Why the Meaning of "Seventy Times Seven" is So Radical Today

Why the Meaning of "Seventy Times Seven" is So Radical Today

The phrase seventy times seven has entered our popular culture and is often cited when we talk about forgiveness. Still, most of us find it a bit hard to forgive our offenders seventy times seven. Particularly in a period where we’re becoming very aware of Christian leaders behaving badly, forgiveness can be the last thing on our minds. However, the deeper problem is we talk about Jesus’ seventy times seven teaching without paying attention to its context, which marries forgiveness and correction. Here is a look at what seventy times seven mean, and how it fits into the Bible’s teachings about sin, repentance, forgiveness, and rebuke.

What Does 'Seventy Times Seven' Mean?

Jesus says we should forgive someone seventy times seven in response to a question from Peter about how many times to forgive a brother who sins against him. Peter asks if forgiving seven times is appropriate, and Jesus responds “not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). On one level, this number is wordplay—Jesus is taking the number that Peter gave and one-upping it, changing Peter’s expectations.

The parable Jesus tells after giving this instruction highlights what he means by “seventy times seven.” He tells a parable about an unmerciful servant who has amassed an impossibly large debt but is forgiven for it. The servant is described as owing 10,000 talents (Matthew 18:24) – as a footnote in the NIV translation states, a single talent was 20 years of wages for a day laborer. So, this servant owed a debt in the millions, a debt that given his job and status, he couldn’t possibly accumulate in the real world. Even in the modern-day world when some people rack up thousands of dollars of gambling debts, no bookmaker or employer would be stupid enough to lend that much money. Jesus is exaggerating to make a point about how huge the debt is, that it’s impossible to pay back. In the same way, when Jesus says “seventy times seven,” he is creating a number so large that counting it would be ridiculous. You could try to mark every time you’ve forgiven somebody for a while, telling yourself, “Well, seventy times seven is 490, once they’ve hit 491, it’s all over…” However, the work to track your forgiveness for that long would be silly. So, the point is that we can’t put a number on forgiveness. We must forgive people always, without putting a limit on it.

It is interesting to note that in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection. Some writers have argued that in light of that, especially since seventy is divisible by seven and therefore could also indicate perfection, Jesus is highlighting the perfect example we must follow to forgive. We cannot forgive perfectly without Jesus’ help. We know that faith without works is dead (James 2:26), and that we ran a race with perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-3), but we can only run that race if we are focused on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus provides the strength we need to spiritually grow, and without his help we are nothing.

Why Must We Forgive Seventy Times Seven?

In the parable of the unmerciful servant, the servant’s debt is forgiven by his master. Jesus affirms that the master refers to God, his heavenly father when he finishes the story (Matthew 18:35). So, Jesus sets the story up as being about how God forgives us our sins, and therefore how we should forgive others. We are all sinners, and we were all dead in our sins (Galatians 2:1). Jesus offers us salvation, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but by grace (Galatians 2:4-7). Having had our debts forgiven even though we did nothing to deserve it, we should forgive others with that same generosity.

Does Forgiveness Mean Pardoning?

Frequently, when talking about forgiveness, we give the impression that forgiveness means we completely trust the offender, act as nothing happened. However, right before Jesus talks about seventy times seven, he gives a teaching about what to do if a believer sins against another believer. He advises to meet with the offender privately, point out the offense and see if they repent. If that doesn’t happen, one should gather two or three other believers, go to the offender again, and if that doesn’t work then “take your case to the church” (Matthew 18:17a). If the offender still doesn’t repent, then “treat that person as a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17b). Paul affirms the importance of church leaders rebuking church congregants who create trouble in his letter to Titus, telling Titus as the leader of the Cretan church to rebuke troublemakers (Titus 1:13).

