August 4, 2019 Forgiveness

 

Scripture reading: Matthew 18:21-35.

 

How do we understand the parables? Here is a parable that the Lord told and we want to be able to apply the teaching he intended to our lives. The first question that we should ask is: Who is the subject of the parable? Put another way, to whom is Jesus speaking and what does he want them to know?

 

In the case of this parable, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, that question is easy to answer. Even though it is easy to answer, it is amazing how many misunderstand the parable precisely because they want to apply it to unbelievers rather than to disciples of Christ.

 

This parable is found within a section of Matthew in which Jesus is speaking to his own disciples. In 18:1 we read: “At that time, the disciples came to him…” In verse 15 we read this:

 

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.[1]

 

Jesus is teaching about brothers and sisters sinning against each other. Because of this teaching, Peter asks, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (vs. 21) Plainly, this parable is about and for the followers of Jesus.

 

There is a king. The king is Jesus. The servants in the parable are the servants of the Lord. Unbelievers are not called servants. In verse 23 we read:

 

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[2]

 

There is coming a day when the Lord is going to settle accounts with his own servants. That day is called the Judgment Seat of Christ. Paul referred to it numerous times in his epistles. Just looking at one such passage:

 

10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. [3]

 

We must know that there are two judgments in time, not just one. There is one when the Lord returns to the earth. When Jesus returns he will judge his own followers, both the living and the dead, who will be raised. He will also judge all people who are alive on the earth at the time of his return. When he judges his own people, it is for inheriting the kingdom, or not. Then will commence the age of the kingdom, sometimes called the Millennium. After the age of the kingdom is completed, there will be a final judgment to determine the eternal destiny of all people. This is found in Revelation 20:11 –

 

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.[4]

 

The verses following then describe this judgment. To this the apostolic fathers agree. The “apostolic fathers” were not the apostles. It is a designation given to the first few generations of disciples who taught after the apostles passed. They are called apostolic fathers because they were either taught by the apostles or by those who were taught by the apostles. Or, at least within a generation or two of those who were taught by the apostles.

 

But I and whoever are on all points right-minded Christians know that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and the others declare…

 

And, further, a certain man with us, named John, one of the Apostles of Christ, predicted by a revelation that was made to him that those who believed in our Christ would spend a thousand years in Jerusalem, and thereafter the general, or to speak briefly, the eternal resurrection and judgment of all men would likewise take place.[5] – Justin Martyr

 

And,

 

But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem.[6]

 

This “settling of accounts” then is the judgment by Jesus of his own disciples when he returns. The servant on whom the parable focuses is representative of all those who have come to Christ for salvation. We are him! He is forgiven his debt. In the parable he is forgiven when the master settles accounts. However, we know from the many clear passages about the forgiveness that we receive from the Lord, that our forgiveness was secured at the cross. It is through the sacrifice of Christ that we were forgiven and are forgiven. (Not every minor detail in the parables can be made to correspond to reality. Rather, the main teaching of the parables must be derived from the immediate context as well as more clear teaching on the subject elsewhere.)

 

The servant was forgiven, but then he will not forgive his fellow servants. Why did Jesus teach this parable? Because we are prone to not forgive! Most of us will forgive the first one or two times we feel as if we have been dishonored in some way. But, if there is a brother or sister who, in our view, persists in doing or saying things that are inequitable then we are tempted to hold a grudge.

 

This is precisely what Peter asked about.

 

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” (vs. 21)

 

He thought if he could forgive seven times then he would be doing fairly well. But the Lord says, “I do not say to you seven times.” How many times? Seventy times seven. How many times is that? Four hundred ninety. Does that mean that we keep score and when our brother or sister finally hits 491 we say, “OK! That it! You have crossed the line now. No more forgiveness for you. No more soup for you!” No. It is the Lord’s way of saying that you keep forgiving. Why? The parable explains why. Because this is the way the Lord forgives us! He keeps on forgiving! Thank you, Lord!! Who here has sinned less than 491 times in their life? If anyone thinks they have then you neither know what sin is nor your own heart. We have all sinned far more than 491 times against the Lord, yet he continues to forgive us! “O Lord! How we thank you for your forgiveness!”

 

In the parable the master comes to the unforgiving servant and says:

 

‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’[7]

 

I tell you, when our life is reviewed by the Lord at the Judgment Seat there are some Christians who will hear these words: “I forgave you all your debt. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant?” Will you hear those words?

