jasonbwatson

December 22, 2015

The significance of the virgin birth

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is not as well known as Luke’s but it is just as important. Matthew gives is the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph’s side, while Luke gives it from Mary’s side. Joseph’s lineage is important because it traces the ancestry of Jesus from Abraham and through David. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus–and that Jesus had no biological father at all. This is a point Matthew makes quite clear. Beginning in verse 18, Matthew says, in essence, “here’s the way it happened.”

First, Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In Jewish custom, a betrothal was just as binding as a marriage. It was much stronger than an engagement in our culture. While ending an engagement may be awkward and even painful, there are no legal ramifications or consequences for doing so. It can be accomplished through mutual agreement or by just one party changing his or her mind, and it takes nothing more than saying, “I changed my mind.” Not so with a betrothal. While a betrothed couple was not yet married, and the marriage certainly had not been consummated, the man and woman were viewed legally as being married and the only way to terminate a betrothal was through divorce.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The term “betrothal” in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law.

Several Biblical passages refer to the negotiations requisite for the arranging of a marriage (Gen. xxiv.; Song of Songs viii. 8; Judges xiv. 2-7), which were conducted by members of the two families involved, or their deputies, and required usually the consent of the prospective bride (if of age); but when the agreement had been entered into, it was definite and binding upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation.

The Hebrew root (“to betroth”), from which the Talmudic abstract (“betrothal”) is derived, must be taken in this sense; i.e., to contract an actual though incomplete marriage. In two of the passages in which it occurs the betrothed woman is directly designated as “wife” (II Sam. iii. 14, “my wife whom I have betrothed” [“erasti”], and Deut. xxii. 24, where the betrothed is designated as “the wife of his neighbor”). In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.

Matthew tells us that when Mary became pregnant it was after the betrothal but before “they came together.” I think this has two connotations to it. First, after a man and woman were betrothed there was a period—often one year—in which the husband-to-be would leave his wife-to-be, return home to his parents’ home and build a home—literally, a series of rooms—onto their home for he and his wife. So what was called the “hometaking” had not yet occurred. Second, the physical union of Joseph and Mary had not yet taken place. They were betrothed, not married, and they were neither living together nor had they consummated their marriage.

Mary was “found with the child of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew says in verse 18. In Luke 1, starting in verse 26, we see Luke’s account of the announcement of Christ’s birth. In verse 31, Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a son. In verse 34 Mary asks how that could be. Mary, it says, asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” That is how it is translated in the KJV and NKJV, but the ESV, NIV and NASB render it, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”

John MacArthur comments on this verse this way: “Mary understood that the angel was speaking of an immediate conception, and she and Joseph were still in the midst of the long betrothal…before the actual marriage and consummation. Her question was borne out of wonder, not doubt, nor disbelief, so the angel did not rebuke her as he did Zacharias (v. 20).”

At the end of verse 18, Matthew says that Mary “was found with the child of the Holy Spirit.” Both Matthew and Luke make it explicitly clear that Mary was a virgin at the time she became pregnant with Jesus. We all know this, of course, but we may become so comfortable with the fact that we fail to comprehend how incredibly important this fact really is.

In his book The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes,

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

John MacArthur has written, “The importance of the virgin birth cannot be overstated. A right view of the incarnation hinges on the truth that Jesus was virgin-born.”

David Mathis, in an article entitled “The Virgin Birth,” has written this:

What is the significance of the virgin birth? To begin with, it highlights the supernatural. On one end of Jesus’ life lies his supernatural conception and birth; on the other, his supernatural resurrection and his ascension to God’s right hand. Jesus’ authenticity was attested to by the supernatural working of his Father.

Secondly, the virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its savior must come from outside.

Thirdly, in the virgin birth, God’s initiative is on display. The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted—gently but decisively—to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Finally, this virgin birth hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person. The entry of the eternal Word into the world didn’t have to happen this way. But it did.

