To recap, when we opened Chapter 18, Jesus used a child as an example of the kind of humility you needed to be great in heaven--a willingness to make yourself a social outcast, to place others above yourself, to avoid thinking "ambitious" thoughts in this world, and instead to transfer your trust wholeheartedly to someone else. Then He mourned the pain and suffering of sin, and warned us all to flee from temptations ourselves--using extreme means if necessary--and to be very careful not to tempt others to sin. Next Jesus reassured us that if we did sin and go astray, God would gladly seek us out and rejoice when we returned to the flock.
Now we move into verses 15-35, where Jesus will conclude this discussion about sin by talking about how to forgive sin in others:
“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.” --Matt 18:15-35, ESV
The first portion of this discussion about forgiveness is often taken out of context and (ironically) used in a very unforgiving way. We saw this earlier in the year with Mars Hill's approach to a confessing sinner in the church. This passage was used--out of context--as part of the "Biblical" justification for church discipline and excommunication. So let us start our discussion with this first section (v15-20).
Jesus here has been discussing sin and humility, and He says that if a brother sins against you, go talk to him "man to man". Notice what Jesus is saying you do not do here: you do not go talk to the rabbi, you do not go talk to other people, you do not sue, etc. These all would have been reasonable responses for a Jew at the time, and are often the responses undertaken here. Let's use an example. Say that a Christian notices that a fellow Christian has been stealing some bread from him. The response is not to tell the authorities, or seek your "legal protection" rights, or seek compensation, or talk to the church. Jesus says to go talk to the person one-on-one. Understand what happened. Let them know that you forgive them and care about them. Come to an agreement of how to fix it at that point.
Only then, if he refuses to admit that he has done you wrong and it unrepentent, do you bring someone else along--a few witnesses. And again you tell the person in this situation what is going on. If he remains unrepentent, then and only then does it come before the church. And if he will not then listen and return the thing he took or make amends for his sin, then you do not include him in the body any more. He is clearly an unrepentant sinner and if all of those people--you, your church witnesses, and the church at large--agree that he has done wrong and he is unwilling to admit it, then Jesus says there are spiritual consequences.
Note how drastically different this is from the "church discipline" approach! Note how wrongly it has been taken out of context.
What Jesus is suggesting here is not harsh discipline--in fact, in verse 21 Peter's confusion is not, "this seems too harsh", but rather, "how often do I have to do THAT? I don't want to have to forgive in that way!" This is about radical forgiveness. Jesus is talking about giving up your legal right to retribution and recompensation, and instead seeking out the person, talking to them privately, and coming to an agreement of how to handle the situation man-to-man.
Take the example in the Mars Hill case. Not to go too much in detail, a man was engaged to a woman in the church and cheated on her with another woman (not sex, but making out--still, a clear sinful betrayal of their trust). So he does exactly what is required in verse 15...he goes and apologizes to her and confesses--clearly repentent. Now what Jesus is suggesting here is that the two of them work out through prayer and Christian fellowship how to move forward. Maybe they go to counseling; maybe they break up; etc. But that isn't what happens. Mars Hill goes a totally different direction...months of confessing sin and jumping through church bureacratic hoops, and never again speaking to the Christian sister whom he wronged.
You see, many evangelical churches today quote this passage as a passage about church discipline. Which would be fine...if that was what the passage was referring to. The passage is referring to how you should forgive someone who did you wrong. To turn this into a passage for how to discipline someone who did someone else wrong is a horrible abuse of Scripture!
I cannot be more clear: this passage has NOTHING to do with church discipline. The church only gets involved to help serve as a 'judge' if the situation gets really out of hand and cannot be handled privately or in a small group setting. It is also not about approaching people living in a lifestyle of sin or not holding up church covenant standards or anything like that. It has a very specific purpose: if someone in the church sins against you, this is what you are to do. And it is a path of forgiveness, not a path of "increasing discipline". You are to go to them, talk about how they hurt you, and (if they are repentent) forgive them. If they do not think they have done anything wrong or they do not agree to stop hurting you, then bring it up in a small group setting, like an intervention. Only then, if they STILL do not think that what they are doing is wrong or should end, do you bring it to the church.
