January 26, 2014
Offer forgiveness early, often and extravagantly.
I. Pursue restoration (Matthew 18:15-20)
II. Forgive repeatedly (Matthew 18:21-22)
III. Imitate the outrageous forgiveness of the Father (Matthew 18:23-35)
We’ve rearranged the service a bit today to allow me to use the offertory to begin the message. In Matthew 18:15-35, our text for this morning, we find several of Jesus’ key teachings on forgiveness and reconciliation. Over Christmas I ran across a song about Joseph, Mary’s husband, in which Jason Gray reflects on the difficulty and the significance of forgiveness. I’m going to play his comments on Joseph’s forgiveness. While the song is playing we’ll have our offering, and then we’ll go immediately into the message.
Let’s pray first.
Jason Gray: As I wondered about what direction the song about Joseph would take; here’s a man; he’s engaged to a woman that he loves; must have dreams about their life together; and then all of a sudden she comes to him, and she says ‘I’m pregnant.’ What a crazy conversation that had to be: no one wants to have that conversation. And then she adds to it that it is God who has done this thing. And he had to think she was crazy, or lying to him; there had to be deep hurt, you know. Hurt usually turns to anger, which then turns to vengeance, you know. And it was within Joseph’s power to do her harm.
The remarkable thing about Joseph is that we see he did the work of forgiveness. We read that because he was a godly man he dismissed her quietly, which means to me that he did the work of forgiveness in his heart. And then it was after that the angel appeared to him in his dream and said ‘hey, it’s okay Joseph; she’s telling the truth, this is what’s happening.
Text of ‘Forgiveness is a Miracle:’ Love can make a soul come alive; Love can draw a dream out of the darkness; And blow every door open wide. But love can leave you brokenhearted. Did she dare to look you in the eye? Did her betrayal leave you raging? Did you let her see you cry? When she said the child was not your baby? Pain can turn to anger then to vengeance; it happens time and again, even in the best of men. It takes a miracle to save us
When love is like an open wound, there’s no way to stop the bleeding. Did you lose sleep over what to do? Between what’s just and what brings healing. Pain can be a road to find compassion, when we don’t understand; and bring a better end. It takes a miracle to show us. Forgiveness is a miracle, a miracle. And a miracle can change your world. Forgiveness is a miracle.
An angel in a dream spoke into your darkest night; So you trusted in the Lord and you took her as your wife. But the forgiveness that you gave would be given back to you, because you carried in your heart what she was holding in her womb. Love was in a crowded barn; there you were beside her kneeling. You held it in your arms, as the miracle started breathing. Forgiveness is the miracle, the miracle. And a miracle will change your world. Forgiveness is the miracle; forgiveness is the miracle; the miracle. And a miracle will save the world; forgiveness is the miracle. Jason Gray: I think that’s remarkable, that in the midst of that he chose forgiveness, he proved himself as a man of mercy, and what’s beautiful to me is, isn’t that exactly the kind of man that God would be looking for to be the earthly father of his boy?
“Blessed Joseph, your heart is proven, and through you the Kingdom has come; For God delights in a man of mercy, and has found an earthly father for his son.”
Today’s text calls us to be like Joseph, a man of mercy. Not that Mary had actually wronged him, but it had to seem that way to him. Yet he chose compassion. He could have condemned her for adultery, but choose to annul the marriage quietly. Later the angel spoke to him and he accepted that he should go through with the marriage, caring for Mary and the baby with compassion and mercy. He models today’s text, which teaches the importance of forgiveness and calls us to forgive early, often and extravagantly. The text begins with a well-known section on restoring a bother caught in sin.
Matthew 18:15-20: “If your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Jesus invokes a case in which your brother or sister, a fellow believer, has sinned against you. The word sin is key in two ways. First, it tells us this paragraph is about forgiveness, and about the restoration that accompanies forgiveness. But second, from a practical viewpoint, it tells us there is a line which must be crossed before we apply this process of forgiveness and restoration. The standard is sin, a clear disobedience to the moral commands of Scripture, and especially the moral rules for godly living laid out in the New Testament.
