Matthew 18:21–22 (ESV) 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
After hearing Jesus’s teaching on how to handle someone who has committed an offense against us, Peter raises a question which reflects Jewish thinking about forgiveness in the first century. The “process” Jesus outlined in 18:15-20 sounds like a person might receive two warnings before being excommunicated from the assembly of believers. In Matthew 5:39, Jesus describes “turning the other cheek.” Did he want to imply “two chances” in that teaching?
Peter had discussed the temple tax with Jesus in 17:24-27, a pericope which follows “the disciples were filled with grief,” the same phrase appears in 18:31 (fellow servants are “filled with outrage”). Perhaps this is a frame? Perhaps Peter is being generous, not simply turning the other cheek, or forgive twice then bring it to the assembly and excommunicate the sinner. Seven times forgiveness would be remarkable!
Judaism did emphasize forgiveness for those who have offended. In the Testament of Gad, for example, the writer says “Love one another from the heart, therefore, and if anyone sins against you, speak to him in peace. Expel the venom of hatred, and do not harbor deceit in your heart. If anyone confesses and repents, forgive him” (T.Gad 6:3). This example is sufficient to demonstrate Jews in the first century were not proto-Puritans condemning everyone’s sin, nor were they standing on the street corners with signs damning everyone else to Hell. For the most part, the Judaism of Jesus’s day understood they had received great mercy and grace from God and that the “venom of hatred” does no one any good.
Jesus extends forgiveness to “seven times seventy.” By this he means the kind of unending forgiveness God has already given to the disciples, and by extension to all those who are in Christ in the present age.
The translation of the number of times to forgive is difficult, it could be seventy-seven times (as in the ESV, NIV and most modern translations) or “seventy times seven” (as in the KJV), which would be 490 times in all. Although both are possible, most scholars today think the phrase is modeled on the LXX of Genesis 4:24, Lamech will be avenged “seventy-fold seven” (Nolland, Matthew, 754). In Genesis 4:24 Lamech wanted to be avenged seventy fold, Jesus is reversing that sort of outrageous, unlimited vengeance with equally outrageous, unlimited mercy.
In either case, Jesus is using hyperbole to express the idea that his disciples will not keep an accounting of wrong, but rather will reflect the unending mercy of the heavenly Father who has already forgiven them of all of their sins.
The problem is too many Christians are thin-skinned when it comes to taking offense. Five minutes on Facebook is enough to prove Christians are easily offended and do not offer forgiveness to those who need it. In fact, Christians are quick to use the “venom of hatred” when they are comfortably anonymous!
But As Craig Keener observes, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Matthew, 458). Rather than be offended at the sins of others, Christians ought to be amazed at the grace they have received and offer that some grace and mercy to other who desperately need it.