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72. Sin, Forgiveness, and Faith (Luke 17:1-6)
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Gospel Parallels §§178-180
James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Prodigal Son in Modern Life (series)' (1880), oil on canvas, 86 x 115 cm., Musée d'arts de Nantes, France.
"1 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."' 5 The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!' 6 He replied, 'If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."'" (Luke 17:1-6, NIV)
These six brief verses give several insights into sin and faith. What Jesus teaches here may surprise you.
Tempting Others to Sin (Luke 17:1a)
"Jesus said to his disciples: 'Things that cause people to sin are bound to come.'" (17:1a)
Jesus uses an interesting word to describe temptation, Greek skandalon, originally a trap, device for catching something alive. Later it took on the meaning, "temptation to sin, enticement" to apostasy, false belief, etc., a figurative extension of "trap."679
Jesus says that these temptations are bound to occur. In fact, the Greek wording states the impossibility of temptations not coming (Greek anendektos, "impossible").
People are tempted by many things: what they see that they want, desires for advancement, for wealth, for power, for sex. Anger, alcohol, and drugs lower inhibitions and dull the conscience, making it easier to sin. Jesus' brother James indicates that most of the motivation to sin is internal, not external: "But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (James 1:14-15)
Terrible Punishment for Temptation (Luke 17:1b-3a)
But sometimes temptations can come by means of individuals. Jesus declares a terrible punishment on those who tempt others with sin:
"... but woe to that person through whom they come. 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. So watch yourselves. (17:1b-3a)
Millstone for producing olive oil, Capernaum. Photo by rfw.
Drowning in the ocean would be terrible enough. But with a millstone tied around one's neck so he could not rise to the surface, this is a fearful punishment. Each household had a small stone mill to grind grain into flour. But communities often had a pair of millstones to grind grain for the community. In a parallel passage, Matthew 18:6 uses the phrase "millstone (Greek mylos) of a donkey" (i.e. a millstone turned by a donkey attached to a bar). Luke uses the more general word Greek word lithos, "stone."680
How can Jesus, meek and mild, use language so offensive to those of us who abhor punishment? Because sin is so serious. In our public culture, we tend to pass off sin rather lightly. We often don't take it too seriously outwardly, though many in our society are deeply burdened with terrible guilt for what they have done.
What is involved in tempting a person?
- Deliberately enticing a person to sin, seducing them, is surely evil.
- Deliberately placing things before a person that we know will cause them to be tempted to sin.
- How about carelessly leaving things about that we know will cause someone to sin if they were to see it?
How about matters of drunkenness, drugs, pornography, theft? How about our examples as parents or adults? Children will do what they see us do.
It's important to understand what Jesus means by the "little ones" (plural of Greek mikros) who are tempted to sin. The term may refer to infant believers, but perhaps also believers of any age, since Jesus refers to his disciples variously as "children" (Mark 10:24) and "babes" (Luke 10:21). Jesus uses literal children as examples of who may enter the Kingdom (Matthew 18:1-4) and then refers to them as "little ones" (Matthew 18:10, 14) or "little ones who believe in me" (Matthew 18:6). The lexicon offers this definition of mikros -- "unimportant, insignificant," of persons lacking in importance, influence, power, etc. "One of these humble folk."681
We are not to be paranoid about this, but we must take it very seriously. If we want to stay clear of God's fierce wrath, we must carefully avoid causing others or leading others into sin. Jesus concludes this teaching with the admonishment: "So watch yourselves."
Rebuking and Forgiving Sin (Luke 17:3b)
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him." (17:3b)
This sentence has a powerful teaching. But first, there are four key words we need to define -- sins, rebuke, repent, and forgive.
- Greek harmartanō, "to commit a wrong, to sin" (in the sense 'transgress against divinity, custom, or law). In the general sense, "miss the mark, err, do wrong."682
- Greek epitimaō, "to express strong disapproval of someone, 'rebuke, reprove, censure' also 'speak seriously, warn' in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end."683
- Greek metanoeō, first, "change one's mind," then "feel remorse, repent, be converted."684
- Greek aphiēmi, "to release from legal or moral obligation or consequence, cancel, remit, pardon." In the Old and New Testaments, predominately in the sense of divine forgiveness, "remit, forgive debts ... forgive."685
The sentence specifies a brother, that is, a fellow Christian. The word "sins" seems to imply "sins against you." It doesn't sound like Jesus is talking about any sin that a brother might commit, but a sin against you.
We aren't to be on a hair trigger, ready to pounce on the least little thing.
