"If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven ..." (John 20:23)

"If you forgive anyone's sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." (John 20:23)

What does Jesus mean by 'sins' here?

This verse, spoken by Jesus to his disciples when he appeared before them after his body died. Is he really saying they could forgive sins?

The word 'sins' here is translated from the Greek word ἁμαρτία (hamartia). According to Thayer's lexicon, this word means, "to be without a share in; to miss the mark; to err, be mistaken; to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and honor, to do or go wrong; or to wander from the law of God, violate God's law."

"God's law" relates to love. God loves each of us. To sin is diametrically opposed to this. To sin means to harm others. This is to wander from God's law - God's love.

In this context, Jesus is referring to those who may offend Jesus' disciples. Jesus is telling them to forgive those offenses. And if they forgive those offenses, the offending party has been forgiven.

Can Jesus' disciples forgive sins?

This is not some grand scheme that Jesus' disciples can go around and forgive every offense that someone made against anyone else. Only those who are offended or harmed can forgive those offenses.

The Greek word being translated to "forgive" in this case is ἀφίημι (aphiēmi). This word means "to let go, let alone, let be; to disregard; to leave, not to discuss now, (a topic)" according to the lexicon. This could be interpreted as forgiving, but it is better interpreted as disregarding in a non-active sense, or removing in the active sense.

Forgiving sins in this context is a misnomer. Only the person who has been offended can actually forgive an offense against them. Certainly, if someone offended one of Jesus' disciples, that disciple could forgive the offense (sin).

Most people consider forgiving sins to be like an account that is built up, and then suddenly erased. Or like a batch of bad files in a computer that can be put in the recycle/trash and deleted from the computer. The idea is that some religious ritual is performed, and the record of bad behavior is all erased.

Spiritual life is not like this. The spiritual realm is full of love and forgiveness already. Forgiveness is already available to each of us should we embrace it.

Rather, Jesus is referring to the willingness to forgive someone who offends us. If we are harmed or offended by someone, we must be ready to forgive that offense. This is what Jesus is referring to.

This reality is confirmed with some of Jesus' statements.

In his Lord's prayer, Jesus suggests:
"And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:12)
Jesus is speaking of offending or harming someone. This incurs a debt. We can see from Jesus' statement after this that the word "sin" creates the "debt" owed to "debtors." 
"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you." (Matthew 6:14)
Again, the emphasis of Jesus' teaching is that we should be ready to forgive others for any offense against us. This is the same as 'turning the other cheek

Jesus further explained how the process works when Matthew asked him about it:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. "At this the servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.  He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded. "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.' "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. "Then the master called the servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart." (Matthew 18:23-35)
This parable Jesus uses illustrates the consciousness aspect of forgiveness. Notice the "from your heart" phrase. If we are not prepared to forgive others for their offenses against us, how can we expect God to forgive us for our offenses?

But we also know from this that God's forgiveness is already there for us. We simply have to have the consciousness willing to forgive others. That is the doorway to forgiveness.

Forgiving others of their offenses against us - perceived or otherwise - is not an easy thing to do. Each of us can back on our lives and consider past things that we feel others have done to get ahead of us or otherwise take advantage of us.

Every one of us has these things in our past. Someone has taken advantage of us. Or they harmed us in some way. Or they won over us unfairly. Whatever the action, we can feel harmed and offended.

But can we forgive them? Can we completely forgive them and let it go completely? Can we instead love them and understand their actions?

Such a consciousness isn't easy. It requires compassion. Love. Empathy. Care. These are emotions of a heart full of gratefulness, humility and understanding.

But such a consciousness, according to Jesus' teachings, leads God to erase our own offenses against Him.

The mechanics of such an action go deeper than ritual or prayer. This is about love.

Isn't this about cleansing sins?

Forgiveness might be considered cleansing, but it is not as if there is a file folder of bad files that are erased. All of our activities are retained. Nothing is forgotten in terms of our activities.

But if our consciousness is changed, those activities of our past are no longer liabilities that we will suffer the consequences for. Why not?

The purpose of the consequence learning system that the Supreme Being designed the physical world with is not about punitive punishment. It is not about getting us back - or retribution.

Rather, it is about learning. If we harm others in some way, we suffer the consequences of that harm as we become harmed in the same way. The reason why we suffer those consequences is to teach us how it feels to be harmed in the way we harmed others.

It is not as if God is punishing us. We have already harmed others. That harm simply comes back to us to show us what we have done.

But if we have a change of heart, and begin loving and caring about others, and feel sorry for the harm we've caused, the need for learning the meaning of that harm is no longer necessary.

When we harm others we are also harming God because God loves everyone. So harming others is an offense against others but also God. 

But if we have a change of heart and we feel truly sorry, and we also forgive others, then we will also be forgiven due to that change of heart. Due to our compassion and mercy for others.

The reason is that we no longer need to learn the lessons of our past, because we have in a sense skipped ahead, and learned them early.

Why do we need to learn?

This is part of our learning process as we occupy these temporary physical bodies. These bodies are like icons in a virtual computer game. They are not permanent reality. They are designed with many faults, allowing us to make mistakes and learn from them.

