By Don Fortner
“Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.” (Luke 17:1-5)
These few verses contain the strongest doctrine set forth in Holy Scripture. Here are the deep things of God. There is nothing here but strong meat. By comparison, the things taught here make predestination, election, reprobation, limited atonement, and efficacious grace appear to be mere milk for newborn babies in the kingdom of God.
“Then said He unto the disciples.” ― The Master is addressing His disciples, those who trust Him, believe His doctrine, follow His Word, serve Him and seek to honor Him. Our Lord’s words, then, are to you and me, people who profess to be His disciples, who claim to be washed in His blood, robed in His righteousness, and saved by His grace. Now, watch what He says…
“It is impossible but that offences will come.” ― What are the offenses He is talking about? How is it that these offenses must come? Let me answer the second question first.
Offenses must come because God has purposed them and has purposed to use them and overrule them for the salvation and everlasting good of His elect and the glory of His own great name. Multitudes are of the opinion expressed by Charles Finney in his sermon on this text. Finney said, “The doctrine of this text is that sin, under the government of God, cannot be prevented.” Of course, Finney’s assertion is utter blasphemy. To suggest that there is something, anything beyond the absolute control of God is to deny Godhood altogether. The Scriptures declare “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (Psalm 76:10). Our God asserts, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).
Offenses come because God has purposed that they come for the benefit of His elect; and offenses must come because by these things the Lord God distinguishes true believers from false professors (1 Corinthians 11:19; Acts 20:30; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 1:1-2).
What are the offenses our Lord has in mind in this passage? What are these offenses that must come? The word that is translated offenses means “stumbling blocks,” “things that cause people to fall.” It is a word that we would use to refer to the trigger device that makes the trap door of a snare catch its victim.
We must read these words in their context. They immediately follow the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Our Lord is talking about offenses that deceive the soul, offenses that carry eternity bound men and women to hell. The offenses our Lord is talking about here are not mere hurt feelings or injured pride, but damning heresies like those of the Judaizers at Galatia and the will-worshippers at Colosse. And the offenses in this passage certainly include behavior that leads others to ruin. The Scriptures make it clear that the offenses of one generation are visited upon succeeding generations in Divine judgment (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:8; Deuteronomy 5:9).
The whole world is a stumbling-block. There is not one thing in it which is not calculated to turn the heart from God. The dress, the vanities and vulgarities in the street, the political and educational systems, the flatteries of men, the fame and riches the world offers, and its religion, all tend to elevate the flesh, as in the case of the rich man in the parable.
“But woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” — Our Lord Jesus here refers to an ancient form of capital punishment reserved for only the most reprehensible criminals. He is saying that it would be better for a man to be guilty of any horrid crime, for which men are justly executed, than to be guilty of causing another to perish in hell.
Who are “these little ones?” Again, the answer must be determined by the context. The little ones of whom our Lord is speaking here are those poor, despised publicans and sinners, who were sitting before Him. Our Savior has been talking to the Scribes and Pharisees, who despised these little ones and would by their religion shut them out of heaven. Now, as He addresses His disciples, He waves His hand over the sinners sitting before Him and says, “Woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”
When do men cause “offenses” to come? Certainly this is done any time they persecute believers, or endeavor to deter others from serving Christ. And offenses come by heretical doctrine, which subverts the souls of men. But offenses are not limited to such actions. We lay snares by which Satan traps the souls of many whenever we bring reproach upon the Gospel by our behavior.
That was the result of David’s sin when he took Bathsheba and had Uriah killed (2 Samuel 12:14). “Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.” That was the crime Paul laid against the Jews, when he said, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you” (Romans 2:24). Let us take care that we give no offense to eternity bound sinners, that we lay no snare before them, that we destroy none (1 Corinthians 10:31-32).
“Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.” — Here our Lord moves on to another of the deep things of God. He warns us to carefully avoid giving offense to eternity bound men and women in verses 1 and 2. In verses 3 and 4 He tells us (His disciples, you and me, all who believe the Gospel) not to take offense at the actions of our brothers and sisters in the family of God.
“Take heed to yourselves.” ― It is ever our proud tendency to take heed to others, to guard others, and to correct others. The Scriptures constantly teach us to take heed to, to guard, to discipline, and to correct ourselves.
