Lesson 13: Forgiveness, Part 1
Topic: Topical Passage: Matthew 18:15-20
[Note: This lesson is adapted from Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004). For more information, see Peacemaker® Ministries (https://pm.training).]
The Motivations for Forgivenes
It’s interesting to me that Matthew 18:15-20, which talks about church discipline and which we discussed in our last two lessons, is immediately followed by a passage about forgiveness. Turn with me to Matthew 18:21 (Mat 18:21-35).
How is Peter’s question related to the previous six verses? The whole goal in vv. 15-20 is to bring your brother or sister to the point of repentance. But Peter rightly recognizes that repentance is not the end of the story. Once your brother repents, you still must forgive him, and that’s not always easy! Plus, what if he does it again? Then it’s even harder to forgive! Also, in order to follow the steps in vv. 15-20, you need to have a spirit of forgiveness from the beginning, even if formal forgiveness has not yet been granted. In short, it’s hard to talk about confrontation and reconciliation without also talking about forgiveness.
Now, what is Peter’s concern in v. 21? He seems to be concerned that a brother or sister not take advantage of his forgiveness. Is that still a concern today? Sure it is! Now, lest we be too hard on Peter, the rabbis’ number was three. It was sort of a “four strikes and you’re out” kind of system–once you’ve been forgiven on three separate occasions, if you sin again, then the person you sinned against no longer owes you forgiveness. But after spending a couple years with Jesus, Peter is pretty sure that can’t be right. He knows that Christ is more generous than that, So Peter takes the rabbis’ number and doubles it. Then he adds one, which totals seven–the number of perfection! Peter’s probably pretty impressed with himself, that he would be so magnanimous.
Was Jesus impressed? No! What does He say (v. 22)? In other words, He says, “Stop counting.” Isn’t that shocking? I mean, if someone here at Life Point stole from you or said something unkind or lied about you four hundred and ninety times, don’t you think you would lose your patience? I know I would! How can this possibly be the standard? Something must be wrong. Or else, Jesus must be grounding this command in some reality that is so foreign to our natural way of thinking that it rocks our worldview. And it turns out that is exactly what He is doing.
True to form, Jesus introduces this new reality with a story (vv. 23-24). One fun thing about this story is that Jesus uses absurd numbers. A talent was originally a measure of weight equal to somewhere between sixty-six and seventy-five pounds. Now, He doesn’t say whether he’s talking about a talent of silver or a talent of gold, but typically, when people referred to a talent as a standard of currency, they were referring to a talent of silver. So the amount owed was roughly the value of three hundred thirty tons of silver, and that’s a conservative estimate. Silver is currently valued at $15.55 per oz, so that much silver would cost over $123 million.
However, an ever better way to calculate the size of this debt is to use the standard day’s wage in Israel. In Israel, the common day’s wage was a denarius. One talent of silver was equal to six thousand denarii, or about twenty years’ worth of wages. Therefore, ten thousand talents would take the average laborer 200,00 years, or about five thousand lifetimes to earn!
Besides that, “ten thousand” is the highest number for which any Greek term existed, and a talent was the largest known measure of money. So Jesus picked the highest number available to Him. It’s as if He said this man in His story owed a zillion dollars. What’s the point? The sin debt we owe to God is incalculable–in fact, it’s infinite. We could never pay it off, even if we worked for five thousand lifetimes.
Obviously, the servant could not pay (v. 25). But he doesn’t want to be sold into slavery either, so he pleads with his master. What does he say (v. 26)? Is that realistic? No! It is totally unrealistic to think that the servant could ever have repaid this debt; and yet amazingly, the master doesn’t require that. Instead, he simply has compassion and waives the entire sum (v. 27). Just like that, five thousand lifetimes worth of wages is forgiven.
Does this remind you of your salvation? It should! One modern hymn writer puts it this way:
What love could remember no wrongs we have done
Omniscient, all knowing, He counts not their sum
Thrown into a sea without bottom or shore
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more
The third verse says:
What riches of kindness he lavished on us
His blood was the payment, His life was the cost
We stood 'neath a debt we could never afford
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more
This is the new reality in light of which it makes perfect sense to forgive someone who has sinned against me four hundred and ninety times. No one can possibly sin against me worse than I sinned against God. And God forgave me. So how could I possibly not forgive them?
That’s the positive motivation behind forgiveness. But there’s also a negative motivation, as well. Let’s continue reading (v. 28). Now, based on what you’ve learned about the value of a denarius, you tell me–is one hundred denarii a small sum? No! That would be the equivalent of about four months’ wages! In other words, Jesus is not downplaying the significance of sins that are committed against us. Some people say, “How could I possibly forgive him? You don’t understand what he’s done to me!” To which I would respond, “That’s probably true; I don’t understand. But that’s not the point.” The point is that God forgave you! Stop focusing on how the other person wronged you, and redirect those energies into meditating on how you wronged God. It’s no small thing if someone owes you ten or fifteen thousand dollars, unless you’ve been forgiven 600,000 times that amount!
Ironically, the servant’s debtor begged for mercy using the same words that the servant had used (v. 29). But unlike his master, the servant showed no mercy (vv. 30-31). When the master found out, was he happy? No, he was livid! And he handed down a chilling sentence. The man was to be tortured indefinitely (vv. 34-35). So here’s where it really gets sobering: Jesus says, “You can expect the same response from God if you withhold forgiveness.”
