Who Is the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?


“Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times [or, up to seventy times seven].'” – Matthew 18:21-22

In The Proclamations of the King, I wrote how Matthew structured his gospel of the king around five discourses or proclamations of Jesus. Matthew 18 is the fourth of the five proclamations. This proclamation starts with the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It ends at the close of chapter 18 as Matthew 19:1 says, “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings…” Therefore, all of Matthew 18 is Jesus’ answer to the question of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

As is often the case with Jesus, he does not directly answer the disciples’ question. In fact, Jesus’ initial reply to who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven had nothing to do with being great in the kingdom. At first, Jesus replied that instead of worrying about who was the greatest in the kingdom the disciples should simply be concerned about entering the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 18:2, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Once Jesus has established the importance of merely entering the kingdom of heaven, which only happens if you turn and become like a child, Jesus said, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

I believe the rest of Jesus’ answer explains what it means to be humble like a child.

First, Jesus talks about the temptation to sin. “Woe to the world for temptations to sin!” Is there anyone immune to the temptation to sin? Is there anyone who hasn’t fallen to the temptation to sin? Jesus uses imagery of parts of our body causing us to sin. This brings to my mind that we are the body of Christ, many members in one. Therefore, we each impact the other in our temptation to sin.

Second, Jesus talks about lost sheep and how a shepherd will leave all of his other sheep to find his one lost sheep. If we have all sinned and participated in causing others to sin, then aren’t we all that one lost sheep? The Father does want even one of his sheep to be lost.

Third, Jesus talks about brother sinning against brother. He gives us the process of reconciling with that our brother that most Christians have heard about. We even call this process Matthew 18. “Let’s do Matthew 18.” In the context of Jesus’ fourth proclamation, the Matthew 18 process is ultimately about forgiveness.

So, we come to Peter’s question about how many times he needs to forgive his brother that sins against him. Peter asks if he should forgive seven times. Jesus answers not seven times but seventy-seven, or 70 times seven, times. Jesus, either said to forgive 77 times or 490 times.

I started the post quoting this exchange between Jesus and Peter because I believe it is the real answer to the disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom.

The most common interpretation I have heard about this exchange is that Peter asked if he needed to forgive his brother a number of times that he could count. Someone could remember forgiving someone seven times. But, Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother a number of times that no one could keep track of, either 77 or 490 times.

While there is some truth to that, and it does get to Jesus’ point that the Father forgives everything and so should we, the most common interpretation gets there by missing all of theological subtexts and undertones that are taking place.

How so?

Let’s start by assuming that Jesus really told Peter to forgive his brother 70 times seven times. That seems to be the most common translation. And, I think it is most likely based on the history of Israel as we will see below.

70 times 7 is 490. So, Jesus is telling Peter that he needs to forgive his brother 490 times. Remember, this is in the greater context of Jesus answering who is the greatest in the kingdom.

Why did Peter ask if he needed to forgive his brother seven times?

Seven is the number of spiritual perfection. So, if I forgive my brother seven times, then I have achieved spiritual perfection. And, if I am spiritually perfect, then I am the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Well, not so much according to Jesus’ response to Peter.

Why would Jesus tell Peter to forgive his brother 490 times?

According to Daniel’s interpretation of prophecy, there would be seventy weeks of years, or 490 years from the decree to restore the temple to Jesus’ crucifixion. While Ezra and Nehemiah did rebuild the temple after this decree, the ark of covenant was never put in this temple. In other words, God’s presence was not in the temple. God’s presence didn’t show up until Jesus arrived 490 years later.

In addition to this 490 year period, there are three other 490 year periods in Israel’s history – from Abraham to the exodus, from the exodus to Solomon’s temple, and the Babylonian captivity (from the destruction of Solomon’s temple to the decree to rebuild the temple). It’s too complicate to explain in this post, but you can find websites that explain these time periods.

What’s interesting to me is that in each of these 490 year periods, there is a sense of Israel being without the fullness of God’s presence and then coming into the fullness of his presence at the end of the 490 years (although the Babylonian captivity is the reverse of that).

