September 28, 2019
In Matthew 18, it was only “natural” for Peter to ask the question: How often should I forgive? Seven times? From our human perspective, forgiving once is remarkable, and forgiving seven times is extraordinary.
We too often keep track of the times when someone offends us, and we bear grudges against those who have offended us when we should overlook the offense and forgive the offender.
We also “rate” sins on a “sliding scale” as though one sin was more heinous than another. But we can’t make such comparisons since all of us have sinned, and we are deficient of God’s righteous standards (Romans 3:23). Rating sin can lead to falsely characterizing others for past criminal behavior, drug use, marital infidelity, divorce, or an abhorrent lifestyle—even when they now live for Christ fully.
In addition, it’s hypocritical to condemn someone for his or her past when we too have “skeletons” in our closet, as Jesus observes in Matthew 7:3-5 (NLT):
And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, “Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,” when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.
Our “sliding scales” have to be challenged. We cannot impose human standards on godly principles by forgiving certain offenses or forgiving only to a certain level.
The Lord’s response to Peter’s question was immediate: Not just seven times, but seventy times seven! In other words, we must be perfect, even as our Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48) by forgiving to the extent that He has forgiven us.
Then the Lord Jesus illustrated endless forgiveness with the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
In this parable, a certain king had a servant who owed him ten thousand talents (about 15 million dollars), yet he forgave the entire debt. But, this same forgiven servant could not find it in his heart to forgive the debt of one hundred pence (about $17.00) that his fellow associate owed him. 1
The Lord used the largest and smallest forms of ancient currency to emphasize how the first servant’s debt was so massive that it could never have been paid—yet it was forgiven. Thus, the unforgiving servant was condemned because he could not find it in his heart to forgive his fellow associate’s minuscule debt. The Lord provided the application in Matthew 18: 32-35 (NLT):
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
How miniscule are the offenses we commit against each other in comparison to the enormous sin debt that we owe God, Our Lord Jesus Christ was perfect. He never sinned, yet He chose to be fastened to a wooden cross for our eternal benefit.
Moreover, He did not complain about His unjust treatment—being tortured and executed like a common criminal. Instead He willingly bore our sins because only His precious blood could wash them away once and for all (and secure our eternal destiny with Him).
What a wonderful Savior!
Since the Lord forgave us completely, and His Spirit lives within us, we have the means to forgive also. Let us truly practice letting go through Christ-empowered radical forgiveness.
- For further discussion here, please see: Cecil B. Murphey, comp. The Dictionary of Biblical Literacy, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989) 342, Merrill T. Gilbertson, The Way it was in Bible Times, Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1959) 118, and J. Knox Chamblin, “Matthew,” Baker Commentary on the Bible, 5th printing, ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) 745.