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.
23 For this reason, the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves.
24 When he began to settle accounts, one who owed 10,000 talents was brought before him.
25 Since he had no way to pay it back, his master commanded that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt.
26 At this, the slave fell facedown before him and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you everything!’
27 Then the master of that slave had compassion, released him, and forgave him the loan.
28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him 100 denarii. He grabbed him, started choking him, and said, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 At this, his fellow slave fell down and began begging him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 But he wasn’t willing. On the contrary, he went and threw him into prison until he could pay what was owed.
31 When the other slaves saw what had taken place, they were deeply distressed and went and reported to their master everything that had happened.
32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me.
33 ’Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
34 And his master got angry and handed him over to the jailers until he could pay everything that was owed.
35 So My heavenly Father will also do to you if each of you does not forgive his brother from his heart.”
Jesus is with His disciples and has been teaching them about humility. In Matt. 18:1, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And in verses 2-9, He responds by calling over a child and telling His disciples that without childlike faith, no one may enter the kingdom. Further, He says that the one who humbles himself like a child is greatest in the kingdom; humility, not pride or performance, is most highly valued in the kingdom. Jesus is the ultimate example of humility, having set aside His heavenly glory to come to earth as the Suffering Servant. He reminds His disciples that the lost are of great value as He shares the parable of the lost sheep (verses 10-14), and He gives them instruction in the proper way to settle disagreements (verses 15-20). Now He turns His attention to Peter’s question about how many times a disciple should forgive his brother. Jesus responds with the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The central theme of this parable is that Christians take on the character of their Heavenly Father, who is merciful beyond human measure. Forgiveness is not a question of arithmetic; it’s a matter of character. Peter asks, “Lord, how many times could my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” He thinks he is being more gracious than the law requires. The Jews taught that a person was to forgive another three times, but not four. But Jesus’ response – “70 times seven” – drives home the point that citizens of the kingdom naturally forgive others because much has been forgiven them.
The central character in this parable is the king, who forgives a massive debt. The term is “myriads of talents,” the highest number known in Greek arithmetical notation, according to commentator Adam Clarke. Depending on whether the talents are silver or gold, and whether they are Roman or Jewish coins, estimates of their current value range from $7.5 million to $150 million. In any case, it’s a huge sum of money that one man could never repay.
The king is a picture of our Heavenly Father, who was so moved with compassion toward sinful mankind that He forgave our unfathomable sin debt by paying the price Himself through His only Son (Rom. 5:8).
The unmerciful servant likely is a tax collector. In ancient times, kings often farmed out, or sold for a price, the taxes of particular provinces. This ensured the king a known sum, but gave the tax collector in each province the opportunity to oppress his own people for personal gain. In this case, the servant no doubt was so dishonest that he denied the king his rightful cut. What a picture of the unbeliever! Matthew Henry comments: “He promises payment; Have patience awhile, and I will pay thee all. Note, It is the folly of many who are under convictions of sin, to imagine that they can make God satisfaction for the wrong they have done him … He that had nothing to pay with (v. 25) fancied he could pay all. See how close pride sticks, even to awakened sinners; they are convinced, but not humbled.”
The unpayable debt in this parable illustrates the enormity of our sins, which we are too impoverished to pay. According to Jewish law, debtors could be sold into servitude, along with their wives and children, until a family member redeemed them by paying the debt. But it is doubtful that any family had sufficient funds to pay off the massive debt this servant owed the king (see 2 Kings 4:1).
The forgiveness of the king represents God’s justification, declaring us in right standing with Him as He transfers our sin debt to His Son’s account. Matthew Henry writes, “Every sin we commit is a debt to God…. There is an account kept of these debts … some are more in debt, by reason of sin, than others…. The God of infinite mercy is very ready, out of pure compassion, to forgive the sins of those that humble themselves before him.”
