Shelby G. Floyd
Alexander Pope is credited with this statement, “To err is human; to forgive is divine.” All of us know as human beings we make mistakes; we offend people; we sin against God; we hurt people’s feeling. We realize that. Often we do not realize the larger act of courage and faith is to be able to ignore the offense and to cultivate a spirit of forgiveness toward those who do us wrong.
ESAU WAS FORGIVING
To err is human; to forgive is divine. When we go back into the Old Testament we see that people even in the very beginning of time learned to cultivate this spirit. We all remember the story of Jacob and Esau. Esau was the firstborn. He was weak in many respects. He sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. Later on, Jacob left his home and family and went to his uncle Laban to find a wife. He worked about twenty-one years before he left his uncle. He was afraid to go back home and see his brother Esau because of the way he had treated him. He expected his brother Esau would try to kill him. In many ways he deserved it. He deceived and deluded his own brother. His mother was just like him. Esau had learned to cultivate a spirit of forgiveness toward Jacob. Jacob urged him to take a large gift of animals. Esau didn’t want to take the gift but Jacob said, “God has blessed me; please take these animals.” Esau had forgiven his brother Jacob.
JOSEPH WAS FORGIVING
Then we have the story of Joseph. Joseph was the son born in the old age of his father Jacob. Joseph dreamed and the dreams were about his brothers bowing down to him. They realized he was interpreting the dreams in such a way that he was making himself greater than them; that they would bow down to him. Finally they had about all they could stand and they sold him into slavery to a band of Ishmaelite or Midianite merchantmen that were traveling down to Egypt.
Joseph had many ups and downs in his life. One moment he was in prison and a few months later he was the Prime Minister of Egypt. Joseph was a forgiving person. He forgave the butler and the baker who forgot him when he interpreted their dreams. They left him to languish in prison.
Later on, the great famine came down into Egypt and Joseph’s brothers had gone down to buy corn so they and their families could survive. It had been many, many years since Joseph had seen them, but he recognized his brothers even though they did not recognize him. In fulfillment of his dreams, they bowed down before him, the Prime Minister of Egypt. He had a forgiving heart. It was all he could do to shield and disguise him-self from the tears and the forgiveness he wanted to express to them out of his heart.
He put on a pretty good act for a while. He treated them roughly. Finally, he revealed himself to them and brought them down into Egypt along with his father. After many years passed, his father died, and the brothers of Joseph suspected that now that their father was dead he might take his revenge on them. Joseph said, “Don’t be afraid; am I in the place of God?” He said, “You meant the things you did to me for evil; but God meant to bring about good as he has done this day to preserve much people alive.” Joseph forgave them, embraced them and kissed them.
STEPHEN WAS FORGIVING
When we come to the New Testament, we think about men like Stephen in Acts 7. Stephen preached a wonderful sermon about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Before he went into the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he gave a brief synopsis of the glorious history of the Jewish people, the Israelite nation.
They listened very intently while he was recounting their history. But when he came to the part of his subject that dealt with Jesus Christ, his death, his burial, his resurrection, the Bible says they gnashed on him with their teeth. They closed up their ears. They cried out against him as loudly as they could. The Scriptures tell us that Stephen saw Heaven opened and the angels of God and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. They wouldn’t hear it. They considered it blasphemy. They picked up stones to put him to death.
Too many times that is the spirit we have today. We like to pick up stones and cast them at people with whom we disagree or people who have made mistakes. Stephen had a forgiving spirit. He said, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” While he was saying that, his spirit was leaving his body.
Where did Stephen learn that wonderful spirit, the spirit of forgiveness? Did he not learn it from the Lord himself? What did Jesus say as one of his very last statements on the Cross? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The prayer of Christ was answered about fifty days later on the Day of Pentecost when those great multitudes cried out, having been convicted of their sins, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” They were told what to do and they did what they were told to do and the prayer of Christ was answered, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We have to cultivate the same spirit of forgiveness that Esau, Joseph, Stephen and Jesus Christ practiced in their lives toward their fellowmen, and sometimes even members of their families.
“To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Shakespeare said in his writings, “He who from crimes would pardoned be, in mercy should set others free.” George Herbert has said, “He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.” “Little vicious minds abound with anger and revenge and are incapable of feeling the pleasure of forgiving their enemies,” said Lord Chesterfield.
Those are just a few of the statements that the literary giants of the world have penned. All men who have any excellence in their nature recognize the superior value and virtue of learning to forgive others of the wrongs that have been committed against them and their friends.
What does it mean to forgive? Webster defines the word “forgive,” “To give up claim to requite from an offender; to pardon, as to forgive one’s enemies; to give up resentment or claim to requital on account of an offense; to remit the penalty of, as to forgive a wrong.” The Bible teaches not only in the examples we have recited already, but also in explicit statements that God wants us, requires us, and commands us to forgive one another.
