Why is it that the New Testament makes such a big deal about forgiveness?
The New Testament requires that Christians forgive one another and bear with one another. Paul constantly condemns arguments with in the Church and what he calls backbiting. He says this will lead to our destruction. This teaching is so strong that Jesus says flatly and with no escape hatches that ‘if we do not forgive others He will not forgive us’. Why is this so important? Is this just because He wants us to be nice? The short answer is no, this is part of a larger plan.
Many people take these issues as simply one of a list of rules to follow. We certainly should obey the Word of God whether we understand the reasons on not, but I have found that many teachings are part of an overall plan. When we know the plan then obedience under difficult circumstances becomes easier. After all at the end Jesus called the disciples ‘friends’ because ‘servants’ don’t know the masters business, but friends get to know His heart.
I want to show you two dramatic reasons why it is essential to forgive one another and they are at the core of who we are as the body of Christ and individuals. First, there is John 17 which records Jesus’ last prayer before the cross. He prays for Unity in the body so that the world will know that He came from the Father. Unity is important because without it the world will not accept Jesus as divine! Backbiting and unforgiveness destroy unity and the devil is very effective in using these tools to convince the world that the Church is just another religion.
Is it any wonder that Paul and others spent so much effort addressing the issues that destroy unity. On those grounds alone we should be motivated to come together. A full discussion of John 17 can be found elsewhere, John 17: Where does the power come from
There is a second reason why it is important that we not speak against one another and forgive one another and that is the focus of this essay. When we disrespect one another and speak against one another we step into a promise God made to Abraham and that we have inherited because we are children of Abraham. “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” Gen 12:3. This is the focus of this essay. What are the implications of this promise?
This is a very sobering promise even on the face of it. But it is actually much worse. Most English translations of this passage miss an important subtly in the Hebrew. The NET Bible captures this difference. “I will bless those who bless you, but the one who treats you lightly I must curse, and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.”
Notice the difference. The sense is ‘I voluntarily choose to bless someone who blesses you’ but God requires Himself to curse the one who even treats you lightly.
With only slight hyperbole we can say: If you fail to greet Abraham because you are preoccupied with your own business then the nature of the universe requires that you be cursed. Even if you did not intend to harm him!
If you don’t believe this interpretation consider Pharaoh (Gen 12:10-20) and Abimelech (Gen 20). They both took Sarah as a wife because Abraham lied. In spite of the fault being entirely Abraham’s their households were cursed! In Abimelech’s case the curse was only lifted when Abraham was compensated and prayed for him. That is Gen 12:3 in action.
That is the negative side of this promise. There is a positive side that reveals God’s heart for the nations. Even after the fall of man God continued to find ways to bless His creation. In Abraham’s day it was Abraham who was to be a blessing to the nations. Of course the main way in which Abraham became a blessing was as the ancestor of Jesus. But God is always looking for a way. we might even say excuse, to bless His creation. In this promise He creates an easy way to get a blessing even for those who do not follow Abraham’s God. Here is a people, bless them and get a blessing in return. Remember that as long as Israel was in captivity in Babylon God blessed that nation. Jeremiah 29. In Mark Jesus is recorded as saying “For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.” Mar 9:41
Scripture says He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. It also says in 1 Peter 3 that “God is not willing that any should perish but all should come to eternal life: God’s nature is both justice and mercy. But the promise also requires that God curse all who come against the Church. Is it any doubt why God would so insist that we pray for those who disspitefully use us and forgive them! If Jesus had not forgiven those who crucified Him the world would have been destroyed.
The Gentile Church has stepped into Abraham’s promise
The New Testament makes clear that those in the Gentile Church are Abraham’s spiritual children. We are not his only children and Israel still carries the original promises. Romans 11:11-15 makes clear that at the right time Israel will be restored and step into the end time promises along with the Gentile Church. Those walking in Abraham’s promises can be a great blessing to the world or we can be very very dangerous. As we will see we can also be very dangerous to ourselves.
Examples from post Cross times
Lets look at some historical cases since 0 AD and examine a couple of scenarios explaining what happens in Churches and ministries.
Jews and the Ottomans
Since I now live in the Eastern Mediterranean and the dream of Ottoman glory very much alive the history of that empire is very much alive for me. The Ottoman’s were an opponent of Christianity for almost 500 years and overran the ancient foundations of the Church. One thing that has always puzzled me is why the Lord allowed that empire to prosper for so long. Recently one historical fact got driven home. Over much of the middle ages Jews were persecuted by the Church. Not only the Catholics but also the Orthodox and the Protestants. In the 16th century Jews were expelled from most Catholic nations.
It was the Ottomans who welcomed them and made a place for them. During this time the Ottomans were blessed and given dominion over most of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. It was only when the time drew near for Israel to become a nation again that the Ottomans began to lose power. I do not have the final answer but it is interesting to ask: did God bless the Ottomans because they gave refuge to the Jews?
