21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.
28 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. 29 His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
I don’t think there’s much doubt that today we come to the most challenging part of the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
We like the idea of being forgiven. It’s one of the greatest truths and most precious gems of the Christian faith, but of course we are not only to receive forgiveness. We’re to give it too. This makes this petition of the Lord’s Prayer one of the most difficult prayers to pray. It is hard to understand and is even harder for us to apply it in our daily lives. St. Augustine said that this is “a terrible petition.” The reason for this is that the two phrases of this petition are linked by the word as. Right after the phrase “forgive us our trespasses,” there is another phrase - “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The second follows the first and is strongly connected to it.
There is another important detail for us to consider in the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer itself is found in Matthew 6, verses 9 to 13, but the only comment or explanation Jesus gives of this prayer is found in the next two verses: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” That’s it. Not a word about anything else in this prayer. Why does Jesus expand on the issue of forgiveness only? I think the two main reasons are firstly, because it is important, and secondly, because He knows how difficult this is for us.
There is a clear connection between our debt relationship with God and our debt relationship with other people who have wronged us. Is Jesus telling us that we receive our forgiveness from God by forgiving other people? The answer is both yes and no, but we’ll get to that.
Firstly though, why should we pray daily for forgiveness? Jesus teaches us here about having daily cleansing and fellowship with God. We must bear in mind that this prayer was taught to Jesus’ followers who are already justified. So what this means is that when we pray “forgive us our trespasses,” we’re not talking about eternal forgiveness, but about temporal forgiveness. When Jesus died on the cross, He gave eternal forgiveness to those who believe in what He did there. He paid the price for all of our sins – past, present and future. We were like the first servant who owed 10,000 talents to the king. This was an astronomical sum of money. The NIV footnote says simply, “millions of dollars.” The point is that the debt owed to the king could not be paid back. The debt was just too big. The only way that justice could be served was with a lifelong prison sentence. And just like that servant, the only means of paying off the sin debt we owe to the King of kings is a lifelong prison sentence. The problem is that that lifelong sentence will last for eternity, and the prison is a place called hell.
But, the good news of the Gospel is that our debt has been paid by Jesus. Because He gave up His life for us on the cross, we are totally and forever forgiven for all our sins. There is no special requirement for us to receive this amazing grace except repenting of our sins and believing in the Gospel. The only condition of eternal forgiveness is having a repentant and believing heart. When Jesus started His public ministry, He said, “Repent, for the kingdom heaven is near.”
I’ve referred to Psalm 51 often during the past weeks. In this Psalm David made true repentance before God. It requires three steps. Firstly, David acknowledged his sins when he was rebuked by the prophet Nathan. “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.” Secondly, he cried out to God how sorry he was for the sins he had committed against God and others. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” And finally he made the decision to turn away from his sin and asked God to purify him and to enable him to follow the word of God. “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.”
Repentance is not just confessing our mistakes with mere words. It includes mourning our shortcomings in our hearts and correcting them with our actions. Believing in the good news means that we admit the fact that we cannot become righteous before God no matter how hard we try to obey the words of God and keep them. Furthermore, we ask for God’s help to live righteous lives as we receive God’s gift of grace through Jesus. Acknowledging our sinful nature, repenting of our sins, turning away from them, and letting Him sit on our throne can be summarised as believing in Jesus. Through this we become righteous before God. This is eternal forgiveness and our justification. Romans 5:1-2 says, “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” Eternal forgiveness is just what it says it is – eternal.
For this reason some say that regular repentance is not necessary because Jesus paid for all of their sins on the cross. Yes, He did, but to say that daily repentance is no longer needed is a short-sighted understanding of human nature, and also a misinterpretation of Scripture. According to them, if we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness again, we would make what Jesus did on the cross invalid. However, we need to understand that Jesus said we were to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.” This prayer was taught to His disciples – to believers – to us, and we are to pray that prayer regularly, because you don’t need to be a genius to know that Christians still commit sins. I’m a forgiven sinner, and I thank God for that, but I remain a sinner. 1 John 1:9-10 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His Word has no place in our lives.” Two important points we need to be clear on here: This letter was written to Christians, to people who had already repented and turned to Jesus, and secondly, John writes in the present tense in these verses. He’s not referring to something that happened in the past, but rather he implies that confession, forgiveness and righteousness are things that happen regularly, here and now.
