The subject on the sheet you may have seen today is “When things are beyond us”, and I imagine in a group like this there is a range of reasons why things might be beyond you. It may be today that there is just too much for you to do or maybe there is too much for you to think about. There may be things out of control in your life. There may be some person that you can’t bring back to you. There may be something which is just out of your reach. Something you can’t fix. Maybe you have had bad or sad news this week.
One of the amazing things that may cause a person to feel that things are beyond them is recorded in Luke 17 where Jesus calls on his disciples to do something so enormous that it seems beyond them and they cry out in Luke 17 – “Lord increase our faith”. The reply of Jesus to the person who feels that things are beyond them is so wonderful that I am hoping that this will be helpful and wonderful for you as well this morning.
So Luke 17 is our passage, and we have two lessons on grace and then two teachings on faith.
Two lessons on Grace
For those of you who have been coming Sunday by Sunday, you may remember that Jesus in this situation is out in public and He is speaking. He has got Pharisees who are against Him on one side, and He’s got the disciples who are for Him on the other side. How do you speak to two groups? One against you, one for you. He seems in the passages we have been looking at Sunday by Sunday to turn from one to the other, he alternates.
You’ll see in Luke 17:1 that He’s turned back to His disciples, so these are words for believers. He’s just told his critics, the Pharisees, the story back in chapter 16 of the reality of hell. A solemn passage we looked at last week. And with the seriousness of hell in mind, you can see why 17:1 is so serious. He turned to His disciples and said “It’s a terrible thing to help someone go there. Things that cause people to sin are bound to come but woe to the person through whom they come”.
It seems to be on the surface as though Jesus is saying don’t influence a little one to sin. And a quick reading of this would mean if you cause a child to sin Jesus says it would be better for you if somebody had previously grabbed you put a millstone around your neck and dropped you in the water. It would be better for you to have drowned violently, he says, that to cause a little one to sin. On the surface, it looks as though that’s what he’s saying.
I don’t want to minimise the evil of causing a child to sin, and I don’t want to domesticate this passage away. We need to be very careful of our influence on vulnerable children, but I just want to point out to you that in context, Jesus seems to be turning to His disciples after a lesson on hell and He seems to be saying to them, what causes a person to go down that far? What a terrible thing to cause a person to go that far downhill. Or who causes a person to go all the way down? And this is, therefore, a warning that makes sense. It is as if Jesus is saying to His disciples, look there are trapdoors to hell all over the place but woe to the person who works the trapdoor or helps people to the trapdoor.
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And Jesus is so concerned that nobody perishes. He describes people as “little ones”. Now you may not think of people outside as little, but Jesus is speaking in a ‘parent type of way’, and He is saying ‘I’m so concerned about people, I regard them as ‘little, vulnerable, needy, frail, fragile, delicate’. In other parts of Luke’s gospel, if He wants to speak specifically of children, He uses a word for child or a word for infant, but here ‘little ones’ seems to be directed to ordinary people. And so the point is that a person who helps another person go down the road toward hell, Jesus says it would be better if someone had got to you first and drowned you.
So verse 2 is not a punishment, He’s not saying – if you cause someone to sin then we’re going to get a rock and wrap it around your neck and drop you in the water – He’s not saying that at all. He’s saying it’s such a serious thing to cause someone to go downhill that would be better if something like that had happened to you first. That’s the first little section. It’s blunt, punchy and significant.
In verse 3 He raises another issue, and this is about the family of God, and He says: “If your brother sins, rebuke him and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times, seven times comes back to you and says I repent, forgive him”. So He says the very first thing that we need to do inside a fellowship is if a brother sins we need to rebuke them.