Two world leaders
Governments gain favor and dominion for many reasons that we only partially understand, but one factor is how they treat the Christian Church and the Gospel.
Although much about the Catholicism planted in the new World is problematic Spain and Portugal planted the Church wherever they went and God allowed them to dominate the world for a season.
During the time Britain ruled the waves it was the major nation sending out missionaries to the world. Of course they were not the only ones. Most of the major colonial nations had missionaries in the field. When the USA stepped into a position as a world power. It had already assumed the title of the nation sending the most missionaries.
Of course these nations and their colonial officials did not always or even often operate according to Christ’s heart. They don’t get credit for it but the missionaries were often the ones fighting to prevent abuses. The nations did however open the door.
As we are thinking about this one there is another interesting twist to history. There is some evidence that China could have dominated the world rather than Europe during the last six hundred years. By 1400 China had ships and military technology that far outstripped anything in the West. Their navigation techniques were years ahead and their ships routinely sailed the Indian Ocean and at least one historian claims there was evidence they circumnavigated the globe decades before Columbus got to the America’s. They were poised to dominate globally and they were curious and exploring. What stopped them? A lighting strike and fire that destroyed the first Forbidden City. The Confucian scholars were never happy with exploration and commerce. When the Forbidden City was destroyed they convinced the Emperor that God was unhappy and all exploration was shut down. Perhaps they were right.
What we are heading into now is serious enough I could not resist the diversion into history and speculation. If you fully grasped the weight of Abraham’s blessing you know how easy it is to be overwhelmed. Our hope is that we walk in the grace of the Cross and resurrection and we have the promise that we will be supplied the strength we need.
Open up a space for repentance and salvation
Jesus insists that we bless those who curse us and pray for those who dis-spitefully use us. When we understand the Abramic blessing when it is obvious that there are two reasons to do just this. First, we show them the love of God. But, secondly we block the curse that flows automatically when they come against us.
When you consider this think first about the cross! Jesus had said hours before that there were 12 legions of angels at His command. One angel in Israel killed 50 thousand people in a morning and this would have been around 9200. If Jesus had not forgiven them the earth would have been torn apart by 9200 very angry angels.
Because God is patient he does not want those who disspitefully use us to be destroyed by a curse. That must remain in God’s hands. God always wants us to join Him in His work He gives us the opportunity to forgive and reverse the curse to a blessing.
The upward and downward spirals
A blessing trap
God wants His people to be instrument of blessing in the World not just to each other but to everyone who will receive from Him. The rain in scripture is all about harvest and increase. We serve a God who causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mathew 5:45)
So God is looking for a way to bless even the ungodly but He must to this without violating His justice. So I think He looks for way to bless people if they give Him the slightest chance. He even sets up ways to do this, but how can He do this without violating justice!? The Abramic blessing!
If anyone blesses someone who carries the Abramic promise then God gets to bless that person! There are a set of scriptures in the Paul’s letters that encourage Christians to work as unto the Lord even when they have a difficult boss. Lets walk through a scenario of what can happen in such a business.
When Christians are faithful and industrious workers a wise boss has an opportunity to notice this and reward these employees. When they are Christians the Abramic blessing flows toward the employer and the business increases. With increased business everyone is better off even Christians who are struggling in the faith find it easier to follow the command to think about the business rather than themselves. This positive atmosphere makes it easier for the non-Christian employer to continue to reward. An upward spiral starts of mutual blessing.
If the employer is selfish and refuses to acknowledge blessing or takes the believers for granted then the upward spiral is threatened. This is where forgiveness on the part of the believers helps. This blocks the curse that would otherwise come on the business. It buys grace and time for the employer to recognize the blessing the used to flow and again bless his employees.
Of course all of this is also a powerful witness for Christ to the managers and non-Christian employees.
This same upward spiral can happen between trading partners or nations, when a nation corporately acknowledges Yahweh or Jesus. Favor towards God’s people leads to blessing which leads to more favor. Persecution leads to a curse unless it is blocked by forgiveness.
There is an upward spiral that can happen between a Christian boss and non-believing employees but the principles are slightly different. Those spirals are discussed in coming essays on business principles.
Of course a downward spiral can also begin. When Christians are walking in the flesh rather than the spirit persistent persecution can lead to a refusal to forgive on the part of Christians which causes the curse to flow toward the business and also causes the Christians to lose forgiveness from God and can bring judgment on them. Such judgment can remove the Lord’s blessing on the work of their hands and make them less productive. The response can be additional persecution which intensifies the curse and begins to destroy the business.
This downward spiral can be especially devastating when both the employee and the employer are Christians. At that point the full curse begins to operate in both directions and the downward movement operates more quickly. This christian-christian downward spiral is even more devastating in another context.
The Devils delight: a slug fest in the Church
A huge potion of Paul’s letters deals with conflict within the Church body. We have touched on the purpose of unity in the Church and its role in evangelism. Now we must talk about how this operates in the context of the Abramic blessing. Paul calls it biting and devouring Gal 5:15.
