(From a message given October 2, 2022 at Beatty Baptist Church)

In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus taught His disciples what to do if a brother sins against them. In verse 15 He said to show him his fault privately, and if he listens—if he repents, he’s gained his brother back: the relationship is restored. If he doesn’t listen, then take one or two others who witnessed the offense and try again. If he still doesn’t listen, tell it to the church, and if that doesn’t work, treat him as a Gentile or tax collector. Considering how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, that pretty much ruled out bad mouthing the guy, taking him to court, or getting some kind of revenge.

Even though the words don’t appear in that part of the passage, Jesus was speaking of having compassion and working toward forgiveness and reconciliation between brothers and sisters in the church (vs. 17). Unity is essential for the body of Christ to function properly. As Jesus said in John 13:35, everyone will know we are His disciples by the love we have for one another, and loving includes freely forgiving each other.

In verse 21, Peter asked a question about how far this forgiveness thing should go:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?”

In a sense Peter asked, “How many times do I have to go through this process of confronting my brother about his sin against me?” If he keeps offending me, it’s obvious he’s only faking a change of heart. At what point do I say, “Enough is enough,” so I can take him to court, get some kind of restitution, or at least treat him like an IRS agent? There has to be a limit, so what is it?

Peter offered a very generous limit of seven times: forgive your brother up to seven times. The Jewish rabbis said we should forgive three times, but no more. Second century Rabbi Jose ben Yehuda said:

“When a man sins the first time he is pardoned; the second time, he is pardoned; the third time, he is pardoned; the fourth time, he is not pardoned, … 1

The rabbis based this on Amos 2:6 which reads:

“Thus has the Lord said, For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, will I not turn away their punishment.”

When Peter suggested “seven times,” he was really going out on a limb by contradicting what the rabbis taught.

The numbers three and seven both symbolize perfection or completion in the Bible, but seven more so. Peter thought forgiving seven times much better than three times. But Jesus answered with a much greater number in verse 22:

Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but until seventy times seven.

Your translation may say seventy-seven times because the Greek is ambiguous: it can be translated either way. The point is forgiveness is not to be limited. If you’re keeping track, you’re not really forgiving 2.

Genesis 4:24 records that Lamech had killed a man, and for his excuse he said, “If Cain will be avenged seven times, truly Lamech seventy-seven times.” In the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by Jesus and the disciples, that number is also ambiguous and can be translated seventy times seven or seventy seven times. Lamech killed a man as an act of revenge, and he promised to continue to do. Jesus turned his example around by telling His disciples not to continue in revenge but to continue to forgive.

To help them (and us) understand why forgiveness should be unlimited, Jesus told a parable. As we read, notice the numbers seventy-seven or seventy times seven are not mentioned anywhere because we are not to keep track of our forgiveness. Verse 23:

Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants.

Many of Jesus’ parables begin with the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven is like” or “the Kingdom of God is like“, meaning this is the way God runs things in His kingdom. Because we all come under His rule, it applies to us as well.

The parable begins with a king who represents God 3. This king wanted to settle accounts with his servants—to make sure all debts were paid so no one owed him anything. The servants are the disciples. Later on, as they wrote the various epistles contained in the New Testament, they would refer to themselves as servants (literally slaves) of Jesus Christ. They were purchased by His blood and they were working for Him. The servants also represent us, for Jesus has also purchased us and given us work to do. We have responsibilities, and one day we will give an account of ourselves before Him. Verse 24:

When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.

Jesus used the Greek language’s largest numerical word to describe this debt: murioi from which we get the word ‘myriad’. To get an idea of how large this debt was, the total tax paid to Rome for southern Palestine in one year was “only” 600 talents. This servant owed more than 16 times the annual tax burden of the entire region of Palestine!

A talent was a measurement of weight of gold or silver. There were different kinds of talents. A Babylonian talent was a little over 66 pounds, a Roman talent 71 pounds, and the common heavy talent in the New Testament was almost 130 pounds. Ten thousand talents ranged in weight from 286 to 649 tons of silver or gold.

Assuming a talent weighed only 60 pounds, if this servant’s debt was in silver, he would owe over $221 million dollars (as of February 19, 2024). If the debt was in gold, which is more likely, it would be over $19 billion dollars.