This is a ministry in the church which has become incredibly difficult because our culture is all positive. We are expected to only say positive things to one another, and in the church culture, it’s all encouragement. We are always expected just to encourage one another. But many here will know that in the raising of children, there has to be the positive and the negative. There has to be the encouragement and the warning. There has to be the discipline as well as the cuddles. And one of the other difficulties, of course, is that our nature is so finely tuned that we justify everything that we do and so we are not very likely to be good at accepting a rebuke. But Jesus says we’ve got to find a way within the fellowship to point out sin so that the person is willing to repent. It seems to me that it is very skilful pastoral care.
And if he repents, Jesus says – forgive him. And if it happens seven times a day, keep forgiving. You may wonder how anyone who sins against you seven times a day is really repenting, but Jesus says that isn’t really our business. Our business is forgiving. And I think it would be as you imagine a remarkable fellowship inside the world. If the church was warning one another against dangers rather than promoting them as so much of the world does, and when a person was repenting of their sin they were being forgiven, it would be a remarkable lighthouse in a dark world.
Now if at this point you say to yourself well I agree with this and I just wish that people who’ve hurt me would repent. If you see yourself as the innocent person as you read these verses, just notice that you’re not like the disciples who immediately feel their need of help, and they call out, verse 5 “help! – Lord increase our faith”. And they call this out because it is a very difficult thing to give no offence. Have you ever tried to live in the world and not influence anybody badly? And it is a very difficult thing to rebuke a brother or a sister, and it is a very difficult thing to repent. We do almost anything but repent. And it’s a very difficult thing to forgive sometimes when people do repent. And as I was thinking about these verses and how difficult all this is, I was asking myself questions like this – ‘should we rebuke people for little things or just forget about it?’ And what if they don’t repent – should we rebuke them again until they do repent? And should we forgive somebody if they don’t repent? And do we need to forgive someone if they don’t repent?
Now the biblical answer to that last question is that we need to have forgiveness on offer to prevent our own bitterness and to bring glory to God even if the other person never comes humbly to accept the forgiveness. In other words, we need to have forgiveness provided within us so that we might honour Him, be ready for fellowship and be set free from bitterness even if the person never comes and appreciates what we have. And for all of this sort of behaviour, we need grace from God. To be one who gives no offence what grace we need. And to be one who gives much forgiveness what grace we need.
Why have I called this Two Lessons on Grace? And the answer is because Jesus is the master at both of these things. He quietly preaches to his disciples that they should give no offence and He gives no offence. The parable of the two men, one in hell and one in heaven is a reminder you remember from last week that God has given everybody sufficient provision that they might never end up in hell. Nobody can end up in hell and say to God “it’s your fault”. He’s given such provision. He’s given everything that we need for salvation, and He gives no encouragement whatsoever for people to go to hell. The only reason that a person could go to hell is that they might avoid Him and avoid His message. If I might put it as simply as this, when it comes to heaven He provides an escalator, and when it comes to hell, He puts down as many speed humps as He can possibly put down.
And the other thing that Jesus is a master in, is forgiveness. He models forgiveness. He not only preaches it, He practices it. And the parable of the prodigal son back in Luke 15 is a lesson on how he treats people who repent. And whether a person is turning back to Jesus for the one and only time in their life to have a friendship with Him, He runs down the road to welcome you. And when you’re His child, when you’re His friend, when you’re His servant, when you’re His sheep every time you wander and return, He welcomes you back with forgiveness. Forgive, forgive, forgive. That’s one of the reasons we’re so thankful for Jesus Christ. He forgives those who repent, even every hour.
Now perhaps as importantly for believers is the point that not only does Jesus model these things but He enables us to practice them. He doesn’t just practice them and preach them to us. He practices them and preaches them to us, and He allows us to practice them. As so He gives us by His Holy Spirit the help that we need to live a faithful life that gives no offence and He enables us by His Holy Spirit to provide forgiveness to those who repent. He is the helper of the believer as well as the teacher of the believer. So two lessons on grace.
Two lessons on faith
The first lesson comes in verse 5 after the apostles call out – “increase our faith” and He says in verse 6 – “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”.
