“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14–15)
With Pesach (Passover) around the corner, many of us are considering the great gift of forgiveness through Yeshua (Jesus).
Typically, in Judaism, the issue of forgiveness is most deeply considered before the holy and somber day of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), at which time it is customary to ask forgiveness of anyone we think we may have hurt or offended over the past year.
What a beautiful Jewish tradition this is—an appointed time to call people, to write letters, and to make sure that we have a clean slate and peace with all people.
Forgiveness, though, cannot be relegated only to special feasts and fast days. A commitment to a lifestyle of forgiveness is part of our commitment to fellowship with the God of Israel, who is the Judge of all mankind.
Apart from receiving Yeshua (Jesus) as our Messiah, forgiveness is perhaps one of the most crucial matters of our lives.
It is so important that Yeshua said if we are standing at the altar praying, and the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) brings to mind someone who has something against us, we should leave our gift at the altar and go to make things right with them first.
“Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you; Leave there your gift before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:23–24)
We know that prayers for forgiveness must be accompanied by confession and evidence of penitence, but the Bible also makes it clear that our attempts to secure forgiveness should include an acknowledgment of our error, a sincere change, and if applicable, compensation to those we wronged.
Just as we sometimes need forgiveness, others do as well.
And just as the forgiveness released through accepting Yeshua brought us new life, the forgiveness that we exercise keeps us in that new life.
That said, forgiveness does not mean that we allow others to destroy us. Despite our sincere commitment to model Yeshua’s forgiveness to the world, we may be called upon to protect ourselves, our family, or even our nation.
This is what happened in the Purim story. God gave the Jews of Persia, through the edict of the King, the right and power to defend themselves against their enemies.
“In them the king granted the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to defend their lives, to destroy, to kill and to annihilate the entire army of any people or province which might attack them, including children and women, and to plunder their spoil.” (Esther 8:11)
God is not only Rav Chesed (Great in Grace) and Av Harachamim (Father of Mercies), He is also a God of justice and holiness.
He will not turn a blind eye and allow evil to run rampant on the earth. That is neither love nor forgiveness. Neither is it holiness.
We know this from the flood in Genesis that killed every living thing upon the earth except for Noah, his family and those animals saved in the ark. God deemed it necessary to cleanse the whole earth of the evil that had poisoned His creation.
The fact that the earth still exists is proof positive God is merciful and long-suffering, not desiring that any should perish but that all would come to a saving knowledge of the truth.
And yet, when people refuse to listen to God’s repeated warnings, they may fall under His terrible judgment.
In the story of the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt, God gave ten warnings to the Pharaoh to let the Jewish People go free; however, Pharaoh hardened his heart and refused to listen. Because he refused to listen, Egypt was destroyed.
Regrettably, innocents do suffer and even die when those in authority over them persist in sin and hardness of heart. We must, therefore, pray earnestly for the leaders of our nations.
“When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, but when a wicked man rules, people groan.” (Proverbs 29:2)
Forgiveness and Continued Sin
“The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him.” (Daniel 9:9)
Although some believe that people can go on sinning or mistreating God’s people and get away with it, never having to repent to receive God’s forgiveness, this is simply not true.
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:26)
Scripture cautions us that when we are warned repeatedly and do not listen, we also can be broken, sometimes beyond repair.
“A man who hardens his neck after much reproof will suddenly be broken beyond remedy.” (Proverbs 29:1)
Just like the metaphoric Humpty Dumpty that had a great fall and none of the king’s horses, and none of the king’s men could put him back together again, when we stubbornly follow our own ways despite many warnings, judgment can come suddenly.
Though God’s judgment does fall, we should not be wishing for a judgment event like the Flood or Purim or Passover on those who wrong us, despite the all-too-human desire to delight in their suffering.
Instead, God tells us to model His forgiveness and long-suffering.
Modeling God’s Forgiveness and Long-Suffering
“In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.” (Ephesians 1:7)
Since we are not redeemed by our own merit, but by freely receiving God’s forgiveness offered through Yeshua, obviously the commandment to forgive others is critical to the very fabric of our lives!
When we have been hurt or offended, it is natural to want to demand justice rather than extend mercy and forgiveness.
As in the story of the Flood, the Exodus or Purim, we may want to see the wrath of God poured out in judgment for the wrong someone has done to us.
Sometimes, we are in contact every day with the person who hurt us, and the feelings of unforgiveness, bitterness, and resentment are clamoring for control.
Before we extend forgiveness, we want the other person to repent. Even so, often that is impossible because the offender doesn’t see that they have done something wrong. And if the offender has passed away, it is impossible for this type of closure.
So with all these feelings and the reality of unrepentance, what do we do?
If we are to be part of our Father’s Kingdom here on earth, we can’t cling to hurt and demand justice.
To experience God’s grace, we must surrender to Him our need for justice or recognition of the wrong and turn to God with that need.
Both the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) writings are clear on the issue of forgiveness: we are forbidden from holding a grudge in our heart and from seeking revenge.
“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)
“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Messiah also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32)
These are lofty and noble ideals; however, the heart of the matter is how do we do it? How can we forgive when we have been wronged? How do we recover when we have been wounded by others?
Since Yeshua commanded us to be reconciled with one another before offering our gifts to the Lord, we can understand that our relationships are very important to God.
Many of us are tempted to disregard this commandment and continue praying, ministering, using our spiritual gifts in service for the Lord, pretending that our relationships are in order.
Nevertheless, God regards the restoration of peace, harmony, and unity of the utmost priority.
In Matthew 18, Yeshua tells of a man whose debt was so huge that he couldn’t repay it. He begged for forgiveness of his debt, a request that his master granted for no other reason than for compassion’s sake.
