“The LORD passed by before him [Moses], and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” —Exodus 34:6,7

AS WE LEARN about God through the testimony of his Word, we cannot help but be impressed with his wonderful characteristic of forgiveness. This facet of Jehovah’s character would not have been perceived before the creation and fall of man. Certainly no event in heaven before that time required forgiveness under the perfect conditions existing. This may be why the angels are so interested in observing how God rescues those who have disobeyed him and thus have become estranged from him.—I Pet. 1:12

The angels were not the only beings who desired to know more about God and his plans. Jehovah’s prophets in ancient days, and other faithful servants among mankind, also desired to understand his purpose and his ways. Moses wanted to see God, but was told that it was impossible for any man to see God and yet live. However, Moses was allowed to have a small glimpse of God’s glory.

We read in Exodus 33:18-23: Moses said, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory. And he [the Lord] said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the Lord said, Behold there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.”

Then Jehovah spoke the words of our theme text, which clearly declare that God’s love is not just for those who faithfully serve him. His love extends even to those who have committed iniquities, transgressions, and sins. In fact, the divine plan of the ages is a program whereby God will exercise his forgiveness to the entire world of mankind, without exception.

However, God exercises his forgiveness within a framework of justice. “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne,” said the psalmist. (Ps. 89:14) The wonderful attributes of mercy and forgiveness described in our theme text are always coupled with justice. This is expressed in the words that he “will by no means clear the guilty.”—Exod. 34:7

Unfortunately many people have an image in their minds of a very unforgiving God. The Law, which he gave to his chosen people, did not enhance the idea of compassion. For example, it demanded an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Lev. 24:20) The Law seemed extremely harsh. But the Law provided something additional to strict rules and regulations: it was indeed the basis of a relationship between God and man which provided forgiveness for transgressions.

Consider Leviticus chapters 4, 5, and 6. In these chapters there are detailed instructions about sin offerings, peace offerings, burnt sacrifices, as well as trespass and meal offerings. These sacrifices were to have been brought by the people when they realized they had done something wrong and wanted to be forgiven, or if they simply desired to express their gratitude and worship toward their Creator. These offerings illustrated that, under the provisions of the New Covenant during Christ’s thousand-year kingdom, it will be possible for the people to have their sins forgiven through ‘trespass offerings’, and to praise and thank God through their ‘thank offerings’. But just as Leviticus specified a bullock as the required sacrifice for the sins of ignorance of the whole congregation, so in the kingdom there must be an acknowledgement of the sacrifice of the antitypical bullock, Jesus Christ.—Heb. 9:13-15,28

Under the Law arrangement, in all cases a person would bring something to sacrifice when they wanted individual forgiveness. The wealthy brought large animals—calves, goats, sheep—the poor brought turtledoves, or even a meal offering would be acceptable in the case of the very destitute. But everyone had to bring something. The scripture says that then the sin “shall be forgiven them.”—Lev. 4:20,26,31,35

God, speaking through Jeremiah concerning the New Covenant which will be made with the people during Christ’s kingdom, says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:34) This forgiveness will not be forthcoming because the people will offer animal sacrifices, as they did during the Jewish Age. Instead, it will be because they have sacrificed something far more valuable—their own will and ways—themselves. They will bring their hearts and minds to the Lord to do his bidding, with the petition that they be brought back into harmony with him. In this way they will show their sincerity and determination to please God.

God showed by his actions that he follows his own principle of justice. He would “by no means clear the guilty” without a just compensation. Thus he, himself, made the greatest sacrifice of all when he offered his own beloved Son to die upon Calvary’s cross. Jesus told us of God’s marvelous, incomprehensible gift in John 3:16. Jesus said nothing about his own sacrifice; he knew it was his Heavenly Father’s love for the world which had made forgiveness and salvation possible.

Throughout his ministry Jesus emphasized the importance of forgiveness. In his sermon on the mount, for example, he taught that an acceptable heart attitude goes considerably above and beyond what was taught in the ancient Jewish Law. “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”—Matt. 5:38,39, New International Version

As recorded, in the next few verses in his sermon Jesus explained that if we exercise forgiveness even to our enemies, we are displaying the same principles which motivate our Heavenly Father. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”—Matt. 5:43-45

This ‘new law’ from Jesus was not written on tablets of stone, as was the Old Law. Those who follow it have it written by the Holy Spirit on the fleshy tablets of their hearts. (II Cor. 3:3) God requires our heart appreciation of him and his righteous principles, in order that forgiveness can be truly accomplished. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” In order to keep God’s law in an acceptable manner, one cannot not keep it because one must, but because it is right, because it is an expression of God, and because one wants to be like God.

