by Nathan Brown
In my experience, preachers have usually talked about it as simply a big number, something far beyond the level at which any of us would bother to keep count. After all, who would bother counting 490 successive acts of forgiveness?
It was Peter who asked Jesus, “‘Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?’
“‘No, not seven times,’ Jesus replied, ‘but seventy times seven!’” (Matt. 18:21, 22, NLT*).
But what if this isn’t merely a large number randomly chosen by Jesus to illustrate generous or even unmeasured forgiveness? This same number does appear, presented in the same unusual formulation, in Daniel 9:24: “A period of seventy sets of seven has been decreed for your people and your holy city to finish their rebellion, to put an end to their sin, to atone for their guilt, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to confirm the prophetic vision, and to anoint the Most Holy Place.”
Dated from the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon, this understanding of prophetic mathematics gets us to the accepted dates of the public ministry of Jesus. As such, the Messianic prophecy of Daniel 9 (verses 24–27) has been described as the pinnacle of biblical prophecy, authentication of Jesus’ identification as Messiah and a key component of Adventist prophetic worldview.
However, this seems more than a coincidental number. Perhaps this is more about meaning than mathematics. Centuries earlier in the Bible’s story, when God was setting out His plan for a new society for His people of Israel, Leviticus 25 includes provision for a Sabbath year, then a year of jubilee after “seven sets of seven years, adding up to forty-nine years in all” (verse 8). These instructions embodied a remarkable social and economic re-set mechanism for the new nation: “Set this year apart as holy, a time to proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live there” (Lev. 25:10).
Various Bible scholars have recognized an echo—even a fulfilment—of this jubilee principle in the prophetic time period of Daniel 9: “The jubilee is a fascinating social innovation within the legislation of ancient Israel, a sign that relentless buying and selling of land, goods and even people won’t be the last word. But seventy times seven? That sounds like the jubilee of jubilees! So, though 490 years—nearly half a millennium—is indeed a long time, the point is this: when the time finally arrives, it will be the greatest ‘redemption’ of all. The will be the time of real, utter and lasting freedom” (N. T. Wright, How God Became King).
This interpretation is borne out in Jesus’ inaugural sermon in which He borrowed from the jubilee language of Isaiah 61, framing His ministry and mission in the terms of this world-changing, society-transforming, freedom-proclaiming practice: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favour has come” (Luke 4:18, 19).
So when Jesus urged that we forgive “seventy times seven”—borrowing from the prophetic language of Daniel 9—in answer to Peter’s seemingly simple question about forgiveness, it seems Jesus had something much deeper in mind. Rather than merely being prepared to forgive hundreds of times, or even forgive without keeping count, disciples of Jesus are called to live—and forgive—like it is the grand jubilee, to live like the Messiah has come, to forgive like the reality of our glorious tomorrow has already come in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, we are citizens of the kingdom of God, participants in this grand jubilee, both recipients and agents of the forgiveness and reconciliation of the Messiah. This must transform all our relationships and interactions. Whatever the wrong done to us, we are called to be first to offer forgiveness, and to work as reconcilers and peacemakers in our communities and our world.
As daunting as the call to endless forgiveness might seem, the reality of Jesus’ answer to Peter is larger still. The foundation is Jesus and His mission. That’s what we are called to participate in, to live, and to share.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.
*Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.