“Yes, You Must Forgive: For Your Own Sake”

Matthew 18:21-35

If there is anything more quintessential regarding what it means to follow Jesus, it has to be forgiveness. We have been exploring the Gospel of Matthew as he tells us about the life of Jesus. We are at the point in the story where Jesus has revealed His destiny to His disciples and He is making His way to Jerusalem to become the Passover Lamb of Lambs. The disciples haven’t caught on to what Jesus has proclaimed so Jesus has taken a “time out” to make sure His closest followers hear some specific details that will be necessary for them to grasp as they live out 

“Kingdom of God” principles.  

The disciples, however, seem focused on what most people are focused on, “What’s in this for me?”

They asked Jesus questions like, “Who is the greatest?” and when Jesus answered by showing them a child and told them it required humility to become great in God’s Kingdom, they remained confused. 

Jesus then explained how they were to deal with sin in their community and the disciples came up with today’s question, “Okay, I understand I am supposed to forgive, but how many times do I have to forgive?” Demonstrating once again just how far away they were from understanding Kingdom living. 

The topic of forgiveness is one that each one of us is familiar with, no matter who we are. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people and life is unfair. Because of that, good people often have a similar question to Peter’s. We know we are “supposed” to forgive, but there are often times that even when we forgive, 

it doesn’t seem to make a difference and the person or offense continues. So begs the question, Do we have to keep forgiving? If so, how many times is enough?

For Jesus, forgiveness was His ultimate reason for coming to earth in the first place. Forgiveness is synonymous with His name and being. He taught His disciples to say it in the prayer we recited this morning. “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.” God thought that forgiveness was so vital to kingdom living that He forgave us by dying for our sins and He gave us a prayer to say daily that would remind us of being forgiven and the need for us to do the same. 

Somehow, God’s forgiveness to me is directly tied to my ability to give forgiveness to others. You can see this in the parable in today’s Scripture. Jesus takes our ability to forgive and our inability to forgive really seriously. 

This fits right into what was happening for Jesus at that very moment. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to claim His being Messiah. He was not going to kill anybody, in fact, He in turn would be killed. He would do this for Israel’s sins and the sins of the world. Jesus realizes His disciples fundamentally don’t understand what it means to follow in His footsteps. We began chapter 18 with Jesus providing details on the need for humility and what it means to be “born again.” He warns us that as we grow into being Kingdom minded we will need to keep a check on our character flaws. He also knows that we will fail and we will hurt each other, so He provides us with a way to handle a situation when someone sins against us. The disciples have been listening and good ole’ Peter steps up to the plate and asks the million dollar question. “Okay, Jesus, what exactly are You asking me to do? I’m hearing you but I can foresee another disciple doing something that will wrong me. 

So how much do I have to put up with? He throws out the number 7, how about 7 times? Again, we need some historical background. Don’t think this question hasn’t been discussed by rabbis. The topic of forgiveness had been debated over and over by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. They decided that three times was sufficient. So Peter throwing out the number 7, which was known as the number of completeness actually demonstrates extreme leniency. Peter thinks he is offering a lot of grace by presenting this number. Jesus responds with, “No, Peter, not seven.” And Peter may have been thinking Jesus was going to say “four” but instead, Jesus again turns their thinking upside-down and responds with seventy-seven times. Oh that we were Jewish, because in actuality Jesus was putting in a bit of Jewish irony at this point. The numbers 7 and 77 appear close together in only two places in Scripture and this is one of them. The other story is back in Genesis chapter 4. 

It’s the story of jealousy between two brothers, Cain and Abel. In response to Cain’s jealousy towards his brother Abel, God warns Cain about his jealousy, verse 6 & 7,

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

But Cain doesn’t rule over it, he gives in to it and murders his brother in the field. The story goes on and Cain gets banished from the land and he goes and builds a city which he names after his son, Enoch. As the generations grow, the city becomes a place where you would never want to live. There is a description of this place with a little poem by a man named Lamech who wanted to describe his prowess to his wives. 

He describes how he killed a man who had attacked him, by not only killing him seven times, like Cain, but seventy-seven times. What a brutal and amazing man he was declaring to be. 

Jesus was equating forgiveness with this back story. Why? Jesus knows that He is placing the act of forgiveness in a place in our lives that is counter to our nature. Think about it. Someone hurts you, you don’t even have to think about it, you respond by hurting back, fight or flight, it’s our nature. Someone wrongs us, we want to get them back. Lamach becomes the epitome of how humans react when someone wrongs them. “You wrong me, I’ll wrong you back, but even more.” Can’t you hear Peter asking Jesus a realistic question? Okay Jesus, in this new kingdom way of thinking we go back to being like children, we consider our own character flaws and when someone hurts us or does something wrong to us, 

you have set up a system to follow to make things right again, but let’s be real.  We both know there is going to be a time when someone won’t change and will keep behaving in ways that hurt us, so just how often are we supposed to take this on? And Jesus responds that the kingdom of God is a totally different deal. We already know that human nature is like Lamach and human history continues to live like that. There is no need to explain it, we live in that world. 

