Forgiveness

"Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”

“No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!" (Matthew 18:21-22 NLT)

The teaching about forgiveness is one of the simplest and most difficult teachings in Christianity. It's simple in the sense that the concept is easy to grasp: God forgives people's sins, so forgiven people should be able to forgive other people. On the other hand, it is difficult to apply to one's own life when real hurt and offense has been felt. It has been said that we all like the idea of forgiveness until we have someone who needs us to forgive them.

In the conversation quoted at the start, Peter felt like he needed to set a reasonable limit on the number of times he could forgive someone before it became too much. It seems that he thought seven was a reasonable number. And from some perspective, he may have a point. If someone does the same thing to you more than seven times, it might be time to seriously consider the nature of your relationship and whether or not it is healthy. Someone may need to take some time to work on themselves so that they don't cause harm anymore.

Jesus, however, adds a lot more perspective to this conversation. He takes the number up to ... well, it depends on what translation you read.

NLT: "...seventy times seven."

NIV: "... seventy-seven times."

KJV: "... seventy times seven."

ESV: "...seventy-seven times."

What is going on here? Is it seventy-seven (77) times or "seventy times seven," (70 x 7) also known as four hundred and ninety (490)? And does it matter?

On a practical level, the specific number of times doesn't seem to be the issue. If you have to forgive someone 490 times or 77 times, that person still has behaviors in their life they need to fix. (See our questions for a more detailed look at this translation.)

One possible interpretation (among several) is that there is a connection to Daniel chapter 9. In this passage, God predicts 490 years that will be given for Israel to repent and change their ways. As this time period comes to completion, a figure called the Messiah would come to Israel.

One way to look at this teaching, then, is to see Jesus saying "You can start by forgiving other people as much as God has forgiven his people!" This would mean forgiveness not just up to 490 times, but forgiveness for generations and lifetimes.

Whatever way you look at it, it is clear that Jesus wants to emphasize the centrality of forgiveness in his way of living. He drives the point home with a story:

One servant owed a debt of money that he was struggling to pay. He begged for mercy, and had his whole debt pardoned. But when he found someone who owed him money, he refused to forgive the person and imprisoned that person. The original master who had forgiven his servant was furious when he heard about this, and revoked his forgiveness because his servant was not able to forgive someone else.

The teaching here is clear: a big part of receiving forgiveness from God means learning how to forgive other people. Some may see this as unfair; aren't there certain deeds that are unforgivable? Isn't it cruel to ask someone to forgive an actual abuser?

There is a definite difference between forgiveness and excuses. The old saying "forgive and forget" is also unhelpful. Someone can forgive a wrong without forgetting from it. Many times, we learn valuable lessons about who we can trust from the things we end up having to forgive. Forgiveness can co-exist with healthy boundaries, and is not necessarily synonymous with total reconciliation.

Still, God advises that in his Kingdom and his Church, forgiveness will demonstrate his power in the hearts of his new creation people. Paul says, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you." (Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT)

Forgiveness is a radical choice that refuses to condone evil. Forgiveness says "what you did was wrong, and because it was wrong, I refuse to let it define my life. It will not be a part of me!" There are powerful stories from survivors of the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide - who managed to forgive their attackers and tormentors in spite of the horrible atrocities they had suffered. These acts of dramatic and sometimes startling forgiveness reflect the source of all forgiveness: Jesus himself.

God wants to set people free from the burden of resentment. He wants people to be untied from the anger to keeps them chained to old pains. It is not always a popular sentiment, but forgiveness can still have incredible healing power in the world today. Sometimes that healing is imperfect and incomplete. But we live our lives as Christians in hopes that one day, when Jesus returns, he will make all needed healing complete.

"Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony." Colossians 3:13-14 NLT

Who might you need to forgive?

Questions:

  • Have you ever forgiven someone for something that was very difficult for you? What helped you make that step?

  • What is the worst thing another person has ever forgiven you for?

  • Forgiveness is a crucial part of Christian faith - we believe that part of becoming a Christian involves repenting from our sins and being forgiven. Many people, however, struggle to feel forgiven. What does 1 John 1:5-10 tell us about God's ability to forgive our sins?

  • The Bible teaches that Jesus, who was God from before time began, became a human being and understands what it is like to be human. Read Hebrews 4:14-16. What does this say about how Jesus understands our sins? Does this have any implications for how we should think about the sins of our fellow human beings?

  • So for real, how many times did Jesus say we should forgive? 77 times or 490 times? This comes from a perceived reference to Genesis 4:24. The Hebrew versions we have and the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament are different, one saying "77" and the other saying "seventy times seven." Both the Greek and Hebrew versions of this text were known and used by the people living in the times of Jesus. Which version do you think Jesus meant? Does it make a difference? Why?

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