Luke 17:1–6 (ESV): Temptations to Sin, Increase Our Faith
A few quick passages that I read as being tied together. First, he starts with a warning against bringing temptations to others:
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 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.” (verses 1–2 (ESV))
Which is followed by the other side to that coin: when someone we know does sin, we should help them work their way through it—which includes forgiveness, if they’ve sinned against us:
"Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (verses 3–4 (ESV))
And then a passage which I read as a response to these teachings from the Apostles (I could be off):
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 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." (verses 5–6 (ESV))
The first passage here—on tempting others to sin—is pretty much self explanatory, but I’m going to say a bunch of stuff about it anyway.
Jesus might be using some colourful language (e.g. tying a millstone around your neck and throwing yourself in the sea probably shouldn’t be taken literally), but his point comes through loud and clear: We do not want to be found responsible for tempting anyone else to sin. Jesus always treats sin as something serious, but he seems to take it even more seriously when it comes to us causing someone else to sin, as opposed to us committing our own sins.
Does that mean we can actually cause someone else to sin? Biblically speaking, I’d say no; people are responsible for their own sins. (See, for example, James 1:12–15 (ESV), which starts off talking about the fact that God will never cause anyone else to sin, but then moves on to state that people are responsible for their own sins, as they’re enticed by their own desires.) Even if I were to tempt someone else to sin, and they were to do it, they’d be responsible for their own decisions: they’d make the decision to give in to the temptation I put in front of them. But Jesus makes it quite clear that even though the other person would be responsible for their own sin, I’d also be responsible for bringing that temptation to the person. And, again, Jesus is clearly using very strong language here, which means that not only would I be responsible for it, it would be taken very seriously. We probably think of it the other way around: I’d be a bit guilty of bringing the temptation but the other person would really be guilty for doing it; Jesus seems to be implying that I’d be as guilty as the person would. I think we can take it further: I’d be guilty of bringing that temptation even if the other person resists it.
And then Jesus turns it around: what if someone sins against me? I should “rebuke” them (which sounds like strong language to our ears, so we should remember to speak the truth in love, not with anger or self-righteousness), and then I should forgive them. And what if they do it again? I should forgive them again. And what if they do it again? Well… I should forgive them again! Jesus mentions seven times here, so what if they sin against me eight times? I should keep forgiving them; Jesus isn’t giving seven as a final number (compare to Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV)), he’s saying the opposite: we shouldn’t put a limit on it. (Jewish custom in Jesus’ day was that forgiveness was important, and that you should forgive someone who sinned against you up to three times. Jesus is saying here and in other passages that there should be no limit to your forgiveness.)
Are these two points contradictory? Rebuke them and then forgive them—shouldn’t it be one or the other? No. Rebuking them for their sin and forgiving them aren’t mutually exclusive. People need to understand their sins, and they need an opportunity to ask the Lord’s forgiveness for their sins. We need to rebuke them so that they have that opportunity. But then, as a Christian, I need to remember the forgiveness the Lord had (and continues to have) for me, and then extend that to others. (Jesus says we’re to do this for our “brothers,” but I don’t think it’s unbiblical to extend that to non-believers, too.)
And then a passage that I read as being connected to this one: The Apostles than ask Jesus to increase their faith. The reason I read this as being connected is that it takes faith to have proper forgiveness for people; maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I read this as the Apostles hearing Jesus’ words, realizing that this will take great faith, and then asking Jesus for an increase in theirs.
But this is another example where I feel like we misread this passage sometimes. We read this as Jesus saying, “You only need a small amount of faith to do great things!” I don’t think that’s what Jesus is actually saying here. I think what Jesus is actually saying is, “The amount of faith isn’t the important thing—even a tiny amount of faith is all you need—it’s a question of what you put your faith in that’s important.”
This is especially important in a culture like the one I live in (North American, in the early 21st Century): We love to throw around the word “faith,” without ever talking about what we’re putting our faith in. We talk about having faith that things will turn out right or having faith that good things will happen. When we do talk about where the faith should be directed, it’s often misdirected: We talk about having faith in ourselves, and having faith in people, whereas the Bible is clear that we (and people in general) don’t warrant faith. People are sinful, and I myself am especially sinful. I shouldn’t have faith in myself. What Jesus is saying is that faith, in and of itself, is not the important thing, the important thing is where you place that faith. If you have faith in God, you won’t go wrong.
The prosperity Gospel gets this wrong. “If you didn’t get what you wanted,” they’d say, “it’s because you didn’t have enough faith!” Really? Not enough faith? “Sorry,” they think God is saying, “I would have loved to have made you rich and healthy, but you didn’t have enough faith—what could I do? My hands were tied!” As if my level of faith somehow impacts God’s ability to do… well… anything? No. It’s never a question of how much faith I have. It’s what I have faith in.
We don’t like this interpretation, frankly. We like an interpretation in which we can do anything we want, have anything we want, as long as we have just a little bit of faith. (And then we hedge our bets by saying, “But the more the better!”) But when we focus on where that faith is aimed—when we focus on having faith in God instead of some vague notion of what “faith” is—it reminds us that He is in control, and getting whatever we want shouldn’t actually be the goal in the first place. It should be doing His will.
I was recently reading a book in which a preacher gave a nice analogy for this, which I’ll paraphrase. Imagine the time of the Israelites right before the first Passover, in Exodus 12 (ESV): all of the firstborn children (and even animals) across Egypt are about to die, but God has instructed the Israelites to perform a certain ritual which will prevent their children from dying. Now imagine that two Israelites are talking to each other after they hear these instructions: one is very enthusiastic, and knows that putting the blood on the doorway will spare his family from tragedy, but the other is not so sure. Will it really work? Will God really spare his firstborn son, just because he puts blood on the doorway? Seems kind of… silly, doesn’t it? Oh, he’ll do it, he’s just not convinced it’ll do anything. So that night, when all of the firstborn males across Egypt die, which of the two Israelites will have their family spared? And the answer is that they both will. Sure, one had a lot of faith and the other only had a bit of faith, but the faith of both men was placed in God. God is the One who was in control of those events; God is the one who passed over households with blood on the doorway. God didn’t come to each Israelite house with a ruler, measuring each person’s faith and deciding if the amount was high enough to spare that household.
In fact, it is likely that the person who’d had less faith would have his faith increased after the fact.
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