In a room this size, there is probably someone here who is withholding forgiveness. I want you read v. 35 again (v. 35). Do you feel the weight of that? God has promised to send you to hell if you won’t forgive your brother! You say, “Pastor Kris, what about eternal security? Is lack of forgiveness an unpardonable sin?” Perhaps the best way to say it is that if you stubbornly refuse to forgive others, then you’re probably not God’s child, because recipients of grace give grace. If you’ve inhaled grace, you’ll also exhale it.
Now, that’s not to say that forgiveness is easy; in fact, in some cases, it’s the hardest thing you could possibly do! But in light of God’s judgment, you must forgive! And in light of His grace, how could you withhold forgiveness?
Are there any questions or comments about this passage or about those two motivations?
The Definition of Forgiveness
So let’s talk about this: what is forgiveness? What would you say?
First, let’s talk about what forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness is not a feeling; it’s an act of the will. I can choose to forgive someone even if I don’t want to. And many times, that is exactly what I have to do. Did you get that? It’s very, very important. You are not captive to your emotions. You can choose to forgive even if you don’t feel like it.
Now the good thing is, right feelings often follow right actions. So when you choose to forgive, God often changes your feelings. But you shouldn’t expect Him to change your feelings before you make that choice. You shouldn’t pray, “God, zap me with this overwhelming emotion so that I want to forgive and forgiveness is easy.” No, you should pray, “God, give me the grace to do what is right, even though it’s really, really hard.” That’s important.
- Forgiveness is not passive; it’s active. Memories tend to fade over time, but that is not the same thing as forgiveness. Forgiveness is a choice you make not to meditate on the offense, bring them up for ammunition, or talk about it to others.
- Forgiveness is not excusing. Sometimes when a person makes a half-hearted confession, we will say, “It’s okay” or “You couldn’t help it.” That’s actually the opposite of forgiveness. True forgiveness says, “Listen, we both know that what you did was wrong and totally inexcusable. But God forgave me, so I forgive you.” Does that make sense?
So that’s what forgiveness is not. Now what is forgiveness? We’ll begin answering this question today and then finish next week.
- Forgiveness is a decision that involves releasing someone from a debt and giving him a gift. We get this from the two Greek words for forgiveness: aphiemei and charizomai. Aphiemei means “to release.” When I forgive someone, I am releasing him from his debt; I will not hold on to that hurt any longer. I’m choosing to “let it go.” Charizomai means “to freely bestow favor.” So when I let go of that debt, I am simultaneously giving a gift. If Gary owes me $100, and I say, “You know what? Forget about it,” it’s as if I just gave Gary $100. Gary didn’t earn that gift from me; I just gave it to him free of charge. If it was any other way, it wouldn’t be a gift! And forgiveness is always a gift. Does that make sense? Do you see how closely our forgiveness of others parallels God’s forgiveness of us.
I’d like for us to meditate a bit longer on the illustration of debts. We’ve already seen from Matthew 18 and from those two Greek words for forgiveness that when someone sins, he incurs a debt. Now, most of that debt is owed to God, who sent Jesus to die for our sins. But a small portion of that debt is owed to the person you sinned against.
That means that when someone sins against you, you have a choice to make. You can either take payments or make payments. You take payments when you try to make the other person pay.
What are some ways that we try to make people pay when they’ve sinned against us? (cutting him off, giving him the silent treatment, gossiping, saying mean things, making his life miserable, seeking revenge, etc.).
Making the other person pay can be very tempting. But we’ve got to remind ourselves that revenge never satisfies and that bitterness will destroy us. We’ll talk about that more next week. But it’s been said, “Bitterness is the poison we drink, hoping the other person will die,” and that’s true.
The other option that we have when someone has sinned against us is to make payments. Sande says that sometimes, God will enable us to pay off the debt all at once. That happens when I decide to forgive (again, an act of the will) and God quickly helps my mind and emotions to follow. It’s nice when that happens.
However, Sande goes on to say that sometimes, it’s not that easy. He says, “But when there has been a deep wrong, the debt it creates is not always paid at once. You may need to bear certain effects of the other person’s sin over a long period of time. This may involve fighting against painful memories, speaking gracious words when you really want to say something hurtful, working to tear down walls and be vulnerable when you still feel little trust, or even enduring the consequences of a material or physical injury that the other person is unable or unwilling to repair.”
I think some people baulk at forgiveness because it’s presented in a very simplistic way, like you should always be able to just let it go and move on. Sande’s point here is that it’s not always that easy. Sometimes you have to make payments. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re denying the other person forgiveness until you feel like forgiving! (Remember, forgiveness is an act of the will.) But it does mean sometimes that initial act of the will must be followed up by hundreds of little choices in which you make good on your initial commitment. And it also means that sometimes, the feelings are not there in the beginning, but they follow over time. Does that make sense? Are there any questions or comments about that?
Again, in a room this size, I would assume that someone is struggling with bitterness, if not multiple people. Let me appeal to you one last time–you’re risking God’s wrath and drinking poison. If you don’t stop, you will destroy yourself and others will probably suffer, as well. In fact, other people probably already are suffering because of your lack of forgiveness. I know that’s not what you want. So please repent and get the help that you need.
 Matt Boswell and Matt Papa. “His Mercy is More” 2016 Getty Music ASCAP Publishing Designee Getty Music Publishing, Love Your Enemies Publishing, Messenger Hymns.