Taking Sin Seriously (Luke 17:1-4)
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
3 So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
We tend to think of sin as a “singular” matter, that which a particular person commits, for which he or she is individually responsible. That is true, but it is not the total picture. Let me illustrate.
In last Sunday’s newspaper, there was an article entitled: “Women in Prison: Why and How They Got There.” The article begins with these words:
Through the ages, poets have sung of the pain of misplaced affection, and mothers have harangued their daughters against getting mixed up with the wrong kind of man. Mama was right—especially in the case of a woman who breaks the law. Today, huge numbers of women are serving time in prisons because, at least in part, they ran around with the wrong guy.
Karl Rasmussen, executive director of the Women’s Prison Association in New York, maintains that although no specific data on the subject exists, 85 percent of the women he has seen over the years wouldn’t have gone to prison if they hadn’t got romantically involved. ‘They hook up with a thief, a drug dealer, a robber,’ he says, ‘and get caught up in crime out of misguided loyalty, for what they think is love.”23
It isn’t just men who get women into trouble. Take Adam and Eve, for example. The Scriptures make it clear that while Eve was deceived, Adam was not, but he abdicated his role of leader and followed his wife into sin—knowingly (cf. 1 Timothy 3:14). I believe it is safe to say that people seldom sin independently. Just as our legal system recognizes that there are accessories to a crime, so the Lord Jesus, in our text, stresses that there are accessories to sin.
If the first sin in the Bible involved one person leading another, as it were, into sin, the second sin of the Bible involved one person refusing to take any responsibility for the well-being of another. You remember the story of Cain and Abel, his brother, from Genesis chapter 4, where Cain sought to defend himself by responding to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).
We can see, then, not only from experience, but more importantly from Scripture, that sin is not just a “solo” experience. In Luke chapter 17 Jesus spoke about sin as an interpersonal matter, rather than merely as an individual matter. The first two verses are a warning concerning the seriousness of influencing others in such a way as to encourage them to sin. In terms of the first sin in Genesis chapter 3, Jesus spoke words, which if obeyed, would keep us from being “Eve’s” to the “Adam’s” of this world. The last two verses deal with the positive role which they can play in the life of one who has sinned. Again, in Genesis chapter 4 terms, Jesus told us how it is we are to be our “brother’s keeper” when he does sin. The unifying element in these verses is “sin” and the overriding emphasis is that the disciples of our Lord should (1) take sin seriously, and (2) take sin personally.
The Structure of the Text
Looking at the 17th chapter of Luke as a whole, there is little disagreement as to what the segments or divisions of the chapter are:
(1) Not causing your brother to sin—verses 1-2
(2) What to do when your brother sins—verses 3-4
(3) Faith and the disciple—verses 5-10
(4) The healing of the ten lepers and the gratitude of one—verses 11-19
(5) Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the kingdom of God—verses 20-37
The struggle is to determine what the relationship is between these “parts” of the whole. Some, indeed, despair of finding any unity in this chapter at all. Plummer, in his commentary on Luke, entitles this section, “Four sayings of Christ” (p. 398). He goes on to say, “They have no connection with the much longer utterances which precede them.… And the four sayings appear to be without connection one with another.”24
I acknowledge the difficulty which these verses pose for us in finding a unified theme, but this, for me, is simply a “tension of the text,” a difficulty which serves to stimulate my study of this text. It is my presupposition that Luke has been developing a very orderly argument, even as he has indicated in his introduction (1:1-4). This order is not, to the best of my understanding, chronological, but logical—it is a logical development of the gospel, its issues, and its opposition. I therefore must seek for a unity of thought in the entire chapter, and I must seek to find the thread of continuity between this chapter and those which both precede and follow. I must therefore differ with Plummer (“fools rush in … ”), refusing to view Luke’s words here as a kind of “catchall of miscellaneous sayings.” Luke is not that kind of writer. He has no “Fibber Magee’s closets” in his developing argument. Let us therefore seek to grasp Luke’s unity of thought, recognizing that the failure to grasp it is ours, and not that of the author (who ultimately is the Holy Spirit).
Throughout the gospel of Luke, there has been a building opposition to Jesus and His teaching on the part of the Pharisees. This was that religious group who, in their minds, held firm to the Old Testament Law of Moses, and to its standards. They were “hard on sin” and they sought to use their influence to expose Jesus as a fraud, a law-breaker, rather than the One who came to fulfill the Law.
