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Author:Pastor Keith Davis
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Congregation:Bethel United Reformed Church
 Calgary, Alberta
Preached At:Lynwood United Reformed Church
 Lynwood, IL
Title:How Many Times?
Text:Matthew 18:21-35 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ, what is man’s greatest need? Some would say love. Others would say happiness. Still others would say man need’s a sense of purpose and importance. The well known Christian Counselor and author Jay Adams points out that man’s greatest need by far is forgiveness, and rightly so!

As he states, "Without it, he (man) is doomed to spend eternity in hell suffering for his sins. With it, he will spend eternity in heaven with God enjoying the eternal fruits of Christ’s righteousness." (From Forgiven to Forgiving, p. 6)

What makes forgiveness such a beautiful and wonderful gift is that it’s a lasting and permanent fixture in the Christian’s life. Forgiveness isn’t just an emotion or a feeling that we experience from time to time. No. Forgiveness is a concrete reality. Forgiveness is a promise.

Forgiveness is God’s promise that He will not hold, He will not remember our sins against us anymore. When God forgives us, He promises not to bring up our sins against us in the future judgment-even though He knows (as do we!) that our sins are more than we can count; even though our sins are as scarlet, and red like crimson. Yet, God promises to forgive.

But as we read today in Matthew 18, and as we know from other parts of Scripture, forgiveness is not just God’s gift to us. Forgiveness is also God’s calling for us. All those who have been forgiven, are now called to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.

That is why forgiveness remains man’s greatest need even within Christ’s church, a community of those that have already been forgiven. That’s because forgiveness is the key to spiritual unity within the church and home. Forgiveness literally is the oil that keeps the machinery (relationships) of the Christian home and church running smoothly (Adams, 7).

Forgiveness is what prevents our relationships from breaking down. Forgiveness is what keeps our marriages strong, our families tight knit; our communion at church strong and sweet. If you want a peek at what life would be like without forgiveness, just open the newspaper or turn on the TV o talk to your unbelieving neighbor. There you will see, and read, and hear all about a broken world filled with broken people whose lives and families are torn to shreds.

In the parable that’s before us today, Jesus is teaching His disciples, He’s teaching His church not only about the immense and immeasurable grace of God’s forgiveness; but He’s also teaching about the measure in which we are to forgive, the extent to which we forgive others.

Here, Jesus Reveals to His Disciples the Boundaries of Brotherly Forgiveness...
1) By Answering a Dangerous Question;
2) By Providing a Persuasive Example.

1) By Answering a Dangerous Question

People of God, before we can rightly consider Peter’s question in verse 21, we have to go back a moment and consider the conversation which triggered this question. If you look back to Matthew 18: 15, you may recall that this is where Jesus taught His disciples about what to do if a brother would sin against them.

To put it simply, Jesus instructed them to lovingly rebuke the brother (show him his sin). If he repented, they were to forgive him. If the brother who sinned refused to repent after being admonished, he was not to forgiven. Instead, he was to be admonished by one or two others. If, after that, he still refused to repent, then the offense (the sin), was to be told to the church.

If the brother still refused to repent, the church had the responsibility to bind that brother in his sin and declare that so long as he refuses to repent, he would have no possibility of forgiveness, no reconciliation with God, and no place in the kingdom of God.

So now, in verse 21, when Peter comes to Jesus and asks, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?" we have to understand that Peter was not referring to someone who had sinned against him but refused to repent. No. Peter had no right to forgive a brother who had not sincerely repented of his sin before the Lord.

Peter is speaking about a brother in the Lord who had sinned against him and had shown genuine remorse and repentance. What Peter wants to know, then, is how many times was he obliged to forgive a brother who, despite his repentance, persisted in wrongdoing? How many times should this person be allowed to repent and be restored into fellowship once again?

Notice, Peter even ventures a guess, doesn’t he? He asks, "Up to seven times?" Now, what’s so interesting about Peter’s guess is that Jewish Rabbis taught that God would forgive a man up to three times for a sin, but upon the fourth transgression, God would no longer forgive.

Their basis for such laws came from passages like Amos 1 where the Lord declares, "For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. That formula is repeated 4 times in Amos 1 as the Lord pronounces judgment on Israel’s neighboring nations. Similar language is found in Job 33: 29 which states, God does all these things to a man-twice, even three times-to turn back his soul from the pit that the light of life may shine on him.

Peter’s answer seems to show that he at least knows something of the importance of forgiveness. Peter’s answer also shows the fruit and benefit of having been with Jesus. Peter has learned by experience that the grace of Jesus usually goes above and beyond human regulations. Peter knows that Jesus was bound to be far more gracious and forgiving than any Rabbi.

