Matthew 18:21-35; Questions about forgiveness?

Updated: Jan 28

Note: I refer to an interpretation of Matthew 18:15-20 in this interpretation [relative to angle brackets used], but that interpretation is actually made in my interpretation of Ezekiel 33:7-11.  Sorry for any confusion created by that Old Testament reading being delegated “Track 2,” thus hidden under years of dust and barely seeing the light of priestly attention.


In my interpretation of Genesis 50 (a potential accompanying reading for this Gospel selection), I wrote of this reading in comparison: Joseph speaking to his brothers who sinned against him; and, Peter’s questions to Jesus about a brother who sins against him. I recommend reading that article for additional insight as to the meaning of this selection from Matthew’s Gospel, as I am not going to delve deeply here into the metaphor of the parable told by Jesus.  (I did that in the other article.)

I want to make the point here about what I have said about looking at the original text of Scripture, as a way of confirming the English translations are accurately presented.  Even when they are able to convey the truth, translation erases all potential for grasping deeper meaning.  Truth is hard to nail down to a singular cross of meaning, as it has a way of expanding beyond one dimension.

An example that I routinely use to point this out is the translation of Acts 2:14, which the NRSV translates as, “But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.'”  Some can read that (or hear it read aloud) and think, “Man, I bet it was crowded there and Peter wanted those distant to hear him, so the poor fellow had to shout.  I hope he didn’t strain his vocal cords.”

The Greek word written,  “epēren,” is translated as “raised.”  According to Strong’s, it actually states “he lifted up,” in the third person singular, aortic active indicative form of “epairó.”  The simple truth says Peter was a ‘third person’ with a voice, so “he lifted up” his voice.

The Greek word translated as “voice” is “phōnēn.”  According to Strong’s that word can truthfully translate as “voice,” but it can equally be truthful as “language” or “dialect.”  Keep in mind that Peter and the other eleven new Apostles were speaking in foreign tongues in order to get everyone’s attention.  So, what “language” was Peter speaking loudly?

When I once explained that this does not place importance on Peter yelling loudly, but that his voice was “raised” spiritually, by the Holy Spirit, one woman screamed at me, “Then why doesn’t it [the translation] just say that?”

She did not want to hear anything of value come from me, so it was pointless to argue with her in a Bible study surrounding.  However, “it” does say that [when “it” is “ἐπῆρεν”], when one is reading the Greek text and having to look up every word, because one is not fluent in Greek.  The singular translation in a reading takes one away from that realization; but a singular translation is how people are given a general overview of the truth.  It is the stuff of syntax and how we make sense of anything spoken.

In Matthew 18:21 is another example, but this example is one that involves untranslatable marks that act as guides for the written text.  Often we see in a reading from John how he placed parentheses marks denoting him making an aside statement.  Such as: “Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias),” from John 6:1.  Or, “(For not even his brothers believed in him.), from John 7:5.  Such marks do not change the text.  They just assist the reader in understanding.

The NRSV translates Matthew 18:21 as saying: “Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 

While that certainly can be a viable English translation that conveys the essence of what is stated, setting up that which follows, the reality is there is signage within that verse that is ignored.  Those marks of direction are important, as they point one to see how something deeper is stated.

The Greek text shows the following (using transliterations and my system of marking punctuation as separation points that should be realized): “Tote proselthōn  ,  « ho Petros eipen  » autō  ,  Kyrie  ,  posakis hamartēsei eis eme ho adelphos mou  ,  kai  aphēsō autō  ?  heōs heptakis  ?” 

Look closely at the symbols that are directions to the reader, which are ‘lost in translation.’  Notice also the comma mark followed by the Greek word “kai” is not something normally accepted by an English teacher, because it reads like someone stuttering.  The comma mark intuits “and,” so to follow that with the word “and” is redundant and unnecessary.  However, I believe “kai” is a marker word that does not simply say “and,” as it acts to identify  text that follows to be read with heightened importance, as divinely elevated.  That is why I make it bold text.

