The Old Testament had a lot to say about sin. Not only was humanity overcome by a condition that separated them from God, but God’s own people (Israel) were caught in a continual cycle that kept them at odds with their Creator.
Not only is sin directly and indirectly mentioned throughout the Old Testament, but there are also a number of books written by prophets entirely dedicated to calling out Israel’s sins and calling the nation to repentance.
So how does Jesus approach the topic of sin? We know that Jesus died to save us from sin, but how did He address the topic throughout His ministry? Let’s take an in-depth look at the ways Jesus tackled the subject.
Setting the captives free
Even when Jesus doesn’t directly address the topic of sin, it’s often the subtext. For instance, the entire testing in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) was about sin-even though neither Jesus nor the devil actually use the word. Satan was tempting Jesus to sin, and Jesus responded to his temptations with Scripture.
Another example of addressing the subject comes when Jesus announces His ministry.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him (Luke 4:16-20).
The freedom Jesus promised for prisoners and captives was both specific and general. He went throughout the region, casting out demons and healing anyone who was brought to Him (Matthew 4:23). In a very real way, He set people free of the infirmities that held them hostage.
But even more importantly, He came to deal with the sin that enslaved us all. This condition that separated us from God also made us prisoners of the kingdom of darkness. Jesus didn’t just come to set the oppressed free from the consequences of sin-He also ransomed us from the captivity that sin had led us into.
Paul says it this way, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13). When Jesus stood up in that synagogue, He was announcing His plan to deal with the sin that had infected humankind since the garden.
Jesus and the sinners
Due to the fact that sin infects us all, we’re all sinners. But that’s not exactly how everyone saw it in the first century. In their mind, if you kept the law and all the rules associated with it, you remained pure. This included not associating with sinners. And a sinner was anyone who didn’t follow the law of Moses (not to mention all the secondary Pharisaical regulations).
The thing about Jesus was that He tended to go wherever He was welcomed. Sometimes that would mean dining in the home of a religious leader, but quite often, it meant hanging out with crowds of people that others didn’t want anything to do with.
This is one reason that the Pharisees and lawyers had such a difficult time with Jesus. Mark’s Gospel tells us, “While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Mark 2:15-16).
And since guilt by association was the status quo, Jesus developed quite a reputation:
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (Matthew 11:18-19).
Jesus’s response to those who would separate themselves from others was simple, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
The religious leaders of the day saw sinners as a social problem that needed to be fixed. But Jesus saw them as people created in His image who needed to be liberated. He wasn’t as concerned that their badness would rub off on Him as He worried about His goodness influencing them.
What the Pharisees didn’t understand about sin
It’s natural that the Pharisees would look at Jesus’s behavior and draw the conclusion that He didn’t care about the law. And He explicitly addressed this issue in the Sermon on the Mount, but He did so in a way that shined a spotlight on the problem of sin.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20).
Jesus didn’t come to throw the law out as obsolete or worthless. He came to bring it to fruition, to add the period to the law’s long sentence. But He finished this statement with a sentence that would have shocked everyone in attendance. How in the world could someone’s righteousness surpass the Pharisee’s?!
This would have angered the Pharisees and teachers of the law who had devoted their lives to righteousness, and it would have been heartbreaking for everyone else who struggled to keep up with the law’s demands. But Jesus went on to explain what He meant.
Sin wasn’t as easy to avoid as the Pharisees believed
The problem with the law was that it couldn’t touch the deepest places in our hearts. It’s one thing to lay out specific behaviors to avoid while prescribing others, but that doesn’t address our desires and motives.
Jesus explains it like this:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).
His point was simple. When you boil it down, the law was all about loving God and loving others (Matthew 22:37-40). As important as it was to make a law against taking a life, it couldn’t begin to address the anger and hatred that made murder possible. Jesus wanted His listeners to understand that to refrain from killing someone didn’t mean one was free from murderous intent.
Then He went on to do the same with other sins. For instance, just because one avoided the physical act of adultery didn’t mean that they weren’t guilty of immorality (Matthew 5:27-30).
Sin is more than the things we do; it’s the fruit of sinful hearts. Jesus wanted everyone present to know that managing sin wasn’t making anyone clean. All it was doing was creating a caste system based on purity ethics. Jesus came to deal with the problem.
Your sins are forgiven
In one particularly telling story, Jesus attended a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. During the course of the afternoon, a woman with an unsavory reputation crashed the party and knelt weeping at Jesus’s feet. She washed the Lord’s feet with her tears and anointed Him with an expensive jar of perfume.
Simon, who had been reared in a culture where purity meant avoiding the presence of disreputable people, muttered to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is-that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
As Jesus has already said, sinners were the sole reason He came. The difference between this woman and the Pharisee was that she recognized her condition, but his heart was encased in a thick layer of self-righteousness.
The Savior attempts to break through Simon’s defenses with a simple parable:
Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more (Luke 7:41-42)?
Simon gives Jesus the correct answer. The person who was forgiven the greater debt would be the most grateful. Jesus goes on:
Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little (Luke 7:44-47).
Simon didn’t love Jesus less because he had fewer sins that needed to be forgiven. He showed less love because he didn’t recognize his own deficiencies. Like most in the religious community, the law had become a tool for cleaning the outside of the cup while the inside remained filthy and unusable (Matthew 23:25).
The connection between forgiving and forgiveness
The struggle to understand one’s own sinfulness wasn’t reserved for Pharisees like Simon. This is a problem we all share. Jesus went out of His way to show us the connection between forgiving others and being forgiven.
Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times” (Matthew 18:21)? Seven times?! He’s probably expecting Jesus to commend him for such an excessive number. But that’s not what happens.
Jesus responds, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (vs. 22). He wasn’t saying that someone was allowed to withhold forgiveness on the 78th infraction. Rather, he was demonstrating how ludicrous it was to measure out our forgiveness.
He then illustrated His point with a story about an unmerciful servant. A servant was forgiven a debt he would never be able to repay. After having his debt forgiven, the servant went out and accosted a fellow slave, demanding to be paid back a much smaller sum. When the master who forgave the servant heard what the servant had done, he had the servant thrown in jail.
The Lord finished this parable by saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (vs. 35). This echoes a point that Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Throughout His ministry, Jesus emphasized the connection between our forgiveness and our ability to be forgiving.
Our collective condition
From the minute Jesus kicked off His ministry, He was dealing with our sin. So many times He would tenderly forgive someone of their sins as He healed them from various maladies. But He wanted humanity to understand that sin’s roots went deep, and it was impossible for us to pull them out ourselves-even with the law’s help.
Ultimately, Jesus fulfilled His plan to liberate us captives on the cross. It’s through Jesus’s death and resurrection that forgiveness and reconciliation with God are possible. This is why Paul tells us, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
It’s vital that we understand that we all come to the cross in the same condition. The sin that infects us might manifest itself in different ways, but it all separates us from God. When we truly understand that, it becomes easier to empathize with the weaknesses and struggles of others-and forgive them, too.
If you’re looking for help understanding how to share the grace you’ve received, check out this post on forgiveness.