True Forgiveness  – Matthew 18:21-35

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Faith Bible Church, NY

July 3, 1994

True Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35


For the past month we have been dealing with the issue of sin within the church and how to deal with it biblically. We have talked about the need for each of us to be genuinely repentant when we sin, as was David in Psalm 51. We have talked about the fact that true Christian fellowship includes admonishing one another. We have an obligation before God and to each other to correct one another from the Scriptures when we fall into sin. We have also looked into the manner by which we admonish one another: with a humble, gentle spirit, speaking the truth in love. We examine ourselves and then go out of a proper motivation and not in self-righteousness. We enter into each other’s lives because of our deep love for one another. All of this can be frightening because it demands on us we come out of our shells and risk interpersonal involvement in which we may, and probably will, get hurt at some point. It also demands that we lay aside our superficiality and actually talk about how we are really doing in our walk with the Lord, including our areas of struggle.

We have examined the steps of discipline in the church as given by the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20 (See: Discipline in the Church – 6/29/94). When a brother or sister sins, we go to them in private and seek to restore them back into a proper walk with the Lord. If they listen and repent, we have won them. If they do not, then we take one or two others with us so that every word may be established. It would be wise to take one of the Elders or Deacons at this point. If they listen and repent then they have been won, but if they do not, then the matter is brought up before the church. This is not out of being vindictive, but so that everyone can get involved. Some will do so personally and also confront the individual about their sin while others pray. If the person listens and repents then reconciliation takes place and they are restored. If they do not listen, then they are disfellowshiped. They are treated as a gentile and tax-gatherer.

Their hardness of heart is an indication that they may not be saved and they are treated as such and are evangelized. They are sinners condemned before a just and holy God, but that same God loves them and has provided a way for forgiveness and justification through Jesus Christ. There is no longer a basis for fellowship with them since they are not in fellowship with the Lord and our socialization with them is now limited only to reminding them of the gospel message, God’s warmly forgives and accepts those who seek Him and are humble before Him.

This morning we are going to finish our series on Discipline in the Church, because the last step should not be and hopefully is not disfellowship, but that person’s genuine repentance from sin and their forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration to the church. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21-35.

Let me remind you again that the context of this passage has been Jesus’ response to the vanity of the disciples who had been arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus has gently, yet firmly rebuked them by telling about the nature of the kingdom. You only enter the kingdom if you are converted and become as a little child in humility before and trusting of God (vs 3) The greatest in the kingdom are the humble (vs. 4). God treats those who belong to Him as we would a little child. He protects them (vs. 6-10), cares for them (vs. 12-14) and disciplines (vs 15-20) them when needed.


In verse 21 Peter comes to the Lord with his response to all that Jesus had just said. “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'”

Peter is to be commended for seeking to personalize what Jesus has taught. Peter now wants to know how far his responsibility would go. But before we go on take note that Peter’s question here clearly demonstrates that discipline in the church is not about being vindictive in any manner, but about being loving and forgiving. Peter has no question or comment about what sins might be overlooked and what sins would require discipline. He understood that any sin could end up there, but what Peter wanted to know was how far this idea about restoring his brother would go. What is the reasonable limit in forgiving someone who is caught in sin?

Peter thought he was being very generous with his idea about forgiving his brother up to seven times for the same offense. Rabbinic tradition taught that you only should forgive three times. On the fourth offense they taught that you should not forgive. They erroneously thought this was the limit of God’s forgiveness, therefore man should also limit his forgiveness to just three times. Peter had doubled the Rabbinic tradition and added another for good measure. Peter may had in mind that the number seven was closely linked in the Old Testament with the idea of the covenant and of forgiveness. Seven would then be the perfect number of times to forgive.

Peter thought he was being generous, and in terms of the teaching of the Rabbis that he had been brought up under, he was indeed. But Peter’s mind was still being limited by the Law as interpreted and twisted by the traditions. Peter was not thinking in terms of God’s immeasurable and unlimited character. Jesus’ response to Peter is based on God’s grace, not on man’s Law.


Verse 22, “Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Jesus was not extending the amount of forgiveness to a fixed number of 490 times, but simply picked on Peter’s number multiplied it by itself and then by ten to demonstrate how much greater magnitude forgiveness should be demonstrated. Jesus’ point is that we should not limit our forgiveness of one another. We should not keep count. If we were going to forgive just seven times we would keep count of the number of offenses, but how could you keep count of 490 offenses?

Jesus may have come up with seven times seventy as a contrast to man’s quest for revenge. In Genesis 4:24 Lamech made the arrogant boast that “if Cain is avenged sevenfold, the Lamech seventy-seven fold.” Man seeks after limitless vengeance while God’s grace gives good in return for evil without limit. The parable that Jesus now tells demonstrates both God’s grace to man and man’s responsibility to follow God’s example.



