The Parable of the Unforgiving Bondman
There are many who interpret Scripture as referring to all persons at all times and thus ignore dispensational teaching. The parables in particular, are interpreted as teaching present day Christianity, causing confusion and uncertainty by setting Scripture against Scripture, and ignoring the precept of 2 Tim. 2: 15. A prime example of this is the parable of the unforgiving bondman in Matt. 18: 21–35. One such expositor sums up the parable in five points: our sins are great; God freely forgives them; the offences committed against us by our brethren are comparatively small; we should therefore most freely forgive them; if we do not, God will be justly angry with us, and punish us.
All five points are true but they do not represent the teaching of the parable, and together are not its correct interpretation. It is like hanging the right coat on the wrong peg!
In the parable, the king’s forgiveness could be revoked, the punishment of the wicked bondman was not for ever, and the household of the wicked bondman was to suffer because of his action. If the parable teaches God’s forgiveness of our sins, then it follows that Hell is temporal, forgiveness provisional, and a man’s actions directly determine the eternal destiny of his household! How different is Eph. 1: 7: “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of offences, according to the riches of his grace”. It is the blood of Christ that secures God’s redemptive forgiveness for me, and its measure is the riches of His grace not my forgiveness of others! The forgiveness in the parable is that of Matt. 6: 14: “For if ye forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father also will forgive you [yours]”. How unlike Eph. 4: 32: “forgiving one another, so as God also in Christ has forgiven you”! In the one, I forgive to obtain forgiveness; in the other, I forgive because I have been forgiven. The one is law; the other is grace. Thus the parable of Matt. 18 is about time and not eternity; about earth and not heaven, and about those who profess to accept heaven’s rule over the earth in the kingdom of the heavens.
Before looking at the parable in detail. it is important that we should be clear as to forgiveness itself. Broadly speaking, forgiveness may be governmental or eternal, provisional or absolute. In the former case it has the limit of time; in the latter case it is everlasting. Now the first and last time something is mentioned in Scripture is often significant. The last time we read of forgiveness is in 1 John 2: 12. There John says “I write to you, children, because [your] sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake”. Reading on (vs13–28) makes it clear that children is John’s word for all believers irrespective of growth. Our sins are forgiven, not will be forgiven; not for our sakes, but “for his name’s sake”. That is, the impelling cause is His name. Nothing can alter or weaken this forgiveness, for His name, His renown and His glory are involved in it. It is absolute and eternal. The cost was met and the price was paid when Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2: 24). This was done before I was born and thus cannot be affected by any conduct of mine—it is absolute. But until Christ died this full forgiveness (or remittance, this being the same word in Greek) could not be known.
The governmental aspect of forgiveness is seen in its first occurrence in Scripture in Gen. 18: 24. There Abraham pleads for the city of Sodom on the ground that there might have been fifty righteous within the city. God replies that “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sakes” (v26). This forgiveness is clearly provisional and temporal, and depends on man’s conduct on the earth. The eternal destiny of those involved is not the subject. Believer and unbeliever alike are subject to God’s governmental dealings. Governmental forgiveness is not only individual as in the cases of David (see 2 Sam. 12: 1–23) and Ahab (see 1 Kings 21: 17–29) but also national (see Num. 14: 18, 19).
Now in this parable of the unforgiving bondman we are dealing with the kingdom of the heavens, and a kingdom is a form of government. Kingdoms are governed by laws. Thus the forgiveness in the parable is governmental and hence provisional. Contrary to the popular interpretation, the parable has nothing to do with eternal forgiveness. Nor is it individual forgiveness as in Luke 17: 3, 4, but also involves companies of people.
The Setting of the Parable
This parable, like others, is unique to Matthew. It is a parable of “the kingdom of the heavens”—an expression used only by Matthew. He writes with Israel in mind and thus quotes the fulfilment of more OT prophecies than any other Evangelist. He details the presentation of the kingdom of Daniel’s prophecy to Israel (see Dan. 2: 44), firstly by the Baptist (see Matt. 3: 1, 2), then by the Lord (see Matt. 4: 17) and lastly the twelve (see Matt. 10: 7). In each case the word preached was virtually the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens has drawn nigh” (Matt. 3: 2). Matthew records Israel’s rejection of that offer in chapter 11 and reveals the mystery form the kingdom would take subsequently in the parabolic teachings of chapter 13. Consequently, he shows the dispensational changes that would take place with the introduction of the Assembly and the giving of the keys of the kingdom to Peter in chapter 16. Hence our parable opens with the words “For this cause the kingdom of the heavens has become like …” (Matt. 18: 23, my emphasis). Thus the setting of the parable is the kingdom of the heavens following Israel’s rejection of her King.
