Notes for Bible study
The Clean Slate theme in the Old Testament
The theme of restoration, of making a fresh start, runs right
through the Old Testament. Perhaps the first, unfortunate, case
is the story of Noah and what is literally a wiping of the slate
and a fresh start: a new covenant between humanity and God. What
is significant for us today is the promise that God will never
again use such drastic methods - post-flood slate-cleaning has
to be done at the level of moral change.
In Mosaic law the idea appears in two main ways: First there
is the annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) in which the sins
of the nation were paid for by animal sacrifice and the driving
of a goat (the scapegoat representing the sins of the people)
into the desert to die. For Christians, this idea of animal sacrifice
was later replaced by Christ's death on the cross - a once-and-for-all
atonement between humanity and God.
The other idea concerns atonement in relationships between
humans: the Jubilee year. We could compare it to playing a game
like Monopoly. As the game goes on some become richer and some
lose out, but eventually you pack up all the pieces and the next
time when you play you all make a fresh start. In life, though,
it is as though the pieces are still on the table when you come
down the next morning, and the morning after and on and on. When
we get old and die, our children inherit the same place in the
game of monopoly that we left, whether in grinding poverty or
Leviticus 25: 8-55 spells out the idea that every 50 years
there should be a fresh start - just like packing up the game
of monopoly and starting again. Land that was sold in the past
should be returned to its original owners. People, who through
poverty and debt sold themselves into slavery, should be set
free. It is based on the idea that property (whether land or
slaves) doesn't ultimately belong to people, but to God. By the
time the book of Deuteronomy came to be written, this principle
was extended to a forgiveness of debts and release of slaves
on every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15: 1-18).
Deuteronomy chapter 30 adds a further dimension: After spelling
out the covenant between the people of Abraham and God and making
clear the penalties of breaking the law, the author (v.2) holds
out the promise of forgiveness for those who repent and return
to the lord.
David and Bathsheba
Historians often like to point out that "history is written
by the victors" and frequently therefore tends to whitewash
its heroes at the expense of their enemies. In Jewish history
there can be no greater hero than David, and so it is all the
more remarkable that this shameful episode is preserved and in
such wonderfully human detail. Its significance today is that
it is such a human story and one we can identify with. David's
sin is forgiven by God, and the relationship he enjoys with God
is fully restored - but David has to live with the human consequences
of his actions and there is high cost to pay.
2-Samuel ch.11-ch.12:25 tells the story from David's temptation
(11:2), first crime (11:4) and the consequences - Bathsheba's
pregnancy (11:5). Then follows David's attempt to cover up the
crime by getting Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, to sleep with his
wife. But Uriah is fighting a holy war, and according to religious
law must abstain. (11:6-13). So David is driven to more desperate
measures and arranges to have Uriah killed in battle. (11:14-25).
On the surface it appeared that David had got away with it. He
was now free to take Bathsheba as his wife. But, we are told
(v.26) that God saw what happened and was displeased.
In Chapter 12:1-4 God sends his prophet Nathan with a parable
for David to pass judgement on. Unwittingly (v. 5-6) David condemns
himself: "The man deserves death".
Then Nathan delivers the punchline (v. 7) "You are the man".
He then spells out the full extent of David's sin, God's displeasure
and the consequences. We can imagine that having got away with
his crime, David was probably well on the way to blotting it
out of his mind. He may have told himself that Uriah would probably
have died anyway in battle and that therefore he hadn't really
done anything wrong.
The greatness of David lies in his readiness to accept his
guilt and repent (v. 13) for which he receives forgiveness -
"you shall not die" (contrasting with David's own statement
"the man deserves death"). Tradition has it that David's
penned psalm 51 at this point, - one of the all-time great expressions
of repentance. In it David "acknowledges my offence, my
sin is always before me." He asks for God to give him "a
clean heart", recognising that it is not something he himself
can achieve ("in guilt was I born and in sin my mother conceived
me"), and David recognises that the traditional method of
offering animal sacrifices will not suffice: "My sacrifice,
O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O
God, you will not spurn". It seems a lasting repentance
and we see later David's willingness to forgive others (16:5-14)
Nevertheless, the consequences of David's sin remain. Chapters
13-18 spell out the conflict among David's sons (after one of
them succumbs to the same lust as his father) and then between
David and his son Absalom. 16:20-22 has Absalom visiting his
father's wife in public view, as prophesied (12:11) and the child
of David's sinful union with Bathsheba dies.