But then this servant was owed a smaller sum by another servant, and he did not extend the same compassion to him as did his master. He ignored the servant’s pleas for mercy and grabbed him, saying, “Pay up now!”
Since he could not pay, the servant threw him in prison. When the master heard what he had done, he called him a wicked servant and threw him to the torturers for failing to extend the same mercy that he had received.
After telling this parable, Yeshua said, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (Matthew 18:35)
Of course, Yeshua was emphasizing that each of us who have been forgiven by God our great offenses, should be of the same mind as God, and extend forgiveness to others. No offense that is committed against us is as monumental as our own sin against God.
We are to be so transformed by our experience of Yeshua that we not only forgive, but we love our enemies: “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27–28)
It is not always “the enemy” who wounds us, though. Our deepest and most painful hurts come by the hand of those closest to us, often fellow Believers.
“For it is not an enemy who reproaches me; then I could bear it.… But it was you, a man my equal, my companion and my acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God in the throng.” (Psalm 55:12–14)
This causes a deep wound that, if not treated properly, can fester into an ugly infection.
“Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.” (Psalm 41:9)
We can look to Yeshua’s relationship with Judas for an example of the forgiveness and love necessary to handle the betrayal of a friend. Yeshua knew beforehand that Judas would turn Him over to the authorities, and yet he still washed his feet and ate the Passover meal with him.
Yeshua understood that what was about to happen must be done to fulfill God’s glorious plan of redemption for humanity. And so, He submitted Himself to God, saying, “Not My will but Yours be done.”
Joseph was another great forgiver who understood this secret.
Abused and mistreated by his own brothers and thrown into prison for a crime he did not commit (in fact, for refusing to sin against God), and forgotten by the butler who promised to mention him to Pharaoh, Joseph could have wallowed in his bitterness as he languished for years in prison.
Instead, years later when he met his brothers again, Joseph told them,
“Do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.… So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5, 8)
Later, he again comforted his brothers who had treated him so cruelly with these words: “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” (Genesis 50:20)
What is the secret that saved Joseph from the bondage of unforgiveness?
It was the understanding that God has a plan. And that plan is redemption, not only in our own lives, but in the lives of many. We must look forward, trusting in the compassion and mercy of the Lord to work all things in our lives for good.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18–19)
The Limits of Forgiveness
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” (Romans 12:18)
It is only through the transforming work of the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) in our hearts that we can truly forgive people for the wrongs they have committed against us.
There are times when we delude ourselves, thinking we have forgiven someone, until one day we have to confront the unforgiveness that has blossomed into the evil fruit of bitterness and resentment.
When we understand God’s great mercy in forgiving us our own sins, we are more inclined to forgive others.
There will be times in our lives when we need the forgiveness of others and must lay our gifts at the altar and, instead, return to concentrate our energies on being reconciled with the person we have hurt or offended.
As much as possible from our side of the relationship, we are to pursue peace and forgiveness. Sometimes, however, our best efforts may fail to bring about reconciliation. What is important is that we have done everything to obtain it.
Surely, we might say, there must be reasonable limits to our forgiveness. There must be some things that people do to us that we cannot reasonably be expected to forgive.
Peter also struggled with this issue.
He suggested to Yeshua a reasonable limit, asking, “Is seven times sufficient?” If we have forgiven someone seven times is this enough? May we then be released from the obligation to forgive? Can we subsequently write the person off?
But Yeshua answered, “No, up to seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22)
Since the number 7 in Scripture and Judaism not only signifies holiness, but also the infusing of the natural world with holiness, we can understand that Yeshua was not saying that when someone offends us for the 491st time, we don’t have to forgive. Nor was He suggesting we keep count.
He was making an emphatic statement that forgiveness is related to holiness, and that there is a sacred purpose in forgiveness, which brings holiness to a situation.
A Breach of Trust
To extend forgiveness effectively, we need to separate it from issues of trust.
While we must forgive a person when there has been a serious breach in a relationship, it is sometimes wise not to trust a person who has a repeated pattern of wronging us (at least until that person has shown the fruit of repentance coupled with real change over time).
Additionally, forgiveness does not automatically bring about a restored relationship. It does not mean we should stay in an abusive situation. If a person continues in their sin and refuses to repent before the Lord, it may eventually be necessary to cut off our relationship with him or her.
After all, Yeshua died so that all mankind could enjoy forgiveness of sin. And although that forgiveness is being extended to all mankind even at this very moment, not everyone has personally received it.
Those who haven’t received His forgiveness do not have a restored relationship with God; they might die in their sins even though Yeshua is offering it to them.
“This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
If someone sins against us, there are Biblical steps to follow in bringing restoration.
Our first response is to bring the matter to this individual directly. If they refuse to listen to us, then we are to involve others and even take it to the leadership of the spiritual community.
There are times when people refuse to hear that what they are doing is wrong, hurtful, or destructive. You can still extend forgiveness, but you will not be able to extend fellowship.
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)
Furthermore, there are Believers with whom we are advised not to associate because of their sinful behavior:
“Keep away from every Believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
Just being a Believer in Yeshua does not make us immune from the need to seek and extend forgiveness—including toward ourselves. We sometimes forgive everyone else in our lives but neglect to forgive ourselves.
Yeshua knows what we have been through. He cares and He understands. He is “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (Isaiah 53:3)
But we must not forget that forgiveness is not really about the other person who wronged us.
It feels fantastic when the person who hurt us is sorry, asks for forgiveness, and the relationship is restored or even becomes stronger than before. True forgiveness, however, doesn’t require anything from the other person.
All we really need is to call out to God for strength and stand on the truth of who Yeshua is and what He has accomplished through the forgiveness He has offered to all. That is true love and holiness.