The first lesson on faith, friends, if you want to know how to have faith that grows, is believe the Word of a powerful God. That’s how you have faith. If you want to know how to have Christian faith, accept the Word of a powerful God. Jesus sweeps away, you see in verse 6, any idea that a Christian needs an increase of faith. We don’t. Nor do we need much faith. We don’t need it. Jesus said if you’ve got a speck of faith, that will do. If you’ve got a speck of faith, it’s possible to speak to a deeply rooted tree, and apparently, a mulberry tree has very deep roots. You can speak to a deeply rooted tree, and you can order it to be planted in the sea, and that seems to me to be a double miracle.
Why does He say this? I want you to work, because if you work for the next few minutes, I think you’ll be glad. We need to de-mystify what faith is all about. It’s a very strange thing in the church that faith becomes very mysterious, very mystical. I’ll give you an example. If I said to your this morning and this is true – “I have great faith in my GP.” Your mind, I’m almost sure if it’s working, goes to the GP and you ask yourself, who’s the GP? Why is he so good? What’s he done? What’s his skill? How can I get in touch with him myself? Your mind goes to the GP. Your mind goes to the object of my faith.
If I tell you this morning however that I have great faith in Christ, the danger is, the common danger is that you will admire me. You will say, “Yes he does seem to have a very special faith”. And your mind will go to the subject of my faith which is me, and you will think to yourself how clever I am to have such faith. In other words, why is it that in secular circles we think rightly about faith and go to the object and why is that in religious circles we think wrongly about faith and go to the subject?
Jesus thinks rightly about faith. He says it doesn’t matter how much you’ve got. If your faith is in a powerful God, you are in a wonderful position. The disciples think wrongly about faith. They think – Gee we’ve got to store it up. We’ve got to create a sort of a pious sack of faith inside us. So Jesus is teaching the principle that your faith may be tiny but if it is in God the Almighty and if God the Almighty has promised you a moving tree, just tell it to move. If He has promised you a moving tree, just say – move.
I’ll give you an example of this: Imagine Moses down at the Red Sea. He goes down to the Red Sea, and he has to under instruction to hold up his staff, and the sea will split. Does he go down to the Sea very nervous? Does he go down and say ‘I’m not sure whether this is going to work? I’m not sure whether I’ve got enough faith for this. I could never split a sea. I’m not strong enough.
No, he goes down to the Red Sea with a promise – “raise your staff, and the sea will divide.’ And so he raises his staff, and the sea divides. This is a straightforward thing for God to do. Splitting the Red Sea for God is like putting a little fingernail nick in a cricket ball! Absolutely nothing to God. And Moses just has to believe the word that God has spoken.
Unfortunately, some people read a verse like Luke 17:6 and they misunderstand it completely. And that think that a Christian can go out and do crazy miracles. And that if we worked up some kind of spiritual muscles, we’d be able to make odd things happen – like trees sprout up and jump into the sea. But Jesus is teaching that we must take God seriously and the way we’re to do it is to believe him. What does He say? Well, trust Him. That’s why friends if I might say this to you today, is the reason why Christians are utterly sensible. I hope there are no Christians here this morning who have unscrewed their heads to become a Christian. I hope that you did your homework and you worked out that Jesus has lived, died, rose and is trustworthy. And you’ve put your trust in somebody who is proven and utterly powerful and utterly kind. The most sensible decision in the world. And I hope there’s nobody here this morning who thinks that if you were to become a Christian, you would do something that was irrational or optional. Well, that’s what Jesus is teaching here.
