HAVING BEEN FORGIVEN MUCH, BELIEVERS MUST NOT PUT LIMITS ON THE FORGIVENESS THEY EXTEND TO OTHERS
R. T. France: The opening exhortation to forgive without limit is undergirded by a parable which compares God’s forgiveness and ours; it is because there is no limit to God’s generosity to his undeserving people that they in their turn cannot claim the right to withhold forgiveness from their fellow-disciples. A community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community. . . The parable thus speaks of the totally unmerited grace of God which forgives his people more than they could ever imagine because they are unable to help themselves.
Donald Hagner: Conduct in the community of disciples called “the church” is to be patterned after the mercy and grace of God’s free forgiveness of sins—which is an important basis for the very existence of the community. As God freely forgives those who have sinned against him, so are disciples to freely forgive those who sin against them. In both instances the repentance of the sinner is assumed. The failure to forgive one who is repentant casts doubt on the genuineness of a person’s discipleship. The refusal to forgive others will be reflected upon the disciple in God’s refusal to forgive him or her. Thus, in keeping with the thrust of the larger discourse, we see again the high importance of a person’s conduct toward other members of the community. The community must treat its members as God treats them. Failure in this respect creates an intolerable inconsistency at the very point where the kingdom is to manifest itself: in the community of the redeemed, living in a fallen world.
Stu Weber: We are obligated, because of the Father’s infinite mercy toward us, to treat with unconditional mercy our fellow believers who sin against us.
Jesus completed his discourse about the value and treatment of his children with one more caution applied to our relationships with fellow believers who sin against us. As we deal with straying believers (18:15-20), we may be tempted to become merciless toward them, especially when they sin against us. In abandoning mercy, we forget that the Father has shown us great mercy. In this regard, we are no better than our sinning fellow believers. Jesus illustrated through a parable the attitude we are to display toward those who are “indebted” to us in their sins against us. It is an attitude that he displayed lavishly toward us, and we are to imitate this attitude in our relationships with others.
Forgiving our sinning brothers and sisters is a part of our duty toward God’s children, just as it is our duty to pursue them for restoration to righteousness. To fail to forgive fellow believers is to abuse God’s children, and so incur the Father’s wrath. Forgiveness is a foundational characteristic of the family of God.
Stanley Saunders: Jesus envisions a quantum leap to boundless, over the top, absurd, unimaginable levels of forgiveness. Jesus’ call to forgive “seventy-seven” times counters the pronouncement of murderous revenge by Cain’s descendant Lamech (Gen. 4:24). God’s empire does not trade in such terror, nor find “justice” in revenge, but stands in contrast to the bloody violence and retribution that stain human experience to this day. Jesus’ answer also suggests that disciples should not anticipate an end to the sin or violence of the world around them, nor even the end of sin in the community of disciples. But to retaliate, to act in kind, is not permitted. Jesus’ call to enduring, relentless forgiveness makes the disciples a new “generation,” the first since the generation of Cain to trust themselves wholly to the power of forgiveness—not only when it seems reasonable or possible, but when it is unthinkable. . .
Forgiveness is the defining discipline of the community of disciples. Unlimited forgiveness bears continued witness to the distinctive nature of God’s reign and offers a true alternative, perhaps the only alternative, to the cycles of exploitation, violence, and revenge that plague the world. A church that dedicates itself to the practice of unlimited forgiveness is necessarily diverse, resilient, schooled in dealing with conflict, patient, and supportive. Limitless forgiveness cannot be sustained by individuals alone, nor even by a collection of individuals, but requires the sustained attention of a disciplined community that will not gloss over conflicts and differences or settle for words rather than transformed relationships.
I. (:21-22) POSING THE QUESTION OF THE EXTENT OF FORGIVENESS
A. (:21) Sincere Question – What Should Be the Extent of Forgiveness?
“Then Peter came and said to Him,
‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’”
William Barclay: Peter was not without warrant for this suggestion. It was Rabbinic teaching that a person must forgive another three times. Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said: ‘He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times.’ Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said: ‘If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive.’ The biblical proof that this was correct was taken from Amos. In the opening chapters of Amos, there is a series of condemnations on the various nations for three transgressions and for four (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). From this, it was deduced that God’s forgiveness extends to three offences and that he visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. It was not to be thought that people could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.
