While the title indicate our desire to experience forgiveness, the point is how to release those who have offended us. Our passage is from Luke 17:1-10, and the key verses are Luke 17:3, 10.
Purpose of This Study: The purpose of this study is to determine our willingness to grant forgiveness to an offending brother who repents. God wants us to forgive as He has so graciously forgiven us. The commands of Christ in this passage are found in Luke 17:3 – “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Obedience to this command requires a forgiving heart that is willing to restore relationships that have been broken by sin.
Historical Background: Jesus spoke these scathing words in His denunciation of the attitudes of the Pharisees, but a word of caution to the disciples was necessary so that they would not despise the Pharisees themselves. They could hate Pharisaism without hating the Pharisees. In order to teach the disciples this lesson, Jesus warned them that it would be easy for them to give offense by their attitude toward people. He said that it would be better for them to die physically than to repel some from coming to Him because they had shown the wrong attitude toward those who are coming. The “little ones” to whom the Lord referred would be those who were forsaking Pharisaism and coming to Christ. If the disciples looked down on such ones because they were so slow in coming to a decision concerning the person of Christ, they might be turned away from Him. Therefore, Christ commanded the disciples to be careful about their attitudes so that those who desired to come to Him may not be tripped up. (Pentecost)
The disciples might not only cause a hindrance for those coming to Christ but also toward other believers in Christ. When a believer is sinned against, and the sinning brother requests forgiveness, it is the duty of the disciple of Christ to forgive him.
Other passages to consider: Mark 11:25 (Forgive), Luke 17:3 (be on your guard, forgive), Luke 17:4 (forgive), Acts 7:60, 2 Corinthians 2:7, 10, Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:13.
1. What is a stumbling block? (Luke 17:1-2) A “stumbling block” (scandalon) literally referred to a “trap or snare” used to catch animals but symbolically whatever causes people to be tripped up and fall into sin. The text says, “It is inevitable” that these stumbling blocks will come. The word inevitable means unavoidable. It is impossible that these offenses won’t come but Jesus says make sure they don’t come through you.
2. What are the consequences for placing a stumbling block in front of one of these little ones? (Luke 17:1-2) The consequences are not stated but contrasted to a better way to end one’s life. Jesus warns that it would be better to take your own life than be judged for this offense. He is not suggesting suicide but sternly warns everyone with the word WOE to stay clear of tripping up one of these “little ones,” who seem to be either young or new believers coming to Christ or people of whom the world takes little notice. In the story it probably refers to those who were forsaking Pharisaism and coming to Christ. A “millstone” was a heavy stone that rotated in a mill for grinding grain.
3. Does every sin against us have to be rebuked and forgiven? (Proverbs 10:12; 17:9; 19:11; 1 Corinthians 13:7; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8) The Bible teaches “it is his glory to overlook a transgression” (Proverbs 19:11). If we had to confront every sin against us we would have little time for anything else.
- Proverbs 10:12 says,”Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.”
- Proverbs 17:9 says,”He who conceals a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends.”
- 1 Corinthians 13:7 says love “bears all things.”
- Colossians 3:13 teaches “forbearance.”
- 1 Peter 4:8 tells us that “love covers a multitude of sins.”
If you are sinned against and cannot let it go (forbear, cover, overlook) then you are commanded to rebuke (confront) the sinning brother. If the sin is small enough to remember, it is big enough to confront.
4. What are the three commands of Christ in Luke 17:3? We are commanded to 1) “Be on your guard” (present imperative); 2) “rebuke’ (aorist imperative); and 3) “forgive” (aorist imperative).
5. Why does Jesus say “Be on your guard?” (Luke 17:3) Jesus warns: “Be careful of yourselves.” This warning is necessary because there are many ways to err about forgiveness. The warning is pertinent to many Christians who are caught up in the easy rationalizations by which they try to excuse themselves from the obligation to forgive their brothers.