The Kingdom of God is quite the opposite. Followers of Jesus are to live like Lamach but with a different tactic. Rather than unbridled revenge, as followers of Jesus we are to be unbridled with mercy and forgiveness. This is the kingdom of God’s way of dealing with people that hurt you. 

Can you see the confused look on Peter’s face when he receives this answer? 

What if…..

  • You go to someone and tell them they hurt you and they don’t care?

What if…..

  • You go to someone and tell them they hurt you and they say they are sorry, but you don’t think they are sorry enough?

What if…..

  • Someone has wronged you and you don’t have the chance to talk: 

– maybe they have passed away

– maybe they have moved away

– maybe so much time has passed by it would just be bringing up more pain than it seems worth

What if…..

– Someone has apologized to you but you just can’t seem to get over it?

Is there anyone who cannot raise their hand to one of those “what if’s?” I think we all can recall a time of some sort where forgiveness has not been easy.

Jesus wants His disciples, His followers, to live in such a way that Kingdom of God principles are taken seriously. Forgiveness is one of the big ones. Jesus knows this means being different from regular human beings and becoming Lamach like in our ability to forgive and show mercy. 

So what does this seventy-seven times statement really  mean? 

I believe this passage of forgiveness has been misunderstood, misapplied, and sometimes even abused in ways that hurt people even more than they already are. 

First let’s look at what Jesus does NOT mean by unbridled forgiveness. Then we can determine what it means to forgive and show mercy. 

When Jesus tells Peter we are to forgive seventy-seven times He means we are to always forgive, an unlimited amount of times. 

One of the first misunderstandings of this statement is Christians are called to be like a “doormat.” Basically Jesus is telling us to lay down and keep taking it. This is the cross I must bear. I just keep taking it, doesn’t matter, and hopefully Jesus will bring justice one day.

Hopefully as we continue to unpack what forgiveness in God’s Kingdom is, you will see that never is Jesus asking us to lay down and become someone’s doormat. In fact, if you recall what we read last week, Jesus laid out a distinct order of events one should pursue when someone does something wrong to you. Being a doormat, was not one of them. 

Who remembers the order of events? 

  • Go to the person alone. 
  • Go to the person with others.
  • Go to the person with the church.
  • The church then disciplines. 

So when Jesus then tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times He is not saying just tough it out and let someone keep hurting you. 

Based on verses 15-18, I think we can all agree forgiveness in God’s kingdom doesn’t mean try to forget it, and keep forgiving and let people walk all over you. 

Some people also think that what Jesus was saying is that if we are called to keep forgiving, then it’s saying it is not that big of deal and it doesn’t really matter. But that cannot be further from the truth. For Jesus, forgiveness is a very big deal and it really matters. Think about it, when we follow the Matthew 18:15 principle of dealing with hurt we are focusing on the hurt that one follower of Jesus has done to another. Maybe that person doesn’t realize the hurt that was done? If they are hurting one person they could be hurting others. Out of love for the person and for the community addressing the problem can help many. When the focus is on love and restoration for both the hurt and the one hurting you know you are in the Kingdom of God. 

But maybe the one hurt is so hurt they are not looking at the situation clearly so it may help to get another person involved who is more objective and both individuals can see where they fit in the situation. 

So whatever forgiveness is, we need to recognize it is not forgetting, ignoring, condoning or excusing. 

Forgiving seventy-seven times is NOT tolerating or allowing further wrongdoing or abuse. This is where I believe God’s Word has been misused over and over again. For some reason, people have taken Jesus’ words of forgiving someone seventy-seven times to mean we are to just keep forgiving, as long as we are not sinning, we just take it, and the Christian thing to do is to forgive. 

STOP, whomever thinks that is what this means, 

has taken this statement out of the context with which it is written and has failed to take into account again what Jesus taught first. Whenever someone has wronged another brother/sister in Christ we are to go back to step one, step two, step three. Jesus has provided a procedure that allows anyone who has been hurt, to first try to work it out with the other person, but should that not work, according to God’s plan, is the person who has been hurt or mistreated ever alone with that person again? No, in fact, in God’s Kingdom, He has set up a system that actually creates boundaries of safe distance for the one being hurt. This is what the Christian community should be doing for each other. Whatever seventy-seven times means it does not mean putting yourself back in the arena so that you get hurt all over again. Based on statistics there are some of us in this room who have experienced physical, emotional and or sexual abuse. 

