A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

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 Matthew 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. Leviticus 19:17 was at the heart of the previous teaching, so too here in 18:21-22 and the parable Jesus uses to illustrate this teaching, the very next verse forbids holding a grudge and says, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Leviticus 19:17–18 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

We might think we have been grievously wronged by someone and they do not deserve forgiveness and reconciliation. But are we any less offensive and in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with God? Craig Keener said, “No one can offend our human moral sensibilities as much as everyone offends the moral sensibilities of a perfect God” (Keener, Matthew, 458).

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 person who needs to be forgiven seven times is a serial offender! There is a close parallel to this teaching in Luke 17:4, “if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

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!  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.

8 thoughts on “A Question about Forgiveness – Matthew 18:21-22

  1. Exactly! Peter was being judicial, the Rabbis said that you only had to forgive someone three times. Peter was just doubling that and adding one to it just to be on the safe side. So seven seemed quite fair. But Jesus up ended his little apple cart. Not 7 but as you said every time all the time. No excuses, no ands or buts about.

  2. People will always be offended by others at some point of their lives. No matter what time period a person is living in, there will be moments when others will insult or offend them. The important thing is to remember what Jesus teaches us about forgiveness, and never have hatred towards others who have done us wrong. From my perspective, it does seem that people are easily offended in today’s culture. Facebook was an excellent example given of this, because if I ever go on facebook I immediately see people arguing about politics and pretty much any other thing a person could argue about. This is something that all types of people are doing, and there are many Christians who argue with others about religion and get offended by others personal decisions/life choices. Instead of having compassion for others and trying to bring people to God, some Christians would rather assert how awful the people are for offending God. Not only does this go against what Jesus tells us about forgiving others, but it is also showing people that some Christians are judgmental and unaccepting of others. This will only make people less interested in Christ, and perhaps make them think God too would not accept them.

  3. Professor Long, as you mentioned, I restate, people are so easily offended. It has become human nature for people to become upset so quickly – even Christians. For Christians to even “turn the other cheek” is not a reaction an individual typically has. Forgiveness is intentional, it is thought about, and it is a reaction. When Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21, ESV), he had become so overwhelmed with taking such offense and forgiving his brother, that he no longer wanted to forgive his brother. It helps to see different translations of Jesus’s response to this prompt as it gives the reader a better understanding of Jesus’s intention of His message. The intention of Jesus’s response was to extend His grace and mercy on others through His children. I really enjoyed the excerpt you inserted from the Testament of Gad, which 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). As Christians living in a first world America, we should embody this concept of forgiveness. We need to walk around with hearts filled with love and mindsets of peace.

  4. Forgiveness (in my opinion) is one of the hardest tasks to do. It isn’t as difficult to do when someone wrongs me once, but it is very difficult when it happens multiple times–especially if it’s the same thing I have forgiven before. But God calls us to forgive–even when it’s difficult. Scripture says in Matthew, “…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?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22, ESV). Meaning, we must always forgive one another. Forgiveness is hard because in this culture of revenge and “three strikes and you’re out” mentality, it makes it normal for people to not forgive. In the textbook, Four Portraits, One Jesus it says that “those who have become children of God through faith gain a new outlook on life, and devotion to the kingdom becomes their passion and motivation” (Strauss, 2007, p. 446). Meaning, that the motivation to seek revenge on wrong doings or to hold a grudge against someone should not be our motivation–it should be to God and if are motivation is God, we will do so by forgiving one another.
    Forgiveness is hard–but God knows that it is in our best interest in forgive rather than to seek revenge or hold hate in our hearts. God wants his children to have peace and we cannot fully have peace without forgiveness.

  5. It’s very true, especially in today’s society that our first reaction to anything even marginally against what we believe or think is to take offense. We have little room for grace and forgiveness in our country. I think that this is often the reason that Christians are hypocrites because they talk about a message of love and grace, but they end up receiving no grace, love, or forgiveness from Christians themselves. I like how the post says that the vengeance of Lamech is reversed by Jesus’s unlimited mercy (Phillip Long). I think that in the times we are tempted to be offended, we should consider how much God forgave us and the post puts it perfectly when it says “rather than being offended Christians ought to be amazed at the grace they have received and offer it to the other who desperately needs it” (Phillip Long). This quote reminds me of Ephesians 4:32 which says to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ” (HCSB). We were also forgiven by Jesus and that alone should make us want to show the same kindness and forgiveness to others in the hope that they may also receive the forgiveness of sins. We are not in anyway more qualified or worthy of receiving God’s mercy and grace than anyone else.

  6. It is ever so interesting to me how Jesus came to fulfill the law but truly changes life as we know it through his life and sacrifice. Forgiveness and the way that it is both shown and received is one principle that changed immensely. As professor Long so eloquently stated that while Judaism did emphasize forgiveness, Jesus takes the principle to a larger scale of discipline and of greater importance. When Jesus came, forgiveness became a radical act one that did not require logic or understanding, but habit. This is portrayed in Matthew 18:21-22. Additionally, as I have grown I have learned that forgiveness absolves the offended more-so than the offender. With fleshly logic, we could not fathom this concept. But grace and truth set us free and in this case that is forgiveness which can enact through the power and example of Jesus Christ.
    So as you see, Jesus life and death changed everything. We see this principle in the bible in Hebrews. A book written to the Jews for the purpose of discussing Jesus’ purpose and priesthood (Hebrews 5:2-10). In chapter one of Karen H. Jobes’ novel Letters to the Church, “every book of the New Testament contributes something to our understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his earthly life.” Hebrews was a letter written to the Jews to illuminate how Jesus changed life and what that meant for God’s chosen people, as well as how they were to live. This would include a new outlook on salvation as well as forgiveness.
    Because I have a high priest of forgiveness, who requires no work and no physical sacrifice on my part, I should give the same courtesies and respect for others. While the concept seems quite easy to gather, it is another battle to apply. However I do believe that the command to forgive is a part of the commitment and cost when we decide to follow Christ. Additionally, forgiveness might be something that Jesus considered when he commanded his followers to die to themselves (Galations 2:20). This is a choice that must be made every day.
    In this moment I am also reminded that forgiveness is an act of faith. While we can display forgiveness we can often give this with conditions and distrust. True forgiveness requires faith. Furthermore, faith according to Jobes is defined as “a belief” or action based on information “we gather from someone we trust” (Jobes, p.48). When we cannot trust in the person we forgive, we choose to trust in God’s word and command to forgive which inevitably brings deep freedom.

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