It was also in the sermon on the mount that Jesus gave us a model prayer called the ‘Lord’s Prayer’. One important portion says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12) How important is it that we forgive our debtors? We are informed that it is so important that if we do not forgive from the heart, our Father will not forgive us. “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”—Matt. 6:15

The topic of forgiveness was such a frequent feature of our Lord’s discourses that Peter finally sought to bring it down to a level he could understand. He asked, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” (Matt. 18:21) Seven acts of forgiveness toward one person no doubt seemed like an extreme limit of patience to Peter. But much to his surprise, he learned that as far as our Lord was concerned, there really is no limit to the number of times we must extend forgiveness to those who seek it. “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” By this statement, Jesus did not imply that the limit was literally 490 times! He was using Peter’s suggestion of counting up a particular number of offenses, to show that as many times as someone asks for forgiveness, we are to forgive him. Certainly we would not keep a tally, and when it rose from 469 to 470 conclude that we had reached our limit of forgiveness! We are to forgive others because our Father has forgiven, and continues to forgive us, all our many trespasses against him—which are certain to exceed far beyond 490.

The Unforgiving Servant

Jesus illustrated this point in a wonderful parable of forgiveness: “The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a certain king which would take account of his servants. … One was brought unto him which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him; and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out and found one of his fellow servants, which owed him a hundred pence [far less than even a single talent]: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison till he should pay the debt.”—Matt. 18:23-30

The king in this parable represents God. The servant who owed the gigantic debt, could well depict any consecrated servant of the Lord. When he was asked to pay the debt, he could not. So the king commanded that he and all that he had, including his family, be sold—picturing how the demands of justice are important to God. But then the man begged eloquently for mercy, and as a result we read the beautiful words, “The lord was moved with compassion.”

God is moved with compassion concerning his servants now, who sincerely request his mercy, and he has loosed them from their debts. Concerning the world of mankind, although the result of the payment for their sins has not yet reached mankind as a whole, their forgiveness will be effected in the kingdom, and all will, indeed, be released from their debt. Their debt was freely paid through the sacrifice of God’s only begotten Son. Nothing more will be required than for them to ask for forgiveness, to give their hearts and minds to God, and to follow the principles of righteousness.

But the parable did not end with the forgiving of the servant. If you had been forgiven a great debt would you seek to imitate the attitude of your lord toward those who owed something much less to you? In this parable the servant did just the opposite. He exhibited such gross ingratitude that the king ordered him into his presence and reproved him, telling him that he should have had the same compassion toward his debtor that had been shown to him. The lord informed him that because he had not shown mercy and forgiveness, his own debt was reinstated.

Although the parable does not reveal directly what became of the uncompassionate servant, one assumes that he was thrown into debtor’s prison, and never again released. To be certain that we would get the lesson which he intended, Jesus said, “So likewise shall my Heavenly Father do also unto you If ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”—Matt. 18:35

The Prodigal Son

Luke recorded another parable of our Lord that also illustrates the attribute of forgiveness on the part of the Heavenly Father. It is known as the parable of the prodigal son. (See Luke 15:11-32.) A father had two sons, one of whom asked for his inheritance, received it, and immediately left the comfort of the father’s home. In a far country, the son lost everything because of “riotous living.” It was only when a famine arose in the land and his situation became life-threatening that the son remembered the favored position he had previously enjoyed. He resolved to return to his father’s house, if only to fill the position of a servant, since he was sure he could never be received again as a son.

Although the principal application of this parable was meant as a rebuke to the scribes and Pharisees who, like the elder son of the parable, believed that they had never left the Heavenly Father’s house, and who resented any consideration that might be shown to sinners, we can see another important lesson in it. The human family has gone astray—far away from their Father and his principles, and thus from his favor. Like the prodigal son of the parable, the human race is serving this ‘citizen of that far country’, the Adversary himself. Satan is associated with things that are unclean in God’s sight, and so in this parable he is depicted as a keeper of swine, and he has the prodigal son tend them. Swine were, of course, one of the most unclean animals under the Jewish Law.

When the son came to his senses and realized he could not continue to exist on the same food that he was feeding to the swine, he resolved that he would return to his father, regardless of the consequences. In the same way, the human race will ‘come to their senses’ and desire to return to the home of their Father when offered this opportunity during Christ’s kingdom.

In the parable, the Father was eagerly watching and waiting for his son’s return. He saw him coming while he was yet ‘a long way off’, and he rushed out to greet him, and to welcome him back. Likewise, the Heavenly Father has done everything possible to make it easy for the human family to return to him during the millennial reign of that kingdom for which we have been taught to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as is in heaven, so in earth.” (Luke 11:2) It is God himself who has made all the arrangements whereby he can exercise the forgiveness and compassion expressed in this parable by the father’s actions.

Those Christians who are faithful to their heavenly calling during this Gospel Age will have the opportunity to join with Jesus, their Lord and Master, holding out welcoming arms to the human family as they return home to their Father. Jointly, Christ and his church will be the agency God will use to express his forgiveness and his compassion for mankind. What a wonderful time that will be for the entire human race.—Rev. 5:9,10; 20:4; 21:1-5

Dawn Bible Students Association
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