The opposition to Jesus began in chapter 5, when Jesus not only healed the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof, but told him that his sins were forgiven as well. Such words, the Pharisees, correctly reasoned, could only be spoken by God. But Jesus failed to conform to their concept of Messiah. Jesus associated with sinners. They shunned sinners. Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of His disciples, and then ate together with him and other sinners (Luke 5:27ff.). He even celebrated with them, enjoying it! Jesus spent more time with sinners than with them—the righteous. This was too much. From here on, the Pharisees looked for reasons to accuse Jesus, to discredit Him before the crowds. The violation of the Sabbath became one of their principle charges against Him.
The Pharisees' opposition to Jesus has been intensifying in the last couple of chapters immediately preceding our text in chapter 17. In chapter 14, Jesus was eating at the table of a Pharisee on the Sabbath, and there He healed a man (14:1-4). Although the Pharisees kept silent, Jesus exposed their hypocrisy (14:5-6). He then went on to expose their self-seeking motivation in having dinners in the first place (14:7-11). He taught that dinners should be given to benefit others, not to benefit the host (14:12-14). He explained the rejection of the Pharisees and of others of Israel’s leadership in a parable that revealed their self-interest, and which also explained the Lord’s seeking of the outcasts of society (14:15-24).
In chapter 15, Jesus told three parables about that which had been “lost,” showing how the compassion of the Pharisees was selfish, while that of God was gracious. The refusal of the Pharisees to rejoice in the repentance of sinners was shown to be out of step with heaven, and to be motivated by self-righteousness. The “older brother” of the parable of the prodigal was an ugly portrait of the Pharisees, one which they did not appreciate.
If in chapter 15 the Pharisees were grumbling against Jesus, by chapter 16 they are more angry, more vigorous, and more public in their opposition to Him. After the parable of the “unjust steward,” the Pharisees became scoffers. Luke explains to us that they were “lovers of money” (15:14). Jesus then exposed the Pharisees, who prided themselves as “custodians of the Law” to be the corrupters of it. Instead of seeking justification from God, based upon the heart, they played before the audience of men, hypocritically acting in accordance with men’s values (which are diametrically opposed to God’s—16:15), giving the appearance of righteousness, so that men would praise them. Jesus pressed this point home with the parable of the “rich man and Lazarus,” in which the rich man, who would have been the Pharisees’ hero, went to hell, while Lazarus (whom they would have condemned) went to heaven. Jesus turned their system upside-down.
The teaching of Jesus in chapter 17 can hardly be divorced from this backdrop. Indeed, I understand Jesus’ words to be a thinly veiled indictment of the Pharisees, using their sin as an illustration of what the disciples should not do. Let us now consider our passage in this light, seeking to learn what Jesus was teaching His disciples, in the light of the context. We shall then seek to learn the meaning of his words to us as well.
Sobering Word on Stumbling Blocks
Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
We live in a fallen world. Sin is, in this sense, inevitable, and so are those things which tend to prompt it. In biblical terms “the world, the flesh, and the devil” are all being utilized to promote sin. The world seeks to “press us into its own mold” (Romans 12:2), to cause us to adopt its values and to imitate or join in with it in its evil deeds. The flesh is that fallen nature within us, which prompts us to act on our own behalf, to pursue our own pleasures, even at the expense of others. The devil employs both the world and the flesh for his own devious purposes, and even, at times, personally solicits men to sin, as he did with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), and with our Lord (Luke 4).
These inducements or encouragements to sin are beyond the control of the Christian. In our Lord’s words, they are, “bound to come” (verse 1). There are times, however, when the Christian is actually the source of the stumbling block. Peter, for example, served as a stumbling block to our Lord, when he sought to turn Him from the way of the cross:
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).
In this instance, Peter did not (and could not) succeed. So, too, in other cases, the offended party may not fall into the sin we made attractive to them, but we are nevertheless guilty of promoting the evil.
I believe the (NIV) translation can be misleading, therefore, in translating the term rendered “stumbling block”25 by other versions, “things that cause people to sin.” Technically speaking, we cannot make another person sin any more than we can make him or her do that which is pleasing to God. We can influence people in either direction. We are a “stumbling block” to others when we influence people in the direction of sin. This is the exact opposite to the command of the Scriptures to, “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24, NASB).
Lest we think that the term is always negative, that it always connotes sin on the part of the one who is a stumbling block, remember that our Lord was a “stumbling block” to the Jews:
Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 9:32-33).