6. What does it mean to rebuke our brother? The word “rebuke” means to “adjudge, to find fault with, rebuke; hence to charge, or rather, to charge strictly.” An offended brother must approach the offender and seek to bring him to repentance and attempt to bring about reconciliation. It’s much easier to keep still when someone sins against us, and to try to hide the pain. We sometimes even think we’re being “spiritual” by trying to ignore the wrong, but failure to be honest, trying to give the “outward show” of nothing wrong when there is something wrong, isn’t God’s way. The loving thing to do is to rebuke the person who sins against you, for he needs the cleansing that forgiveness can bring as much as you need the barrier of hurt removed. So Jesus said, “Rebuke him.”
7. What does Jesus command His disciples to do when a sinning brother repents? (Luke 17:3) Luke 17:3 says, “forgive (aorist imperative) him.” The aorist tense denotes urgency. We must not withhold forgiveness or delay in granting it. This is often easier said than done. Our old self dwells on slights and hurts and takes a perverse pleasure in self-pity and in “righteous indignation.”
8. What is forgiveness? (Jeremiah 31:34) Bill Gothard defines forgiveness as “healing others by using their offenses as a means of expressing to them Christ’s love.” When Christ granted forgiveness in the Gospels He realized He was going to have to pay for these sins on the cross. When we forgive others we have to pay for their sins not in a redemptive sense but in a practical sense. When we forgive a gossiper who has marred our reputation, his slanderous words can never be retrieved so we chose to pay for his sinful talk in a practical sense.
Jeremiah 31:34 says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Based on this verse “Forgiveness” could be defined as “a promise not to bring the sin up to the offender, tell others about it, and not dwell on it ourselves.”
There are two Greek words in the New Testament for forgiveness.
- The word charizomai means, “to bestow a favor unconditionally” and is used of the act of “forgiveness,” whether divine, (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 2:13; 3:13) or human, (Luke 7:42, 43 [debt]; 2 Corinthians 2:7, 10; 12:13; Ephesians 4:32).
- The second word used in the original language is aphiemi, which means, “to send forth, send away,” “to send,” and denotes “to remit or forgive” debts (Matthew 6:12; 18:27, 32, these being completely cancelled) and sins (Matthew 9:2, 5-6; 12:31, 32; Acts 8:22; Romans 4:7; James 5:15; 1 John-1:9; 2:12). This word “to send from or away” is wonderfully pictured in the scapegoat of the Old Testament. Once a year the priest would transfer the sin of the people symbolically onto a scapegoat and send him away into the wilderness to never be seen again (Leviticus 16:20-22). In the same way when Christ forgave us or we forgive others – the sins are sent away to be remembered no more.
9. Does the word “if” in Luke 17:3 make granting forgiveness conditional? The word “if” makes granting forgiveness conditional on repentance. Jesus taught that you forgive when a brother repents. In the same way before we came to faith in Christ, Jesus doesn’t forgive us until we repented of our sins and accepted the free gift of eternal life (Luke 24:47).
10. Does withholding forgiveness from an unrepentant brother give us the right to be full of bitterness and malice? (Ephesians 4:31) This verse says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.”
11. Are we to withhold forgiveness from unbelievers who are not repentant? (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60) Luke 23:34 says, “But Jesus was saying, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.” Acts 7:60 says, “Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep.”
12. How often are we responsible to forgive a brother who sins against us? (Luke 17:4; Matthew 18:21, 22) Jesus teaches us to forgive “seven times in a day.” The number “7” was not to set a limit on the number of times to forgive but precisely the opposite. Christ meant that forgiveness should be granted unendingly. Seven here signifies’ ‘times without number.” A believer is to put no limit on the forgiveness he extends to another believer who has injured him and then seeks forgiveness.
