Every true Christian church is a family where we should expect to be loved. Remember what Jesus said: ‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ (John 13:35)
But let me make another statement which is also true: every true Christian church is a place where we can expect to be hurt and offended and let down. That doesn’t sound so good. But it is both true and realistic, and it’s important that we think about that, so that when others do let us down, we’re not surprised.
1. Be realistic
Peter understands this. He comes to Jesus with a question (verse 21): ‘Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’
Peter’s question is ‘when’ my brother sins against me and not ‘if’. It is inevitable. When they do sin against me what am I going to do? Will I go in a huff? Will I leave the church? Will I stop speaking to them? Will I give them the cold shoulder?
I suspect he might have been asking out of his own personal experience. Perhaps some of the disciples had offended him and treated him badly. ‘But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.’ (Mark 9:34)
So, how realistic are you in this area? Do you recognise that people in this church will sin against you? And that you will sin against them from time to time. People will hurt our feelings. In the church? Other Christians? Yes.
We live in an age where people are hyper-sensitive as to how they are treated. When wronged by others, many react like hedgehogs and curl up into a ball in a defensive position, refusing to deal properly with the person we feel has wronged us. Others might react like a rhinoceros, charging around, fighting fire with fire, and retaliating against those who have hurt us. Neither reaction is godly. We must understand this basic truth: when we become Christians, yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean that we stop sinning. That only happens when we reach Heaven! We live in a fallen world, and all Christians still struggle with sin. To put it bluntly, if you stay in this church, you will sin against me and I will sin against you. Peter is realistic and we need to be too.
2. The limit of forgiveness
Peter knows he should forgive others. What does he want to know? How many times should he forgive? In other words, is there a limit?
Jewish rabbis said you should not ask for forgiveness more than three times. That was enough. Asking a fourth time is asking for too much. You can’t just keep on doing the same thing can you? Peter is more forgiving than the rabbis. Perhaps Peter expects Jesus to praise him for his generous heart. Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’ In other words, an unlimited number of times. Just keep on forgiving your brother or sister, without counting, and without stopping. It’s not a matter of arithmetic (counting up) but attitude (being a forgiving person). We don’t think, ‘That’s the eighth rude thing he’s said to me this week.’
If we’re honest, we find it hard to forgive sometimes. So, what should we think about in order to become more forgiving people? Why should we forgive others?
That brings us to the parable. A man owes billions of pounds to the king but claims he can pay it back. He couldn’t even pay back the interest on his debt! Who is the king, and who is the first servant? God is the king, and the servant with the huge debt stands for all Christians.
3. Our forgiveness
Let’s just pause here. What is God telling us through this picture of a servant with a debt so big that he can never possibly pay it back? We are the servant. We are in a similarly desperate situation, in that we owe God a moral debt that we can never hope to pay back. Did you know that? No one likes to be in financial debt – it’s a horrible thing. But there is something far worse and far more serious, and that’s to be in moral debt to God.
Every single day I fail God and let him down. I do not love my neighbour as myself, and I certainly don’t love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. We all offend God with our pride, greed, lust, selfishness and anger. Imagine I sinned just thee times a day. In one year, this would be more than 1000 sins against God. Multiply that by your age and it is an enormous debt.
What does the Bible say about how big our debt to God is?
‘My sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head’ (Psalm 40:12)
‘I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.’ (Ezra 9:6)
The only hope the first servant has is for the king to show him mercy. God reminds us this morning that we can never pay him for the debt of our sins. Our only hope is his mercy, revealed to us in the cross of Jesus Christ. Our only hope is for Jesus to pay that debt for us.
4. Forgiving others
Let’s move to the heart of Jesus’ parable. ‘But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.’ (Matthew 18:24)
This seems crazy. We get angry as we listen to this part of the story. A servant who’s been forgiven billions, and is owed a few thousand but refuses to cancel the small debt. It seems unbelievable! Surely someone wouldn’t behave like that. Yet, when we refuse to forgive other people that’s exactly what we are behaving like. For we have a huge debt before God, which we can’t pay. If you are a Christian it is because you have been forgiven. So, to refuse to forgive is to contradict the gospel. We are needy sinners and have received forgiveness and that’s why we must forgive. We must forgive a very little as we have been forgiven a great deal.
“When I see myself standing before God and realise what my Lord has done for me, I am ready to forgive anyone anything.” Martin Lloyd Jones
‘Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’ (Colossians 3:13)
The following questions might be uncomfortable, but it is necessary to reflect on them. Is there someone in your life whom you need to forgive? What is keeping you from forgiving that person? Is there someone in your life that you need to ask for forgiveness? What is keeping you from seeking that person out and confessing to them?
“Unforgiveness is too expensive: The toxins of bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness are too deadly to store in our heart-pantry. May the wonder of our forgiveness be 10,000 times more real than the pain of our heart-wounds.” (Scotty Smith)
“As we respond to God’s way in a daily lifestyle of confession and forgiveness, we begin to experience things we never thought we would see in our relationships. We begin to see bad patterns break, we begin to see one another change, and we begin to see love that had grown cold becomes new and vibrant again. When we experience hard moments and God gives us the grace not to give way to powerful emotions and desires that would take us in the wrong direction, we experience the practical help and rescue his wisdom gives us again and again. All this means that we no longer panic when a wrong happens between us and those with whom or to whom we minister. We no longer take matters into our own hands in the panic of hurt and retribution.” (Paul Tripp)
Let’s go back to where we began. We will fail one another in this church. We will all need to practice forgiveness.
What are we saying if we refuse to forgive others? It’s a serious and solemn mistake to make: ‘Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.’ (Matthew 18 32-35)
In other words, if we refuse to forgive others, we need to ask ourselves the question: have I really been saved myself? Have I truly been forgiven by God?
More positively, one of the evidences that we are a child of God is that we do forgive others. And if we struggle to forgive others, we need to come back to this parable again and again, and remind ourselves of the enormous debt God has forgiven us. Will you do that?