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encouragement theology

Forgive Like God Forgives

Thoughts from Matthew 18..

How much time do I spend thinking about myself? If we are honest with ourselves, it is shameful to think about how self-centered we can be. We genuinely try to be good to others, but our main focus is much too often about ourselves. 

The disciples were arguing amongst themselves regarding who was the greatest when Jesus came to stop their debates. Their greatness was not the point. They needed to have the humility of a child before they could even think of entering the kingdom, let alone be the greatest! The greatest among them is the one who has the faith of a little child!

And what is the greatest enemy of that faith? He then proceeded to describe this enemy of our faith. We often make light of it, to sweep it away or ignore it. We consider ourselves loving and tolerant when we can accept people for their failures and don’t mind when they are doing something wrong. We have learned in our culture to accept ourselves for our bad judgment and shortcomings. 

But what does God say about our bad judgment or our shortcomings or our failures? He describes it with one word: sin!

We immediately think of religious connotations when we hear of the word, “sin”. We think of it as a word used by people in church — especially when they’re about to judge others — but we never use it in our everyday life. And we certainly would never want to use it to describe ourselves!

But what is sin? Sin is any time we disobey the God who made us. We sin when we actively disobey him, such as lying, stealing, or any other ways that we break his commands. We also sin when we hold on to evil thoughts, such as revenge, lust, or anger. We also sin when we refuse to do something good. God has set a standard that none of us can achieve and we all are guilty. Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fallen short of God‘s glory. 

Part of the definition of sin describes how we missed the mark. The original root word of sin was an archery term, defining the distance from the center of the target, showing how far the archer had missed. But the other part of sin describes active rebellion. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sinned, not only because they missed the mark, but because they rebelled against God. They knew what God wanted, but decided to do something different. Just like us! We are all guilty — we all miss the mark and we all rebel against God. Every day!

I am so thankful for Jesus Christ when I think of my own failures, and the rebellion and shortcomings in my own life. I am thankful that he came to take away my sin and to save me from its penalty. Without him, I would be facing an eternity separated from God!

But the disturbing part is when I realize that, after I have been cleansed, I want to go back and play with the same things that brought such disaster! 

This is what Jesus is teaching about in Matthew 18. It is important to remember that He is speaking to His disciples, who are already following Him. This message is for those who are already part of His kingdom as He teaches them about the dangers of playing with sin once you are a child of God.

He first describes the danger that you become to others. When you play with sin, you cause other people near you to fail. This is the horror of causing one of the little ones to stumble, to the point that you are better to drown yourself than to let that happen! Beware of sin because of the damage it has on those around us.

Next, he teaches about the danger of sin against each other. If your brother has wronged you, you need to resolve it. It’s not an option to ignore it, to overlook it, or to just be quiet and talk to others about it. We need to resolve this sin between two members of the body of Jesus Christ, even if it involves severe discipline. The potential conflicts and worries associated with confronting your brother is nothing compared to the danger of letting the sin fester between you.

And finally, he teaches about the danger of sin in yourself when you refuse to forgive. Don’t keep track of the number of times that you have been wronged. Forgive infinitely. And most disturbing of all, remember that you cannot receive God‘s forgiveness until you forgive others!

These instructions are hard. None of us can do this perfectly, but this is God’s standard. This is God’s way. May we ask his forgiveness when we fail him!

Previous post: Who is the Greatest?


Matthew 18:15-35
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Then Peter came up and said to him, “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.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”


Reconcile the Sinner

Matthew 18:15-20
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

In the middle of His teaching on pride and humility, Jesus takes time to teach how to handle a brother who sins against you.a This passage in Matthew 18 is frequently given as a pattern for conflict resolution, often for both individuals and organizations. But if we only look at this as a pattern for resolving differences among ourselves, we miss the larger point that Jesus is teaching. Note that this passage is not about conflict, it is about sin

Jesus has just finished the illustration of the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to rescue the one straying sheep (Matthew 18:10-14). He concluded with the point of “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14). He has warned against causing the little ones to stumble, against being the cause of temptation, and against despising one of these little ones. It is in this context that He commands us to confront the sinning brother. Don’t let your brother damage himself by his sin, nor to lead others astray.