In other words, the ceremonial or ritual aspects of Old Testament law don’t really count, and the disputable things Paul talks about in Romans and Corinthians don’t really count. As we enter this process we have to ask ‘is this really sin, or is this just a personality quirk, a habitual behavior or a personal choice of how to live the Christian life. Sometimes you may need to talk to a brother or sister about these things, but not with a view toward repentance from sin.
Notice too that you respond to sin against you. Now I recognize some translations don’t have that phrase. Some Greek manuscripts don’t have it. But Peter uses the same phrase in verse 21; ‘against you’ is the context of this teaching. This doesn’t mean that we ignore blatant sin that is not directed to us. But this process, of going to a person individually to seek reconciliation, should be undertaken by the person sinned against. If this is really about forgiveness and restoration it doesn’t make any sense, most of the time, for a third party to go and seek repentance. I can’t forgive for someone else. But when the sin is against me, then I can offer both forgiveness and reconciliation.
So the section is about reconciliation, and step one is to go to your brother or sister who has sinned against you and lovingly, graciously point out this sin and the hurt it has caused, and see if the person is willing to turn from the sin and ask for forgiveness and renewal of the damaged relationship. I recommend that you use Ken Sande’s book The Peacemaker to prepare yourself for these things. Sande is biblical and practical and many of us rely on his approach.
My favorite line in the section is ‘if he listens to you, you have gained your brother.’ That’s reconciliation, restoration; it implies repentance and forgiveness. Jesus describes this very personally as the gaining of a brother or a sister, like the joy of finding a long lost relative. I saw a story last fall about two baby girls who were separated out of an abusive home. 17 years later they discovered each other when both participated in a track meet and saw someone on the other team who looked just like them. Jesus pictures this forgiveness, restoration and forgiveness in the famous parable as gaining a son: “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”
But if there is no repentance at that point, what do you do? Jesus says “take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” When there is clear sin going on, the body of Christ is supposed to work together to seek reconciliation. If your brother or sister caught in sin is unwilling to turn from sin and seek renewal, you should take someone with you. In this church that might be simply a wise friend willing to be brought into the situation, or it might be one of the elders. We try to take this responsibility prayerfully and seriously.
And if there is no reconciliation then? Jesus says “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” So the idea is that more and more people appeal to the conscience of the person caught in sin and entreat him or her to turn from the sin and back to fellowship. But if the person is unwilling, they are told that fellowship is no longer an option. Remember, Jesus is speaking to Jewish hearers and Matthew is writing primarily to Jewish believers, and the exclusion from worship of the unconverted Gentiles and the tax collectors who had associated themselves with them was an expected response.
Verse 18: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” We talked about these concepts back in Chapter 16, and I’m not going to say a lot more about them today, except to say that Jesus here lets the ‘agreeing with heaven’ function reside in the church and be applicable to many issues of fellowship. If the church agrees that a person should not be in fellowship, heaven agrees as well, which is what makes this statement by a church worth anything. Most people hardened to sin don’t care if a church kicks them out, but to be told they are out of fellowship with God might make a difference.
Verse 19 “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” These verses are commonly taken to about believers gathering to pray. But the context shows that’s not the main idea. In fact, if I’m reading this correctly verse 19 looks back to that moment when you went in private to the person who had sinned against you, or when you took one other. Jesus is saying if you came to agreement, if there was repentance and forgiveness, the Father in heaven ratifies that agreement and gives the grace of reconciliation. Further he is saying that when those two or three gather to hold each other accountable and seek that restoration, Jesus himself is right there with them: that’s how much he cares about our unity and how important he thinks our love for one another. The verse can be extended to include other circumstances where believers gather, but the gathering in view is this one where we seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness.
So what have we said so far? Gaining a brother or sister is really important to Jesus. When someone sins against us we should go to them, not in anger, but offering grace and seeking their good, because we don’t want them to experience the effects of a hard heart. So important is this to Jesus that he takes this opportunity to tell his followers that when you do that he is with you.
