Hebrews 9:15-22 “Forgiveness of Sins”
I was reading a novel on the planes that I took last week to get first to Los Angeles and then on to Denver and Wyoming. Actually I have not finished the book yet. Some of the language in the book is surprising to me. For example, I bumped into a word that I had never heard or seen before. The word the author used was “heritor.” (I was glad that when I typed out this sermon on the computer the spell checker even recognized it as a valid word. No little red squiggle underneath it!).
I did not have wifi on the plane to allow me to look it up, so I glossed over it, assuming a meaning from context. Later at my sister’s house I went back and looked up this word “heritor.” It turns out that the word is archaic. It first came into use in Middle English, about the time of the Norman Conquests into Britain. Its modern successor in American English is “inheritor.” This raised the huge question in my mind as to why the author chose to use an archaic term when a modern one was available.
Right, “inheritance” is that which you receive in property from a former generation. We know how that works. Yet, “heritance” is that which we receive that is not property from those who have preceded us in death. Because both my mother and father were Christians and attended church, I am the heritor of their Christian faith.
Just to make this ever more clear, in the days when Hebrews was being written to the Jews of Rome, the hearers of this letter had a heritance in the Jewish Faith although most would have had no inheritance being poor or in fact slaves who were not allowed to own property at all. So, even slavery was a heritance. One was a slave because one’s father was a slave. One did not “inherit” slavery; however, it could well be one’s heritance. One could be the heritor of slavory.
Let us now jump to the last line of our scripture for today: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” The last three words is the sermon title for this morning. The issue for us is that this is not really about the “forgiveness of sins” as we probably all think about it today. Believe it or not, the word “sins” does not appear in the original text at all. Just to add to the confusion, the word “forgiveness” does not appear either. In the Greek, we have simply the word “aphesis,” which interestingly enough is also an English word! We just do not use it very often in common speech.
The King James version translates the Greek “aphesis” as “remission.” That means a cancellation or release from a debt or bondage that came before. The Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance goes so far as to translate “aphesis” as “liberty.”
Now, I understand why the editors of our Bible decided to add the words “forgiveness of sins” to our English texts today. We only need ask, “What are we being liberated from by the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus?” The answer is that way back in the time of the Creation, humankind decided to sin against God and was therefore punished by death entering our bodies. WE have been in bondage to that sin ever since. That is what is remitted. WE are no longer in that bondage of sin but rather liberated by Jesus.
But, it includes more than that. In John 8 we can read the story of the adulterous woman. Mind you, this is no parable that Jesus tells but is a real occurrence in the time of His ministry. So, this really happened that Jesus and His disciples come upon a scene in the Temple in Jerusalem. A woman is about to be stoned for the sin of adultery. Jesus releases the woman from her sin and tells her to go and sin no more. We see here that it is not really the “forgiveness” of sin but rather the “release” or “liberation” from the punishment of sin. The Sadducees then hold Jesus in contempt complaining that only God could release someone from sin. . . .but then that IS the point! Is it not?
But it is not just about “sin” is it? Again I remind you that the word “sin” does not exist in any of the over 2,500 original Greek manuscripts with Hebrews 9 in it. This is a much wider or broader release and liberation! A release from heritance in fact.
Is being a fisherman a sin? Of course not! Of the Disciples of Jesus, four of them had been fishermen. Why were they fishermen? It was their heritance. You will recall that when James and John were called to follow Jesus, they left their father Zebedee in the boat. So, in following Jesus, they literally left their heritance in the boat. (Mark 1:16-20) Levi was a tax collector. He became a writer of the Gospel of Matthew!
Whatever was your heritance before coming to know Jesus, the Lord has now released you from that. You are now liberated. Everything that was before is no longer there. That is literally what aphesis means in Greek, and still in English usage today—most specifically about phonemics. Remember that “aphesis” is the word found in this text.
Let me just be really clear about the English word “aphesis.” It is used to describe a practice in English speech that takes away the first part of a word. For instance, you all know the word “scarp.” The real word is “escarp.” We have just come to cut away the first part of the word. That is aphesis.
My favorite example of this is how we say in English, “You are way out of line.” Did you know that actually the word usage here is by aphesis? It should be, “You are ‘away’ out of line.” “Way out of line” is improper. The first part of “away” has been left off, so we say simply “way.” Aphesis is leaving the first part off. The crime was never committed, so how can there be a punishment. The carpet was never soiled, so why rent the rug doctor machine?
In our technical computer-driven world today, we have a perfect example of aphesis in handling computer issues. Recently someone came to me with a computer problem. I looked at the symptoms of the software and noted that the computer registry had been corrupted. Someone would have to go back into the registry and do some fancy editing to make the machine work right again. Rather than doing that, I suggested simply “reboot the machine to its original factory settings.” This is much easier than hunting down the registry errors. Just erase everything that has been added to the programs and go back to the original boot.
One does not even have to go all the way back to the factory settings in most cases. We can just go back to the last “restore point” on our computers. In the church, we call this being born again. You see, we are born into this world and our lives become more wretched from that moment on. Then, we get to know Jesus and are born again. We are rebooted to the factory specifications.
The idea is that this should happen not just internally within our hearts and minds but also with our entire world. The heritance of human existence on this planet since our falling from grace at the time of Creation is one of warfare and degradation. We need to be liberated, released, and set free from that. We need to leave all that behind and follow Jesus.
The Taliban in Afghanistan are a political movement based on reliving the sins and hatreds of the past. The country of Afghanistan will not be liberated truly until this political movement releases from the sins of the past.
Likewise as Germany prepares for elections this week, a group called “Querdenken” cites a strange theory that at the end of World War II the Allied Victors never legally established a new German State and therefore the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler is still the true government there, making the current elections illegal. This is all nutty thinking that again shows what happens to those who can never break from the past. Why bring back the Third Reich when you can bring back Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire?! Where does it end?
The answer is that it ends with Jesus. In the time when the letter to the Hebrews of Rome was written, the people had a lot of heritance to consider. They were being persecuted as Jews and run out of Rome. There were deep-rooted hatreds that stemmed back thousands of years. This letter is about the liberation that the entire people can know when they let go of the past and look to the future of grace through the redemption of the world through Jesus.
So, we have the term here in our Bibles “forgiveness of sins.” That is still an okay translation. But, the term “aphesis” really means to be set free from the past. This is “way” better than reliving it again and again.
Jesus himself was whipped and beaten. He was made to carry the instrument of his own death, the Cross, through public humiliation. He was nailed to that Cross and left to die in agony. His own followers abandoned him and went into hiding. Then, he came back to life and made them breakfast on the shore of Galilee! He showed us how to live a life free from death—a life in which the mistakes of our pasts are zeroed out and erased. This is substantially more than just the forgiveness of sins. This is a fresh start. This is a re-birth through Jesus’ resurrection. This is the hope of a new world when Jesus comes again and everything is made new.