If we expect God to forgive us of our sins – and we do – we must first be willing to forgive others of theirs. It is relatively easy to forgive others of sins not committed against us, but when it’s personal it’s another matter. Years ago, I wrote an article on forgiveness for a Christian publication suggesting that one should be willing to forgive even adultery if the one who committed it was truly repentant. A man wrote me a raging letter. “I can forgive anything but that,” he wrote. “My wife committed adultery against me and I simply can’t, and won’t, forgive it!”
Adultery is not the worst sin – it’s the third worst. Ahead of it are idolatry and murder. The fourth worst is slander. Let’s consider forgiveness in light of these top four sins. Keep in mind that all sin is against God for he sets the standard.
Worshiping a false God is the worst sin one can commit. It is a direct affront to God. It replaces the infinitely powerful, all-wise, eternal God with a created object fashioned by man. Why else was idolatry so bad? “Idolatry was accorded precedence because it entailed the denial of Revelation and consequently the shattering of the basis of the whole system of religion and ethics,” Everyman’s Talmud by Abraham Cohen, p.97. The commandment against idolatry is one of the Seven Noachide Precepts – obligatory on all mankind.
From the time of the golden calf to the time of the last kings of Israel and Judah, the Israelite people tended to slip into idolatry. God sent prophet after prophet to warn the two houses that their idolatrous ways would bring them nothing but misery.
Misery happened. The houses of Israel and Judah went captive. They paid a terrible price for their sins, the chief of which was idolatry. Yet God was always willing to forgive upon repentance. Time and time again he expressed his love for unfaithful Israel. To the degree the kings, leaders and people of Israel repented, God forgave them and restored their fortunes. He was not reluctant to forgive, but anxious. He says to the repentant houses of Israel: “…I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more,” (Jeremiah 31:34b).
In New Covenant times, God forgave the gentile converts of all their sins, including aspects of idolatry. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes…will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, excerpts).
Corinth sat under the shadow of a 2000-foot outcropping of rock that formed its acropolis. Dominating the view was a huge temple dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. The cult of Aphrodite, a fertility goddess, was served by both male and female cult prostitutes. Funds acquired in this fashion were donated to the temple coffers. One author describes the activities of these “priestess courtesans” as “…the last degeneracy of some fertility cult,” Cities of the New Testament by E.M. Blaiklock, p. 58.
Some members of the Corinthian congregation had served as temple prostitutes in this degenerate cult. Yet God, in Christ, was willing to forgive them utterly. They were now washed – cleansed of their idolatrous sins. In forgiving those who have sinned directly against him, God has set an example for us.
The Sin of Murder
The commandment sometimes translated as “Thou shalt not kill” is actually about homicide or murder, not simply killing. In Exodus 20:13 the word translated “kill” in the KJV is ratsach meaning “murder.” Most other versions translate accordingly.
Committing homicide is the second worst sin anyone can commit. “Whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture regards him as though he had destroyed a whole world,” Mishnah Sanh.37a. And, “If one sheds blood it is accounted to him as though he diminished the Divine Image,” Ex. 20:13 Mechilta. [Note: The Mechilta is a commentary on Exodus.]
The idea that the divine image is diminished by murder is based on Genesis 9:6. Notice also James 3:9. To commit homicide was to qualify for the death penalty.
Jesus, the Son of God, was murdered. His trial was bogus and his torture and killing were illegal and homicidal. Yet he was able to say of his killers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” – Luke 23:34.
One spring evening, King David was sauntering around on the roof of his palace. From that vantage point, the king spied a beautiful woman bathing. Like any normal man, he was aroused at the sight of her. He inquired after her and found out she was a married woman, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and the daughter of a man named Eliam. Her name was Bathsheba.
Her marital status didn’t stop David. “Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her,” (II Samuel 11:4).
To add insult to injury, David then arranged for the death of the woman’s husband (II Samuel 11:14-15). Bathsheba became pregnant as a result of her adulterous relationship with David, so he brought her to his house and made her his wife. Here we have a case of both adultery and murder. In what appears to be an understatement, we read, “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord,” (II Samuel 11:27b).
