The great theological traditions by whose lights we read the Bible tend to prioritize the spiritual and the heavenly over and against the physical and the earthly. Such traditions often distort the Bible’s more syncretic picture of the spiritual and physical realms in their commitment to these supposedly higher priorities. Desiring to find Christ’s sacrificial death for sins in the Old Testament, for instance, theological modes of reading largely neglect the communal and political experience of Israel. The details of Israel’s historical existence, its highs and lows, are taken to be arcane, even trivial, when compared to the spiritual insight available to those who are able to discern Christ, that is, Christ’s eternal sacrifice, in every page.
For those who have set aside such commitments, however, it is clear that the Biblical authors envisioned heaven and earth, body and spirit, as two sides of the same coin. They understood the Israelite’s spiritual-individual life and Israel’s physical-national life as indelibly intertwined. Our fixation upon eternal outcomes and ethereal phenomena to the detriment of earthly conditions, in fact, would have made little sense to an ancient Jew or to any ancient person.
What would happen then if we exchanged our theological priorities for more historical ones? How would we begin to read the Bible differently? What would become of the church’s great doctrines?
In attempting to answer these questions, the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins as it is evinced in the Biblical writings represents for us one potent example of the unity between the spiritual and the physical realms. While theology pulls us towards the spiritual dimensions of forgiveness—i.e. entrance into right relationship with God and into heavenly life after death—the Biblical authors usually emphasize the socio-political ramifications dependent upon divine forgiveness. In these cases forgiveness of sins functions not simply as a balm for personal guilt and existential dread, but as a sign of transforming earthly conditions.
Forgiveness in the Hebrew Bible
Here are just a few of the many texts in which the forgiveness of Israel’s sins is conjoined with profound socio-political implications.
- Following the chastisements relating to the Babylonian exile, God sweeps away Israel’s transgressions like a cloud and her sins like a mist (Isaiah 44:21-23). This forgiveness prefigures the fulfillment of prophecy: Jerusalem, its temple, and the cities of Judah will be rebuilt and made to prosper (44:24-28, 45:14). The nations that witness Israel’s spiritual and national redemption will be forced to conclude that “God is with you alone, and there is no other; there is no god besides [the Lord];” the makers of idols will be put to shame in their confusion over what has occurred (45:13-17).
- The God who casts Israel’s sins into the depths of the sea in Micah 7:18-20 also promises national restoration in the preceding verses. God’s forgiveness calls for a “day for building walls” and for a day in which Israel’s boundaries “will be far extended” (7:11-12). When the nations see what God has done to exalt Israel politically they will respond with shame, awe, and trembling (7:15-17).
- In an oracle given to Ezekiel God decrees that he will cleanse his people of their impurities (36:25-27). The political consequences of this atonement will of course be extraordinary: Israel will return from exile (36:24), enjoy prosperity in the land (36:30-31), and rebuild her cities (36:33). More still, the nations will then proclaim that Israel’s God has made a ruinous wasteland into a fortified and beautiful garden of Eden (36:34-36).
- According to Jeremiah God will “forgive the guilt of [Israel’s] rebellion against me” after the Babylonian crisis (33:8). In doing so God will revive Jerusalem “before all the nations of the earth who will hear of all the good that I do for them; they will fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for Jerusalem” (33:9).
A clear pattern can be outlined here.
- God forgives Israel their sins.
- As a consequence of this forgiveness, Israel’s toppled position in the world is undone.
- As a consequence of Israel’s newfound geopolitical dominance, the nations come to fear, respect, and know the true God.
- Since the nations now honor God, God’s will is done upon the earth.
The forgiveness of sins in the Hebrew Bible is thus fundamentally directed towards magnifying God’s rule over and reputation among the nations of the earth. We might say that God forgives his people primarily for the sake of his kingdom.
Forgiveness in the New Testament
While many Christians today read these Old Testament passages (or rather, parts of these passages) as prophecies of Christ’s work on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, few recognize that the doctrine is so thoroughly couched in ancient Israel’s national and political hopes. Fewer still recognize that the forgiveness of sins also serves national and political ends in the drama of salvation put in motion by Christ. For the early Christians, God forgave faithful Jews and pagans, not simply so that they might go to heaven after they die, but so that they might be beneficiaries of an earthly divine kingdom. Much like in the Hebrew scriptures before, the forgiveness of sins pointed to an exalted eschatological life over the kingdoms of the earth that awaited the faithful churches.
A kingdom… will reign on the earth
To support this claim perhaps the best place to start is Revelation 5:9-10. In the presence of Christ, heavenly beings chant:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.
Here Christ’s redemptive death works out political eschatological outcomes. A people comprising a kingdom is set to inherit political power over the inhabitants of the earth (cf. Revelation 11:15). In other words, Christ’s ransomed people will be given “authority over the nations” with which they will bring the nations into obedience (Revelation 2:26-27). Those redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice are thus ransomed for the sake of God’s earthly kingdom.
Obedience from the nations
Next, the Apostle. According to Paul’s gospel, Jews and Greeks obtain salvation from God’s coming wrath against the world through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Christ (cf. Romans 1:16-17, 3:21-26, 5:9). Paul preaches this gospel of redemption through Christ’s blood in order to bring about “the obedience of faith among all the nations for the sake of Christ’s name” (1:5, cf. 15:8-13). He believes that through the spread of this gospel God will elicit “obedience from the nations” (15:18). Christ will then rule over the nations with his holy people. The ultimate goal therefore remains eschatological and political: Christ dies in order to preserve a people who will rule over the subjugated nations when the kingdom of God is established over the earth.
Drinking with you in my father’s kingdom
Lastly, Jesus. After Jesus identifies the Passover cup as his “blood… poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” he states: “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matthew 26:28-29).
As in previous examples, in this case the forgiveness of sins sealed in sacrificial blood ensures a regal fellowship among Christ and the redeemed on the day in which God’s kingdom overtakes the kingdoms of the world. These forgiven disciples will preside over a “new world” (παλιγγενεσία), judging the twelve tribes of a rehabilitated Israel (Matthew 19:28). As sovereigns over the eschatological Israel, they will of course also participate in Christ’s rule over all the earth (cf. Matthew 28:18).
Luke makes more or less the same point in Acts 3:19-21. There Peter pleads with the Jewish people to turn to God so that their sins might be “wiped out, so that the times of refreshing may come… and that God may send the Messiah… who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration.” This eschatological “time of refreshing” and “universal restoration” likely alludes the Davidic kingdom that must be restored to Israel for the sake of the nations (Acts 1:6, 15:12-18). Here too then there remains a reciprocal relationship between the forgiveness of sins and early Christian eschatological political expectations. Such is to be expected given the example provided to them in Israel’s scriptures.
So what function did the forgiveness of sins serve in the early church?
In large part it was a sign of eschatological realities breaking into the present evil age. Assurance of forgiveness effected by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit indicated to the early believers that God had begun to judge the world. Those with the spirit of forgiveness were to be saved on the day of wrath; those without this spirit, along with all their religious-political institutions, on the other hand, were destined for destruction.