In Matthew 18 Peter asked Jesus a question. He wanted to know how many times he had to forgive someone who offended him. He proposes a rational, even generous number. Should I forgive them seven times?
Jesus, as was his custom, responded with a parable. He told Peter the kingdom of heaven could be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One man owed him a sum that, according to one scholar, would equal over $7 billion in modern currency. The servant, like most of us in this room, knew he would never earn that much money in a lifetime. The king ordered that the man and his whole family be sold as slaves to pay the debt. But the servant begged the king to have mercy. He promised he’d work off the debt and pay everything he owed. Knowing this to be impossible, the king had compassion and released him. Not only did he release him, but he forgave the entire loan.
That’s pretty extreme forgiveness, right? But then the parable takes a turn. Jesus told Peter that the forgiven servant went out and found a fellow servant who owed him—using the same estimate as before—around $11,000. That’s not a small amount of money to most people, but remember, this man was just absolved of a $7 billion debt. This second servant, however, couldn’t pay the $11,000 so the original servant did the rational thing. He started choking him.
Then, he demanded he pay what he owed. Eventually, he had him thrown into debtor’s prison. The king found out about this injustice, so he summoned the original servant. Let’s pick up in Matthew 18:32:
32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And because he was angry, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart.”
Quite the change in tone, right? The servant went from forgiven an insurmountable debt to thrown into prison to be tortured until he could pay what he owed. Based on the size of the debt, how long do you think he’d be tortured? Forever? That’s unsettling. But then Jesus throws out this mic drop moment in verse 35: So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart.
Listen, we need transparency as a church, don’t we? I just want to be transparent here. Life seems like it would be a lot easier if we didn’t have a Biblical mandate to forgive. If we could hold just a little grudge here and there, wouldn’t it be just a tiny bit easier to get through your day-to-day? This is one of the toughest teachings, I think, for a disciple to come to terms with.
As a follower of Jesus Christ, you have renounced any right to withhold forgiveness from someone who genuinely seeks reconciliation. That’s what I’ll refer to today as gospel forgiveness. We have been forgiven—not on our own merit, but because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. Therefore, we must forgive in return.
That’s not just a good idea that some other people try—like yoga, or eating kale, or sending birthday cards. It’s Biblical teaching supported by all four gospels, and the epistles, and the Old Testament law, and the prophets, and the Psalms. It’s all over Scripture. But it’s not easy. It’s not even all that easy to define, is it? I mean, we say you’re forgiven but how do we act afterward? Is it as though nothing ever happened? Do we love them but treat them with an air of suspicion? What does gospel forgiveness really mean?
Author Ken Sande has done work in the field of forgiveness and reconciliation among Christians for over a decade. He wrote that
“To forgive someone means to release from liability to suffer punishment or penalty. We must release the person who has wronged us from the penalty of being separated from us. We must not hold wrongs against others, not think about them, and not punish others for them. Therefore, forgiveness may be described as a decision to make four promises:
 “I will not think about this incident.”
 “I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you.”
 “I will not talk to others about this incident.”
 “I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.”
I think that’s pretty clear . . .but it’s also extremely difficult. Supernaturally difficult, even. In Genesis 45 we see a perfect portrait of forgiveness and I think we’ll find some truths to help us wrap our minds around this tough teaching today.
Let’s read together:
45 Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, “Send everyone away from me!” No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers. 2 But he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and also Pharaoh’s household heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But they could not answer him because they were terrified in his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please, come near me,” and they came near. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “the one you sold into Egypt. 5 And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. 7 God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 8 Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
9 “Return quickly to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me without delay. 10 You can settle in the land of Goshen and be near me—you, your children, and your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and all you have. 11 There I will sustain you, for there will be five more years of famine. Otherwise, you, your household, and everything you have will become destitute.”’ 12 Look! Your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin can see that I’m the one speaking to you. 13 Tell my father about all my glory in Egypt and about all you have seen. And bring my father here quickly.”
14 Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. 15 Joseph kissed each of his brothers as he wept, and afterward his brothers talked with him.
The Return for Jacob
16 When the news reached Pharaoh’s palace, “Joseph’s brothers have come,” Pharaoh and his servants were pleased. 17 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Tell your brothers, ‘Do this: Load your animals and go on back to the land of Canaan. 18 Get your father and your families, and come back to me. I will give you the best of the land of Egypt, and you can eat from the richness of the land.’ 19 You are also commanded to tell them, ‘Do this: Take wagons from the land of Egypt for your dependents and your wives and bring your father here. 20 Do not be concerned about your belongings, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours.’”
