During his ministry on earth, Jesus walked throughout central Israel, and wherever Jesus walked, disciples followed Him. In the gospels, we read there always seemed to be a crowd of people around Him, including disciples or followers of Him as the Messiah, others who were attracted to His message but maybe not convinced yet, still others who were just curious, and often some Pharisees and other critics who sought to discredit Him.
Jesus was constantly preaching and teaching. When He stopped for rest or for the night, people gathered around to hear Him, ask Him questions, or even to ask to be healed. In Luke 17, we find Jesus traveling toward Jerusalem, where He was soon to be tried and crucified. Along the way, He has been speaking and teaching—the parable of the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the unjust steward, and the rich man and Lazarus. In chapter 17, we find Him continuing his teaching, this time directly addressing His disciples. Disciples are followers, believers, His students or learners. Unlike those in the crowds that were just curious or critical, they believed in His teachings and wanted to learn more. So Jesus gathered His disciples around Him and spoke to them:
1 Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. 3 Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”
5 And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” 6 So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? 8 But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? 9 Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. 10 So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”
- Luke 17:1-10
In this passage, I find four challenges Jesus gives to us, His disciples today:
Don't tempt others to sin (1-3)
Verse 1 tells us, literally, “It is impossible for stumbling blocks (also could be translated snares, traps, or offenses) not to come.”
A stumbling block is a cause of sin. It is not simply a random problem that happens in a Christian's life, but is something that may tempt a person to sin; some action by someone or circumstance created by someone that influences a Christian to sin.
The disciples were those who believed in Jesus, and they are the ones He is addressing. So the lesson here is that Christians should not do something or create some circumstance that would tempt another Christian to sin. Jesus’ concern is that we ourselves should not become a ’stumbling block’ to another Christian.
While the Bible never tells us we are guilty of another person’s sin, we can be guilty of the separate sin of being the cause of another person's temptation. How does this work? For example, I can talk negatively about someone, and the result is that you become angry at that person, based on what I have said, and treat him spitefully. I committed two sins—talking negatively and tempting you to be angry and spiteful; that is, I am guilty of putting a stumbling block in your path.
Jesus addresses this in a very strong way: He says it would be better for me to drown than to do cause another Christian to sin. Now, He is using a little exaggeration here in order to make His point, and the point is made: it offends God the Father and grieves the Holy Spirit if I influence another Christian to sin.
The first part of verse 3 (“So watch yourselves”) is the conclusion of His teaching in verses 1. It’s His way of saying “so control yourself and don’t be a stumbling block to others.” This principle is applied in the epistles especially to pastors and teachers—who are responsible to teach the truth and not falsehood, which would lead Christians into sin.
Always forgive (3-4)
We seek to not tempt others to sin, but when someone in the fellowship does sin, what then? Jesus says: “If your brother sins, . . . rebuke him.” Disciples have a responsibility to admonish each other. If we see a brother or sister in the Lord clearly sinning, our Lord expects us to go to him or her, and as lovingly as possible, rebuke him.
“Rebuke” means to sharply accuse, to admonish, or even to censure. It does not mean to be bitter and let one's negative attitude or resentment to grow and fester. Nor does it mean to complain to someone else about what is taking place. It means to go and talk to the person, something that requires a direct confrontation with humility and not with pride or self-righteousness. It requires an attitude of love and not bitter judgment. So as Christians we need to be willing to be in each others' lives . . . to know about each others' attitudes and actions and to confront and correct as needed.
Then Jesus says, “if he repents, forgive him.” We are supposed to have short memories when it comes to sin and repentance. We should not become hostile or hold a grudge. Note that the example Jesus uses is when another Christian sins against you. That’s personal! He does not say anything about restitution, either, as being a requirement for forgiveness.
We might ask: “ But what if the person does not repent?” Jesus tells us more about that in Matthew 18:
15 “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
-Matthew 18: 15-17
Forgiveness does not stop with one occurrence of the sin. Luke 17:4 tells us if a brother or sister has a problem with one particular sin, the forgiving might need to be repeated many times..
Seek to expand your faith (5-6)
The disciples ask that their faith might be increased in verse 5. It makes us wonder what, exactly, did they expect Jesus to do. Perform a miracle? Assure them of His power? But Jesus, in His response, does not seem to say much about how to increase faith. Instead, He simply describes the very great value and power of faith (verse 6). What matters is whether faith is real. Even small faith will perform mighty works if it is real and would give the disciple great confidence.
What then is “faith”? It is not some inward virtue in us. It is not something that we have to “work up.” It is not trying to persuade ourselves of something, or pretending that we are certain of something. Faith is believing God. It is trusting God’s word to us in Scripture. It is trusting God’s word to us through the Holy Spirit. It is trusting in God’s character, His mercy, and His power. And it is a gift to us from God (Ephesians 2:8).
Faith is not faith in itself. It is not faith in faith. It is not, “I have a lot of faith so I can get through this.” Faith looks to God and only to God. Faith sees His greatness, hears His voice, knows His character, His truthfulness, and His reliability. Jesus’ response to the disciples’ request is simply to describe to them the great power of faith. Then they will want to believe more and more of the promises of God. Then their faith will grow.
As disciples, we need to be careful not to get so proud of ourselves that we start thinking we are superior and that God owes us something in return for our faith and service. We are God’s servants. He is not our servant. Jesus’ example in verses 7-10 is that servants usually are not invited to dine with the master or receive special rewards for doing their duty. Rather, they continually serve the master. And when the servant is finished the work, he or she is not usually entitled to a lot of praise or special gratitude. He or she has done what is expected.
Jesus’ point is that disciples are the same. We are duty-bound to serve God and His kingdom. We were rescued from the ugly bondage of sin and have become the willing and happy servants of our Lord. We serve Him with contentment, but that contentment should not turn into pride or arrogance that would make us feel that God is duty-bound to be grateful to us, to shower us with gifts and praise in return for our faithful service. We hear a theology like that spoken daily by many of the televangelists, whose message so often is to contribute to their ministries in order to receive God's blessings, as though God will return one favor for another. The early protestant movement made a similar mistake, holding that health and wealth were signs of God’s gratitude for the superior faith of one individual, while sickness and poverty were signs of His disapproval of another.
Scripture assures us that we are entitled to one favor, however, a favor that is never earned or merited: we experience His mercy and His grace toward us. As the Romans 5 tells us, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So if I start feeling proud or superior because I am a Christian, I need to remember that truth—God has shown his grace and mercy to me not because of my service to Him . . . and not because I loved Him first . . . but merely that while I was still His enemy, Jesus died for me.