Before Peter asked Jesus if forgiving a brother seven times would be sufficient, Jesus had made some important statements about offenses, confronting offenders, and prayer. He said, “‘If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you. I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them’” (Matt. 18:15-20). The principle to which Jesus alluded in verse 16—that “by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established”—comes from Deuteronomy 19:15.
Certainly we must not make a “federal case” out of every sin a fellow believer commits; many sins have few public ramifications and can be addressed within the individual’s own relationship with the Lord. Yet in some situations a brother’s or a sister’s offense must be confronted because of the sin’s impact on others and the believer’s refusal to repent. Jesus made it clear that the case against an offender must be made without malice. Moreover, the offender must be confronted according to the guidelines He gave. If a brother fails to repent, however, he should be held responsible for His actions and treated as an outsider. Against this backdrop, it is apparent that Jesus never intended for a believer or a church to simply overlook sin in the life of one of its own.
But how many times should a believer forgive a transgressor if he or she does repent? The Rabbis of that day taught that three times was sufficient, so Peter was going beyond their teaching when he suggested seven times in Matthew 18:21. With His reply, the Lord conveyed the divine truth that forgiveness should have no limit: “I tell you, not as many as seven, but 70 times seven” (v. 22). To drive home the point, He went on to tell the parable of the unforgiving slave (see vv. 23-35).
Forgiving to a point of “70 times seven” (and beyond) reflects the forgiveness of God toward sinners who repent and turn to Him. The Lord’s followers are in no position to withhold forgiveness from anyone who repents. Jesus’ previous instruction to His disciples demonstrates, however, that neither a believer nor a church should ever turn a blind eye, and thus ignore completely, a grievous sin (see also Phil. 1:9-10). When a believer repents of wrongdoing, forgiveness addresses the sin by canceling the debt the sin created. Still, true forgiveness never involves pretending sin doesn’t exist. That would be like ignoring a sickness, even as it took an even firmer hold on the one who was ill.
B. Nathaniel Sullivan
Christian educator, Bible teacher, and Editor
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in SundaySchoolZone.com materials are taken from the Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2009 by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission. Holman Christian Standard Bible®, Holman CSB®, and HCSB® are federally registered trademarks of Holman Bible Publishers.