1 And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, 4 and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” – Luke 17:1-6 ESV
Jesus has been unrelenting in His judgment of the Pharisees. He has castigated them relentlessly and even accused them of refusing the heed the words of their own Scriptures.
“…they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” – Luke 16:31 NLT
Their hatred for Jesus had reached such a fevered pitch that they had become incapable of recognizing Him as being the fulfillment of all that the law and the prophets foretold. Jesus was the Son of God, making Him not only the law-giver, but the perfect law-keeper. In His sermon on the mount, He declared of Himself:
“Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved.” – Mathew 5:17-18 NLT
But while the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders were outwardly committed to the law, they failed to recognize Jesus as its fulfillment. And their rejection of Him was causing others to question the validity of His identity and mission. After all, if the religious leaders of Israel refused to accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, maybe He wasn’t really who He claimed to be. Perhaps He did cast out demons by the power of Satan. Maybe He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, leading the gullible and the innocent to fall for His cleverly disguised lies. But Jesus had refuted these accusations, arguing, “if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you” (Matthew 12:28 NLT).
Jesus would later accuse the Pharisees of acting as road blocks to the good news of the kingdom. It was one thing for them to reject Jesus as the Messiah, but it was another altogether for them to persuade others to turn down God’s gracious offer of salvation and entrance into the kingdom.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.” – Matthew 23:13 NLT
But as Luke begins this section of his gospel, he portrays Jesus focusing His attention off of the religious leaders and on to His followers. He wants them to understand that they too can become stumbling blocks to the gospel. They all ran the risk of losing hope in His identity as the Messiah. The days were coming when the pressure against Jesus would reach a fever pitch and He would become the focal point of the Pharisees’ rage and the enemy’s wrath. Satan was going to unleash his entire arsenal of weapons against the Son of God, all in a last-ditch effort to thwart the redemptive plan of God.
Even on the very night when Jesus would share His final Passover meal with the disciples, they would get into an argument over which of them was the greatest. This would take place after He washed their feet and described the death He was about to endure. And then, Jesus would turn to Simon and deliver what had to have come across as a rather a disturbing message:
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.” – Luke 22:31-32 NLT
Simon was going to be tempted. He would find himself faced with the choice of admitting His relationship with Jesus or denying it to save his own skin. He would choose the latter. In doing so, Peter sinned. He let his fear of men overcome His faith in Jesus. But in Luke 17, Jesus encourages His disciples by acknowledging the reality of the temptations they would face. He knew the days ahead would be difficult and filled with opportunities to turn their back on Him. Even on the night when Jesus was arrested, Mark records that “all his disciples deserted him and ran away” (Mark 14:50 NLT).
The days ahead would be filled with temptations to turn their back on Him, and all of them would dessert Him in some form or fashion. Only Peter and John would follow Him to His trials. Of all the disciples, only John is described as being at His crucifixion. But Jesus wanted these men to know that their abandonment of Him would be forgiven. Their loss of faith would not be held against them. But if their lack of faith caused another to reject Jesus, the consequences would be serious.
The context is critical to understanding this passage. Jesus had been hammering away at the religious leaders and their lack of compassion for the people. These arrogant and prideful men viewed themselves as spiritual superior to everyone else. And in their highly educated and religiously savvy opinion, they deemed Jesus to be a fraud and phony. He was a wannabe Messiah who lacked the proper credentials, pedigree, and education to serve in such a prestigious and prominent role. And these men were leading others to sin against God by rejecting His anointed Messiah.
So, Jesus was warning His disciples to not follow the example of the Pharisees. In the days, ahead, when things got dark and all looked lost, he wanted to them to remain faithful and not allow their doubts to cause others to dismiss Him as Savior. And He gave them some sobering words to consider:
“It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin.” – Luke 17:2 NLT
He forewarns them: “So watch yourselves!” (Luke 17:3 NLT). Things were about to get dark and deadly. His earthly mission was going to culminate with His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. But it would be followed by His miraculous resurrection, ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. And despite of His victory over death and the grave, the temptations would continue for the disciples. That is why He continues to encourage them to live in a constant state of preparedness, because the enemy was defeated but far from dead. Satan would continue to attack the disciples long after Jesus was gone. They would face ongoing temptations to sin and would need to avail themselves of the forgiveness Jesus made possible by His death on the cross.
Sometime after Jesus had returned to His Father’s side in heaven, the apostle John would later:
If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 NLT
Forgiveness would be an ongoing commodity because sin would be an ever-present reality. Jesus’ death provided the payment for mankind’s sin debt, but it did not eradicate the danger of sin’s presence. That’s why Jesus warned His disciples:
“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.” – Luke 17:3-4 NLT
When Jesus departed from earth, He left His disciples on their own, but He did not leave them defenseless and helpless. He provided them with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. He promised His disciples that He would not leave them as orphans, alone and on their own. No, He assured them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you” (John 14:16 NLT). The Holy Spirit would provide them with all the power they needed to fulfill the Great Commission and survive in a hostile environment in which the enemy still “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 1:8 ESV). The tempter, though defeated, would still be alive and well and working overtime to distract and destroy the followers of Christ. Temptations would come. Believers would sin. And forgiveness would need to be extended.
All this talk about temptation, trials, sin, and forgiveness left the disciples wondering if they were up to the task. In their simplistic way of thinking, they believed they would need additional faith in order to survive what was coming their way. They didn’t want to flake out or run the risk of causing a brother or sister to stumble. So, they asked Jesus to increase their faith. It was like asking for more energy to survive a particularly strenuous task. But Jesus pointed out that it was not the quantity of their faith that mattered. Nor was it a matter of quality.
“If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘May you be uprooted and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you!” – Luke 17:7 NLT
To the disciples, faith was the missing ingredient. But in their defense, on more than one occasion, they had heard Jesus say, “O you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30; 8:26; 14:31). That sounds like a declaration of need or an accusation of lack. In their minds, they simply presumed that more faith was the answer. But the amount of faith is not the issue here. It is the object of our faith that matters. A little faith placed in the right source will produce staggering results. It was Paul expressed in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Jesus was going to ensure that they had all the strength they needed to endure what they were destined to face as His disciples. And Jesus would later assure His disciples that they would have all the faith, power, strength, wisdom, and words they needed to accomplish even greater works than He had done.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!” – John 14:12-14 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.