1. Then He said to the disciples, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come!
The Lord Jesus Christ has finished His contention with the Pharisees and scribes that we have been studying in chapters 15 and 16. He has silenced their arguments and exposed their hypocritical and wicked behavior for all to see. Now, He turns from speaking to the Pharisees to speak to address His disciples once again. Yet the Pharisees might well have been still in earshot, and His comment here might still have reference to them.
Similar words to these are spoken in Matthew 18:6-7 and Mark 9:42. In both those passages, they are spoken in a very different context, which has led some to suggest that they are out of place here. Yet the statements here are not exactly the same as in those passages in Matthew and Mark. We must express some incredulity at the unreasonable expectations critics seem to have. How many of us have not spoken similar words in more than one situation, modifying them slightly to fit the circumstances? Especially if it is a phrase we like or something we think quite clever, we will find ways to modify it and fit it into various different situations. If we leave ourselves freedom to do this, why do we deny such freedom to the Son of God? Yet the scoffers see a problem around every corner, and their solution is always a lack of faith.
The Lord says that it is impossible that no offenses should come. “Offenses” here is the Greek word skandalon, and means a snare or a trap. There will always be those who will attempt to trap or ensnare the righteous. We saw how the scribes and Pharisees tried to do that to the Lord Himself in Luke 11:53-54. So we are not to expect that these things will not occur. We might well find our enemies, perhaps especially our religious foes, trying to trap us. Since we are not as clever and aware as our Lord, it could even be that they will succeed in their efforts. Yet, the Lord warns, woe to him through whom they do come! For the Lord is jealous for those that are His.
2. “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.
The Lord describes this grim punishment for all who would set traps for the little ones. This millstone about the neck reminds us of our idea of gangland murders in the United State in the gangster era. Such a violent death, the Lord reveals, would be better than what will happen to those who would set such traps. They will have to face God someday, and answer for their actions. They would be better off being executed than going through that interview.
We think of children as “little ones” generally, but that is not what the Lord meant here. The “little ones” of whom He speaks were apparently the disciples. They were not significant men in the sight of the world. They had no power or prestige. They were not the movers and shakers of this world. They were just ordinary, hardworking men. Thus, they were little ones as far as the world system is concerned. Yet the Lord chose them, and He knew that He could equip them for the job they needed to do. They were precious to the Lord, and any who would trap one of them will be in trouble indeed when he faces the Lord in judgment.
3. “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
The Lord advises His disciples to take heed to themselves. That is, they are to watch out for themselves. Then He tells them how. It is highly likely that each of us will experience a brother sinning against us at some point. Though we might share a love for the Lord, this does not make us perfect, and in some ways we all still offend. The Lord’s advice in such a case is to rebuke him. The Greek word for “rebuke” here is epitimao. It does have to do with reproving regarding something wrong. Otis Q. Sellers gives the example of reproving a child who says, “Two and two makes three.” You might reply, “No, two and two do not make three.” That would be reproof. But then you would probably say, “Two and two makes four,” and that would be correction. This word “rebuke” has both ideas in it, both of reproof and correction. To rebuke has in it the idea of setting something straight, not just of scolding.
Now upon rebuking your brother, you are to see if he submits. This should be the translation of metanoeo here. The word does not have to do with repentance, but with having the after-mind. To have the aftermind about something is to have the same mind now as you will after the event occurs, like saying, “We will go on a picnic next week rain or shine.” You are claiming to have the aftermind regarding this picnic, regardless of what the weather will do. So one who has the aftermind towards a person is submitted to him. No matter what this person asks of him, he will accept it, for he is submitted. Of course, true submission would be far more than insincerely saying, “I’m sorry.”
The context gives us a perfect example for what the Lord is talking about here. Christ had given sore rebuke to the Pharisees in His just-completed discourse with them. It would have been good if they would have submitted to it. If they had, the Lord would have been ready to forgive them. Alas, they seem to have been unready and entirely unwilling to come to Him with any such submission.
4. “And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him.”
Now, the Lord turns up His statement a notch. He suggests that if the same brother sins against you seven times in one day, and all seven times returns to you saying, “I submit,” you should forgive him. This is a very extreme thing. I suppose most of us would start to wonder if the brother was really sincere about submitting after he did this multiple times. It would seem suspicious, at least, and one would start to wonder if he really was submitting at all. Yet this is something that Christ required of His disciples at that time.
We need to remember, however, that Christ Himself was with these men to offer any strong rebuke to any disciple who needed it. In the Acts period, they had the Spirit with them in powerful ways, and He would correct anyone who got too far out of line. To suppose that we should do this today when we do not have Christ physically present to control the actions of those around us may be taking the passage out of context. Yet there can be no doubt about the fact that the Lord wants His people to be a forgiving people. Who should be more forgiving than those who realize that they have been forgiven by their Lord of so much?
5. And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
It seems that when they heard this word, the disciples were unsure whether they could show this much forgiveness. Thus, they asked Christ to increase their faith so that they could. This was not a bad thing to ask. In fact, it was a very good thing to ask, and is something that we too should ask when we find ourselves having difficulty mustering up enough faith to respond with obedience to a passage of Scripture. Yet we need to remember what faith really is. It is not the same as confidence, and it is not the same as trust. Many people seem to get it mixed up with those two things. Rather, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God, as Romans 10:17 declares. Thus, the only way we can have faith is to hear something from God and to believe it. Since God is not in the business of speaking audibly today, the only way we can hear from Him is by reading His Word. If we too truly wish to increase our faith, then we need to increase our familiarity with and study of the Word of God. Let us do so, and ask the Lord to help us believe it.
