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The Secret Codes in Matthew: Examining Israel’s Messiah, Part 15: Matthew 18:21-20:34, by Kevin M. Williams

From Pneuma Review Fall 2004

Forgiveness. Fidelity. Laying on of hands. Kevin Williams puts these and other teachings of Jesus in their context, pulling back the veil of history and culture that is now far removed from us.


Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive men? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21).

So begins the thorny issue of forgiveness. There are many views and many practices regarding forgiveness today. What we shall attempt to do here is to examine the issue from a biblical perspective and prayerfully, enrich our own understanding.

Peter’s question about forgiving someone up to seven times may have seemed quite magnanimous from his own perspective. The practice of the day was to forgive someone up to three times:

For they pardon a man once, that sins against another; secondly, they pardon him; thirdly, they pardon him; fourthly, they do not pardon him”1

Our hero Peter likely feels he has gone above and beyond the call of duty by offering to forgive someone seven times! This contrasts Genesis 4:15 very well. Cain had killed his brother Abel and had been judged by God. Now he worried that others would try and kill him. But God decreed, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken upon him sevenfold.” By Peter’s era, it was common to take a negative in the Bible and give it a positive application. In other words, if vengeance should be sevenfold, then in contrast forgiveness ought to be sevenfold. Peter was likely quite proud of his conclusion.

But Yeshua (Jesus2) sees things differently. Just as Genesis 4:24 goes beyond sevenfold, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold,” Yeshua goes even beyond Peter’s simple seven.

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22).

For many disciples, this statement by Yeshua, left to stand on its own, seems to present a cart blanche obligation for Bible believers to forgive those who sin without requiring any repentance on the sinner’s behalf. There are many respected teachers who say that forgiveness is an obligation placed upon believers, a mark of their status as citizens of the kingdom of God, and the only healthy means to exist in a fallen world.

As reasonable as this might sound, it is not exactly the example the Bible lays out for us. If it were, who would ever need to come to faith in the Messiah? When men and women come to faith, there is recognition of their sin, recognition of the penalty of that sin, and a conscious decision to repent and ask forgiveness. It is at this point that God is moved with compassion and mercy is poured out. This is how the fullness of genuine forgiveness is exercised.

This was similarly true in the period of the tabernacle and temple. Individuals came to make their sin and guilt offerings, specific sacrifices intended to heal the rift sin had created between them and God. God did not need the fat of the lamb or the blood of the goats—God needs nothing. The sacrifices were (supposed to be) an active act on the part of the sinner to recognize their sin, its penalty, and to make a conscious decision to repent and ask forgiveness. This was not limited to three, seven, or seventy-times seven times. This divine freedom was available to the sinner every moment, of every day, of every year.

So the established and God-given biblical pattern was repent first and then be forgiven: a pattern repeated in the New Testament as both John the Baptist and Yeshua preach, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2004, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Kevin M. Williams, Litt.D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987 and has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on Messianic Judaism.

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