. Jesus’ association of John with those that are “born of women” suggested that he was comparing John with unbelievers. Jesus followed up his comment about John with this statement, “but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). Perhaps, the best way to interpret Jesus’ commendation of John the Baptist would be to see it as a way of explaining John’s doubts about who Jesus was. It says in Luke 7:19, “And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?” John didn’t know for certain that Jesus was the Messiah because he wasn’t born again.

Jesus went on to explain that forgiveness was a byproduct of faith, not the other way around. He used an example of forgiveness to explain that faith was the determining factor of genuine belief and that love for Jesus was the measure of how much someone had been forgiven. The only way that someone could know for certain that Jesus was who he said he was; Israel’s Messiah, the Son of God, was to demonstrate faith. Speaking to a Pharisee named Simon that had invited him to have dinner at his house, Jesus said:

There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one ought five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. Mine head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. (Luke 7:41-47)

According to Jesus’ story of the creditor with two debtors, both the Pharisee and the woman’s sins were forgiven. The difference between these two sinners was that the Pharisee only had his sins forgiven, whereas the woman was justified in the eyes of God. Jesus’ statement to the woman, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace” (Luke 7:50) indicated that she had obtained much more than just the forgiveness of her sins. The Greek word Jesus used that is translated peace, eirene (i-ray´-nay) indicated she had a harmonized relationship with God. In other words, she was fully restored to prosperity and was a blessed child of God.

Baptism

John’s baptism was meant to cleanse sinners from the stains upon their spirits that caused them to separate themselves from God. Just like Adam in the garden of Eden, everyone that commits a sin against God knows that he is guilty and deserves to be punished for what he has done. The key to understanding the effect of John’s baptism was to realize that God didn’t want people to live with the guilt they felt for the rest of their lives and had made a way for their sins to be removed from their spiritual awareness. The description of John’s ministry found in Mark 1:4 states, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” The Greek word translated remission basically means freedom, but it also has a legal connotation that suggests a pardon, such as when a prisoner is set free and is forgiven of his offense. Although John’s baptism was welcomed and there were many who took advantage of his offer of forgiveness, John made it clear that he was preparing the way for Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. “And he preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the lachet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Mark 1:7-8).

John’s baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although the details vary, there is one aspect of Jesus’ baptism that is the same throughout, the arrival of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit on the earth. Mark described it this way, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11). The baptism of the Holy Spirit was different than John’s baptism because it signified the beginning of a new life. Not only did God intend to forgive the sins of those who accepted his Son as their Savior, but he also wanted to enable believers to live a life similar to that of Jesus Christ, one that would be consistent with his commandments. The Holy Spirit, who is also God in the same way that Jesus is, dwells within believers and causes them to be convicted or aware of their sins. The Holy Spirit’s job is to cause believers to repent and to seek out God’s will for their lives. Only through the Holy Spirit can one really understand what it means to be a child of God. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, no one can realize what Christianity is really all about.

John recognized that Jesus did not need to be baptized by him, because he had no sins to repent of. John tried to forbid him from doing it, but Jesus persisted, “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). What Jesus was saying was that the Holy Spirit needed to be introduced to humanity through his own baptism. You could say that Jesus’ baptism was symbolic of the baptism of everyone that would follow in his footsteps. As the Holy Spirit descended upon him, Jesus represented all of mankind in its sinful state being reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit appeared immediately after Jesus was raised up out of the water (Mark 1:10), because it is the Holy Spirit’s presence that regenerates the believer’s heart and makes him alive spiritually or what we think of now as being “born again” (John 3:3). In his first gospel message, Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ instruction to believe the gospel was intended to be a reminder that repentance was not enough. In order to be truly born again, one must believe that a new way of life is possible.

Repent

John the Baptist’s message was very simple and direct. The single most important point he made could be summed up in one sentence, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). The Greek word translated repent, metanoeo (met-an-eh´-o) means “to think differently or afterwards that is reconsider” (3340). At the core of John’s message was the idea of looking at the world differently, to see things from God’s perspective. The kingdom of heaven had to do with the rule of God and was considered to be both a present reality and a future hope for the Jewish people that lived during Jesus’ ministry on earth (Note on Matthew 3:2). The unique time period in which John preached was a key factor in the way he talked to people about repentance. According to John, time was of the essence; there was no time to waste when it came to getting right with God.

Some of John’s harshest messages were directed at the religious leaders that appeared to be righteous, but were only pretending to be interested in God’s kingdom. What the religious leaders really wanted was to control the Jews behavior. They made up rules that they expected everyone to lived by, but the rules were actually too difficult for the people to follow. Matthew 3:7-12 states about John:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

John’s introduction of the spiritual concept of fruit was meant to make people aware of the fact that God wanted to see evidence of the change that had taken place in people’s hearts. Merely saying that someone had repented was not enough. As fruit is a tangible sign that a tree is reproducing or bringing forth a new source of life, so fruit in a Christian’s life showed that a real change of heart had taken place and a new way of living would follow.