Date: August 5, 2018
Speaker: Erik Raymond
Category: Biblical Exposition
Scripture: Matthew 18:21–18:35
It is one of the most powerful metaphors in the Bible. With over seventy-five word pictures, God helps us to understand the important concept of forgiveness.
Here are just a few:
• "To forgive is to turn the key, open the cell door, and let the prisoner walk free.”
• "To forgive is to write in large letters across a debt, ‘Nothing owed.’”
• "To forgive is to pound the gavel in a courtroom and declare, ‘Not guilty!’”
• "To forgive is to shoot an arrow so high and so far that it can never be found again.”
• "To forgive is to bundle up all the garbage and trash and dispose of it, leaving the house clean and fresh.”
• "To forgive is to loose the moorings of a ship and release it into the open sea.”
• "To forgive is to grant a full pardon to a condemned criminal.”
• "To forgive is to relax a stranglehold on a wrestling opponent.”
• "To forgive is to sandblast a wall of graffiti, leaving it looking like new.”
• "To forgive is to smash a clay pot into a thousand pieces so it can never be pieced together again.” (Colossians and Philemon, John MacArthur), 209
You get the idea that God wants us to understand how far-reaching and beautiful forgiveness is.
Forgiveness is central to our experience as Christians.
It characterizes our relationship with God. But it also depict our interaction with others.
But this forgiveness is not only beautiful, it’s also difficult.
This is why Peter asks such a good question for us in our text this morning.
Let’s look together at Peter’s question in verse 21, “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”
This is a good question. Peter is doing the right thing here with Jesus’ teaching. He’s attempting to make personal application of the truth. And one thing I really like about this is how relatable this is. See if you can relate to this. Someone has sinned against you. Now you have to do something about this. How do you respond? Well, you have a natural response. This may or may not be a reflex to be gracious, depending on the circumstances. Then there is a social-religious response, which has customs that shape it. And then there is Jesus’ own teaching.
On a personal side, forgiveness is difficult. It is hard to forgive someone. It takes a certain amount of vulnerability and security—two things that don’t often go together today.
On a discipleship side, Jesus has been teaching that his followers need to forgive others if they want to be forgiven. For example, we read in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus has been making some very strong and shocking statements about discipleship. Peter has some questions about how this all gets fleshed out on the day to day. What do I do with this after a difficult Tuesday?
Furthermore, Jesus has just taught us about the importance of dealing with sin in the church. We must be quick to get rid of it in our own lives—even to a personally uncomfortable level. And we must, as a church, be sure to deal with sin in our interpersonal relationships. Peter is astute and honest here. Lord, what are the expectations here for me?
There’s also a cultural influence. At the time of its writing, there was a popular teaching by the Rabbis. They stated that a brother should be forgiven a repeated sin three times. But, on the fourth, there is no obligation to forgive.
We see what Peter’s doing here. He’s upping the ante. He knows that Jesus tends to go further than the cultural norms. So instead of three times, he doubles it and adds one to seven. Perhaps Peter was feeling pretty good about himself here. I’m sure we can all relate to occasions of zeal without knowledge and understanding. We get out a bit over our skis. Thankfully, Jesus uses Peter’s question to build our framework for understanding forgiveness.
Perhaps you are listening to Peter’s question and asking the same thing. How often am I obligated to forgive someone who seems to keep returning back to the trough of sin? Or, how should I think about forgiveness? What’s the framework?
Jesus’ answers are very helpful. In these three answers, he teaches us, that God’s forgiveness of us shows how and why we forgive others.
He does this through instruction, illustration, and a significant implication.
God’s forgiveness of us shows how and why we forgive others. In other words, God’s forgiveness of us must be the model and motivation for how we forgive others.
The first part of Jesus’ answer is straight up instruction. And in summary, he is saying, forgiveness is not tied to manageable, natural numbers.
Jesus answers Peter in verse 22. But, before we look at the details of what Jesus says, I want to simply point out that Jesus answered him. He listens to Peter and he provides clear teaching on the matter. Friends, this reminds us that Jesus welcomes our questions. He doesn’t expect us to have everything all figured out all the time. He is mindful of our frame, he knows that we are dust. He listens to Peter with an attentive ear. He provides a thoughtful answer.
This should be encouraging to you this morning. Perhaps, you think that we as Christians have to have it all figured out and that questions are taboo. This isn’t what we see in the New Testament.
If you’ve been a Christian for a while and have stopped asking Jesus questions, look again at this example—both the question and how Jesus answers.
Perhaps you’re a teenager or early twenties and you are trying to understand things for yourself. You are working to understand how to live out your faith in a culture that is increasingly in opposition to it. You should see that Jesus welcomes your questions. And he is patient with the process.
