by Erik Raymond
One humorous privilege dog owners enjoy is watching their pet respond to unfamiliar sounds. It’s almost impossible not to laugh when you see a dog cock its head to the side and stare with confused curiosity. These foreign sounds have a way of arresting a dog and captivating its attention.
When I read through the gospel narratives, I can’t help but imagine a number of captivated and curious hearers when Jesus explained God’s Word to them. In the familiar section of Scripture called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus walks through a number a Bible verses that His hearers knew well. But then He deviates from the script and begins to expound these passages, teasing out implications for them. It is at this point that I imagine the original audience cocking their heads with curiosity. This was something they weren’t used to. The King was there, speaking His Word and laying out His expectations for those who would follow Him.
One particularly arresting aspect of Jesus’ teaching has to do with forgiveness. He says:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23–24)
As followers of Jesus, our entire lives must be oriented around the kingdom of God. Therefore, anything that belittles, obscures, or contradicts the glory of God must be dealt with urgently. Here the issue is forgiveness, and the context is the covenant community. It is also important to notice that the exhortation is given to the one who has done the offending, not the offended party. What are we to do? We are to go and be reconciled with our brother. To reconcile means to make peace. So in other words, we have Jesus commanding His followers, especially when others may be offended by them, to take it upon themselves to initiate the recovery of peaceful relationships within the church. That will raise a few eyebrows.
We can press this a bit further to see the need to develop humble hearts that seek forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a Priority
Jesus ratchets up His original command by elevating this reconciliation to the top of our to-do lists. He says that even if we are doing something very important and good like offering a sacrifice, we must step away and give attention to something even more important, namely, reconciling with a brother. This is shocking. If we are honest, our first thought would probably be to postpone the reconciliation and give attention to the worship. But Jesus flips this over and reorders our steps in accordance with what He prioritizes. God’s Word directs us to seek after what He seeks and to prize what He prizes. And, as we see, God prizes reconciliation in His church.
Forgiveness is Essential
If we were to boil down Christianity to a few key practices, what would they be? Certainly, we would consider prayer, Bible reading, taking the sacraments, and the gathering of God’s people at the top of the list. As we continue to think, we would doubtless include serving one another, evangelism, and the intentional pursuit of personal godliness. But at what point would we say that we must be a people who pursue reconciliation with one another? Jesus seems to put it pretty high up on the list. In fact, it seems very closely related to our own understanding and application of the gospel. How, after all, can we expect God to be pleased with our worship when our hearts and hands are filthy with sin against our fellow believers? Jesus seems to be saying that our other religious works, however good they may be, are not acceptable before God if we are ignoring conflict with or personal sin against other brothers and sisters in Christ. In short, seeking the forgiveness that comes through reconciliation is essential; it’s a top priority.
Forgiveness is Precious
We have all experienced the painful persistence of unresolved conflict. Like a fox in the field, it eats away at the harvest of our joy. Christians who are supposed to enjoy a closeness sealed by love are tripped up by the common tactics of this fallen world. As a result, we distance ourselves from each other physically only after we do so emotionally. Reconciliation is needed. But what happens when peace is achieved? Consider a sinning brother going to his fellow church member and humbly owning his sin, and with the teary-eyed contrition that comes from time with Jesus, asking for forgiveness. After a discussion of the matter at hand, there is forgiveness. The matter is resolved, reconciliation achieved, and the grace of Christ applied. Looking across the sanctuary during the Lord’s Table, brothers lock eyes and smile. They are good now. Forgiveness is precious. This newly restored relationship is like a freshly arranged bouquet of grace. It is a delightful fragrance from another world.
Forgiveness is Costly
If we are honest, we will admit that this is easier said than done. It is uncomfortable to humble ourselves and seek reconciliation. It is true; to do so will cost us our pride, and comfort will be sacrificed. But friends, isn’t this what it means to follow Jesus (Luke 9:23)? After all, it is Christ who paid the ultimate price to secure our forgiveness. Our Lord had done nothing wrong, but He came to live and die for people who have done everything wrong. And why did He do it? To reconcile us to His Father (Col. 1:21–22). When you read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, read them under the shadow of the cross cast in Matthew 27. Jesus knows the high cost of forgiveness; He earned it. May we never forget it.