The Occasion of the Parable
The parable comes as the result of a question by Peter “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? until seven times?” (v21). Peter’s question was prompted by the Lord’s instruction in v15: “But if thy brother sin against thee …”. Now Peter had heard the Lord’s earlier teaching on the importance of being “reconciled to thy brother” (Math. 5: 24), of making “friends with thine adverse party quickly” (v25), and the consequences of failing to do so being to be cast into prison and not coming out “till thou has paid the last farthing” (v26). Again, Peter was present when the Lord said “For if ye forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father also will forgive you [yours], but if ye do not forgive men their offences, neither will your Father forgive your offences” (Matt. 6: 14, 15). We must consider how Peter would understand this teaching. Just as his concept of the Assembly as a called–out company at that time would be limited to Israel, so his understanding of “his brother” would be limited to fellow Jews. Thus when Peter heard the words “But if thy brother sin against thee…” (Matt. 18: 15), his horizon would be limited to his own nation (a prejudice not changed until much later—see Acts 10: 34, 35).
What Peter wanted to know from the Lord was how many times he should offer his fellow Jew forgiveness. Did the word in Amos 1: 3 prompt him to be more generous than the Rabbinical limit of three in suggesting seven times? Or was it Lev. 26: 28?
The Lord’s Reply
The Lord’s reply to Peter’s question was “I say not to thee until seven times, but until seventy times seven” (Matt. 18: 22). This, in itself, answered the question, but the Lord does not stop there but goes on to give the parable before us, introducing it with the words “For this cause the kingdom of the heavens has become like a king who would reckon with his bondmen” (v23). The addition of the parable indicates that the Lord wanted to take Peter beyond the immediate answer. This is confirmed by the fact that the parable does not concern two brothers but two bondmen. Now it is true that in His summary the Lord says “Thus also my heavenly Father shall do to you if ye forgive not from your hearts every one his brother” (v35). However, this only further confirms the point just made, for the Lord in this verse does not use the singular pronouns thee, thou, and thine but the plural ones you, ye and your. Peter is thus not addressed personally but as the representative of others. One final point: the expression “heavenly Father” is peculiar to Matthew and is used in the context of the kingdom.
The Parable and its Players
The parable involves a king reckoning with his bondmen. One has an enormous debt owing to the king; another has a minor debt, not in relation to the king, but to his fellow bondman. Both own the authority of the king. The major debtor pleads patience from the king in order to pay his debt. The king forgives the loan, but immediately this major debtor seeks payment for a minor debt from a fellow–bondman who also begs for patience. This is refused by the major debtor who exercises his authority and casts him into prison until he can pay. Fellow–bondmen witness this injustice and tell their Lord, whereupon the major debtor is cast into prison until he has paid all that he owes.
The king is clearly Christ, for He who was Israel’s God, Jehovah, in the OT is their Messiah in the NT. Those who teach the dispensational interpretation of the parable generally take the major debtor as representative of the nation of Israel and the minor debtor as representative of the Gentile. This is true to a point (see later). Certainly, as a nation, Israel was to be God’s servant as Is. 41: 8 and other Scriptures testify. That Gentile nations were also to be Jehovah’s servants in the kingdom is affirmed by such Scriptures as Ps. 72: 11; 102: 22; Is. 60: 12; Dan. 7: 27. However, in that kingdom Israel will be the dominant servant over the Gentiles (see Ps. 47: 3; Is. 14: 2; 49: 22, 23; 60: 12)—as this parable also indicates. What of the other fellow–bondmen who report events to the king? These represent angels (see Rev. 19: 10; 22: 9) who are involved in the affairs of the present age (see Matt. 13: 28, 39; 1 Cor. 4: 9; 11: 10; Heb. 1: 14; 2: 5) and have access to the presence of God (see Job 1: 6–12; 2: 1–7).