In his displeasure, the Lord sent Nathan the prophet to David with a dire message about the king’s abuse of power (II Samuel 12:1-4). Of Uriah, the prophet said, “You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites (verse 9). And, “you took his wife…” (same verse). God said through Nathan, in effect, “After all I’ve done for you [verses 7&8] you have despised me by committing this evil [verse 10].”
Consequently, David had to live all of his life with warfare (verse 10). The Lord also said, “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel,” (II Samuel 12:11-12).
As a result of his sins, King David had to live a purgatorial life. As he had taken Uriah’s wife, so God would take his. What the king had tried to cover up, the Lord exposed. Israel had to know there was no double standard – one for the king, another for the people. David’s apparent sense of entitlement in taking a man’s wife from him, and getting rid of the husband, was unjustified. He would have to live with the results of his sins.
David, unlike King Saul before him (I Samuel 13:12; 15:13,20), accepted the Lord’s rebuke and repented, “Then David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord,’” (II Samuel 12:13). David’s prayer of repentance is found in Psalm 51.
God accepted the king’s repentance, “The Lord has taken away your sin, you are not going to die,” (verse 13b). As a result of David’s repentance, and God’s forgiveness, David grew beyond his sin to become a “man after God’s own heart” and a type of the Messiah. Of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, David wrote 73. This is the power of forgiveness!
“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold,” Proverbs 22:1. Our ability to function in society is largely dependent upon our reputation – our good name. Once a person has been stigmatized, he or she will find it difficult to do business, get or hold a job or become married or form friendships.
Sadly, there are people in this world who delight in bringing others down by destroying their reputation. Slander, by definition, is “a malicious, false, and injurious statement spoken about a person,” (Oxford Pocket American Dictionary of Current English). Gossip can often give rise to slander. Knowledge of another’s sins can become the currency of gossip.
In Everyman’s Talmud, we read the following: “To the three sins named [idolatry, murder and adultery], a fourth is added as an evil of exceptional gravity, viz. slander,” (p. 97). In the religion of the TaNaKh, slander is called “the third tongue.” Why? Because “it slays three persons the speaker, the spoken to, and the spoken of,” (ibid. p. 99).
In our society, once a person has been stigmatized as a “sex offender” or a “financial scam artist,” they’re done – whether the charges are true or false. How many jobs and careers have been shot down by unverified third party reporting and gossip?
Lets take it one step farther – if a sinner is repentant should he still be stigmatized as a sinner? Should we think of King David as an adulterer and a murderer now that he has repented and been forgiven by God? Would it not be slanderous to call him something he no longer is?
The spirit of unforgiveness is often born of a desire for revenge. If we have been sinned against, we want our “pound of flesh.” We want to get back at the person who hurt us. We want to make them pay for what they have done to us. So we spread stories about their real or imagined sins. We deliberately try to ruin their reputation.
Sins that arise from a desire for revenge are often worse than the sin that started the whole cycle. The mate who commits murder to avenge his or her spouse’s adultery becomes a worse sinner than the adulterer. The wife who commits adultery to avenge her husband’s adultery becomes an equal sinner. [Study also the example of this mentality in Rehoboam in I Kings 12:1-15.]
Upon repentance, God forgives all sins, from the least to the greatest. He has forgiven our idolatries, our murders, and our adulteries. He forgives our slanders. We are here to imitate God. Dr. Brad Young writes, “One of the main thrusts of Jesus’ teaching is man’s responsibility to forgive…God will not have mercy on those who refuse to forgive (Matthew 6:14-15, 18:35; Mark 11:25),” The Jewish Background to the Lord’s Prayer, p, 28).
On the matter of attacking repentant sinners, Young cites Ben Sira: “Reproach not a man who repents of transgression, but remember that we are all sinners.” A godly person ought to grow to the point where he or she can forgive anything, upon repentance. As Young says, “A forgiving attitude is an essential quality that is required of Jesus’ disciples.
“Jesus understands the liberating power of forgiveness. A tremendous release occurs when one is able to forgive even the most heinous act. Jesus exemplifies forgiveness when he looks upon the soldiers who are crucifying him…The Lord prays, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34) – ibid. p. 30.
Finally, think about this: What if you were standing before the judgment seat of Christ and he said to you, “I forgive all of your sins – but this one. I just can’t forgive that one.”? We need to get to the point of maturity where we can forgive anything that God forgives – and that includes everything of which someone is repentant.