By noting this actual text, one can then see the importance of the capitalized Greek word “Tote” being overlooked by elimination.  Capitalization in divine text means more than simply a name, title, or first word of a sentence.  A capital letter (in Greek) is a mark that should be recognized in a heightened sense of direction.

The word “Tote” translates as “Then, At that time,” with the capitalization addressing the previous statements (the reading of Proper 18, Matthew 18:15-20).  Because this reading is separated from Jesus telling his disciples about addressing the sins of those said to be in his name (commonly called a “church” – “ekklēsia“), the importance of the timing (“At that time” or “Then”) is lost. 

The capitalization acts as its own stand-alone statement of divine elevation, making the timing important.  It then links (solely) to “proselthōn,” meaning “to approach, to draw near” (Strong’s definition) and “I come up to, come to, come near (to), approach, consent (to)” (Strong’s usage). 

The NRSV translation sees that word and makes a translation of “came,” implying Peter at some time later “went” to Jesus to ask this question.  That is misleading, as this should be read as saying  “As soon as Jesus finished telling the disciples to confront a sinner among themselves [not some global confrontation with sinners everywhere] Peter had “a revelation draw near.”  The NRSV translation does not paint this picture, because it diminishes the value of these words in translation.

To see this is indeed the purpose of Matthew being led by the Holy Spirit to write those words as he wrote them, he then used a comma mark to separate that statement of sudden dawning.  He then followed the comma mark with another mark, that of a double left angle bracket (“«“).  This symbol should be read in two ways.

Relative to the first way to read it means one should read my analysis of Matthew 18:15-20 [found in the article Ezekiel 33:7-11], where a single left angle bracket and a single right angle bracket marks off the words “<eis se>“.  Matthew is now using a different set of marks, where the angles are doubled.  Individually, a double left angle bracket becomes a statement of “much lesser than,” whereas a single left angle bracket is a “less than” symbol. 

Jesus had stated generically the potential of a sinner “among you” (“<eis se>“), with the lesser than left angle bracket being a signal of one found to be less “in the name of Jesus” than the rest.  Again, this is found in the analysis of Matthew 18:15. [Ezekiel 33:7-11]

Here, in Matthew 18:21, the double left angle bracket now should be seen as Peter having a specific remembrance of one just as Jesus spoke.  Therefore, this untranslated mark makes a statement that the sinner Peter is remembering is a specific sinner that is indeed “among” them, sitting right there, who has done as Jesus warned the disciples to confront.  The mark does not name anyone specifically, meaning Peter can himself sense he has been much lesser than Jesus expects.

The double left angle bracket can then be read as a pronounced state that is relative to “Peter” (as “« ho Petros,” or “the answer [“proselthōn“] of a sinner [“«“] dawned  [“ho” as “this answer”] on Peter [the one Jesus called “the Rock”]”).  The double left angle bracket appearing after in the section immediately Matthew using a single left angle bracket has to be read as a guide to connect the two sections together, meaning “« ho Petros eipen  »” is complimentary to “<eis se>”.

That means the second way to read this double left angle bracket is as one-half of a tandem, with the double right angle bracket that follows the word “eipen” being the other completing one whole set of enclosing marks.  This means a set of brackets surround the words “ho Petros eipen” makes those words be indicated to be read together, as a silent aside rather than an outward statement.

The NRSV translates “eipen” as “said,” but Strong’s says it means “answer, bid, bring word, command.”  While “said” can be a statement of truth, seeing it in an enclosed setting, as a silent aside, means one should intuit nothing is actually “said” audibly.  Instead, this is the dawning that “drew near At that time,” within Peter’s mind.  Therefore, to understand “this Peter answer” or “this Peter command” means this aside is less about Peter speaking words to Jesus, and more about God having moved into Peter’s brain, spurring his memory to see an “answer” to what Jesus spoke, as well as being “commanded” by God to remember and then speak. 