So, when Jesus tells Peter to forgive 490 times it is as if Jesus is saying that God forgives Israel of everything that it either did or failed to do during those 490 years. Beyond forgiving an individual sin, God forgives the entirety of the time all of his people were trying to live without him. In a way, Jesus is telling Peter that to be the greatest in the kingdom you have to forgive your brother for everything not just an isolated incident because that is what God does.

This is the point of the parable of the wicked servant that Jesus tells after his exchange with Peter. The master forgives the servant a debt that would have been impossible for the servant to pay off in hundred, if not thousands, of lifetimes let alone his own life. Yet, the servant would not forgive the debt of another servant that could have been repaid in a matter of months. The scale of forgiveness between the master and the servant was entirely different. So, the master says, “And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”

That’s an interesting question for several reasons.

First, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, part of his answer was, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:12, 14-15) Do we want God to forgive us of everything? Then, we need to forgive others of everything.

Second, when Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, he closed by saying, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) That sounds just like the master in Jesus’ parable of the wicked servant.

But, while Luke has saying talking about mercy, Matthew records the same words differently. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

How are we to be perfect like God?

By being merciful as God is merciful.

How are we merciful as God is merciful?

By forgiving everything as God forgives everything.

Remember, Jesus is answering the question of who is the greatest in the kingdom. And, he is saying to forgive everything, even in the context of loving your enemies, which of course means forgiving your enemies.

Genesis 17:1 says, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.'”

The Hebrew word for blameless here is tamim. It means complete, whole, sound, blameless, and, yes, perfect. In fact, other translations use the word perfect instead of blameless.

Why do I bring up this seemingly random passage?

First, God told Abram to walk before him and be perfect, which is just what Jesus told us to do.

Second, the numerical value of tamim is 490.


I think not.

Abram is to be perfect or blameless before God. We are told by Jesus to be perfect as God is perfect. We know this also means to be merciful as God is merciful. And, Jesus told Peter to forgive 490 times, which is equivalent to God forgiving everything Israel did, which culminated in Jesus from the cross asking the Father to forgive them everything for they did not know what they were doing.

Are you seeing the picture here?

To be perfect or blameless is not to be sin free, to be perfectly moral in all your actions.

To be perfect or blameless before before God is to forgive as he forgives.

That, complete and total forgiveness for our brothers, even our enemies, not perfect sinless morality, is what makes us the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

When is the first time the word tamim is use in the Bible?

Genesis 6:9 says, “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless [tamim] in his generation. Noah walked with God.”

God told Abram to walk before him and be blameless.

Noah was blameless and walked with God.

Why was Noah blameless in his generation?

I don’t think it was because he was without sin.

Genesis 6:11-12 says, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.”

Why was the earth corrupt and filled with violence?

Because everyone was out for vengeance. Everyone was repaying everyone violence for violence and evil for evil. But, Noah was different. He was blameless before God. He forgave everyone everything, even his enemies, even those who had done violence to him. That’s why Noah was saved.

And, that’s the point Jesus made throughout his life and on the cross. Forgiveness saves us from violence. If we don’t forgive, then we will die in a blazing fire of violence, just as Jerusalem was burnt down by the Romans because Israel refused to be perfect, merciful, forgiving, as their Father was merciful.

Quickly, what if Jesus told Peter to forgive 77 times?

Luke’s genealogy of Jesus, which goes from God all the way to Jesus, has Jesus as the 77th son of God. Jesus was the Son of Man, second man, the last Adam, the spiritually perfect son of God. Jesus forgave everyone everything. For Jesus to tell Peter to forgive 77 times would have been to tell Peter to forgive like me. And, in another sense, it could be thought of as God forgiving everything man had done between the first Adam, the first man, and Jesus, the last Adam, the second man, who was ushering in the new creation.

So, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

The one who forgives like God. The one who forgives like Jesus. The one who forgives everyone, even his enemies, of everything.

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