That Jesus was born of a virgin is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in chapters 7 and 49. If you believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible then there is no doubt that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant and still when she gave birth to Jesus. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah is sometimes translated as “a young woman” or “an unmarried woman,” which has caused some so-called scholars to suggest that Mary was not actually a virgin. The Greek word used by Matthew, however, is an unambiguous term–there is no other possible meaning or translation of the word.

Writing for Answers in Genesis, Chuck McKnight explains it this way:

The Hebrew word translated as “virgin” is ‛almah. While it is sometimes translated as “young woman,” we must look at the context to determine what it means in this particular instance. The birth prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 was to be a special sign from the Lord—a clear demonstration of His power. As young women regularly conceive and give birth, that would hardly make for a unique indicator. If ‛almah only meant “young woman” here, then any one of the billions of births since then could be claimed as a fulfillment of prophecy.

It was not, of course, possible for any one of the billions of births to fulfill the prophecies or to provide the perfect atoning sacrifice necessary to provide forgiveness for the sins of mankind. That Jesus was born of a virgin narrowed the candidates for prophecy to fulfillment to one. It was biologically impossible for a virgin to conceive. Even with the scientific advances we have today, which make unnecessary the act of sex in order for pregnancy to occur, a woman cannot become pregnant without the essential chromosomal contribution of a male. When Mary conceived the baby Jesus, however, there was no contribution from a male. Mary conceived miraculously, doing something no human had ever done before or has ever done since. Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. The one and only human who ever lived who fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies, the one and only human who ever lived a sinless life, and the one and only human who could pay the penalty for sin demanded by a just and holy God. So let us not lose sight of the virgin birth, because nothing could be more significant.

February 11, 2015

Discernment and caution

In the last post, I described why it so important for churches to exercise discernment and caution when deciding who will become a member. Though not referenced explicitly in that post, it is just as crucial for individual believers to exercise discernment and caution when selecting a church to join, or when weighing a decision to stay in a church.

The extreme dangers of both are exemplified in an article in the January 26 issue of TIME entitled “A Change of Heart.” The article provides an overview of the varying positions on homosexual marriage within evangelicalism. The church that is spotlighted in the story is Seattle-area EastLake Community Church. The article’s lead paragraph describes all of the ways that the church “looks like a lot of other evangelical megachurches,” but is really praising the trendiness of the church. And before I address that church’s stance on homosexual marriage let me address this trendiness issue. The TIME article says that EastLake “boasts 13 weekly services at six locations…; the head pastor is a bearded hipster; and the main campus is a warehouse turned sanctuary where greeters serve coffee, a tattooed band rocks out beneath colored lights and attendance swells whenever the Seahawks are not playing.”

That these are the characteristics considered common among evangelical megachurches does not speak well for evangelical megachurches! None of those descriptors amount to a thing when it comes to faithfulness to Scripture. God is far more concerned that a pastor is a Bible-proclaimer than a bearded hipster. His desire is that church members actually serve each other and their communities; I suspect He could not care less whether or not the greeters serve coffee. (Actually, if the coffee becomes a focal point or a distraction, I suspect He does care, and He is not in favor). I feel equally confident that God is far more concerned with the lyrics of the songs and the hearts of the singers than He is with the bodily adornment or the colored lights. And if the church’s attendance fluctuates considerably (which “swells” would imply) based on whether or not the local NFL team is playing, I think God would have a question or two about the level of commitment to Him that would be found in the members/attendees of the church. See, I may be wrong, but the notion of church attendance swelling when the Seahawks are not playing makes me think that going to church is the next-best thing to do on a Sunday morning in Seattle for those whose presence “swells” the attendance at EastLake. If the church is a trendy, fun or “hip” place to hang out when there’s no football, there is a problem. (See also: my many previous references to the need for church to be uncomfortable).

All of that aside, the real point of the introductory paragraph of the TIME article is this conclusion: “It [all of the happenings of the church described above] is almost enough to make you miss what is really going on at EastLake this winter: the congregation is quietly coming out as one of the first openly LGBT-affirming evangelical churches in the U.S.”

