Someone does something to you that makes you really upset. But he asks your forgiveness — so you do forgive. But a few days later the process is repeated. And then it happens again. How long do you have to go on forgiving? Jesus gives an answer in Matthew 18:21–35 and then drives the point home with a parable.
Quit counting! Seven times may seem like a lot. Peter had grasped something of what Jesus had been teaching. He understood that it was important to seek reconciliation with your brother. An obvious question arose in his mind: how often should I forgive my brother? Forgiving seven times seemed to Peter like going well beyond the call of duty. Perhaps you have had to forgive someone repeatedly. Four or five times seems like many, not to speak of seven times. Indeed, it is not easy to forgive once, much less repeatedly.
Keep on forgiving. Jesus’ answer requires repeated forgiveness when your brother repents. His words could be taken to mean “seventy-seven” or else “seven times seventy.” In either case Jesus apparently did not intend the figure to be an absolute minimum (as though you can refuse to forgive the seventy-eighth or the 491st offense). If you are counting the number of times that you forgive, there is something basically wrong with your approach. The tally you keep has your focus on yourself, on your magnanimous character. Behind Jesus’ words may be a reflection on the song of Lamech (Genesis 4:23,24), in which the murderer sings a boastful song, exulting in vengeance. Your goal must not be vengeance to the seventh or seventy-seventh degree, but forgiveness to the nth degree. Forgiving involves, not forgetting, but rather refusing to use the offense against the person again. Forgiving does not mean avoiding justice. As a good example, look at Rachael Denhollander’s victim impact speech. She forgave, but she argued strongly for justice.
Understand how much God has forgiven you. The king forgives a vast debt. A basic characteristic of the kingdom of heaven is forgiveness. This runs counter to the Pharisaic notion of earned righteousness. It grows out of the truth in the first part of the chapter, that it is the one who humbles himself like a little child who is great in the kingdom. Jesus points to a crucial aspect of the kingdom of heaven: it is a kingdom characterized by forgiveness. “[T]he kingdom includes the deliverance from all evil. Foremost among the blessings pertaining to this side stands the forgiveness of sins. Prophecy had already spoken of this as an important element in the blessedness of the Messianic age, Jer. 31:34. That Jesus considered this not merely as a preparation for the kingdom, but counted it of the very substance of the same may be seen from Matt. 18:23ff., where the kingdom of heaven is likened unto a certain king, who graciously forgives the debt of his servant and releases him.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 72) The way Jesus introduces the parable emphasizes that the forgiveness aspect of the kingdom is already here. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” has a past force, something like, “the kingdom of heaven has become compared to….” Sometimes the comparison uses a future tense, and sometimes it has a sweeping, all-encompassing present emphasis. But here, because the kingdom has already arrived with the presence of the King, Jesus himself, forgiveness is already a central reality. In the parable the king forgives the debt of ten thousand talents (a weight measure — we are not told what metal is being weighed—but see Esther 3:9), a vast sum of money. The request for time is nonsense. The debt is beyond the ability of the individual to repay. The king takes pity, is merciful, and simply cancels the debt.
God has forgiven you of all your sins. Ask God for mercy, as David did in Psalm 51. God hears and answers that kind of prayer. The debt you owe because of your sins is so great that it cannot simply be canceled. A price does have to be paid, but instead of your paying it, the Father in heaven has sent his Son as the Good Shepherd, to give his life for the lost sheep, see verse 12. The costly forgiveness is free to you, but it was purchased at the infinite value of the death of Christ. If you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, God had freely and fully forgiven you. You were a slave to sins, greater or lesser, but that is what you were, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. God himself tells you that you are forgiven if you trust his Son. Take him at his word! “For believers, prayer for forgiveness remains a daily necessity. But in that case they do not pray in doubt and despair; they do no pray as though they are no longer children of God and again face eternal damnation; they pray from within the faith as children to the Father who is in heaven, and say Amen to their prayer. . . . Christ, moreover, is not given them for a moment at the beginning, but is and remains their mediator and with his righteousness continually covers all their iniquity. He justifies not only their person but also their works, even though the best of them are still stained with sin. Believers therefore also have the right and the freedom after every lapse, to go with confidence to the throne of grace and plead on the faithfulness of him whose gift of grace and calling are irrevocable.” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pages 225–226)
Forgive your brother. Don’t be ungrateful. In the parable, the forgiven servant finds a man who owes him 100 denarii, about 1/3 of a year’s wages for a laborer. The sum is large, but is not insurmountable for paying back. The first servant harshly throws the man into prison until the debt is paid. And the king, justly, rescinds his pardon, and punishes the ingratitude appropriately. Yet that kind of ingratitude so easily marks our lives. Beware, for it contradicts the very character of your gracious heavenly Father. It is not that he is bound by your actions, but ingratitude betrays a heart that has never truly known the forgiveness that God gives in Christ. Thus the warning of verse 35. The basis for your forgiveness is always the work of Christ in your place, never something you do. But there is such a close connection between God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness you are to extend, that your Lord himself tells you that if you refuse to forgive, you must not expect God to forgive you.
Forgive as you have been forgiven. It is indeed difficult to forgive your brother who wrongs you, especially the one who does so repeatedly. However, as you struggle with doing what the Lord requires of you, remember how frequently God has forgiven you. Remember also, how grievous are your sins against God, and (at least by comparison) how light are the matters you need to forgive. Rejoice and rest in the reality of the forgiveness God gives you in Christ. He did not call you into his presence here today to lay additional burdens on you, to give you hurdles to jump on your pilgrimage. He called you to rest in what he has done for you in sending his Son. God’s forgiving means that he has covered over your sins. He no longer holds them against you. In the same way, as you forgive your brother you commit to putting the matter aside. You will not continue to hold it against him.
How long do you go on forgiving your troublesome brother or sister? Perhaps the day that the Father in heaven stops forgiving you would be an appropriate time to refuse to forgive. You have experienced not forgiveness7, but forgiveness…n . Reflect that in the way you forgive. The kingdom of heaven, which Jesus established by his life, death, and resurrection, is already here. And thus it is a profoundly forgiven and hence a truly forgiving community.