Jesus on Forgiveness


Oscar Wilde once observed:

Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.

That may or may or may not be a good reason to forgive your enemy, but then maybe the most important thing we can do is to practice forgiveness because, as Christians, that’s what we’re supposed to do. John F. Kennedy made this statement that probably makes sense to a lot of us:

Forgive your enemies. But remember their names.

It seems everybody knows that forgiveness is important. They know it’s virtuous. And they know it’s hard to do. Jesus knew forgiving others was a difficult thing to do, so much so He made the request part of the Lord’s Prayer:

…forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.

Another time, our Lord said this:

Your heavenly Father will forgive you if you forgive those who sin against you; but if you refuse to forgive them, he will not forgive you. (Matthew 6:14, 15 TLB)

That’s another good reason to practice forgiveness! Let’s take a closer look at the art of forgiveness, from Jesus’ perspective.

Luke 17:3, 4

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. (NKJV)

The art of forgiveness is illustrated by our Lord in pretty strong language. Believers should never offend anybody, but especially other believers. Those who cause such offenses run the risk of experiencing some pretty negative consequences.

It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea… (Luke 17:2a NKJV)

But if we somehow cause another (“little one,” or a weaker brother or sister) offense, then we should be held accountable. Having said that, Jesus goes even further: We should not take offense, ether. Christians shouldn’t offend nor should they be walked all over. If we have been wronged in some way, according to Jesus we are to make the offender aware of what he did to us. That’s what Jesus meant by “rebuke.” The offender must be made to appreciate his fault, and if he sincerely repents, we have no choice but to forgive him – even if he does it again and again and again.

There should be no end to the number of times we forgive. We could say Jesus wants us to walk in an attitude of forgiveness, all day, every day.

Matthew 18:21, 22

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Sir, how often should I forgive a brother who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21 TLB)

That question goes back to something Peter heard Jesus say a few verses back:

If a brother sins against you, go to him privately and confront him with his fault. If he listens and confesses it, you have won back a brother. (Matthew 18:15 TLB)

If that looks vaguely familiar to you, that’s because it’s pretty much the same thing Luke recorded Jesus as saying in his Gospel. Peter had obviously been thinking about the issue, and so he asked Jesus the question. Peter probably thought he was impressing Jesus by suggesting that he should forgive an offending brother up to seven times. After all, all the rabbis of the day said two or three times would have been going above and beyond. But Peter’s “generous attitude” was puny compared to what Jesus expected from His followers:

Jesus replied, “seventy times seven!” (Matthew 18:22 TLB)

It doesn’t take Common Core to know what Jesus is getting at here! A Christian should be able to forgive an offending brother 490 times! It would be a mistake to take Jesus’ comment as being literal. Jesus isn’t concerned about math; He’s concerned about forgiveness on an infinite scale. Our capacity to forgive should be unlimited. One Bible scholar understood the spirit of Jesus’ words, “seventy times seven” when he commented:

We can’t do it “in our heads.” This is celestial arithmetic. We do it in our hearts.

Matthew 18:23, 24

The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him $10 million! (TLB)

To help Peter and us understand the principle of forgiveness, Jesus told a parable about a servant who was forgiven but refused to forgive. The point of the parable is evident by verse 35:

So shall my heavenly Father do to you if you refuse to truly forgive your brothers.

Jesus demands that His followers forgive, “therefore” the Kingdom of Heaven is like a King. Of course, the King in the parable is God and His reign establishes certain kinds of relationships which are illustrated in this parable. The way we relate to each other under God’s headship ought to be markedly different than that of worldly relationships.

The King discovered a servant who owed him an astronomical amount of money. The exact amount of the debt is difficult to ascertain, but estimates range from a million dollars to a trillion dollars. The amount isn’t the issue. What is at issue is the fact that the debtor was unable to repay the debt.