If you’re not yet a Christian, I hope you can see that Jesus is confident in the truth and he is patient with us. You can bring your biggest questions about life, eternity, God, and the world—and he will have something to say about it. We as Christians, or even me as a pastor, may not have all the answers, but we can point you to Jesus. He welcomes questions and gives answers.
Don’t stop asking Jesus questions. Or maybe, start asking him questions.
So Peter asks, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? What do you figure? Seven times?
And Jesus answers, No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Now, before you break out your calculator to do a quick multiplication problem, let’s not miss the point. This is not about coming up with an exact number or a quota, instead, it’s about grasping a very difficult concept. You and I must forgive people lots and lots of time. It’s more than you would expect. And if we’re honest, it’s quite likely more than we’d like.
I suspect that as we let the weight of Jesus’ words fall upon us we are challenged. Christianity is difficult. We could say that sinning is the easiest and most natural thing we do while forgiving is very difficult and unnatural.
Have you wrestled through this question? Have you come to the scriptures with honesty and an attempt to apply them faithfully and then butted up against this teaching?
As we’ll see, Jesus teaching, his kingdom ethic, is far beyond even the most virtuous of this world. If you can put a number on it then it’s not extreme enough. Forgiveness is not tied to manageable, natural numbers. Instead, it is tied to supernatural grace and mercy.
Having given us the “what” of his teaching, he now turns to give us the “why” of it.
Why must we be so liberal with our forgiveness? Jesus answers this with a moving illustration in verses 23-34.
Jesus tells us a story to make a point. He starts off by telling us about a King and his servants. In verse 23 we read that Jesus is telling this story to relate to the kingdom of God. He is telling this story to increase our understanding of the kingdom, particularly as it relates to forgiveness.
The King has decided to settle accounts. This means that those who owe him money, by either a the commitment of a crime or misuse of money and resources, must pay up. So he calls them to himself.
Jesus focuses in on one particular servant. Look with me at verse 24, "When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.” A talent was really a unit of measure for gold and silver. But, conversions to our current economy seem to fall short of the intended amount. A talent would be about 20 years’ wages. This servant owed the king ten thousand annual wages for twenty years. Attempts to make this a modern number usually fall in the tens of millions of dollars. Again, the calculator is not needed to make this point. This guy owed the boss a ton of money—more than he could ever repay.
And as a result, he’s in trouble. Look at verse 25, “And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made.”
The man has no hope and no means to pay. The king takes the only thing of value from him, his wife, children, and possessions, and claims them as his own. And, he decides he is going to sell them and get some return.
The servant no has no money and no hope—he’s desperate. So he pleads for time. Look here at what he does in desperation. In verse 26 we read that he fell to his knees. He drops down and prostrates himself before the king. This word used for falling down on his knees can refer to worship. We see it in Matthew 2:11 referring to the wise men. In Acts 10:2, it’s used to depict worship. The point is, this is full humiliation and desperation. And he begins imploring him. He’s begging him with persistence and urgency.
And notice what he is asking for? Give me patience! I will pay you back.
He is desperate.
The story takes a surprising twist in verse 27, “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.”
This is shocking. The master has pity for him. That is, he feels a sense of compassion for him. He identifies with the man’s dire circumstance. And, instead of valuing the money or the revenge, he values the man’s plight. And graciously he wipes the slate clean. Notice, he released him and forgave him. What great news!
But this wasn’t the only shocking news. Look, as the story takes another turn. And, this one is really quite pathetic. Earlier I said it was cringeworthy, and it is.
“But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” (Matthew 18:28–30)
As you read through this, you are supposed to see the similarities between the servant who was forgiven and the man here who was not. He did not extend the same measure of mercy and forgiveness to another that he himself had received.
Notice in verse 29, this second servant, fell down and pleaded with him. He said the same thing that we read in verse 26, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”
One other point of contrast here is in the amount that is owed. Remember he owed an incalculable amount? But this guy, on the other hand, owes a small amount. In comparison, he was forgiven for $50 million but he is merciless to the one who owes him ten bucks.
Instead of meeting him with gracious forgiveness that was extended to him, we see the opposite. It’s cringe-worthy. We read in verse 28 that he grabbed him and started to choke him, demanding payment. This is like threatening his life as he grabs him by the throat and begins choking him making these demands. Then in verse 30 he refused him, and went and put him into prison until he could pay the debt. Perhaps better, we could say he threw him with some degree of aggressive violence into prison. This word does not denote a gentle escort to his cell but the type of throwing that is commanded of what we are to do with the arm or foot that causes us to stumble. By all accounts, this guy is absolutely merciless.
But the story doesn’t stop with the servant’s wickedness. We see the king’s response in verses 31-34. Some of the other servants saw what happened and went and told the boss. They were, according to verse 31, greatly distressed. It’s the type of reaction associated with grief. They were outraged and deeply affected.
