Here is a trivia question. Who was the first person in the Bible to ask for forgiveness? If Adam and Eve come to mind, think again. It is true that they committed the first sin, but if you go back and read Genesis 3, when they ate of the forbidden fruit, God confronted them about it, and they admitted their actions. However, there is nothing in the record that the first couple said they were sorry for what they had done, or even asked God to forgive them.
It might surprise you that the first time the word forgive or forgiveness is recorded in the Bible was an occasion when wrong had been done, not against God, but against a brother. The interesting thing about it is that the encouragement given to ask for forgiveness on that occasion was not out of a sense of personal duty to ask for it, but from a father who was fearful about the plight of his children if they failed to do so. The occasion was after the death of Jacob.
If you recall the story of Joseph, how he was sold into slavery by his brothers, but through the providence of God had risen to be the second most powerful person in all of Egypt, and perhaps the entire world at that time. After several years of thinking that the boy was dead, the Father and his brothers were reunited with Joseph in Egypt. But, when Jacob died, the brothers, fearing that Joseph would take vengeance on them for their mistreatment of him many years earlier, sent a message to their powerful brother and said, “Your father gave this command before he died:‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” (Genesis 50:16b–17 ESV)
Historically, people have always struggled when living together. Sooner or later, a harsh word, a misrepresentation, or even a harmful action will be done against another. When it happens, what should the person do who has sinned? Jacob had it right. They should repent, asking forgiveness for what they did. Jesus talked about this when He said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23–24 ESV) Jesus was saying that the onus is on the sinner to make things right with the one he or she has sinned against. Jacob never went to Joseph and said, “Now Joseph, you need to forgive your brothers. They did wrong, and you need to forgive them.” On the contrary, he told the brothers what their duty was to Joseph.
The question always arises when discussing forgiveness, what should one do if no request for forgiveness is forthcoming? Should we not forgive them anyway? The fact is that Jesus talked about that as well. He said that if you have ought against your brother, you should go to him about his sin. Read Matthew 18:15-17. God’s plan for reconciliation is there in black and white. He said that when every reasonable effort has been exhausted, and repentance is not forthcoming, the offender should be “to you as a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matthew 15:18 ESV). In other words, get on with life and avoid them.
So, if repentance is not forthcoming, what should we do with all the hurt and righteous indignation we feel? We should give it to God, and treat our enemies kindly. This is what is meant in the word of James, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8. Paul said something similar in Romans 12:19-21.
Remember the teachings of Jesus, “Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:3–4 ESV) Try it! It will work! But then, doing it His way always works.