Other psalms with a clean-slate theme:
Ps. 24: connects the quest for God with moral cleanliness.
Its relevance is for those who seek spiritual enlightenment as
mere "knowledge" without being ready to change the
way they live.
v. 3-6 "Who can ascend the mountain of the Lord?
or who may stand in his holy place?
He whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean,
Who desires not what is in vain,
nor swears deceitfully to his neighbour.
He shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
a reward from God his saviour
Such is the race that seeks for him,
that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.
Ps. 32 "Happy is he whose fault is taken away, whose sin
This was a favourite of St Augustine's
v.3 "As long as I would not speak, my bones wasted away
with my groaning all the day"
(as long as I didn't confess my sins, I suffered)
v.5 "Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I covered
not. I said `I confess my faults to the Lord,' and you took away
the guilt of my sin". St Augustine's comment is that even
before the penitent sinner speaks of his sin, God hears the cry
of his heart. Pardon at once follows sincere contrition.
Ps 106 is a corporate confession of the nation's sins.
v. 6-39 remembering the shameful, sinful, episodes of the nation's
v. 40-48 remembering the consequences, and God's faithfulness
v. 45-46 "Yet he had regard for their affliction when he
heard their cry; and for their sake he was mindful of his covenant
and relented, in his abundant kindness,."
v.47-48 the conclusion: "Save us, O Lord our God, and gather
us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy
name and glory in praising you. Blessed be the Lord, the God
of Israel, through all eternity! Let all the people say, Amen!
The clean-slate theme in the Prophets
The Israelites came to see their history rather in terms of
Ps 106 (see above): a nation called into a special relationship
(covenant) with God. When they were faithful to the covenant,
God blessed them. When they were unfaithful they had to face
the consequences of their sin - which often meant defeat at the
hands of other nations or other disasters. The role of the prophet
was to call the people back to their covenant. Sometimes this
meant warning of dire consequences if they continued to be unfaithful.
But the prophets never wanted their words to lead to despair
- despair paralyses the will to change. Ultimately always the
message was one of hope and the promise that God would never
finally abandon his people.
The book of Isaiah is primarily a message of hope at a time
when the Israelites had been taken into captivity in Babylon.
Partly it is analysis of what has gone wrong, partly it is exhortation
to faithfulness, and partly, especially from chapter 40, it is
the promise of restoration.
True repentance precedes religious observance
From early times the Israelites, in common with other cultures,
had recognised the value of fasting as part of atonement for
their sins. It was part of the ritual for the Day of Atonement
(Lev.16:31) but also observed at other times (e.g. Judg. 20:26;
David's repentance in 2 Sam 12:16; Neh. 9:1) But it is very easy
to get abstract and theoretical about sin as a way of avoiding
the reality of it. Isaiah 58:3-12 makes the point that when sin
is not faced squarely then fasting doesn't work. When restitution
is made then God will restore the people "you will be known
as the people who have rebuilt the walls, who restored the ruined
houses." Isaiah 65: 17-25 concludes with a poetic vision
of the world renewed "I am making a new earth and new heavens.
The events of the past will be completely forgotten". This
is a natural consequence of obedience to God "I will give
a new name to those who obey me" (v.15).
These themes were taken up in the New Testament (Isaiah is the
second most quoted O.T. book after the psalms). Mark 12:28-34
makes the point that it is more important to "love the Lord
your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your
mind and with all your strength" and to "love your
neighbour as yourself" than all the traditional sacrifices
of religion. Mathew 5:23-24 "So if you are about to offer
your gift to God at the altar and there you remember your brother
has something against you, leave your gift there in front of
the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then
come back and offer your gift to God." As in Isaiah, making
the necessary steps of restitution to restore our human relationships
comes before attending to our religious duties. Mathew 25:35-36
makes specific reference to the demands of Isaiah 58: 6-7 (feeding
the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked) in the
context of our accountability to God at the Last Judgement. And
the conclusion of the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21) echoes, at
times word for word, the vision of a new creation found in the
final chapters of Isaiah.