I will go ahead and say it, and the fact that many will disagree with me or call me intolerant, biased, opinionated or discriminatory matters to me not one bit: “LGBT-affirming evangelical church” is a contradiction. It is something that cannot be. Once a church becomes “LGBT-affirming” it ceases to be evangelical. If “evangelical” means affirming the teachings of the gospels and the authority of Scripture, as I believe most definitions suggest, then affirming homosexuality is simultaneously ceasing to be evangelical, since the Bible is quite clear on the fact that homosexuality is a sin. In other words, one cannot both affirm homosexuality and affirm Scripture. One cannot be both LGBT-affirming and evangelical. That is, of course, unless and until one embraces the relativism of our age, when there is no real meaning to anything and one can pick and choose any combination of things and put them together, ignoring the fact that they are mutually exclusive. We are not talking about toe-may-toe versus toe-mah-toe here; these are not matters of preference or opinion.

TIME goes on to explain that the transition to being “LGBT-affirming” happened slowly for EastLake. “For the past six months, the church has played a short welcome video at the start of every service that includes the line “Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here.” Ignoring the fact that the line is incredibly cheesy, I would agree that there should not be any hate found within the church toward people. The sinful choices of people, however, should be of concern. No church can be faithfully teaching Scripture and be making homosexuals feel welcome at the same time. Beyond the saccharine tag line, the church’s other efforts at welcoming and affirming homosexuals include the facts that the church’s first gay wedding took place in December, and that “one of the pastors now sends a wedding gift on behalf of the church every time she hears that gay congregants are getting married.” (Therein, too, the TIME author unwittingly provided further evidence of the fact that the church is not really evangelical; just as clear as the Scripture’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin and marriage is between a man and a woman is the teaching that women are not to be pastors).

Ryan Meeks, the pastor of EastLake, says that a “turning-point” for him came when he learned that “one of his staffers had been afraid to tell him she was dating a woman.” Says Meeks, “I refuse to go to a church where my friends who are gay are excluded from Communion or a marriage covenant or the beauty of Christian community. It is a move of integrity for me–the message of Jesus was a message of wide inclusivity.” Sadly, there is no integrity in the “move” at all, since it denies the authority and teaching of the very Scripture it purports to support and uphold. The message of Jesus was widely inclusive in one way–that salvation is a free gift for anyone who believes. At the same time it is incredibly narrow and intolerant in all other ways. After all, Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by Me.” There are five resounding statements of intolerance there; Jesus said He is the only way.

I could say plenty more about the contents of the TIME article, and at some point I may. (I have, after all, addressed only the article’s first two paragraphs!). I believe, however, that I have made my point: churches need to be careful about who can become a member, because the members determine the direction of the church. Believers need to be careful about the churches they join, too, so that they do not unknowingly join themselves with a body that does not affirm and teach the Bible. (Encouragingly, the TIME article does point out that EastLake has lost 22% of its income and 800 attendees in the last year and a half, signaling that at least some of its members were unwilling to remain part of a church that no longer taught the Bible). Discernment and caution are imperative.

April 20, 2014

The Day Between

These days there is not much notice or attention generally given to the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Many churches hold Good Friday services to remember the death of Jesus on the cross. Communion is often a part of this service. Oftentimes these services are solemn, which is appropriate given the event they commemorate, but they also include–and tend to end with–a note of hope, looking forward to the service on Sunday when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. It is because we know Christ rose again that we can both commemorate Good Friday with gladness and appreciation and that we can, for all intents and purposes, ignore Saturday, “the day between” Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Imagine, though, what that day between was like between the very first “Good Friday” (surely no one then considered it good, with the possible exception of the Pharisees) and Easter Sunday. That Saturday was the Sabbath day, and we know from Luke 23 that the women who would be the first on the scene on Sunday, to discover the empty tomb, rested according to the Sabbath tradition (indeed, the Law). I imagine it was an incredibly sad day, though. There likely would have been no motivation for anyone who had followed Jesus to do anything. They had probably had trouble going to sleep, thinking about the horrible events of the preceding days, and once they had drifted off they are unlikely to have slept peacefully. One the dawn broke and sunlight pierced the room there was probably no desire to get up. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did get up early and go to the tomb to take the spices they had prepared because they loved Jesus so and wanted to be sure that His body was properly dressed. But they surely walked through tears and with heavy hearts. Apparently none of Jesus’ other followers ventured out because Luke 24:9 tells us that when the women returned from the tomb they told “the eleven…and all the rest” about what they had seen and heard.

