After Jesus has given us His own radical view of love and forgiveness, and has discarded the very concept of religions in favor of urging us to develop our own individual, intense, and intimate relationship with God, it may not surprise you to find that He has done something new with the idea of sin as well. Sin is rules-based, and since Jesus has discarded the Old Testament’s religious rules in favor of God’s Law of Love, we would imagine that He would see breaking God’s Law of Love as the only real sin. In fact, there seems to be a clear distinction in Jesus’s mind between the sin of breaking mere religious rules – rules which He has now discarded – and the radical new sin of breaking God’s Law of Love.
We see that distinction most clearly in the Gospel of John, which was the last of the four Biblical Gospels to be committed to writing, and which is far the most spiritual of the Biblical Gospels. In John alone He even talks about “My commandments.” For example:
The one who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and the one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will reveal Myself to him.” (JN 14:21)
He doesn’t explain His new commandments based in radical love to His followers in any of His Gospel words that have survived, but careful readers still can see the distinction!
And that distinction sometimes leads Him to say some fairly arresting things. Like take, for example: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Now if your right eye is causing you to sin, tear it out and throw it away from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand is causing you to sin, cut it off and throw it away from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into Gehenna (MT 5:27-29). Jesus knows that no fiery post-death hell exists. With Temple guards close by, however, He cannot prudently say that, so He will often instead refer to the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where there are fires smoldering.
Jesus also uses the forgiveness of what we might call the old-style, religious-rules type of sin as a part of his healing rituals, as happens in this example:
“And they brought to Him a paralyzed man lying on a stretcher. And seeing their faith, Jesus said to the man who was paralyzed, “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.” And some of the scribes said among themselves, “This man is blaspheming!” And Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? For which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, pick up your stretcher and go home.” And he got up and went home. But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men (MT 9:2-8).
Jesus uses the easy forgiving of old-style rules this way so casually and so routinely that we who are reading the Gospels now get the sense that He is emphasizing a kind of clearing-away of all those old-style religious rules to make way for the new and better Law of Love. And when the old-style rules collide with the Law of Love, there is no question as to which matters to Jesus, as we see when He is confronted with the religious-law requirement to stone a woman who has been caught committing adultery.
“Now the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery, and after placing her in the center of the courtyard, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” Now they were saying this to test Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. When they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again, He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Now when they heard this, they began leaving, one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman where she was, in the center of the courtyard. And straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on do not sin any longer” (JN 8:3-11).
When a demon-possessed man, blind and unable to speak, was brought to Jesus, and Jesus healed him so that the man who had been unable to speak talked and could see, all the crowds were amazed and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” But then the Pharisees heard this, and they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.”
And knowing their thoughts, Jesus said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan is casting out Satan, he has become divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? And if by Beelzebul I cast out the demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore, they will be your judges. But if I cast out the demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or, how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? And then he will plunder his house. The one who is not with Me is against Me; and the one who does not gather with Me scatters.
“Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
“Either assume the tree to be good as well as its fruit good, or assume the tree to be bad as well as its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You offspring of vipers, how can you, being evil, express any good things? For the mouth speaks from that which fills the heart. The good person brings out of his good treasure good things; and the evil person brings out of his evil treasure evil things. But I tell you that for every careless word that people speak, they will give an account of it on the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (MT 12:22-37)
Jesus doesn’t avoid talking about sin, but rather He talks about sin all the time as He forgives what we might call simple Old Testament sins easily and automatically in the process of healing people, as He also casually breaks the Sabbath rules, and as He otherwise altogether throws over the traces of the old religion. And yet at the same time that He is effectively forgiving everyone’s breaking of the old-style rules, Jesus is calling people to a much stricter non-rules-based standard of sin that is internal, mental or spiritual, and governed by love. Even looking at a woman lustfully is now sinful. Blaspheming against God is fatally sinful. And we have lost most of whatever He was developing with His body-parts idea, but no doubt it was something past simple and arbitrary old-style rules, and also deeply based in love.