By the time Christ arrived the Rabbinic Jews concept of forgiveness held a maximum of how often one can forgive a person for the same offense. They based this standard on scriptures written in Amos 1:3, and Job 33:29-30. To the Hebrews these served as the Lord’s demonstration of how long one should restrain oneself. Here are each of them followed by commentaries:
“Behold, God works all these things, Twice, in fact, three times with a man, To bring back his soul from the Pit, That he may be enlightened with the light of life. Job 33:29-30.
So this young kid’s telling Job, “If you’ve got anything to say, say it, but if not, then just let me talk on, because I’m going to teach you a few things here.” Now, what he is saying is basically pretty sound, and that is that God oftentimes uses chastisement to turn us away from the pit. You know, as a child of God, you’re in a very good position, because God’s not going to let you get away with evil. Now everyone around you may get away with it, that’s because they are not children of God. But because He’s your Father, and He’s watching over you, He’s not going to let you get by with perversity, with crookedness. And God uses chastisement to keep His children out of the pit. God’ll stop you. He’ll allow you to be caught up with. “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord. For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth” (Hebrews 12:5-6). And if you are not chastened, then you’re like a bastard; you’re not really His son.
If you can do evil and get by with it, then I would be very worried. If you can cheat and get by with it, then you have cause to really be worried. But if you’re a child of God, He’s not going to let you get by. That’s because He’s trying to save you from the snare, from the pit. Chuck Smith, Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, founder of Calvary Chapel worldwide fellowship, graduate of Life Bible College, prolific author, courtesy of blueletterbible.org
He speaks once, yea, twice; if that prevail not, he works twice, yea, thrice; he changes his method (we have piped, we have mourned) returns again to the same method, repeats the same applications. Why does he take all these pains with man? It is to bring back his soul from the pit, v. 30. Commentaries on Job, Chapter 33, Reverend Matthew Henry, 17th-18th Century minister of the Gospel, Chester, England.
“Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, will not turn away its punishment, Because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron.” Amos 1:3
Now He doesn’t name three indictments towards each. ‘For three transgressions, and for four’ is a figure of speech that’s just declaring a cup of God’s indignation is full and is going to overflow now in judgment against Damascus. Damascus is the first, the capital of Syria. They came with their iron chariots and they destroyed Gilead. Chuck Smith, courtesy of blueletterbible.org
For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment: This ‘formula’ will introduce God’s announcement of judgment against each nation. It doesn’t mean that Damascus only committed three sins, and then God thought of a fourth; it simply has the idea of “sin upon sin upon sin. David Guzik, Director, Calvary Chapel Bible College, German, Study Guide for Amos 1, courtesy of blueletterbible.org
Teshuvah Based Forgiveness
According to the Talmud (a collection of ancient Jewish laws and traditions), repentance was among the first things God created; even before he created the universe.
The Hebrew word for “repentance” when translated is TESHUVAH (the-shoo-vah). It literally means to “turn” or “turn around.” This teshuvah included a genuine sense of regret for a transgression, and a complete change in conduct. These were always the preconditions to achieve reconciliation with the Lord and one’s fellowman.
This teshuvah based repentance, put into a mathematical like formula leading to reconciliation, would look like this:
Sin against the Lord or a person(s) + Teshuvah (repentance & a 180° change in conduct by the offender) + forgiveness from the offended = Reconciliation with Christ or an injured person(s).
It’s really no more complicated than that.
The first reference of teshuvah based forgiveness goes back as far as 740 B.C. One example where teshuvah is absent but a call is made for it is found in Hosea 14:2, where the prophet Hosea writes how Ephraim (which was the named used for Israel since the largest tribe went by that name) is urged to return to the ways of the Lord. Look also in 2 Kings 17:13; and Jeremiah 18:11. It was even the central theme in the Book of Jonah.
Another example is found in 2nd Samuel 12:13, the account where King David assumed full responsibility for the murder of Uriah the Hittite and adultery with his wife, Bathsheba. Being so contrite he later expressed it in the 51st Psalm (v. 1-19).
There are examples in the bible where a lack of teshuvah was exhibited too: When Adam blamed Eve for bringing him the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3); and Cain asked the Lord if he was his brother’s keeper (Genesis 4).
When a Jew visited the Temple in Jerusalem for a sacrifice to the Lord he “was required to bring various sacrifices for certain types of sins. Although sacrifices were required, the most essential part was teshuvah, the person [bringing] the sacrifice would confess his sins. Presently, with the Temple destroyed, atonement may nevertheless be granted by doing teshuvah. Repentance in Judaism, courtesy of Wikipedia.com
One important note: One made sacrifices to the Lord for those sins committed against the Lord only. If a perpetrator wanted to be forgiven for a sin against another person he had to approached the harmed person, make amends and restitution (if appropriate). Forgiveness from the Lord could not be expected until this was done. It was a standing Torah command to do so that Christ re-commanded as well. See Matthew 5:23-25.
It was well understood then that God would not pardon man unconditionally. He waited for man to repent. Any person seeking a forgiveness of sin against the Lord had to express a genuine remorse for the wrong he has committed, then repair or restore the damage. As described above he had to have forgiveness from anyone he offended or harmed then convert his penitential energy into concrete acts that made the harmed party as whole as can be.
The motion of turning implies that sin is not an un-removable stain but a straying from the right path and that by the effort of turning, a power God has given to all men, the sinner can redirect his individual destiny. This power to remove the blot of sin that separate men from God is expressed in another Old Testament statement: Ezekiel 18:20-32, which essentially says your sins are your own and if you turn from them, live right, do right I will forgive them.
After the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple in 70 A.D., the practice of performing teshuvah based sacrifices could, naturally, no longer be performed. But that doesn’t mean it ended. The Jewish authorities substituted the sacrifices for atonement with another form of teshuvah, acts of charity referred to in scripture 700 years before in the book of the minor prophet Hosea.
Once, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Y’hoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said “Alas for us!! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: “Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written ‘Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) Midrash Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 4:5 Repentance in Judaism, courtesy of Wikipedia.com
Here are other examples of the Lord calling for repentance and a change in earthly conduct that Christ’s earthly contemporaries certainly heeded: Jeremiah 7:3, 18:11 & 26:7; Ezekiel 18; Daniel 4; Zechariah 1.
So, it’s clear to see that the Jews of Christ’s time traditionally followed the three divisions of the Tanakh (the Torah, the prophet teachings and the writings) that required teshuvah, a change in conduct, from an offender before he could be forgiven. As you will see later John the Baptist, who immediately preceded Christ, cried out in the wilderness for a teshuvah based repentance. Also, there was a limit as to how often an offended person was required to forgive the repentant offender, three times for the same offense. If the offended person couldn’t be found, one could also do so through charitable acts to others; but no matter the situation the offender was required to change his conduct, not just his thinking.