2 Corinthians 2: 5 - 11
There is something almost irresistible about the idea of “out with the old, in with the new.” Sometimes we need to say “good riddance” to the pain and hurt of the past. We’re going to have to find the courage to let go of our anger, say farewell to our bitterness, and cast off our malice toward those who have hurt us deeply. We must learn to forgive. Until we do that we can never go forward. As long as we live in the past, we will be chained to the past, and the people who have hurt us deeply win a double victory - once when they hurt us the first time and twice when we refuse to let go and move on.
We all struggle with broken relationships, people who hurt us, painful words, deceitful actions, friends who turn against us, and unkind words said about us or our loved ones.
The Great Offender
2 things are true about the human condition: We always need forgiveness and we always have someone we need to forgive. Paul challenges the Christians at Corinth to reach out and forgive a man in the congregation who had sinned. He is sometimes called “the great offender." We don’t know exactly who the man is or exactly what he did but it must have been bad. Some say that he is the man in 1 Corinthians 5 who was sleeping with his father’s wife - his step-mother. Paul instructs them to put that man out of the church so that, having been cut off from Christian fellowship, he might eventually come to repentance. The excommunication clearly worked because the man repented and wanted to come back to the church but the congregation refused to take him back.
Others say that the man led a rebellion against the Apostle Paul, claiming that he wasn’t a “real” apostle, dividing the church and causing great harm. Paul had told the church to put the man out. They had done so, and evidently he had come to his senses and wanted to be reinstated. So Paul tells the church that he had suffered enough - they needed to forgive him.
It doesn’t matter which scenario is correct because the underlying teaching is the same. Sometimes we must take a strong action against those who sin. When we do, we must be willing to forgive them later on. Which is harder? To judge sin or to forgive sin? To take a stand against sinful behaviour? Or to believe a man has truly changed his ways? Both are equally hard but in different ways. Both require courage, wisdom and love. We need the Holy Spirit to show us the way forward. As we survey this passage let’s note 5 benefits of forgiveness.
1. Forgiveness Displays God’s Mercy v. 5, 6
By putting the offending man out - the church had acted in a righteous manner. But what do you do next? How do you know when enough is enough? Parents struggle with this when they discipline a misbehaving child. Should the child be grounded? Reprimanded? Sent to his room? Given a hiding? Required to make some apology? Perform some restitution? How long should he be punished? Proverbs 27: 6 “Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy." When we discipline those we love, we may be seen as an enemy and not as a friend. Like parents who say, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” When my parents disciplined, I never really believed that. The punishment never seemed to bother them as much as it hurt my backside. But of course I was not an objective observer!
Tricky issue - no easy answer. How do you know when the punishment is sufficient? All parents understand that children are different - what works with one child may not work with another. Parents say about certain children (usually boys), “Nothing we did seemed to bother him” - other children (usually girls), “All I had to do was look at her and her heart was broken.” So we need courage and tact and grace and wisdom.
Paul wants the Corinthians to know that what they had done was right, but now the time had come to forgive and receive this man back into the fellowship of the church. Psalm 103: 8, 9 “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever”
Sometimes we think that if we forgive, we are going soft on sin. But if God treated us the way we sometimes treat others, we would never be forgiven at all. We are never more like Christ than when we forgive those who have sinned against us.
2. Forgiveness Restores the Sinner v. 7, 8
So many times we are like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. Down deep the sins of others disgust us to the point that we really don’t want them to repent. Forgiveness seems too cheap, too quick, too easy. After all, we’re the ones who played by the rules. We didn’t ask for our inheritance early, we didn’t waste it all in the “far country,” and we didn’t end up eating with the pigs. We’re not the ones who got into a bad marriage. Our kids never got hooked on drugs. We’ve built our life around the church. We are good, Bible-believing Christians who go to church, have a Quiet Time, give a tithe, go on mission trips, and we pray every day. We’re not like those “other people.” If you ask us, we’re all in favour of forgiveness. But when it comes to someone we knew and thought we could trust, someone who let us down or hurt us deeply, we’re not very quick to forgive. Truth be told, we think we’re better than that guy who made all those stupid choices. Why should we want him back in the church?
How little we understand the grace of God. How little we understand about ourselves.
When we read the story of the Prodigal Son, we have to ask, “Who is worse off? The son who left and returned? Or the son who never left but would not forgive his brother who did?” In the end it seems as if the older brother is worse off because he cannot bring himself to rejoice in his brother’s return. When we see someone being punished for their sin, we are to remember that we too are great sinners.
If there is no hope of forgiveness for the worst of sinners, then there is no hope for any of us. Notice an important fact. Paul doesn’t name the person involved nor does he specify the sin. That’s a crucial point. Paul veils his comments so as not to pile on more public shame. The Corinthians knew exactly who Paul was talking about and that was all that mattered. Our discipline and our forgiveness ought to be tempered by a desire not to smear someone’s reputation unnecessarily. In this age of instant communication via Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging, when we can post anything on YouTube for all the world to see, we would do well to follow Paul’s example.
