A Study of Matthew 18:21-35
By Harold S. Martin
A Bible Helps Booklet No. 375
All of us use many words during the course of a day. Linguists say that the ten most pleasant words in the English language are: dawn, hush, lullaby, chimes, tranquil, golden, luminous, murmuring, mist, and melody. The ten most expressive words are: alone, mother, death, love, revenge, tranquility, forgotten, friendship, no, and faith. But of all the words used in the Bible-the word "sin" is the saddest, and the word "forgive" is the most beautiful.
The word forgive is used 109 times in our English Bible. Forgiveness means ceasing to feel resentment for wrongs and offenses done toward us. It includes pardon and the restoration of broken relationships. Forgiveness is the act of renouncing anger and ill feelings against others.
The greatest forgiveness of all-is an act of God, by which He releases sinners from judgment, and frees us from the divine penalty levied because of our sins. But forgiveness is also a human act toward one's fellow human beings. God's forgiveness, because of the death of Christ in our behalf, is to become an incentive for us to forgive others who offend us.
The rule of revenge is still practiced in some societies. Getting even does not always involve using a gun; sometimes revenge means taking people to court. Sometimes getting even involves doing to others as they have done to us. That is retaliation. One tee-shirt had these words imprinted on it: "I don't get mad; I just get even." Others insist that those who have wronged them must make things right-or they will suffer the consequences. One man says, "I'll never forgive that woman-not to my dying day." But remember: one who seeks to get even with another, makes himself even with the enemy.
All of us are familiar with feuding relatives or neighbors - who, because of some real (or imagined) offense, refuse to have anything to do with each other. Some hold grudges, even to the day they die - apparently without considering how their lack of forgiveness affects their lives, and the lives of those around them. Think of all the misery that results in our communities (and sometimes in our churches) from disputes and quarrels and lawsuits over matters that are trifling, compared with the way each one of us has offended God.
In Matthew 18, Peter had learned from his traveling with Jesus that it is important to forgive - but surely, he reasoned, there must be a limit to how often we forgive! How long must one keep on forgiving? Jesus had just been talking about one brother sinning against another (in verse 15 of Matthew 18). Now, Peter asks whether forgiving such offenses seven times is sufficient.
The Scripture for the study in this article is Matthew 18:21-35. In verse 21, Peter had a question about the frequency of forgiveness. He said to Jesus, "How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" Forgiveness is one of the highest of human virtues, because it reflects the character of God. God has freely forgiven us, and He expects us to be quick to forgive others. Jesus taught that Christian compassion forgives - over, and over, and over again.
Then Jesus tells a parable about a compassionate king and an unforgiving servant. There was a man who owed a king an enormous sum of money, and when the king demanded that the huge debt be paid, the servant begged for mercy. In response to the man's pleading for mercy, the king forgave his debt.
But the servant, who was forgiven the large sum, went out and refused to forgive another man who owed him a trifling few dollars. He went to the man who owed the trifling amount and began to choke him, and said, "Pay me what you owe!" The man who owed the trifle got down on his knees and begged for mercy, and promised to pay the debt, but the unforgiving servant threw him into prison "till he should pay the debt."
Jesus clearly condemned this spirit of unforgiveness. All of us have received boundless forgiveness from our heavenly Father. In response, we should never be slow to forgive even the smallest infractions committed against us. The parable in this lesson shows us that forgiveness ought to go both ways. All believers have received it, and we should be willing to give it. Following are some clear marks of true forgiveness:
"Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him ? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven."
Readiness to forgive others is a sign of repentance, and no limits should be set on it. We are to forgive, not merely seven times, but seventy times-seven times. The Jewish practice was to forgive only three times. Rabbi ben-Jehuda said, "If a man commits an offense once, forgive him. If he commits an offense a second time, forgive him. If he commits an offense a third time, forgive him. But the fourth time, do not forgive." This concept was based on a statement found in the book of Amos, chapter 1, verse 3.