Peter thought that he was going very far, for he takes the Rabbinic three times, multiplies it by two, for good measure adds one, and suggests, with eager self-satisfaction, that it will be enough if he forgives seven times. Peter expected to be warmly commended; but Jesus’ answer was that the Christian must forgive seventy times seven. In other words, there is no reckonable limit to forgiveness.
Craig Blomberg: Peter seems to have learned the lesson of Jesus’ teaching in vv. 10-14 and generously proposes to forgive fellow disciples seven times. Seven is a common biblical number for completeness and goes well beyond the rabbinic maxim of forgiving three times (e.g., b. Yoma 86b, 87a). “Against me” parallels “against you” in v. 15. Peter’s words likely allude to the sevenfold avenging of Cain; Jesus’ reply contrasts starkly with the seventy-sevenfold avenging of Lamech (Gen 4:24).
J. Ligon Duncan: Peter thinks that the Lord is going to be impressed with his generosity, and commend him for being such a gracious soul as to be willing to forgive someone up to seven times, but in this passage, in verses 21 and 22, Jesus teaches us that Christians’ willingness to forgive ought to be unlimited. No limit on the Christian’s willingness to forgive. And so when Peter asks Him “Up to seven times?”, expecting that pat on the back in response, he gets instead the Lord saying, “No, Peter, 70 times 7,” meaning “Don’t even count. When someone comes to you and asks forgiveness, you be ready and willing to extend it, not just seven times, not just seven times a day, but you have a heart that is ready to forgive and which puts no limit on the willingness to forgive.” Jesus, you see, is undercutting Peter’s rabbinical counting approach to mercy. Jesus is saying, “Peter, your heart needs to be transformed by your realization of how much God has forgiven you. And if you’ll think for a minute, Peter, how much God has forgiven You.”
B. (:22) Shocking Answer — Limitless
“Jesus said to him,
‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’”
Craig Blomberg: We dare not keep track of the number of times we grant forgiveness. Jesus takes Peter’s number of completeness and multiplies it considerably. Few people ever have to forgive the same person this often, at least not over a short period of time. But Jesus’ point is not to withhold forgiveness after the seventy-eighth (or 491st) offense. As with the principles in vv. 15-16, Jesus’ advice may work well with unbelievers too, but his primary focus remains on believers. And genuine repentance, which includes changed behavior, must occur, or the principles of vv. 15-18 come into play instead. The subsequent parable (vv. 23-35) will illustrate both the incredible generosity believers should demonstrate in forgiving fellow believers who do beg for mercy and promise to change as well as the severe judgment awaiting those who refuse to forgive or respond properly to forgiveness.
David Thompson: Now these numbers are interesting. They are Biblical numbers. For example, in Genesis 4:24 this is the number that Lamech would be avenged if he were wronged. But more significantly than this is Daniel’s prophecy in Daniel 9:24-27. This was the total number of years (70 times 7, or 490 years) from the time of Daniel until the time the Messiah would set up His kingdom for Israel. He would be cut off after 483 years, which from the time of Daniel was the exact amount of years until Christ entered Jerusalem, which would leave seven years prior to the kingdom, which will be the seven years of the Tribulation. These numbers are grace numbers in that it shows God will graciously give Israel her kingdom in spite of her persistent sin and rebellion. Jesus is telling Peter that disciples should be gracious and forgive sin time and time again, when there has been repentance.
II. (:23-34) PUTTING FORGIVENESS IN PERSPECTIVE – IMITATE THE EXAMPLE OF GOD’S COMPASSION AND MERCY
(:23) Introduction to the Parable
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king
who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.”
Craig Blomberg: As in vv. 10-14, Jesus uses a parable to explain the rationale for his previous commands. In a nutshell his teaching is this: God eternally and unconditionally forgives those who repent of so immense a debt against him that it is unconscionable for believers to refuse to grant forgiveness to each other for sins that remain trivial in comparison.
Charles Swindoll: The story in Matthew 18:23-34 illustrates a vital principle of the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus mentions “the kingdom,” He’s often not talking about the place we call heaven —that spiritual realm where God dwells. Frequently, Jesus is seeking to bring out aspects of kingdom living, a lifestyle with distinct principles, priorities, and allegiances. In such cases, the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” is discussed to encourage followers to imitate the model of Jesus, the King. As believers and members of the church —the mysterious spiritual form of the kingdom on earth —we emulate the character of the King and are transformed into His likeness. And in this realm of kingdom living, the grace and mercy expressed in limitless forgiveness are paramount.