Obviously we’re not talking about a menial or hired servant. For someone to get into this kind of debt, he must have had a lot entrusted to him. One commentator says the servant is to be understood as a petty king or tributary price… not that it makes much difference. The amount he owed the king was ginormous. Clearly, this was an unpayable amount for anyone. Verse 25:

But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

It was the custom in various eastern cultures for someone who could not pay his debt to be sold, along with his family and all he owned. Laws were written to regulate this practice.

Before Moses, the Code of Hammurabi said those sold to pay off a debt were to work no more than 3 years, then were to be set free. In recent times, it was a common practice in India and Burma to sell whole families to pay off debt. The Old Testament Law did not proscribe any form of slavery, but it did regulate it 4. Leviticus 25 verses 39 to 43 says:

‘If your brother has grown poor among you, and sells himself to you; you shall not make him to serve as a slave. As a hired servant, and as a temporary resident, he shall be with you; he shall serve with you until the Year of Jubilee: then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and shall return to his own family, and to the possession of his fathers. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt. They shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with harshness, but shall fear your God.

Exodus 21:2 stated a Hebrew slave could only serve for 6 years at the most, then must be set free. There are debt slaves today, even in the United States, where the owner keeps them in perpetual debt so they can never be freed. The Law served to limit these kinds of abuses 5.

The debt this servant owed the king could never be paid even if he and his family were never freed. The king was going to lose what was owed him regardless. Verse 26:

The servant therefore fell down and kneeled before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’

The servant abased himself and expressed a willingness to repay the entire unpayable debt. He said “have patience with me.” Did he realize what he was saying? He should have said “have mercy on me” for he knew he would never be able to repay his debt.

The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

Forgiveness of large debts was not unheard of. Hammurabi, the king of Babylon about 1200 years before Nebuchanessar, forgave all debts to the government four times during his reign. According to the Rosetta stone, it was traditional for the Pharoahs to forgive all debts at times. The reason for these debt amnesties was to restore the social order—to stop the abuses that came about through long-term debt.

The king in this parable forgave his servant’s massive debt for a different reason: he felt compassion. It’s a word closely associated with Jesus in the gospels. This king felt for his servant. It wasn’t about himself or any benefit to society.

The word for debt here means loan, which means he could have treated this as embezzelment… but he didn’t. He also could have reduced the debt to something more manageable… but he didn’t. He wrote the entire debt as a bad loan. His compassion led him to take the loss on himself.

This forgiveness of debt was entirely due to the compassion of the king. The servant did nothing worthy to gain his forgiveness. He did not deserve it.

“But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’

This servant had others who owed him, and, perhaps thinking he could find a way to pay back the king anyway, he sought to collect from his debtors. But unlike the king, he had no compassion Finding one of his fellow servants who owed him, he throttled him, demanding full immediate payment 6.

The second servant owed 100 denarii—about 100 day’s wages for a common worker or foot soldier. This was 1/600,000th of what the first servant owed, equivalent to at most $32,416 today. While large, it was a sum he could conceivably pay, so perhaps the first servant felt he could demand it. Verse 29:

“So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’

The second servant abased himself even more and used the exact same words spoken by the first servant in verse 26.

He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due.

The first servant refused to show patience and, instead of selling him and his family to pay off the debt, he threw him into prison. This was a punishment worse than slavery.

Imprisoning criminals today is a form of punishment provided by the government, but that was not true in Roman times. The Law of Moses does not mention prisons, but sometimes people were informally imprisoned in Jewish history 7.

Imprisonment in the Roman empire was not used as a sentence. Rather, Roman prisons were used only to hold the accused until their trials or to hold the condemned until their punishment. Those imprisoned were treated horribly. The prisons were dark, filthy, hot, and poorly ventilated because they were underground. Prisoners were often tortured, and had to rely on family and friends to get adaquate food. Roman prisons were meant to be a fate worse than death, to discourage crime. Such was the place that the first servant cast his fellow servant. Verse 31:

So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done.

I expect these other servants had witnessed the mercy shown to the first servant. Verse 32:

Then his lord called him in, and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’ His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him.

The king began by calling his servant wicked. He wasn’t wicked because of his debt. He was wicked because he did not treat his fellow servant the same way he was treated. As a result, the king delivered him to the torturers until he paid his unpayable debt.