On an earlier occasion Peter’s question concerning the number of times we must forgive an offending brother brought Christ’s answer “seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22 says, “Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’ 22 Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'”
Peter suggested a limit of “seven times,” which was more than twice that allowed by Jewish tradition. Using references in the book of Amos (Amos 1:3, 6,9, 11, 13; and Job 33:29), the rabbis had taken a repeated statement by God against neighboring enemies of Israel and made it into a universal rule for limiting God’s forgiveness and, by extension, also man’s. If God forgives men only three times, they spuriously reasoned, it is unnecessary and even presumptuous for men to forgive each other more times than that.
Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times.” Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said, “If a man commits an offense once, they forgive him; if he commits an offense a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offense a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive him.”
Peter probably thought Jesus would be impressed with the seemingly generous suggestion of “up to seven times.” Compared to Jewish tradition, it was generous and no doubt was based on Peter’s growing understanding of Jesus’ teaching and personal example of compassion and mercy. Realizing that the Lord’s graciousness was in marked contrast to the self-centered legalism of the scribes and Pharisees, Peter doubled their narrow limit for forgiveness and added one more time for good measure.
Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” The Lord was not extending the legal limit of forgiveness. He was not speaking of law or limits at all. By seventy times seven He did not mean 490. He simply picked up on Peter’s number and multiplied it by itself and then by ten, indicating a number that, for all practical purposes, was beyond counting (MacArthur). If you took it to refer literally to 490 times a day, that would mean in a 16-hour day (waking hours) it would require forgiving every 1.9 minutes. The point is innumerable times.
13. Should there be the “fruit of repentance” before we forgive someone? (Luke 17:3-4) It is clear from the text that we must grant forgiveness merely on the basis of one’s statement that he repents. There could be no clear evidence of change within the hypothetical time period that Christ suggests: “seven times in the same day!” Indeed, if a brother does the same thing seven times in the same day, the only evidence that you could have would be entirely negative. Fruit takes time to grow. It also takes care and nourishment. A person unfamiliar with a citrus tree may be unable to identify it but if he waits long enough, he will know when the fruit appears whether it is an orange or … a lemon! By their fruit shall you know them, has nothing to do with the truth that is taught in Luke 17.
Jesus does not condition the granting of forgiveness upon the behavior of the offender after forgiveness, but rather hangs the granting of forgiveness upon the brother’s verbal testimony alone: “and seven times in a day should return to you saying, ‘I repent.”‘ It is the saying, not subsequent doing on his part that should activate the offended one to grant forgiveness. Jesus said he should grant that forgiveness even if it should be requested seven times in one day.
14. Why are sins sometimes so quickly repeated? There are several reasons sins are often so quickly repeated. First, it takes time to change. Second, forgiveness merely clears away the rubble so the relationship can be rebuilt. Jay Adams points out that “If a new relationship based upon biblical change and help is not established, then it is likely that one or more of the parties will revert to his old ways again. If so, again an unreconciled condition will develop. This failure frequently results in a kiss-and-make-up pattern. The same old problem is never really settled but becomes the reason for continued and repeated confrontation, confession, and forgiveness.”
15. How can the forgiven person help the forgiving person forget the sin? If forgetting in time does not follow forgiving it’s important to look for a reason. You may find that the offended party has been brooding over the offense in self-pity. Such brooding is decidedly unscriptural and does not fit into the biblical concept of forgiveness. Forgiveness means no longer continuing to dwell on the sin that was forgiven. Forgiveness is the promise not to raise the issue again to the offender, to others, or to himself. Brooding is a violation of the promise made in granting forgiveness.
The biblical concept of forgiving and forgetting often has been misrepresented. The Bible speaks of “fruit appropriate to repentance.” One forgives, but he does not immediately forget; rather, he remembers and looks for the fruit or the results that eventually accompany true repentance. It takes time for fruit to grow. When fruit is discerned, forgetting then becomes possible.