The Parable and its Interpretation
God had chosen Israel as His people, had given them His law and made them custodians of the Holy Scriptures of the OT. For all involved in this “loan” God expected a return. Although the imagery is different, the parable of the vineyard (see Matt. 21: 33–46) teaches the same truth, namely that God expected fruit from Israel. What did the Gentile owe to Israel? Compensation for Israel’s present suffering under Rome? In reality, very little, hence the Lord portrays the major debtor as saying “Pay [me] if thou owest anything” (Matt. 18: 28). The debt was so small that the major debtor wasn’t sure whether or not there was a debt!
Israel had knowingly entered into a contract with God at Sinai and had accumulated an enormous debt that could never be paid. Not only had Israel rejected her King and His kingdom but had cried “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19: 15). However, the Lord had also prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34) thus putting the matter on the ground of a sin of inadvertence, and so allowing forgiveness. This forgiveness was national and not individual, and hence governmental and not eternal. However, it did allow the offer of eternal forgiveness for all to commence at Jerusalem according to the risen Lord’s command that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24: 47). Hence the most guilty were the first to benefit from the royal prerogative issued on the day of Pentecost by Peter in Jerusalem (see Acts 2: 14–41).
Now in the parable, the major debtor pleads for mercy. This Israel as a nation has not done, for only a remnant at Pentecost and afterwards ever repented. Thus the major debtor is the believing remnant of Israel rather than the whole nation. The nation, and its rulers in particular, failed to see their awful position of impending judgement but a believing remnant acknowledged the gravity of their situation and so received eternal forgiveness. Subsequently, however, they were in danger of ignoring the governmental position. The proof is in the attitude of this remnant of believing Jews towards the Gentiles—in particular those of the Gentiles who believed. Hence it required a vision from God to get Peter to go to Cornelius, and the believing remnant initially upbraided him for doing so (see Acts 11: 3)! Later, this remnant of the nation wanted to circumcise their Gentile brethren into Judaism (see Acts 15: 1), rather than allowing them to enjoy the same blessings outside of that system. Later again we learn that in Jerusalem there were “many myriads … of the Jews who have believed, and all are zealous of the law” (Acts 21: 20). These are indistinguishable from “the whole city” (v30, my emphasis) who, regarding Paul, sought “to kill him” (v31). Later they listened to Paul until he spoke of his commission from the Lord: “Go, for I will send thee to the nations afar off” (Acts 22: 21) when again they called for his death (see v22). Such was the general disposition of this believing remnant. They were more aligned with the unbelieving nation than with their Gentile brethren, even though the exhortation to them had been “Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2: 40)—a generation of Jews that formed the front–line of the opposition to God’s testimony throughout the Acts.
The Fulfilment of the Parable
Many of the Jews who believed at Jerusalem clung so tightly to their national separation from the Gentiles and so identified themselves with the unbelieving nation in their disposition to the Gentiles, that they never in heart forgave them as they had been forgiven. Therefore, when Jerusalem was given up to desolation in fulfilment of the Lord’s prophecy (see Luke 21: 20) and its people scattered among all nations, the Jewish believers also were scattered and became “sojourners of [the] dispersion” (1 Pet. 1: 1).
Israel has been delivered “to the tormentors” but only for a time. It says “till he paid all that was owing to him” (Matt. 18: 34), a specified time which answers to the “seventy times seven” (v22). That nation has been “cast out” as the son of the maid servant (see Gal. 4: 30), but has not been “cast away” (Rom. 11: 1). Presently the “seventy times seven”—the seventy sevens (or 70 weeks) of Daniel (see Dan. 9: 24) will have run their course and then “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11: 26) for “if their casting away [be the] world’s reconciliation, what [their] reception but life from among [the] dead?” (v15).
The foregoing is, I believe, the true interpretation of the parable. In itself it has nothing to do with our eternal forgiveness from God but is limited to the forgiveness that often forms a part of God’s governmental ways with men on earth. Has it no application for us? Yes, for we own the authority of the same Lord in heaven. A forgiving spirit must ever mark us but we must also remember that we are not under law but under grace. We do not forgive to get forgiveness, but we forgive because we are forgiven! As the Lord put it in the parable “shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow–bondman, as I also had compassion on thee?” (Matt. 18: 33)