This highlights that while we should always forgive (let go of resentment toward the offender), there are still consequences for sin. If a person has not repented of their sin, then they should not be trusted as if they’re an innocent person. To give the most extreme example, forgiving someone who abused you doesn’t mean you let that person play with your kids. It is still wise to have boundaries, to consider whether someone has repented, and to expect a repentant offender to show he or she is worthy of being trusted again. This is particularly important in the context of Christians relating to each other because when a brother has not repented of a sin, that is a problem that must be addressed by other Christians.

This nuance between always extending forgiveness, never judging non-Christians, but correcting other Christians, is affirmed multiple times in the Bible. Jesus tells his disciples not to judge and to be wary of hypocrisy (Matthew 7:1-6). Paul describes the depravity that humans as a whole have fallen into (Romans 1), then advises Christians not to judge sinners because they were once sinners themselves (Romans 2:1-3). James advises not to speak evil against one’s brother (other Christians) because there is only one judge (James 4:11-12). However, Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 5 that Christians have to judge other Christians, removing unrepentant people from a church if necessary (1 Corinthians 5:5). He tells Timothy, a church leader, to “patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching” (2 Timothy 3:2). Generosity, wisdom, and when necessary, correction must all work together.

Why Is Forgiveness so Repugnant in Our Culture?

Because we human beings are sinful, forgiveness is not an easy task for any of us. We do not naturally want to let go of resentment, love those who have hurt us, or give them a chance to reconcile with us.

A particular struggle for Americans is that forgiveness requires admitting God’s control over our lives. We should not take revenge, because vengeance is the lord’s (Deuteronomy 32:35). We should not judge, because ultimately God will judge everyone (John 5:28-29). So, forgiveness demands a posture of humility where we remember we are not masters of our own fates, that we will all be judged in the end (Revelation 20). Since America as a country was founded during an act of rebellion against another power, we have individualism ingrained in our culture. We don’t like admitting we aren’t in control of our lives, that there are higher powers we will all answer to.

How Can We Apply Seventy Times Seven in the Modern World?

The question of how we apply forgiveness isn’t always easy, particularly when it comes to large organizations. We know there are Bible verses about communal repentance, communal forgiveness is a bit harder to unravel. Focusing on the small scale, here are some things we can individually do to apply Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness:

Start with right now. Take the time to consider who has sinned against you. This may be someone within your family or church, it might be someone from your past. It may even be someone no longer living or who you can’t contact for various reasons. If the person committed a sin and you harbor resentment, then there needs to be forgiveness.

Consider their spiritual status. Often, it’s hard to tell what God is doing in a person’s life, but we still have a clear biblical mandate about how to treat Christians versus non-Christians. We may not judge non-Christians while being shrewd around everybody (Matthew 10:16). When it comes to Christians, we forgive them and lovingly find ways to address their sins. We must forgive them, but that there is a moral standard to address. If Christians are not willing to repent of sin, we know where to go next.

Recognize the value of rebuke. Ultimately, we cannot be good siblings in Christ if we allow the Christians in our local communities (Paul mostly talks about rebuke on the local church level) to keep sinning, especially if they are leaders. It’s become all too common to take the Bible’s commands about not judging non-Christians and apply them across the board, especially when Christian leaders are caught sinning. When we do that, we send the wrong message to victims, ensures the problems continue, and become a poor witnesses to non-believers. We must be humble, focus on the Christians we know, and practice privacy before involving the whole church. Still, we must affirm that there is a sin that must be repented of—especially when leaders sin since leadership is reserved for Christians with high character. We can forgive well when we rebuke well, anything less is imbalanced.

Look for ways to reconcile. If it’s wise and possible, we should aim to reconcile with those we’ve forgiven. This may not always be possible. However, if we forgive someone, given them a chance to repent and they have repented, we should wisely consider ways to repair the relationship. This may take time, and things will not go back to exactly how they were before. The offense still happened and if a wound is mended, we rejoice precisely because we know it was once broken.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/fizkes

Connor SalterG. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,200 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.

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