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Seven Times Seventy

by Tim O'Hearn

Forgiveness. We all want it. Many don’t want to give it. We think we know what the Bible says about it. But do we?

Take, for instance, what Jesus said in answer to Peter’s question about how many times to forgive. Especially because of a recent song, many would say that Jesus told us to forgive “seven times seventy times.” Some might even facetiously add, “But the 491st time, watch out.” Take a look at the passage, though.

Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Luke, in what may be a parallel passage, or may be another time Jesus taught on the subject, quotes it slightly differently.

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. (Luke 17:4)

Notice that in the account in Luke it is a daily forgiveness. That is, one cannot say, “I forgive him seven times this week/month/year, so I am under no obligation to forgive further.” Each day starts a new count, if one is counting. Seven times in a day. Allowing for six and half hours of sleep, that comes out to once every two and a half hours. One or the other, or both, just aren’t learning anything from this experience. If you give a person the opportunity to sin against you every couple of hours, you need to make some changes. But you also need to forgive.

Taken with the verse in Matthew, that would mean this one individual is sinning against you seven times a day for over two months. While seventy times seven is probably hyperbole, even if it were an outside limit to forgiveness, don’t you think that a person who got forgiven 490 times in a ten-week period might get the idea that there is something different about this person that he is sinning against? Yes, some might take advantage, but even the average not-so-bright but well-intentioned person might take notice of something like this. Jesus never said that nobody would take advantage of our following him.

Another thing to notice in the passage in Luke is that forgiveness may be conditional. Jesus specified forgiveness if he “turn again to thee, saying, I repent.” Sometimes it is seen in court that remorse, or the lack of it, may be a mitigating factor in determining whether a convicted person is given the maximum penalty under law, or a lesser sentence. There are also cases where the family of a murdered individual may express forgiveness even if there is no apparent remorse. That may be going beyond the requirement, which is even better than meeting minimum standards. Nevertheless, it appears that our obligation to forgive is contingent on the sinner’s request for forgiveness. What is not considered, however, is the sincerity of the request. If the person asks for forgiveness, give it. Do not judge whether he is really sorry. Even after he seeks forgiveness for the same thing every two hours for ten days, forgive when it is requested.

If we want to go beyond the minimum, we can seek to be like God. He forgives, whether or not we ask. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son [continually] cleanseth us from all sin.” (1 Jn 1:7) Maybe that is the point of Jesus’ “seven times seventy.” By the time we reach twenty or thirty times we have made it such a habit that forgiveness will become automatic.