In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus had been teaching His disciples about how to deal with people when there is a conflict. Right after this, Peter chimes in with a question, sort of. Peter asks in verse 20, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (NASB). Peter probably thought he was being pretty generous. Wow, seven times! Peter, you’re much too kind. How shocked he and the others must have been when Jesus answered, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus did not mean that we should keep a tally sheet and when/if we reach 490 we can then say, “That’s it! I don’t have to forgive you anymore!” He was using a ridiculously large number to indicate that we should not be in the accounting business, but in the forgiving business.
Jesus expands on this in the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel which is found in chapter 17. As if the words in Matthew 18 were not hard enough to live out, Jesus ups the ante on forgiveness. “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4). Well, now You are just asking too much, Jesus. Seven times in the same day? That means this person is not showing true repentance and does not deserve forgiveness.
AH-AH-AH! Not so fast. That would require us to know and judge a person’s heart and ONLY God is qualified to do that.
Jesus makes this painfully simple: He repents, you forgive. Period.
But Jesus, You don’t know how many times he has—NO! He repents, you forgive. This is the command.
But Jesus, wouldn’t it be better to teach this person the lesson that—NO! He repents, you forgive. Just do it.
But Jesus, what if he doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Does that get me off the hook?
This is the part where Jesus would facepalm and shake His head. Don’t miss the point.
The disciples surely didn’t miss the point. Their perfect understanding was proven by what they said next. Jesus had just commanded them (and us) to forgive as many times as someone repents. Their immediate response was, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). They knew that they (and we) were going to need some divine assistance to carry out that command. The Lord’s answer is astounding. He essentially says in verse 6, “Use what you’ve got—it’s enough.” Their faith seemed as small as a mustard seed compared to the gigantic task ahead of them. Jesus told them that if their faith was sincere, then it was big enough. Well, OK Jesus. But if I manage to pull this off, I deserve a medal and a parade! The Lord predicts this attitude in verses 9-10 and preemptively strikes down any prideful feelings which may arise. “[The master] does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’ ” We don’t deserve a round of applause for merely doing what we were commanded. We are not worthy of a spot in Hebrews chapter 11 with the superstars of the faithful. We haven’t elevated ourselves to some lofty position of Christianity. We haven’t gained anything extraordinary. We are still sitting at zero. All we have done is prevented ourselves from falling below the line of obedience and into a deficit.
Is forgiving hard? Yes! It may be the one of the hardest commands to obey. What it is not, however, is optional; it is required. So let’s you and I stop treating it like it is optional. Let us not require people to grovel, beg, and crawl for our forgiveness after we think they’ve suffered enough and shown “proper” repentance. God did not require that of us. We may sin seven times a day against Him but He offers mercy every time we ask. His grace is eager, available, and immediate. So should ours be.
I’ve discovered that God does not wear a wristwatch and He is not interested in borrowing mine. I know, because I’ve offered it many times. We get the idea that when we pray about something, God ought to answer us right away. Then we get upset when He doesn’t. Surely each person can recall an instance where something was prayed for, it was not received, and disappointment set in. Then, some time later, it becomes apparent that if God had given us what we wanted when we wanted, it would have been disastrous for us down the road. God often has to protect us from our own desires. We THINK we know best for us. We think getting what we want right now is the best. But God truly knows best and sometimes it is in our best interest to say “no” or “not now.” Think of how different it would have been if God had answered some prayers differently. If God had given Hannah a son earlier, she might never have dedicated that son to the service of the Lord (1st Samuel 1:11). Israel would have been without the critically important leadership of Samuel during the tumultuous time when Saul and David were vying for the throne. If God had answered Joseph’s prayer for deliverance from slavery and prison, then he would not have been the mature man he needed to be to save his family from starvation (Gen. 50:20). Surely Mary and Martha were praying for their brother Lazarus when he became deathly ill. If God had answered their prayers and healed him, Jesus would not have been glorified as having power over death to all of Israel. Lazarus would indeed rise again, but not before they had to grieve over his death for four days (John 11). We are tempted to get impatient and wonder what is taking God so long when we are in a crisis. Like the disciples in the boat when the stormy waves are crashing about, we cry to the Lord, “Wake up! Save us!” When Jesus responded, “Peace! Be still” (Mark 4:39), He may have been talking more to the fearful disciples than the raging storm. We can rest assured that God knows exactly how dire the situation is. He is more concerned with timing than time. He knows exactly WHAT we need and (more importantly) WHEN we need it. God is never late, but he is always ALMOST late. At least by our reckoning. Comfort one another with these words (1st Thess. 4:18). May the Lord shine upon you.