Now the second and the last little section is the most challenging. And verses 7-10 have been I think a complete mystery to the commentators. And the verses look very bad, and as they were being read this morning, I wondered whether you thought they were very unfriendly. Let me just quickly read them:
“Suppose one of you had a servant,” says Jesus, “ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field,’Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say,’Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that, you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say,’We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'”
The second key to faith, if you want to have great faith, is do the Word of a loving God. The first step if you’re going to have real keen Christian faith believes the Word of a powerful God. And the second is to do the Word of a loving God. Now if those verses 7-10 were all about God and the Christian, they do look very unfriendly. They look as though Jesus is teaching – don’t ever expect a rest from God, verse 7, don’t ever expect a ‘thank you’ from God, verse 9, don’t expect God to look after you, don’t expect God to reward you. Many Christians have read those verses very humbly and said ‘ok fair enough – I will just keep soldiering on. I’ve finished my role as a leader this year. I’ve finished my role as a teacher. I’ve finished my role as a women’s’ worker, and I’m just an unworthy servant, and I’ve done my duty’, and that’s very impressive humility.
But look at verse 7, Jesus says “Suppose one of you had a servant” and it is a habit of Jesus to use his listeners as a bad example or as a contrast to God. So for example in Luke 11 He says – suppose one of you had a friend who came at midnight when you were tucked in bed and knocked on the door and said – please let me in I need some food – and Jesus said – you will probably call out – don’t bother me now,I don’t want to get up,I don’t want to help you – and then He went on to say of course God is not like that,God doesn’t lie in bed having difficulty getting up when people call to Him, and so He contrasts the person with God.
Now in Luke 17, I think it’s precisely the same. Jesus is teaching His disciples – you need to learn about faith like this. You expect your servant to put your word into practice, don’t you? But you don’t care for them, and you don’t properly thank them but you are God’s servants, and you need to put His Word into practice remembering that He is infinitely kind and kinder than you. He cares about you, your welfare, your rest. He cares about your food. He cares about your daily needs, your immediate needs. And He rewards you, verse 9, beyond belief. See what Jesus is saying.
He says to His disciples, I want you to think about how your servants put your word into practice and they do, but you treat them harshly. And I’m asking you to put God’s Word into practice, who loves you. He is interested in you. He is interested in your present needs, and He is interested in your future needs. So why is it that faith for many people is so small and the answer is because many people do not believe the Word of a powerful God and they don’t do the work of a loving God.
If you lose sight of His power and His love and you will if you ignore the Scriptures, your faith will shrink. If you think God is weak you will be slogging along trying to carry the Christian life yourself – it’s miserable. And if you think God is harsh, you will probably think that His Word, His challenge is impracticable. And so there are lots of people in the church who are just really doing their own will. Very busy. Very busy but they’ve not actually grabbed hold of what Jesus asks them to do. They’ve got lots of nights, they’ve got lots of Boards, they’ve got lots of obligations, they’ve got lots of challenges, but the way to increase your faith is to believe the Word of a powerful God and to do the Word of a loving God. So isn’t it interesting that verse 6 is a corrective to anybody thinks that God is weak and verses 7-10 is a corrective to anybody that thinks that God is unloving.
Let me finish friends by saying this to you – to live in the world without giving offence is a huge responsibility. And to live in the world without breaking fellowship with a brother is a huge responsibility but the God who speaks and tells us to give no offence and to forgive is a huge, huge God and is easily able to help us do what He asks us to do. We have the greatest and the kindest Master in the universe. The more you focus on the God of the Scriptures and look at His power and love, the more your faith will grow, and you’ll get to the end of your service of this powerful and gracious God, and you’ll say in verse 10 – “We are unworthy servants, you are the power and you are the glory we have just done our duty. Everything wonderful that happened, happened because of You.”
Well let’s ask God to help us – let’s pray –
Our heavenly Father, we thank you for not only giving us wise instruction but also for giving us gracious help, and we pray that you would help us to trust you and to live for you and to give no offence and to be a reconciler in the fellowship. Please take us and use us in your service and as we live for you,may we be more and more conscious of your power and Your love and may we be able to say at the end of the day and at the end of our lives that we have served you, and you have wonderfully enabled us. In Jesus’ Name Amen