C.S. Lewis once declared: "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive." Doesn't that sound about right? It's easy to talk about many things, but actually doing them is an entirely different matter. Forgiveness is one of those subjects. It's easy to say that we should forgive others, but when it comes down to it, actually forgiving others is not that easy!
In this feature lesson we will be giving consideration to a parable found in Matthew 18:21-35, which centers on the theme of forgiving others. If we properly understand and internalize Jesus' thoughts here, we'll be better equipped to genuinely forgive others as God would have us to. We'll be better prepared to not only talk about forgiveness but actually forgive others.
Let us read the passage at this time:
"Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, "Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all." Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt. But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, "Pay me what you owe!" So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you all." And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due him. So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses."
The context begins with Peter asking about the limits of forgiveness toward our fellow man. Peter likely believed that "seven times" was quite generous since the Jewish rabbis taught that one was only obligated to forgive a person three times.
Jesus' response was not intended to be understood literally, but to indicate that there is no numeric limitation to forgiveness. For a person to keep track of 490 offenses would require a great deal of ridiculous record keeping. True forgiveness is not dictated by arithmetic.
Peter's question leads Jesus to share a parable regarding God's forgiveness. The parable seems to emphasize two fundamental truths: (1) No saved person has earned his salvation but has been graciously forgiven and (2) As forgiveness is received, so must it be offered. Look for these major points as we analyze the parable.
There was "a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants" (Matt. 18:23). The king symbolizes God and the reckoning is His call through the gospel (cf. II Thess. 2:14) in which one's consciousness of sin and the need for forgiveness is realized.
A servant was found who owed an enormous debt of 10,000 talents. In our American system of money, the amount owed was probably in the vicinity of ten million dollars! The servant represents a sinner in general; that is, every accountable human being because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). This servant specifically represents anyone who has ever heard the gospel message and realized their own sinfulness before God.
The servant was obviously not able to pay this exceedingly large debt and was in danger of being sold, along with his family and possessions. The law of Moses did allow such a sale (cf. Lev. 25:39-46; II Kings 4:1), as did Roman law. At this time in Palestine a laboring man's daily wage was one denarius (i.e., about 17 cents today). If the servant had used his entire income in an attempt to repay this debt, it would have taken him about 200,000 years to pay it off! He never could have accomplished that for no human has ever lived to be 1000 years old, let alone 200,000 years! This appropriately illustrates man's complete inability to earn his way out of the sin-debt.
"Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all" (Matt. 18:26). The servant came begging for patience. What else could he really do? His pledge to pay it all reveals his lack of understanding as to just how large his debt was. Humans scarcely comprehend the serious nature of sin and the debt incurred with God.
"Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt" (Matt. 18:27). The phrase "moved with compassion" suggests that the master was inwardly pained at the suffering of his servant and had a desire to relieve him. Instead of selling the man and everything he had to his name, the master tenderly forgave the entire debt. Certainly this master was generous and exceptionally merciful. Not just anyone forgives ten million dollar debts, but God does (cf. I John 4:8; Eph. 2:4)! While the man could never pay off his debt, it could be forgiven by the one to whom it was owed (cf. Rom. 6:23 - "...the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord").
Let it be noted that this verse does not teach that just any person can be forgiven through prayer alone. Remember, the one being forgiven was already a servant of God (i.e., a member of His kingdom)!
In Matthew 18:28, the forgiven servant found a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii (i.e., approximately $17). The fellow servant represents one who has sinned against his brother. This amount is quite insignificant when compared to a debt of $10,000,000. Certainly it is true that what others have done against us is not nearly as great as what we have done against God!
The description given here is very graphic and would perhaps have been somewhat justifiable had the king still been demanding payment. The debtor here is timid and tolerant of the abusive actions of his creditor. He accepts this sort of treatment because of his inability to pay. The creditor first lays his hand on the debtor as if he was going to shake the money out of him; then he grabs him by the throat as if to choke it out of him. According to Roman law, this man did have the right to make a "citizen's arrest" and literally drag the debtor into court. But, these merciless actions were inexcusable given the fact that he had been forgiven such a large debt himself!
The fellow servant begged for mercy - "Have patience with me, and I will pay you all" (Matt. 18:29). Note that the words spoken to the forgiven servant here were the very same ones that he had said himself just hours earlier (cf. 18:26)! One would think that these words would remind him of how much mercy he had received.
Although the fellow servant sought forgiveness, he was denied. No matter how many facts of Scripture we know or verses we may have memorized, a harsh, vindictive spirit is a sure sign that we do not truly know what it means to be forgiven by our God through Christ! This servant did not appreciate the pardon that had been extended to him. He demanded of his neighbor that which he himself had been unable to accomplish; his actions were hypocritical. Christians today are in error if they do not forgive those who repent. God will always pardon those who seek forgiveness in the way He has prescribed (cf. Acts 2:38; I John 1:7-9).
The cruelty and hardness of heart of the creditor grieved his fellow servants to the extent that they felt obligated to report him to the king. An unforgiving spirit will arouse anger in others, especially God.
The master calls this servant "wicked" because of his merciless, unforgiving disposition. "I forgave you all that debt because you begged Me" (Matt. 18:32). This certainly demonstrates the importance of Christians asking for forgiveness as well as the Lord's willingness to forgive those who are in His kingdom.
"Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?" (Matt. 18:33). That is a powerful question for the servant, as well as to God's servants today. What possible response could he have given to justify his actions? None whatsoever, just as today there is no excuse for a child of God who is mean-spirited, unmerciful, and unwilling to forgive his brethren who have repented.
After the master rebuked the unmerciful servant, he delivered him to the tormentors until he paid his debt in full (Matt. 18:34). The "torturers" represent the punishment of hell. In order to be tormented, one must be conscious. Also, this punishment will be eternal since this man could never pay off his debt, especially since he has no means of earning money while being tormented.
Matthew 18:35 - "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses." Here Jesus makes His application. Notice that the forgiveness must be from the heart, not just the lips! A person can say he forgives but still hold a grudge; that is not forgiveness from the heart. God wants us to forgive in the same way He does (i.e., with heartfelt forgiveness). If we fail to forgive others as we should, then we will face an unforgiving God at the final judgment. Matthew 7:2 states - "For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you." James 2:13 teaches - "For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment."
Perhaps you are wondering: Should forgiveness be extended to others without any conditions? Some might think so, but the Bible answer is "no." While it is true that we should always possess a disposition that desires to forgive others (i.e., we do not let hatred and resentment develop in our hearts), we must still follow the standards God has established regarding forgiving others. Luke 17:3,4 clearly records Jesus teaching that forgiveness is to be conditioned upon repentance - "Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, 'I repent,' you shall forgive him." Jesus said to forgive your brother if he repents; Jesus wouldn't have used this conditional term if He didn't mean it!
Colossians 3:13 reiterates this truth in stating that we must forgive others as (i.e., in the manner in which) Christ forgave us. Of course, Christ demands that we repent before He forgives us (Luke 13:3). Thus, in order for us to truly forgive someone on a personal level, they must repent. But, what if they never come to repentance--then what? In that case we must guard our hearts against bitterness and animosity. Even if a brother is in sin and refuses to repent of it, we must love him and not develop evil feelings toward him. But, if a brother refuses to repent then we can't forgive him because God hasn't forgiven him!
Some will argue: "Stephen, didn't Jesus forgive those who crucified Him before they repented?" Actually, the answer is "no." Jesus, while He was on the cross, said - "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do" (Luke 23:34). We can know that His petition was not actually fulfilled for any of those Jewish offenders until they repented and were baptized over seven weeks later on the Day of Pentecost. Think about it: If Jesus literally forgave these impenitent Jews while He was still hanging on the cross, why would Peter tell them to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38)? They were still in their sins even though Jesus had prayed for them to be forgiven! Jesus' prayer on the cross was answered, but not until they repented and obeyed! Then and only then were they forgiven. The point on this matter that we should take note of is Jesus' forgiving attitude. He wanted to forgive them even as they put Him to death! What love! We should always have a desire to forgive others who sin against us, but true forgiveness is always based upon repentance.
Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying: Jesus was and is always willing to forgive immediately. However, there are no examples in the Scriptures of Him ever forgiving anyone who did not show some signs of sorrow and penitence. If we are to obey Colossians 3:13 and forgive others as Christ forgave us, then we must always be willing to forgive and never hold a grudge. And, if we are obeying Luke 17:3,4, then we will forgive those who sin against us the moment they say to us: "I repent." If we fail to forgive them, then woe unto us! Remember Matthew 6:14,15 - "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." If we want to be forgiven by God then we must be willing to forgive those who sin against us when they repent. To hold on to a grudge is one sure way to lose your soul!
As we close, let me give you a short list of some personal attributes that we need if we are going to forgive others as we should:
1. REMEMBER THAT YOU ARE FAR FROM PERFECT.
If we can remember this, then it will be easier to have a forgiving spirit. If we can remember that we deserve to burn for our sins, then we'll have fewer problems with pride.
2. APPRECIATE YOUR OWN FORGIVENESS AND STRIVE TO COMPREHEND ITS MAGNITUDE.
As Christians, we must understand that we have been forgiven a debt we could never pay off. If we truly comprehend this, then we will appreciate it and our appreciation will show in our willingness to forgive others who sin against us.
3. WORK TO BE COMPASSIONATE.
Try to put yourself in the other guy's shoes. Do your best to live by the Golden Rule. How would you want that person to treat you if your roles were reversed? You'd want them to be merciful toward you, wouldn't you? Then do the same for them!
4. BE PATIENT AND LONGSUFFERING.
If a brother comes asking for forgiveness over and over again (after repeated transgressions), we must not grow bitter or impatient. We must keep forgiving as the Lord continues forgiving us for our many and repeated sins. And don't forget, God is watching. If we have not been merciful, then He won't be with us on the Day of Judgment. That's a scary thought!
Friends, do you have a brother or sister in Christ who has come to you asking your forgiveness? If so, then have you forgiven them? You must! Think real hard: Are you holding grudges against anyone? If you think your brother has sinned against you, you must go to him and try to reconcile the situation! If he has sinned and you don't try to approach him on the matter, then you are sinning too! And be honest with yourself--if you've really forgiven someone, then you won't avoid their presence. You won't just speak to them when you have to, you won't rejoice if something bad happens to them, and you won't avoid an opportunity to do them a favor. When we forgive a penitent brother, we need to forgive like the Lord does!
Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.