But the man fell down before the king, his face in the dust, and said, ‘Oh, sir, be patient with me and I will pay it all.’ Then the king was filled with pity for him and released him and forgave his debt. (Matthew 18:26, 27 TLB)

The King wanted this unfortunate to sell himself and his family into some kind of slavery to pay the debt. Naturally our Heavenly Father would never suggest a debtor do this. Remember, this is only a story told to illustrate a much greater truth. Since this is a “kingdom parable,” the debtor can be representative of people who owe a debt they are unable to pay. Nothing any sinner can do is enough to pay their “sin debt.” A sin isn’t a debt; it’s a way the Bible looks at it. In other words, if you could place a dollar amount on your sins, how much would that amount be? Jesus wants us to think about that. The poor schmuck in the parable was a trillion dollars in debt. He’d have to dig up a trillion dollars just to be broke! That pretty much describes the unrepentant sinner: the brokest person on the planet.

There is another, smaller lesson just percolating under the surface. This man’s debt was so severe it actually impacted other people – his family. Sin is like that. When we engage in willful sin – even as we think nobody knows about – it reaches out to touch the lives of others close to us in ways unimaginable. Nobody sins in isolation. Nobody.

The King was moved by the man’s plea. Here is a picture of a compassionate King; an understanding, empathetic King. And so he takes pity on the debtor and, with the stroke of a pen, cancels the debt.

Matthew 18:28 – 30

Now, you’d think that a man who had just been forgiven of such a huge debt would be predisposed to treat others in a similar situation the same way. In this case, you’d be thinking wrong. Never underestimate the capacity of man to act like a boor.

But when the man left the king, he went to a man who owed him $2,000 and grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. (Matthew 18:28 TLB)

What an jerk! This man has an appalling attitude. While he was owed a significant amount of money, it was a tiny amount compared to what he had owed the King. This piece of irony seems to have escaped him.

The man fell down before him and begged him to give him a little time. ‘Be patient and I will pay it,’ he pled. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt would be paid in full. (Matthew 18:29, 30 TLB)

It’s amazing, isn’t it? The arrogant servant wouldn’t cut his debtor any slack at all. Even when the debtor used almost the same words he himself used on the King. Yet this man, as the song says, “would not be moved.”

At this point in the parable, it would be good to step back and glance back to a verse in the Old Testament, Numbers 32:23 –

But if you don’t do as you have said, then you will have sinned against the Lord, and you may be sure that your sin will catch up with you.

The minute the forgiven debtor refused to forgive another debtor, he sinned against God. And guess what? His sin did indeed catch up with him.

“Then the man’s friends went to the king and told him what had happened. And the king called before him the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil-hearted wretch! Here I forgave you all that tremendous debt, just because you asked me to—shouldn’t you have mercy on others, just as I had mercy on you?’” Matthew 18:31 – 33 TLB)

That’s a good question the King asked. And it’s the answer to Peter’s question:

Then Peter came to him and asked, “Sir, how often should I forgive a brother who sins against me? Seven times?” (Matthew 18:21 TLB)

The King’s response is truly remarkable and serves to show the seriousness of forigiveness:

And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. (Matthew 18:34 NKJV)

This parable is really an awful warning to every Christian, not just Peter. All believers have been forgiven their sins – sins that when added up come to an incalculable debt that they could never hope to repay. In other words, there is not thing any sinner can do to change his pathetic state. A sinner is redeemed when God wipes his sin-debt away. That’s a glorious thought. And yet many of the beneficiaries of this amazing grace will hold a grudge against a fellow church member for years and years as if that grudge was a brick of gold. Often these grudges are the result of something so trivial they’re forgotten even as the unforgiveness continues. A person cannot claim to be a Christian if he habitually harbors grudges in his heart. Joyce Meyer offers this interesting observation:

Many people ruin their health and their lives by taking the poison of bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness. Matthew 18:23 – 35 tells us that if we do not forgive people, we get turned over to the torturers.

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