Notice that each step is an "IF", not an "AND". If a church member sins against you, you do not do all three steps! You only elevate to step 2 IF they are unrepentent or disagree that they have committed a sin.
Also notice that the person who was wronged is the only one who can bring the charge. The church (through a pastor or small group leader or whatever) doesn't stick its nose in to elevate an issue. The wronged brother or sister raises the charge one-on-one against the person with the goal of achieving reconiliation, not of achieving justice or compensation.
The reality is people don't like this. They don't like it when Jesus says, "Turn the other cheek." They don't like it when Jesus says, "Forgive as you want to be forgiven." They don't like when (here in this passage) Jesus says, "If you really can't get past it, if you have really been hurt, then go talk to them one-on-one to make it right."
We don't like that. What we prefer is for people to show US that kind of grace, but when we are wronged...well, in that case we want what we are due. If someone backed into our car, we want them to pay for it. If someone flirted with my wife, I want him out of my church. If someone stole from me, I want my money back. If someone hurt me, I want them to hurt. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
What Jesus says is the opposite. If someone stole from you, find out why. Maybe they are in debt and can't get by--Jesus might move in your heart to not only forgive them, but to give them more! ("Turn the OTHER cheek also..."). Maybe the person who flirted with your wife is struggling with a sexual addiction and you can help him get counseling.
I have a very good example from when I was at my last church. We had small group at our house, and one church member accidentally bumped another church member's car while leaving. It was dark outside, no one saw, and it was a minor scratch. But instead of leaving, the driver (in tears) came and told them that they were sorry. They went and looked at the car together and came to some kind of agreement. As a group leader and their friend...I don't know what they concluded. Maybe it was forgiven outright. Maybe the driver paid for the repairs. I have no idea. The point is that--as Jesus commands--they worked it out one-on-one and remained good friends in Christ afterward.
But this is a hard message. It is easy to read, but hard for many to accept in practice. "It's just WRONG, what he is doing!" "I can't believe she would say that about me behind my back!" When these situations happen, we want justice. Instead, Jesus tells us to go to them one on one and offer mercy.
Now Peter doesn't much like this message. This seems like a bad deal--to give up the legal rights you have and instead forgive someone. So he tries to find a loophole: what about those people who just keep doing me wrong? The ones who say they are sorry but keep abusing me in some way? When do I draw the line and say that it is time for escalating this up the chain and giving up on this person?
Well, if you didn't like Jesus' answer before...you won't like this one bit:
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.” --Matt 18:15-35, ESV
Now of course Jesus does not mean literally, at sin #78 you can give up on someone. His point is to take Peter's suggestion (I only have to forgive him 7 times) and basically says, "Not even close." Wives, think of how many times your husband has failed to take out the trash? Keep forgiving him. Husbands, how many times has your wife not fulfilled your desired sexual libido? Keep forgiving her.
He compares the situation to a man who had his debt forgiven but would not forgive the debts of those who owed him much less. When the servant's master finds out that this servant--whom he forgave greatly--is being unforgiving to others, he is furious and imprisons him.
The obvious comparison in this parable is that the master is God, and we are the unforgiving servant. Jesus says here that when God sees you, He remembers that He forgave you of thousands of sins, thousands of wrongs, thousands of rebellions. You have rung up a countless debt that you could never repay...and He loves you and forgives you anyway. So imagine how angry God gets when He sees you holding a grudge against the man across the street because he never mows his lawn? Imagine how angry God gets when He sees you fail to forgive someone for having talked bad about you behind your back?
Jesus is trying here to make us compare--is what they did to you worse than what you have done to God? Have they wronged you in a worse way than you have wronged God? If not (and the answer is always "No"), then how can you hold a grudge against them after God has forgiven you?
Make no mistake, this passage is not about church discipline. It is not about getting justice. This is a radically uncomfortable passage. It is about freely giving up all the justice you are owed--compensation, debt repayment, behavioral changes, etc.--and instead forgiving radically, freely, and without ceasing. Been wronged 50 times? Forgive again. And if something needs to be addressed, make it a one-on-one talk not a group talk. Not a church-wide talk. Not a "gossip behind their backs" talk. Be a Christian and go to them one-on-one, with the goal of forgiveness and reconciliation. That is what God wants you to do. Not once, not twice, not seven times...but as often as needed, for your entire life.