What all of this means is that there is a difference between eternal forgiveness and temporal forgiveness, and we need to understand that difference.
On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. When Peter’s turn came, he asked Jesus not only to wash his feet but also to wash his head and hands. And Jesus’ reply was, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean.” As the children of God, forgiven, redeemed and justified before God, we still live in this sin darkened world, and sadly we still sin as a result of that. That is my struggle and it is your struggle too.
In Jesus’ time everyone wore open sandals – even the Roman soldiers had to because they hadn’t developed the art of proper shoemaking yet. Add to that the dusty streets and you can imagine what your feet would have looked like after a day walking around. This is why it was more important to wash your feet than your hands before a meal. The way people reclined around low tables in those days meant that their dirty feet were exposed – you couldn’t hide them under the table like we can. Now take all of those practical issues and look at them from a spiritual perspective.
Our spirits are exposed to sin. Much like feet in open sandals we are exposed to the dirt of sin on a daily basis, so before we can dine at the table with Jesus, our feet need to be cleaned – the grime and dirt that pollutes us every day needs to be cleansed. At the same time though, we don’t need to shower or bath before fellowshipping with Jesus, because we’ve already been cleansed by His blood. His sacrificial blood makes us acceptable to the Father, but we need to tidy ourselves up first, so to speak, by asking Him to forgive us our daily trespasses. This is temporal forgiveness, and it differs from eternal forgiveness because it is only when we move from this life to the next that we will finally and completely be rid of the stain of sin in our lives. Until such time we need daily cleansing and a renewed outpouring of God’s grace in our lives. This is why we pray “forgive us our trespasses,” and why the words “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses” is in one sentence.
Of course, as we know, the greater challenge follows these words – the call to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:15 again: “If you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Jesus makes it very clear to us just how important forgiveness is. Remember again that these words are for Christians. His warning is to genuine believers concerning what will happen to them if they refuse to forgive.
Before we get into the details of forgiving others, there’s an important point we need to be clear on – forgiveness is a choice. It is not a feeling or something that happens eventually. They say that time is a great healer, and there’s value in that statement, but it doesn’t apply to the principle of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t just happen. It is something you choose to do or not to do.
Some argue that forgiving is not a good thing because it sometimes means digging up past hurts and facing all those bad memories all over again. Of course the past can be very painful to revisit, but we must forgive other people’s sins because Jesus has told us to do so. Please understand that I’m not trying to trivialise the hurt you may be feeling. The tragedy is that the majority of people have been hurt, and hurt deeply – often by those they’ve trusted the most. Another point we easily forget is that although we’ve been hurt by others, we’ve dealt out more than our own fair share of pain. We’re all victims, but we’re perpetrators too. That is one of the ways we experience the destructive power of sin first hand. Forgiving is one of the hardest things to do. It is hard, but the fact that it is hard does not excuse us from doing it. Our natural reactions to those who have wronged us are things like anger, resentment and hatred.
Bitterness towards those who’ve wronged us becomes a kind of safety mechanism that we think will help protect us in the future, but in reality it doesn’t. It only makes things worse.
Because when we refuse to forgive we become captured by an unforgiving spirit. This unforgiving spirit causes more bitterness, more anger and more hatred. The unforgiving spirit can eventually take control of our lives and rob us of our happiness and joy. Bitter people just end make making it unpleasant for everyone else and eventually they find themselves isolated and alone. No one wants to be around those who have an unforgiving spirit.
But how do we do it? It’s all very well to agree that forgiving others is a good thing, but how do we actually take the step of putting forgiveness into action?
The easy answer we’ve already considered. We need to forgive one another as we have been forgiven by Jesus. We have all hurt and we have all been hurt. In the parable of the two servants and the king, the first servant, who owed huge debts to the king, was forgiven and released, but he did not forgive his own servant who owed him so little in comparison. We’re quick to keep a running tally of how much others owe us, but if we were to list our sin debt to God we’d be filled with shame at the sheer size of that debt. David put it this way in Psalm 40:12. “Troubles without number surround me; my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.” In a moment we’ll be singing these words: “In blazing light your cross reveals the truth we dimly knew – how small the debts men owe to us, how great our debt to you.”