When I read what God’s kingdom is like, yes, we are asked to forgive and I will get to what that means later, but first and foremost God’s kingdom is about being and feeling safe. That’s why Jesus taught how to deal with sin first before He taught on how to forgive. Forgiveness is counter intuitive and only comes when the one having to do the forgiveness is in a safe, loving and non-threatening environment. Once there is stability, safety and distance you can then begin the hard work of forgiveness. Somehow, in Christian communities we don’t hear the message of safety first. Rather we receive the suffer in silence, become the doormat, demonstrate Christlike behavior, teaching. Which isn’t what Matthew is writing here. 

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation or restoration and it doesn’t mean things return back to the way they were before. 

Go back to verses 15-18, in order to accomplish reconciliation or restoration when someone has wronged another. There is an enormous amount of work that must be done. The offender needs to first recognize their wrong, own it, apologize and then seek forgiveness. 

Think for a moment, let’s say you have done something to hurt someone and they come up to you and say, “When you did this, you hurt me because of this.” This is not an easy conversation to have. More than likely you will immediately go on the defensive and it’s going to require some real humility for you to listen and soak it in and try to own whatever it is that was hurtful. Let’s face it, this is real work. So what do you do when the person doesn’t want to own up to it and doesn’t want to reconcile? Again, forgiving is NOT the same as reconciliation. You have no control over whether someone will apologize or want to restore. There are times when restoration is not possible. Either the person is no longer living, or the relationship is so volatile and unsafe that Jesus would not want you to be around them. Reconciliation is quite different from forgiveness. In order to reconcile it takes both sides willing to forgive and work on restoring what is left of the relationship. 

Forgiveness does NOT take two. We know this because when we read the last verse of Jesus’ parable we are told where forgiveness takes place, at the end of verse 35 we read,


“you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Can you control the emotions and thoughts of another human being? No. So right there we see that forgiveness is a different thing than reconciliation. So even when there are times when reconciliation is impossible, we are still called to forgive. 

Forgiveness has nothing to do with how that person acts towards you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean things are going to be the same. It doesn’t mean you will even have to be around each other or have any kind of relationship. 

Lastly, forgiveness does NOT mean the offender will escape consequences. Whatever forgiveness does mean it doesn’t exclude: 

  • Going to the person yourself
  • Going to the person with other people
  • Going to the person with the Christian community

And when they won’t own up to it, when they won’t see that what they have done to you violates the teachings of Jesus, the plan contains consequences. They are to be treated like you would a pagan or a tax collector. And we talked about this last week. Jesus treated tax collectors like anyone outside the kingdom. 

He talked with them, He had dinner with them, but throughout these interactions He called them to follow Him. You don’t annihilate the person, you recognize they are not a follower of Jesus, so why would I expect them to follow Jesus’ teachings if they are not one of His followers? So you’re done with the reconciliation conversation with them. In fact you may be done conversing with them altogether, but the real conversation that someone needs to have with them is about their acknowledgement of sin and the need of a Savior. 

So, apparently in Jesus’ mind it doesn’t mean there are no consequences when we choose forgiveness. But this is where it gets tricky. When we forgive there will always be some release of consequences. 

To what degree, it is different in all situations and difficult to determine on your own. I think that is why Jesus has us seek others to help us in the confrontations. 

So those are some observations on what forgiveness does NOT mean. So, then, what does it mean? In order to teach us Jesus uses a parable. In Lewis Smedes’ book, Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How there is a chapter focusing on this parable. He provides us with some insight on what Jesus means by forgiveness. 

Let’s go back to the end of the parable and recall where forgiveness is supposed to begin. Jesus said it was to begin in the heart, which He used as a metaphor. Let’s remember to read this within context and that means when someone in the first century in Palestine was talking about the heart, they had a different understanding then we do today. 

Today, when we talk about using your heart we think of emotions and feelings. In Jesus’ day, there was no Greek word for “brain.” For them the heart was the place where both the choice and the feeling originated. So what Jesus was saying was forgiveness was first a matter of making a choice that becomes a feeling. It’s a journey that Jesus wants His followers to take. Jesus describes it like this. 

You have a man that owes the king zillions of dollars. So much money that he would never in his lifetime be able to pay the king back. The king chooses to give the man justice as seen in their culture. At that time in history he and his family would have been placed into debt service. Which meant he and his family would move on to the estate of the king and work off what was owed. But when confronted by the king, the man gets down on his knees and begs for time. “Please, I’ll pay it back.” 