“If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him.” ― If your brother or sister in Christ says, or does something by which he wrongs you, graciously, kindly speak to him about it, and no one else, make him aware of it, and no one else, always presuming that there was no intention on his part to hurt, injure, or offend you.
The word rebuke does not mean, “ream him out,” but show him what he has done. He may be shocked to discover it. In fact, the word carries with it the idea of showing honor. Yes, when I have been hurt, injured, or offended by my brother, it is my responsibility to show him honor.
“And if he repent, forgive him.” ― As soon as he says, “I’m sorry. “I’m so sorry. I would not intentionally hurt you for the world,” forgive him. Drop all resentment and anger, and show him nothing but sweetness of temper, the kindness of love, and the respect of one who has done no wrong; and do it immediately!
Perhaps you think, “Lord, that’s tough.” Oh, no. That’s not tough. The next line is tough on our proud flesh!
“And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” — Our brothers and sisters are just exactly like us. Like us, they do the same, dumb things over and over again (Proverbs 24:16).
Yet, nothing is more constantly urged in the New Testament than the practice of forgiveness. Why? Because there is nothing to which we are more naturally disinclined. Our flesh wants vengeance. Grace teaches forgiveness. Pride wants to punish. Mercy teaches forgiveness. Self-righteousness demands retribution. Love demands forgiveness. If I cannot forgive my brother the few trifling offences he may have committed against me, I know nothing experimentally of that free and full forgiveness that sinners have by the grace of God in Christ (Matthew 6:9-15; 18:35).
Our Lord warns, “Take heed to yourselves,” because nothing is so harmful to your soul, nothing makes you so miserable and useless as a proud, hard, unforgiving heart. Nothing makes a person more utterly wretched on the inside as nursing hurt feelings and feeding malice with the manure of resentment.
Our Lord’s word to us here is, “Do yourself no harm.” The least degree of malice, hatred, or revenge is altogether contrary to the Gospel we believe and totally inconsistent with the character of our blessed Lord.
But He knows what is in us. He remembers that we are dust, ever encumbered by our flesh. He knows how very prone we are to offend one another, how quick we are to hurt and injure each other, how repeatedly we say and do things to quench the Spirit, disrupt the peace, and injure the fellowship of His body.
Therefore, He tenderly teaches us how to correct the evil. When your brother does something against you, do not resent him for it, but pity him, pray for him. Call his name before your heavenly Father, his heavenly Father. If he aggravates his offence by frequent repetition, still, do not resent him, but pity him, pray for him, and do whatever you can to help him (Galatians 6:1-3). As often as he offends, that often forgive. If he repents, forgive him. If he does not repent, let that be his problem. Forgive him any way. William Mason wrote…
“We must not, at our peril, entertain anger, or let the sun go down on our wrath, but in our hearts freely and fully forgive an offending brother. But what if he remains stubborn and persists in a spirit of bitterness? Even then we are to forgive him in our hearts, and be desirous of embracing him in love.”
As God’s thoughts of love are toward us before we turn to Him, so our thoughts of love should be to our offending brethren before they turn to us. Does the Son of God require us to forgive every repeated offence, even until seventy times seven, 490 times a day? I find something wonderfully glorious in that. ― Surely He will magnify His love and display His mercy in pardoning the innumerable offences of all who turn to Him!
Prayer for Faith
Our Lord has been addressing His disciples in general. When the apostles, the preachers among them, heard His strong doctrine, this was their response: — “And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith.”
They understood that this was strong doctrine, far too strong for flesh to embrace. Flesh can grasp eternal justification, distinguishing grace, sovereign predestination, reprobation, and limited atonement. By comparison, those things are a piece of cake. Flesh can understand and promote the most rigidly orthodox dogma. Flesh loves and revels in church doctrine and the mysteries of prophecy.
But forgives requires a continual supply of grace, grace experienced deep in our souls, by which the Lord God continually increases our faith. And the more our faith in Christ increases, the more fully we learn that our only hope before God is free, constant, absolute forgiveness by the blood of the cross, flowing to our souls from the ever-springing fountain of His everlasting love, the more ready and able we will be to forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32-5:2).