The prophet Joel, preached at a time of famine due to drought
and a plague of locusts. Joel 2: 12-18 is a plea for corporate
repentance, and in verses 19-27 God promises to restore fertility
to the land, including a promise (v.25) to "give back what
you lost in the years when swarms of locusts ate your crops".
The book of Jonah is wonderfully descriptive, at times almost
comic in its depiction of the reluctant prophet. It contrasts
Jonah's judgmental attitude to the mercy of God when the people
of Nineveh earnestly repent.
Throughout the times of the Bible and until the last 300 years
people were far less individualistic than they are now. People
were members of a community (clan, tribe or nation) first, and
only individuals second. As we see in the rituals surrounding
the Day of Atonement, sin was seen very much as a corporate thing.
If a member of one clan wronged a member of another, then it
was usual practice for the clan to be held responsible, rather
than an individual - even to the point that if murder was committed,
then the killing of any member of the guilty clan was considered
to be justice. St Paul makes use of this in developing his theology
of salvation (Romans 5: 12-19. Through the guilt of one man,
Adam, all were condemned and through the righteousness of one
man, Jesus, all are put right) In the Ten Commandments, God says
that the consequences of worshipping false Gods will fall not
only on those guilty, but also on their descendants "down
to the third and fourth generations" (Ex. 20:5; Deut. 5:9)
There is much truth in this - sin can be a matter of culture
and unjust economic structures as well as a matter for individuals.
We see this clearly when it comes to things like pollution or
the need to relieve the burden of debt for developing countries.
Yet this argument can be overplayed to avoid personal responsibility.
Perhaps the greatest paradox of our age is that while we enjoy
unprecedented personal freedom, we have tended more and more
to think in terms of corporate responsibility. The criminal is
not to blame - he is the victim of negligent parents, a school
system that failed him, a corrupt uncaring and materialistic
Ezekiel was one of the most colourful and eccentric of the
prophets. In Ez. 18 he argues eloquently against those who blame
all their troubles on the sins of their forefathers. He concludes
by pleading for repentance. v.21-23 "If the wicked man turns
away from all the sins he has committed and keeps my laws, if
he does what is right and just, he shall surely live, he shall
not die. None of the crimes he committed shall be remembered
against him; he shall live because he did what is right. Do you
think I enjoy seeing an evil person die?" asks the Sovereign
Lord. "No, I would rather see him repent and live."
The Clean Slate theme in the New Testament
All four Gospels and the book of Acts start with mention of
John the Baptist, who is described as preaching a "baptism
of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke
3:3; Acts 1: 5) Baptism quickly became a central rite of Christianity.
The symbolism is rich: water is used for washing, and in the
Law of Moses for ritual purification. Also, in a desert nation,
nothing grows without water - it is a symbol of life. When a
baby is born it first of all has to break the waters of the uterus
and pass through them: baptism represents a second birth, new
life. For the Israelites, it had even further symbolism. Genesis
starts with the image of the face of God moving on the water.
In the story of Noah, God used water to purify the earth. And
for people, who recalled every year their escape from Egypt as
a proto-act of God's salvation in the feast of the Passover,
baptism recalled the passing through the waters of the Red Sea.
Baptism is the par-excellence symbol of the clean-slate theme.
It goes hand in hand with the sacrament of the Lords Supper.
It is about turning away from sin, turning to God, being forgiven
and making a fresh start. The Gospel of John, chapters 2-5 deal
with these themes in great depth. Water is the common thread.
First there is the story of the wedding where Jesus turns jars
of water to wine (we are told that the water was for ritual washing
- it is replaced by ritual washing by wine at the Lord's Supper).
Then (at the time of the Passover) comes the cleansing of the
Temple - symbolising the old Jewish practice of animal sacrifice
- where Jesus alludes to his own death and resurrection as his
authority for doing this. Then comes the conversation with Nicodemus
where Jesus says "No-one can enter the Kingdom of God without
being born of water and the Spirit". Immediately after this
Jesus goes to John the Baptist and starts to take over his minstry
of baptism. After this comes the meeting at the well with a Samaritan
woman who has come to draw water. Jesus offers to give her "living
water", and when she asks for this Jesus immediately draws
her attention to her falsehood and promiscuity which she must
face before she can accept what he has to offer. The next episode
concerns the healing of a dying son of an official and John reminds
us that this new life occurs in Cana "where he had turned
water into wine". Then comes the healing of a cripple at
the pool in Bethzatha. The man appears to try to avoid any sense
of personal responsibility. Jesus confronts him "Do you
want to be healed". The story contrasts the living water
of Jesus with the ineffective healing water of the pool.