"A fool shows his annoyance at once,
but a prudent man overlooks an insult." (Proverbs 12:16)
Sometimes each of us has a bad day. We need to make allowances. But if a fellow Christian sins against us or does us wrong, we are wrong to cover it up. Jesus tells us to "rebuke him." That is, let him know how his sin affected us and call him on it. To let him sin against us means that he may well sin against others in the congregation in the same way. Our gentle but firm rebuke is intended for his good, not to make us feel better. To help him be aware of his sins so that he can recognize them, be truly sorry for them, and stop doing them. Nor are we to escalate this sin by telling someone else. We need to deal with this ourselves, no matter how hard confrontation is for us. In a similar passage, Jesus says:
"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault (Greek elencho), just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over." (Matthew 18:15)
In the Matthew passage a different verb is used, Greek elenchō, but the meaning is similar: "convict, convince someone of something, point something out to someone. Reprove, correct."686 Notice that this is an active command. We aren't to ignore sin, or only bring it to a brother's attention if it is convenient, but "go" and point it out. Christianity sometimes gets the reputation of being sloppy about sin, since everything can be forgiven. But along with forgiveness generally comes the conviction process, in which we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, the great Convictor (John 16:8).
Forgiveness first requires repentance on the sinning brother's or sister's part. We don't forgive our Christian brothers and sisters instantly, since that short-circuits the process of conviction, repentance, and change. We speak with them, seeking some recognition on their part of the wrong they have done us.
This isn't easy at all. If you've been married, you've probably found that your spouse can feel wronged even if you didn't do anything consciously at all. There is an education process that has to go on, a sensitizing process, to change our dull hearts to be sensitive to the needs of others, and to shed our native selfishness.
Continual Forgiveness (Luke 17:4)
When a brother or sister repents, then we must be ready to forgive. Forgive means "to release from moral obligation or consequence." Whatever we were holding against him or her we must let go of. We must release it.
"But he isn't sincere in his apology!" we scream. "Look, he did it again!" Jesus responds.
"If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." (17:4)
In a similar teaching, Matthew records what I see as Peter's exasperation at one of his fellow disciples.
"Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how
many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven
Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seven times seventy.'" (Matthew 18:21-22)
Peter is trying to make a law out of Jesus' seven-times forgiveness rule. A-ha! On the eighth time I don't have to forgive him! Good. I can wait!
No, Jesus didn't mean number seven here to be taken as a literal number to be used in a new Rabbinical ruling, but the number of completeness and perfection. Not seven, but the perfect number times the perfect number times ten. In other words, so long as a person repents we are to forgive him. To which some of Jesus' disciples replied, "Increase our faith" (Luke 17:5). That is, "This is too much for us. You'll have to give us the ability to do this. It is beyond human ability."
Forgiving Those Who Do Not Repent
But what if a person sins against us and does not repent? Are we obligated to forgive him or her? No, according to Jesus' teaching. Forgiveness is based on repentance. It is that way in Jesus' Kingdom and that way for us. Where there is no repentance, there is no forgiveness and no restored relationship.
But before you think you're getting off light, realize that we can't harbor bitterness and hatred against those who sin against us without repentance. Jesus instructs us:
"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." (6:27-28; compare also Matthew 5:43-48)
On the cross, Jesus forgave the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him: "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (23:34).687 While we can't grant our enemies formal forgiveness, we can't love them and at the same time harbor bitterness against them.688
I remember an elderly couple in my first pastorate who had retired from the Baptist ministry. They had come to the United States from Czechoslovakia just before World War II. While in Czechoslovakia as Protestants, they had suffered severe, ugly, and unspeakable persecution from Catholics. When I spoke with them in their home and they recounted this to me, the wife grew impassioned. Her hatred of Catholics, all Catholics, was as fresh as if it were yesterday. Her husband's bitterness was more tempered, but still there.
I was appalled. Here is a husband and wife who have spent their entire adult lives serving Christ and preaching the Gospel carrying this hatred! Did this dear couple love their enemies? No. Their hatred was too strong. Even though they cannot formally forgive their enemies in a way that will restore fellowship (this must be two-sided to work), they needed to let go of their hatred so they could love.
What about you? Do you have some hatred that surprises even you? Do you have bitterness over someone who hurt you grievously in the past? Do you have a hidden anger at someone that is devouring you? No, they don't deserve forgiveness. But they are the very persons that Jesus has called you, especially you, to learn to love.
This Gospel stuff isn't just theoretical or free. It is costly and real-time and affects you and me.
Faith as Small as a Mustard Seed (Luke 17:5-6)
Your reaction to this teaching may be very much like that of Jesus' disciples when they heard it:
"The apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our
He replied, 'If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea," and it will obey you.'" (17:5-6)
The mustard seed was proverbially small. Several places in rabbinical writings you find the phrase "the size of a mustard seed."689 The roots of the fig-mulberry (Ficus sycomorus) are proverbially deep-rooted and hard to dislodge. The rootage of the sycamine was reckoned to be particularly strong; it was thought that the tree could stand 600 years in the earth.690 So Jesus combines these two proverbial ideas and says, with the very tiniest faith you are able to uproot the most tenacious tree, plant it ,and make it grow where no tree can possibly grow. There are two similar passages that use a mustard seed and a mountain to make a similar point (Matthew 17:20; Mark 11:23), though Jesus spoke those sayings in different contexts altogether. In Mark 11:23 Jesus is illustrating the power of believing prayer. These are examples of hyperbole -- contrasting the smallest and the greatest in order to stretch the disciples' understanding of the power of their faith.