In light of the Jewish practice, Peter thought that forgiving a man seven times was being generous. But Jesus says that there should be no limit to our forgiveness. We are to forgive (even the same person) over and over again-even seventy-times-seven times (verse 22). Some of the manuscripts say "seventy-seven times." Either way, Jesus expects a lot of forgiveness; in fact, forgiveness must be a constant attitude.
"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And ... one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt."
In this section Jesus told a parable to teach His disciples the unlimited scope of forgiveness. Jesus told about a king who wished to settle the accounts with his servants. In the course of the audit, the king decided to collect his outstanding debts.
One servant was brought before him who owed ten thousand talents. A talent was a large piece of silver that was worth 6,000 pence. A pence (or what then was called "a denarius") was the amount of money an average laboring man could earn in one day-and so to pay even one talent would require many years of work. It would be impossible to ever pay off ten thousand talents.
And so the king ordered that the servant (actually "a slave") be sold; he and his wife and family (and their possessions) were to be seized and sold (verse 25). For the king to get partial payment was better than not getting anything as repayment.
But the slave fell on his knees and begged the king to have patience with him. He pleaded for mercy and promised to repay the king (verse 26). Such a promise could never have been kept, but the king was moved by the man's request, and he agreed to, forgive the debt. Out of pity for the man, the king released him and forgave him the debt (verse 27).
Surely, this part of the parable is a picture of our gracious God. It is entirely within His nature to show such abundant mercy.
"But the same servant went out, and, found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till lie should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had conpassion on thy fellowservant, even as l had pity on thee?"
The servant who had just been released and forgiven of the debt he owed, went out from the king's palace - and soon came upon one of his fellow slaves, a man who owed him a mere one hundred pence.
The servant who had just been forgiven grabbed the startled man by his throat, and demanded payment for the relatively modest amount of money. This second servant said essentially the same thing the first servant had said to his master: "Have patience with me and I will pay you all that I owe" (verse 29). But the man who had just been forgiven of so much-refused to forgive the second servant, and had him thrown into a debtor's prison.
God has forgiven every one of us a great debt of sin, and therefore we should graciously forgive those who offend us. Ephesians 4:32 says we are to be kind and tender-hearted, forgiving one another even as God has forgiven us. It is this awareness of the tremendous cost of our own forgiveness that keeps us from refusing to forgive those who mistreat us.
"And his lord was wroth (angry), and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses."
We must consider what unforgiveness does to us. In addition to corroding our disposition, it also elevates the blood pressure, upsets and ulcerates the stomach, and can lead to a nervous breakdown. Some have even experienced heart attacks. But much worse than those results is the fact that the Bible says that God will not forgive us if we refuse to forgive others.
In Matthew 6:15, Jesus says "If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." We can attempt to water down those words if we want, but Jesus plainly says that there will be no forgiveness for unforgiving people.
Every one of us is indebted to God. He forgives when we repent-but only if we practice forgiveness toward others. If we are holding grudges and malice and bitter feelings toward other persons, we had better quickly take some steps toward making peace.
To "forgive" does not mean that we excuse the sinful offense. When we forgive another person, it does not mean that we are excusing the sin. Sin is always sin, and true love never tries to make sin anything less than what it is. But forgiveness ends the bitterness, the anger, and the resentment which usually accompany an offense against us.
To "forgive" does not mean that we must shrug off the injustices that we have suffered. We need not say, "Oh, it was nothing," or "No harm was done," etc. True forgiveness does not ignore the wrong. True forgiveness says, "What you did really hurt me-but I value you as a person, and I value our relationship over whatever I may have lost, and so I forgive."
To "forgive" is not necessarily "to forget." The truly forgiving person will refuse to dwell on the offense, and will choose not to keep bringing it up-but sometimes there are reminders that we can't control. When a matter is forgiven, then we must not dwell on it-but it is possible that the scars will not soon be forgotten.
