Often we are reminded of a passage in Matthew about what it means to forgive. Peter asks Christ how much he should forgive someone? Seven times? Christ comes back with the answer of seventy-seven times. Does this mean if number seventy-eight comes up we do not have to forgive? Obviously not! So what does this passage mean? What does it mean to forgive? First, let’s look at the text itself.
Matthew 18:21-35 ESV
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.”
This is a stunning passage, a convicting passage. Often we find ourselves as the one who has been released from a great debt refusing to forgive the one with a small debt. But again, what does it actually mean to forgive.
The word forgive in this passage is the Greek word ἀφήσω (aphiemi). And what does this mean in the original? ἀφήσω carries the idea of releasing from a legal or moral obligation (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature).
This has amazing implications for what it means to forgive. You have gone to court with that person and the judge threw the case out, said the person is innocent or no longer obligated to the debt, or otherwise it has been satisfied. From that point forward, from a legal sense, you act as if the wrong has been fulfilled or never occurred in the first place. It has been satisfied.
When we choose to forgive we are taking that legal and moral stance. You are no longer obligated to me for what happened. I am wiping the slate clean. It is over and done. And Jesus says we are to do this seventy-seven times. This means we are wiping the slate clean, never to bring it up again. It has been cleared from the record.
What a picture of grace and what God has done for us and now expects us to do the same for others. It is a tall order. It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it is what we are called to do. May we all learn how to forgive.