A. (:24-27) Example of Great Mercy
- (:24-25) Legitimate Debt Requires Full Repayment
a. (:24) Legitimate Debt
“And when he had begun to settle them,
there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents.”
D. A. Carson: We glimpse some idea of the size of the indebtedness when we recall that David donated three thousand talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver for the construction of the temple, and the princes provided five thousand talents of gold and ten thousand talents of silver (1Ch 29:4, 7). Some recent estimates suggest a dollar value of twelve million, but with inflation and fluctuating precious metal prices, this could be over a billion dollars in today’s currency.
R. T. France: A talent was originally a weight (probably about 30 kg.) of metal; when used as a monetary term without specifying the metal involved it would probably have been understood to be of silver. While the exact amount varied, a talent of silver was conventionally reckoned at 6,000 denarii. If one denarius was an acceptable day’s wage for a laborer (see 20:1–15), a single talent would then represent what a laborer might hope to earn in half a lifetime. It was, at all events, a very large sum of money. Ten thousand talents (sixty million denarii; or some 300 tons of silver!) is therefore a sum far outside any individual’s grasp. Ten thousand (myria, hence our “myriad”) is the largest numeral for which a Greek term exists, and the talent is the largest known amount of money. When the two are combined the effect is like our “zillions.” What God has forgiven his people is beyond human calculation.
b. (:25) Lack of Resources to Repay Leads to Bondage
“But since he did not have the means to repay,
his lord commanded him to be sold,
along with his wife and children and all that he had,
and repayment to be made.”
- (:26-27) Compassionate Grace Extends Merciful Forgiveness
a. (:26) Plea for Mercy with Unrealistic Promise
“The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying,
‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’”
Grant Osborne: The strong imagery of “falling down” and “prostrating” himself before the king shows how desperate the man was. He begs for mercy and “patience” (with “be patient” [μακροθυμέω] often used of God’s “long-suffering” toward Israel in the LXX). The very same plea will be made by the fellow slave in v. 29. Obviously the man could never “pay back everything” with such a huge debt. So the king’s mercy is given even greater emphasis by this patently ridiculous pledge.
b. (:27) Practicing Compassion in Canceling the Debt
“And the lord of that slave felt compassion
and released him and forgave him the debt.”
Craig Blomberg: The man begs for mercy and makes a promise he almost certainly will not be able to keep. To the astonishment of Jesus’ original audience, the king pities the man and cancels his debt. Not only will he not sell him into slavery, but he will not require repayment of any kind. Sheer grace is at work here. “Took pity” is the same word for the compassion that characterizes Jesus’ emotions and behavior in 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; and 20:34.
Donald Hagner: The metaphor of forgiven debt for the forgiveness of sins is found in Luke 7:40–43 (where the greater the debt, the greater the love of the debtor for the creditor). In response to the plea of the servant for clemency in the form of the time to repay the enormous debt, the sovereign responds with nearly unimaginable grace in the full dismissal of all indebtedness. It is not difficult to hear the echo of the gospel of the forgiveness of sins in this verse.
B. (:28-34) Example of Great Hypocrisy
- (:28) Forgiven Debtor of Much Should Not Be Abusive Collector of Little
“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying,
‘Pay back what you owe.’”
William Barclay: The biblical scholar A. R. S. Kennedy drew this vivid picture to contrast the debts. Suppose they were paid in small coins (he suggested sixpences; we might think in terms of 5-pence pieces or dimes). The 100-denarii debt could be carried in one pocket. The 10,000-talent debt would take an army of about 8,600 carriers to carry it, each carrying a sack of coins 60 lb in weight; and they would form, at a distance of a yard apart, a line five miles long! The contrast between the debts is staggering. The point is that nothing that others can do to us can in any way compare with what we have done to God; and if God has forgiven us the debt we owe to him, we must forgive our neighbours the debts they owe to us. Nothing that we have to forgive can even faintly or remotely compare with what we have been forgiven.