As everyone who is familiar with the Gospel accounts knows, however, no one believed the women. Luke tells us that “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” We know that Peter and John then ran to the tomb to see for themselves but we also know from Luke that Peter then returned to the group “marveling at what had happened.” I like the way The Living Bible presents this verse; it says Peter returned “wondering what had happened.” The Message says Peter “walked away puzzled, shaking his head.” In other words, despite the fact that he had seen the empty tomb for himself, Peter still did not remember that Jesus had told him, and all His followers, that He would rise again on the third day. Either that or he just did not believe it.

In I Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul writes that if Christ has not been raised from the dead our faith is futile. Easter, Christ’s resurrection, is the event on which the entire Christian faith hinges. It is the defining moment, the difference maker. Christ’s sinless life, the miracles He performed and His death on the cross would have all been incredible but meaningless if He had not risen from the dead. The futility, the hopelessness, that defeatism is exactly what Peter and the other followers of Christ were feeling on that very first “day between.”

Today, however, because we know the rest of the story, the day between is of little consequence. It is just another day. We do not fear it, we do not mourn, we do not dread getting out of bed or wonder what may happen to us if we venture out. That’s because…and only because…we know that Easter is coming tomorrow. We know Christ rose from the dead. And because we know, we have hope, and our hope is not in vain.

November 23, 2012

The Original Black Friday

Filed under: Biblical Worldview — jbwatson @ 4:13 pm
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“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:44-45a, ESV).

In recent years the day after Thanksgiving has become known as “Black Friday.” While this term was first used to describe the date of the financial panic set off by gold speculators in 1869, dictionary.com provides this definition for the way in which the term is most used nowadays: “the day after Thanksgiving, one of the busiest shopping days because of discounts offered by retailers: so named from the use of black ink to record profits.”

The original Black Friday had nothing to do with shopping, though. Neither did it have anything to do with financial speculation in 1869. No, the original Black Friday was an event that took place on a Friday some two thousand years ago outside of Jerusalem. On that day, Jesus Christ was crucified, despite the fact that Pontius Pilate, after questioning Jesus, announced, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving of death has been done by him” (Luke 23:14-15).

Pilate was exactly right, of course; Jesus was the only man to ever live a perfect, sinless life, so there could not possibly have been anything “deserving of death…done by him.” And yet, he was crucified anyway. The immediate reason for the crucifixion was Pilate’s timidity in the face of pressure from the Jewish leaders and his desire to keep a low profile in Rome after a previous situation he had been involved in. Knowing this, the Jews were essentially able to blackmail Pilate into doing their bidding in this instance. The real reason, though, was that the death of Jesus–the shedding of His blood–was God’s divine plan for providing the payment demanded by a holy God for the sins of man.

If ever there has been reason for giving thanks, this would be it: Jesus blood paid the penalty for my sins–and yours, if you are willing to accept God’s gift of salvation–and His resurrection defeated death forever, providing eternal life for those who believe.

So if you find yourself lining up hours in advance in the cold to save a few dollars on the latest gadget or this year’s Christmas presents, if you find yourself pushing and shoving or just trying to avoid being trampled in the midst of the chaotic rush for “the deal,” remember that Black Friday is really not about buying at all, but it is about paying–and Jesus paid it all.

August 23, 2012

Who Is My Enemy?

My friend Dale commented on my last post with some very thought-provoking questions, questions that I suspect others wonder, as well. So, while I am certainly not the authority on the subject, I thought I would weigh in on what I think.

