Matthew 18:21, 22, “Then Peter came to Him (Jesus) and said, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.’ ”
Peter asked a hypothetical question: Is there is a limit as to how many times you forgive someone? Jesus’ answer exaggerated the number Peter gave as if saying there’s no limit. Could you imagine the harsh attitude of someone keeping a list of offenses and willing to forgive for 490 times but not 491?
Then Jesus gives a parable (verses 23-35) that illustrates the proper attitude of forgiveness. A man owed a huge debt to the king. The king ordered him, his wife, his children and his possessions to be sold to pay the debt. The man begged for mercy and the compassionate king forgave his debt. This same man found a fellow servant who owed him a tiny amount and grabbed him by the throat demanding payment. The fellow servant begged for mercy but the first servant was hard-hearted and cast him in prison until he paid the debt.
When the king heard what happened, he said, “O you wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” (Matthew 18:31, 32) He then had the first man receive the same punishment he was giving out by turning him over to the jailers.
The lesson is summarized at the end of the parable: Matthew 18:35 “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Jesus used a similar expression in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:14,15. He reenforced the principle in Matthew 7:2, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
Forgiveness is a difficult concept to apply as sometimes people do not realize they did wrong. In Luke 17:3,4 Jesus added the thought of expressing our forgiveness only when the offender asks for forgiveness. “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”
In practical application we should forgive someone in our heart and not let bitterness develop (Ephesians 4:31). But it may take years for the offender to realize he has done something wrong.