Jesus is headed to the Cross. We’ve seen Him clearly state this in Matthew 17, Matthew 16….you get the idea. At this point, the Twelve Disciples are beginning to get the idea as well. How can we see that? Look at the question which opens Matthew 18. The question arises about who is the greatest?
The Twelve are starting to think about rank and position, because if Jesus is about to come into His kingdom, then it’s time to assign the work. It is time for each of them to find their place in the vanguard of the kingdom, so Jesus needs to point out which one comes first. He does not pick one of the Twelve, though, to point out the greatness of His followers. Instead, He takes a child and makes a point about humility, trust, and compassion.
Which becomes the common thread for the remainder of Matthew 18. Jesus highlights the need to receive children and not cause them to stumble, then goes on to point out how His hearers should strongly remove what causes them to stumble! We then follow Jesus as He instructs the disciples about chasing down a wandered sheep, and about keeping a fellow sheep from wandering too far. That text, Matthew 18:15-20, is most often cited for cases of church discipline, yet placing it in context moves the emphasis of the passage, and of church discipline, to restoration above rebuke. It is, after all, surrounded by passages about forgiveness and seeking the lost.
The last story will draw our focus today. Matthew 18:21-22 retells Peter’s question about forgiveness. Contrary to the rabbinical teaching of forgiving three times, Peter offers that seven times seems better. Jesus, though, hits Peter with a math problem (maybe) and a growth issue. Jesus responds that seventy-seven times should be the limit—and then highlights that forgiveness between servants should be at least as great as the forgiveness of their master.
His point is clear: forgiveness between people should be unmeasured. After all, God has poured a greater forgiveness on us.
When you get up tomorrow, then, the first thing to realize is that you do not get to make another tally mark to count down the forgiveness you give others. Instead, the forgiven heart will long to forgive.
Unfortunately, we have to address a caveat here. Some hurts, some wounds, are so deep and so personal that forgiveness comes from a distance. And lives stay at a distance. Further, forgiveness is a spiritual action that connects to eternity. Consequences will remain. Anyone who suggests that you ignore a serious crime, like abuse, in the name of “forgiveness,” does not understand the concept. Point them back to the beginning of the chapter about stumbling blocks and millstones….and being cast into the ocean.
Now, back to the application for those who are not dealing with that particular issue—which is most of us. First, our standard of forgiveness is neither the world nor spiritual people, but the actions of God Almighty. This is where Peter is a bit confused. He is trying to go a bit better than the good folks, but the good folks are not our standard. God is.
Second, when we encounter those who owe us, we should meet them with grace. (If you fall into the above group, grace is shown differently. You need God-honoring counsel about your personal situation.) Grace that does not demand immediate repayment, but instead recognizes what all believers are: those who have been forgiven much by the Master, and who are all His servants.
(With much appreciation to Craig Blomberg’s NAC volume on Matthew for some of these ideas.)
First, the math problem. Is Matthew 18:22 rightly translated as 77 or 490? We tend to favor 490 for its extravagance, but 77 is probably the better choice for the Greek word. Further, Augustine (Early Church Father Augustine,) finds a parallel in Luke 3’s 77 generations from Jesus back to Adam.
I think the better connection is the one highlighted by Blomberg and Hilary of Poiters (another Early Church Father.) If you go back to Genesis 4:15, we see Cain would be avenged up to 7 times. Then in Genesis 4:24, Lamech claims “seventy-sevenfold,” or 77, (though that could also be translated a touch different at 490) as his vengeance. We see here a parallel undoing the vengeance of the early times of man. Peter offers to be as forgiving as God was vengeful—God was the one who pronounced the vengeance for Cain, after all—but God proclaims that He is as merciful as man is vengeful.
Second, there’s a challenge for us who claim the Bible is to be taken literally in Matthew 18:8. If your method of studying and applying the Bible is simplistic and literalistic, you’re going to be missing parts. Better learn to understand through a more robust way.
Third, Matthew 18:12-14 should be read understanding that there aren’t 99 good sheep. We all are represented by the 1 wanderer.
Fourth, we tend to hold on to the Matthew 18:20 no matter what we’re doing, but that should go in context. And then, in the church discipline context, remember that Jesus has stressed continually the need to be forgiving of harms against us. The best application I can make of this comes here: the first part of the chapter addresses removing stumbling blocks—those things which draw the innocent from Christ. The second half addresses forgiving those who sin against us. That suggests that giving someone the left-boot of fellowship should be reserved for those who are tripping the innocent and naive, not for those who annoy the mature.