First, Dale asks, “Who is my enemy?” I always like to look at the definitions of words in order to ensure that I am understanding and using them accurately, and it seems that defining “enemy” is a good first step toward answering this question. Dictionary.com defines it this way: “a person who feels hatred for, fosters harmful designs against, or engages in antagonistic activities against another; an adversary or opponent.” If we start with that last part, we all have adversaries or opponents, when on the athletic field or court even if at no other time. Yet those should be temporary “enemies,” people we desire to defeat in athletic competition (or board game competition, or most any other kind of competition) but they do not necessarily have to be–indeed, they should not be–people for whom we feel hatred. Using the first part of the definition, though, my enemy would be any person for whom I feel hatred, against whom I foster harmful designs, or antagonize. Or, I might add, any person who feels hatred for me, fosters harmful designs against me, or antagonizes me. Interestingly, however, in the second instance, I could have enemies and not even know it.

The question “who is my enemy” reminds me of the opposite question asked of Jesus in Luke 10, when the lawyer asks, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then ends with a question: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (verse 36, ESV). The lawyer’s response: “The one who showed him mercy.” Using that logic, then, my enemy is anyone who treats me like an enemy or whom I treat as an enemy.

Dale goes on to ask, “What constitutes loving somone who is your enemy? How do you do it?” That’s the hard part. I think Jesus gives instructions on that, in Matthew 5:44, when He says, ” Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But a more detailed answer is provided in Luke6:27-28: “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” I think Jesus is answering the question of what it means to love my enemies when He provides some specific examples” I am to do good to them, not evil (turn the other cheek, for example); I am to bless them, and pray for them. As for the “how do you do it” part, though, the answer is only through dying to self and yielding to the Holy Spirit; no way would I ever be able to, or even want to, treat my enemies in such a way on my own.

Dale is quite right when he says, “Saying it is easier than doing it.” But specific examples are not as easy to give, because there are so many possible variations. By way of example though, if I have a neighbor that I do not like or who does not like me (I have had such neighbors, and when your neighbor lives twenty feet away it’s a lot more irritating than when he lives twenty miles away, let me tell you!), I have to decide: will I treat him with kindness, will I ignore him, or will I antagonize him? Most people would agree that the latter option is not right. The second option would have been fine for the Pharisees; remember, they taught “don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” So, from that perspective, ignoring them is fine. Just don’t throw rocks at them or antagonize them. Jesus, though, turned that teaching on its head and said that His followers are called to do to others what they would like others to do to them. So, if I want my neighbor to ignore me, I guess minding my own business is okay, too. But if I really would like to have a neighbor who would get my mail for me when I am on vacation, who would respect the property line, who would not blare loud music, who would or would not ____________ (fill in the blank with whatever fits in your situation) then I must do or not do those things to my neighbor.

“Is it possible for a Christian to be my enemy?” Dale asks. Unfortunately, yes. In fact, I think (sadly) that far too many Christians are more likely to have enemies who are other Christians than enemies who are not. Unless an unsaved person does something to wrong or offend me, I am not likely to even concern myself enough with that person for them to rise to the level of enemy. Other Christians, though, are professing to be what I am professing to be, and when their understanding of being Christian doesn’t line up with my understanding with Christian, I don’t like that. When I want hymns sung to the piano and organ, but they want praise choruses or contemporary worship songs sung to the accompaniment of drums, keyboards and electric guitars, I have a problem with that. That’s a simplistic and rather silly example, and yet such issues can destroy Christian fellowship and split churches.

Dale goes on to ask if it is possible to love someone who is evil. That is a difficult question. When I read it, I was reminded of the day I heard that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. military operatives. Osama bin Laden hated Christianity and hated the United States of America and made no secret of the fact that he wanted to destroy both. He was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. And yet, the morning after the news broke I remember sitting at the breakfast table trying to explain to my daughter that I was happy that bin Laden was dead, because of who he was and what he stood for, yet I could not rejoice in knowing that he was in hell. Can I love someone who is evil? No, not in the sense that we humans so often understand and define love. I cannot feel good about someone who is evil, and I cannot even want good things for someone who is evil. But I believe that I can love someone who is evil to the extent that I want him or her to recognize their sin, repent, and be forgiven. In other words, as hard as it may be to think about, I can love someone who is evil enough to want to spend eternity with them in heaven.

