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I find the language in Luke 1:77 confusing. Does the original text offer anymore clarity? I have looked at other translations and still do not fully grasp the meaning of the verse:

to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,

Similar language in Mark 1:4

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Also, Acts 2:38

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does in or for the forgiveness of sins actually mean?

I don't understand what Luke 1:77 is saying at all. Knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins?

And the other two verses, does it actually say that both baptisms forgive sin?

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2 Answers 2

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The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) is in two parts:

  • V68-75 is a hymn of praise to the Lord the God of Israel
  • V76-79 is a prophecy about the life, work and mission of Zechariah's son, John.

Now, V77 should never be divorced from V78 as will become obvious shortly. Here is my overly literal translation of V77 & 78a about John's mission -

to give knowledge of salvation to His [ie, God's] people in/by [ie about/through] forgiveness their [ie, Israel's] sins via the tender/loving compassion of our God

Thus, the way I read the Greek, the phrase "forgiveness of their sins" is in apposition to "knowledge of salvation". That is, John would prepare the way for Messiah (V76) by teaching the people about forgiveness of sins via the grace of God (V78).

To place this in more modern vernacular, John's message would be salvation by the grace of God. This was presumably in contradistinction to

  1. the very legalistic and works oriented approach to salvation commonly held by the pharisees and most people at the time.
  2. it also contrasted with the common militaristic view commonly held about the coming messiah

The Pulpit commentary explains this well by saying:

Godet puts it with great force. "Why," he asks, "was the ministry of the Messiah preceded by that of another Divine messenger? Because the very notion of salvation was falsified in Israel, and had to be corrected before salvation could be realized. A carnal and malignant patriotism had taken possession of the people and their rulers, and the idea of a political deliverance had been substituted for that of a moral salvation. There was need, then, of another person, divinely authorized, to remind the people that perdition consisted not in subjection to the Romans, but in Divine condemnation; and that salvation, therefore, was not temporal emancipation, but forgiveness of sins." Luke 1:77

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The term ἄφεσιν (aphesin) can be translated as "forgiveness," "deliverance," or "remission." So yes, it actually says that these baptisms involved the forgiveness of sins. However, commentators have various ways of understanding this passage.

Barnes

The word remission means pardon or forgiveness. It implies that God will treat the sinner as if he had not committed the sin. The idea here is, that the "salvation" about to be offered was that which was connected with the pardon of sin. There can be no other.

Poole

To preach the doctrine of repentance to men, that they may obtain remission of sins. But it seems more natural, to teach people that the only way by which they can attain salvation, is not by any righteousness of their own, but by obtaining the free pardon and remission of their sins by Christ and his righteousness.

Gill

unto his people: meaning not the people of John the Baptist, the Jews, though it was true of God's elect among them; but the people of Christ... Sins are debts; forgiving them is a remitting these debts, a loosing them, or the obligation to payment, which is done freely and fully, for Christ's sake, and through his blood; and herein lies the blessedness and salvation of men

Conclusion: The text does say that John's baptism involved the forgiveness or remission of sins. Among the various ways to interpret this are:

  • It clearly did involve the forgiveness of sin.

  • It seems to say that John's baptism involved forgiveness of sin, but it means to say that forgiveness only comes through Jesus.

  • Jews clearly could not be forgiven through John's baptism. They had to accept Jesus and be saved by his blood.

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