In Proverbs 19:11 the wise man said, “The discretion of a man defers his anger, and it is his glory to pass over a transgression.” Jesus said in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” “As” is an adverb of manner, so Christ taught the manner in which we are to forgive. As we forgive others their debts, God will forgive us our debts. Then in verses 14 and 15 he says, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” We must forgive others, not so they can go to Heaven and be saved; but we must forgive others so we can be saved and go to Heaven.
In Mark 11:25-26, Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, forgive if you have ought against any, that your Father also which is in Heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in Heaven forgive your trespasses.” So, if we do not forgive trespasses against us, God will not forgive us our trespasses against him. Somebody said one time, “I never forgive.” The reply came, “Then I pray that you may never offend.” Since we do all sin and fall short of the glory of God, then we must all forgive. Jesus said if we do not forgive others, God would not forgive us. It is just that simple.
In Matthew 18, Jesus talked to the apostles about how to deal with people who offend. We describe that as “the three steps.” Go to them alone. If that doesn’t take care of the matter, take one or two more with you. If that doesn’t take care of the matter, bring it before the Church. Having pointed that out as the proper procedure in dealing with the idea of fixing faults, Jesus then launched into a lesson on finding forgiveness. We fix the faults. We like to do that. It is easy to do that. It doesn’t take much talent, intellect or wisdom to do that. We are not as keen on finding forgiveness.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE FORGIVE AN OFFENDER?
The reason Jesus taught a lesson about forgiveness is because the apostle Peter spoke up. He was always quick to speak his mind. Peter said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him, until seven times?” Jesus said, “I say not unto you seven times, but until seventy times seventy.” Some translations say until seventy—seven times. Regardless of how that is to be translated, the idea is to forgive indefinitely. It is a figure of speech called “hyperbole,” where something is exaggerated to make a point. It is not likely that someone will offend up to four hundred ninety times, if that be the proper interpretation of the words. It is not even likely that someone will offend us seventy—seven times. Peter thought he was being magnanimous in his spirit because the Jewish Talmud taught that you should forgive someone three times and on the fourth time you didn’t have to forgive them. Peter thought, “Well, I’ll be magnanimous in spirit, I’ll double it. Three times two is six and I’ll throw in one for extra measure. Seven times, Lord?” Jesus said, “You missed the point. You should be willing to forgive your brother if he comes to you seven times in a day.” If he says “I repent,” Jesus says forgive him seven times a day. You can multiply that times three hundred sixty-five days a year and you will still come up with a vast number. So the idea is an exaggeration, a hyperbole, to make the point. So, the idea is to cultivate the spirit of forgiveness any time a person needs to be forgiven.
Then Jesus launched into a lesson, having pointed out to Peter that we can’t forgive a certain number of times and then stop forgiving. We must have the spirit of forgiveness; the willingness to forgive; the desire to want to forgive and not hold a grudge, resentment and retaliation against others.
Then he launched into a parable of forgiveness in Matthew 18. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man,” and he goes into the story about the man that owed his master ten thousand talents. I think if you look up the tables, you will find out that ten thousand talents today would be roughly equal to $15,000,000—FIFTEEN MILLION DOLLARS!
We should be afraid of debt. There are times when I have read this story and I have thought I wish I could get someone to loan me $15,000,000. Occasionally we read in the paper about people and businesses going bankrupt. I always look at the debts and the assets and I can’t believe that sometimes their assets are just a few thousand dollars, and they owe anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000. I always wonder how they got anyone to loan them that much money. But here is a man whose master had trusted him and he had gotten into debt up to his ears, $15,000,000. He hadn’t been making his payments. He hadn’t been able to keep his contract.
His master called the man before him and he said, “I am going to sell you into slavery. I am going to sell your wife and your children.” You see, they had debtor’s prisons back then. “You are going to prison; you are going into slavery until you pay me every last dime you owe me. But the man knew there was no way that will ever happen. He would be a slave or in a debtor’s prison for as long as he lived.
He got down on his knees and begged and pleaded for mercy, for kindness, for compassion. “Lord, have compassion on me; have mercy on me. Don’t sell me and my wife and my children. Be patient with me and I will have a stroke of luck, my fortunes will change, and I will pay you all I owe you.”
The king, the master, was moved with compassion. He felt sorry for this man and had mercy and pity on him. He was pitiful. The king forgave the man of all that debt he owed him, $15,000,000! He wiped the slate clean. “You can start all over; you don’t owe me a dime. I forgive you of all that debt.”
Can’t you imagine what a load off that man’s mind that was? He was free! He had no mental torment; he had no emotional turmoil; he didn’t owe the man anything because he had been forgiven of that debt.
