Of all of the human qualities that make men in any sense like God, none is more divine than forgiveness.
God is a God of forgiveness. He identifies Himself in that way:
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
Man is never more like God than when he forgives.
Now, the theme of forgiveness is emphasized throughout Scripture. But there are some points where we see the forgiveness of God in bold relief. One of them, maybe the most familiar, is the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15.
When his son came home, the father ran to meet him. His words were not unkind. The Bible says he fell on his neck and kissed him repeatedly (Luke 15:20). In this way, Jesus shows us what the heart of forgiveness is like.
Forgiveness is eager, not reluctant. It doesn’t even wait for the sinner to arrive. When you see him coming, you run to meet him and you embrace him and kiss him. And when he starts to say he’s sorry, you hardly listen to that. You don’t even give him time to finish. You just embrace him, love him, put him in your best outfit, put a ring on his finger, get the best meat out of the freezer, cook up the best meal you can put together, start the music, rejoice with your friends, and proudly invite everybody to come to the celebration of your son that has come back.
That’s how God forgives. That’s how He wants us to forgive.
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, this is the example He gave us:
Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:2-4)
Those words really put our feet to the fire. They tell us that God’s forgiveness of us is based on our forgiveness of others. James put it this way:
For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:13)
Do you want mercy? Give it. Do you want forgiveness? Forgive like God.
Now, when Paul was in his first Roman imprisonment, he wrote several letters — namely Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. We call those the prison epistles. In both Ephesians and Colossians, there is a major emphasis on the matter of forgiveness:
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)
So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. (Colossians 3:12-13)
If you pull all of this together, you get the very clear idea that God is a forgiving God and you are to be forgiving people.
Now, the priority of forgiveness is not only given in Scripture in principle and parable. It is also given in Scripture through concrete and personal examples. And Paul’s epistle to Philemon is one such example. This is the book we will be looking at next time.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1991, titled “A Living Lesson on Forgiveness.”
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