FORGIVENESS IS AN important teaching in Christianity. The hope of all the world depends upon God’s forgiveness of the sins of mankind. Few people in the world are aware of the need for forgiveness, nor seek it. Last May the world’s attention was directed toward this need when the pope made a specific trip to Greece and Syria, trying to bring a reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox churches, and to bring peace and forgiveness to the Middle East. It was front page news for several days in May as the pope took a six-day pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul.


His first stop in Athens was reported in the “New York Times” on May 5, 2001, as follows:

“John Paul II tried to mend the ancient rift with the Orthodox faith today by expressing ‘deep regret’ for the misdeeds of the Roman Catholic Church as he made the first papal visit to Greece since the churches were one.

“The pope lamented the ‘disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople,’ the massacre and pillaging of the heart of the Byzantine Empire, beginning in 1204. The sack of the home of the Eastern Church by the armies of Crusader knights was one of the historic grievances that had kept the Greek Orthodox Church so resistant to a papal visit—and prompted some ultraconservative Orthodox priests to protest the pope’s arrival by tolling church bells in mourning.

“‘For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him,’ the pope said.

“Archbishop Christodoulos, the leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, led other Orthodox bishops in the meeting room of his residence in loud applause. Roman Catholic cardinals accompanying the pope followed their lead, but clapped softly.

“The day—which included the reading of a joint statement by the two religious leaders, warm embraces and other signs of a thaw—was a turning point for the Greek Orthodox Church, which has long sought an apology from the Vatican. It was also a personal triumph for John Paul, who has long dreamed of brokering reconciliation with Eastern Orthodox churches, especially that of Greece, which is one of the more conservative and influential.”

This was not the first attempt made by the pope to seek reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox Church. He made his first trip in 1999 to Romania, and prayed alongside Patriarch Teoctist. A later visit to Georgia was more chilly. The leader of the main Orthodox church in Ukraine has reportedly asked the pope to abandon his plan to visit Ukraine in June. So has the Russian patriarch, Alesky II. And, as noted in the news release, a large part of the clergy in Greece opposed his visit.


Another news release a few days later, in the “Bergen Record” for May 8, 2001, told of his visit to Syria and particularly the city of Quneitra (formerly 50,000 people, but now only a few families live there because Syria wants to keep it as a monument to Israeli crimes). The press release said, “The 80-year-old pontiff knelt for twenty minutes on a wooden stand on the shattered stone floor of a Greek Orthodox church—within view of an Israeli radar station across the valley.

“‘May all believers find the courage to forgive one another, so that the wounds of the past may be healed, and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present,’ the pope said, looking exhausted on the third day of a pilgrimage to promote reconciliation.

“He offered a prayer for the youngest victim of the seven-month Palestinian uprising, a 4-month-old girl who died when Israeli tanks shelled a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, an attack that followed Palestinian mortar fire on two Jewish settlements.

“Relations between Syria and Israel have been especially tense since Israel fired on Syrian targets in Lebanon last month. Syria has vowed to retaliate, but so far President Bashar Assad has only increased his rhetoric against Israel, lambasting it as a ‘racist’ state. Syria has demanded that Israel return all of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967.

“In Quneitra, winds buffeted the area and chilled the inside of the church that, like the rest of the city, is in ruins.

“Applause broke out as Pope John Paul arrived in a black limousine after a one-hour drive from Damascus and entered the church. The crowd of several thousand included former residents bused in for the day and U.N. peacemakers from Austria who patrol the buffer zone separating Syrian and Israeli soldiers.

“The Syrian government says Israeli forces sacked Quenitra before handing it back to Syria in 1974. Israel, which still holds most of the rest of the Golan Heights, says it was damaged in fighting.

“The visit to Quenitra was part of the pope’s four-day tour of Syria, where he has tried to reach out to Muslims and Christians alike. On Sunday, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, in the walled old city in Damascus.”

During the pope’s visit to Syria the news media reported on Assad’s attempts to have him side with the Arabs. The report said, “Assad harshly attacked Israel during the pope’s stay, saying Israelis ‘tried to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Christ …’ and asking the Roman Catholic Church to side with the Arabs.