6. So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
This was a common illustration that the Lord used. In other places, He spoke of moving a mountain. Here, He speaks of moving a tree instead. Probably, there was no mountain in view, so instead He used a tree as an example. Again, He was free to adapt one of His favorite illustrations as He saw fit, and to make it work in a different situation. This is something that all of us do all the time. There is no discrepancy here.
The mustard seed is a very tiny seed. If you were holding one in your hand, you could barely see that you had anything there. The mulberry tree was a common tree in the land of Israel, even as it is in the United States and in many places around the world today. It is a tree, not a bush, and it is therefore quite large, although there are bigger trees than the mulberry. Yet moving such a tree would be quite impressive.
Some people teach that if we had faith like a mustard seed we could do move trees like this, but the reason we can’t is that we don’t have that much faith. However, when we consider that a mustard seed is one of the tiniest of seeds, this would require us to have a very tiny amount of faith indeed! This does not make sense from a Scriptural standpoint, for we read that Christ said to Thomas in John 20:29, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We live in a day when God is not working openly and when we do not see any evidence in order to believe. Thus according to God’s words here we can be confident that every one of us who is a true believer in the Lord Jesus Christ has enough faith to be called “blessed.” How then could we not even have the faith of a mustard seed?
As I explained in verse 5, we will go astray if we suppose that “faith” means merely believing you can do something. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God,” Romans 10:17 tells us. Faith means taking God at His Word and acting accordingly. Without a word from God, no faith is possible. The reason we cannot tell a mulberry tree to pull itself up by the roots and be planted in the sea is because God has not told us to do this! He has not commanded us to be tree movers. If He did and we had the smallest amount of faith, even enough to say the words without really believing they will work, then we would have enough faith to move that mulberry tree. Yet without a word from God to do such a thing, it is impossible to have any faith whatsoever to do it.
The Lord’s disciples had plenty of words from Him. He had never told them to move a mulberry tree into the sea, of course, but that was because such an action would be pointless and foolish. The Lord merely was using this as an example here, and we should not get so distracted by the example that we miss the real point of His statement.
The disciples did have faith. It might not always have been as much as the Lord would have liked, but they had it. The Lord’s point here is not that they do not have this much faith, and they need to get it. His point was that, in the situation they were in, not much faith was needed. It was not the size of the faith that mattered when it came to doing some great act. No, they could get by with a faith the size of a single mustard seed. What really was important was the power of God that responded to their faith. If they were to throw trees from one place to another, it would not be because their faith was larger than other men’s faith. Rather, it would be because God’s power responded, and God did the work. Thus it was not more faith they needed, but rather the empowerment of God. With His help and just a small amount of faith, they could forgive their brothers, even seven times in one day.
7. “And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’?
Now the Lord presents another illustration. He speaks of how they would treat a servant. Yet this is the Greek word doulos, which means not “servant” but “slave.” Slavery was something common in the Roman Empire at the time, and was provided for by the law. Most of the disciples were quite poor, and so we can say that this was just an imaginary supposition for most of them, since most of them did not have a slave. Yet there were some among the disciples (though not necessarily the twelve) who were quite wealthy, and some of these might well have had slaves.
Now in the Lord’s suppositional story, the slave has been out plowing or tending sheep in the field. When he comes in, the Lord asks, will the master tell him to come right to the table and sit down to eat? Of course, this is not what a master would do.
8. “But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’?
The slave may be tired after working in the field, and be ready to sit down and relax. Yet this is not what any master would tell him to do. Rather, the master will ask him to prepare his supper and dress himself in the proper clothing to serve him, and afterwards he can eat and drink himself. The master must be served first before the slave can rest himself.
9. “Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.
The master would not thank the slave for doing this for him when he was tired and worn out from working in the field. Not at all! The slave has not done his master some great favor by doing this. Rather, he has done what it was his duty to do.
The word for “thank” here is actually charis in Greek, meaning grace. We might say that the master does not show grace to his slave for doing this. He is not impressed by his service. He knows that this is the slave’s job to do.
10. “So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’”
The word “unprofitable” here means “not needed” according to The Companion Bible. So the Lord gets to the point of the story, and the lesson He wanted His disciples to learn. These words are a good reminder to us not to think overly well of ourselves when we serve our Lord and do what is right. Some people seem to think that when they do the least thing for God, that they have done Him some great favor, and that He should be so grateful that He should immediately start blessing them for it. What arrogance of foolishness this is! As if the infinite God truly needed our paltry service. Even when we do all that we can to obey God, we should know that this is only our duty and nothing more. He is a great God, and He does not need our service. Rather, it is an honor and privilege when we are even able to serve Him. Thus we should not be overly proud, or convinced that the great things we do for God must earn us a reward. We have done nothing but our duty when we serve the God Who made us and died for us.
In I Corinthians 9:15-18, Paul explains that he expects no reward for proclaiming the gospel, for this was laid upon him as a duty. Therefore, he wanted to go beyond his duty, and do more than what was required. For this reason, he determined to earn his own keep while he preached the gospel, even though he had a perfect right to charge men for his labors among them. This, then, would be his voluntary service. Paul well understood this lesson, that what it was his duty to do necessitated no reward!
Yet consider that though we certainly are not earning rewards through our service, nevertheless God will reward us for faithful service regardless of the fact that we were only doing our duty. Paul explains this in II Timothy 2:12, when he says, “If we endure, We shall also reign with Him.” This is not something we earn, but rather is His gracious gift to us.