- (:29-30) Insistence on Retribution Exposes a Heart of No Compassion and No Mercy
a. (:29) Plea for Mercy
“So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying,
‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’”
b. (:30) Pursuit of Retribution
“He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison
until he should pay back what was owed.”
Craig Blomberg: “He refused” is literally he was not willing, showing that the servant made a conscious choice to harden his heart. Needless to say, the other servants are outraged and report the matter to the king.
- (:31-34) Failure to Forgive Consigns One to Painful Torment
a.(:31) Shocking Hypocrisy
“So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.”
Grant Osborne: The other slaves “saw” it all (temporal participle ἰδόντες) and had an intense reaction. “Distressed” (ἐλυπήθησαν) has overtones of both grief and indignation, and the depth of their reaction at the man’s harsh hypocrisy led them to report it all to the king, with δισαφέω meaning to “tell in detail” or “explain fully” the events to the king.
b. (:32-33) Shameful Indictment
1) (:32) Your Experience of Great Mercy
“Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave,
I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me.’”
Richard Gardner: The reaction of the king to the news of this transaction is one of righteous indignation. He calls the official wicked because of the heartless way he has treated a brother servant. He points to the inconsistency of accepting a gift of mercy and withholding mercy from another. And he consigns the official to torture in prison until he comes up with the money. It is the same action the official himself took in relation to his fellow servant (cf. v. 30). Only now, where the debt in question can never be repaid, the implication of the sentence is imprisonment forever.
2) (:33) Your Response of No Mercy
“Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave,
even as I had mercy on you?”
c. (:34) Severe Punishment
“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers
until he should repay all that was owed him.”
Ray Stedman: [Explaining the “torment” experienced by those who fail to forgive:]
This is a marvelously expressive phrase to describe what happens to us when we do not forgive another. It is an accurate description of gnawing resentment and bitterness, the awful gall of hate or envy. It is a terrible feeling. We cannot get away from it, we cannot escape it. We find ourselves powerless to avoid it. We feel strongly this separation from another, and, every time we think of them, we feel within the acid of resentment and hate eating away at our peace and calmness. This is the torturing that our Lord says will take place.
Donald Hagner: Torturers, though disallowed by the Jews, were common in Roman prisons; in the case of unpaid debt, friends and relations would have accordingly been more urgent in raising money. Given the enormity of the debt, the imprisonment would have been permanent. This together with the reference to the torturers may hint (cf. v. 35) at eschatological punishment. This verse is the close counterpart of v. 30, which describes in similar language the servant’s imprisonment of his fellow servant until his debt was paid. It demonstrates concretely the teaching that as one treats others so also will one be treated, a point made explicit in the application of the parable in the following verse.
III. (:35) APPLICATION OF THE PARABLE – FAILURE TO FORGIVE DISQUALIFIES YOU AS A GENUINE DISCIPLE
“So shall My heavenly Father also do to you,
if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”
Craig Blomberg: Jesus’ conclusion reminds us of what v. 23 made clear—that the purpose of the story is to communicate a spiritual lesson about the kingdom of heaven. It also points out that, at least on this occasion, Jesus was not trying primarily to conceal truth from the crowds but to clarify it for his disciples. The reference to a “brother” ties Jesus’ conclusion in with Peter’s original question (v. 21). The following three themes emerge from the main characters and episodes of the parable: God’s boundless grace, the absurdity of spurning that grace, and the frightful fate awaiting the unforgiving. The law of end-stress highlights the third of these, but all are important. Carson correctly captures the balance of mercy and judgment reflected here: “Jesus sees no incongruity in the actions of a heavenly Father who forgives so bountifully and punishes so ruthlessly, and neither should we. Indeed, it is precisely because he is a God of such compassion and mercy that he cannot possibly accept as his those devoid of compassion and mercy.”
David Turner: The connection of the story with 6:14 is clear. Disciples cannot presume that God will forgive them if they are unwilling to forgive their fellows. Those who have genuinely received forgiveness will be forgiving to others (6:14–15; cf. Luke 6:36; Eph. 4:31–5:2; James 2:13; 1 John 4:11). And this forgiveness must be genuine, from the heart, another important Matthean theme (cf. Matt. 5:8, 28; 6:21; 11:29; 12:34; 13:15, 19; 15:8, 18, 19; 22:37; 24:48).