Matthew 18: Forbearance and Forgiveness 

Peter was a gutsy disciple who came out and said what we all silently wonder. In Matthew 18 the question of forgiveness surfaces following Jesus’ teaching on what to do if a brother sins against you in verses 15-20. In that passage the instruction is to quietly confront that brother and tell him his fault. It’s not loud or slanderous or judgemental. Even if the brother does not listen, there’s no free-for-all public broadcasting and condemnation. It is difficult enough to resist our natural tendency to look down on others who are different from us (i.e. with their sin struggles). Another temptation to resist is the normalized pressure to shame, hold grudges, and write others off who have hurt us—even other Christian family members! Instead, Jesus’ goal after someone sins against us is reconciliation and restoration (vs 15). Jesus’ way of dealing with disagreement and conflict and sin is so contrary to the approach of our world. 

That was the case for Peter’s world too. Then he asks Jesus: 

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18: 21-22)

Peter must have felt and appeared very generous in his assessment on forgiveness. After all, seven times is over double the standard Hebrew teaching of three times. We all know that the wounds from our brothers and sisters, intentional or not, are painful. Whether your Bible translation indicates “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven,” Jesus’ theological teaching is the same: forgive as many times as it takes. There’s no keeping track. This Kingdom way of forgiving is a call to patience. Like Peter, we can have too small a picture of God’s merciful heart towards sinners; towards us. Human interaction of any kind requires forgiveness to make it through the rollercoaster of life. It is difficult to love the offender with forgiveness and fresh starts when we continue to serve them and sometimes serve alongside them. Patiently bearing with one another in love (Eph 4:2) and persevering in “seventy-seven times” sort of forgiveness is only achievable through the Holy Spirit. 

In Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant the master extends immeasurable mercy to a servant’s incalculable debt (18:23-35). Instead of responding in the same way to a fellow servant who owes him a sizable (but not ridiculous!) debt, he lacks the pity and kindness which he has just received. Jesus uses the unforgiving servant as a negative example, but the point is clear. God’s abundant forgiveness extended to us in Jesus is reason to extend the same mercy forward to those who are indebted to us. Oh, the patience required! I have been tempted to give up! 

May we instead, like forgiven servants, look to the Master who displays perfect mercy and forbearance on the cross. Jesus’ parable gives us warning to forgive our brother and sisters from the heart (Matthew 18:35). God’s abundant kindness to us is meant to lead us to repentance when we lack this Kingdom forgiveness (Romans 2:4). When our own cancelled debts are realized through the help of the Spirit there is peace and gratitude. And there is strength and patience to forgive again.

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About Nicole Martin

Nicole is married to Trevor, who serves as co-pastor with another pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in the small town of Emo, Ontario, Canada. She grew up in rural Manitoba and attended Briercrest College (Saskatchewan), graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Ministry. Nicole joined the ranks of pastors’ wives when the couple moved to northwestern Ontario in Fall 2015. Nicole’s opportunities to serve the Lord and people around her are taking on new dimensions as she and Trevor experience vocational ministry together and persevere in parenting their two preschool girls with the third one on the way! She particularly enjoys hosting with her family and connecting with other moms one-on-one.