The unmerciful servant, just loosed from his crushing debt, now confronts a fellow servant over what is likely a paltry $12-14 debt and sends him to prison until the debt is paid. This so distresses the other slaves that they go to the king and report what has happened. The king, in turn, summons the unmerciful servant and turns him over to the “jailers/torturers/tormentors.” Albert Barnes comments: “Torments were inflicted on criminals, not on debtors. They were inflicted by stretching the limbs, or pinching the flesh, or taking out the eyes, or taking off the skin while alive, etc. It is not probable that anything of this kind is intended, but only that the servant was punished by imprisonment till the debt should be paid.”
So, does this mean God takes away a believer’s justification if he or she does not forgive others? No. “This is not intended to teach us that God reverses his pardons to any, but that he denies them to those that are unqualified for them…. Those that do not forgive their brother’s trespasses did never truly repent of their own, and therefore that which is taken away is only what they seemed to have. This is intended to teach us, that they shall have judgment without mercy, that have showed no mercy (James 2:13) (Matthew Henry’s Unabridged Commentary).” See also Matt. 6:14-15.
Having been pardoned of a sin debt we could never repay, citizens of the kingdom take on the character of their King and graciously forgive others of their wrongs against us. An unforgiving person demonstrates that he or she is not a true child of the King.
Matt. 13:10-17, 34-35 (HCSB)
10 Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”
11 He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.
12 For whoever has, [more] will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.
14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: You will listen and listen, yet never understand; and you will look and look, yet never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown callous; their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn back— and I would cure them.
16 But your eyes are blessed because they do see, and your ears because they do hear!
17 For I assure you: Many prophets and righteous people longed to see the things you see yet didn’t see them; to hear the things you hear yet didn’t hear them.”
34 Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables, and He would not speak anything to them without a parable,
35 so that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: I will open My mouth in parables; I will declare things kept secret from the foundation of the world.
A parable is a story drawn from everyday experience to illustrate a deeper truth – in Scripture, a spiritual truth. The teaching of parables goes back to antiquity. The first parable recorded in the Bible is that of the trees choosing for themselves a king (Judges 9:7-15). There are numerous parables in both the Old and New Testaments, but the most common parables are those taught by Jesus. While Jesus was not the first to use parables, He endowed them with unparalleled originality and spiritual depth. In fact, more than one-third of all His recorded sayings are parables.
Two Greek words are translated “parable” in the New Testament: parabole (48 times), meaning “to represent or stand for something,” and paroimia (four times in John), meaning “an adage, dark saying, proverb, a presentation deviating from the usual means of speaking.” As Herbert Lockyer writes in All the Parables of the Bible, “Parables prove that the external is the mirror in which we may behold the internal and the spiritual.” Parables also reward the faithful learner. As Matthew Henry writes in his unabridged commentary, “A parable is a shell that keeps good fruit for the diligent, but keeps it from the slothful.”
Parables and the mystery of the kingdom
Many of Jesus’ parables describe “the mystery/secret of the kingdom of God” (Mark 4:11). The term “mystery” means something God has held in secret throughout the ages but has finally disclosed in a new revelation of His redemptive work. In this case, the mystery of the kingdom is that God’s kingdom has come in an unexpected way – a way not fully revealed in the Old Testament.
With the coming of Jesus the Messiah as the Lamb of God, or the Suffering Servant, He invades Satan’s kingdom and reigns in the hearts of men. Yes, the day will come when God’s kingdom overcomes human authority, when the Lion of Judah appears in power and great glory to sit on the throne of David and rule the earth, but first He must come humbly and lay down His life as a ransom for lost sinners, destroying the enemies of God: sin, Satan and death. Jesus uses parables to reveal these previously hidden truths about the kingdom.
George Eldon Ladd puts it this way in The Gospel of the Kingdom: “But the mystery, the new revelation, is that this very Kingdom of God has now come to work among men but in an utterly unexpected way. It is not now destroying human rule; it is not now abolishing sin from the earth; it is not now bringing the baptism of fire that John had announced. It has come quietly, unobtrusively, secretly. It can work among men and never be recognized by the crowds. In the spiritual realm, the Kingdom now offers to men the blessings of God’s rule, delivering them from the power of Satan and sin. The Kingdom of God is an offer, a gift which may be accepted or rejected. The Kingdom is now here with persuasion rather than with power.” (p. 55).