Here, with the word “eipen” being followed by a double greater than symbol (the double right angle bracket), says Peter remembered a sinner among them.  When I wrote about the single right angle bracket (a “greater than” symbol) connected to the Greek word “se,” meaning “you,” I said Jesus implied his disciples would reach a “greater than” state of being, which would necessitate them confronting sinners “<among you>”.  Now, the “much greater than” indication of a double right angle bracket  following “answer” says Peter’s silent remembrance was led by God, urging him to raise a question to Jesus.  This element of interpretation is missed in the simple English translation.

Following the placement of double left and double right angle brackets surrounding “this Peter answer” is a mathematical symbol that is called a left right arrow (“ “).  I have written in the past about this symbol being used, where important clarity comes from realizing a statement is being made about the truth of a statement, or the falsity.  This is became the symbol says, if that said before is true, then that which follows is true; or, if that which is said is false, then that which follows is false.  The arrow is a marker to connect two together as one.  Here, that symbol points to the word “autō,” which is the dative singular form of “autos,” meaning “him” as an indirect object.

The implication of the double right angle bracket [a heightened state of awareness, due to the Holy Spirit moving within Peter] and the left right arrow symbol acts to project the truth being a reflection of Peter’s “answer,” which is a recall of sins that had been witnessed by “him.”  Jesus is, therefore, not the primary person being stated by “autō” (although that can be a secondary “him”).  This is not realized by a translation that implies simply, “Peter said to Jesus,” which is not written. 

The totality of double angle brackets setting off “this Peter command,” as a silent reflection within that becomes the “truth” pointing “to him,” says Peter was the one who knew the truth of which Jesus had just preached.  Peter had experienced a sinner among the group of disciples; but, the falsity was Peter’s having allowed the sins to go unconfronted.  That became a sin Peter had just realized “of himself,” which elevated “him” to confess to Jesus.

The indication of Jesus is then seen by two comma marks setting off the one capitalized word “Kyrie,” which translates as “Lord.”  That makes it appear to be an address to Jesus, where Peter called him “Master” or “Sir.”  This is relative to the NRSV translating “eipen” as “said.”  However, when the word is realized to Peter having a conversation with “himself,” inside his mind, the address of Jesus is less important to grasp (even if it is true).

Reading “Kyrie” that way diminishes the importance of a capitalized word, such that the comma marks separate the fact that Peter has just had an epiphany, based on what Jesus said about confronting one of their own who is found sinning.  This means the left right arrow pointing “to him” (as the “self” of Peter, a viable translation) has become the truth that is then separately identified as “Lord.”  As a stand-alone word of heightened divinity, the capitalization says the word is the same Holy Spirit existing in Peter as existed also in Jesus.  The comma marks then state the divine elevation (temporarily), when Peter became an Apostle in the name of Jesus Christ (the point of the prior lesson).  He then was coming forth as the “Lord,” addressing Jesus as another Son of the Father, a brother of Jesus.

Following the comma to the right of “Kyrie” begins a statement that implies a question, but does not end with that punctuation mark.  Stated literally is: “how often will make a mistake upon myself this brother mine”.  The same words can state, “how many times will sin among me this brother mine”.  While this is the root of a two-part series of words, which does end as the first of two questions, this is also Peter speaking in the presence of Jesus and the other disciples, as God announcing, “many times will sin brothers, both in front of you (to you and to others among you) and discretely, requiring one be led to realize sins having been done by a brother, based on deductions of reason made.”

To read that as a statement, one should see how God was speaking through a disciple who was not yet in the name of His Son.  When Jesus taught his disciples to confront sinners among themselves – as being in his name – they would be empowered with the Christ Spirit (the Holy Spirit), individually (an Apostle-Saint) and collectively (an assembly of Apostles-Saints), therefore enabled to cease all sins within one (Jesus) and many reborn as Jesus. 