So he went back out on the job and to his social activities. One day he happened to see a man that owed him some money. If you will look up the tables, the man owed him about $15. He said, “By the way, you owe me $15—it’s pay-up time. Write me a check; open your wallet; give me my $15.” The man got down on his knees, just as he had done, and pleaded with him and begged him. “Show mercy to me; be patient and I will pay you the $15. You will get every penny of it.” But the man would not hear him. He closed up his heart of compassion toward him and grabbed him by the throat, then sent him away without any mercy or compassion at all.
Now when you do things like that, other people will hear about them. When you treat people right, people will hear and tell others about it. When you treat people wrong, people will hear and tell others about it. People will know what you really are when you say and do things that are not loving, compassionate, merciful, tender—hearted, and forgiving.
The man’s peers heard about it. They went back to that king who had forgiven the $15,000,000 debt and said, “Do you remember that fellow that owed you so much money? You acquitted him of all that debt. You wouldn’t believe what he has done. He found someone who owed him $15 and he had no mercy on him. He sold him and his family into slavery until he is paid the measly $15.”
The king became angry. He said, “We’ll just see about this. Bring the rascal before me.” They brought him back before the king. He said, “You treated someone like this after the way I dealt with you? I forgave you $15,000,000 and you would not forgive someone $15? I have changed my mind; I am an “Indian Giver.” But after seeing the movie “Geronimo,” I don’t think the Indian is the one who changed his mind. I think it was the white man, the “White Eyes” as they called them, who kept changing their promises to the Indians. He said, “I am changing my mind. I am recalling your debt. You are going to be put in prison and be tormented until you pay me every penny of that $15,000,000. That was just and that was right because the man didn’t even appreciate what had been done for him. If he had, he would not have treated his fellowman in such a vile way.
Now, what is the point of that story? It just isn’t a story to fill up space or to make interesting reading. The Kingdom of Heaven is like the main points in this story! How is the Church, or the Kingdom of Heaven, like a king that forgives a man $15,000,000 and then the same man will not forgive someone $l5? Here is how the Kingdom of Heaven is like that. It is like that in that the $15,000,000, and the man who owed that much money represents all of us figuratively and the debt that we owe God because of our sins. Paul expressed it well when he said, “I am the chief of sinners. God had mercy on me.” He gave that as an example of how God is willing to forgive anyone of any amount of sin and any enormity of sin anywhere in the world. If God can forgive the chief of sinners like Paul who murdered Christians, gave his vote against them when they were put to death, harassed them, turned the Church upside down like a wild hog rooting in the ground, then God can forgive anyone. That is the idea.
So God can forgive us of our sins and they are like the $15,000,000. The little things that we do to rub each other the wrong way; the offenses we commit against each other; the things that we say that hurt peoples’ feelings; these are like the $15 that someone owes us that we are not willing to forgive. Yet, how many times do we see that spirit in the Church? How many times do we see that spirit between a husband and a wife; among children in a family; and our relatives? Yes, we do see that spirit and it creates problems, hard feelings, alienation and separations. That is not good.
Now I think we can begin to see what Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and in many other places taught concerning forgiving one another. We do not have to forgive someone who will not repent of a wrong they have committed against us. Sometimes people think we have to do that. We should always have a forgiving attitude and spirit and desire to forgive. But in Luke 17: 3-4 Jesus said, “Take heed to yourselves. If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him, and if he repent, forgive him. If he trespass against thee seven times a day and seven times a day turn again to thee saying “I repent”, thou shalt forgive him.”
So, you really cannot forgive a wrong unless there is repentance. God does not forgive us of any sin unless we repent. When we do wrong to people, we should be sorry for it and repent and turn from it. But whether a person repents or not, we must have the attitude of forgiveness toward that person, and in a sense we cannot hold it against them. It will do us more harm than it will them. The spirit of forgiveness and the act of forgiveness are things that we should cultivate in our lives as children of God.
I want to close the lesson this morning by reading the passage that was read previously:
“Do not let unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ God forgave you.”
As we stand now to sing the song of encouragement and invitation, I hold out to you the forgiveness that God has available and is ready to give to anyone and everyone of you, who in your hearts would turn from your sinful lives. Turn and give your lives to him in obedience, consecration, dedication and service. Will you do that as together we stand and sing.*
*Shelby G. Floyd delivered this sermon February 4, 1994 at the South Central Church of Christ, 265 E. Southport Road, Indianapolis, Indiana. Copyright © 2002, 2012, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Shelby G. Floyd delivered this same sermon April 15, 2018 at the Heartland Church of Christ, 1693 West Main Street, Greenwood, Indiana 46142.
Shelby G. Floyd
Heartland Church of Christ
1693 West Main Street
Greenwood, Indiana 46142