These commands are not optional. We need to address the sins — not only when you are prepared to resolve a conflict, but whenever our brother sins against us. We need to first approach our brother alone. The main goal is never to win the  argument but to restore the broken relationship with your brother.3 The restored relationship (reconciliation) is always the main goal.

If the brother refuses to listen to you, then you bring one or two others. The two companions offer protection to both the accuser and the accused. They are witnesses to the confrontation, can stop further accusations if the situation becomes hostile, and can function as a mediator for both sides. 

If the brother still refuses the witnesses the next step is to involve the church, and if they refuse the church, they are to be treated as an outsider (a gentile was an example of an outsider by birth while a tax gatherer was an outsider by choice).b c d e 

Many times we fear to confront a brother who sins against us, lest we be guilty of judging them. The Lord’s teaching from Matthew 7:1-5 often comes to mind (“Judge not, that you be not judged”), but Matthew 7 teaches that you should help your brother, but make sure to clear your own eye first. See the article on Matthew 7:1 here for a deeper study on judging your brother.

When we confront our brothers about their sin, we need to ensure that we correct them in a spirit of humility.

“‘Speaking the truth in love’ is God’s standard (Ephesians 4:15). If we practice love without truth, it is hypocrisy. But if we try to have truth without love, it may be brutality.” – Warren Wiersbe3

Galatians 6:1
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.

Forgive Infinitely

Matthew 18:21-22
Then Peter came up and said to him, “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.

The Jewish rabbis taught that you were to forgive one another only three times.3 4 Peter thought he was being especially generous to raise the count to seven times, but Jesus’ answer of a much larger number, thus showing him to stop keeping count at all. The point is not to count to seventy-seven times to forgive your brother. Rather, Jesus is illustrating a very large number. You keep forgiving until you lose count!f

Reasons that you should forgive:

  • We are called to forgive because of the example of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:32).
  • We are called to forgive because it is the best of man (Proverbs 19:11).
  • We are called to forgive because it is the character of saints to do that.
  • We are called to forgive in order to free our conscience from the root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15).
  • We are to forgive in order to deliver ourselves from Satan (2 Corinthians 2:10-11).
  • We are to forgive in order to deliver ourselves from the divine chastening.
  • We must forgive or else we will not be forgiven (James 2:13).

From John MacArthur, Learning to Forgive, Part 1, Matthew 18:21-22, Feb 13, 198310

Forgive as You Have Been Forgiven

Matthew 18:23-35
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus then taught this parable to illustrate forgiveness. The king has a servant who owes him a huge sum, equivalent to several million dollars in today’s currency!g The servant begs the master for patience, even though he would never be able to pay his debt. The master has pity on the servant and instead of giving him more time to pay his debt, he forgives him and clears his account! 

The servant then immediately goes to a fellow servant and demands payment of his small debt (equivalent to hundreds of dollars today).h The fellow servant cannot pay and also pleads for patience, but the servant refuses and puts his fellow servant into debtor’s prison. The other servants are distressed about this scene and report it at once to the master, who calls back the original servant and sends him to prison. 

But Jesus’ point of this parable is important. God will not forgive you if you refuse to forgive others! Remember that this message is to Jesus’ disciples. This is not an issue about salvation but fellowship with God. Our relationship with God is broken when we refuse to forgive. See here for more details about forgiveness and how it impacts our relationship with God and others.

Ephesians 4:32
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 18:15-35, pages 217-220

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 18, Ideal Subjects of the Kingdom and Discipline in the Church

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 18:15-35, pages 53-56

[4] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, CHAPTER III: THE LAST EVENTS IN GALILEE, THE TRIBUTE-MONEY, THE DISPUTE BY THE WAY, THE FORBIDDING OF HIM WHO COULD NOT FOLLOW WITH THE DISCIPLES, AND THE CONSEQUENT TEACHING OF CHRIST (St. Matt. 17:22 xviii. 22; St. Mark 9:30-50; St. Luke 9:43-50.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.ix.iii.html