It is like making a mistake in a chess game. The mistake is permanent in that it affects the rest of the game. But if we learn from the mistake and play a strong game for the rest of the chess game, the early mistake will be seen as a part of the learning process rather than something that has to be removed. If we removed an earlier move in the game, the entire rest of the game would be changed.

But of course, the next time we play chess, we'll have learned from the previous game. In that next game, the mistake may not be made again - assuming we learned the first time around.

Relating again to consciousness, Jesus wants his disciples to help others come to a change of heart. A change of consciousness. Thus, the consciousness of self-centeredness needs to be replaced with the consciousness of love.

This is a removal, or cleansing of one consciousness in lieu of developing a better consciousness, one of love for God and love for others.

Who can forgive us?

Anyone we have offended can forgive us for that offense against them. This is the universal law of love. If we offend a friend or neighbor, we can ask them forgiveness for that offense.

In the same way, the Supreme Being can ultimately forgive us for forgetting Him and doing things that offend Him. Therefore, as Jesus recommends in the Lord's prayer, we should ask God for forgiveness, and forgive those who have offended us.

By abandoning the Supreme Being and seeking our self-centered enjoyment, we can begin to harm others, which will offend God. Why? Because we are intimately related to Him.

A loving servant of the Supreme Being like Jesus - someone acting on His behalf - may be empowered to help this sort of offense against God be forgiven.

How so? Because they can plead on our behalf, asking God's forgiveness. 

Let's say that a business owner hires a manager to run the day-to-day operations of his business. Ultimately the business owner is responsible for who gets hired and fired. But if the business owner authorizes the manager to hire certain types of people based upon the overall goals and objectives of the business owner, then the manager can hire and fire people - as long as he acts on behalf of the business owner.

But let's say that one of the employees does something stupid and the business owner wants him fired. The manager can go to the owner and plead the case of the employee. In this situation, the boss may let it go, and the offense is removed.

In the same way, if the Supreme Being - acting directly or through His representative - authorizes someone to act on His behalf, then that person may carry out those instructions as long as they abide by the parameters determined by God and as long as their activities are done with a motive to please the Supreme Being.

In such a position of empowerment, such a servant of God can plead the case of someone who seeks God's forgiveness for offensive behavior. This is due to the loving relationship between the servant of God and God.

But this doesn't erase the need for a change in consciousness, however. We will still need to do our part by having a change of heart. Jesus stated this clearly to a man he had cleansed:
Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)

Can priests and ministers forgive sins?

Some suggest they can forgive the sins of others on God's behalf. Surely they can forgive personal offenses against them. But if they are not acting on behalf of the Supreme Being, they cannot represent God.

There are many symptoms of this. If they paid tuition to an institution that hired professional teachers to teach Bible history so they could receive a degree. This means what they received was a professional education. This does not give them the right to be God's representative.

These professional organizations that give out seminary degrees in exchange for tuition and passing some exams are not authorizing those graduates to represent the Supreme Being. They are authorizing them to only do what they do: Be professional instructors.

This is further illustrated by the fact that many sectarian institutions pay their clergy as if it was a career position. The teacher is accepting a salary in exchange for teaching in the church. This means they are already receiving their reward for their teaching. They are not being servants of the Supreme Being. They are being servants of those who employ them, not God. Their compensation is money, not their relationship with God.

If the church deacons who hire the preacher to preach in their church don't like his teachings they can fire him. Thus the teacher must teach what pleases the congregation and the deacons. This means they are not representing God. They are representing those who hired them and pay them.

Who did Jesus represent?

A teacher cannot introduce us to the Supreme Being unless they know Him. One can talk all they want about Jesus' life and crucifixion, and about the importance of family, and politics. They can also talk about Jesus as though Jesus was God.

By these do we can know that these teachers cannot teach us about God. If they claim that Jesus is the Supreme Being, they don't know God - because Jesus isn't God. Jesus was very clear about this:
"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me." (John 5:30)
"For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me." (John 5:36)
"And the Father who sent me has Himself testified concerning me. You have never heard His voice nor seen His form" (John 5:37)
"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me." (John 6:38)
"My teaching is not my own. It comes from Him who sent me." (John 7:16)
"Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own, but He who sent me is true." (John 7:28-29)
"I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the One who sent me." (John 7:33)
"But if I do judge, my decisions are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father, who sent me." (John 8:16)
"I am one who testifies for myself; my other witness is the Father, who sent me." (John 8:18)
"I have much to say in judgment of you. But He who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from Him I tell the world." (John 8:26)
"The One who sent me is with me; He has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases Him." (John 8:29)
"If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but He sent me." (John 8:42)
"As long as it is day, we must do the work of Him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work." (John 9:4)
[Jesus praying to God]"I knew that You always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that You sent me." (John 11:42)
"When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the One who sent me." (John 12:44)
"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it." (John 12:49)
We can conclude from this that Jesus is representing the Supreme Being. This is why Jesus could act on behalf of God, and empower others.

*Here is the translation of this verse from the Lost Gospels of Jesus:
"If you remove the sins of anyone, their sins have been removed. If you take the sins of any, they will be taken.” (John 20:17)