Sunday Morning Greek Blog

February 21, 2011

εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (eis aphesin hamartiōn, ‘for the forgiveness of sins’)

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Greek,Mark Gospel of,Matthew Gospel of,New Testament — Scott Stocking @ 6:09 pm

From February 13, 2011.

For centuries, scholars have debated the significance of Jesus’ words in the Gospels’ descriptions of the Lord’s Table, or what other traditions call “communion” or “eucharist.” The four short verses in Matthew have quite a bit to unpack, and I will not be able to do them justice here, but I do want to highlight a few things. The parallel passages are Matthew 26:26–30, Mark 14:22–26; Luke 22:15–20; John 13 has a very different account of that last night with the disciples.

First, Jesus treats the bread and cup differently, at least in Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts. Both of those Gospel writers say that Jesus “blessed” (εὐλογέω, eulogeō) the bread (reminiscent of Matthew 14:19, the feeding of the 5,000), but he “gave thanks” (εὐχαριστέω, eucharisteō) for the cup. Luke says in his account that Jesus “gave thanks” for both.

Second, Jesus does break the bread when he blesses it, and he does say, “This is my body,” but nowhere in any Gospel account does he say, “This is my body, broken for you.” That final phrase is found in some manuscripts (MSS) of the account in 1 Corinthians 11:24, but those MSS do not carry the same historic or epigraphic weight as those that do not have the phrase, so you will not find it in most contemporary English Bibles.

Third, when Jesus takes the cup, Matthew and Luke (Paul follows Luke in 1 Corinthians) have slightly different versions of what Jesus said, but not necessarily contradictory. Matthew records Jesus’ words as, “This is my blood of the covenant.” But that could be rendered a couple different ways depending on how one understands the “my” (μου, mou) in that verse.

In Matthew 16:18, when Jesus says, “I will build my church,” the μου comes before the Greek word translated “church.” So it is possible to render Matthew 26:28 similarly: “This is the blood of my covenant.” In Greek grammar, μου, as genitive pronoun, could also indicate source: “This is the blood from me of the covenant,” anticipating his very next words after that, “which is poured out for many.” However, I think the best explanation, though, is that μου comes between “blood” and “covenant” because it applies to both: “This is my blood of my covenant.”

Luke’s (and Paul’s parallel) account is slightly different, perhaps reflecting the liturgy that had developed among the congregations at the time: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” The significance here is that Luke and Paul both make the connection between the covenant and the blood, just as Matthew does.

But finally, I think the most significant aspect of this passage, particularly in Matthew’s account, is the final phrase in Matthew 26:28: εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (eis aphesin hamartiōn, ‘for the forgiveness of sins’). The almost identical phrase is found in Acts 2:38, except it adds the definite article with “sins” along with the possessive pronoun “your”: “Repent, and let each one of you be immersed in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”

The connection between immersion and forgiveness has been downplayed by many. My own background, Independent Christian Church/Church of Christ, has, I think, made the best sense of this verse: The preposition εἰς generally implies motion “into” some place or state of being. Bringing Romans 6 and 1 Peter 3:21 into the mix, I believe we get the full counsel of Scripture on this topic. Here’s the logic as I see it:

  1. John immersed with water for repentance, and Jesus was obedient to that immersion (Matthew 3:11–17).
  2. Jesus says his blood is poured out “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28);
  3. Peter commands the crowd, “Repent and let each one of you be immersed for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38; ties together John’s immersion philosophy and Jesus’ blood);
  4. Paul makes the connection between immersion and the death of Jesus, i.e., the pouring out of his blood at the cross; the water is important as a “signification” of burial (Romans 6:1–10);
  5. Peter says that immersion saves, but by the power of the resurrection, not by the power of the water; the water is still important, because without it, you can’t be immersed (1 Peter 3:21).

So there seems to be trend as you read from Matthew to Revelation to heighten increasingly the significance of immersion. In fact, immersion is a “signification,” not just a symbol, of forgiveness and salvation, not just an optional exercise or an outward show. Everything about immersion in the Scriptures indicates that some inward transformation is occurring. At the very least, it is commanded, so it can’t be optional, regardless of what else you may think of immersion. On the other hand, when the people in Acts understood the significance of immersion, they didn’t hesitate to get it done (e.g., Acts 8:36–38, 9:16, et passim). That should suggest something about how it was presented in the early days of the church.

Some scholars have tried to argue that the phrase in Acts 2:38 should be understood “in reference to the forgiveness of your sins,” implying that immersion is a response to forgiveness already received. I would like to know how those scholars would apply that translation to Matthew 26:28. Do they really want to say Jesus’ shed blood was only “in reference to the forgiveness of sins”? I don’t think even the most stubborn evangelical scholars would want to downplay the blood of Christ to that extent.


For further reference, see sense 2 of the meaning of “signification” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.


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