While this may appear harsh, the king just treated his servant the same way that servant treated his fellow servant, multiplied by the amount of debt that would have been forgiven. The last state of this man was worse than it ever would have been had he never been forgiven to begin with. If the king hadn’t forgiven him, he and his family would have been sold and gone free after 6 years under Jewish law. Even if he and his family never regained their freedom, they would likely have been able to live decently enough. There would have been no torture. But now the unforgiving servant is imprisoned and tortured, and he still has to pay off the entire debt. This leads to the meaning of the parable in verse 35:

So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”

That’s scary! Jesus didn’t place a limit on forgiveness: He didn’t say “…forgive your brother from your hearts up to seventy seven times.” Forgiveness is always called for. It is to be without limit.

Does this mean we can lose our salvation if we don’t forgive our brothers? No. Remember, Jesus said this while the Old Covenant was still in effect. But we should still take this warning seriously because it shows the importance God places on forgiveness. Besides, if you’ve been saved, you have the Holy Spirit indwelling you, who will give you the desire to forgive.

Here’s the point of the parable. Before you withhold forgiveness from your brother or sister, remember the sin debt God forgave you (and what it cost Him to do so). No: your brother does not deserve your forgiveness. Nobody deserves forgiveness! Forgive him anyway because you didn’t deserve God’s forgiveness either. It matters not what they did to you, it was nothing compared to your sin debt to God.

Because God has forgiven you, you no longer have the right to withhold forgiveness from someone else. That’s what the parable teaches. Forgiveness and mercy is not obligatory except to those who have received God’s forgiveness and mercy. Considering the debt God forgave us, we cannot satisfy this obligation with a one-time (or seventy-times-seven) forgiveness of someone else. Our forgiveness of others is based on God’s forgiveness of us. This parable is not about the number of times to forgive, but why we are never to stop forgiving: God forgave us an infinitely more unforgivable debt.

And don’t just say “I forgive you.” Do so from the heart. That’s how God forgave us. If we appreciate God’s forgiveness of our sins, we will be more willing to forgive others from the heart. We will have compassion on those who offended us.

We let the world influence our thinking too much. The ideas and ideals presented by secular media have replaced God’s truth in our minds and hearts, and we’re not even aware of it. When we seek to obey God, we unknowingly do so in a worldly way. This is true of forgiveness as well.

We know God wants us to forgive. But when we do so, we use the world’s idea of forgiveness as our model. The world says forgive because it’s good for you. It makes you feel good and gives you peace of mind. It reduces your stress. It may even increase your lifespan. Forgiveness is about you.

But when God commands us to forgive, He offers Himself as the model. He want us to forgive others in the same way He forgave us. He didn’t do so to make Himself feel better. He didn’t forgive us to gain some peace of mind for Himself. His forgiveness actually increased His sufferings because Jesus had to die to to make it possible. It was costly—painful. God forgave you because He had compassion on you. He truly loves you—He cares for you, and He sincerely wants the relationship between you and Himself restored. That’s what your forgiveness is to be about.

Forgiveness is about loving others from the heart, not loving yourself. Don’t forgive others for your own benefit, so you will feel better or so you can gain some serenity. Don’t forgive like the world. Forgive as God forgave you. Forgive for the benefit of the one who offended you: forgive because you sincerely want the relationship between you restored, just as God sincerely wanted you restored to Himself. Forgive from your heart.


  1. https://www.sefaria.org/Job.33.29-30?lang=bi&with=Midrash&lang2=bi
  2. Likewise, if you make a big deal about how the number is translated, you’re keeping track.
  3. Actually the king represents Jesus, God in human flesh, because the Father has given Him all power and authority, and He is the One who will judge all of us in the end. Matthew 25:31-46, A ts 10:42,17:31, Romans 14:10, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 2 Timothy 4:1
  4. This was similar to divorce. The Law did not proscribe divorce, but it did regulate it. Matthew 19:3-9, Malachi 2:16
  5. Debt forgiveness is good, but other systems must be in place for it to work fairly. The Law commanded the Hebrews to forgive all debts on the year of Jubilee. This was to occur every 50 years (Numbers 25). But the Law also proscribed how the value of work and debts would change as the year of Jubilee got closer so there would be no surprises when it came, and this mandatory debt-forgiveness was at predictable intervals. The Hebrews’ economic system was a limited form of capitalism. Without the whole system in place, blanket debt forgiveness would be unfair to those to whom the money or work was owed. The United States does not have such an economic system in place, so mandatory debt forgiveness would be unfair to those who loaned the money.
  6. The man’s sin was not that he sought to collect the debt but that he had no compassion. He abused the man and didn’t forgive when asked.
  7. Jeremiah 38:6