In the Fulness of Time/Part 118

By: Dr. Thomas O. Figart; ©2009
How many times do you have to forgive someone who offends you? Once? Twice? Seven times? In this passage Jesus teaches unlimited forgiveness!

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Fundamentals of Forgiveness Matthew 18:21-35

Question: The Extent of Forgiveness. Matthew 18:21

Mt. 18:21 “Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?”

As many have pointed out, Peter could have been thinking of the teachings of the rabbis, which they, in turn, derived from the Old Testament, that a person could be forgiven once, then twice, and finally a third time; but after that there was to be no forgiveness. For example, Job 33:29-30 teaches: “Lo, all these things worketh God twice, yea thrice with man, To bring back his soul from the pit, to be enlightened with the light of the living.” Peter, therefore, was being more than twice as generous that the Scripture required. Still, it was in the form of a question and Peter wanted an answer from the Lord.

Solution: Unlimited Forgiveness. Matthew 18:22

Mt. 18:22 “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, until seven times; but, until seventy times seven.”

Probably to Peter’s great surprise Jesus replied that even seven times is not enough, but 70 times 7, or 490 times. He said something similar to this in Luke 17:3-4, namely, that if a brother trespasses against you seven times in a day, and turns again and repents seven times that same day you are to forgive him! In both cases this is the language of exaggeration; no one would be likely to commit 490 offenses against another, or even seven times in one day, but if he did, he is to be forgiven! This language of exaggeration is not symbolic, but literal, though it may never happen. What Jesus taught is unlimited forgiveness! Paul uses the same unlimited approach in Ephesians 4:32: “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God, for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you.”

Illustration of Unlimited Forgiveness. Matthew 18:23-35

Positive Illustration: The King and His Servant. 18:23-27
Mt. 18:23-27 “Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, who would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him who owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had nothing with which to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant, therefore, fell down, and worshiped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.”

As with any parable, there is a main thrust, but the details are secondary and sometimes even irrelevant. Here the principal question has to do with forgiveness, so that the reference to the “kingdom of heaven” is secondary. It really does not matter whether this phrase has the present spiritual connotation of relationship between God and man generally or whether it refers to the future earthly Messianic Kingdom; the relationship would be the same. It is also impossible to determine an exact equivalent for the amount of the huge debt incurred by the servant; money values have changed significantly from that day to this. The proportions remain similar, so it can be said that one day’s wages was a denarius, according to Matthew 20:2. There were 6,000 denarii in a talent (cf. Vine’s Expository Dictionary, Vol. 4, p. 108). The debt was 10,000 talents, or 60 million denarii. If the man worked six days per week, it would take 191,693 years to repay all of the debt!

Even selling the man’s family into slavery could never come close to a proper settlement. His only hope was to fall down and worship, asking for patience until he could pay it “all.” Although the strong word doulos, “slave” is used of this man, he was obviously not a slave in the normally accepted sense; he and his family were not yet “sold.” He was, no doubt a high official in an oriental kingdom, yet, considered a “doulos” in comparison with the king. How he got into such a huge debt is not mentioned; there could have been some political misconduct and embezzlement, or he could have speculated in unsuccessful commercial ventures with the king’s money. What matters is that it was an impossibility to repay what he owed, and that the forgiveness of the king was unlimited. Three terms are used: “moved with compassion” is from splagnidztheis, referring to inner feelings; “loosed,” from apelusen, meaning to be released from the debt; “forgave,” from apheken, to send away, to forgive. All of these illustrate the limitless mercy of God, offering complete forgiveness to the chiefest of sinners (Colossians 2:13).

Negative Illustration: The Servant and his Servant. Matthew 18:28-33
Mt. 18:28-33 “But the same servant went out and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him an hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me what thou owest. And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me and I will pay thee all. And he would not, but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou besoughtest me! Shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee?”

This second man was probably a lesser official, a sundoulos,a servant with” the first man. The debt also, was infinitely less, namely 100 denarii, or a little more than three months’ wages, not extremely difficult to repay. Not only is there a contrast in amounts, but also in attitudes. The king was compassionate; the servant was violent! The king called him a “wicked servant.” A third contrast is seen in their actions; the king forgave the unpayable debt; the servant put his debtor in prison.

Application: What does the parable mean? Matthew 18:34-35

Mt. 18:34-35 “And his lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So, likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts, forgive not every one his brother his trespasses.”

As already noted, a parable has a main thrust so that all the details should not be permitted to affect the interpretation, since every illustration breaks down somewhere. In the present instance, someone might say that it teaches that a person may be forgiven of his great debt of sin, only to be told that God has angrily changed His mind, deciding not to forgive. Contrariwise, if the parable is speaking of a believer’s sin then it is conceivable that God would place him in the hands of tormentors “until” the huge debt of sin was paid in full in Purgatory!

A summary of the king’s final statements in 18:32-34 will serve to emphasize the thrust of the parable. In 18:32 he calls the servant “wicked” from poneros, the word used of the “wicked” and adulterous generation in 16:4, of the “evil” man who brings “evil” things out of his “evil” heart (15”35), and even of “wicked” demons in 12:45. Since the servant is wicked, there is no change of heart. In 18:33 a change of heart would have been evidenced by “compassion,” but instead there was anger and violence. As James 2:14 reminds us, “Faith without works is dead.” The servant therefore, is an unbeliever. In 18:34 the servant is delivered over to the “tormentors” from basanistoi, the same word used to describe the perpetual, eternal torment of the unbeliever in Revelation 14:9-11, and of the devil and his cohorts in Revelation 20:10.

Though the word “until” is used, it gives no allowance to refer this to punishment in Purgatory, in which supposedly one can fulfill the payment of the debt of sin. As Lenski puts it: “Chrysostom already saw here that the context shuts out a limit: ‘that is, perpetually; for neither will he pay ever.’ The ‘until’ clause thus really becomes the strongest proof against the idea of purgatory, and for the eternal duration of punishment. Saying ‘until an impossible thing takes place,’ simply says, ‘never.’” (Lenski, Matthew, p. 703). The conclusion: Anyone with an unchanged heart who is unwilling to forgive, must be an unbeliever, who will be punished forever, “in the fulness of time.”

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