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Let Go! = Leave, Allow, or Forgive?

Imagine: a Biblical word that means both “forgive,” and “divorce”! How can one word mean both? Both of these actions are forms of “letting go.” What an amazingly flexible word!

The standard New Testament verb for “forgive” is aphiēmi, used 143 times. The basic meaning of the word is to “let go away.” From here, it regularly stretches to mean not only “forgive,” but also “leave,” “allow,” and other forms of “letting go.” The meaning of the word in any given verse is almost never in doubt, but we’d never guess that the same word is being stretched like Silly-Putty to cover so many different meanings, in so many famous passages. Let’s take a look at a few!

The first meaning of this word for “forgive” is to “let go” or release. When Jesus dies on the cross, we are told that he “yielded his spirit” or “gave up the ghost” (Matthew 27:50). In another Gospel, Jesus “utters” a loud cry (same word – Mark 15:37).

The New Testament word for “forgive” most often (at least 58 times) means to “leave” as in “go away.” But it never does so without specifying a place, person, or object that is left behind. In Matthew 4:11, the devil “leaves” Jesus. Soon thereafter, his disciples “leave” their nets (Matthew 4:20). Peter says that he and his fellow disciples “have left everything” to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27, Mark 10:28). Jesus predicts that not one stone of the Temple will be “left” that will not be thrown down (Matthew 24:2), and he predicts that there will come a day at the end of time when “one is taken, and one is left” (Matthew 24:40-41). Here also belongs the use of this verb to mean “divorce” or literally “leave” one’s spouse. (1 Corinthians 7:11-13)

Jesus tells a would-be follower to “leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). teaches that if someone sues you for your shirt, “leave” him your coat as well (Matthew 5:40). In the Sadducees’ parable of the seven brothers, each man dies and “leaves” his wife to his brother (Matthew 22:25). On several occasions, “leaves” (some Bible translate “sends away”) the crowds (Matthew 13:36, Mark 4:36, 8:13).

Sometimes the sense of “leave” goes so far as to mean “abandon,” as when the disciples leave Jesus when he is arrested (Matthew 26:56 = Mark 14:50). In his letter to the seven churches of Asia, Jesus complains, “You have left the love you had at first” (Revelation 2:4). Jesus complains that the Pharisees have “neglected” (dismissed, blown off) the weightier matters of Law (Matthew 23:23). Paul states that men have “abandoned the natural use of women” and burned with lust for one another (Romans 1:27).

One unusual use of this verb with the opposite intention is in Hebrews 6:1, where readers are urged to “leave behind” the elemental teachings of Christ and move forward toward maturity or perfection. Here, the idea is not to forsake the basic teachings of the Christian message, but to make progress, not to leave them behind or abandon them.

A few times this word for “forgive” is used to mean “leave alone.” Jesus responds to the claim that Mary has wasted 300 denarii worth of ointment on Jesus by saying, “Leave her (alone).” (John 12:7) Jesus responds to a complaint from the Pharisees by saying, “Leave them (alone) – they are blind guides” (Matthew 15:14). When Jesus cries out from thirst on the cross, the crowds say, “Leave him (alone); let’s see if Elijah will come to save him.” (Matthew 27:49)

One more major meaning of this word used for “forgive” is to “allow.” Jesus tells John to “allow” him to be baptized, so John “allowed” it (Matthew 3:15). “Allow me to take that speck out of your eye.” (Matthew 7:4) “Let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14) Jesus “would not permit the demons to speak” (Mark 1:34). Jesus also complains that the Pharisees will not enter the Kingdom, “nor do you allow to enter those who want to enter” (Matthew 23:13). And in his letters to the churches of Asia, Jesus’ chief complaint against Thyatira (Revelation 2:20) is that “You allow (in our 21st century idiom, we would say “tolerate”) the woman Jezebel.” (Certainly there is a warning here to today’s churches not to be too tolerant, like Thyatira was.

But 49 times, this word aphiēmi means “forgive.” It is the verb used in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us” (Matthew 6:12). It is the same verb used in Jesus’ command to forgive 490 times, and in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). In his teaching on forgiveness, Jesus comes dangerously close to making salvation conditional on us forgiving everyone who has ever wronged us, although I believe that is a misunderstanding of his intent.

(The other verb for “forgive,” charizomai, is used 12 times in the New Testament. It means to literally “exercise grace” on someone, to treat them with undeserved favor. Much of the time, forgiveness does mean showing kindness to those who do not deserve it, like God does to us.)

Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness was by far the most radical of any ancient teaching on the subject. His teaching on forgiveness is historical bedrock that would never have been invented by pretenders. Who would invent a Jesus who makes it so hard to faithfully follow him?

Yes, I look for excuses not to do what Jesus says. I jokingly say that if we take Jesus strictly literally, we’re off the hook after we’ve forgiven 490 times (which would only take one week on some of our nastier freeways). Or I can say that if my opponents show me the wrong kind of love in the way they treat me, I can triple their “love” back. But I cannot honestly dismiss Jesus’ teaching this way. I know he’s right, and I know his teaching is for my own good. By failing to forgive, we are only hurting ourselves. Forgiveness cuts the nerve to end the vicious cycle of vengeance. Forgiveness is possibly the greatest way we “let go” of what’s killing us deep inside. To echo a former radio host, “Don’t let your enemies live rent-free in your head.”

Beyond forgiveness, what other forms of “letting go” do we need to do? We need to let go of the past; we can echo what was good from the past, but we cannot go back there, nor should we try, and if there was pain in our past, so much more reason to let go of it. We need to let go of possessions that actually possess us. We need to let go of our resentments and unreasonable expectations from life. Ultimately, we need to let go of self and our need to control. There’s plenty to let go of!

Aphiēmi is an amazingly versatile word! Thankfully, its basic meanings are in little doubt in any given passage, but readers are free to take these meanings “leave,” “allow,” and “forgive” and use them to give added color to our reading of God’s word.