16. Does Scripture instruct a repentant brother to forgive himself? The Bible never teaches that we need to forgive ourselves. At times people complain over an inability to forgive themselves after having received forgiveness from God or others. The problem of continued guilt is not a question of inability to forgive oneself. To view it as such is to cloud the real issue and to miss the path that leads to a solution. The real difficulty usually stems from the fact that the person feels guilty because he knows that, although the sin has been forgiven, he is still the kind of person who did it. The guilt will not fully disappear until he knows that his old patterns of life have been destroyed and new habit patterns have been established.
17. Why should we be willing to forgive our brother? (Matthew 18:22-33) We should forgive our brother because of the great sin debt that we have been forgiven by Christ.
18. What happens when we refuse to forgive a brother from our hearts? (Matthew 18:34-35; 6:14-15; 2 Corinthians 2:7, 10-11) Three things occur when we are unwilling to grant forgiveness and hold a grudge.
- We are turned over to the torturers of bitterness and resentment (Matthew 18:34-35).
- God will not grant us parental forgiveness to maintain fellowship with Him if we withhold forgiveness from others (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25).
- If we withhold forgiveness from one who has repented of his sins and requested forgiveness we may cause him to be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” and Satan would then be given an advantage in his life (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
19. What excuse do the disciples give for not being able to forgive? (Luke 17:5-6) Jesus addresses three excuses for not forgiving your brother.
- “Why should I forgive I don’t see the fruit of repentance” (Luke 17:3-4)
- “We don’t have enough faith” (Luke 17:5-6)
- “I don’t feel like I can forgive him” (Luke 17:7-10).
At first the disciples’ request for greater faith sounds quite reasonable and even pious. The Lord took a dim view of their request and treated it as an excuse rather than as a sincere plea. The problem is not lack of faith as they alleged. It does not take much faith to do great things. Even a small amount (as small as a tiny mustard seed) could do wonders. What they needed was not more faith; they simply needed to exercise the faith that they had and stop making excuses.
In the Jewish idiom the phrase “as small as a mustard seed” represented the smallest conceivable amount of something.
20. What is the point of the story Jesus tells in Luke 17:7-10? The point of this parable is twofold:
- Granting forgiveness doesn’t require feeling like it. It could not have been easy for the tired, hungry servant to prepare a meal for his master when he, himself, was so hungry. His feelings, as he savored the aroma of the food that he was preparing, told him to forget the hard task of feeding his master and urged him to eat the food himself. But he had been ordered by his master to prepare and serve the meal, so hard as it was, thankless as the task might be (Luke 17:9), and against his feelings, he did what was commanded. It is now clear that forgiveness is a “duty.” It is “commanded.” It is no more hypocritical to obey the Lord in granting forgiveness against one’s feelings than for the slave to prepare and serve the meal against his feelings.
- A servant should expect no special reward for doing what was his duty in the first place. The demanding standards Christ set (Luke 17:1-4) may have seemed too high to the disciples, but they represented only the minimal duties for a servant of Christ. Those who obey are not to think their obedience is meritorious or worthy of any special honor. We can never draw back from doing God’s revealed will because we feel we lack the faith or sufficient feelings to obey Christ. As servants of Jesus Christ, we are to obey when He speaks. Obedience is nothing out of the ordinary for a slave.
The fourth command of Christ in this passage is the word “Say” in Luke 17:10. “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say (present imperative), ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'” Forgiving someone is not something heroic, it is simply fulfilling our Christian duty. In the same way a slave discharges his duties whether he feels like it or not. The word “unworthy” is common in Greek literature, but in the N.T. only here and Matthew 25:30 where it means “useless” or “unprofitable.” The slave who only does what he is commanded by his master to do has gained no merit or credit. “The profit does not begin until the servant goes beyond his obligation” (Meyer).
21. Isn’t it hypocritical to forgive someone when you don’t feel like it? “But suppose I do not feel like forgiving my brother, am I supposed to do so anyhow? Won’t doing so without feeling forgiving make me a hypocrite?” This objection is frequently raised by sincere Christians who become perplexed over hypocrisy by wrongly equating hypocrisy with acting against one’s feelings. This objection also is used hypocritically by others who wish to excuse themselves from the hard (but Christian) duty of granting forgiveness.
