In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother and is told: seventy times seven. Was Peter referring to a fellow believer or does Jesus’s answer include everyone and anyone who sins against us?
Furthermore, Matthew 18:15-20 deals with the matter of a sinning brother. In verse 17, Jesus offers instruction on how to deal with a sinning brother if he refuses to listen to the church: “Let him be to you as a heathen…”. Doesn’t that contradict the previous verse on forgiveness?
Mathew 18 details the conduct that people belonging to the kingdom of heaven need to display in relation to one another as part of being in one community.
The disciples asked Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus redefines their understanding of greatness in context of the kingdom principles:
So, who is “the brother” in chapter 18?
Well, taking all of these contexts in view along with the parable about the kingdom of heaven that Jesus narrated as an answer to Peter’s question in v. 21, we can conclude that Jesus had in mind a fellow believer who sins. Peter also had the same concept in mind. He was referring to a fellow citizen of the kingdom of heaven, given the disciples’ preoccupation of being the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Further evidence is seen in the fact that one needs to be spiritually reborn to enjoy eternal life with the Father. Of course, it is our duty to forgive unbelievers too. That is a general application for all believers.
Regarding the confusion of v. 22 contradicting v. 17, here are a few things to bear in mind:
1. What is forgiveness?
It is the act of bearing the cost of the loss that the offender has brought upon us, without attempting to extract from others (just like the king who cancels the debt of 10,000 talents owed to him by his servant and sets him free).
The Jewish understanding at the time was to demonstrate a forgiving spirit three times; Peter talking of forgiving his brother seven times, therefore, showed his generosity. Jesus, however, raised the bar to show that His followers don’t keep count of how many times they forgive their fellow believers and others.
2. Forgiveness is not cheap and is not to be taken for granted.
As believers are expected to forgive their offenders, we must also understand that offenders cannot receive that forgiveness cheaply — especially since the offended is choosing not to return the same treatment he received from the offender. Not retaliating in a tit-for-tat manner doesn’t mean that the damage done by the sin is left unaddressed.
Not retaliating in a tit-for-tat manner doesn’t mean that the damage done by the sin is left unaddressed
Forgiveness is received by the offender when he confesses the debt incurred and the inability to pay back the loss caused by his actions, as well as when he displays an attitude of repentance and sorrow over what was done while making an apology (just like the servant who was unable to repay his debt of 10,000 talents fell at his master’s feet).
Apologising is a required process at this stage to receive forgiveness. We reconciled with God while receiving forgiveness, after accepting our inability to repay our debt; that same process is present when believers apologise and forgive each other. Reconciliation is necessary for both parties for forgiveness to take place.
3. Is the church failing to forgive when it exercises church discipline and excommunication?
In the context of the kingdom community, a believer has to show his concern and love for a fellow believer who sins, and work in ways to lead that person to repentance. The aim of confronting a brother who has sinned against anyone is to get him to be a better citizen of God’s kingdom and help him reflect the truthfulness of the claim of heavenly citizenship.
Note that the offended is not trying to take revenge or get even with the offender. When the effort fails (that is, it doesn’t lead to repentance), the believer has to take two or three others to confront the offender — so that, at their witness, the issue of sin is addressed. When that fails, an effort to get the offender to repent of his sins happens within the context of the church.
When a person is adamant on remaining in his sin without any intention of repentance, the church is commanded to treat the person as an unbeliever because the offender is not serious about sin. This act of not taking sin seriously and not repenting doesn’t befit the citizen of God’s kingdom. And so, the church does on earth what God has already done in heaven (Matthew 18:18-19). In this way, we can understand that v. 22 doesn’t contradict v. 17.
Putting out a person from church membership and subjecting him to church discipline doesn’t mean that the church is not willing to forgive or is being unloving. The church shouldn’t cheapen forgiveness by de-emphasising repentance and reconciliation. Discipline and excommunication are done to give out the message that Jesus’ attitude towards sin is shared by citizens who belong to His kingdom and that repentance is necessary to be accepted back. It is the church’s responsibility to manifest the costly nature of forgiveness shown in the message of the gospel and extend it to the one who repents.
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