So it would appear that Peter’s guess is more than generous, more than fair. But Jesus shames that seemingly gracious offer by saying, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or, as other translations put it: seventy-times seven).

Before we get to Jesus’ response, we need to take a moment to put Peter’s question into perspective. We need to pause and ask, "What kind of a question is this?" What’s Peter’s motive or reason for asking this question? One commentary openly criticizes Peter for (quote) "ludicrously trying to reduce forgiveness to a mathematical formula."

To a certain extent, (and based upon the parable that Jesus tells in response) I think we have to agree with that observation. Peter’s question proves that the disciples were still prone to thinking more like a Pharisee than a disciple of Jesus. Even though Jesus was constantly warning them to beware of the deceit and legalism of the Pharisees, it was so easy to give in.

After all, legalism runs in our family. Legalism is a trait of our fallen human nature. There’s part of us that likes the idea of "paring down" the Christian faith to a list of do’s and don’ts and requirements. There’s something within us is that always likes to know what the bottom line is; what’s it going to take for me to get by in the Christian life; tell me how many times am I obligated to forgive a brother who sins against me. It’s easier that way, isn’t it?

Boys and girls, when you are given the assignment of writing a research paper for history class, what is one of the first questions you ask the teacher? You ask, "How long does it have to be?" Granted, that’s something you certainly need to know, but what you’re really asking is "What’s the bare minimum?" Never mind that you can probably gather enough research for a ten page report-if five pages is all that is required, then five pages it will be.

What’s so sad is that so many of us are content to live out our lives before Christ with that same mentality: "What’s the bottom line, Lord? What’s the least I can do for You and Your Kingdom." No, we may never state it in those exact terms, but our actions betray our true feelings and our true intent (daily Bible reading; giving; praying; worship; obedience).

I can’t imagine that any of us would ever ask, "What’s the least amount of love and attention I can give my child and still have him know that I love him?" No one would dare to ask, "What’s the very least amount of love and affection I can show to my spouse before he or she becomes upset with me?" No one would ever ask, "What’s the very least amount of work I can do at the office before the boss fires me". Few (serious) students would ask, "What’s the very least amount of effort I can give at school and still get by with a passing grade?"

Yet, while we may never dare to ask such questions, the reality is, our sinful human nature tempts us to test such extremes all the time. And it’s no different when it comes to our relationship with God. The temptation is to do exactly as Peter has done, and ask, "Lord, what is enough?" "Will this do?" Will that do?" "What is the bottom line? What is it that you require?" "What’s the limit?" "Where are the boundaries?" "When have I given enough?"

And, as Jesus points out later, when we ask this question in relation to forgiveness, it’s an especially dangerous question because of what God has done for us. God has shown us limitless grace and mercy and love, so how can we even dare to talk about putting a limit on what God expects or asks of us? That’s why Jesus gives Peter the answer that he does (back to vs. 22).

If we read verse 22 to be saying seventy-times-seven, then boys and girls, Jesus is not suggesting that we are to forgive our brother 490 times, but when he sins against us for the 491st time, then we shall no longer forgive him. No, Jesus is saying that our forgiveness must know no bounds; it is to be as infinite and exhaustive as is His forgiving grace and mercy for us.

What’s so fascinating about Jesus’ answer is that He openly mimics the words of Lamech back in Genesis 4: 24. Lamech was a descendent of Cain (Cain killed his brother Abel). Even though Cain killed Abel, the Lord promised that anyone who avenged Abel’s death by killing Cain would suffer vengeance 7 times over.

One day Lamech proudly boasted to his two wives that he had killed a man who had injured him. So in his sinful arrogance, he sang a song to his wives, saying that if Cain was avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.

So Lamech was calling down infinite retribution upon any who would dare to sin against him. That’s the way sin is repaid in the world-with vengeance, evil for evil. Vengeance is the opposite of forgiveness. But Jesus calls His disciples to exactly the opposite reaction. He calls His people to repay good for evil, to exercise infinite forgiveness when sinned against. So that is the first point, how Jesus Reveals to His Disciples the Boundaries of Brotherly Forgiveness. Now we go on to consider the second point, Jesus reveals to his disciples the boundaries of brotherly forgiveness.

2) By Providing a Persuasive Example.

Here we finally come to that familiar parable. I’m sure you boys and girls have heard this parable told several times, if not off the pulpit, then certainly in Sunday school. In this parable Jesus is teaching his disciples (and us) a very important truth about His kingdom-saying, this is the way things work in the kingdom of God. This is what it is like.

