Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” – Matt 18:21-22 NIV
The common footnote in this verse explains “seventy-seven times” as “seventy times seven.” Most of us realize that seventy times seven (490) is much larger than seventy-seven (77). However, are we missing the point of what Jesus was saying?
A common method of rabbinical communication during Jesus’ time was cross-referencing. Specifically, when Rabbis would mention even a couple words from a verse of Scripture, it would bring to mind ideas, emotions and teachings associated with the verse from which it was mentioned.
In our example, “seventy-seven times” is a quote back to Genesis:
Lamech said to his wives,
‘Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times. – Genesis 4:23-24 NIV
Lamech was a descendant of Cain, the murderer of his brother Abel. Earlier in Genesis 4, the story of Cain killing his brother in a fit of jealousy and rage is recounted. Immediately following the retelling is this quote from Lamech on avenging seventy-seven times.
The hearers of Jesus’ teaching this day would have known this Scripture reference. They would have had a mental picture of Cain and Lamech, and their thirst for out of control vengeance. Their hunger for over the top payback would have been in their thinking while listening to Jesus.
Also, the number seven throughout Genesis and Scripture symbolized completeness, finality. Lamech’s intention is this: If someone broke his arm, he would snap their neck. He was eager to pay back double, or triple. He would go one up or further on any offense committed towards him.
Now here’s the punch line of Jesus’ teaching: We should be as eager to forgive far beyond any offense towards us as Lamech was eager to repay any offense towards him. Our forgiveness should be far above the sin, just as Lamech’s revenge was far above the offense. We should unleash forgiveness as Lamech unleashed vengeance.
This whole forgiveness teaching doesn’t focus on the amount of forgiveness. The main point is our inner drive to forgive. The invisible heart of ours that we are often so reluctant to face is the focus. Our desires should be to forgive without restraint. Then we are forgiving as Jesus’ taught.
Who knew that forgiving seventy-seven times meant much more than forgiving as often as you can?
Please God, help me to change. Help my desires to match your Word. Help me to want to forgive in an uncontrolled and unrestrained fashion. Thank you.
What cross-references have you discovered that gave you further insight into a passage of Scripture?
Brad Andres is a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God. He is the author of The Scripture Reader’s Manifesto and a regular contributor to Prayers-For-Special-Help.com. His passion is to help people understand the Bible and maximize their God given potential for life. To hear more of Brad’s thoughts, check out his website at BradAndres.com, find him on Facebook, follow him onTwitter, or circle him on Google+.