Why Jesus used parables
In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower, His disciples ask Him why He is now employing this form of teaching. His answer is revealing:
- Because the mysteries/secrets of the kingdom have been given to Jesus’ disciples but not to others (v. 11). Jesus would spend three full years with the apostles, teaching them about the necessity of His death, burial and resurrection. Others would be taught the mystery in parables and, if they inclined their hearts toward God, would understand.
- Those who received the gospel of the kingdom would benefit from the truths revealed in Jesus’ parables, while those who insisted on a political and military Messiah would no longer be entrusted with the Scriptures – a reference to the Jewish religious leaders (v. 12).
- Those who already are rejecting Jesus as Messiah are so hard of heart they cannot understand these simple parables. Just as the Jews in Isaiah’s days had rejected God – leading to judgment – so the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day would face judgment in the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., as well as judgment after the kingdom comes in power (vv. 13-15). As Matthew Henry has written, “A parable, like the pillar of cloud and fire, turns a dark side towards Egyptians, which confounds them, but a light side towards the Israelites, which comforts them, and so answers a double intention.”
- Jesus’ parables of the kingdom reveal spiritual truths that the prophets of old could only see in shadow form; the apostles should rejoice that they are witnessing the coming of the kingdom in mystery (vv. 16-17).
- Jesus’ parables fulfill prophecy. The psalmist wrote that Messiah would “declare wise sayings; I will speak mysteries from the past” (Ps. 78:2), and that’s exactly what Jesus did (v. 35). See also Deut. 29:29; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9; and Col. 1:26.
How we should study Jesus’ parables of the kingdom
We will study Jesus’ parables of the kingdom by considering:
- Context. We will ask: To whom is Jesus speaking? When? Where? Why? Who else is present? How does this parable compare with other parables and teachings of Jesus, and with other Scriptures?
- Theme. We will locate the central theme. Parables normally focus on a single key point. Jesus’ parables of the kingdom reveal key aspects of His reign.
- Character(s). We will identify the central character or characters and see how he, she, it or they relate to the central theme. We’ll also ask what role the other characters play in the parable.
- Details. We will look at the details of each parable, being careful not to impose unintended meanings.
- Personal application. We will explore what understanding, attitude or action Jesus is demanding of His listeners – and of us.
The design of speaking in parables
According to Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Jesus has the following four things in mind as He tells each parable:
1. To convey truth in a more interesting manner to the mind; adding to the truth conveyed the beauty of a lovely image or narrative.
2. To teach spiritual truth so as to arrest the attention of ignorant people, making an appeal to them through the senses.
3. To convey some offensive truth, some pointed personal rebuke, in such a way as to bring it home to the conscience. Of this kind was the parable which Nathan delivered to David (2 Sam. 12:1-7) and many of our Savior’s parables addressed to the Jews.
4. To conceal from one part of his audience truths which he intended others should understand. Thus Christ often, by this means, delivered truths to his disciples in the presence of the Jews, which he well knew the Jews would not understand; truths pertaining to them particularly, and which he was under no obligations to explain to the Jews (see Matt. 13:13-16; Mark 4:33).
This column first appeared Nov. 3, 2009, in Baptist Press
By Rob Phillips
One of the more humbling experiences from my days in the corporate world was being told that my reserved seat on the company jet was revoked at the last minute to make room for a late-arriving executive. Not to worry. I was offered the one remaining seat, located in the plane’s lavatory, where the toilet came equipped with a safety belt. Rather than cool my heels on the tarmac, I swallowed my pride and took my place on the porcelain throne.
It reminded me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 14:7-11, rebuking those who reclined at the choicest seats at a wedding banquet. Even more, it brought to mind the future humiliation Jesus said would come to those boasting of a place in the kingdom of heaven, yet being cast out. Though the kingdom is open to all who receive Christ by faith, the day is coming when those who falsely stake their claim to the kingdom will be unceremoniously shown the door.