Even though we normally call this parable the parable of the unmerciful servant, Jesus wants us to focus equal attention on the king. After all, in verse 35, this king is likened to Christ’s heavenly Father. So Jesus is revealing to us what His Father is like, and how we can expect to be treated by Him.

So we begin with the king. Jesus said that one day this king decided it was time to settle the accounts of his servants. In other words, the king was calling upon all those who owed him money to pay back the debt. As he was doing so, he came across one notorious servant who owed him an enormously huge amount of money. Jesus says it amounted to ten thousand talents.

Now, much is made of how a servant could ever incur such a debt. Some suggest that this particular servant must have been a tax collector, and that for many years he must have "borrowed" the king’s tax money, figuring he’d pay it back one day. But that’s not anything we need to be concerned about. Jesus wants us to focus on the immensity of the debt he owed.

Also, many commentators spend a lot of time and energy trying to convey to the readers just exactly how enormous this sum of money was. One commentator researched historical documents and discovered that the Roman government collected annual revenue of 900 talents from 4 major rejoins in Palestine-Samaria, Galilee, Judea, and Idumea-pointing out that 10,000 talents was like 11 years of revenue from those provinces.

Biblical references are made a well, (I Chronicles 29) pointing out that in Solomon’s day, the total amount of gold dedicated to building the temple was 8000 talents, and I Kings 10:14 says that the weight of gold brought to Solomon in one years was 666 talents of gold.

But while those are interesting comparisons which have been drawn, and while they do help to impress upon our minds that 10,000 talents is indeed an incredible amount of money, Jesus’ point is that this debt is immeasurable, it is wholly inestimable.

Boys and girls, we could just as easily say in our language, this servant owed the king a ‘bazillion dollars’. In other words, Jesus doesn’t throw out that figure so we accountants and math majors could sit down and calculate how many years it would actually take this servant to pay back the debt (which is a good thing, because it this text required that kind of exegesis, I wouldn’t be qualified to preach it).

No. Jesus uses the Greek word murias for ten thousand, and that is the largest numerical term in the Greek language. We find that term used in Rev. 5:11 where John sees myriads of angels-thousands and thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand. In other words it was a countless throng of angels that John saw encircling the throne.

That is exactly the idea expressed by Jesus in this parable. The debt this servant owed to the king was beyond estimate, it was beyond dollars and cents. It was a debt that simply could never be paid back. So we are to understand that when it says that ‘this servant, his wife, and his children and all that he had were sold to repay the debt’, we are to understand that this was basically all that the king could do. It was more punishment than it was repayment.

Beloved, we pause at this point so we can understand what Jesus is getting at here. The King, as we already know, is our heavenly Father. This servant, the debtor in this parable, is a common sinner in God’s kingdom-it’s Peter; it’s James; it’s John; it’s you; it’s me. Every sinner owes our heavenly Father an immeasurable debt. That debt is all our sin and guilt.

Passages such as Romans 3: 10 teach us about the enormity of our sin. It says, There is no one righteous, no not one, there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless. And think of Romans 3: 23, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Think of Ezra’s humble prayer of confession where he cried out before the Lord, O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. And we think of the Psalmist in Psalm 40, imploring God for His mercy for his sins were more than he could count, more numerous than the hairs on his head, so numerous that his heart was failing from grief. There’s Psalm 51: 4 against you and you only have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.

God created us in Adam a state of perfection--without stain, without blemish, without sin. We owed God no debt, only the glory and worship and praise that was due His as our Creator Lord. But when Adam and Eve fell into sin, they literally plunged all mankind with them into the abyss of sin and condemnation. We are indebted to God on the basis of our guilt in Adam, and on the basis of our own actual sins which compound our debt everyday.

I wonder, do you think about that, beloved? Do you ever really stop and meditate on your own sinfulness, on your infinite debt that you owe God? Boys and girls, moms and dads, do you ever stop to think that every sin we commit is a great offense to our God? Sure we tend to think about the collateral damage that our sin causes right here on earth, but have you given any thought lately to the fact that your sin grieves God?

That’s why Christian counselors, pastors and elders who counsel wayward believers begin by showing the counselee how their sin is such an offense before the face of God. For you see, if we, as God’s own children, are not deeply touched and motivated by the fact that our sin offends our loving God, then what will we care if our sin offends parents, wives, or friends?

