Message Look-Back: “What’s in a Number?”

In the sermon series What’s in a Name? we’ve been looking at naming in the Bible and learning how God looks upon us as children of promise and hope.  Numbers also have some significant meaning in the Bible, and we couldn’t help but to look into it.

All of this numerology…it becomes a problem for us at times. Here’s why.  Once we open up to the idea that some numbers might not mean what we think they mean, we begin to wonder what else is symbolic…or not.  The Bible, once a foundation, becomes unstable and ambiguous and open-ended and mysterious.   

 

One of my mentors in seminary once told a story of how a person came up to him after a sermon and said, “You know, pastor, all that Greek and Hebrew is kinda interesting…but I just need to know how to live.”

 

I can sympathize with this. In most situations it’s not what I know that scares me; it’s what I don’t know.  I really don’t have time or emotions for ambiguity.

 

This also wouldn’t be terribly different from people in Jesus’ day. They were all about having a relationship with God, sure.  But they just weren’t sure how it all applied in certain circumstances of life.  So it was easier to look for more guidance on what it all meant for real life.  They wanted it spelled out for them. 

 

So Peter wants a little clarity. Jesus had just got done giving some clearer instructions on how to confront someone who is in the wrong.  So he says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  Peter knew Jesus at this point, so he left some room for God to work.  How mature of him.  7 times was being pretty generous, he thought. 

 

7, like 12, also represents completeness and perfection. God created the earth in 7 days.  Festivals lasted 7 days.  Every 7th year was a Sabbath year where they didn’t grow crops.

 

Multiples of seven were also important. After forty-nine years came a Jubilee year, when all Jewish bond-servants were released and land that had been sold reverted to its former owner (Lev. 25:8-55). The OT speaks of seventy elders (Exod. 24:1, 9). Also, Jesus sent out the seventy (Luke 10:1-17). Seventy years was to be the length of the Exile (Jer. 25:12; 29:10; Dan. 9:2). A period of seventy weeks of years was to culminate in the coming of the messianic kingdom (Dan. 9:24).[1]

A major Hebrew word for making an oath or swearing, shaba, was closely related to the word “seven,” sheba. The original meaning of “swear an oath” may have been “to declare seven times” or “to bind oneself by seven things.”[2]

 

But Jesus answers, “Not 7 times.” Huh?  Looks like Jesus failed numerology class in Talmud school.  “Not 7 times, but 77 times.”  Ok Jesus…whatya doin here? 

 

To answer that, lets reverse to Genesis chapter 4: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” [3]

 

The declaration of vengeance for Lamech is in essence reversed in Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness.

 

The number isn’t really the issue anyway. In both cases it is cracking open the concept of completion and making it on-going, never-ending, eternal.

 

The point is this:  If you’re counting you’ve missed the point of forgiveness.

[1] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[2] Drinkard, J. F., Jr. (2003). Number Systems and Number Symbolism. In (C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler, Eds.)Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 4:23–24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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