21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
The center of the gospel is God’s loving forgiveness. As we read in Psalms 103, the Lord “forgives all your iniquities” and He removes our iniquities from us “as far as the east is from the west.” (vv.3,12) It all comes down to mercy, that quality of character that enables someone to overlook wrongdoing and to love unconditionally. And, of course, in His abundant mercy, God goes a step further and not only forgives us our sins, He then goes on to reward our faithfulness with eternal life. That is what John Newton called “amazing grace,” and it is amazing indeed.
As we can see from today’s verses, Peter is catching on to what God’s mercy is all about. Here we clearly see he is coming to understand that the gospel is about forgiveness and repentance, and so he asks a straightforward question about how often we are meant to forgive. “Up to seven times?” he asks.
Seven is the number of perfection and completion. It is the number of days God took to complete Creation. The priests of the tabernacle were to perform certain offerings seven times. Joshua took seven priests with seven ram horns and marched seven times around Jericho over the course of seven days. Naaman was cured of his leprosy by dipping himself seven times in the Jordan. Since seven is such a number, it would seem reasonable to perform a certain action seven times in order to be complete and perfected.
But Jesus’ answer tells us we cannot forgive someone enough to match the forgiveness of the Father. “Seventy times seven.” Let’s see, that would be four-hundred-ninety times. Wow! I can’t think of anyone who has irked me that many times in my lifetime–not even my pesky older brothers. That’s an awful lot of forgiveness. At this point, we might turn back to Matthew 5:43-48, where Jesus talks about loving our enemies. After all, that is certainly about forgiveness, and He ends by saying, “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (v.48) That would seem to indicate that our forgiveness makes us more like our forgiving and merciful God. And the Lord’s Prayer encourages us to ask, “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) But the parable that Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 18:23-35 is a little different.
I won’t quote that whole story here, but the gist is that a king forgives a servant for his debt, but when the servant doesn’t forgive others their debts to him, the king decides to punish the servant. Jesus ends with:
“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
So the parable teaches us that since God forgives us, we are supposed to forgive others just as much, and if we don’t forgive, then neither will the Father forgive us. Thus, God’s forgiveness of us is supposed to change us so that we forgive others.
“‘Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?'”
Forgiveness is transforming. It melts a heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh. Forgiveness perfects us, makes us more like our Father in heaven. But let’s not get to thinking that a whole lot of forgiveness will buy our way into heaven. No, that’s not what Jesus is saying. What we are to learn is that God’s mercy should transform our lives. If our lives are NOT transformed, then it is as if we never heard the gospel, as if we never received God’s grace, as if we rejected the mercy of our loving God. And we are to be so transformed that we are perfected beyond perfection–“seventy times seven”–to the point where forgiveness is simply easier for us than unforgiveness, easier than petty anger and grudges, easier than hatred and resentment.
It all starts with God’s forgiveness, God’s grace toward us. He extends the olive branch of His peace BEFORE we get around to being the forgiving people He wants us to be. Our mercy comes AFTER God’s mercy.
Peter was learning, and he knew that the forgiveness and mercy he was learning from Jesus involved some extreme changes in his life. He figured that forgiving seven times was enough to show that his life was changed, and Jesus encouraged him and showed Peter that he was on the right track. The only problem was that Peter wasn’t thinking big enough, he wasn’t considering the enormous forgiveness that was soon to come from the Cross.
Seventy times seven doesn’t even scratch the surface of the number of sins in our heaping pile of debt before God, and yet that number is far beyond what we think of as reasonable forgiveness. God’s mercy is immeasurable, extending from the depths of the ocean to beyond the heavens above, beyond the farthest horizons, beyond our capacity to number. And yet God forgives, and His mercies are new every morning. So should ours be.
Let us join Simon Peter today and stop measuring forgiveness by human standards, whether it is three or seven or four-hundred-ninety times. Let’s quit thinking about quantifying our love and just let it flow. John told us “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8) So let’s get to know God a bit better by loving and forgiving like He does, in ways that cannot be counted or measured, in ways so vast that they encompass all of Creation. Such is God’s love and forgiveness, and such should be ours.
Heavenly Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Teach us to love and to give so completely that we reflect only Your mercy and not our own. Amen.