If you don’t care one bit about the debt you owe the King, then you’re certainly not going to care about the debt you owe to anyone else. That’s why true Christian living begins with our acknowledgment of the immeasurable, inestimable debt of sin that we owe our God.

But what Paul recognized in Romans 7: 24-25, What a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (this enormous, unpayable debt?) Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord! It is Christ who rescues us. It is Christ who pays the debt!

When Jesus our Savior was nailed to the cross to be crucified, He took the debt of our sin and guilt with Him. He paid the infinite debt that each of us owed to our Father. Christ paid the wages for our sin so that we could be set free, so that our account with God the Father was forever reckoned and settled. It’s just as we sing in hymn #445, My sin-O the bliss of this glorious thought!-My sin, not in part, but the whole, has been nailed to the cross and I bear it no more; Praise the Lord, praise the Lord O My soul!

Beloved, the servant in Jesus’ parable experienced a similar redemption as well. We read in verse 26 that after the servant fell on his knees imploring the king to be patient with him, even making a desperate promise to repay what was owed, the king took pity on him and forgave his debt. He didn’t put him on payment plan; or ask for half or even a tenth. He forgave all.

That’s how gracious and merciful our God is. He forgives all, leaving no debt between us. It’s not like God forgives 99% of our sins and uses the remaining 1% as leverage, holding our sins against us. No, God’s grace is infinite and it is free, it covers over all our sins, no matter how great, no matter how many; and His grace removes all our guilt and shame.

That is exactly what makes the next part of this parable so tragic and yes, even sickening and appalling. This servant who was just freed of his immeasurable debt, who’s been given his entire life back, his wife, his children, his freedom and all his possessions, not to mention the freedom of knowing that he no longer had this huge debt hanging over his shoulders - what does he do?

Immediately upon leaving the king’s presence, seemingly before he even returned home, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him 100 denarii (still a significant amount-a single denari was about a day’s wages, so this was a little over 3 months wages). The forgiven servant literally grabbed this man by the neck and began to choke him demanding that he pay what was owed.

This man fell on his knees before the servant and begged him to be patient, promising to pay him back-just as he himself had done to the king. But this servant was not kind and gracious and compassionate towards this debtor, as was the king towards him. He ordered that the man be thrown in jail until he could pay back the debt.

As we know, the king hears about this, summons the servant to come before him, and rebukes him saying You wicked servant. I cancelled all that debt of your because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?

As a result of his wickedness, his unforgiving spirit, his unmerciful heart, the king had his unmerciful servant thrown into prison to be tortured until he could pay back all he owed. This servant was sentenced to suffer the king’s wrath for his debt, (i.e everlasting punishment-hell).

Jesus closes his parable by bringing it back full circle, in answer to Peter’s question, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart. We can imagine that more than one disciple had a lump in his throat upon hearing that parable and its resolution.

That wicked servant was guilty of a moral monstrosity, as one commentator put it. Certainly the disciples could see that. But when we think about the fact that when we refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters in the Lord, when we hold their sin against them, when we bear grudges which are designed to hurt them (we design to emotionally choke them and shake them with our vengeance), we are no different than no better than this unmerciful servant. Then we too are guilty of committing a moral monstrosity.

Beloved, Our gracious Lord and King has called us to follow His example, His way. As he has forgiven us, so we are to forgive others when they sin against us. We’ve already heard that the way of the world is to exact evil for evil and vengeance for justice.

But, the way of Christ’s church is forgiveness-rendering good for evil. Who are we after all, but lowly, bankrupt servants who by God’s grace, through the precious blood of His own crucified Son, have had our enormous debt paid in full, and have been not only given our lives back, but we’ve been blessed with the abundance of riches in Christ Jesus already in this life; and we will enjoy those blessings and many more in the everlasting life to come.

So when our brother or sister in Christ sins against us, how dare we hold against them such a petty debt? Are we so proud that we value our own honor more highly than God values His honor? He forgave us, how can we not forgive others? How dare we refuse to forgive those who ask us for mercy and plead for patience?

Do you parents have a limit to the forgiveness you extend to your children? Are we as husbands and wives faithful to forgive, or do we like to dredge up old sins and use them against our spouse in the heat of the moment? Is your extended family one which tends to get into an occasional feud or nasty squabble?

We are obligated by God’s grace, to show mercy in the same measure that it has been shown to us. We are called to exhibit that same quality and character and quantity of mercy that has been shown to us. Because there is no end to God’s mercy and grace shown to us, there is to be no end, no limit, no boundaries, to the grace and mercy we are to show one another.


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Pastor Keith Davis, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2005, Pastor Keith Davis

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