But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The Danger of Being a Stumbling Block
In our text, Jesus never said what the fate of a stumbling block would be. He does tell us, however, what would be better for that stumbling block than his ultimate fate. Jesus said that being drowned in the sea, with a millstone hung around his neck, would be a better fate than that which could occur. What is that which could occur? While Luke does not tell us, listen to these disturbing words from the gospel of Matthew, words which cause us to agree with Jesus that drowning in the sea is better:
“Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all STUMBLING BLOCKS, AND THOSE WHO COMMIT LAWLESSNESS, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:40-42, NASB).
Can a Christian Be a Stumbling Block?
When we look at this text in Matthew’s gospel, we will immediately see that the “stumbling blocks” here are viewed as unbelievers. These are those who are the “tares” among the “wheat.” These are those who will be “cast into the furnace of fire.” The “stumbling blocks” of Matthew seem not to be believers. It should also be noted that in Matthew chapter 18 “the world” is the source of the stumbling blocks, and that those who are caused to stumble are the “little ones who believe” (verse 7). Thus, it would seem, the stumbling blocks are unbelievers; the ones caused to stumble are believers.
When we come to Luke chapter 17, we find something similar, if not identical. When Jesus spoke to “His disciples” about the danger of being a stumbling block, He did not use the pronoun “you,” but He rather spoke of the more impersonal “him” and “he”:
And He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come! 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 cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:1-2, NASB, emphasis mine).
It is my opinion that in the context, it is the Pharisees who are especially in view here when it speaks of the serious consequences which would befall the one who became a stumbling block to others. In Luke, the Pharisees have been the most vocal and visible and vicious in their attacks against our Lord. It is this group who has sought to discredit Jesus, and has sought to turn men and women from following Him.
Does this mean that only unbelievers can be a stumbling block? Not at all. Peter was acting as a stumbling block to our Lord when he sought to rebuke Him for speaking of His death, a death which would be for the salvation of all who would believe. But when Jesus rebuked Peter in this case, He did not call Him “Peter,” but “Satan.” Peter, in this moment, spoke for Satan; he thought not God’s thoughts, but men’s; he spoke not as a disciple, but as the enemy himself. Thus, I believe that Christians can surely become a stumbling block to others, but when they do so they cease to speak for God, and they cease to function as a Christian. At this moment in time, they speak for Satan, they speak as an unbeliever. Not that they are an unbeliever (or that they would become one), but that they function as one, they are indistinguishable from one, for the moment. At the bottom line, being a stumbling block is a satanic thing, that which is characteristic of unbelievers, unbelievers destined to hell. How unbecoming of the Christian. How serious a sin.
The Saint’s Business:
Seeking to Restore the Sinner
So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
If it is the unbeliever who serves Satan’s purposes by enticing others to sin, it is the Christian’s business to seek to restore the sinner, when he or she has fallen. How inappropriate to influence one in the direction of sin. How Christ-like to seek to restore the sinner.
Just as the title of “stumbling block” primarily fits the Pharisee, so too the Pharisee is in view in these two verses. The Pharisees were abusing their leadership in an attempt to turn people from listening to, believing, and following Jesus. The teaching of our Lord as to how the disciples should respond to a sinning brother is in direct contrast to the practice and teaching of the Pharisees. The Pharisees felt that the most “spiritual” response to the sinner was to shun him or her. In the case of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8), they would happily have stoned her. How different is our Lord’s approach.
It is assumed here by our Lord that just as stumbling blocks are inevitable (v. 1), so sin, even among our brethren is going to happen. Because of this, Jesus teaches His disciples what their response should be to sin in the life of a brother (verse 3).26 I believe that the expression “your brother” in verse 3 is pointed and purposeful. The older “brother” of the prodigal seems to have disowned the younger brother (“this son of yours,” Luke 15:30, NASB), something which his father will not allow to stand unchallenged (“this brother of yours,” 15:32, NASB). So, too, the Pharisees seemed to disown their Jewish brethren, when they put them into the category of “sinners.”
By the use of the expression, “your brother,” Jesus may well be implying a couple of important truths. First, He may be informing His disciples that they are not responsible to correct and rebuke mankind in general, but only those whom they know, with whom they closely identify. The Pharisees (not to mention others of us) seemed to love to condemn those outside of their own circles, those on the “other side of the tracks.” Jesus tells us that we are responsible to correct those whom we know, those whose sins are personally known to us. Second, He may be reminding the disciples that their sinning brother is still their brother. We cannot, like the self-righteous older brother of the parable of the prodigal, disown those close to us who sin.
