Pay Attention to Yourselves

Sermon preached on Luke 17:1-6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 08/21/2022 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.

We have a question to ask as we approach these verses today. Are these verses just a collection of random sayings from Jesus? That is how they are often taken. Or are these verses more of the orderly accounting that Luke said at the start of this book that he would be giving us? I lean strongly toward the latter. This is important because if they are part of the orderly accounting that Luke has been giving us, then that tells us to read these statements together and in the broader context of where we are in Luke. When we take them that way, we see Jesus commending a gospel ministry of reconciliation and redemption that would upset the current status quo of religion among God’s people. But Jesus encourages them that by the grace and power of God this gospel ministry will prevail. Let us dig into the details now to see this.

We begin in this first point by looking at the first two verses. I’ll read them again. “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.’” Notice the transition in the context. Here, he turns to speak to his disciples. Remember whom he had been speaking to. For the last two chapters he had been admonishing the Pharisees. It started in chapter 15 when the Pharisees with their scribes were grumbling against Jesus because of his ministry to sinners and tax collectors. In chapter 15 he gave them three parables to teach God’s heart to seek and save that which was lost – and he said this is the attitude the Pharisees should have had themselves as the religious leaders among the people. Then last chapter Jesus continued his admonition of them by confronting them on their love of money and how they disregarded God’s laws when it suited them. But now, in today’s passage, he turns from addressing the Pharisees to speak to his disciples.

That context right away helps us to understand what Jesus has in mind when he says in verse 1 that temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come. Let me note that the word “temptations to sin” here is better translated as “stumbling blocks”. Jesus is saying there will be stumbling blocks that come into people’s lives – things that cause them to sin or turn aside from the true and right way of godliness. Jesus says there will be such stumbling blocks that come. But he speaks woe against those people who would bring such stumbling blocks into the lives of others. Again, in context, whom does Jesus have in mind? Surely, we should read this in context and see that Jesus is warning his disciples against the Pharisees and their scribes. The Pharisees acted in the name of the true religion but they were actually perpetuating a false religion. Jesus speaks woe on them and their faulty ministry. He says woe to these stumblers of others. Jesus’ disciples must be on guard to not follow in their cursed footsteps. They need to instead learn the true religion with its gospel ministry that Jesus was discipling them in.

Notice how serious Jesus says this is. In verse 2, Jesus says it would be better if these stumblers of others would be drowned to death. That they’d be cast into the sea with a big stone around their neck! The stone would keep them from being able to swim to safety, so they would drown. Jesus’ point here is in light of the final judgment. As James warns in James 3, teachers of religion will be held to great account for their teachings. If the Pharisees and scribes peddle their false religion and lead others astray, they will heap greater eternal condemnation upon themselves, not to mention leading others to hell along with them. If such false teachers died before they could do that, even as terrible of a death as drowning, that would still be better than all the great degree of punishment they would heap upon themselves and others in the afterlife where the torments of hell awaited them.

That leads us to the second point. Look with me now at verses 3-4. Jesus says, “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.” Jesus turns to tell his disciples what they must be doing in contrast to the Pharisees. These Pharisees would not extend a ministry of reconciliation and redemption for wayward sinners, but Jesus’ disciples must. Such a gospel ministry involves two parts. It involves a call to repentance. And it involves granting forgiveness. Ultimately, Jesus would empower the apostles to do this on behalf of God in light of the atonement of Christ Jesus on the cross where he paid for the sins of all who would repent and turn in faith to Jesus. But here, Jesus particularly speaks of such a ministry of reconciliation on personal terms. He envisions how to handle when people sin against you. We are to be merciful and looking to restore – and of course that is because we have received mercy and restoration ourselves from God in Christ Jesus.