When Jesus said to confront a sinner one-on-one, in a small group speaking to one, and finally for the whole “assembly,” all had to be in the name of Jesus Christ.  Only with that divine presence within “a church,” speaking to one sinner, could the result be the sinner returning to the fold (as a lost sheep) or be rejected (as a wolf pretending to be “among you”) through that correction process.  Thus, Peter was speaking as the voice of God, stating “there is not one among us who can cease sinning on one’s own will-power, as brothers of man are born sinners and will remain sinners until they have each become in the name of Jesus – the Son of man.”

The first of the two questions asked by Peter is then separated by a comma mark and followed by the Greek word “kai,” which is a marker word announcing importance must be read into “aphēsō autō  ?”  The word “aphēsō ” (“ἀφήσω”) is translated by the NRSV as [somewhat loosely saying] “should I forgive,” seen as a subjunctive form of “aphíēmi.”  That translation does not hold up to close inspection. 

The same word (“aphēsō “) also appears in John 14:18.  There it is translated as “I will leave,” relative to Jesus promising “Not I will leave you orphaned.”  There is no subjectivity used there, neither is anything pointing to “forgiveness” being the intent, based on the context.  This makes “should forgive” a poor translation.

The Greek word “aphíēmi” bears these definitions: “to send away, leave alone, permit.”  The usage adds, “(a) I send away, (b) I let go, release, permit to depart, (c) I remit, forgive, (d) I permit, suffer.” (All from Strong’s.) As the future active indicative first person singular, the word states what “I will” do, relative to “sending away, leaving alone, permitting, letting go, permitting to go on, or allowing to suffer.”  In this way, the word is a dependent form of the root verb, as a statement of an action completed in a moment.  This means any possibility of “forgiveness” is momentary, at the time of witnessing a sin being committed, meaning the question is relative to “I will look the other way” or “I will ignore the sin.”

The importance of this question has to be seen in the light of Peter having had an epiphany of awareness, based on what Jesus had just taught about confronting sins.  Because God’s Holy Spirit had forced Peter to realize “how may times” he has seen sins and not done anything to confront them, God was moving Peter to ask how “I will permit him?”  At the same time, Peter heard himself ask, “Will I forgive him?”

This is an important question for Peter to make, simply because the Pharisees witnessed Jesus’ hungry disciples eating grains from the field without washing their hands before eating – a sin they called a “break of tradition.”  Jesus was confronted by those leaders, because Jesus was the one expected to be responsible for the actions of his students. [Matthew 15:1-20]  Jesus responded to the Pharisees that it was not what goes into the body that defiles, but that which come out – from the heart.

When one sees Peter speaking as the mouth of God, via His Holy Spirit, the first person becomes God speaking.  God sees all sins and knows the hearts of all, especially those students of His Son.  So, Peter was given the eyes of a Saint and enabled to realize all the sins that God puts up with, while seeing himself as needing to trust God in this process taught by Jesus.  Therefore, the greatest importance of the first question is: “[how many times] must God ignore sin?,” while being rhetorical because the purpose of Jesus is to address this failure.

The follow-up question is then shown as being “heōs heptakis  ?”  That is translated by the NRSV as “As many as seven times?”  A better translation would be “until seven times,” noticing there is no capitalized word that should be given greater importance.  By seeing “until” as the translation, the point is less about a stroke count that needs to be remembered, as “until” allows for any number to pass as unaccounted for sins ignored or forgiven.  That makes “seven times” be the important element of this second question; and that demands one recognize the symbolism of the number “seven.”

The number seven is symbolic of perfection.  It bears the sense of completion, in a base-seven system, where Creation took six days [a non-fixed amount of time], and the seventh day was the day deemed holy by God.  [Today we are still in the “seventh day.”]  This should be read into the word “heptakis,” as “seven times” [only used here in Matthew and in Luke’s account of the same question by Peter] is relative to coming to that point of rest, after all the work of creating an Apostle has been done.  Man will always be sinners “until perfection is completed.”

When this one verse is read in this way, the question posed by God in Peter was asked for all the sinning disciples (remembering Judas was there) to hear, as “seven times” would immediately bring their minds to the Sabbath – as the seventh day.  Hearing one of their own ask “seven times” would get them to think the strength to confront a sinner amongst themselves would be greater if done only one day a week.  The question heard was then akin to them all asking, “Should I make confrontations to my brother(s) on the Sabbath, when sins are more in need to bring out into the open?” 

