Greek Culture

The Greek word "amartia", usually translated as "sin", is an interesting word, because its meaning is quite different from what Christians often assume when they talk about sin.

The Greek verb "amartano" that is used in the New Testament means "missing the mark", or "to err". It is most often associated with Greek tragedy, where the term was applied to Greek heroes. Each hero of a tragedy, who is in other respects a superior being, had an "amartia", a tragic flaw, an inherent defect or shortcoming in their character that brought about their downfall. The hero's suffering and its far-reaching reverberations are usually far out of proportion to his flaw.

Often the hero's tragic deed is committed unwittingly, as when Oedipus unknowingly killed his father and married his own mother. If the deeds are committed knowingly, they are not usually committed by choice. Also, an apparent weakness is often only an excess of virtue, such as an extreme adherence to principle or zeal for perfection.

In Greek culture, amartia is a character flaw that causes a good person to take an action that brings them harm. It is often committed unwittingly or without free choice. Often the motivation is excessive zeal for perfection. This is not the way that Christians think about sin. I don't know how much influence Greek culture had on Jesus and Paul, but this is the way that the Greek word amartia was used at the time when they were using the word.

Old Testament Language

For the Jewish people that Jesus walked amongst, the word amartia was failure to comply with God's law. That is also quite different from the way that Christians talk about sin.

The Torah (God's law) was not a standard of holiness, which the people of God needed to comply with to be holy. The law cannot be used as a holiness code, because it does not contain a complete list of all sins. Pride, patience, kindness, and gentleness are not really mentioned in the Torah; neither is presumption or gluttony. We should not be surprised at these omissions, because this is not the purpose of the Law.

God's full standard of righteousness was not spelt out clearly until the Fruit of the Spirit were listed in the New Testament. The fruit describe God's standard, but it seems that God knew that it would be impossible for humans prior to the cross and fullness of the Holy Spirit, so he did not bother setting them out systematically until after the Spirit had been poured out. The fruit are the outcome of a spirit-filled life, not a standard of righteousness that we must struggle to comply with.

Moses realised that the Torah was not given to define sin, but to provide a way for people to live in peace and harmony with each other. God gave the law revealed to Moses to provide a communal program that teaches people how to live together in a tightly populated land without too much discord.

The law was given when the children of Israel were about to move into a new land. While they were slaves, their taskmasters controlled every aspect of their lives. Once they were freed from slavery and planted in a new land, they faced the challenge of living together without falling out with each other over trivial issues. God gave them the Torah to equip them for this task.

The law also provides guidance for marriage, instructions for defence and war, guidance for caring for the poor, and many other social and economic issues, but most of these are instructions to a community of people.

So when John the Baptist was challenging the people to turn from their "amartia", he was not talking about personal sin, but the failure of God's people to live in God's way in the land he had given to them. Instead, they had copied the nations.

Even though they were ruled by the Romans, applying God's laws for society and economic guidelines would have given them a peaceful and prosperous lifestyle. Their failure to implement the Torah deprived them of the economic and social blessings that God had promised to them. Instead, most people were one step away from poverty, and their lives were miserable.

Missing the Mark

The word most commonly used for sin in the New Testament is "amartia", which means "missing the mark". This is not deliberate disobedience. It is not choosing to do evil on purpose. It is failure to achieve an intended goal.

When an archer misses the mark, they are not deliberately trying to miss the target. The reverse is true. They are actually trying to hit the bull's eye, but a crosswind, damage to the arrow, or a nervous twitch when it is being released, causes the arrow to miss. The important thing is that the archer was not trying to miss the target; they were trying hard to hit it.

So applying this to our personal lives, "missing the mark" is a failure to achieve the standard we are aspiring to achieve. We are trying to do what is right, but for some reason get it wrong. Like the archer, the reason that we miss the mark might be something beyond our control, like the sudden gust of wind that blows the arrow off target. Sometimes we fail to obey God because the spiritual powers of evil have buffeted us, and caused us to fall.

