Jesus goes on to add: “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are assembled in My name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:18-20). It is following these assertions by Jesus that Peter, who is clearly presented by Matthew as making the connection between what Jesus has said about treating a brother as a Gentile or tax collector, binding and releasing and agreeing together, and the need for there to be an ongoing willingness to forgive as a marker of those that are part of Jesus’ messianic movement, asks Jesus his famous question about the quantity of forgiveness that need be on offer, suggesting that surely seven charitable acts of forgiveness ought to be enough. Of course, based on what the audience of Matthew knows about Jesus’ demeanor and His dealings with all and sundry, there would be little astonishment to hear Jesus insist that forgiveness is to be extended “Not seven times… but seventy-seven times!” (18:22b)
Now, some translations render Jesus phrase as “seventy times seven.” Either way, it would have been well understood that Jesus has indicated that there is to be no end to forgiveness among brethren. However, there are some historical considerations to be made here, which may serve to underscore an actual usage of “seventy-seven” (putting aside the importance of any use of 490 in the mind of a member of the nation of Israel in the first century). Bear in mind that this Gospel, perhaps more than all the rest, reaches back into Israel’s Scriptures in order to shed greater light on Jesus’ status and His ministry, especially as the author goes to great lengths to show Jesus forth as the new Moses.
Along with that, it has been well-established that Jesus’ words and deeds only make sense in the light of the history of Israel, as presented in its Scriptures. Furthermore, Jesus’ presumptive audience would have been well-versed in Israel’s history, and based on the construction of this Gospel, the same should be presumed for Matthew’s audience. Finally, when Jesus quotes Scripture to His hearers, or when the author quotes Scripture for his hearers in order to reinforce something that Jesus has said or to shape their thinking along certain lines, those quotations are not an isolated choosing of a statement that fits a certain need, but that single quote is designed to call an entire narrative to the minds of the hearers.
Why make these points? It is because of the uses of “seventy-seven” that are to be found in Scripture. If one surmises and presumes (altogether reasonably) that Jesus is careful with His use of words, that Matthew is careful with the construction of his narrative and with those words of Jesus that he includes in that narrative, and a general familiarity on the part of the two audience’s (Jesus’ and Matthew’s) with the Scriptures that tell the story of Israel (from which they derived their sense of identity), then it is worthwhile to review those uses.
The first use is found in the foundational story of Scripture, which is Genesis. A verse in the fourth chapter reads “You wives of Lamech, hear my words! I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for hurting me. If Cain is to be avenged seven times as much, then Lamech seventy-seven times!” (4:23b-24) Surely, this use of “seventy-seven” in connection with a wrong done and vengeance (without getting into the nature or direction of that vengeance, or the motivation for his words) would have some bearing on Jesus’ use of “seventy-seven” when speaking about wrongs done and forgiveness---dissuading any desire for vengeance.