 

In order to fully understand the sequence of events in the days ahead it helps to know that there are two kinds of forgiveness. These two kinds of forgiveness are not neatly distinguished or even identified in Scripture. We cannot turn to a verse and see “Forgiveness A” or “Forgiveness B.” The Bible is not a set of instructions on how to build a bookcase from Ikea. “Attach board A to backboard D with screws (F).”

 

However, there must be two kinds of forgiveness. One is forgiveness before the final bar of justice – the Great White Throne. We might call this judicial forgiveness. (Theologians term it “Forensic Forgiveness.”) When we sin against God it is a crime. We are his creatures and He is the Creator. We are obligated to obey him. Crimes must be punished. When you sin against God you sin against an Infinite Being who is perfect, pure, and holy. Sin is an infinite transgression because it is against an Infinite Being and it requires infinite payment. This is one reason why the Lake of Fire is of infinite duration.

 

Jesus paid the price for us and because of his sacrifice those who trust in Him have judicial forgiveness. “Thank you, Lord!” This means that every true disciple of Christ will have no fear at the Great White Throne.

 

This judicial forgiveness cannot be what the Lord refers to in this parable, nor in this alarming verse:

 

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [8]

 

Here is plainly stated the very lesson of our parable. But see that if judicial forgiveness depends upon our action then it depends on our works. And one of the clearest teachings of the entire New Testament is that our justification does not depend in any way upon our works but wholly upon faith in Christ’s work.

 

But there is also a forgiveness of heart and attitude that affects the way we live. We may call this family forgiveness. We have this experience in our own families, do we not? When children disobey their parents, their parents do not disown them (There might be exceptions for truly wicked deeds). Rather, disobedience creates a rift in the relationship between children and parents or between siblings. It is the same way in God’s family. When we disobey the Lord, or when we sin against a brother or sister, it creates a rift. What is needed is forgiveness. This is the forgiveness that the Lord refers to in the parable. This is the forgiveness that will be judged when he returns.

 

Finally, let us consider what the consequences will be if we fail to forgive. The consequences are dire! In the parable Jesus concludes it this way:

 

34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” [9]

 

In the story the unforgiving servant goes to jail until his debt is paid. What does the jail represent? And, how is the debt paid? We have already established that the servants of the Lord are forgiven judicially. They will not find themselves in the Lake of Fire. The jail is a place of divine discipline during the age of the kingdom that is coming – the time between the first resurrection and the second resurrection described in Revelation chapter 20. It will last a long time – at least a thousand years! Our debt “will be paid” when we learn the importance of forgiveness through suffering.

 

Our Lord used strong words because he does not want his disciples to have to experience “jail.” Sadly, some will anyway.

 

Let me say one final word about forgiving. The apostle Peter took the Lord’s teaching to heart. In his letter he wrote this:

 

8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.[10]

 

Peter knew that the secret to forgiveness is loving one another. Love is not optional. We must love one another. The apostle John says that if we do not love the brothers and sisters then we have not even been born again! We are not Christians even if we believe the facts of the gospel. Demons believe the facts of the gospel. We must have a heart that loves Christ, follows Christ, and loves fellow servants.

 

What does Peter mean when he says, “love covers a multitude of sins?” Ideally, when we sin against someone, we go to that person, confess, and ask for forgiveness. Ideally, when someone sins against us, they come to us, admit their failure, and ask for forgiveness. Well, guess what? Ideal things don’t happen that often! When Peter says, “love covers a multitude of sins,” he means that we forgive even when a person doesn’t see what they have done…because we love them. The sin is “covered” because we don’t even bring it up.

 

This is love. We all know some people that find fault continually. It almost seems as if they expend all their energy in finding things wrong in others. That is not love. Love covers a multitude of sins.

 

Get ready to have your account settled! And, you now know how to get ready!

 

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 18:15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 18:23). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Co 5:10). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Re 20:11). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[5] Justin Martyr (born about 100 AD), quoted in Ryrie, Charles C. The Basis of the Premillennial Faith. Neptune, N.J: Loizeaux Bros, 1981; 22.

[6] Tertullian (150-225 AD), Ibid, 23.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 18:32–33). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 6:14–15). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 18:34–35). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (1 Pe 4:8). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

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