“The pope, again, refused to be drawn in, instead repeating calls for the need for reconciliation.

“‘We pray to you for the peoples of the Middle East,’ he said. ‘Help them to break down walls of hostility and division and to build together a world of justice and solidarity.’”


The pope’s silence concerning this verbal attack on Israel offended the Jews who were disappointed in his lack of support for them. Thus, the trip to Syria did not gain much of anything for the pope’s program of bringing reconciliation. Recent events in Tekoa of the West Bank of Israel (the murder of two 14-year-old boys) has released a surging tide of hate; “a tide of hate flowing from Palestinians to Israelis and from Israelis to Palestinians. The hate does not ebb back and forth now; it runs at full flood, overwhelming those who hate and those who do not, and those too young to know what hate is.” (Quotation from “Time Magazine,” 5/21/01)


The question that arises is: Can the pope ask God to forgive those perpetrators of crime one thousand years ago? The procedure accepted by the Roman Catholic Church would permit this. Members of the church are supposed to confess their sins to the parish priest, and he, in turn, seeks their forgiveness through a chain of authority such as bishop, archbishop, cardinal, and pope. However, our understanding of the way God grants forgiveness is through prayer. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying, “If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”—Matt. 6:14,15

But how can those who died 1,000 years ago ask for forgiveness? They will be given that opportunity by being raised from the dead. As Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28,29, Revised Standard Version) God’s plan is to give everyone an opportunity to know the Truth (I Tim. 2:4) and to make amends for the wrongs they have committed. Each one is responsible for his own sins and must seek the Father’s forgiveness.


When Jesus was upon earth he taught the people of Israel; he told them how to approach God in all matters, including forgiveness. Recorded in Luke 7:36-50 is one such lesson. Jesus had been invited for dinner by Simon, a Pharisee. As he sat reclining at dinner in Simon’s house, a woman who was a sinner came to anoint Jesus with an alabaster box of ointment. As she kneeled behind him at his feet, she was so overcome with emotion that she began to weep, and her tears fell on Jesus’ legs. She then was embarrassed, and wiped the tears with her hair, kissed his feet, and anointed them. Simon, who was observing all of this, said to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:39) We are not told the nature of the woman’s sins, but it is evident that she made mistakes in her life and was penitent.

Even though Simon had not expressed himself audibly, Jesus knew what was in his mind, and presented a parable to him, saying, “There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most?” (vss. 41,42) Simon answered, “I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.” Jesus answered, “Thou hast rightly judged.” (vs.43) Jesus then proceeded to tell Simon how he neglected to wash his feet, as a good host would have done, and gave him no kiss, and did not anoint him; whereas the woman had washed his feet with her tears, and ceased not to kiss his feet, and anoint his feet. He said, “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” (vs. 47) It was not that Simon was more righteous, for “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Everyone needs forgiveness.


To be worthy of forgiveness, the Lord’s people must not only desire it, but also be in the proper heart condition to receive and appreciate it. These, and related conditions of forgiveness, are beautifully set forth in God’s instructions to Israel when he said, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” (II Chron. 7:14) This was told to Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. Note the conditions required for forgiveness, such as humility, prayer, seeking the Lord, and reform.

Since, by nature, all of us are members of a sinful and fallen race, we frequently do those things which cause us to stand in need of forgiveness. To obtain this forgiveness we must humble ourselves by acknowledging our need. If we are proud and pretend that we do not need God’s mercy, his grace will not be extended to us.

Another condition of forgiveness is that we pray. The Lord has made a wonderful provision through Christ whereby we might approach him in prayer to seek forgiveness. The Apostle Paul speaks of this as going to the “throne of grace,” as he writes, “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16) Likewise, we must seek our Heavenly Father’s face if we would obtain his grace and forgiveness. And our Father will oblige by lifting up his “countenance” upon us and giving us “peace.”—Num. 6:24-26

This experience can only be realized if it is diligently sought, and people turn from their wicked ways. We thank God that provision has been made in his plan of salvation to give everyone an opportunity to seek him and receive forgiveness. This will be when God makes a New Covenant with the nation of Israel, as recorded in Jeremiah 31:33, and says, “They shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”—Jer. 31:34

Dawn Bible Students Association
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