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Dimensions of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-25

Suppose you had a huge bill, such as a school bill, and the payment was due right now. The only problem was, you couldn't see how in the world you would pay it. How would you feel if someone came along and said, "No problem, I'll take care of it, as well as all the rest of your expenses, no matter how long you're in school." What would that do for you? Would you be angry, sad, or crazy with joy?

Or, let's suppose you can't make the next payment on a huge loan, like a house payment. The bank is really being tough, and they say not only is the next payment due, but the entire loan must be paid off now. To make matters worse, the bank also threatens you and says, "If you don't pay the entire amount, not only are we going to take away your house, we're going to put you and your entire family in jail until you pay off the total loan." How would you feel? Probably pressured, and filled with a sense of hopelessness.

But then something unanticipated happens. After hearing your pleas for patience the bank says, "Okay, you don't have to make your next payment, and not only that, we also cancelled the remaining debt on your house. It's now yours debt-free." What would you say? You'd probably be so excited you'd scream for joy and be profuse in your thanks. Why not? Not only are you debt-free, you also have something very valuable that is all yours.

Now, I want you to keep all the thoughts and feelings from those two examples in mind, as we come today to Matthew 18:21-35. If you owe a lot of anything to someone and don't know how you are going to pay it, then you'll certainly identify with the way this passage in Matthew 18 begins.

If on the other hand, someone has grievously sinned against you, and you are now being asked to forgive them, the last few verses of Matthew 18 will give great insight as to what you should do, as well.

Matthew 18:21-25

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[6] 23 "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents[7] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

This is such a revealing passage. Be prepared to see your heart!

Peter's question essentially was, "Is there a limit to the forgiveness we grant to each other?" The verse says, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when sins against me? Up to seven times?" Notice the context of the question. It follows immediately after Jesus' instruction on what we should do when a person sins against us. The same phrase was used by Peter in verse 21, as was used by Jesus in verses 15 and 21 (" sins against you...."). Obviously Peter, in his usual fashion, was thinking about what Jesus has just said, so this is a follow-up question to the steps of reconciliation Jesus had outlined for the church in verses 15 -17.

Now that Peter had heard the instruction, he was asking, "How many times do I have to go through the process you have just outlined? Up to seven times?" Peter was probably proud of his answer, because he wasn't stingy with his forgiveness. He seems to have really caught the Lord's teaching and was pointing out a very important fact. In order for Matt. 18:15-17 to work, the person who has been sinned against not only has to confront the person who sinned, he also has to forgive. This may be the most difficult implication of the entire teaching.

Forgiveness must be granted, whether the wrongdoer repents and asks for forgiveness or does not. We are to hold nothing against the person who has wronged us. That's very difficult. Some feel that unless someone comes to them and asks forgiveness for sins against them, it should not be granted. Scripture, however, makes it very clear that our forgiveness is to be granted no matter what the person does.

Therefore, as we go through Matt. 18:15-17, we are not helping the person to win our forgiveness—that must be granted. We are helping the person walking through the steps of Matthew 18 to get right with God and be free from sin. This person has to settle accounts with God. That brings us to what Peter is suggesting.

Peter was extending personal forgiveness for sins against him—up to seven times. Where did that number come from? The old Jewish teaching was that three times was enough. This was based on Amos 1:3 and 2:6. Peter then was attempting to be generous in doubling the usual limit of forgiveness. What did Jesus say? His answer was essentially that forgiveness should be granted without limit. "Jesus answered, "I tell you not seven times, but seventy-seven times"—verse 22. (This could also be translated 70 times 7, or 490.) So, are we to keep a total up to 490?

The amount of forgiveness extended should be limitless. Peter was to go on forgiving without counting the number of times. When it comes to those who have sinned against us, we are to do the same. Remember the context. Understand, forgiveness doesn't mean we give a person a license to continue sinning or that we condone or encourage sin. We are to grant forgiveness within the framework of Matt. 18:15-17. We are to take action, not to be passive.

  • If a person is breaking the law of the land, we can and should appeal to the courts.
  • If they are seeking to harm us physically, sexually, or emotionally, we can retreat to safely and get the help we need.
  • In all cases we are to confront.

But I know for some of us, forgiving others is still a tough pill to swallow. We've had grievous things done against us. We really want to get revenge. We want to make the person who has hurt us, really pay for what he/she has done. We think that to grant forgiveness is to say that what he/she did was okay. I think Jesus understood these feelings, and that's why He, by the following parable, illustrated the amount of forgiveness to be granted.