Third, the fact that we are responsible to rebuke and to forgive our brother implies that we must also be alert to the kinds of sin which he or she is most likely to commit. If this brother is close to us, then he is also like us, which means that we must begin by being sensitive to those sins which so easily can beset us. How easy it is to focus on the (visible, cf. 16:15) sins of others, rather than on the (perhaps more socially acceptable) sins of which we are guilty. We may, for example, march on the abortion clinics and speak against homosexuality, but we go easy on sins such as pride, self-righteousness, greed, and ambition—those sins which are most characteristic of us.
If one takes sin seriously, then learning of sin in the life of a brother obligates him to act in a way that seeks to bring that brother to repentance. This begins with rebuke. Rebuke seeks to bring that wayward brother to a realization of the sinful nature of his actions, and also to bring him to an awareness of the seriousness of sin, and thus to take the appropriate action—to repent. If this brother repents, he is to be forgiven.
From the wording of verse 3, one may wonder if Jesus taught that forgiveness should only be granted if the sinner repents. Does repentance precede forgiveness? Certainly not in the case of our Lord. On the cross, He cried out, “Father, forgive them … ” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness is first granted, and then it is experienced by those who repent. Jesus taught that forgiveness was to be granted if the sinner repented, not because we are to withhold forgiveness, but because not all sinners repent. Repentance may not occur, but when it does, we dare not withhold forgiveness. The point here is also that this forgiveness is to be conveyed (verbalized) at the time the sinner repents.
Three Characteristics of Forgiveness
I believe that verse 3 is more general, while verse 4 gets more specific, dealing especially with those cases in which the one who rebukes the sinner might be tempted to withhold forgiveness. In verse 4, Jesus gives three characteristics of forgiveness which are most important.
(1) Forgiveness is to be granted, Jesus taught, to those who have sinned against us. It is one thing to forgive one who has sinned against God, or against others; it is quite another to forgive the one who has sinned against us. Jesus requires His disciples to forgive personal offenses.
(2) Forgiveness is to be granted, on the basis of a verbal confession alone. Frankly, words are cheap. We know how often confession and repentance can lack genuineness and sincerity. Our children, like us, can quickly evoke a hasty, but insincere, “I’m sorry,” in a tone and attitude which betrays a lack of honesty. Knowing this, and the tendency we will have to demand some “proof” of repentance—proof which will undoubtedly take time (thus forestalling our forgiveness and reconciliation)—Jesus teaches that forgiveness must be immediately granted, on the basis of a verbal confession alone.
(3) Forgiveness is to be granted, Jesus said, even to those who sin against us repeatedly and habitually. It is a habitual sinner who is most difficult to forgive—repeatedly, and on the basis of a confession alone. The wife of an alcoholic, abusive, husband has heard, “I’m sorry,” too many times. Humanly speaking, she will come to doubt, even to despise, the “repentance” of her mate. She surely wants to see a change in behavior before she will believe that he has changed, or that he will. Jesus teaches that forgiveness is granted by faith, not by the works of the offending party. It is no wonder, then, that the apostles will ask the Lord to increase their faith in the very next verse. The ability to forgive on the basis of these requirements is only possible by faith.
In this text, our Lord teaches us that we must take sin seriously. It is not in our text, but in both Matthew (5:27-32) and Mark (9:43-50) our Lord has very sobering words for His disciples on the seriousness of personal sins, those sins which become a stumbling block to us. He teaches that it would be better to sever a limb or a bodily member if that would keep us from sin and from hell. While we would like to tone down these words, if taken seriously we must take sin seriously.
If we would take sin seriously, we must look for those forms of sin to which we are most susceptible. Let us not focus on those sins which characterize another culture, another group, another segment of society. Let us not focus primarily on those sins which are external, which are based upon outward actions and appearances alone, but on those sins of the heart. Let us also beware of the fact that our wicked hearts are exceedingly deceptive, and thus we can even succeed at re-defining “sin” in such a way that appears to be a virtue, rather than a vice. For example, the Corinthian saints were not shamed by the sin of one of their members, who lived with his father’s wife. Indeed, they were proud of it (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). How could this be? Because they had re-defined apathy and disregard for sin as “tolerance,” which they saw as a virtue. Many of our sins have been “sanctified” by new, more pious labels, but they are still sins; indeed they are even more insidious sins. These sins can only be known as the Spirit of God applies the Word of God to our lives (cf. Psalm 119; Hebrews 4:11-12).