The condition of forgiveness
Jesus makes it clear that if we want to be forgiven then we
must be ready to forgive. (Luke 6:37). In the story of the sinful
woman (Luke 7: 36-50) Jesus links this further with love. The
woman's sins are forgiven because she has shown great love (v.47)
but the person to whom little has been forgiven loves little.
Mathew 18:21-35 gives the parable of the unforgiving servant
as illustration of the principle that there should be no limits
to the number of times we forgive - because we ourselves stand
in need of much greater forgiveness by God.
Parable of the Prodigal Son: Luke 15: 11-32
The loving forgiveness of God the father
The context of this parable, coming after the parables of
the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin suggests that Luke wanted to
emphasise the great love of God for those who repent (turn back
Sin: a breakdown of relationship
Anthony Bloom and other writers have pointed out that the
sin of the son in this parable can be seen as representative
of all sin: the son rejects relationship with the father and
instead takes his money. Sin is always a rejection of true relationship,
whether with God, people or Creation in favour of taking what
we can get. It was common practice at the time for a father to
divide up his property while still alive whilst continuing in
practice as head of the household. In this case, the son would
have been within his legal rights to take his inheritance, but
in this case it would signify a total breakdown of relationship.
In effect the son was saying "rather than waiting for you
to die I will regard you as dead now - I don't want you, but
only what you can give me - I prefer my freedom to a relationship
with you, with all the obligations that that entails." The
father, having been persuaded to part with the inheritance, would
have discharged all his legal obligations to his son. From a
legal standpoint the father-son relationship was no more.
Alienation - the fruit of sin
After the son has squandered his inheritance he finds that
he has no one to help him (v. 16). The implication is that any
cronies around him who benefited from his wealth disappeared
as soon as the money ran out. In this way he finds that others
have treated him in the same way that he treats his father -
using him for what he can give, without real regard for his person.
Having become alienated from true relationship (symbolised in
his being in a far-off land v.13) he has no other recourse but
to enter contractual relationships - to sell his labour. This
accurately portrays the situation of many in contemporary society
who measure their worth by what they earn. In the depths of his
despair (nothing could be more degrading for a Jew than to feed
the pigs of a gentile) he remembers the good life he had before
- but so complete is his alienation that he cannot imagine returning
to his home except in terms of a contractual relationship (which
is all he might be legally entitled to). Thus the circle is complete
- the son has moved from a relationship based on love where he
is valued as a person unconditionally, to a contractual relationship
where he is valued only for what he can give (his labour). Again,
the theme is very contemporary: How many of our relationships
are in some way contractual, whether based on money or other
things we give each other. How often can we say "I will
love you, no matter what you do, in sickness and in health, for
richer or poorer, whether you give me what I need or not"?
We live in a world where contractual relationships are the norm
and as a result we feel more and more alienated.
The slate is wiped clean
The start of the son's redemption comes when "he came
to himself" (v.17). This is more than coming to his senses,
it signifies a return to authenticity, recognition of the falseness
of his path. It goes hand in hand with a depth of humility: the
son prepares a speech in which he acknowledges that he has sinned
and that he accepts the consequences of his actions (that he
has no more right to be called a son). This decision can be contrasted
with the response of most of us when we sin, which is to pretend
that our course of action is a good one. "Look, father,
I've decided to go into the pig trade - a career with great prospects!"
Pride prevents us from admitting even to ourselves, let alone
anyone else, that we have gone wrong - even when our lives are
miserable beyond endurance.
The son returns with his prepared speech but before he has
even finished it (v.21) the father acts, out of compassion, and
restores the father-son relationship. Many translations have
the father order his servants bring the "best robe"
(v.22) but the Greek text mentions the "first robe"
- possibly the first robe given to the adult son, or maybe the
"original" robe worn before the son departed. It seems
to symbolise a going back, a wiping of the slate. "My son
was dead and is alive again" (v.24)
Although the relationship with the father is fully restored,
there are some consequences of the sin which are not wiped clean.
