A Lesson on Forgiveness: Matthew 18:21–22

Lesson on forgiveness (2)

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4) Matt 18:21–22: In this passage, Jesus reversed Lamech’s concept of seventy-fold vengeance for God’s people to respond to those who sin against us (Cf. Gen 4:22–23).[1]

Christ had just instructed his disciples regarding the proper practices for church discipline (Matt 18:15–20).[2]

Then Peter went to him with a related question concerning personal animosity:[3] “Lord, how many times shall my brother against me sin and I shall forgive him? As many as seven?”

In the earlier case, the person had failed to repent, necessitating the involvement of church leaders. However, here Peter asked about dealing with a person who requests forgiveness (Luke 17:3–4).[4]

Pastoral concern for another believer’s spiritual life does not conflict with a willingness to forgive offenses against us (cf. 1 Cor 5:1–13 and its result in 2 Cor 2:5–11).[5]



Peter’s question does not revolve around whether to forgive at all but how often to do so (Matt 6:12–15).[6] After all, manipulative people can exploit easy forgiveness to achieve their own ends.[7]

Knowing that Jesus held to a high standard for righteousness (Matt 5:17–20), Peter likely selected the number seven because it represented complete fullness.[8]

According to Jewish people of that era, righteous people forgive an offender.[9]

The apocryphal Testament of Gad states, “Love ye one another from the heart; and if a man sin against thee, speak peaceably to him, and in thy soul hold not guile; and if he repent and confess, forgive him.”[10]

However, based upon Amos 1:3 and Amos 2:6,[11] rabbis considered forgiving premeditated sins three times sufficient (b. Yoma 86b).[12]

When a perpetrator exceeded that number, rabbis regarded their claims of repentance as false,[13] for “One who asks pardon of his neighbor need do so no more than three times” (b. Yoma 87a).[14]

After all, true repentance does involve turning away from sin.[15] Most of Peter’s contemporaries would have viewed his suggestion of forgiving seven times as more than generous.[16]



Going against conventional wisdom,[17] “Jesus said to him, ‘I say to you, not as many as seven times, but as many as seventy times seven” (ebdomēkontakis hepta).”

The Greek translation of Gen 4:24 employs the same phrase, rather than seventy-seven.[18]

Nevertheless, both terms have a virtually identical meaning, for seventy-seven also represents an unrestrained and unsurpassable fullness.[19]

Christ’s followers must forgive as extravagantly as Lamech exacted vengeance.[20]

Jesus used figurative—not calculating—language.[21] He employed a typically Jewish way of commanding, “Never hold grudges.”[22]

Anyone who stresses over whether the actual number is seventy-seven or 490 misses the point. If we are keeping count, we are not really forgiving.[23]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Matt 18:21–22. Why do matters which require church discipline differ from those in which people have committed sins against us? Do you think that Jesus had Lamech’s poem in mind when he said these words? Why or why not? What did Christ command his people to do?





Go to A King Settling Accounts (Matt 18:23–27)

[Related posts include A King Settling Accounts (Matt 18:23–27); Astounding Hypocrisy (Matt 18:28–30); Having Mercy on our Fellow Debtors (Matt 18:31–34); The Tragedy of Mercilessness (Matt 18:35); Lamech’s Ode to Himself (Gen 4:23–24); Ancient Literature; and Greek Translation of the Old Testament]

[Click here to go to Chapter 2: The Descent of Humanity (Genesis 4:17–24)]


[1]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 457.

[2]Jesus promised to provide guidance for church leaders who make decisions pertaining to the discipline of a member whose life is characterized by sin. He did not say that the prayers of a group of believers who gather together are more effective than those of individuals praying separately.

[3]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 700.

[4]Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1998), 537.

[5]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 700. Most commentators believe that the second passage refers to the same person as the one discussed in Paul’s first letter to Corinth.

[6]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 537.

[7]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 700.

[8]Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 537.

[9]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 456–7.

[10]Rutherford H. Platt Jr., trans., “The Testament of Gad,” in The Forgotten Books of Eden (New York: Alpha House, 1926), 2.3, http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/fbe/fbe290.htm.

[11]Talmudist, English Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b, Http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Yoma.pdf.

[12]Wilkins, Matthew, 622.

[13]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 456–7.

[14]Talmudist, “English Babylonian Talmud,” Yoma 87a, Http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Yoma.pdf.

[15]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 18:21–2.

[16]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 700.

[17]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 704–5.

[18]Rick Brannan, et al., The Lexham English Septuagint (LES) (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2012), Gen 4:24.

[19]Ryken, Wilhoit, and Reid, “Seven,” DBI, 775.

[20]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 705.

[21]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 705.

[22]Keener, IVPBBCNT, Matt 18:21–2.

[23]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 705.