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How Many Times Shall I Forgive My Brother?

Dr. Ray Pritchard
Dr. Ray Pritchard
2013 20 Feb

“How many times shall I forgive my brother? (Matthew 18:21)

We’ve all wondered the same thing.

Peter wanted to know how much guff he had to take off somebody. When do you stop turning the other cheek?

Everyone has felt that way. You take it and you take it and you take it and the guy does it again and you say, “If he does it one more time, I’m going to cream him.”

So Peter wanted to know how long he had to wait before he could really let the guy have it. When is it okay to blow your stack?

But Peter didn’t wait for an answer. He had one ready. He said, “Seven times?” We tend to get down on him for saying that but it wasn’t such a bad idea. The Rabbis taught that you had to forgive a man three times and then you could retaliate. So Peter thinks to himself, “Well, I’ll just double that and add one."

To be perfectly honest, forgiving a man seven times is commendable. Most of us get frustrated if we have to forgive someone twice. By human standards what Peter said is enormous. Forgive a man seven times. Peter didn’t mean to offend. He thought by saying seven he would be extravagant.

Nice thought, but his attitude was wrong. He wanted to put a legal limit on forgiveness. He wanted a number, a limit, a place where he could finally say, “No more Mr. Nice Guy.”

Jesus answered him in verse 22: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven." That clunk you hear is Peter dropping over unconscious. He couldn’t believe his ears. Seventy times seven. That’s 490 times. Jesus is saying, “Peter, you’ve got it all wrong. You don’t count the number of times you forgive someone. Forgiveness is unlimited.”   

It’s not that you say to yourself, “298.......299......300. Only 190 more to go!” No! Seventy times seven means there is no limit to the number of times we should forgive someone else. By the time you’ve forgiven someone 490 times, you’ve gotten into the habit of continual forgiveness.

The story Jesus told (the parable of the unforgiving servant, vv. 23-35) demonstrates that we will forgive the sins of others against us to the extent that we grasp the magnitude of our sins and how much God has forgiven us. Think of how many sins he has covered for you. Think of the punishment you deserved that did not happen to you because of God’s grace. Jesus said, “He who has been forgiven little loves little” (Luke 7:47). Your willingness to forgive is in direct proportion to your remembrance of how much you have been forgiven.

We are great sinners greatly forgiven.

If we believe that, by God’s grace we can forgive “seventy times seven.”

Our Father, grant that we may discover the freedom that comes from being great forgivers. Lord, we want to do it but we lack the courage. Show us what we must do and then give us the strength to do it. We pray in the name of Jesus who forgave all our sins, Amen.

Going Deeper

What are the major “forgiveness issues” in your life right now? Which bothers you the most–your sins against God or the sins of others against you? Spend some time meditating on your answers to those two questions. Ask God for the grace to forgive others as he has forgiven you.