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Study Notes:

Matthew 18:21-35

Living Together Well – Forgiveness

Summary: Christians, who receive incalculable forgiveness from God, should eagerly share the same with others.

When we gather as a church, we open our Bibles and hear what God has to say to us – this is His instruction on how life should be lived – His detailed report on what life is all about, what has gone wrong and what He has done to fix it. 

Right now, we’re going through the book of Matthew – a biography of Jesus written by one of His disciples.  Matthew is telling us what Jesus did and what He taught.  And we’re in the middle of a section where Jesus responded to an argument among His followers about which of them would be the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom.

Jesus responded by telling them, basically, stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking of others – pretty solid advice for anyone in leadership, right?  That led to Jesus giving instructions on various aspects of relationships – how we get along with others.  This morning we’ve come to what He has to say about forgiveness – so I want to warn you – as we go through this, don’t be surprised if God brings some very specific applications to your mind – don’t be surprised if He shows you how some of this applies to your relationships and people you might need to forgive or seek forgiveness from.

But I also want you to know, right up front, that Christians are called to forgive others out of the forgiveness they have received from God – we receive, and then reflect.  So, if you haven’t sought forgiveness from God I’m going to encourage you to do that at the end of our time together and invite you to become a Christian – to establish a foundation of forgiveness in your life that enables you to forgive others as well.

So let’s jump right in and pick up the conversation as Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness.

Matthew 18:21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

The Jewish rabbis taught you should forgive someone three times – the third time is the charm, right?  So, when Peter asked if he should forgive someone seven times, he most likely thought he was being really, really, generous – exceptionally patient. 

But Jesus says,

22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

Basically Jesus says, “Peter, don’t even worry about counting, just keep forgiving.”  Because, those who follow Christ should offer others an enormous opportunity of grace as Jesus goes on to illustrate.

23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.

OK, so pay attention to what is going on – Jesus is going to tell Peter a story to show him what God is like and how, as servants of God, we should treat other people.

He tells Peter about a servant – probably a regional governor serving under the king of the whole empire.  He is responsible for managing a portion of the kingdom and collecting taxes there, but the amount he owes the king is tremendous.

A talent was worth about twenty year’s wages for a laborer – so, around $600,000 if you’re calculating from $15 per hour.  Taxes were high during this period, but Josephus reports that the annual tax tribute from Galilee and Perea under the Herod the Great was 200 talents or $120M in today’s dollars. 

Ten thousand talents “probably represented more than the entire annual income of the king, and perhaps more than all the actual coinage in circulation in Egypt at the time!” It’s equivalent to $60B in todays’ money. In other words, this is an inconceivable amount of debt.  It’s a hole you’re not going to dig yourself out of and suddenly you’re being called to pay it.

25 But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made.

This was totally within the prerogative of the king – liquidate the man’s personal assets, seize his home, his belongings, auction everything off, including the man and his family to the highest bidder in an attempt to recover the lost money.

26 The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’

You can picture this in your mind, the man falls down on his knees and touches the ground with his forehead in an expression of profound reverence, he’s begging for his life – “Give me just a little more time and I’ll repay.”  But that’s impossible.  There’s no way he’s going to be able to find that kind of money.  Fortunately, the king knows that:

27 Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

You have to realize – kings at this time were not nice guys, forgiving this kind of debt would be totally unheard of and completely unexpected.  The only thing bigger than the debt is the grace the man receives as it’s all washed away.

Unfortunately, what he has just experienced doesn’t change how he treats others.

28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii [100 denarii – 100 days of a common worker’s wages – about $12,000]; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ 30 And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt.

Now, when you read that, you have to ask: why would he do that, after all he has just been forgiven, why would he do that?  And I think the man didn’t really understand how much he had been forgiven.  Maybe he thought by collecting on his own debts he could work at paying off the debt that he owed – maybe he viewed it as deferred instead of forgiven. 

But, his actions are going to get him in trouble here – if he would have just received the forgiveness, and reflected it to others, everything would have been fine, but now…

31 So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. 32 Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ 34 And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.

Do you remember that we said last week an ambassador has an obligation to represent his or her country? Here you have a king showing grace and expecting his subordinates to do the same.  And when the attitude and conduct of the servant doesn’t match that of the king, there’s a tremendous problem – in heaven and on earth – as Jesus makes clear:

35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

Here is the whole point of the story – this is the reason Jesus told this story, he wants us to know: the man loses everything he had been given because he did not reflect grace to others – and it’s what will happen to each of us if we don’t forgive others.

