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Yesterday in church, a friend leaned over and pointed to the verb ἄφετε in Luke 18:16 with a puzzled look on his face. (Yes. He and I both read the Greek text in church while the English translation is being read. We’re incurable geeks.) In introductory Greek classes, students often learn to associate ἀφίημι with the act of forgiving someone for something, but that’s clearly not its meaning in this text. Any decent Hellenistic Greek dictionary will present a range of different options for translating this verb into English, including, forgive, release, permit/allow, etc, but they do little to help you understand the implications of the verb in Greek.
This brief interchange in church began a thought process that did not interfere too much with the sermon, which was an awesome excursion through the Jacob cycle of stories in Genesis, but led me to want to write something about ἀφίημι. It’s a great example of how shifting worldviews can make ancient texts seem strange to us. How is it that a single verb can be used with such divergent senses in the biblical texts?
In today’s world we think of forgiving as something that has to do with emotions. “You did something thoughtless (hurtful, etc.),” we might think, “but I’m going to forgive you.” That is, “I’m going to overlook what you did and feel okay about you in spite of it.” This way of thinking about forgiveness is a very long way from the ancient Greek notion of ἄφεσις (the noun associated with the verb ἀφίημι).
In the ancient world these words were associated with release (release from obligation, release from imprisonment, release from ownership, release from impeded movement, release from limits imposed by someone else). Emotion might be associated with these things—and almost certainly was—but it’s not part of the meaning of these words. Both the verb ἀφίημι and the noun ἄφεσις had much more practical import.
In John 14:27 we are told that Jesus said to his disciples, Εἰρήνην ἀφίημι ὑμῖν. In this scene Jesus is not forgiving his disciples for anything they have done. He is handing over peace to them. Peace (εἰρήνη) is his to give, and he is releasing it to them. In Luke 18:16, Jesus is not asking his disciples to forgive the children for anything, he is demanding that they release them to come to him (ἄφετε τὰ παιδία ἔρχεσθαι πρός με).
In Hebrews 10:18 we find the aphorism, ὅπου δὲ ἄφεσις τούτων, οὐκέτι προσφορὰ περὶ ἁμαρτίας. The pronoun τούτων refers to sins and “lawless deeds” mentioned in the previous verse. Where there is ἄφεσις of these, the offenders are released from their obligation to bring offerings.
None of this implied anything about God’s feelings or the feelings of the disciples toward the children in Luke, or the feelings between Jesus and his disciples. But in our modern world this is precisely what we associate with forgiveness. I think we miss something fundamentally important when we make this mistake. Forgiveness (ἄφεσις) is not about present emotions. It’s about the advent of freedom.
Today, may you be released from whatever is holding you down!