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, CHAPTER XIX: THE THREE LAST PARABLES OF THE PERAEAN SERIES: THE UNRIGHTEOUS JUDGE, THE SELF-RIGHTEOUS PHARISEE AND THE PUBLICAN, THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT (St. Luke 18:1-14; St. Matt. 18:23-35.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.ix.xix.html

[6] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 10, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/21-last-efforts-in-galilee.html

[7] John MacArthur, The Discipline of God’s Children, Part 1, Matthew 18:15-17, Jan 16, 1983

[8] John MacArthur, The Discipline of God’s Children, Part 2, Matthew 18:15-17, Jan 23, 1983

[9] John MacArthur, The Discipline of God’s Children, Part 3, Matthew 18:18-20, Feb 6, 1983

[10] John MacArthur, Learning to Forgive, Part 1, Matthew 18:21-22, Feb 13, 1983

[11] John MacArthur, Learning to Forgive, Part 2, Matthew 18:23-27, Feb 20, 1983

[12] John MacArthur, Learning to Forgive, Part 3, Matthew 18:28-35, Mar 6, 1983

[13] John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson, 2005, Matthew 18:15-35, pages 1157-1158

[14] D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 18:15-35

[15] John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, SP Publications, 1983, Matthew 18:15-35, pages 62-63


Notes

[a] Some commentators point out that the original text only says, “if your brother sins”. Therefore, they argue that this passage is instructing us on how to address any sin, not only the sins committed against you. However, the phrase that the sin is “against you” seems to be implied and is written that way in many translations. It is also hard to understand how to apply this command if it is directed for every possible sin, since we are all sinning and are fallen. There is no other criteria in this passage to identify the sins which you must confront.

[b] This is a major passage that teaches about church discipline. See also 1 Corinthians 5 to show that the church is responsible to remove evil from its midst. However, the details of church discipline are beyond the scope of this current study. Some helpful resources regarding church discipline:

[c] Matthew 18:17 directs the disciples to bring the unrepentant believer to the church. The only other time that Jesus uses this word (ekklēsia, ἐκκλησία) for “church” is in Matthew 16:18, when Jesus declares, “on this rock I will build my church” (see here). While the church becomes prominent in Acts and the Epistles, it is a future body during the time of Jesus Christ. The church is both expressed as the global body of believers (as in Matthew 16:18) and as in the local assembly (as in Matthew 18:17).1 We see both of these definitions in the New Testament: the global body (e.g. Acts 9:31) and the local assembly (e.g. Acts 14:23).

[d] Matthew 18:18 says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” See the link here for a further explanation on this statement. This is not promising a supernatural power to church leaders, but rather He is giving His disciples the authority to claim the promises (both good and bad) that God has given for both the sinning and the repentant believers.

[e] Matthew 18:19-20 says, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

This passage is often used as an encouragement toward corporate prayer. But the context here is not about prayer, but about discipline and restoration of the sinning brother. We can echo the promises of Heaven when we gather in His name. When we gather in His name, we speak for Him.

[f] Some Bible translations record Matthew 18:22 as “seventy seven times” (i.e. 77 times), while others translate the verse as “seventy times seven” (i.e. 490 times). It is difficult to locate where the “times” should be placed, but either number is a hyperbole. Jesus is instructing Peter to forgive infinitely. 

[g] Many commentators try to fill in the details of this parable in order to define the role of the king, the types of servants that would owe that much money, and the actual street value of the ten thousand talents. However, we need to remember not to over-extend the parable. Jesus isn’t introducing a real king here, nor are the specific roles of his servants relevant to the story. He is illustrating a point by contrasting the forgiving king with the unforgiving servant.

It is also impossible to estimate the actual value of the “ten thousand talents”. The talent was the largest unit of measurement for precious metals, but we don’t know whether they were talents of gold, silver, bronze, etc. The “ten thousand” is often also used as a generalization to indicate an uncountably large number. Estimates of the value of the servant’s debt range from several million to over a billion! The important point here is that the servant owed an impossibly huge debt. There was no way that he could repay it!

[h] The denarii is equivalent to about a day’s wages for a farmer or laborer. It is difficult to estimate this cost in today’s economy, but it would be roughly equivalent to a couple hundred dollars today. The amount is not insignificant, but it pales in comparison to the servant’s original debt!

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