Love doesn’t smear someone. Love doesn’t humiliate others. Love covers a multitude of sins. Line from the song “They’ll know we are Christians by our love” - “We will guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride." That’s exactly what Paul is doing here. That’s what we should do when we discipline and when we forgive. Follow the path of mercy, not vengeance.
3. Forgiveness Demonstrates Obedience v. 10
This has 2 sides - Will you be obedient in exercising discipline? Will you be obedient in offering forgiveness?
Forgiveness proves the genuineness of our Christian faith. Do you love enough to forgive when discipline has led to repentance? This can be very hard to do, especially if the person involved hurt us deeply or if he hurt those we love deeply. But there must come a point when we let go of the pain and anguish and reach out with the love of God to say, “You are forgiven in Jesus’ name.”
4. Forgiveness Reflects the Character of Christ v. 10
5 times Paul uses the words “forgive” or “forgiven.” “We’re all in this together-you, me, and the man who sinned.” All of us stand in desperate need of the grace of God. The man needs forgiveness. You need to forgive. I am happy to forgive along with you.
Forgiveness is a gift we give to those who do not deserve it. We do not forgive because of what the person has done - not because their repentance has “earned” forgiveness. When you have been deeply hurt, no amount of repentance, no matter how genuine it may be, can “earn” forgiveness. You still must give it anyway.
We will never live this way until we grasp the final phrase of v. 11 "I have forgiven in the sight of Christ." We forgive because we have been forgiven. We release others because Christ has released us from our sins. Love covers their sins because Christ’s love covered our sins. Forgiveness always flows this way: From Christ to us to others. We do for others what God has done for us. We have been forgiven; we know what it is like. Now do the same for others. We are not left to wonder what it means to forgive those who have hurt us.
You cannot understand God’s love unless you go to the cross.
You cannot understand the cross unless you see in it God’s love. Man’s murder became God’s sacrifice. A heinous crime paid an impossible debt. Through the death of an innocent man, we the guilty go free. If we had been there, the stench of death would have overwhelmed us, but the cross smelled good to the Father. The work of salvation was finally done. If you want to know what love is like, go to Golgotha and fix your eyes on the man hanging from the centre cross. Study what he did and you will know true love. Then go and do for others what God has done for you.
5. Forgiveness Thwarts Satan’s Schemes v. 11
Paul ends his appeal by reminding his readers of the high price of unforgiveness. The word “schemes” speaks of a military strategy. Our unforgiveness has allowed Satan to set up a “base camp” in our hearts. We don’t even know what is going on, but Satan (the ultimate spiritual terrorist) attacks us when we least expect it.
We get angry without a cause. We are too quick to criticize. We avoid talking to certain people. We nurse a victim mentality. We slander others who have hurt us. We rip into innocent people. We say unkind things and then try to laugh it off. We refuse to consider meeting with certain people. We think about “those people” day and night. We are consumed by bitterness. We know something is wrong but we can’t put our finger on it.
Satan has won the day and you don’t even know it. Until you deal with that “base camp” of bitterness, you’ll continue to be miserable. Most people will choose not to be around you.
Perhaps as we have entered 2010, you may be aware of some bitterness, some anger, some unresolved issues that you need to deal with in order to get rid of Satan’s “base camp” in your life. Whatever the Lord shows you, do it. Do it!
As we come to a close, I would point out Paul’s compassion not only for this man (whoever he was) but also for the church. Even though the man had evidently sinned against Paul, he seeks no vengeance. He calls no names. He doesn’t say, “I’m glad you got rid of that jerk.” Instead he says, “I forgive him as you forgive him in order that Satan may not get a foothold in the church." Here is true Christian maturity at work. Paul’s concern was not for his own reputation. He only wanted the church to grow spiritually and become more like Christ.
Forgiveness is God’s medicine for a broken heart. Forgiveness heals the deepest wounds. Forgiveness repairs what the devil has destroyed. Forgiveness opens the door to even greater blessings.
Oh, that the love of Christ might fill our hearts so that as we have been forgiven, we might freely forgive those who sin against us. You say, “I can’t do that. You don’t know what they did to me.” What if God treated you as you treat others? You’d be in hell already. What if God were as unkind as you are? What if he kept a record of your sins? You’d never get within a million miles of heaven.
Christianity bases everything on what Christ has done for us. Having been forgiven so much, at so great a cost, can we not forgive those who have disappointed us? Whatever forgiveness costs us (and sometimes it costs us a great deal), it can never cost us what it cost Jesus when he hung on the cross, the Son of God dying for the sins of a rebel race, crying out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” Luke 23: 34.
Make 2010 a Year of Good Riddance in which we say farewell to anger, bitterness, blaming, finger pointing, self-justification and a critical spirit, and ask God to grant us a fresh infusion of his grace in all of our relationships.
May we be more like Jesus, full of grace and truth, abounding in mercy and quick to forgive.
“Set us free, Lord Jesus, from corrosive anger that your love might flow from us to a hurting world. Teach us to forgive as we have been forgiven. Amen.”