Verse 23, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.”

The parable here is story that illustrates a truth about the kingdom of heaven. As with any parable it has a main point and several of the key figures are analogous to reality, but as with any story, not every item has a parallel in reality. In this parable we find that this “certain king” is representative of God. The “slaves” are mankind for all men and women including those in rebellion, are God’s slaves.

In this parable we find that the king wishes to settle accounts with his slaves. As we proceed through this parable we shall see this is not a calling unto the final account, but just one of the times when the king brings his slaves before them so that whatever is owed by the slave to the king can be paid up.

Verse 24, “And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents. But since he did not have that means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. The slave therefore falling down, prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.”

This is a forgiving king. We are not told how it would be possible, but in some way this slave managed to incur and unbelievable debt. The number “ten-thousand” is the largest number in the Greek language, and because of that it is often used figuratively for meaning “countless.” It is used that way in 1 Cor. 4:15 where it is translated as “countless” and in Rev. 5:11 where the number of angels is translated as being “myriads” (a transliteration of the term). Ten thousand talents here may also very well simply refer to a “countless” debt, but even if it is to be taken as a literal number, the amount is staggering.

To give you an idea of how much ten thousand talents would be consider the following. At the time this was written, the yearly tribute to Rome from Idumea, Judea, Samaria and Galilee (what would now be all of Israel, and Lebanon and part of Jordan) was only about 900 talents. This sum is equal to more than 11 years worth of taxation for the whole area. Solomon at the peak of his power only collected 666 talents yearly from those paying tribute to him. Or consider this: 1 denarius was the pay for one day’s work. 1 Talent equaled 6,000 denarius, or 6,000 days work. 10,000 talent equaled 60 million days work. That is a figured that is beyond repayment.

The king had no hope of recovering the debt, but he would recover what he could so he commanded that the man, his wife and children all be sold into slavery as well as everything the man owned as repayment of the debt. This was a just sentence.

But the slave humbled himself before the king by falling down prostrate and begging for compassion. He would do all that he could and would repay the debt. A foolish statement and a promise that he could not keep, but the slave’s heart was in the right place. The king observing this was moved with compassion and he forgave the debt.

This is a wonderful analogy of what the God has done for us. There comes a point in our lives when God calls us into account. Through His Holy Spirit He convicts of our sins and out debt to Him, and what is owed to God is beyond our ability to pay. Sin alone requires our lives. We must die because it is the just wages of sin (Rom 3:23). And this does not even begin to take into account all of God’s goodness in giving us life and providing for our needs. Our debt to God is incalculable.

God would be just to send each and everyone of us to Hell as a partial payment for our debt, yet He is moved with compassion when we humbly come before Him and beg for His mercy. The Father sent the only begotten Son to die for on the cross so that He could grant us that mercy and still maintain His righteousness. Based on what Jesus has done, God grants forgiveness to the humble sinner who begs for His mercy.

Martin Luther in commenting about this passage said, “So it is with us. The greater part does not concern itself about sin, goes on securely, fears not the wrath of God. Such people cannot come to the forgiveness of sin, for they do not come to realize that they have sins. they say, indeed, with the mouth that they have sin; but if they were serious about it they would speak far otherwise. This servant, too, says, before the king reckons with him, so much I owe to my lord, namely ten thousand talents;… But now that the reckoning is held, and his lord orders him, his wife, his children, and everything to be sold, now he feels it. so, too, we feel in ernest when our sins are revealed in the heart, when the record of our debts is held before us…. Then we exclaim: I am the most miserable man, there is none as unfortunate as I on the Earth! Such knowledge makes a real humble man, works contrition, so that one can come to the forgiveness of sins.”

As in the parable, we don’t always come to God understanding everything. When we first realize our sinfulness and its consequences we often think that somehow we can bargain with God. We think, “I’ll be better”, or ‘I’ll change my habits”. Don’t come to God trying to bargain with Him. You have nothing to bargain with. Come to Him in humility asking for His forgiveness and He will grant it to you. It is wonderful to know that God knows our intent of our hearts even when our own foolishness gets in the way.


If the story ended there we would have a wonderful understanding of God’s forgiveness of us, but Jesus point is to show Peter how he should forgive, so now we come to the unforgiving slave.

Verse 28, “But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ He was unwilling however, but went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed.”

The implication is that soon after this man left the king’s presence he went to this other slave to get from him what was owed. The treatment he gave to his fellow slave was rough, but in keeping with manner that debtors could be treated in that society. Some ancient histories show that it was not uncommon for a creditor to choke a debtor until blood ran from his nose. But even if that was the way some people treated others, it does not make it right.

