11.02.09 Mt. 18:21-22; Lk. 17:3-4
PETER ASKS ABOUT FORGIVENESS (“70 times 7”)
Mt. 21 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?”
22 “I tell you, not as many as seven,” Jesus said to him, “but 70 times seven.
Lk. 3 Be on your guard. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Concerning forgiveness, one Jewish tradition stated that it had to be given only three times;  but another stated forgiveness should be granted seven times. The conflict of opinions led Peter to ask Jesus the obvious question. Yet the counting of the number of times one has been forgiven is indicative that forgiveness may never have been granted originally.
“70 times seven.” The subject of forgiveness was an essential element in the ministry of Jesus, and was represented by an interesting figure of speech. The number seven represents wholeness, completeness, and perfection, not only in the Jewish culture but in surrounding cultural groups as well. Some scholars believe the number 70 represents the number of nations based on Genesis 10. However, that would not have had any relationship to the issues of the Jewish people. Therefore, the greater probability is that the number 70 represented the highest human judicial court, the Sanhedrin, since it has seventy members. It was based upon the Law of Moses in the book of Numbers,
16 The Lord answered Moses, “Bring Me 70 men from Israel known to you as elders and officers of the people. Take them to the tent of meeting and have them stand there with you. 17a Then I will come down and speak with you there.
Therefore, not only was the number considered to be ordained by God, but it was believed that a Sanhedrin decision was a decision also affirmed by God as noted in verse 17a. To the Jewish mind, this not only meant times without number but also without the highest legal judgment.
From the perspective of Jesus, the term “seventy times seven” is an emphasis on perfect forgiveness. The implication is obvious: perfect forgiveness decreed by every justice seated in the highest court in the land. This figure of speech has little to do with the number 490. Rather, it is focused on the spirit of quality, not legalistic quantity.
Some scholars have reflected upon Genesis 4:24 concerning the account of Lamech, a descendant of Cain. He was the Old Testament icon for revengeful killings. Concerning him, Moses wrote, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (But 77 is not 70×7.) Jesus may have thought of him in this discourse. If so, then forgiveness by mere human strength is impossible; such forgiving strength can come only from divine intervention.
Peter and the disciples were challenged with an incomprehensible thought that full forgiveness was being offered to tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners who were struggling to get out of a sinful lifestyle. Note that previously the discussion was on an unrepentant brother, whereas the instruction here is given to one who is repentant and is struggling to live a pure and holy lifestyle.
There is an interesting reflection of this figure of speech in Genesis 4:24 and in a collection of writings known as the Pseudepigrapha in which is the Testament of Benjamin 7:4. As is typical of Pseudepigrapha writers, authors at times referred to Moses or Abraham to give their work authoritative clout. Moses wrote that, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech (is to be avenged) seventy-seven times.” However, the author of the Testament emphasized the ultimate condemnation of Lamech by stating that Lamech “was condemned seventy times seven.” This phrase was a powerful phrase in the second century B.C. when the Testament was written. Therefore, it was used in this imagery, but Jesus used it for forgiveness instead of condemnation. This is an example of how an extra-biblical book can give insight to the cultural emphasis the author felt were significant.
Another interesting reference was provided by Josephus who recorded a slaughter of seventy judges during the First Revolt. By the year A.D. 69, the Revolt was into its third year and the Zealot freedom fighters were not only fighting the Romans, but also reigned with terror against the religious upper classes (i.e. Sadducees, leading Pharisees, and scribes) in Jerusalem. Since the corruption of the priesthood was well established and known for more than a century, the Zealots took it upon themselves cleanse the temple. At this same time, there was Zacharias, the son of Baruch, whom the Zealots accused of being in conspiracy with the Romans. In an attempt to imitate the Sanhedrin, the Zealots then gathered seventy citizens and established a mock trial. Josephus again provided the riveting details:
And so they intended to have Zacharias, the son of Baruch, one of the most eminent of the citizens, slain … he was also a rich man, so that by taking him off, they did not only hope to seize his effects but also to get rid of a man that had great power to destroy them. So they called together, by public proclamation, seventy of the principal men of the populace, for a show as if they were real judges, while they had no proper authority.
Josephus, Wars 4.5.4 (335-336)
In this narrative Josephus provided additional evidence that the number seventy was associated with judgment. The Zealots, in an attempt to appear legitimate, replicated an artificial Sanhedrin to condemn an innocent man. As to the story, the seventy citizens found Zacharias innocent. The Zealots were so indignant that they immediately killed Zacharias and in great turmoil, the seventy barely escaped from the temple with their lives.
. Amos 1:3; Job 33:29; Babylonian Talmud Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 40a and Yoma 86b-87a.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 1:105-06; Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 146.
. It should be noted that some scholars claim there is a variation in some texts concerning this phrase. However, the difference in wording does not change the meaning nor the spirit of what Jesus taught.
. The Testament of Benjamin is part of a larger work titled The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. See Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 1:827.
. Josephus, Wars 4.5.4.