Jonah is a great example here, I think. Jonah did not want to go to Ninevah because the Assyrians were evil. Part of Jonah was likely scared of delivering God’s message (I know I would have been!) but an even bigger part of Jonah’s initial refusal to go was that he did not want the Assyrians to repent. He wanted God to judge them. He wanted God to wipe them off the earth. How do I know? Because when Jonah is sitting outside of town watching what is going to happen, he gets mad at God because the Assyrians did repent.

Jonah 3:10 says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that He had said He would do to them, and He did not do it.” The very next sentence, in 4:1, says “But is displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.” I’m thinking he was more than angry. He was ticked…irate…furious. Jonah was so mad at God he said he wanted to die.

So Jonah is a great example of what loving my enemies does not look like. Not only should I pray for them to change their ways, I should pray for them to get right with God. And if they do, I should rejoice!

Jesus loved people who did evil things. He loved Judas, despite knowing that he would betray Him. He loved Pilate, despite knowing that he would sentence Him to death. He loved the thief on the cross, despite his sins. And He loved the people who crucified Him, even asking God to forgive them.

Dale says he read Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and he knows too much about what some of the Japanese and Germans did in WWII to “be less than loving” toward some. I read that book, too, and as a student of history I can relate to Dale’s concerns. I read another book, though, that demonstrates exactly what God has in mind when He says “love your enemies,” and that is Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. For Louis Zamperini to be able to forgive the Japanese for what they did to him is incredible…and only from yielding to God.

This is a topic that each of has wrestled with, and will wrestle with so long as we are in this world. In my flesh, I will always prefer to hate my enemies than to love them. But God has called me to be different…to die to myself and to let Him live through me. And yes, that even means loving my enemies.

August 1, 2012

Seventy Times Seven

Whether you are a baseball fan or not, you have undoubtedly heard the expression “three strikes and you’re out.” It turns out, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day took the same approach to forgiveness. They taught that, when wronged, individuals were obligated to forgive an offender up to three times. After the third time, however, there was no longer the need to forgive–the offender had “maxed out” and the forgiveness would not be forthcoming.

With this background in mind, it becomes clear that Peter thought he was being quite generous when he proposed forgiving up to seven times. In Matthew 18 Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” in light of what we know about Peter it does not take a lot of imagination to picture an almost-smug look on his face as he asks this question. He may have hoped his colleagues would be impressed by his magnanimity or that Jesus would give him an “attaboy” for his generous approach to forgiveness.

Jesus, though, quickly corrected Peter by informing him that even seven times was not nearly enough. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” Jesus answered.

A little quick math reveals that Jesus suggested 490 times was a more appropriate limit, but the reality is that Jesus was telling Peter, the other disciples, and you and me, that there is to be no limit to our forgiveness.

In Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, “[B]earing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”

That’s where it gets really tough. For me to forgive others the same way that God has forgiven me means two things: unlimited forgiveness, and unconditional forgiveness. There can be no end to the number of times I forgive, and there can be no offense for which I will not forgive.

I have experienced hurts in my life that were painful, as I am sure you have. I have been wronged by others, and seen how the careless or self-centered or misguided actions of some can wreak havoc on the lives of others impacted by their actions. There have been offenses which still hurt to think about years after they have happened. And the truth is, there are some offenses that I cannot forgive, in my flesh. More often than not my natural inclination is to get even, not to forgive. And if I do find it in my heart to forgive, it would be once, maybe twice, but rarely three times and certainly not seven.

Truth is, though, I am incredibly thankful that God has no limit to His forgiveness. If He did, I would have exceeded it long ago, whether the limit was 490 or seven times seven thousand. God is perfect and righteous and holy, and I, in myself, am anything but.

Three strikes is a good rule for baseball. It keeps the game moving. But it’s a lousy rule when it comes to forgiving others.

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