In Philadelphia in April 1958, a young Korean college student left his room to go only a short distance to mail a letter at a mailbox along the street. He was attacked by a gang of eleven local boys who were looking for excitement. The young man (In Ho Oh) was badly hurt and died shortly after being taken to the hospital. Police apprehended the boys who had committed the senseless act; they were charged with murder and placed on trial.
When In Ho's parents heard about his death, the family met together and agreed to petition that lenient treatment be given to those who had committed the crime. The family, in fact, started a fund to be used for the religious, educational, and vocational guidance of the boys when they would be released from prison - hoping, they said, that they could do something to help minimize such brutal crimes in the future.
Ho's father was an elder in the Korean Presbyterian church, and though the family was in deep sorrow over the loss of their son-they, in the maturity of their Christian faith, were willing to forgive those who committed the crime.
In January of 1999, an Australian missionary and his two sons fell asleep in their jeep in a village in India. During the night, an anti-Christian mob attacked the vehicle with clubs and sticks. They stuffed straw into the broken windows (and underneath the vehicle) and then set it on fire. They ignored the screams of Graham Staines and his two sons. The mob refused to let them out of the burning jeep. A report in the New York Times described the scene-calling it "a burning inferno." The mob stayed to watch the victims die.
The wife of Graham Staines (and the mother of the 6- and 10-year-old sons) is still grieving over the loss of her husband and two sons but she has chosen to forgive the men who destroyed three of her family members. In fact, Gladys Staines continues to carry on her husband's work. She has settled again into the village where they operated a facility to care for people who have leprosy. The New York Times reported it this way: "She will continue to tell people the ‘good news’ (as she calls it) that the blood of Jesus, God's Son, can cleanse the world of sin." The Times continued by saying that Mrs. Staines believes that "God is fair and just, and that divine purposes exist in all that goes on, even if those purposes are at times beyond our ability to understand.”
Gladys Staines continues to grieve and hurt deeply. Time and again, agony must sweep over her when she reaches for her husband who is not there, or when she yearns to hug her sons one more time-but their bodies are now in the grave. Yet she understands that we must forgive without questioning the goodness of God.
A fine Christian girl was telling some friends about a woman who had taken the seat beside her on a crowded train. The woman insisted on cramming a birdcage, a basket of apples, and two other small bundles in the small area between them. It was kind of crowded and uncomfortable for the girl. Some of her friends said to the girl who described her experience, "Why didn't you tell the woman that she was taking more than her share of the space?" The Christian young lady answered: "You know, it really wasn't worth making any trouble about it; we only had a little way to go together."
That girl spoke a great truth with those words. "It wasn't worth making any trouble; we had only a little way to go together."
That's how it is with life! When we tend to be frustrated and upset about some of the things that we face in our daily experience, remember:
If our hearts are filled with a spirit of forgiveness, we won't quickly get upset when someone does things that cross our path. After all, we only have a little way to go together. Our life is only like a fragile blade of grass-and then it's all over here on earth.
The person who follows Christ forgives because he himself has been forgiven of God. We have been forgiven of so much that forgiveness should be a way of life for us. In fact, we should forgive immediately even before we are asked to forgive; Jesus forgave even while enemies were driving nails into His hands.
It usually is not easy to forgive. A Jew (for example) finds it hard to forgive Adolph Hitler for the atrocities committed against the Jewish people during World War 2 - but when our hearts are transformed by the presence of Christ, we take a new attitude toward those who abuse and misuse us.
Mark Twain used to say, "Forgiveness is the fragrance which the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it." When people observe how we have been unjustly treated, and yet how forgiveness radiates from our lives-they sense the fragrance of Christ flowing from us. We are to be "the aroma of Christ" says the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 2:15).
For Christians, forgiveness is not an option. It is a requirement (Luke 17:3-4). No matter how difficult it may be at times, we are to forgive people and what they do to us. No matter how deeply we have been wronged, those offenses pale into the background compared to our debt of sin which Christ has already paid!
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