I want to add two other things that are related to this. One: it’s not just when you are sinned against you are to go and be reconciled, but also when you sin against someone. Jesus said this in Matthew 5: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift.” So whether we are the sinner or the sinned against, we are to go. In many cases we are both: rarely does a relationship conflict occur without some sin on both sides: both must confess; both must forgive.
Second, you don’t have to wait for repentance to do the internal work of forgiveness. I’ve had too many people look at the verses in this section and say ‘oh, you only forgive when someone repents.’ And on one level that’s true – the full cycle of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation can only be done if both parties participate. But the work of forgiveness in your heart can be done between you and God; it may need to be done first if reconciliation is to be meaningful. Jesus teaches this unilateral forgiveness clearly in Mark 11:25 “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” Here Jesus doesn’t say ‘go to them,’ and doesn’t picture them coming to you. No; as you pray you recognize that someone has sinned against you or done something to hurt you, and you forgive; because that’s how God forgives you.
So, forgive early, and forgive often. Verses 21-22 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Peter asks a question I’m sure, all of us have wondered about. If someone just keeps repeating a sin, but keeps coming to us for forgiveness, do we have to keep on forgiving them? The rabbis of Jesus’ day came to the consensus that a brother might be forgiven three times; on the fourth, there is no forgiveness. Peter, thinking himself big-hearted, is willing to go as many as seven times.
Jesus says ‘no, let’s go with seventy-seven.’ Some think it’s seventy times seven. But the number isn’t important; the point is, many, many more times than you can even imagine.’ Jesus is quoting from Genesis 4:24 in which Lamech vows to get revenge ‘seventy-seven fold.’ Jesus is saying that in the kingdom it is not revenge but forgiveness that abounds. As Don Carson says, Jesus “teaches that forgiveness of fellow members in his community of "little ones" cannot possibly be limited by frequency or quantity; for, as the ensuing parable shows, all of them have been forgiven far more than they will ever forgive.”
I think we’ve all known people who have required frequent forgiveness – including ourselves. Our experience tells it’s possible to be sincerely sorry for sin, to seek forgiveness, to pursue life change, yet to repeatedly fail. It’s hard to judge the sincerity of others, but if our own internal testimony is to be trusted, we know that at times we sincerely repent and subsequently, to our dismay, fail. This is not to say that someone can’t seek forgiveness insincerely, or only because they got caught: it happens often. But I think Jesus is teaching what many mature believers I’ve talked to have concluded, that in the absence of other data, you have to take someone’s apparently sincere repentance as real.
Thomas A. Edison was working on a crazy contraption called a "light bulb" and it took a whole team of men 24 straight hours to put just one together. The story goes that when Edison was finished with one light bulb, he gave it to a young boy helper, who nervously carried it up the stairs. Step by step he cautiously watched his hands, obviously frightened of dropping such a priceless piece of work – which, of course, he did, on the top step. It took the entire team of men twenty-four more hours to make another bulb. Finally, tired and ready for a break, Edison was ready to have his bulb carried up the stairs. He gave it to the same young boy who dropped the first one. That's forgiveness.
So we need to be ready to forgive early and often and extravagantly. Why? Because God has forgiven us so extravagantly. Jesus tell us this in a parable, verses 23-35 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.
28But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Last fall, when we studied the first half of Matthew, we saw Jesus heal a paralyzed man, while declaring ‘your sins are forgiven.’ I used the passage we just read to illustrate that passage, because it shows us the extravagance of forgiveness. The first verses show the incredible forgiveness of the master. The servant owes the master an impossible amount, 10000 talents. How much is this? King David donated three thousand talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver for the building of the temple. The claim that the servant would pay it back was ludicrous; casting him in prison to work it off was a sentence of forever. But at the servant’s plea the master forgives the whole debt.
