SEEK THE CONTEXT: Biblical Texts, Language, Cultural Background & Meaning. Context Changes Everything!

If you Forgive the Sins

If you Forgive the Sins

Have you ever wished you did not hear or see something? What we see and hear is hard to put back into a box of non-existence. Once we experience something we simply cannot put it out of our mind.  Basically, we can’t unknow what we know. This is true when it comes to interpreting Scriptures. Knowing the context of any passage usually helps immensely in interpretation. The original languages help too, but sometimes what holds us inches away from a better interpretation is what we know, or rather, what we have been told. Here is an example of what I am trying to explain. Take this verse from the Gospel of John.

“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23 NASB)

A seemingly simple verse, very straightforward teaching. It is very easy for Catholics to interpret, but a tough one for non-Catholics. Is Yeshua really saying that his disciples have the power to dispense the forgiveness of sins? It sure looks that way. They can also choose not to issue forgiveness and those sins will remain. The Protestants naturally struggle with sin absolution as they recall the practice of church selling indulgences in the Middle Ages. And for Jews, this teaching makes no sense either. This stubborn verse is hard to explain away. How else has can one read it except that the apostles have the power to dispense forgiveness of sins to anyone they find worthy?

One way the Protestant tradition deals with this verse is to suggest that this is not about “forgiveness” but the proclamation of salvation. In other words, the word “forgive” is not to be understood literally. If they proclaim the available forgiveness of sins to people, the people will have their sins forgiven, but if they withhold the message, those will not receive the forgiveness (because they will know about God’s gift of grace). Such a twist essentially makes this verse about evangelism. I do not know if this explanation satisfies you. Me… not so much.

By the way, I am not putting down Catholics or Protestants, but let’s look deeper into the context. There is another way to see this teaching. First of all, there is a key phrase many people miss that precedes this passage. Verse 21 says “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” This means that this greater story is about Messiah sending his messengers out into the world to continue his mission. And the rest of what he says could be related to this sending. He breathes on them giving them the spirit and then talks about forgiving people’s sins. This is the natural context of the saying in question.

Secondly, there is another important tidbit of information. The verb ἀφίημι (afiemi) is typically translated as “forgive” and κρατέω (krateo) as “retain” as in “not forgive”. There are alternative ways to translate these key verbs in this enigmatic statement. For example, ἀφίημι (afiemi)  can mean “let go”, “release” “leave” and even “allow”. And κρατέω (krateo) “hold on strongly” or “hold back, “restrain”, “grasp” and even “rule”. Allowing these alternative translation choices we see some alternatives and can read this verse in a non-traditional way.

Thirdly, these verse sounds so much like Matthew’s binding and losing promises. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Mat 16:19 NASB)

“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Mat 18:18-20 NASB)

It is also interesting that just after this explanation of the legislative power Yeshua gives to his followers, Peter asks a question about, you guessed it… forgiveness. “Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?…” (Mat 18:18-19). Which brings me to a very simple point. Who says that “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them” (John 20:23 NASB) is about forgiving the sins which were committed against God? There is absolutely nothing in this text to suggest that the disciples are dispensing forgiveness for the sins related to God.

My simple assertion is that this text is about letting go of the offenses that were committed against them, against the disciples! After all, Yeshua is sending them out into the world. Their message will be rejected (just as he was rejected). “As my Father sent me, I am sending you”. Some people will mistreat them. They can choose to let that go and those sins will not be held against those who mistreated them. But if they chose to hold on to those offenses, those who mistreated them will have to answer for their actions later. In Jewish tradition, we are encouraged to seek forgiveness directly from those whom we have wronged. Jews do not ask God to forgive us for doing wrong to a fellow human. When it comes to sins against God, we take those matters to him. When transgressions are against our fellow humans we settle those matters with them. This is a fundamental Jewish value of Teshuvah (repentance).

What I offer is a very simple alternative, a very straightforward interpretation. The only part that changes in this verse is what type of sin the disciples are forgiving. Each one of us has the power of not holding on to the pain of forgiving the offenses other people perpetrate against us. All Messiah is saying is if you forgive those sins, they will be forgiven to those who harmed you. This power of personal absolution is within our grasp. But to forgive the sins that others sinned against the Almighty himself… well, that is a tough one. And clearly, I do not see this passage actually teaching such practice.

If we have such authority would there even be a judgment in the end of times? That is not the end that I remember reading about in the Bible. Hopefully, now you see what I meant by saying that sometimes a simple interpretation is just inches away. But the things we have been told before, the ideas we entertained in our minds can hold us back from seeing clearly.


I am an educator, researcher, a faculty member and an avid believer in online education. My specialties are Sacred Texts and Cultures (Second Temple period, early Judaism and nascent Christianity). I am passionate about meaning, context, and cultural transmission of ancient texts. My preoccupations with history, ancient languages and contextual interpretation often find expression in my blog posts. Every human has a pretext, every message has a context. Context changes everything! Enjoy reading.

Leave a Reply