You would think the first slave would have been caught short when the second slave said the exact same thing he had said only a short time earlier before the king, “Have patience with me and I will repay you.” Add to this the fact that a hundred denarii was an amount that could be repaid. A hundred days wages is a lot, but it is an amount that can be repaid.

The first slave was impatient, cruel, and rash in his actions. Debtor prisons have always been a foolishidea. If you really want your money back you need to have the individual working so that he can earn the money to give back to you. If you put him in prison he becomes a cost to the state, and even if paid a wage there, it is minimal compared to what can be earned outside of prison. Unforgiveness is not only morally wrong, but it also leads to cruel and irrational behavior.


As the parable continues, we find that this slaves attitudes and subsequent actions finally lead to a very stern rebuke. Verse 31, “So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated men. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, even as I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.”

Eventually word got back to the king and this wicked slave was dealt with according to the way that he had treated his fellow slave. Considering all that this slave had been forgiven – an unbelievable debt of 10,000 talents – he should have followed the example of his lord’s mercy and forgiven the puny debt of his fellow slave.

Jesus applies the lesson of this parable to Peter – and to us – in verse 35. “So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

We would like to think that this wicked slave could only have been someone that was not a Christian, because Christians would not do such a thing. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ should not carry such attitudes or behave in such cruel ways, but we find in the Bible that Christians have and do act this way.

The church in Corinth was filled with such problems caused by a lack of charity & mercy. In 1 Cor. 11 we find that the rich basically held the poor in contempt, and so when they would gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, (which was a feast followed by what we call “communion,” the remembrance of Jesus’ death for our sins on the cross) the rich would not share with the poor, therefore leaving them with nothing. Some of the rich would be gluttonous and even get tipsy if not drunk on the wine, while the poor were left hungry. In chapter 6 we find these same people bringing lawsuits upon one another rather than working it out among themselves or having the church leaders render the judgements for them.

Followers of Jesus Christ still have a great capacity to follow the sinful path, which is why Paul tells believer sin Romans 6:11 to “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts.” In Colossians 3:5-10 Paul wrote, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. For it is on account of these things that the wrath of God will come and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malic, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him…”

Christians are to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven them (Eph 4:32). That is the point of the parable. God has forgiven you and immense debt, one without possibility of repayment. It is only right to follow His example and forgive those who transgress against us, especially when they are transgressions which are minute by comparison to what we have done to God.

Jesus taught us in His example of prayer in Matthew 5 to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Do you really want to pray in that manner and mean it? Jesus also said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” You cannot earn mercy, but those who receive mercy must demonstrate it by showing it to others. James 2:13 says, “Judgement will be merciless to the one who has shown no mercy.” If we really want mercy for our repeated sins, then we must be willing from our hearts to grant mercy to those who offend us. This is not possible in your own flesh, but only as you walk with the Spirit and bear His fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5).

The commentator William Arnot gives the following illustration of this principle. After fording a river, a traveler in Burma discovered that his body was covered with small leeches, busily sucking his blood. His first impulse was to pull them off, but his servant warned against it, explaining that to do that would leave part of the leeches buried in the skin and cause serious infection. Instead a warm bath was prepared with certain herbs which irritated but did not kill the leeches. One by one they voluntarily dropped off. “Each unforgiven injury rankling in the heart is like a leech sucking the life blood, ” Arnot explains, “Mere human determination to have done with it will not cast the evil thing away. You must bathe your whole being in God’s pardoning mercy; and those ven omous creatures will instantly let go their hold.”

Discipline in the church does not end in dis-fellowship, but at every step the offer of forgiveness from the heat. It is not a forgive and forget for our minds are incapable of that. It is a forgive and not hold it into account, to not call it to mind anymore. Forgiveness is an act of love based on God’s loving mercy to us. It is seen in the following story.

The wife of a Zulu chief began to attend a church and heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. When her husband heard about it, he forbid her to go again on pain of death. However, she was eager to hear more about Jesus and dared to go anyway. Her husband found out and met her on her way home from the meeting and he beat her savagely and left her for dead. Curiosity got the better of him and he went back to see what had become of her. When he arrived at the spot she was not there, but he noticed some broken twigs and found her lying under a bush. Covering her with his cruel eyes he leered, “And what can your Jesus Christ do for you now?” She opened her eyes, and looking at him, said gently, “He helps me to forgive you.”

That is forgiveness from the heart, I pray it is the kind that you willingly offer to all those who offend you. You have been forgiven much, so forgive much.

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