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70 x 7

Matthew 18:21-22


Steven P. Wickstrom

all Scriptures quoted from the HCSB

Matthew 18:21-22
Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.”

Peter thought he was being generous by forgiving a person seven times. Then Jesus blew that number right out of the water with his reply of “70x7.” (Some versions record Jesus' answer as “seventy sevens.”) Have you ever wondered where Jesus came up with that number? Did Jesus simply pull that answer out of the air or was that answer rooted in something else? For the majority of the questions that Jesus answered, he reached back into the Old Testament for his answers. He did the same thing to answer Peter’s question. To discover where Jesus' answer came from, we will need to go back to the time when Israel and Judah were exiled from the Promised Land.

Understanding history is crucial to understanding scripture. Historical accounts give us the backstory, or background story, to Matthew 18:21-22. The prophets had warned Israel first, then Judah that they would be conquered by foreign armies if they did not return to following God and worshiping Him alone. The Northen Kingdom of Israel fell first around 721 BC to the Assyrian Empire. As a result, the citizens of the Northen Kingdom were deported to Assyria to become servants of that empire. The Assyrian Empire in turn was conquered by the Babylonians around 610 BC. The Babylonians then conquered the Southern Kingdom of Judah around 586 BC. As result, the citizens of the Southern Kingdom were deported to Babylon to become servants of that empire. During Judah᾿s captivity, the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire.

In the book of Daniel, chapter nine, we find Daniel reading from the prophet Jeremiah. It was the first year of the Persian reign and Daniel made an important discovery. Jeremiah prophesied that 70 years would pass after the destruction of Jerusalem that the captivity would end. Daniel realized that the seventy years were finished, but they were still in captivity, so he got down on his knees and confessed the sins of the nation to God. (see Jeremiah chapter 25).

This begs the question: why wait seventy years after the destruction of Jerusalem to end the captivity. Why did pick that number? There had to be a reason. God provided the answer in the book of 2 Chronicles 36:20-21. “He deported those who escaped from the sword to Babylon, and they became servants to him and his sons until the rise of the Persian kingdom. This fulfilled the word of the Lord through Jeremiah and the land enjoyed its Sabbath rest all the days of the desolation until 70 years were fulfilled. This brings up the question about the land’s Sabbath. What is that all about? Why did the land have its own Sabbath? Why did the land need a Sabbath? We need to turn to the Mosaic Law for our answers.

According to Leviticus 25, the Israelites were to give the land a Sabbath every seventh year. Leviticus 25:2-5 states “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When you enter the land I am giving you, the land will observe a Sabbath to the Lord. You may sow your field for six years, and you may prune your vineyard and gather its produce for six years. But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to the Lord: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard. You are not to reap what grows by itself from your crop, or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. It must be a year of complete rest for the land.” The Israelites could farm the land, tend to their vineyards, and harvest as normal, for six years. But on the seventh year they were not allowed to plow the fields or plant seed, or dress the vines in the vineyards. The land was to go fallow. The land was to be uncultivated and lie idle for an entire year, thus the land was given its Sabbath.

God had a problem with the Israelites, they were not keeping, or honoring, the Sabbath of the land. God informed the prophet Jeremiah that the people had ignored the last seventy Sabbaths of the land. The land had gone without rest for 490 years. God informed Jeremiah that the seventy sabbaths the land had missed would be paid for by Israel going into exile. For seventy years the land would not be cultivated or farmed.

When Daniel realized the seventy years had expired, he understood that no one had repented for depriving the land of 490 years worth of missed Sabbaths. No one had repented for breaking God's law. Daniel therefore got on his face before God and repented for the sins of the nation. In his mercy, God forgave the sin of not giving the land its rest every seven years. In doing so, God forgave Israel of the 70 times they ignored the 7-year land Sabbath.

After Daniel prayed that God would forgive the nation, God restored the nation to the promised land. The Israelites rebuilt the temple, which signified that their relationship with God had been restored.When we forgive others who have wronged us, it allows God to restore the relationship with that person. If we refuse to forgive others, it hinders our relationship with God. Forgiveness therefore contributes to our wellbeing with both others and with God.1

When Jesus told Peter that we should forgive 70 times 7, Peter more than likely understood the context of the answer. If God in his mercy could forgive an entire nation 70 times 7, then we could certainly forgive a single person that same amount of times. God set the precedent, and now it's up to us to follow it.

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[1] Dion A. Forster, “A Public Theological Approach to the (Im)Possibility of Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35: Reading the Text through the Lens of Integral Theory,” In Die Skriflig / In Luce Verbi 51, no. 3 (January 31,2017):1-10.

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