Unfortunately throughout Church history and I would guess most people’s experience it is the negative effect that is most prominent.
All believers in the Church carry the Abramic promise. Ideally we would be especially careful around each other to bless and slow to disrespect, misuse or curse one another. Unfortunately this could not be further from the truth. We are much more likely to be careful to ‘love the sinner’ than each other.
Since we are all imperfect God has called us to forgive and bear with each others weaknesses. That way we overcome and walk in blessing.
Of course the enemy of our souls knows us well and is quick to turn the intended blessing into his best weapon. Lets walk this through.
When a brother or sister in the Church sins against us then no matter how good they are in other ways a curse flows toward them. It is God’s desire that we forgive quickly and block that curse. If we are both wise Christians then this opens the door for repentance and restoration. Even if the offending Christian refuses to repent we get a blessing from God because we have chosen to forgive and bless.
But if we refuse to forgive two things happen. One the curse continues and causes problems for that brother or sister. In the Church these ‘problems’ are not just personal and can lead to failure in things the Lord has called them to do and accomplish. Second, a curse flows toward us because we have refused to forgive (contrary to Jesus’ command) and in doing that have wounded our sister or brother. Now our walk is in danger. No one except the devil wins and he wins big.
This dynamic destroys families and congregations and even entire movements. I mentioned the Ottomans earlier. The early Islamic empires had armies staffed by slaves brought from the Christian Black Sea by Italian slave traders. Constantinople only fell after is was sacked by the forth Crusade. The Orthodox Christians of Cyprus initially welcomed the Ottoman invaders because of Catholic persecution. The mission movements to Islam in the 19th century were crippled by opposition from Christian minorities who could not forgive and came against missionaries reaching out to their traditional enemies.
Whether it is battles over the color of the carpet or political domination: long memories, refusal to repent and unforgiveness have brought a continuing curse on believers throughout the world. We must learn to walk in the grace and forgiveness that is our birthright. If we can not do it no one can.
A word about offense and taking offense is important here and the related idea of defensiveness. It is common in the world today to make the whole notion of ‘offense’ subjective. So the speaker bears all the responsibility for what the hearers imagination makes of a statement. So even truth spoken even in love becomes offense.
Likewise we are often quick to take offense at the slightest hint we may have done wrong especially when hint is mistaken or confrontational.
In normal human intercourse this is a very dangerous idea. Our imagination can lead us to very wrong conclusions unless we test where they lead. I know many people who live in perpetual turmoil because they imagine meanings that no one intends and that more secure people would never hear.
Furthermore, the truth often hurts in the short term and humans are not very good at softening the blow. However, the truth is almost always best in the long run.
I would love to say that in the context of the Abramic promise ‘offense’ does not include imaginary offense but I am not sure that is true. Certainly in Pharaoh’s case no harm was intended yet the curse operated. In that case the ‘harm’ was real if unintended. So unintentional harm still requires that we operate in repentance and forgiveness. But that also requires that those ‘harmed’ not silently nurse grudges and bring the problems to light.
The most difficult case is when the ‘harm’ is purely psychological and due to an imaginary meaning to an innocent action or statement. My initial hyperbole falls into this category. Will the curse really flow if we are caught up in the problems of the day and fail to greet Abraham. Here if Abraham is wise he doesn’t think that every action is directed at him and just laughs at absent minded Joseph. But what if he is not wise?
This is where it is vital that the Church walk in grace and give grace to each other. `Let’s look at two possible outcomes assuming the worst, that imaginary offenses can trigger the curse.
The best outcome comes when forgiveness flows. If the person offended forgives immediately then grace flows to them and they can get to test their interpretation without confrontation and the other person gets to bless them without defensiveness or looking down on them for their mistake. Everyone gets to bless without reservation and in turn get a blessing from God.
If forgiveness does not flow or the ‘forgiveness’ is not genuine then we step into a downward spiral. If in fact there is a curse that flows from the imagined offense that flows unrestricted. However, because the ‘offended’ person is essentially making an unjust accusation they become the target of the curse as well. Now the other person has a choice if they hear of the false accusation. They can condemn the ‘offended’ person or they can give grace.
If they give grace and understanding at least the curse does not intensify and we can hope that a ‘blessing’ through not speaking badly will reverse the effect of the imagined offense. On the other hand if they condemn the other then we quickly enter a downward spiral of mutual offense and now the offenses are real.
As the Church we need to pass all these tests.
The birthright of all Believers
The Abramic blessing makes all believers a powerful source of blessing and or cursing in the world. Although we, the Body of Christ, have often failed in walking this out in the world we are not finished. King David failed miserably at times, but his role and witness in the world continued because He never made excuses and repented quickly.
It is our birthright as believers in Christ filled with the Holy Spirit to navigate these minefields with hope and grace. Even though Church history is full of our failures on this point that does not change the claim of scripture that with every test we have the power to escape.
With the birthright and the grace to recovery when we fail we can be the blessing to the world we were intended to be.