The Limits of Mercy
Matthew 18:21-35
Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?…

Peter's question here was suggested by his Lord's doctrine concerning Christian judgment (vers. 15-20). "Then came Peter," etc. The form of Peter's question may have been suggested by the custom of the rabbins who from Amos 1:3 - "For three transgressions, and for four, I will not turn away wrath" - held that three offences were to be forgiven, and not the fourth; or, uniting the two numbers, made "seven times" the extreme limit of their forgiveness. The Lord's reply teaches us -


1. Forgiveness should never be refused when sought with repentance.

(1) That repentance is understood here is evident from the illustrative parable of the two debtors (vers. 26, 29). Also from the parallel place (see Luke 17:4).

(2) To gain a brother is more noble than to ruin him. Mercy is nobler than sacrifice.

(3) The gaining of a brother is greater than the recovery of property. Life is more than meat. How much is a man better than a sheep?

2. Forgiveness is no mercy to the impenitent.

(1) It leaves his evil nature still unchanged.

(2) It encourages and hardens him in his perversity.

(3) It offends public justice. The fellow servants of the oppressor were "exceeding sorry." They looked to their lord for his judgment upon the tyrant.


1. God's mercy is boundless.

(1) Offences against God, as compared with offences against our fellows, are as "ten thousand talents" to "one hundred pence." We should regard ourselves as debtors to God in all we have and all we are.

(2) It is folly in us to say to him, "I will pay thee all." He that goes about to establish his own righteousness is guilty of this folly of attempting with nothing to pay all (cf. ver. 25; Romans 10:3).

(3) The parable teaches that the only way to forgiveness is to acknowledge our debt and appeal only to mercy. The promise to pay may express the desire of the contrite heart to make amends.

(4) The Lord does not exact; he forgives (cf. Psalm 78:38, 40). His mercy is limited neither to "seven times" nor to "seventy times seven."

2. We must forgive as we are .forgiven.

(1) This is required (cf. Matthew 6:12; Mark 11:25, 26). It was at the close of the great Day of Atonement that the jubilee trumpet sounded a release from debts (see Leviticus 25:9).

(2) To the merciless God will show no mercy. A claim pushed to an extremity becomes a wrong. Mercilessness is great wickedness. "Thou wicked servant!" "To be beggars to God and tyrants to our brethren is the height of depravity" (Helfrich).

3. Forgiveness must be "from the heart."

(1) God's reasons of mercy are from himself. "He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy;" "He was moved with compassion."

(2) So the wisdom which is from above, true religion, is "easy to be entreated." The returning prodigal child will find a relenting heart. The insolvent debtor, a compassionate creditor. The distressed tenant, a lenient landlord. Gratitude to God will make it so. "I am thy servant; for thou hast loosed my bonds."

(3) This is a forgiveness which leaves no pique behind, no refusal of friendship. We should keep no account of the offences of a brother, but pass them over, and so forgive and forget until it becomes a habit to do so.


1. There is a time for reckoning with the King.

(1) The King reckons with his servants when their regeneration commences. Then they reflect upon their spiritual state, and upon their liability to ruin.

(2) There are retributions and rewards in the order of God's providence in this world.

(3) The grand reckoning will be in the day of judgment at the end of the age. To this end God keeps account (see Deuteronomy 32:34). Every sin we commit is a debt to God. The aggregate is the "ten thousand talents"

2. His pardons will be retracted from the unmerciful.

(1) The same servant went out and throttled his fellow servant. "Went out." How different may be our conduct when we go out into the world from what it is when we go into our closet! Went out; not immediately, perhaps, but when by degrees the spirit of the world replaced the grateful emotion.

(2) Those who have experienced God's mercy have the greater reason to deprecate his wrath. They will find the "seventy times seven" of the mercy transformed into wrath (cf. Genesis 4:24). How serious, then, may be the consequences of the difference between the attitude of the closet and that of the world!

3. How fearful are the treasures of wrath!

(1) There are the sufferings of loss. The debtor is sold up. He forfeits wife, children, property. All ennobling excellences of his nature are removed. His talents, his trusts, are taken away (cf. Matthew 25:15, 28). "Those who sell themselves to work wickedness must be sold to make satisfaction" (Henry).

(2) The sufferings of reproach. "Thou wicked servant." This expresses a perception which God will give to the sinner of the enormity of his conduct. "I forgave thee all that debt." It is terrible to be upbraided with the mercy we have abused. "Shouldst not thou also," etc.? What a contrast is here with the mercy that is given liberally without upbraiding (James 1:5)!

(3) Torment. Eastern prisons were places of torment (cf. Matthew 25:46; 2 Peter 2:4, 17; Jude 1:6). The prison keepers are the tormentors (cf. Revelation 14:10-12). The tortures are the worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched.

(4) The sufferer has no voice to reply. - J.A.M.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?

WEB: Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?"

The Forgiveness of Sires
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