So then in verse 3, Jesus says that if a brother sins, rebuke him. This is important to understand. Jesus doesn’t ignore sin. When Jesus was meeting with tax collectors and sinners it wasn’t because he just ignored that they were sinful people. No, he knew such people were spiritually sick and needed to be spiritually healing. Jesus doesn’t ignore or disregard sin. He calls sinners to repent of their sin. Like that woman caught in the act of adultery as recorded in John 8:11. While Jesus extended mercy to her, he also commanded her to “Go and sin no more.” This is important for us to remember today. Jesus calls you to repent from your sin. To clarify, that doesn’t mean you never sin again. Repenting is a state of the heart. It is to acknowledge sin as wrong and truly endeavor in your heart to turn from it and live for God. The gospel preaches the forgiveness of sins, but not for people who hard-heartedly and stubbornly resist the will of God and are looking to continue to live unchanged in their life of sin. So then, for us individually as recipients of God’s grace, we need to be reminded of the call of repentance that has come to us. And for us as the church communicating the gospel, we are reminded that we must call people to recognize their sin, confess it, and seek to turn from it. That’s true in general when we encounter such sinners. And it is true even when those sinners have sinned specifically against you yourself.

But notice Jesus says this ministry of reconciliation doesn’t end with the person repenting. Then forgiveness is to then be granted. Verse 3, “If he repents, forgive him.” Again, I mentioned that this is the gospel ministry in general, that God forgives repentant sinners. But Jesus teaches here that this is to be true in our own interactions with others as well. As God in Christ has forgiven us of so much, we too must forgive others who sin against us.

But Jesus goes on to acknowledge that people who sin may struggle to live out their repentance. Verse 4 acknowledges that even on the same day they might sin against you seven times and seven times reaffirm their repentance. For the person who is sinned against, that can be quite trying. But for the person who is the sinner struggling to live out their repentance, this is so very encouraging. In humility, we should recognize that we each are going to be in both places in our life. We will at times be the victims of repeat offenders. But we will be the repeat offenders in our ways too. But this passage encourages us to see the wide and lavish grace and mercy of God.

To clarify, this does not teach a system for people to take advantage of. There are unrepentant hard-hearted sinners who love their sin and feign their seven times or more of daily repentance, but God knows someone’s heart. Also, granting such forgiveness doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for sin that inevitably follow certain actions. And those consequences might increase when certain sins are chronic. A husband who commits adultery against their wife and later is truly repentant might find themselves both forgiven and divorced. A chronic drug addict might be truly repentant but accountability and monitoring still put in place to help him stay clean. Granting forgiveness along with love and wisdom might look different from case to case. But the bottom line is that Jesus wants us to have his heart for waywards. It is the core of the gospel ministry that there is forgiveness and grace for waywards who repent and look in faith unto the Lord. It what we each want to receive ourselves. And it’s what Jesus wants us to extend toward others. And it is to be at the core of the church of Jesus Christ’s ministry.

With this message and ministry here put before Jesus’ disciples, we see their response starting in verse 5. This is then our third point today to consider how Jesus and his disciples describe the faith needed for all this. Verse 5, the apostles respond, “Increase our faith”. Again, I’m reading this in context, not as some separate isolated scene. In light of what we’ve seen Jesus teach his disciples in verses 1-4, they reply, “Increase our faith!” In other words, what Jesus just taught them was challenging to them. His message was challenging to them to fully believe it and receive it.

Think about what Jesus has been telling them as there are several parts to it that would be challenging to believe in and trust in. Jesus had just denounced the most widely respected religious leadership in the church at the time. That’s what the Pharisees and the scribes were. There were several different sects among God’s people, but the most well respected, the one considered most faithful, and thus the one with the most influence and importance among God’s people, was these Pharisees. And here Jesus just said “woe” to them and spoke of their damnation because they were causing people to stumble and fall away from the true religion! Jesus is effectively asking his disciples to reject the most influential religious leaders of their day in favor of his teaching. This means that they need reject the sinful teachings and practices of the Pharisees. They need to reject the Pharisee’ love of money, and be generous to the poor instead. They need to reject how the Pharisees disregarded certain Biblical laws that they didn’t like. They need to reject the ways these Pharisees have shunned the tax collectors and sinners and other waywards and instead look to be in a ministry to reclaim them spiritually. Add to that, Jesus is asking his disciples to each be prepared to personally extend repeated forgiveness to people who might even repeatedly sin against them. None of this would have been easy to receive. In many ways it was a tall request for their faith. They don’t say to Jesus that they don’t believe him. I think they do believe Jesus. But they do recognize how difficult this teaching is, in that it represented a serious challenge and disruption to the religious status quo. So, they ask for Jesus to help grow them in their faith on this. “Increase our faith,” they respond.