Now, let me be honest: this is a really uncomfortable verse.  And we all want someone to explain it away, to tell us it doesn’t really mean what it seems to mean.  But what if it does? 

Remember the context here – this is just one part of a conversation Jesus was having with the disciples – not to the crowds.  They had asked Him who would be the greatest in His kingdom and He told them, essentially, if you don’t humble yourself and value others, you might not even get into Heaven.  And now this: if you don’t forgive others, you might not be forgiven yourself.  God expects us to change the way we treat others because of the way we’re treated by Him.

The idea of receiving and reflecting forgiveness is a common theme in Scripture. 

Paul makes it plain in his letter to the Ephesians – he calls Christians to:

Eph 4:32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

Do you see what he’s saying?  The way you treat others should be anchored in the way you’ve been treated by God.  Be forgiving because you’ve been forgiven.  Be kind because you’ve been shown kindness by God.

The same idea is emphasized for us in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray:

Matt 6:11  Give us this day our daily bread.

12  And forgive us our debts,

As we forgive our debtors.

The disciples had asked Jesus to teach them to pray and this is what He taught them, but then, right after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus told them:

Matt 6:14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Friends, there is no avoiding this: God expects us to receive grace and forgiveness from Him, and then reflect it to others.  That’s how things work.  Experience propels action.  We experience the love and forgiveness of Christ, THEN show it to others.  We are compelled forward by what we have received.

The gospel is a message of forgiveness; it’s the central theme of our faith.  Everything we believe hinges on our ability to be forgiven in Christ. 

We are forgiven for

things we should have done, but didn’t;

things we should not have done, but did;

things we should have done better but came up short;

and things we tried to do but failed.  Forgiveness is the very foundation of the faith. 

So, how could you receive that, really truly understand your need for it, and the fact that it has been given to you and then not reflect it in your relationships with other people?

Holding onto to grudges, or bitterness, or holding others to impossible standards is self-centered and does not reflect the mercy and kindness God offers to you.

So, let’s take some time to talk about forgiveness – what it looks like and how it plays out in the life of a Christian.

Let’s begin by recognizing that forgiveness is not denial, it doesn’t pretend things never happened.  In the story Jesus told, the debts were real.  One was forgiven, the other was not, but both were real.  You can’t forgive someone unless they have actually done you wrong.

Now, that may seem kind of basic, but I’m not sure we really appreciate the fact – you can’t forgive someone unless they have actually done you wrong.  God is not asking you to pretend that nothing ever happened.

And, He’s not saying there won’t be repercussions at times.  You can forgive someone, and yet, if what they did was illegal or harmful, or broke other rules or laws there may still be consequences to deal with.  Forgiveness restores relationships, but doesn’t always remove consequences.  I can forgive you for running into me and wrecking my car, but that doesn’t mean your insurance premiums aren’t going to go up and that I haven’t lost something I valued. 

A parent can forgive a child for their disobedience while still enforcing a restriction or taking away a privilege.  Once again, forgiveness restores the relationship, but other consequences may remain.

Of course, facing the consequences while keeping the relationship changes the whole way someone experiences the consequences – they’re no longer enduring them alone. 

Kids, you might break mom and dad’s rules, or the rules of the school, and as a result lose access to your electronics for a day, a week, or month.   But if you find forgiveness from mom and dad, even though you don’t get your device back, the way you experience the coming day, week, or month without your device, is going to be much better than if you were separated not only from your device, but also from the people around you.

In the same way, a felon can find forgiveness in Christ, but still face the rest of his or her sentence in prison.  And yet the way he or she experiences that sentence, as a believer in Christ, is going to be different than the man or woman who endures their sentence alone. 

So, again, forgiveness is not denial – it’s not saying nothing happened, it recognizes what happened, confronts it, and forgives it – perhaps even while the consequences play out.

Well, let’s make another observation about forgiveness: the closer our relationship the more difficult it will be at times.

Take a relationship like having sisters, or brothers, or having a spouse or roommate, even having a boss – these are relationships that you are locked into to varying degrees.  And that means that you’re going to know the other person well.  You’re going to have an up close and intimate view of them allowing you to see their frailties and their weaknesses far better than you see the lives of people you’re not so close to. 

And at some point, it is quite likely you will get tired of watching them, or hearing them commit the same old sins, especially if those sins affect you.  And if we aren’t cautious, familiarity will breed contempt and we will find ourselves losing patience with the people we are closest to, the people we’re supposed to love the most, as they stumble toward God’s Kingdom each day. 

