Mat 18:21 Then Peter came to Him and asked, "Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?" Mat 18:22 "No, not seven times," Jesus replied, "but seventy times seven!
There are a couple of questions to consider regarding this small passage of scripture before actually diving into the meaning.
1. How was forgiveness viewed by the people at this time?
It was a settled rule of Rabbinism that forgiveness should not be extended more than three times. Even so, the practice was terribly different. The Talmud relates, without blame, the conduct of a rabbi who would not forgive a very small slight of his dignity, though asked by the offender for thirteen successive years, and that on the day of atonement; the reason being that the offended rabbi had learned by a dream that his offending brother would attain the highest dignity; whereupon he feigned himself irreconcilable, to force the other to migrate from Palestine to Babylon, where, unenvied by him, he might occupy the chief place (Edersheim). It must, therefore, have seemed to Peter a stretch of charity to extend forgiveness from three to seven times. Christ is not specifying a number of times greater than the limit of seven. He means that there is to be no limit. “Forgiveness is qualitative, not quantitative.” Vincent's Word Studies
We could say then that Peter was probably feeling pretty generous by bringing in an amount of forgiveness that was over twice as great as was customarily thought to be the maximum amount. He even used the number 7 which was the number of completeness.
The number seven was the general symbol for all association with God, and was the favorite religious number of Judaism, typifying the covenant of holiness and sanctification, and also all that was holy and sanctifying in purpose. The candlestick had seven lamps, and the acts of atonement and purification were accompanied by a sevenfold sprinkling. The establishment of the Sabbath, the Sabbatical year, and the year of jubilee was based on the number seven, as were the periods of purification and of mourning. The number 7 is the Divine number of completion. Wikipedia
Peter was zealously trying to understand Jesus' teaching, and we can use his experience to learn for ourselves what God means by forgiveness.
2. Why is Peter bringing in this question at this time?
It is important that we continue to remember the overarching context in which this interaction takes place. Remember the question asked by the disciples in Matthew 18:1?
In light of where they started, Peter now seems to be trying to show his "understanding" of what Jesus had just taught. He brings in the question of forgiveness and the amount we should extend to someone who sins against us. This tells me something not only about Peter's mindset, but about how he perceived the previous teaching from Jesus.
He did understand that one of the big points Jesus was trying to bring out regarding the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, was their ability to forgive. Peter got a sense of how Jesus was describing the "greatest" but he missed the boat when he interjected his own understanding and his own level of generosity. Peter thought he was displaying wisdom and understanding when he gave the amount of forgiveness as 7 times, but Jesus blows him away with an even bigger number. This number represented God's forgiveness extended to all mankind, but it also represented what the "greatest" should be able to do.
What can we learn from Peter's example and from Jesus?
I picked up on a couple of things. Peter interjected his own understanding when asking Jesus a question. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this; however, in practice we do this too often when learning from the Master. There was nothing wrong with Peter's question; but I am now asking myself why he felt the need to interject his own understanding into the question. Maybe we could learn even more from Jesus if we simply asked the questions without already having put ourselves into the answer.
Another thing I picked up on is the connection between this interaction with Peter and Jesus, and the original question that brought up the teaching in the first place. This is all about the disciples desire to understand who is or will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a good question, even if their motives for asking it started out a wee bit corrupt. Jesus took the opportunity to answer one of the questions that we should ALL be asking ourselves. He explains it in many different ways so that we can comprehend it from different angles. Do you ever ask yourself this question...
What is it that can make me a usable member; maybe even the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?
If you haven't, go ahead and ask. Now that you've asked the question read Matthew 18 for the answer... directly from the mouth of the Master. Thank you Jesus!
Thank You for being willing to answer our questions, even when the motivation is off kilter. Thank You for showing us what it means to be the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Thank You for leading us and guiding us. Thank You for Your Grace.
Protect and watch over my family. I ask also that You will show me Your Will for my life. I want to follow You completely and with a real conviction of the heart. I want to receive the Holy Spirit and I ask for it to be given to me today. Use me in any way You can. Amen.