Like that could ever happen?!  The king hears his plea has pity on him and relieves him of his debt and sets him free. 

The man then goes free, searches out someone who owes him just a couple thousand and what’s the first thing he does to the man? He chokes him and demands the man give him what he is owed. The choking man says to him exactly the same words he said to the king. But he refuses to release the guy from his debt. Not only that, he threw the man in prison until he could pay it off. Like that was ever going to happen? You couldn’t make money in prison during Jesus’ lifetime. 

Jesus paints this picture so perfectly. Jesus was showing just what unforgiveness does to us. It makes us irrational. It puts us in a state of vengeful frenzy where we don’t even see that it stopped being about justice a long time ago. 

It becomes a situation where the person is not even able to say they are sorry or pay us back. When you are harboring unforgiveness you don’t even want them to be able to say they are sorry. There isn’t enough sorry that could be said anyway. Jesus has just described human nature. It’s what humans do when they feel they have been wronged or hurt. We don’t want justice! We want that feeling of just a short choke hold before someone pulls us off. We think that if we can put this person in an impossible situation they can begin to feel and understand what they did to us. It may not be how we feel all of the time, but these feelings do rear their ugly head some of the time. Jesus knows this. This isn’t just about the guy having amnesia about how he was once forgiven. 

The first step in the act of Forgiveness is – 

  1. A decision to give up, what is by nature, and even a certain right to retaliate and get the person back. 

It doesn’t mean there are no consequences, but it does mean a release of something you could do to make their life miserable but you choose not to do. 

  • Refusing to put the person into a scenario where it is impossible for them to make amends
  • That is what the world does but Jesus had arrived and He was teaching His disciples that in God’s Kingdom, we deal with conflict differently
  • We give up our rights to retaliate
  • We choose to change our heart attitude and allow time for our feelings to follow
  • As Christians we begin by remembering God’s forgiveness to me, Clearly a hallmark of this parable. This man quickly forgot how the king had forgiven his huge debt. And he immediately chooses to retaliate and put another person into the impossible, because of the little thing they had done to him. 

Okay, you might feel like your scenario is the exact opposite. What has been done to you is worth more than a zillion dollars. And that your offense to the king was only a thousand dollars. Which means, we need to go back to Christianity 101. Let’s face it. You and I are messed up in more ways than we can possibly realize. There is not one of us who is without issues, big or small. And whether we like it or not we are all connected. The things we do here and things done in Europe, or Asia, affect everyone. Take Covid or the war in Ukraine as examples. The world gets smaller every day. And it’s made up of people who do some of the nastiest things to each other. We are living in Cain’s city, and there are plenty of Lamachs in our world and there are little Lamachs in each of us. Humans have definitely created a mess. 

Reality is, we owe zillions of dollars to the creator of this world, who created humans in His image and it is seriously sad what we have done to this place we call home and what we have done to each other. The moment we forget that and we forget what the creator did in response to our actions that we need to go back to Christianity 101. 

Think about it. Rather than being humanlike and seeking revenge for what we have done to His world, God comes and lives among us. Not just that, but He personally takes on Himself the ruin, the sin and the evil we have created. As an act of love, in His resurrection, He offers us His love and He offers us release of the consequences of what we have done. The moment we forget this, is the moment we begin to think we have some higher ground than some other human being. 

It’s the father of lies that convinces us that when someone does us wrong we are due just a little choke hold, just a moment of satisfaction to make sure they hurt as much if not more than they hurt us. What Jesus is telling us here is the moment we begin to step onto that high ground we are forgetting what it means to be a Christian. Jesus teaches us that when we recognize what God has done for us, and we look into the world with those lenses, we begin to see the humanity of the person who has done wrong to me. What generally happens is we stop looking at the person who wronged us as a person, instead we boil things down to where we see that person as one who did something wrong to me. They lied to me, then they became a liar, they didn’t just cheat me, they are a cheater. This is how we demonize other human beings. We see this in a cultural sense as well, one culture does this against another culture and it’s over, it’s war. 

Jesus takes us back to that child in the middle. What would happen if we were to humble ourselves and recognize the truth is we are both liars, we both cheat maybe in different ways or with different intensities, but we are both a mixture of good and evil. 

When we choose to look through the lenses of forgiveness towards us from God, we begin to see a glimmer of humanity in the other person. And once you get there, it is a decision that you make. This decision is summarized in verse 33, 

Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

Instead of putting this person in a place where they have no ability to make amends I am going to choose to look at this person with mercy instead of hatred. 

How often do we rob forgiveness of its power? 

What would life be like if we actually lived like this? 

It would transform the world. 

It would transform the community we could become. 

It would transform us. 

It would make us free, free indeed. 

Let’s pray.