A king wanted to settle his accounts—in particular, with a servant who had borrowed a great deal of money. Verses 23-24—

"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24) As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him."

The servant in the parable might be high-placed officials in service of the emperor, some of whom would often have occasion to borrow large sums from the royal treasury. In this story the amount of the debt is deliberately more vivid. Nothing is gained by trying to find the exact equivalents in modern English or American coinage for the sums mentioned. The sense would be adequately conveyed by thinking of the first debt as 'two or three million pounds' and of the second as 'two or three hundred pounds'.—The Gospel According to Matthew, R.V.G. Tasker, ED., Tyndale Pub., 1981, p. 178.

Obviously, the servant was unable to pay his debt. Does this sound familiar? It sounds like the debt we owe concerning our sins. Which of us is able to repay what is needed? None of us. What's the alternative, then? We really have no solution in ourselves.

The sentence was handed down. "Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt." What's the price for his indebtedness? In the parable, the man's family and all he had was to be sold. Think about it: What chance would he have to pay off the big debt as a slave? What hope do you think he would have? The only hope was for the debt to be canceled or for someone to pay the debt. (Remember those alternatives.)

In our case, our sins have left us in a hopeless condition. "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." Rom. 3:23. We have no hope in ourselves of making up the deficit, so what can we do? We can follow the lead of the servant in this parable.

Verse 26: "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything'." The servant was optimistic, thinking if he was given a little more time, he'd be able to pay back what he owed. Have you noticed, debtors are often this way. They are convinced that if a little more time is given, the means to repay the debt will be found.

The master now had to make a decision. Do you think he believed the servant would actually be able to meet his obligation if given some more time? No, the amount was too high. No man was capable of making the payment, given the conditions available to a servant. What would be the solution? The master made the decision on a different basis than the man's ability to come through with his own resources. The sentence was cancelled because of the compassion of the king.

The debt was forgiven; the servant was now free. This was the only answer for him. Only the king could grant the pardon; only he was capable of forgiving the debt.

This is such a significant answer. The same solution is needed for mankind today. Jesus is the only one who can forgive our debts, for we are hopeless without His mercy. It's because of His willingness to take the debt of our sin upon Him, and to forgive our sincere plea for repentance, that we are free! Jesus paid it all, because we couldn't earn our freedom.

That should make us so grateful. We could have been sold into slavery without hope. We should be more than willing to be like our King with others. It seems we would want to grant forgiveness to others in the same way we have been forgiven. Well, as we all know, that isn't always the case. In fact, this same servant who was forgiven so much shows us what we are often like.

The same servant wanted a debt paid to him that was owed by another servant. Verse 28 - "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded." What happened?

The demand for payment was made almost immediately. The amount owed was 100 denarii—maybe a few dollars—up to $17. But notice, the treatment of the debtor was brutal. The servant grabbed him and began to choke him. What did the debtor/second servant do? His response was very similar to the first servant's response to the king (notice verse 26b—"...Be patient with me" he begged, "and I will pay back everything," and verse 29—"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back'.").

They both fell to their knees. They both begged. Because of what he had learned from his own experience with the king, the servant would now grant forgiveness, right?

Wrong! The request for patience was refused. Verse 30 - "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay his debt." The sentence was immediately carried out. Why did this happen? Is this typical for a person so recently forgiven of a greater debt? Why do we as Christians often act like this too? Let me make a few observations:

Observation #1: We don't see ourselves as we really are.

We need someone to compare ourselves with. For example, we see ourselves when we walk with Jesus through the Gospels; walk with Paul through Acts; study a character from the Old Testament.

1 Cor. 10:11-12 - "These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12) So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!"

It's helpful to study the biographies of other believers (i.e. Martin Luther Had a Wife; Harriet Beecher Stowe Had a Husband) We sometimes need verbal pictures to see ourselves, like this parable or the story of David and Nathan in 2 Sam. 12:1-7.

Observation #2: We forget how much we need forgiveness, and have been forgiven.

We don't realize how much we owe—how indebted we are to God (see Luke 7:36-50).We don't understand our sinfulness and God's holiness (Luke 9:9-14). We don't comprehend Christ's payment on the cross, and the grace He has shown us - Eph. 2:1-10.

When we do see ourselves as we really are, remember how much we need forgiveness and how much we've been forgiven, we will be compelled to offer the same to those who need our forgiveness. To whom much has been given, much is required. The dimensions of forgiveness are limitless, as are the dimensions of God's love.

Ephesians 3:17-19: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.