Luke 17:1–10 . . . Bible Study Summary with Photos

   Sin, Faith, Duty

In only ten verses, Jesus, through Doctor Luke's account, delves into three distinct realities in a believer's life. If you haven't read the verses before or recently, get ready to be surprised by what they reveal.

Starting with Sin (vv. 1–4)

Luke has continued to present a growing opposition by the Pharisees and Jewish leaders to Jesus and his teaching. They held firm to the Old Testament Law of Moses and its standards. Because they were "hard on sin," they sought to use their influence to expose Jesus as a fraud and a law-breaker, rather than the One who came to fulfill the Law.

Their 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. 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, whom they shunned! Jesus called Matthew, a sinful tax collector, to not only become one of his disciples but to eat with him and other sinners (5:27). He even joyfully celebrated with those sinners! And Jesus spent more time with sinners than he did with so-called righteous Pharisees. From then on, they looked for reasons to accuse and discredit him before the crowds. Perceived Sabbath violations became one of their principle charges against him.

Today, we live in a fallen world. Sin is inevitable, as are those things that tend to prompt it. In biblical terms "the world, the flesh, and the devil" are all being utilized to promote sin. These inducements or encouragements to sin are beyond the control of the Christian. In our Lord's words, they are, "bound to come" (v. 1). There are times, however, when the Christian is the actual stumbling block. The (NIV) translation — "Things that cause people to stumble..." — can be misleading. 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. Other versions use, for example, "things that cause people to sin." We are a "stumbling block" to others when we influence people in the direction of sin.

In our text's first two verses, Jesus never said what the fate of a stumbling block would be. He does tell us, however, that it would be better for that personified stumbling block to be drowned in the sea with a millstone hung around his neck than to be the cause of another's stumbling or sinning. When Jesus spoke to "his disciples" about the danger of being a stumbling block to people, he didn't use the pronoun "you," but spoke using the more impersonal "anyone," "them," and "their." Likely, it's the Pharisees who are especially cited here when it speaks of the serious consequences that would befall the one who became a stumbling block to people. Luke tells us often that the Pharisees have been the most vocal, visible, and vicious in their attacks against our Lord. It's this group that had continually sought to discredit Jesus, attempting to turn men and women away from following him.

Jesus speaks with encouragement in vv. 3–4. If it's the unbeliever who serves Satan's purposes by enticing others to sin, it's the Christian who is to seek to restore the sinner, when he or she has fallen. How inappropriate it is for a person to influence another in the direction of sin. Yet, how Christ-like to seek to restore the sinner. Just as the title of "stumbling block" fits the Pharisee well, so too the Pharisee can be seen in those two verses. The teaching of our Lord as to how disciples should respond to a sinning brother is in direct contrast to the practice and teaching of the Pharisees who felt that the most "spiritual" response to the sinner was to shun him or her, as they did to the woman caught committing adultery.

When Jesus uses the expression "your brother and sister," he may well be implying a couple of important truths. First, he may be telling his disciples that they aren't responsible to correct and rebuke mankind in general, but only those whom they know or with whom they identify with closely. The Pharisees seemed to love to condemn those outside their own circles, while Jesus tells us that we're responsible to correct those whom we know and whose sins are personally known to us. Second, Jesus may be reminding the disciples that their sinning brother or sister is still their brother or sister. He tells us that we cannot, like the self-righteous older brother in the parable of the prodigal, disown those close to us who sin. In addition, the fact that we're responsible to rebuke and forgive our brother or sister implies that we must also be alert to the kinds of sin that he or she is likely to commit.

We must look closely at the implication of "forgiveness" in v. 4. Jesus gives three important characteristics of forgiveness in that verse: (1) Forgiveness is to be granted, Jesus taught, to those who've sinned against us; (2) forgiveness is to be granted, on the basis of a verbal confession alone; and (3) forgiveness is to be granted, Jesus said, even to those who sin against us repeatedly and habitually. In this passage's first of three parts, our Lord teaches us that we must take sin seriously. We, being the Lord's disciples, are taught to take sin (and its consequences) so seriously that we're to be on guard constantly to not become a stumbling block in another's life. When we take sin seriously, we ourselves want to avoid sinning and keep from encouraging sin in another's life.

A Plea for Faith (vv. 5–6)

'Increase our faith!' (Luke 17:5-10)

Click to enlarge

Hearing what Jesus had said in this passage's first four verses about avoiding sin and forgiving people, his disciples asked for his help in gaining and increasing their faith. Jesus' words seem to be too much for the disciples: Sin is to be taken most seriously, and "we are our brother's keeper." Accordingly, we dare not become a stumbling block to our brother, which was particularly true of the Pharisees, as it's also true for his disciples, then and now. Furthermore, the disciple of Jesus must not only actively seek to avoid being a hindrance to others (vv. 1–2), he must aggressively seek to restore one who's fallen into sin (vv. 3–4).

