“If my brother sins against me seven times”, said Peter, “must I still forgive him?” “Yes”, said Jesus, “and not just seven times, but seventy times seven.” Could Jesus seriously be suggesting that we forgive someone 490 times for 490 hurts, offences, insults or criticisms? Yes, that is what He was saying. And it was revolutionary. He was calling for limitless forgiveness by each person anything done to them by fellow human beings.
David Du Plessis, one of the greatest spokesmen in the world in his day for classical Pentecostalism once said that no one can expect the deep and full work of the Holy Spirit in their lives if they live with an unforgiving spirit towards anyone.
Du Plessis told of a time when he felt a gentle, divine pressure to minister to a group of people of whom he did not approve. “How can I justify their teachings, their actions, their deeds?” he had thought. Yet God seemed to say to him: “I never gave you any authority to justify anybody. I only gave Christians authority to forgive everybody.” Said Du Plessis, “We are called to forgive again and again and again. We never have the privilege or right to judge.
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?…” — Matthew 7:1-3.
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” — Matthew 7:5.
Interestingly enough David wore a little metal pin in his jacket simply inscribed with the figure 490!! It was a very vivid and compelling reminder that this word of forgiveness is one which is put compellingly upon us by our loving and forgiving Lord.
Another great challenge comes to us in Jesus’ words to His followers: “As the Father has sent me, so send I you” — John 20:21. How did the Father send the Son? The question is answered in John 3:17 — “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
The Christian who moves in the Spirit of Christ, does not therefore go out into the world to condemn it, but to work for its salvation. We are never permitted to condemn another person, however tempting this is, though we may condemn and disapprove a particular behaviour.
A friend of mine once said: “If you forgive, it opens things up. If you don’t, it seizes things up.” And most of us know this to be true. No wonder the Scriptures say: “See to it that no root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble, for by it many become defiled” — Hebrews 12:15. The disease is infectious. But forgiveness is infectious too.
Think for a moment of the early disciples. Their leader had been judicially murdered. Seven weeks later they take to the streets and proclaim forgiveness to those who had done it. This was without any historical precedent before or since. No wonder their contemporary world was thunderstruck and riveted by what they were hearing.
Nor did those early disciples mince words. They said to those around them, “You did it. You murdered the Son of God.”
But nor did they go on to say: “Pilate should be put out from office: Herod should be impeached, or maybe hanged in public: Caiaphas must be sent for a lifetime of hard labour in salt mines. And now we are going to take full vengeance upon you.”
No, they just preached forgiveness. Nor, as I say, had anything like this ever happened before in the Roman World, or any other, where the disciples of a murdered leader went out and preached forgiveness to his murderers. No wonder 3 000 were converted.
But note. What else could Peter have done? For when Jesus came to Peter after the resurrection, He came loving and forgiving. Peter, sick at heart for his denials and cowardly sin, was reinstated by His Lord through love and forgiveness. What other message therefore could he and his fellow disciples then carry to the world?
One other thing. Jesus said God’s forgiveness was in proportion as we forgive others. “Forgive us our trespasses”, says the Lord’s Prayer, “as we forgive them that trespass against us.” Human forgiveness and divine forgiveness are inextricably intertwined. Says St Paul, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” — Ephesians 4:32.
Have you or I a problem person in our lives today? God’s word to us is “Forgive.”
Or perhaps, if we are living in South Africa today, it is not an individual we are struggling to forgive but maybe a group of individuals. Perhaps another race group. Or another group of people who differ from us or who have hurt us.
This group forgiveness, for example by blacks of whites, or vice versa, is absolutely critical to the forward movement of our nation at this time. Tremendous racial hurts have been inflicted for example by whites on blacks, but our country will only spiral down into the abyss unless blacks, with their amazing capacity for forgiveness, can rise once again to the occasion, and as Mandela did, express forgiveness and the spirit of reconciliation.
Without this we will really be lost. We really will. Mandela showed us the non-racial, forgiving spirit and if we forget this and allow ourselves to be re-racialized, we will live with national regrets and awful socio-political consequences forever and ever.
So the challenge to forgiveness is a supreme one. And maybe part of it even includes forgiving ourselves for when we have done awful or desperately wrong things. But in Calvary’s Cross is to be found both the power and the capacity to do this supremely divine thing of forgiving. The other person, yes. And ourselves as well.
And you know what? It’s even up to 70 x 7!