Verse 28: The servant's attitude is appalling. He goes out and begins to choke and abuse one who owes him a hundred denarii. This represents a hundred days' wages. Yet the amount is trivial compared with what has been forgiven him. The similarity of his fellow servant's plea, verse 29 to his own, verse 26 does not move this unforgiving man. He has him thrown into a debtor's prison.
But the other servants, deeply distressed by the inequity, tell the master everything. And because his servant showed himself to be unforgiving toward a fellow servant, the king calls him wicked and turns him over to the jailors until he pays back all he owes. This, Jesus says, is how his heavenly Father will treat those who are incapable of forgiveness ‘from the heart.’ Notice that the emphasis is on the heart-work of forgiveness, not on the repentance of others. This is not to say that we earn the Father’s forgiveness by our work, but that if we cannot forgive we show ourselves as incapable of receiving forgiveness.
That’s the main point. But I was struck by the wild difference between what we are forgiven and what we are asked to forgive. The second man owed a lot of money, a hundred denarii, equivalent maybe to $12,000 in our terms. But the first man owed his master ten thousand talents, each talent being almost 9000 denarii, for a total forgiveness of six billion dollars. Do you think Jesus didn’t know this was an unreasonably large debt? Sure he did. He was reminding us that the debt God forgives when he forgives our sins is incalculably large.
So we are to forgive early, often and extravagantly – as God forgives us. A really good recent book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, illustrates this well. It’s the story of Louie Zamperini. In his early twenties he was an Olympic runner who hoped to break the four minute mile. When war broke out, he joined the Air Force. On a rescue mission, due to engine failure, their B-24 crashed into the Pacific. Zamperini and two other crew members survived the impact.
Then they lived the next 47 days on a raft, barely surviving starvation, shark attacks, and being shot at directly by a Japanese plane. The two who survived finally reached the Marshall Islands, only to be captured by the Japanese.
Zamperini would spend the next two and a half years in cruel POW camps. One big, sadistic Japanese guard, named Watanabe, nicknamed ‘the Bird’ seemed to have a demonic hatred toward Zamperini. Anytime they crossed paths, this guard would pound him in the face, sometimes with a belt buckle on his hand. It was a miracle that Zamperini survived the horrible, humiliating suffering.
Zamperini shocked friends and family by returning home alive. He was an instant celebrity, and soon found himself in a quick marriage, but the torment he had been through could not be forgotten. Watanabe tormented him in unceasing nightmares. Only constant drunkenness could mask the pain. All this changed, however, in 1949 when he attended Billy Graham’s Los Angeles crusade. Zamperini went forward the second night to give his life to Christ. He went home, poured out all his liquor, and slept peacefully for the first time in years. He never again had a nightmare of Watanabe. He was a new man in Christ!
A few years later, Zamperini went back to visit some of the former Japanese guards, now prisoners themselves. He and other Christians shared the love and forgiveness of Christ to these former tormentors, who were greatly surprised. But Louie never saw Watanabe. When he asked what had happened to him, Louie was told that the former prison guard, hunted, exiled and in despair, had stabbed himself to death. Louie would later learn this was not true – Watanabe would live into his nineties. But at that moment the word of his supposed death washed over Louie. As the author says “In prison camp Watanabe had forced him to live in incomprehensible degradation and violence. Bereft of his dignity, Louie had come home to a life lost in darkness, and had dashed himself against the memory of the Bird. But on an October night in Los Angeles the sense of shame and powerlessness that had driven his need to hate the Bird had vanished. The Bird was no longer his monster.
In Sugamo Prison, as he was told of Watanabe’s fate, all Louie saw was a lost person, a life now beyond redemption. He felt something he’d never felt for his captor before. With a shiver of amazement, he realized it was compassion. At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.”
When he learned Watanabe was still alive, Louie tried to meet him, but it never happened. He did send him several letters telling his story, offering forgiveness and urging the Bird to turn to Christ. As far as Louie knows, it never happened either. But Louie’s extravagant forgiveness was real.
And this can be true for us as well. Because of the amazing forgiveness of Christ we can practice forgiveness: as early as possible, as often as necessary and almost as extravagant as what we have received.