The master, who formerly responded with mercy, now is merciless. Look with me at verse 32-34, “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger, his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt.” (Matthew 18:32–34)
It would seem that Jesus’ point here is clear enough. The one who has received forgiveness should—of all people— be eager to forgive and not zealous to withhold it.
Pushing off the illustration, Jesus provides a singular, pointed, and clear implication: if you are an unforgiving person then you should expect to meet an unforgiving God.
Look what our Lord says in verse, 35: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
We should hear what Jesus is not saying. He is not saying all you have to do to be forgiven and go to heaven is to forgive others. We don’t earn salvation by forgiving other. But, he is saying, if we do not forgive others then we should expect judgment. Why? Because there is no discernible way someone can be a Christian and deny something so central to Christianity. Those who have been forgiven much forgive much.
You might push back and say, what happens if I happen to die before I forgive someone, does this mean I’m destined for hell? No, I don’t think so. I think the Bible is here teaching what is characteristic of the life of the professing Christian. At any given time we are all working through various things. There is some unripened fruit. As we grow in grace the fruit ripens. The blood of Christ cleanses us from our sin after all, not the doing of good. However, if there is no fruit—no gratitude, no forgiveness, no mercy—then one should question whether or not they are truly a Christian at all.
Are you a forgiving person?
Are you grateful for how God has forgiven you?
How do you show it? Are you known as one who is humble and gracious? Do you delight to show mercy?
You’ll notice that the verses use some strong language to make the point. Jesus says the king called the man “wicked” in verse 32. This is striking. He uses a word here that is an important word in the New Testament to communicate immorality—often sexual immorality. Here the connection is to a lack of mercy. This is akin to what we read in James 2:13, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
The man in the story had an incalculable debt and he was forgiven. How does this connect to us? It is because our sin is against a holy God. We have accrued an incalculable debt of sin before God. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6;23). We have no means to pay and no way to remove the penalty. We are hopeless and helpless.
Like the man in the story, we have no choice but to fall down before a holy and righteous God and plead for mercy.
And, isn’t this the glory of the gospel? God in Christ, wipes away our debt. He forgives us. He turns the key, opens the cell door and lets the prisoner free. He writes in large leters, “nothing owed.’ He pounds the gavel in the courtroom of our sin and declares, “not guilty!” He has cast our sin as far as the east is from the west. You can never outrun God’s justice, but neither can you out sin his mercy! He is a forgiving God who loves to forgive his people.
And let’s not forget how different we are than God. He forgives us when he is perfect and we are not. He is calling us to forgive other sinners who share in our perfection. We are to put the lenses of forgiveness, grace, and mercy on as we view everything.
Some Implications and Questions About Forgiveness
This is an important question because it is tremendously practical. If you work to faithfully apply the words of Jesus then you will likely encounter people who do not repent, ask for your forgiveness, or even seem like they think they have done anything wrong. How does this change your responsibility to forgive? Does it?
I don’t think it changes our responsibility. The answer to the question is, we can and we must forgive them. Let’s think about it this way. Forgiveness has two sides, there is the extension of forgiveness and the reception of it. The emphasis in this passage before us is the extension. Jesus is not here talking about receiving forgiveness, but extending it. Certainly to feel the full effect of forgiveness we desire to have both sides sync up, but it does not always happen.
Jesus other teaching supports this. We have to do our part in the forgiveness. This is what Jesus meant, I think, when he said, “Love your enemies . . . bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). They don’t stop being our enemies when we bless them. And this is what makes this so powerful. They haven’t asked for our forgiveness and perhaps they don’t think they have to. They are content being our enemy and making life difficult for us. One has said about this, “We are to bless them, and that blessing means that our part of the inward forgiveness has happened. The opposite of forgiveness is holding a grudge, but blessing is the opposite of holding a grudge, and so blessing is a kind of forgiving.” (John Piper)
I find it helpful to consider our Savior’s words when he was on the cross. He said, “forgive them for they know not what they do.” Jesus was setting an example for us to follow. He prayed for those who did harm to him. He prayed for their forgiveness. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23)
The answer is yes. Remember, sin is messy and cleaning it up is often a lengthy, nuanced process. It’s possible for forgiveness to occur in our relationship with God apart from interaction with the person who sinned against us. There are many reasons why we might not be able to speak with the person and extend forgiveness.
Forgiveness is very different from reconciliation. Our reconciliation with another often depends upon the attitude and actions of the one who sinned.
“In many cases, even if an offender confessed his wrong to the one he hurt and appealed for forgiveness, the offended person could justifiably say, “I forgive you, but it might take some time for me to regain trust and restore our relationship.” The evidence of genuine forgiveness is personal freedom from a vindictive or vengeful response (Romans 12:17-21), but not always an automatic restoration of relationship.