Part of Jesus' gospel was explaining to people that they were not free, but were trapped by the kingdom of darkness. In Jesus' parable about a sower, some of the good seed is trampled on the roadside or snatched away by the birds. In the same way, humans have been trapped under the control of the spiritual powers of evil, which prevents them from following God even if they want to. Many humans miss the mark because they are attacked and controlled by spiritual evil, even if they wanted to serve God when they were young. Others reject him because they are put off by the hurts of people who claimed to be working for God.

Missing the mark is not deliberate rebellion against God. It is seeking to live in his way, but failing because the pressures were too great. It is considerably milder than extreme depravity.

Several other words used for sin in the New Testament also indicate weakness rather than deliberately choosing evil.

A stronger word than missing the mark" is "parabaino". It means to "go past, or "transgress", but Jesus only used it for the Pharisees breaking the law.

Jesus' Message

After Jesus rose from the dead, he explained to his disciples the message that would be preached to the entire world.

Repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47).
To understand this message, we need to think a bit more about the Greek words used. We have already covered "amartia".

The Greek word usually translated as "Repent" is metanoeo". "Turn from sin" is a distorted and very narrow translation. The literal meaning of "metanoeo" (verb) and "metanoia" (noun) is to "change your mind, think differently, reconsider". The modern English word repent does not really do it justice. It is not grovelling in tears before God, pleading for him to accept us.

"Metanoeo" is a much broader concept. It means a complete change of thinking, including getting a better knowledge of God, changing your attitude toward him, understanding how the spiritual powers of evil have deceived and enslaved you, and understanding how Jesus has defeated them and set them free. It includes regret for mistakes made in the past, but that is only a small part of what is encompassed by "metanoeo".

Jesus explained the gospel clearly to Paul when he called him to ministry. "I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me" (Acts 26:17-18). This is much broader than just remorse for sins. It includes an understanding that we need to be rescued from the power of the spiritual powers of evil.

The Greek word usually translated "forgiveness" in Luke 24:47 means ‘freedom, liberty, deliverance'. It can also mean forgiveness or pardon, but that is an additional metaphorical meaning imposed on the word by religious people. The core meaning of the word is freedom from bondage or imprisonment. It comes from a verb meaning "send away".

Once we understand that the human problem is being slaves of darkness trapped by the spiritual powers of evil, it becomes clear that our greatest need is to be set free. They would like us to think our problem is that God is antagonistic to us, but that is a distortion of the truth. We need to be set free from the powers of evil far more than we need to be forgiven by God. Romans 3:25 explains that God had already "passed over sins previously committed" when he sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the ransom demanded by the spiritual powers of evil.

In this context, it would make more sense to translate aphesis as freedom. We have missed the mark because we became slaves of the spiritual powers of evil. We need to be set free from their power so we can serve God in the way that he desires. "Aphesis amartia" could be translated as "forgiveness of sin", but "freedom from missing the mark" is equally valid, but carries a very different meaning; one that makes more sense in the context of our being enslaved by the powers of evil.

A different, but valid, paraphrase of Luke 24:47 would be,

"Change your way of seeing the world to get deliverance from the consequence of missing the mark" will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:47).

Hebrews 9:22 is quoted frequently in this form.
Without shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.
However, it could just as easily be translated as follows.
Without shedding of blood, there is no freedom.
If the spiritual powers of evil are demanding blood as a ransom to set us free from slavery, the latter translation makes more sense. Jesus supported this meaning when he said,
The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Jesus gave his life as a ransom payment. Who was he paying? Some theologians assume that Jesus paid the ransom to God, but that does not make sense. God would not stoop to demanding ransoms, like ISIS kidnappers.

However, the spiritual powers of evil would stoop to demanding a ransom. And they have the authority to do so because humans unwittingly placed themselves under their evil power.