The gray areas of life aren’t where I excel. I prefer black and white. Yes or no. Right or wrong. When it comes to conflict, I like to have things in the open, dealt with, and preferably tied up with a bow at the end.
When it comes to forgiveness, I find it hard to give it when the preceding conflict hasn’t been addressed or dealt with. I imagine Peter was the same. I identify with his need to put parameters around what was expected of him. If I had been around circa A.D. 33, I’d be trailing on the wake of Peter’s robe, listening intently for Jesus’ answer.
“Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” I imagine Peter scratched his beard and gazed into the distance. A thousand years of laws and traditions floated through his mind. Surely seven was the right number. He locked eyes with Jesus, “Up to seven times?”
Jesus shook his head. A resounding no. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
I’m sure that after Peter did some quick calculations in his head, he also asked himself the same question I’ve asked myself a hundred times—what the heck does that even mean?
Peter did have a leg up when it comes to figuring this out. First, he got to sit down with Jesus and discuss it more in depth at dinner that night, and second, he was a Jew, talking to a Jewish rabbi. I’m now convinced Peter didn’t arbitrarily pick the number 7 out of the air.
Peter understood the deep significance of the number; especially when it comes to forgiveness of sins.
Atonement for Sin Every year, the priest was commanded to offer a sacrifice to cover the sins of the nation. Read the details here.
In the middle of God’s instructions for the annual sacrifice, is an interesting verse: “Moreover, he (the priest) shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.” Leviticus 16:14
And not only for the annual sacrifice but also for sins that were committed in ignorance—that’s right, we’re held accountable for wrongs we don’t even realize we’re doing—there’s another reference to 7:
“And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord, in front of the veil of the sanctuary.” Leviticus 4:6
And those are only two instances. There are many more times 7 is used in regard to cleansing or forgiving.
Thinking about this now, I can’t believe that Peter picked 7 by chance. I believe it was by design. I think he was trying to put black and white parameters on the radical life Jesus was calling him to live. There was something familiar to him. Something concrete. Something manageable.
The priest sprinkled blood on the curtain and the altar 7 times. But it wasn’t a once then done type of thing. This sprinkling, this seeking forgiveness, was an endless occupation. He did it once for that particular sacrifice.
But it was never over. Not really.
The year always rolled over into a new year. The unwitting person always committed another sin. One priest performed hundreds, maybe thousands of sacrifices in his lifetime. And when he died, another priest took his place.
Peter was asking for a number. Jesus was saying that sin never stops. Forgiveness has to be applied continually. Did Jesus’ voice hold a hint of laughter when he answered because of Peter’s need for black and white? Or did it hold a hint of sadness because he knew what forgiveness would cost him?
Later, when Jesus hung dying on the cross—as he breathed his last breath—he cried out, “It is finished.”
The price for forgiveness was paid. His blood was sprinkled at the base of the cross and across the ages over all sins—committed and yet to be committed. They were all forgiven.
On the cross, Jesus had completed the painful work of redeeming his people from the bondage of sin. However, we continue to walk enslaved to sin until that redemption is personally applied to our lives.
His work was done, but we don’t see the payoff until it is applied to us individually.
If we—as Christ followers—walk in his footsteps, doesn’t it follow that the painful work of forgiving people in our lives looks similar to his life? Do we do the hard, sacrificial work of forgiving before they even know that they needed our forgiveness?
Do we take up the mentality that we will forgive sins against us, even the ones not committed yet?
As the priest sprinkled the blood on the curtain or the altar, the death of the sacrifice had already occurred. What was now left was taking the blood of sacrifice and sprinkling it (offering forgiveness).
Does that mean that when we offer forgiveness, that we have already died to self and sacrificed our own selfish ambitions on our daily cross?
Does that mean that when our friend comes to us and asks forgiveness for the hundredth time that we are already standing there with the blood of our sacrifice in our hands—the hard work done—ready, willing, and waiting to sprinkle them with forgiveness?
To me, it means yes. It also means that I need to give up living in the black and white and be willing to step with God into the scary gray areas where things aren’t neatly tied with bows.
When I really reflect on it, forgiveness has always been between myself and God anyway.
Whether it is him to me, or me to someone else. As he has freely given grace to me, I must freely give grace to others. Not cheaply. But freely.
Nothing held back. No hemming and hawing. Arms wide open, welcoming the prodigal home.
Reflect He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:10-12
Moreover, he (the priest) shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat, he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. Leviticus 16:14