21 The sons of Israel did this. Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he gave them provisions for the journey. 22 He gave each of the brothers changes of clothes, but he gave Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothes. 23 He sent his father the following: ten donkeys carrying the best products of Egypt and ten female donkeys carrying grain, food, and provisions for his father on the journey. 24 So Joseph sent his brothers on their way, and as they were leaving, he said to them, “Don’t argue on the way.”
25 So they went up from Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. 26 They said, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!” Jacob was stunned, for he did not believe them. 27 But when they told Jacob all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived.
28 Then Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go to see him before I die.”
There are five truths about gospel forgiveness that are revealed as we study this chapter. First,
Gospel forgiveness is fueled by compassion
Joseph’s compassion for his brothers is evident from the very first verse. Upon hearing Judah’s plea, his offer of his own life in the place of Benjamin’s, Joseph is overwhelmed with compassion.
And that’s an important point about gospel forgiveness. Compassion carries with it a desire to somehow lessen the pain or ease the circumstances of the one you’re compassionate toward.
Everything that Joseph does in this chapter from the very first verse is an outpouring of compassion toward his brothers. He wanted nothing but good for them and he knew it was in their best interest to feel his forgiveness. He says, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?”
That statement would have struck fear into the hearts of his brothers. The one you sold is now your judge. But he softens the fear by asking about Jacob. Not just is he still living—he had already asked them that. What Jospeh is getting at here is “Is my father still “with it”? Is he going to remember or know me? And then he draws them close. Gospel forgiveness seeks to compassionately bring together relationships that have been separated by sin.
As we look at Joseph’s compassion here let me point out two quick things that will help us apply this—First, forgiveness isn’t fully realized until there is repentance. Practically, this means that when you find yourself in conflict with another believer—whether you’re the one offended are you’re the offender—there must be repentance before forgiveness can be fully realized. Really, all of these truths about gospel forgiveness only apply to believers because non-Christians do not have the same context for forgiveness that we do. You should be surprised—maybe even shocked—anytime an unbeliever extends an apology and maybe even more shocked when they accept one.
Second, you need to prepare your heart beforehand to forgive when repentance happens. Joseph did. His heart was already bursting with love for his brothers even though they wrecked his life. This is the third time he wells up with emotion for his family since they came to buy food a few chapters ago. His heart was already soft toward them because he had adopted a position of forgiveness toward his brothers before they even repented.
It’s in this next truth, though, that I think we find the most important secret to forgiveness. In fact, I think this is the most important thing we can learn from chapter 45:
Gospel forgiveness acknowledges God’s sovereignty
Look back at verse 5 with me: And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life.
Joseph acknowledged that the circumstances of his life were much bigger than the relationship between himself and his brothers. Their actions were sinful, and the brothers had to deal with the consequences of that sin, but Joseph acknowledged that nothing happened in his life outside the providence of God—meaning God’s actions in the workings of His creation to bring about His purpose. There are no accidents with God. Men have evil intentions but God takes those intentions, those evil plans, and He uses them to bring about His purpose. Nothing happens by random chance. We believe in a God who is sovereign over all the actions of His creation.
And when we acknowledge that nothing has happened in our lives, no one has wronged us in any way that has happened outside the knowledge, control, and infinite wisdom of a sovereign God—then we are freed to forgive in a way that brings about reconciliation and honors the God who allowed the broken relationship to further His plan and purpose.
Scholar Allen P. Ross wrote:
Reconciliation comes through forgiveness, and forgiveness through the recognition of Gods sovereignty. When the one who has been wronged can see things as God sees them, can perceive them as God planned them, and can communicate that understanding as the basis for compassion and forgiveness, then reconciliation is possible. But anyone who bears a grudge or hopes to retaliate has not come to appreciate the meaning of the sovereignty of God. And without the forgiveness that comes with such an appreciation, there can be no reconciliation.
Joseph is clear with his brothers—God sent me here. He points to God’s control over his circumstances in Egypt in verse 5, verse 7, verse 8, and in verse 9. His perspective allowed him to both forgive his brothers and glorify God by recognizing Him as the one who is sovereign over his circumstances.
This is one of the clearest places in the Bible we see the sovereignty of God taught through the workings of creation. God’s sovereignty frees us to forgive. If you’ve offended me in some way, God—through his divine providence—has a purpose for that offense. We may never know that purpose. Joseph did not live to see the great nation Israel would become while in Egypt for 400 years, but his life was the catalyst for that.
We serve a really big God who is doing really big things and if someone has wronged you in some way, it’s not outside of his really big plan. So what’s the best thing that we can do? Forgive and be restored.
Which leads us to the next truth:
Gospel forgiveness seeks to restore relationships
Look again at verses 13-15 Tell my father about all my glory in Egypt and about all you have seen. And bring my father here quickly.”
14 Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. 15 Joseph kissed each of his brothers as he wept, and afterward his brothers talked with him.
