“Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’” (Matthew 18:21-22)
In our Scripture for today, Jesus’ disciple, Simon Peter, smugly asked about forgiveness, thinking that if he forgave somebody several times, it was more than enough and he was therefore a good person… but then he was shocked by the Lord’s response, as we likely are also. The phrase “seventy times seven” is an idiomatic expression, essentially meaning that our forgiveness of others is to be without end. We are to keep on forgiving, even if the mistreatment happens again. That does not mean we are to accept abuse endlessly, but it does mean we forgive the abuser—we don’t avenge the wrong. The sad alternative to forgiveness is that the hatred we keep in our hearts will ultimately destroy both us and those we love.
But how can we do it? How do we forgive somebody who has harmed us or our loved one? It certainly is not easy, and in many cases, seemingly impossible. In “Christian Behavior,” C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” What does it mean when you try to be a good Christian, conform to the Lord’s will, and you want to forgive, but can’t do it? The conversation between the Lord and Peter was followed by a parable, reminding Peter (and us) of good news—the blessed forgiveness granted on the cross can be ours—forever. That’s good, but there is a disturbing truth in the parable—if we persist in refusing to forgive, something is wrong. We need faith in the Lord.
It certainly is possible for “forgiveness” to become ours. The men and women of Scripture were just ordinary people like the rest of us, yet we find examples of true forgiveness among them—the impossibility of forgiveness is overcome by the love of God in Christ Jesus. An interesting example of forgiveness is a man named Stephen, seen in Acts 6 as someone chosen to be one of the first seven deacons of the Early Church. Acts 6:8 describes him as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” It wasn’t his office in the church that defined him—he had faith and was filled with the Holy Spirit because he had entrusted himself to the Lord, understanding that the Lord could do in and through him what was otherwise impossible. In that same verse, we find him performing “great signs and wonders among the people.”
If you and I knew such a man as Stephen, we would want to keep him around, trusting him with duties and offices that might be misused by other, lesser people. But in Stephen’s case, the Lord had a higher calling for him—he was to die. As Acts 6 continues to unfold we are taken behind the scenes of outward events, discovering that the religious leaders of the nation took note of Stephen, lied about him as they had done with Jesus, and he was now on trial for his life. The Lord, at key times, will shut the mouths of your accusers, and that was the case as we move into Acts Chapter 7. Stephen was asked if he was a blasphemer by the high priest, and instead of answering the question, he launched into a lengthy history of the Jews, revealing that the heroes of that people and of God were persecuted by religious leaders and others who were very much like his accusers at the moment. He now pointed at his accusers and they didn’t like it.
The religious leaders suddenly snapped, ran at Stephen, dragged him out of the city and threw stones at him until he died. As they were killing him at the end of Acts 7, he said, “’Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’” And so he died (Acts 7:59-60). In the horror of that moment we could almost miss the importance of Verse 59, where we find a “young man named Saul” of Tarsus, who had a second name which was—Paul. Faithful Stephen’s last prayer was for God to forgive his murderers, and continuing in the Book of Acts, we find that His prayer was eloquently answered in the life of the other young man later called Paul the Apostle. Life encourages us to defend ourselves and others, and there are times to throw rocks back when they are thrown at you. But Stephen’s changed life included his own forgiveness, and like good seeds planted in good soil, his words of faith and resulting forgiveness would change others, then and through the centuries to follow.
And it was not just some rare, ancient event when people can forgive others. John Stott, in “The Contemporary Christian,” wrote these words: “Not long before she died in 1988, in a moment of surprising candor on television, Marghanita Laski, one of our best-known secular humanists and novelists, said, "What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me." But she did. Forgiveness is for today, also established by God before the beginning of time, then revealed in the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Jesus' prayer was, as humanity’s representatives killed him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The Lord, who is Faith Personified, offered forgiveness to us all, scattering the good seeds of faith into the hearts of those willing to believe. We can forgive—through faith in Him.
Faith is evidenced in our lives in surprising ways, such as the ability to forgive somebody who has done us great harm. In 1858, Henry Ward Beecher wrote “Life Thoughts,” where he had much to say about forgiveness. He said: “I can forgive, but I cannot forget,” is only another way of saying, ‘I will not forgive.’” He continued, “Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note, torn in two and burned up, so that it can never be shown against the man.” Just as God has forgiven us, we are to forgive one another, but we need God in us in order to do it.
Stephen SAW in the Person of Jesus that forgiveness is offered to men and women everywhere, in all times, through the cross of Christ. We should note the Lord’s Prayer of Matthew 6:12—“forgive us our debts AS WE forgive our debtors.” We are indebted to Almighty God. He gave us life, freedom of movement for most, and even the right to think and say what we want, though much we say should be left unsaid. All of us have broken God’s Law, in thought if not in action, in unbelief that takes the place of faith, and in unkind indifference toward others. Jesus paid our debt, forgiving all who accept Him and His Sacrifice for us. The Apostle Peter was shocked by Jesus’ view on forgiveness, and the Apostle Paul, somewhat later in time, was shocked when he was forgiven. Peter betrayed the Lord 3-times and Paul murdered Stephen. God forgave them both. Forgiveness is a “fruit of the Spirit,” like the "fruits" mentioned in Galatians 5:22-23. A tree is just a wooden thing incapable of producing fruit, except that God produces the fruit through the tree. We can’t forgive, except that the Lord through us produces the fruit of forgiveness. Do you want to forgive others?
Father, I want, I NEED to be forgiven. I have done what I should not do. I am sorry. Please help me. I ask for forgiveness, in faith trusting You for what I cannot do. I am Yours, Lord. Let me be a person who forgives. Thank You. In Jesus Name. Amen.