Jesus is not encouraging his disciples to do some capricious miracle. He is illustrating a point. They say they don't have enough faith to forgive as much or as long as he says they must. He replies that they have more than enough faith to do this.
The Promise of Forgiveness for You and Me
When I see Jesus teaching his disciples that they must forgive seven times in a day, I am awed by Jesus' boldness. When I hear him insisting that not seven, but seventy times seven is required, I am amazed. What does he expect us to be? God?
If Jesus tells his disciples to forgive and forgive endlessly a person who repents, how much more will God forgive us.
I don't know about you, but I can remember the despair of sinning the same sin over and over and over again. I say I'll try to resist sin, and then go back and repeat it. How can God ever forgive this? I would agonize. I can't forgive myself. How can God forgive me?
But parents forgive endlessly. How many times do you have to tell your son to clean up his pigpen of a room? How many times does he promise to do so, but then let it disintegrate instead? Yes, you rebuke him, and when he admits that he is wrong you forgive him. And you do it again. And again. And again. Why? Because children take repetition to learn new behaviors, and they need those behaviors reinforced again and again. Eventually -- hopefully -- these behaviors become ingrained into their value system. But the process can seem interminable.
Your heavenly Father loves you. And because he loves you, he is working on your sinful behaviors to set them right. You're too old for this, and yet spiritually you may still be a little child. His correction may seem difficult, his discipline may seem pretty hard to take (Hebrews 12:1-13). But he loves you, and does not hesitate to either rebuke you when you need it, or to forgive you when you have confessed your sin. He is prepared to go on and on forgiving you, because he knows that this is how your behavior will eventually change -- and he has time, more time than you. His Father love will outlast your hard-headedness, and his forgiveness has no bounds.
Right now he may be working on your willingness yourself to forgive those who have sinned against you. Are you up to it? Complaining about your weak faith again? He is patient. He has time. And he loves you enough never to quit on you. Thank God, he practices what he preaches. He does forgive you.
Father, your willingness to forgive is beyond my understanding. It blows me away. I struggle to forgive again and again, but you're doing it time after time with me. Give me understanding, my dear Father. Help me to be like you in this. Help me to love and to be quick to forgive like you are. In Jesus' powerful name, I ask it. Amen.
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." (Luke 17:3b-4)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- Why do you think Jesus warns his disciples so strongly about not being a cause of temptation to others? Why does Jesus use a millstone to make his point? (17:1-2)
- Who are the "little ones" that Jesus seeks to protect from sin? (17:2b)
- Why are we tempted to keep silent in the face of the sins of our Christian brothers and sisters against us? Why do we disrupt God's redemptive process when we fail to rebuke them when they sin against us?
- Extra Credit. Why is it important for every Christian to be regular part of a congregation? If churches are filled with such sinners, why bother?
- What kind of repentance is necessary for us to forgive our brother or sister? What are the things we're looking for in their repentance? Why is it so difficult for us to confess to our brother or sister that we have sinned against them?
- What does it mean to forgive a Christian brother or sister who has repented of a sin against you? Is it possible to maintain a meaningful relationship with a person who is unwilling to repent of sin? Why or why not?
- Isn't there a danger in forgiving a person who isn't "truly" repentant? How repentant is repentant enough for us? Enough for God?
- Why does Jesus add the "7 times" and the "7 times 70" part of his teaching? What is his intent?
- Why do the disciples balk at this by asking for more faith? What does Jesus' answer about the mustard seed and the mulberry tree mean? What is his point?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Skandalon, BDAG 926.
 Lithos, BDAG 595-596; mylos, p. 661.
 Micros, BDAG 651; Morris, Luke, p. 255.
 Harmartanō, BDAG 49-50.
 Epitimaō, BDAG 384.
 Metanoeō, BDAG 640.
 Aphiēmi, BDAG 156-157.
 Elenchō, BDAG 315.
 The context of Luke 23:34 shows clearly that Jesus is forgiving the Roman soldiers who are crucifying him. This verse can't reasonably be construed as a general forgiveness of his enemies who had plotted his death.
 More in my article "Don't Make the Mistake of Counterfeit Forgiveness," Moody Monthly, October 1985. www.joyfulheart.com/maturity/forgive.htm
 Otto Michel, kokkos, TDNT 3:810-811, cites bBer., 31a; jBer., 8d; Nidda. 5, 2; Lv. r., 31 on 24:2. Strack and Billerback, I, 669.
 Michel, TDNT 3:811 cites Strack and Billerback, II, 234. jBer.14a, line 27 reads: "R. Chanina bJaqqa has said in the name of R. Jehuda (d. 299): The roots of corn go 50 ells deep into the earth, the roots of the fig-tree, which are tender, go into a rock." "In Gn. r., 13 on 2:5 we read that the roots of the sycamine and the carob-bean tree go down into the primal depths." There is some dispute about the exact identification of Greek sukaminos, though the fig-mulberry is probably the tree Jesus intended here. Marshall, Luke, p. 644-645; BDAG 955.
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