In our text, the disciples of our Lord are taught that we must take sin (and its consequences) so seriously that we are constantly on guard not to become a stumbling block in the life of another. If we take sin seriously, we do not wish to sin ourselves, nor do we wish to encourage sin in the life of another. There are two questions we must ask at this point. First, “What is it that characterizes a stumbling block?” Let me briefly list a few characteristics for you to consider more carefully and prayerfully:
Characteristics of Stumbling Blocks
(1) Stumbling blocks increase the temptation to sin. To put the matter just a bit differently, the stumbling block makes sin harder to resist.
(2) Being a stumbling block is very much a matter of misused influence. Stumbling blocks are generally “stronger,” more mature, more influential than those they adversely influence (“little ones”).
(3) Leaders, then, are in great danger of becoming a stumbling block.
(4) Stumbling block may or may not deliberately intend to be such; they may or may not be conscious of the impact of their deeds.
(5) Stumbling blocks may or may not cause the other person to sin. A stumbling block makes sin more appealing, although he may not succeed at causing the other person to sin.
(6) The stumbling block issue has some desire or attraction to the weak.
(7) The stumbling block may or may not be a believer.
(8) The occasion of stumbling may not only be appealing, but may well not be evil, in and of itself (e.g. the “liberties” of 1 Corinthians and Romans 14).
Second, we must ask ourselves, “What are some of the ways in which we can become a stumbling block to another?” Consider these ways as a starting point:
Ways we can cause others to stumble
(1) Competition—cf. Matthew 18:1ff.; also Mark 9—when we seek to get ahead of our brethren, we will not seek to build them up, but rather to tear them down; we construct ways in which to see to it that our brethren fall. (Note that the disciples’ arguing over who was the greatest brought about our Lord’s words about stumbling blocks in both Matthew and Mark).
(2) False teaching—Malachi 2:8; Romans 16:17; James 3; Revelation 2:14 (?).
(3) Flattery—Proverbs 7:21-22; 26:28; 29:5.
(4) Ungodly rebuke & counsel—Job’s friends/Peter & Jesus (Matthew 16:23)
(5) Use of liberties which are detrimental to weaker brethren—Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 8:9; 10:32; 2 Corinthians 6:2.
(6) Passing judgment on others—Romans 14:13 (?).
(7) By abusing our position or power / setting a bad example—James 3. Sexual, physical, psychological abuse of children (?)
(8) By not living in the light, but continuing in the deeds of darkness: 1 John 2:10. 2 Corinthians 6:3 (cf. vv. 1-13).
(9) By “judging,” I take it, imposing standards above the Scriptures—cf. Romans 14:13; cf. James 4:11-12.
Finally, if we take sin in the life of a brother seriously, we will do everything possible to turn that brother from his sin when he falls. The Pharisees prided themselves for taking sin seriously. They, however, looked for sin in others, and then withdrew from those whose sins they found personally offensive. The Lord, who came to seek and to save sinners, calls upon His disciples to do likewise. Thus, we show that we take sin seriously when we seek out our sinning brother and do all we can to turn him from that sin to God, by repenting.
It may be that you are reading this message and you have never yet received the forgiveness which God offers you in the person of Jesus Christ. What hope this text should give to you. Jesus’ disciples are instructed in this text to act as he does, to seek to bring sinners to repentance. His disciples are to be as eager to forgive those who have sinned against them as Jesus is to forgive those who have sinned against Him. This is why it was so easy for sinners to come to Jesus, but so hard for the righteous to come to Him. Jesus loves to forgive sinners. If you have never experienced His forgiveness, do so today. Jesus has suffered and died on the cross of Calvary. He has suffered God’s condemnation for your sins. All you must do is to repent and to receive that forgiveness. Do it now.
25 “The word skandala is perhaps not quite as specific as this translation. It means the bait-stick of a trap, that which triggers off trouble (the corresponding verb is found in 7:23). Moffatt renders ‘hindrances.’ All hindrances to the spiritual life are included, but temptations to sin are clearly the worst of these.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 255.
26 I may very well be mistaken or pressing a point too far, but it seems significant to me that it is a “brother” whose sin should cause us to seek him out. Either Jesus is reminding us that “sinners” are our brothers, like it (or their sin) or not, something the Pharisees could easily set aside, or He is telling us to be on the alert for sin in our own camp. Thus, Pharisees should be alert to the sins of fellow-Pharisees, and not just tax collectors, prostitutes, and so on. This would mean that we would have to be much more sensitive to the kinds of sins we ourselves would be guilty of, for those we are most likely required to seek out are those who are one of us.
Note, that Jesus speaks of your brother. While the warning of verses 1 & 2 was more impersonal (“he” and “him”), this exhortation is much more personal (“your”).