We sin every day. We commit an immeasurable number of sins during the course of our lifetime. We have hurt others, often without realising it, but God sees the pain we have caused. And there is no way for us to repay God for His forgiveness, but what we can do is to do what Jesus calls us to do in Matthew 10:8. “Freely you have received, freely give.” Forgiveness is the grace of God which has been given to us freely, so we must freely forgive as well.
There is a lot of hurt and there are a lot of hurting people in the Church. I know it’s very easy for me to stand here and say that the Bible tells us to forgive as we have been forgiven, but that’s exactly what it does say.
“But I can’t forgive” is just a diplomatic and stubborn way of saying, “I won’t forgive.”
Remember that Jesus taught His followers. The letters of the New Testament written by Paul, John and others were written to the Church, to Christians. So as hard and as painful as it is, we simply have to learn to swallow our pride, seek God’s grace and help, and choose to forgive.
Some may ask, “Well, what if they don’t even know they’ve hurt me? Do I still have to forgive them?” Absolutely. Because they key thing about forgiving that person is that forgiveness is not really for them. It is for you. If you are bound by unforgiveness, forgiving the other person releases you first and foremost.
A very wise man once said that the worst prison on earth is an unforgiving heart.
Some of the most miserable people I have met are those who refuse to forgive others. When we have an unforgiving spirit in our hearts, we are living in prison. We are chained by hate to that person that we will not forgive. We find ourselves locked behind the doors of resentment. When we are not forgiving those who have hurt us, we are not hurting them but we are just hurting ourselves. And the only way to heal that pain is to forgive the people who have hurt us, as painful as that process may be. That person may well be guilty. The pain you’re experiencing is just as real, but God has an answer for that too in Romans 12:17-19. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
Who is that one person you still harbour resentment against, and what will you choose to do about it? That person may not even be alive anymore. They may be living on the other side of the world and you have no idea where or maybe it happened so long ago that they don’t even remember the pain they caused you. The details are not that important. What is important is the resentment you still cling to. Has anybody trespassed against you? Today is the day to forgive. Remember, it’s not for that person. It’s for you. If you’re able to rekindle a relationship, that’s an added blessing. They may not be interested in listening to you or they may no longer be alive, but you can still find release in forgiving as you have been forgiven.
Let it go, and let it go today.
Remember, Jesus said the servant was “unwilling” to forgive. Forgiveness is something we choose to do for Christ’s sake because God has forgiven us. There is no bottom to the well of God’s forgiveness. There is no way to understand the height and the depth of God’s forgiveness. When we remember His abundant forgiveness for us, we can forgive others not only seventy-seven times but also from the bottom of our hearts.
Do you know what the greatest sign of discipleship of Jesus is? It’s forgiving and loving others as He has forgiven and loved us. Just before He went to the Cross to pay the price of human sin He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
When we learn to truly forgive each other, everyone, even non-Christians, will know that we are truly Jesus’ disciples.
Homegroup Study Notes
Someone once wrote “You have not yet considered the heavy weight sin is.”
One of the biggest problems in the modern world is that by nature we refuse to accept responsibility for our sin - it is always the fault of others. How different would our lives be if we “considered the heavy weight of sin?”
The implication in the Lord’s Prayer is that we are to pray for daily forgiveness, but we are also taught that Jesus died once for all sin – past, present and future.
Discuss the differences between eternal and temporal forgiveness.
Read Colossians 3:12-13 and Matthew 18:21-35
Why do you think it is so difficult for us to forgive others?
Discuss this statement: “I’ll forgive you for what you’ve done, but I can’t forget.”
An unforgiving spirit can be a destructive force in peoples’ lives.
How have you experienced the burden of not being able to forgive?
What did you learn, and how has God changed your heart?
If there is a person in your group who still struggles in this area, commit yourselves to pray for him or her every day this week.
Make sure to ask how they have progressed when you next meet.
Close by reading Ephesians 4:31-5:2, and by praying for each other.
Next Week: “Deliver us from evil, and lead us not into temptation.”