A brother who refuses to repent and persists in his sin should be treated as a pagan or a tax collector. Pagans and tax collectors were considered by the Jews to be sinners who were not in God’s family. Unrepentant believers should be treated like that.
A question arises here: Must we forgive such a hard and unrepentant brother? If he repents we certainly must forgive him (see Luke 17:3-4). But even if he does not repent, we must still forgive him (verses 21-22).
If we are able to fully and freely forgive our brother and to forget his offense, then we can drop the matter. If his sin is only against us, then it is not necessary to accuse him before others (1 Corinthians 6:7). But if we are led by the Holy Spirit to confront our brother, then Jesus has shown us in these three verses exactly how we must go about it.
18 The church or its board of elders has the final authority to render judgment in such matters. Their ruling will be bound in heaven; that is, it will be approved by God. Likewise, if they forgive, or loose the offending brother, God will also forgive him. God has given the church and its leaders the full authority to act in His name (see Matthew 16:19; John 20:23).
19-20 These two verses follow in the same context from verse 18. In order for the church to bind and loose, its members must be in agreement. The Holy Spirit must guide the members of the church to make the right decision. And He will guide everyone in the same way. If there is disagreement among church members, then it is very hard to determine what is God’s will. If there is not full agreement, the church should not take action against a brother. But if there is agreement on a course of action, then that action will be according to God’s will and it will have God’s authority behind it.
These verses, however, are not written only about rendering judgments against a brother. These verses are also written about any kind of prayer or request. When two or three gather together in Jesus’ name, Jesus is present with them (verse 20). His Holy Spirit is in them. And when they agree in their prayer, they can be sure that the Holy Spirit has guided them and that they are praying according to God’s will.61
For truly united prayer to exist, our minds must be “one” (verse 19). The prayer must be for something specific about which we are in agreement. The second thing necessary for united prayer is that it must be in [Jesus’] name (verse 20), that is, for Jesus’ sake. If we pray together with one mind and in Jesus’ name, it will be done for us. If God does not grant our request, it will often be because we have not prayed in a united way.
Individual prayer is, of course, very important (Matthew 6:6). But group prayer is equally important. Both kinds of prayer are necessary. Group prayer is especially effective when we are requesting guidance and help from God. Since the same Holy Spirit is working in all believers, when we pray together the Holy Spirit can more fully manifest His power.
If two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you. What an amazing promise! Do we believe it? When husbands and wives pray together, do they believe it? When we gather in prayer meetings, do we believe this promise? All we have to do is to agree with one another and pray in Jesus’ name, and God has promised to give us what we ask.
Therefore, when we gather together, let us not pray only for small things. Let us be bold to pray for great things, to make great requests to God. All the power of God is in our hands through united prayer! We must pray for God’s kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10). We must pray for laborers for the harvest (Matthew 9:38). We must pray for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). We must pray that the love and power of the Holy Spirit will fill our church and fill our lives. We must pray that Jesus Christ will be glorified by His church, by us.
21-22 According to Luke 17:4, Jesus earlier had said: “If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” This was a new teaching for the disciples. Perhaps Peter had not been present when Jesus said those words, and so had doubts about Jesus’ meaning. So Peter came to Jesus and asked how many times he had to forgive his brother. “Up to seven times?” Peter was looking for an easy rule to follow.
And Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”62 Jesus didn’t mean that we should forgive our brother only seventy-seven (or 490) times and then stop. Jesus’ meaning was this: No matter how many times our brother sins against us or how great his sins are, we must keep on forgiving him—even more than seventy-seven (or 490) times. And in these verses Jesus doesn’t even say that our brother has to repent in order to obtain our forgiveness. As we have been freely forgiven by God, so we must freely and unconditionally forgive others, whether they repent or not (see Matthew 6:12,14-15; Mark 11:25-26 and comments).
Sometimes we must forgive our brother for several different sins. Sometimes we must keep on forgiving him for one sin committed over and over. But sometimes we must forgive him over and over for one sin committed just once. Perhaps we have forgiven our brother for a particular sin on one day, but the next day an unforgiving spirit comes upon us. If so, we must forgive him for that sin again—and again and again. Maybe we will have to forgive our brother seventy-seven times for that one sin!
23 Then Jesus told this parable to illustrate His teaching about forgiveness. In the Old Testament, the rule was an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38). But in the kingdom of heaven, the rule is: “Forgive your brother and you will be forgiven.” The king in this parable is God, and His servants represent believers.
24 The first servant owed the king ten thousand talents, that is, several million dollars.
25 When he could not pay what he owed, the king ordered that he and his family be sold as slaves.
26-27 But when the servant begged for more time, the king had pity and forgave him. He forgave him his entire debt.
28-31 But then the first servant went to another fellow servant who owed him a hundred denarii, that is, a few dollars. And the first servant showed the second man no mercy. He would not forgive his debt, nor even give him more time to pay it back.
32-35 When the king heard about this, he withdrew his forgiveness from that wicked unmerciful servant and put him in prison until he paid what he owed. And this is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (verse 35).
God keeps an account of the debts (the sins) of all men. The debt we owe God because of our sin is like the debt of the first servant—very large. We can never pay it back no matter how many good works we do. But God in His mercy forgives us completely. How can we, then, who have received such great forgiveness, not show mercy to others? Let us, therefore, forgive our brother, not just in words but from [our] heart.
This parable teaches that if we do not forgive our brother, God will withdraw the mercy He has shown to us. Some Christians say that anyone who does not show mercy to others has himself never received the mercy of God; that is, he was never a true Christian to begin with (Luke 7:4143,47). But others believe that having received mercy and forgiveness from God, it is possible to lose it by refusing to forgive others (see General Article: Can We Lose Our Salvation?).