Note the change from "disciples" (v. 1) to "apostles" (v. 5). "Disciples" were a larger group of our Lord's followers who truly believed in him, while the "apostles" were the Twelve, a smaller, tight-knit circle of disciples who became informed because Jesus had spoken many things to them, which the larger "disciples" group didn't hear and learn. Here we're given the impression that many, if not all, of the apostles (plural) spoke, asking for greater faith, thinking that, in and of themselves, they couldn't do what Jesus had just commanded.

In response, Jesus illustrates a point that compares size. The mustard seed used in Scripture was proverbially small, while the roots of the fig and mulberry trees are proverbially deep-rooted and hard to dislodge. So, Jesus compares these two concepts saying, with the very tiniest faith you're able to uproot the most tenacious tree and plant it while making it grow where no tree is capable of growing. Jesus seems to be teaching that very little faith is required when attempting to accomplish incredible things. The apostles' request implies that what Jesus required would necessitate great faith, though their supply was deficient. Thus, they asked Jesus for more faith.

Jesus' answer was that it took only a very small quantity of faith to achieve much. With a quantity of faith equivalent to that of a mustard seed — a very small seed indeed — they could uproot a tree and transplant it into the sea. By his words, had Jesus criticized his apostles for not having enough faith? Or was he encouraging them by presenting that comparison of sizes? While the apostles made a very clear request for increased faith, Jesus is not said to have granted it to them. Seemingly, a lack of faith might not have been a problem. The point that Jesus is illustrating is that while they say they don't have enough faith to forgive as much or for as long as he says they must, his reply indicates that they have more than enough faith to forgive the sinfulness of others.

Duty of Servants (vv. 7–10)

Verses 7–10 provide for us a lesson on gratitude that highlights our duty to be grateful to others. Jesus compares his relationship to his apostles to the relationship between a master and his slave (vv. 7–9). He then applies this to the attitude of his disciples toward their obedience (v. 10).

Jesus began to teach his apostles with a story. He speaks from the vantage point of a culture that practices, understands, and to some degree, accepts slavery. We'll find this lesson very strange indeed, even distasteful. Remember, however, that, in Jesus' day, a slave belonged completely to his master. Thus, the master could be very severe in his demands, especially in comparison to our culture. Jesus' words indicate that what he was about to say was something on which all his listening apostles would agree, given their culture. Masters felt no obligation to pamper or thank their slaves, nor to praise them. In effect, praise and service are a matter of position.

The Lord, in v. 10, puts the principle into very practical terms, applying it to his apostles. It's apparent that the Lord is to be viewed as the Master, and the disciples, his slaves. The apostles, like slaves, are to see themselves as being obligated to obey the Lord completely. Doing so, they're not to expect praise or reward; instead, they're to look upon themselves as "unworthy slaves."

Jesus' words in vv. 6–10 serve to correct the erroneous thinking of the apostles who'd asked for greater faith. The important thing, Jesus says, is not the amount of faith, but the attributes of faith. Faith isn't here a matter of quantity, but of quality. The apostles' thought that they lacked sufficient faith. Jesus answered that they lacked an accurate understanding of the nature of faith. Jesus would have us learn that while a master has every right to demand total obedience from his slaves, and the slave has every obligation to completely obey his master, the master has no obligation to be grateful to his slave, even though he obeys him completely.

The Pharisees believed, by their outward compliance with the Law, that is, their interpretation of it, that they could merit God's favor. Seeing that their prosperity was the logical and necessary outcome of their piety, they felt little gratitude toward God; what they got they believed they deserved. Gratitude, in their opinion, was an obligation that fell more on God, than upon them.

What does all this have to do with faith and forgiveness? Everything! It seems that Jesus is teaching us that faith always operates in the realm of grace and mercy. If the Pharisees thought that God owed them his blessings, Jesus taught the opposite: Those who'd have faith must first recognize their own unworthiness, and must dutifully approach him on the basis of his grace, not on the basis of one's merits.

Our Lord stresses the subject of gratitude in today's verses. The slave is not to expect gratitude from the master; the slave is to show gratitude toward the master. It is our gratitude, based upon the grace of God given in our lives, that fuels the forgiveness that we're to manifest toward others. Thus, Jesus insists that faith is an issue here: It's not the need for more faith; it's to remember the basic principles that faith operates in the realm of grace, and grace should produce gratitude. This gratitude is the believer's motive for forgiving others. In return, those who are forgiven much are expected on the basis of God's grace to forgive others.

It Makes You Wonder . . . .

  • Q. 1  What are a couple of ways that you can cause another to stumble?
  • Q. 2  Who are the "little ones" that Jesus seeks to protect from sin (v. 2b)?

This Week's Passage
Luke 17:1–10

New International Version (NIV) [To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 17]

You can also watch this passage-specific video clip from the "Jesus" film.

Sin, Faith, Duty

17  Jesus said to his disciples: "Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. 2It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3So watch yourselves.

"If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. 4Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying 'I repent,' you must forgive them."

5The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"

'Increase our faith!' (Luke 17:5-10)

Click to enlarge

6He 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.

7"Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? 8Won't he rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? 9Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"