And though yes, they should come to you and ask for forgiveness, you also need to grow increasingly patient and gracious with others – the more patience and love you receive from God personally, the more you should be compelled and equipped to show to others.

Consider a verse we mentioned last week:

Proverbs 10:12  “Hatred stirs up strife, But love covers a multitude of sins.”

It is in our closest and most regular relationships at home and at work, that we find the greatest opportunities to apply the command to forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven.

Just because you’re in a position to see sin in someone’s life doesn’t mean you always need to address it.  Sometimes, in fact many times, the best thing to do is to forgive the other person quietly, pray for them, and let love cover over the hurt they have caused you.

We need to love with a love that is willing to forgive over and over as God works to transform the other persons and we should fuel that love with the understanding that God is doing the same thing in us.  We have our own weak spots where we sin more frequently or more bitterly and God is working to change and strengthen us too.

It all goes back to our individual walk with God – we have sinned against Him and yet He continually forgives us.  No one has sinned against you as much as you have sinned against God – if He can forgive you, you can forgive them.

This is what is different about Biblical, Christian, relationships – especially Christian marriage – you are patient with one another, showing grace and mercy.  You don’t just bail out when things get rough, because you know God never bails out on you.

Forgiving others is a challenging thing to do.  It’s not easy, it’s not automatic, and it will often cost us – the king took a massive financial loss in order to show forgiveness to the servant.  He gave up what He was rightfully owed.  He put His own rights aside for the sake of the one who had done him wrong.  That’s not normal behavior – but that’s actually the whole point of what Jesus was saying – take a look with me back at

Matthew 18:23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.

Jesus isn’t describing natural human behavior, He’s giving us an illustration of what we actually receive from God.  I read a little reminder of this in my devotions this week:

Ps 86:5 For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,

And abundant in mercy to all those who call upon You.

Your ability to live well with others, to love them and forgive them, begins with experiencing these things yourself.  You are the servant who owes more than you could ever repay, God is the righteous king that you owe. 

You have debt, and you know it.  But God is willing to forgive, if you will simply confess your debt and ask for His forgiveness.  Don’t ask for more time to repay, ask for a complete cancellation of all debt.  And that is what He will give.

If you are in need of forgiveness this morning, I want you to know that it is available.  Find it first from God.  And if necessary, seek it out from others, and show it to others – but you can’t reflect unless you first receive.

So receive.  Receive forgiveness today.  Walk out of here a new man, or a new woman, and if you see someone who owes you, forgive them because you have been forgiven yourself.

How do you find forgiveness? 

By confessing your guilt and asking for forgiveness.  Whether you are addressing God or another person, the process is the same: tell the other person exactly what you did wrong, admit it was wrong and ask for forgiveness.  It’s important, whenever possible, to name exactly what you’ve done – to show the person you’re seeking forgiveness from that you know what you’ve done.  So, you say things like:

“Honey, please forgive me for getting angry.” 

“Babe, would you please forgive me for not respecting you?” 

“Mom, would you please forgive me for being lazy and not helping you with the chores.” 

“Roomate, please forgive me for being selfish and doing only what I wanted to do.” 

When it comes to seeking forgiveness with God, it’s good to do the same thing:

Father, forgive me for my anger, my pride, for lying, for whatever happened; don’t beat around the bush, call yourself out.  Say what you did.  And ask for forgiveness FOR THAT.

The Bible says

1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But what if all this is new to you?  What if you’ve never done this before?  Do you have go make a list of everything you’ve ever done wrong and ask forgiveness for it all?  No.  Just ask to be forgiven of your entire debt – all 10,000 talents.  And if you think of certain things, by all means, ask for forgiveness of particular issues or events.  But if you want to be forgiven by God for all that you’ve ever done, simply admit that you have done more wrong than you could ever make right – tell God that you understand that you don’t need a little more time to make it all right, you need to be completely forgiven.  And He will. 

That’s what the cross is all about – Jesus was treated as if He was guilty of all our sins so that we could be treated as if we were as holy and pure as He is.  He paid our debts, He suffered in our place.  So, for the Christian, there is nothing hanging over your head any more, there’s nothing that’s finally going to catch up with you, there’s nothing that He’s going to discover in your closet.  The principle is longer collecting interest.  It has all been forgiven.

If you want to receive that forgiveness, and then begin showing it to others, now is your chance.  Bow with me as we pray, and if you agree with the things I say, then say amen at the end – God knows your heart and sees your thoughts, He knows your desires – and He is willing to forgive if you will just ask. 

Let’s pray.

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