Even when God forgives our sins, he does not promise to remove all consequences created by our actions. Yes, being forgiven, restored, and trusted is an amazing experience, but it's important for those who hurt others to understand that their attitude and actions will affect the process of rebuilding trust. Words alone are often not enough to restore trust. When someone has been significantly hurt and feels hesitant about restoration with her offender, it's both right and wise to look for changes in the offender before allowing reconciliation to begin.” (Steve Cornell)
We can and must forgive others of their sins against us. But, there may be other factors that prevent full reconciliation and restoration.
This is a big question that I cannot possibly fully answer here. But, I want to put down a couple of markers.
First, I want to validate that sin is very painful. Being sinned against hurts us. It hurts us because sin is wrong. The Bible validates the destructive effects of sin. You should not feel guilty or wrong about this.
Secondly, there is ample compassion, mercy, and grace in Christ for you. When you feel alone and are hurting the tendency is to retreat to yourself and shut off the world because of the pain and feeling that no one understands or can do anything about it. But it’s here that we need to remember that our Savior has scars. He has entered into the scrum of this world and he has felt the deep affliction that comes from sin. In fact, he did this in order become a merciful and compassionate help to us. “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16,).
And finally, remember that in the end, God will judge and make everything right. This is our hope. There are limits to human justice. We know that all kinds of wrongs go unpunished in this world. But, we take comfort in this, we know that in the end, God will deal with everything in accordance with his inflexible justice, perfect wisdom, and eternal goodness. We can rest in this because we can rest in God.
At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s remember that Jesus commands us to forgive. This is what he tells us to do. So, failing to forgive is a sin. This is the chief danger. If we do not forgive others we are affecting our relationship with God, dishonoring him, and undermining our confidence before him. This cannot be overstated.
Then there are other considerations. A lack of forgiveness will nurse bitterness. It grows with time and begins to affect many areas of our lives. The Bible warns us against letting a root of bitterness spring up, noting that it causes trouble and by it many become defiled (Hebrews 12:15). We do not have the power to hold a grudge. We will become evil. If you try to repay evil for evil you will yourself be taken in by it. You will become embittered, angry, hardened, vengeful and even full of self-pity. You will try your best to maintain separation from it but it is an evil vortex that will pull you in.
It also elevates us to a place of judgment and authority that is frankly above our pay grade. We do not have the right to withhold forgiveness from anyone. We cannot stand in this place of ultimate judgment.
We often buy the lie that holding a grudge will make feel better. But this is not true. Holding a grudge will only suffocate us, and never liberate us. Choosing to hold a grudge is tremendously powerful; controlling others and you. Forgiving is even more powerful; liberating others & you.
First, grapple with the weight of personal sin. Remember that we have more in common with the one who did the sinning than we might like to admit. Cast everything in light of our relationship with God. Remember, the servant who was forgiven much yet could not forgive others. We have been forgiven ten thousand talents. Certainly, we can grow to be more forgiving of offenses against us.
Secondly, marvel at the gift of total forgiveness. In Christ, every single sin has been washed away. Our certificate of debt has been completely canceled. Over the top of our bill there reads a divine declaration, signed in blood, “Paid in full.” There remains now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We stand forgiven at the cross. Hallelujah! May this be the model and motivation for our forgiveness.
“Oh, to see the pain, written on Your face,
Bearing the awesome weight of sin;
Every bitter thought, Every evil deed,
Crowning Your bloodstained brow.
Rest in the sovereignty of God. We don’t understand why bad things happen, to us or others. But we do know that God promises to work all things together for good for those who love God and are called to his purpose (Romans 8:30). Joseph was able to both call his brothers’ scheming evil and God’s purposes good (Genesis 50:16ff). Even though we don’t have all of the answers for the “why” questions we do know the answer to the “who” question. God is in complete control and we rest in his sovereign wisdom and power.
Finally, exult in the privilege of granting forgiveness. When we forgive others we are magnifying the power of the gospel. We are declaring that there is something more important than us in this world. We are declaring the worth of Christ and his commands. We are showing the power of a changed life in the Holy Spirit. How great is it to extend forgiveness to others out of the love that extended forgiveness to us? God’s forgiveness of us shows how and why we forgive others.
This exchange from Jesus in answering Peter’s question helps us to look at our hearts, minds, and lives. Are we a forgiving person?
But it also directs our attention to God. When we study the gospel we learn that God is a forgiving God. And, it is his forgiveness of us that shows us why and how to forgive others.
God’s forgiveness of us shows how and why we forgive others.
When God forgives us he deals directly with our sin and debt.
• He passes over our sin, he does not judge us for it. We are forgiven.
• He pardons our sin, he does bring us to judgment. We are forgiven.
• He takes away our sin, he does not bring us to judgment. We are forgiven.
• He blots out our sin, he removes the charges from the book. We are forgiven.
• He forgets our sin, he does not bring the charges up again. We are forgiven.