- Is there anyone from whom you are withholding forgiveness? If yes, what is your next step?
- Have you or are you struggling to forgive someone?
- Serendipity Bible for Groups by: Serendipity House, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998
- The Christian Counselor’s Manual by: Jay E. Adams, pages 63-70, Baker Book House, 1973.
- The Christian Counselor’s New Testament by: Jay E. Adams, pages 726-727. Baker Book House, 1977.
- The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 8 by: Frank E. Gaebelein (General Editor), Zondervan Publishing House, 1984.
- New Testament Commentary by: William Hendriksen, Baker Book House, 1978.
- Word Pictures in the New Testament Vol. 2 by: A. T. Robertson, Broadman Press, 1930
- The MacArthur Study Bible by: John F. MacArthur,Jr., Word Publishing, 1997.
- Teachers Commentary by: Lawrence O. Richards, Victor Books, 1987
- Improving Your Serve by: Charles R. Swindall, Word Books, 1981
- The Words and Works of Jesus Christ by: J. Dwight Pentecost, Zondervan Publishing House, 1981
- Character Clues: Character Bookshelf Series 1 by: Bill Gothard, IBYC
- Vines complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament Words by: W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Thomas Nelson, 1985.
© Copyright 1994, Richard D. Leineweber Jr.
Additional Commentary: 1
This section consists of five units tied loosely together by the theme of faith:
- A warning against causing someone to stumble (Luke 17:1–3a)
- A saying on forgiveness (Luke 17:3b–4)
- A saying on faith (Luke 17:5–6)
- A saying on duty (Luke 17:7–10)
- The cleansing of ten lepers (Luke 17:11–19).
When the concept is broadened in terms of faithfulness it becomes more apparent that the idea of faith runs throughout the section. Only the first six verses are paralleled in the other gospels (Matthew 18:6–7, 15, 21–22; 21:21; Mark 9:42; 11:22–23).
Luke 17:1–3a / Jesus turns his attention away from the Pharisees and speaks to his disciples. The first saying is a warning against causing one of these little ones (disciples) to sin (lit. “to stumble”). The idea is not simply to cause someone to sin, but rather to become less faithful disciples, or to stop following Jesus altogether. Jesus recognizes that such things will happen, but woe to that person through whom they come. In what sense is it terrible for the disciple who causes another to stumble? In Luke 17:2, Jesus states that it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one to stumble. Elsewhere Jesus states that it would be better to lose an eye or a limb in order to gain heaven than to go to hell (see Mark 9:43, 47). Although this language may be hyperbolic, Jesus warns of the danger of judgment upon anyone who would destroy the faith of the one who believes in him. The final warning of Luke 17:3a, so watch yourselves, probably concludes the stumbling-block saying and is not the introduction for the saying on forgiveness that follows (though it may have been intended as a transition linking the sayings.
Luke 17:3b–4 / This saying, coming as it does immediately after the frightening warning above, may point to the way out of some of the problems associated with causing someone to stumble. The person who is sinned against (offended, or possibly caused to stumble) is to forgive his errant brother. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, he is to be forgiven. (See Matthew 18:22 where Jesus tells Peter to forgive the sinner seventy times seven. Although this saying is addressed apparently to the stronger disciple who does not falter in his faith on account of some offense, the idea of forgiveness is, nevertheless, relevant to the above warning against causing someone to stumble. But the saying also applies to the weaker disciple as well. God expects everyone to be forgiving toward another who repents.