The inheritance, having once been squandered, cannot be given
again (v.31) and the relationship with the older brother has
been damaged: The older brother refuses to call his brother "brother",
referring instead to "this son of yours" (v.30) What
restoration there is is the gift of the father who, out of love,
forgives. Where there is no forgiveness there can be no wiping
of the slate, even where there is repentance.
Jesus and Zacchaeus: Luke 19:1-10
Judea was an occupied nation. The Romans had a simple but
effective method of collecting taxes from the resentful population:
they appointed local agents to do the job and they didn't care
how the agents got the money so long as a set sum was paid to
the authorities. The tax collectors had no obligation to be fair
and frequently extorted far more from the population than they
needed to pay the Romans. This was how they became rich. Jericho,
the scene of this story, was one of the main entry points to
Judea for imports from the East. It is possible that Zacchaeus
was a senior customs official.
From the few things we know about Zacchaeus we can begin to
get an idea of the man. We are told he was one of the senior
tax-collectors and a very wealthy man, and also that he was short.
As a senior tax collector he would have been seen by the Jews
as a traitor, an agent of the hated Romans, and we can guess
that his diminutive size made him the butt of many jokes.
What can have possessed him to climb a sycamore tree and risk
ridicule, possibly violence, is hard to guess. Can mere curiosity
explain this? Or was he perhaps inwardly unsatisfied by all his
wealth. Was he driven by some half-formed desire to change his
ways? Whatever the reason, he found himself exposed above a hostile
crowd in a very precarious position. In a sense, Jesus saves
his bacon by greeting him as a friend and saying that he is going
to be a guest in Zacchaeus's home that night. Immediately Zacchaeus's
status with the crowd changes from outcast to a friend of the
hero - though some are unhappy with Jesus's decision. Unlike
the crowd, Jesus seemed to have seen behind the successful facade
to the questing, perhaps unhappy, person beneath.
The real miracle is what happens next. Zacchaeus rises to
the faith and respect that Jesus has bestowed on him - we are
told that he "stood his ground" - a delightful phrase
that speaks of this little man growing in true stature and gaining
in authenticity before the dis-believing crowd. The restitution
he offers to all he has wronged goes far beyond what the Law
of Moses requires, and Jesus proclaims that "Today salvation
has come to this house: for he also is a son of Abraham".
In other words he is no longer an outcast, a non-Jew, and the
slate has been wiped clean.
Luke has placed this story shortly after the parable about
the Pharisee and the tax-collector (18:9-14) and after the story
of the rich official who, though he keeps the Commandments, is
unable to let go of his wealth (18:18-30). It can therefore be
seen both as an illustration of the parable (everyone who exalts
himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will
be exalted) and also as an illustration of the possibility of
salvation, for those who are rich - a right attitude to wealth.
(v.25-27) "It is easier for a camel to pass through the
eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of
God." Those who heard this said, "Then who can be saved?"
And he said, "What is impossible for human beings is possible
St Paul 2 Cor. 5:17-6:2
Paul regarded his ministry to the people of Corinth as vitally
important. The city was dominated by the temple to Aphrodite
with its sacred prostitutes which attracted many tourists, and
Corinth was a by-word for drunkenness and debauchery. Perhaps
Paul had a sense that if the Gospel of Christ could work here
it could work anywhere.
Paul's ministry was primarily to communities which contained
many Gentiles. He had argued vigorously against the necessity
of Gentiles following the letter of the Jewish law, and yet this
was frequently misunderstood as a license for converts to do
whatever they liked. The passage in 2 Cor. 5: 17-6:2 is one of
the central passages of Paul's theology as he tries to explain
to a confused church how he understands the Gospel.
He starts by saying "So whoever is in Christ is a new
creation: the old things have passed away; behold new things
have come". Then he explains that this "new creation"
is part and parcel of reconciliation: reconciliation between
humans and God, flowing from God's forgiveness, and reconciliation
between humans. We have been given a "ministry of reconciliation"
and are called to be "ambassadors for Christ". Finally
he makes the point that the time to embrace this new life is
now, not some undefined time in the future.
Notes written by Mike Lowe, may be used and
adapted without permission