This wasn’t just an outward forgiveness. Remember, they hated Joseph so much that they couldn’t even speak peaceably to him in chapter 37. Now, we see what we would consider as distinctly unmanly behavior, right? Weeping, hugging, and kissing—the restoration of affectionate, compassionate, loving relationships.
The goal of forgiveness is to achieve a relationship that functions as though the sin never happened. That’s the goal. Is that easy? Absolutely not! But, remember, what we are after here is gospel forgiveness. We want to give the same kind of forgiveness that we’ve been given by God. What does God do with our past sins?
Corrie ten Boom, in her book Tramp for the Lord, had these words to say regarding forgiveness: "It was 1947 ... I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander's mind, I like to think that that's where forgiven sins are thrown. 'When we confess our sins,' I said, 'God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever ... Then God places a sign out there that says No Fishing Allowed!’"
Gospel forgiveness doesn’t just restore relationships. It goes farther:
Gospel forgiveness achieves gospel forgetfulness
Look at verse 24: 24 So Joseph sent his brothers on their way, and as they were leaving, he said to them, “Don’t argue on the way.”
There was much for the brothers to discuss, right? We’ll see later on in our study that they still have some lingering doubts about Joseph’s forgiveness but in his wisdom Joseph instructs them to not belabor their difficulty by arguing about the situation.
There was much to talk about, right? Who had the idea to harm Joseph in the first place? Reuben was going to release him, certainly he had some things he wanted to say. But Jospeh steps in: We’re being reconciled. Don’t let your feelings about the situation drag you back to disunity. Go in peace back to Jacob, which is where we find this final truth:
Gospel forgiveness restores life
The final verse of the chapter: 28 Then Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go to see him before I die.”
This would have been a difficult reunion for the brothers. Because in telling Jacob that Joseph was alive they would have had to come to a full confession of their sin, which they hadn’t done to their father yet. Initially, he doesn’t even believe them. But once reality sinks in he is elated.
Remember back to the last chapter, Jacob said if you come back without Benjamin I might as well die. This man was dejected over his broken family—even though he seems to be the reason for a lot of the brokenness. But here, he has new life! There’s a vitality to his words. That’s what gospel forgiveness does, it breathes new life into dead relationships.
We’ve seen five truths about gospel forgiveness—it is fueled by compassion, it acknowledges God’s sovereignty, it restores relationships, causes us to forget others’ sins, and restores life.
Now that we have those five truths on the screen, we need to note two points of application for this text. One is easy to see and it’s probably where your mind is focused right now. It’s what we talked about in the beginning of our time together today As a follower of Jesus Christ, I have renounced any right to withhold forgiveness from someone who genuinely seeks reconciliation.
We see the fruit of that sentence in this text, but it’s so hard. That’s all true and important, but there’s another application here that we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about and it’s this:
If you belong to Christ, you have experienced all five of these truths. God, in His compassion for you, because of His sovereign plan has restored you to relationship with Him, forgotten your sin, and brought you to life. It’s because these things are true about you that they must be true of your interactions with others.
It is only because God has acted in His goodness to forgive us that we can have a relationship with Him.
2 Thessalonians 1:5-8 teaches us much about what it means that we are forgiven and why we are to forgive:
It is clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering, 6 since it is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, 8 when he takes vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Who repays? Not you and I but God. He gives relief and it’s only because of His righteous judgment (according to verse 5) that we will be counted worthy of His kingdom. What do we deserve? We deserve his vengeance. What did we do to earn his forgiveness? This is a very important question to understand your own salvation. What did we do to earn his forgiveness? Nothing!
Romans 3:10ff speaks to the nature of the human heart—
There is no one righteous, not even one.
11 There is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away;
all alike have become worthless.
There is no one who does what is good,
not even one.
We are included in the no one. But wait, don’t we have free will to choose God? Yes! And you know what you chose? Death. We’ve all turned away. We’ve all offended God. What was His response? Before the foundation of the world, according to Scripture, He chose to be in a relationship with you despite knowing you’d sin. Through His Holy Spirit He gifted you the grace to see that Jesus Christ is the savior and to place your faith in Him and Him alone for salvation and God secures that salvation for eternity.
God brought about our reconciliation—according to 2 Corinthians 5:19—That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us.
We have been reconciled to God—brought from death to live according to Ephesians 2. And now we have the message of reconciliation committed to us. When we forgive and enter restored relationships we are imaging the gospel to the world. In that, God will be glorified and we will experience His goodness. Forgiveness IS hard. It’s supernatural even. But if you belong to Christ you have experienced supernatural forgiveness. And that’s exactly why you’re able to forgive supernaturally. Let’s pray.