God’s Word for You
Luke 17:1-3 rebuke and forgive
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, November 5, 2018
Chapter 17 continues the Savior’s ministry and preaching across the Jordan in Perea. Later in the chapter (Luke 17:11-19), Luke presents ten lepers asking for healing, after which the Lord will describe the approach of the Kingdom of God (Luke 17:20-37). This response to a certain Pharisee is the first of several such lessons about the End Times which will come with greater frequency in chapters 18-19 and finally one on top of another in chapters 20-21 in the last days leading up to his crucifixion.
The sayings here are sometimes thought to be a series of “miscellaneous teachings” (Luke 17:1-10), but they are really connected with the preceding two chapters. Having confronted the sneering Pharisees (Luke 16:14), Jesus turns back to the subject of scandala (σκάνδαλα), things that cause people to stumble into sin. It is even possible that what follows was a continuation of the account of the rich man in Luke 16:19-31, and that the rich man was guilty of causing his brothers (Luke 16:28) and other people to sin with the example he set, which may even have included a wrongful divorce (Luke 16:18).
17 Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble into sin are bound to come, but woe to the one 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 stumble into sin. 3 Watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.
A scandalon (pl. scandala, σκάνδαλα) is a snare (Joshua 23:13), something that causes a man or animal to stumble and fall or be trapped. Theologically, it is a word, action, or idea which causes people to fall into sin. For example, in the world of advertising, it’s commonly said that sex sells, but sexy ads only create one of two reactions: they cause lust (which might help to sell a product but damages the souls of both seller and buyer) or they cause scorn in the hearts of people who look away, which damages the reputation of the seller.
When someone causes another person to sin, Jesus says, “it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck.” To cause someone else to sin is to damage their spirit, to drive a wedge between that person and God. It is idolatrous and hateful. It places the tempter in opposition to God. It places the tempter into the position of being kind to the devil, doing his work for him. It’s as if he says, “You’ve had a hard day, Devil, since so many people are turning back to Christ. You take the day off. I’ll do your work for you and do all the tempting today. I’ll make sure that people don’t think about heaven or hell, but that they only care about money, possessions, sex, their stomachs, and their own leisure. I’ll make this nation into a nation you can be proud of.” In the end, his damage doesn’t just affect one person. It rolls along to the third and fourth generations who come along after. That’s exactly why the Lord warned Moses: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5).
The reach of sin within families and groups of friends is so pernicious, malignant, and destructive, that it lingers far beyond the lifetime of one sinner. This is part of sin’s curse. But this is also where our work takes place. God wants us to reach out with his word, both law and gospel, to turn sinners back to Christ in repentance. Jesus coaches us on the way to use the law with simple words: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” Point out the sin and let the person’s knowledge of God’s word go to work. If the person has no knowledge of God’s word, then there is more work to be done, and a rebuke is not nearly enough. But when the person is crushed by the law, then the Christian is obligated—there is no choice in the matter—he is obligated to proclaim the gospel. Jesus says, “If he repents, forgive him.” Jesus doesn’t give us a shopping list of things to look for in repentance. Repentance in one person might look very different from repentance in another person for the very same sin. It’s not our task to judge the quality or depth of the repentance, but simply to say, “You are repentant,” and then to say, “You are forgiven.”
Let’s go back to the millstone. Jesus does not give us a law that says we must use a millstone, or any particular punishment, for a sin. The civil and ceremonial laws of the Jews are fulfilled in Christ and not binding on Christians. Even regarding the moral law, the Christian can say, for example, “It is God’s will that I set aside time to worship him regularly, but we no longer need to worship on Saturday, the Sabbath.”
How do we make changes in sinful lives? Certainly not with violence. Destroying property is not the way to change people’s hearts any more than destroying lives would be. We live in a nation that permits its people to vote, but even voting is not something commanded by God or regulated by the Bible. Christians are constrained to obey the government, and merely permitted to have a voice in making changes to our government. Thank God for this role, and carry it out according to your conscience, but make real changes in lives with the word of God, with the law and the gospel. Rebuke and forgive.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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