Luke 17:5–6 / The faith that the disciples (or here, apostles) wish Jesus to increase is the kind of faith that will not waver in the face of opposition but is a faith that will expect great things from God (such examples can be seen in the Book of Acts). It may be that in light of the saying’s context, Luke understands this faith as the kind of faith that will not cause other disciples to falter (Luke 17:1–2), but it is a faith that will readily forgive those who sin and then repent (Luke 17:3b–4). What is curious is that Jesus does not actually grant the request of the apostles. They have asked for an increase in faith, but in response Jesus merely describes what great faith is. Even a little genuine faith can do mighty things (see Matthew 17:20). Jesus does not miraculously strengthen the faith of his disciples on the spot (which is clear by their fear, betrayal, and denial of Jesus when their master is arrested).
Luke 17:17:7–10 / This saying suggests that in serving God, God’s people have only done what is expected; just as a servant does not deserve thanks for doing his duty, so the disciples of Jesus should not expect special reward for being obedient. Jesus does not mean to rule out heavenly reward for faithful service, but he means only to instruct his disciples as to how they should think. The point of the saying is concerned with attitude. An arrogant attitude views God as fortunate for having people like us in his service (perhaps this was a Pharisaic attitude). The proper attitude, however, is thankfulness for having the privilege and opportunity to serve God. What reward we have for serving God is not earned, but is given because God is gracious. No Christian can boast before God (see Romans 3:27). Faithful servants understand this and go about their work for God, motivated by love for God and not by a sense of self-importance or by a sense of greed for reward.
Luke 17:17:11–19 / Another aspect of faith, or faithfulness, is thankfulness. This idea is seen clearly in the episode of the cleansing of the ten lepers. In Luke 17:11, Luke notes that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, traveling along the border between Samaria and Galilee. This introduction not only reminds the reader of the journey to Jerusalem, originally announced in Luke 9:51, but sets the stage for the appearance of the Samaritan leper. Jesus is met by ten men who had leprosy. According to custom and law they stood at a distance and cried out to Jesus for help. Jesus makes no pronouncement of healing, but commands them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” (Jesus had given the same command to the leper in Luke 5:14.) This command alludes to the wording of Leviticus 13:49 (see also Leviticus 14:2–4), where one whose leprosy or skin disease has cleared up must be inspected by a priest in order to be readmitted into society.
In obedience the ten lepers depart, but while going they discover that they had been cleansed (or had been healed. One of them returns praising God, and thanked Jesus.
Jesus’ first question (Were not all ten cleansed?) implies that there should be ten, not one, praising God and giving thanks.
His second question (Where are the other nine?) sets up the contrast between the one who returned, who was a Samaritan, and the nine (who presumably were Jews) who did not return to give praise and thanks.
Jesus’ third question (Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?) implies that the least religious or, to put it differently, those presumably most deserving of judgment, are often the ones most thankful to God for his mercy (Luke 7:36–50). The Samaritan is a foreigner (lit. “a stranger”), one who is not a pure descendant of “Father Abraham” (as the rich man of Luke 16:19–31 had been). Jesus’ question summarizes one of the major themes of Luke–Acts. It is the Gentile, the Samaritan, the outcasts and sinners, who respond enthusiastically to the offer of the Good News. Unlike the religious and proud, who assume that their piety guarantees their salvation, the outcasts and sinners assume no such thing (see Luke 18:9–14) and eagerly accept God’s gracious invitation (see Luke 14:15–24).
The foreigner is the only one who came back to give thanks to God, because only he recognized his sin and his need to repent. Unlike others whose hearts are hardened (another theme in Luke–Acts; see Acts 28:25–28), the Samaritan is receptive. Jesus then pronounces that it is his faith that has made him well (lit. “has saved you”). Although the “salvation” here may refer to no more than the leper’s physical healing (which would then be true of the other nine lepers who had been healed), it is more likely that Jesus (or, if not Jesus, then very likely Luke) has understood his expression of gratitude as indicative of conversion. The leper has not only been healed from his dreaded leprosy, but he has gained entry into the kingdom of God.
1 Evans, C. A. (1990). Luke (pp. 253–256). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
[Questions and responses by Richard D. Leineweber, Jr. c. 2000]