“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?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.'” Matthew 18: 21-22 (ESV)
If you’ve been in a church that teaches from the Bible for more than a year, you’ve probably heard these verses brought up. I remember hearing about them a number of times from pulpits over the years and there are two things I remember clearly from those sermons.
One: The words “seventy times seven” are not clear in the Greek manuscript and could also be translated as “seventy-seven.” Some translations show it in English that way.
Two: Since we aren’t sure of what the Greek says, at least we can say it looks like Jesus is just doing a word play on the number “seven.” Normally the number seven in Hebrew represents perfection, so Peter saying he’d forgive his brother seven times for seven sins sounds really holy. Maybe Peter was trying to impress Jesus with his pious view of forgiveness? Nonetheless, Jesus was showing Peter that it’s not enough to forgive seven times, but many more times than that.
But recently I was reading the book of Genesis and realized that there may be a lot more going on in that passage than I’ve normally heard.
Before I go further, I should note that many times Jesus made references to the Old Testament, sometimes using entire verses, other times just using phrases. During the time Jesus walked the earth, other Jews understood that if you make a reference to one Old Testament verse or phrase, you were also making a reference to everything surrounding it, and most Jews also knew most of the Old Testament by heart. In fact, the Pharisees had the first 5 books of the Old Testament (including Genesis) memorized.
So, I was reading Genesis chapter 4, and again, many of us are familiar with it. Adam and Eve have two sons. Cain and Able. Able’s sacrifice is favored by God over Cain’s. God warns Cain about sin wanting to overtake him. Cain kills his brother Able. God asks Cain where his brother is. Cain says he is not his “brother’s keeper.” God confronts Cain about the murder of Able. God punishes Cain. Cain complains… etc. Eventually we get a genealogy of Cain, and this is where it gets really interesting. One of Cain’s descendants, his great-great-great-grandson is named Lamech.
The genealogy stops with Lamech and tells about his life. Lamech is the first man in Scripture to have taken two wives. Not the best thing to be known for, but there you go. He then proclaims to his wives that he “killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.” Genesis 4:23b-24 (ESV)
What! There it is! Seven and seventy-seven mentioned in a Scripture passage long before the time of Jesus! Could it be that Jesus was referencing this exact passage of Scripture when speaking with Peter? The Greek for seventy-seven may not be clear in the New Testament, but this seems to give it some context for how it should be translated and interpreted.
Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother for sins done against him. Able was killed by his brother. Lamech used seven and seventy-seven as a way to compare himself to Cain. Jesus took Peter’s “as many as seven times,” and used it to show that forgiveness should come at least seventy-seven times. The correlation is strong here.
Lamech gloried in vengeance, and said that if Cain’s vengeance against Able was sevenfold, then his vengeance was greater; seventy-sevenfold! Here Jesus is saying that His disciples should actually walk out forgiveness towards their brother’s sins with the same zeal with which Lamech approached his vengeance against what he perceived as the sins of others.
Cain and Lamech were murderers. Through comparing His disciples to Cain and Lamech, Jesus was essentially proclaiming, “Live as total opposites of Cain and Lamech! Be quick to forgive and forgive every time!”
Something else that the story of Cain and Lamech shows us is the increase of sin from the time of Adam and Eve’s first sin. It could be said then, that through Jesus making reference to that story, He is calling us to increase our forgiveness in our relationships even as sin increases. If your Christian brother or sister sins against you, betrays you, hurts you, do not respond with vengeance, but forgiveness, no matter how much or how often they do it. That definitely exposes some unforgiveness in my heart towards others.
Time to stop seeking vengeance, and start seeking to give out the same forgiveness I have already been given.
What do you think? Is this a valid interpretation, or was Jesus just saying “forgive a whole lot of times” and leaving it at that? What about all of this taken in the context of the rest of Matthew 18?