Keep in mind here that this was the consistent theme the Pharisees had against Jesus, for healing sinners on the Sabbath.  If healing was wrong on a Sabbath, then what about confronting someone for sinning?  Therefore, God had Peter ask a logical question about what day would be the best day to confront a sinner among Jesus’s followers.

The answer given by Jesus (who also spoke what God told him to say) was a resounding “No (from “Ou” being capitalized).  He said do not “wait until the seventh day.”  He said do not ignore sin for six days and only address it “once a week.”  Then, following a comma mark of separation, Jesus said, “but until seventy times seven.”  This is not meant to be read as 70 X 7 = 490!!! 

God does not speak trivially.  God does not mean for little articles, prepositions and conjunctions to be ho-hum wastes of breath.  Thus, the word “alla,” translated as “but,” also means “otherwise, on the other hand, except and however.”  When this is understood to be Jesus responding to Peter and the other disciples – none of whom were yet ready to confront anyone among themselves – “but” becomes the time of exception, when a permanent change would set upon them, making the Apostles-Saints, reborn as the Sons of God.  That is the meaning of “but” here.

Form that and the restatement of “until” or “as many as,” which confirms those listening who would find that change within themselves (remembering Judas would not make that cut), each number must be read separately: “seventy times” and “seven”  Here, again, numbers need to be understood symbolically.

The number seventy converts to “seven times ten.”  The number “ten” is another number that is associated Biblically to perfection, for various reasons.  The way I see it is numerologically, where it is an elevated form of one (as 1+0=1).  This is relative to the base-10 number system, where numbers 0 through 9 are ten numbers, which recycle, such that 10 is another 0 beginning on the first level above 0-9.  The number 1 equates to man or self, but 10 equates to the highest level man can achieve by himself.  Ten then becomes a symbol of one (1) striving to be the best one can be.  As such, all the disciples of Jesus were learning to be tens.

When that striving for perfection is done by each disciple seven days a week – not just on the Sabbath – then they become a seventy number.  Still, a seventy is no better than a Pharisee, Sadducee, scribe, high priest, or rabbi, as all see that as their responsibility seven days a week.  In today’s Christianity, a priest, minister, pastor or leader of a church equates to a seventy or “seventy times,” but a seventy is still man alone with his (or her) good intentions.  Thus, the Law (the Ten Commandments) is related to the symbolism of ten, with following the Law seven days a week equating to being a (self-willed) seventy.

That is where the extra “seven” added by Jesus becomes the perfection of God, which comes through the addition of the Holy Spirit.  That was where Jesus was, as a human being; and it was where the disciples would be, once the Holy Spirit had joined with their souls, in their flesh.  The extra “seven” makes a “seventy times” (10 x 7 = 70) become a seventy-seven (11 X 7 = 77). 

Eleven is a master number that numerologically is 1+1=11, where it could be reduced to a 2 (if a human refuses God’s help – ala Cain).  Cain spoke with God, thus he was one who had been raised to a level of seventy, as a disciple of Adam.  However, when it came time to become “seventy times seven,” Cain refused God’s help.  He was reduced to a 2 – a body with a soul.  An eleven equates to the one being the soul with the other one being the Holy Spirit, so when the two are added together they becoming an eleven.  That becomes the perfection of God walking in a human body seven days a week, not just on the Sabbath.  Therefore, this is the meaning of verses 21 and 22.

The parable told is then one that needs to be seen in this light, where God is the only one who can forgive the sins of any.  I wrote about this in my explanation mentioned earlier; but do keep in mind the aspect I mentioned about the Pharisees complaining to Jesus about his disciples not following tradition.  The end of that lesson says it is what comes from one’s heart that determines what defiles.  Likewise, this parable ends by Jesus saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

R. T. Tippett

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