God is a person that forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin. This truth is deeply embedded in the revelation of God’s character to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:7). As Christians, we so much know this truth that we are tempted to take it for granted. Many a sermon speaks about forgiveness. And when someone wrongs us, the plea to forgive is among the many pieces of advice we receive. Yet, while we know we must do so, we feel deep down in our hearts as if forgiveness is unfair. It is as though to forgive is to be wronged twice, once by the offence committed against us and then by letting the offender ‘off the hook.’ This is why forgiveness is hard.
We feel deep down in our hearts as if forgiveness is unfair. It is as though to forgive is to be wronged twice
Biblical Forgiveness is hard
In this article, I will not deny that biblical pardon carries within it a sense of complexity and paradox. The reason is that with biblical forgiveness, the one sinned against must suffer the consequences of the offender’s sin so that the offender might be free to relate again to the offended. That is why pardon seems to be unjust and unfair. It is also why we find it hard to forgive, even though we know it is right to do so. To ground my point, I will carefully examine Exodus 34:7.
The Background to Exodus 34:7
Exodus 34:7 stands in last section of the book. It follows Israel’s golden-calf sin at Sinai (Exodus 32). God had redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt with an outstretched arm (Exodus 6:6) and brought them to the foot of Mount Sinai. Here, he covenanted Israel as his people (Exodus 19:4-6) and gave them his law (Exodus 20-23). Then redeemed Israel affirmed God’s covenant to be his people and serve him as their God (Exodus 24). After this, Moses ascends the mountain to meet with the Lord. There the Lord gives Moses instructions to build a tabernacle for him so that he may dwell amid the people (Exodus 25-31). It is while Moses is on the mountain that Israel sins against their Saviour and Father (see Exodus 32:4).
God’s presence within his people will not depend on their good deeds, which are lacking anyway… something must be done if the holy God is to dwell amidst a sinful people.
Because of this sin, God threatens to send Israel on their way without him. But Moses knows this spells doom. For Canaan without God is judgment not redemption. Thus, Moses pleads for the Lord’s presence amidst his people, a plea God grants. God does so because Moses found grace in God’s eyes (Exodus 33:15-17). God’s presence within his people will not depend on their good deeds, which are lacking anyway. But the writing on the wall is clear: something must be done if the holy God is to dwell amidst a sinful people. Considering this, Moses asks about the character of such a gracious God who deigns to dwell among such a corrupt people (Exodus 33:18), to which Exodus 34:6-7 is the response.
Digging into the Language Used
God, in Exodus 34:6-7, introduces himself with a couple of predicate adjectives and nouns, as well as participial phrases. Among the participles is one often translated as ‘forgiving’ (Exodus 34:7). The Hebrew word nasa translated as forgiving in Exodus 34:7 has at its heart the idea of bearing or carrying or lifting a burden. For example, in Exodus 19:4, God reminds Israel of how he alone ‘bore’ them on eagles’ wings from Egypt. What that means is that God took complete responsibility for the deliverance of Israel. No one else did, not even Israel themselves. This ‘bearing’ is more than the fact that God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt. Indeed, Numbers 14:19 reminds us that in bearing Israel from Egypt, the Lord forgave (nasa) their transgressions. That is, God not only bore Israel away from their Egyptian slavery, but he also carried the consequences of their sin.
But the most evident instances of nasa, referring to bearing the judgment of sin, come to us from Exodus 28. This chapter speaks of the role of Aaron, the high priest for Israel.
In 28:12, Aaron ‘bears’ the names of the sons of Israel on his ephod ‘as a memorial.’
In 28:29, he ‘bears’ the names of the sons of Israel ‘on the breastplate of judgment over his heart when he goes into the holy place, as a memorial before the Lord continually.’
28:30 explicitly states that by doing so, Aaron will ‘bear’ the judgment of the children of Israel over his heart before the Lord continually.
In 28:38, Aaron wears the turban on his head. The purpose is so that he may ‘bear’ the iniquity of the holy things which the children of Israel hallow in all their gifts. Only then will the sons of be acceptable to the Lord.
When there is sin, someone somewhere must suffer its consequences and judgment. It is not a question of if but who
There Must be Consequences for Sin
In all this, we see that the holy God can only dwell amid sinful Israel if someone bears the judgment for their sin and iniquity. That much is clear. The real question then is, who is such a person? For God emphatically denies the possibility of leaving sin unpunished (Exodus 34:7). That is, when there is sin, someone somewhere must suffer its consequences and judgment. It is not a question of if but who.
Will the sinner suffer, or will the sinned against ‘bear’ the burden? Israel cannot bear it, for they would then be consumed (Exodus 32:10). Aaron cannot ultimately bear Israel’s sin, since he is part of the problem (Exodus 32:1-6, 21-24). And because iniquity is against the infinitely holy God, it demands an infinite price which no finite being can pay. As it is, only God can incur the wrath of God for his people’s sin. For this reason, God introduces his character and name to Moses as ‘One who takes on himself the judgment that Israel deserves.’ Only then can He freely dwell among his people. But how and when will this be?
the sinless God bore the penalty of sinful humanity so that humanity may bear the righteousness of God
In Christ we are Forgiven
The answer to these questions lies in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Once and for all, in history and person, Christ revealed God’s forgiving character to us. In him we have ‘the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace’ (Ephesians 1:7). He alone extends pardon as he innocently suffers the judgment of God (Luke. 23:34). His ‘blood of the covenant’ was ‘poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:18). Jesus does so because he is both divine and human. In him the sinless God bore the penalty of sinful humanity so that humanity may bear the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The gospel is that God did nasa our heavy burden, which we could not carry. ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.’ Thus, ‘by his wounds you have been healed’ (1 Peter 2:24). The cross is a reminder that God ultimately bore the penalty of our evils so that he may freely forgive us and restore our broken relationship.
Everyday Forgiveness is Hard
The consequence of the cross is that God now calls us to live out this truth daily. With God as our Father, we must forgive (Mathew 6:14-15). In pardoning those who sin against us, we emulate God’s character. But as we saw, forgiveness is hard. Indeed, when Peter hears such severe teaching, he asks Jesus how many times he must pardon his sinning brother (Matthew 18:21)? Jesus’ answer is simple.
Forgiveness is no longer an issue of mathematics as the Jewish Rabbis taught. It is a matter of character.
Forgiveness is no longer an issue of mathematics as the Jewish Rabbis taught. It is a matter of character. And those who desire to act like God have God’s Spirit for their guide. We are to demonstrate our understanding of the gospel by forgiving those who trespass against us, no matter that forgiveness is hard (Matthew 6:12). Only then can we meaningfully pray ‘our Father who is in heaven.’
Forgiveness is hard because it is not cheap. And though it is not free, we must freely grant it. To forgive is to suffer the consequences of the offender’s sin rather than cause them to pay for what they did to you. It is intentional. It is countercultural and counterintuitive. To forgive someone is not to forget. It is to consciously determine to not hold something against the offender anymore or anytime in the future.
Forgiveness is hard because it is not cheap. And though it is not free, we must freely grant it.
The wronged person does this so that the offender may be freely welcomed into the relationship, with time. For reconciliation is the goal of forgiveness. Though forgiveness is hard, it reveals our character and maturity as followers of Christ. Biblical forgiveness seems unfair because the innocent one suffers so as to set the guilty one free. But true forgiveness is the gospel; it is doable in Christ.