From Jesus’ own lips, it appears there are at least three types of people who will be cast out of the kingdom of heaven:
1. Those that trust their lineage. In Jesus’ day there was great expectation the Messiah would come – a charismatic military and political leader who would restore Israel to its Davidic glory. Overlooking the necessity of the Suffering Servant, many Jews wrongly assumed that when the kingdom of heaven came, they would be welcomed as citizens by reason of their Abrahamic heritage.
Jesus confronts that false notion in Matthew 8:11-12, after healing a Roman centurion’s servant: “I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom [unbelieving Jews] will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Entrance into the kingdom was not – and is not – gained through natural birth. The apostle Paul, who wished himself accursed for the sake of his Jewish countrymen, nevertheless made it clear in Romans 9:6, “For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel.” Jesus was even more to the point: “[Y]ou must be born again” (John 3:7).
Salvation is not a matter of race, national boundaries or language. As the apostle John noted, people of every “tribe and language and people and nation” are standing before God’s throne in heaven (Rev. 5:9). How did they get there? The Lamb of God was “slaughtered” and “redeemed people for God” by His blood (Rev. 5:8).
2. Those that trust their location. In the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt. 13:24-30), those of God’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom live side by side and are practically indistinguishable. Only at harvest time, when the tares stand ramrod straight but bear no edible fruit, and the wheat is bowed with heads of golden grain, does the harvester separate them. The wheat goes into the barn but the tares are burned.
In the parable of the dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50), good and bad fish swim in the same waters and are taken in the same net, yet they are meticulously separated on the shore. The good fish are gathered into baskets while the bad fish are tossed aside.
Many people, by virtue of their “location” in a church, believe their association with Christianity will save them. But just as living in a garage doesn’t make you a car, joining a church doesn’t make you a Christian. In fact, only the trained eye of Christ knows the wheat from the tares and the good fish from the bad.
Some are so experienced at playing the game, they believe the lie that their goodness merits eternal life. They will be startled on judgment day when they are separated eternally from God. They will argue that they preached in Jesus’ name, cast out demons and performed miracles. Jesus does not deny their works but replies, “I never knew you! Depart from Me” (Matt. 7:23).
The matter of our eternal destiny is not decided by whether we know Jesus – that is, whether we call ourselves Christians – but whether He knows us because we have confessed Him as Savior and Lord.
3. Those that trust their dirty laundry. In the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14), the guests invited by the king decide not to show. To add insult to injury, they treat his slaves harshly, killing some. After dealing with these murderers, the king sends his servants to the far reaches of his kingdom, welcoming the outcasts and indigent to his son’s wedding celebration. But as the festivities begin, the king spots a man improperly dressed and has him bound and taken away.
Not fair, you say. After all, the king invited him and he came. How can this vagrant be blamed for his dirty clothes? The answer is that in a Jewish ceremony of this type, the king provides wedding garments for every guest. Therefore, the man has no excuse. He dishonors the king and his son by rejecting the wedding garment and preferring his own filthy rags.
In the same way, no one will enter the kingdom based on personal righteousness. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict unbelievers of their unrighteousness and point them to the righteousness of Christ (John 16:8-11). Isaiah reminds us that the best of our works are but filthy rags in God’s eyes (Isa. 64:6). Only the righteousness of Christ – the garment of salvation – is acceptable attire for those before the throne of God and the Lamb (Rev. 7:9). As Paul declared, “He saved us – not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Those who hope to enter the kingdom of heaven by virtue of their natural birth, church membership or personal righteousness will find themselves outside, facing a closed door. Why? Because they have rejected Christ, their only hope of forgiveness and eternal life. We may grieve over those who are cast out, but from God’s perspective they are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
Rob Phillips is director of communications for LifeWay Christian Resources. CrossBooks Publishing (www.crossbooks.com) has just released his book, The Kingdom According to Jesus: A Study of Jesus’ Parables on the Kingdom of Heaven, and free downloadable studies are available at www.oncedelivered.net.