Jesus’ response to their request for more faith is then in verse 6. Jesus replied, “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.” Let me begin by suggesting what I think is the right tone here. It is common for people take this as Jesus basically scolding them that they don’t even has faith as small as a mustard seed. But that seems like it would be a strange response for them to ask Jesus for more faith and Jesus to respond by just pointing out how little faith they indeed have. But I don’t take this as Jesus scolding them. I take it as Jesus encouraging them. They are admitting to Jesus that they only have a little faith. But Jesus is encouraging them by saying that even with a little faith they can do great things.

So then, Jesus says with faith as little as a mustard seed they could do something as powerful as order a mulberry tree to drown itself. Are we to take Jesus’ words here literally? And if so, is this a universal truth that is true for anyone at any time that if they have even a little faith they can command such trees into the water? Well, I find a universal and literal interpretation unlikely to be correct, given that I’ve not seen people down through the centuries wielding such faith in such power. It is true that these apostles per the book of Acts would go on to wield supernatural powers from God in exercising such faith, and so one might argue Jesus meant this literally but only to the apostles that he was speaking to here. But in context, I don’t favor that interpretation either.

I actually think Jesus is speaking more along the lines of metaphor or figure. You see, the context presents an interesting inclusio. An inclusio is a literary device where a passage is bracketed by repeated imagery. Here our passage begins and ends with a reference to something being thrown into the sea and made to stay there. In verse 2 it’s the stumbler cast into the sea with a millstone around his neck. In verse 6, it’s the mulberry tree uprooted and replanted in the sea. I can’t help but notice the parallel. To help you envision the imagery here, realize what these mulberry trees were. Also translated as a sycamore tree, these were big trees that back then were very common in Israel. I mean when you think of what you might call a heritage tree, that was these trees were. This was the kind of tree that Zacchaeus will later climb up. Trees like this would have been around for a while, they’d generally be cherished, they’d become an institution, so to speak. You wouldn’t normally think of tearing one down and casting it into the sea – unless maybe you wanted to replace it with a mustard tree.

Do you see what I’m doing here? And what I’m suggesting Jesus was doing here? The imagery of something being cast into a sea to start this passage was about the Pharisees and all their faulty religious institution needing to be upheaved and destroyed. The true religion which Jesus was bringing needed to replace it. But who could imagine that such a dramatic change in the religious life of God’s people could take place? The faulty Pharisaical doctrines were an institution among Israel now as old and established as those sycamore trees. But the faith that looks to the coming kingdom of God, even as small as a mustard seed, would behold that faulty religious establishment’s upheaval. Remember, Luke’s gospel already back in chapter 13 described the kingdom of God with the parable of the mustard seed. I can’t help but remember that here when Jesus mentions that their faith only needed to be as big as such a mustard seed.

So, that’s what I think Jesus’ point is here. The disciples have heard Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees and the religion they have been teaching. They’ve heard his call for righteous living and to be about a ministry of reconciliation and redemption. Faced with the prospect of such a major change to the religious life of Israel, the disciples questioned whether they had the faith to see it through. Jesus encourages them by saying that even just a little faith will do. And of course, that’s because it’s not ultimately about the faith but about the object of the faith. Faith in Almighty God by the work of Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, Jesus encourages them and by extension us today. That mustard seed of a kingdom has been growing and advancing ever since then. It has grown quite a bit. It has displaced much false religion. And while the influence of the Pharisees is not yet fully under water, Christ’s kingdom continues to advance and will prevail over it and all institutions that would look to turn people away from God or cause them to stumble.

So then, as a final application I point us back to the exhortation in verse 3a. Pay attention to yourselves! If the Pharisees could rise up in the church of God and become a source of stumbling, we should be on guard for the same in our day. The kingdom yet grows and advances but let us make sure we are walking in step with it. Let us become recommitted to serve the Lord in his church which has been entrusted with this ministry of reconciliation. We may not feel up to the task. Our faith might feel so small and weak. But Jesus has encouraged us that even a little faith can work great things. And if Jesus will grow his kingdom from a small mustard seed into a big tree, then know that he will also grow your faith into something large and sturdy – a heritage and institution unto the Lord.


Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.