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“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. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you. But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”—Luke 17:1-10.
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Our blessed Lord has given us a great deal of practical instruction in the four Gospels. This is something we shall never get beyond as long as we are down here in this world. Everything that is spiritual in any part of the Bible is for us. There are certain things, we know, that have a special dispensational application; but all the great moral and spiritual truths apply at all times. As Christians we ought to come back again and again to the teaching given by Jesus in the Gospels that we may learn of Him how to walk and to please God as we pass on through this scene.
He speaks here of four different subjects. First He gives us a solemn warning concerning stumbling-blocks. We read that Jesus said “unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come!” The word translated offences really means stumbling-block. From time to time there will come occasions of stumbling. Some will forget their responsibilities and allow themselves to be guilty of things that will prove to be stumbling-blocks to others. They will offend or scandalize their weaker brethren, but we are not to excuse these things in ourselves or in others. We may find it easy to say, “I did not mean any harm.” But we are responsible to so walk that others following our example may not go astray into the path of sin through our bad example. We shall have to answer for it if we offend in this way. Jesus said, “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.” One might be terrified almost at these words. They should cause us to “walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” One might say, “I live my own life, and I do not care what people think. I live according to my own judgment.” But that is not the spirit of Christ, and it is not the spirit that should characterize those who profess to be His disciples. There may be many things which we think are all right, but we are to consider our weaker brother. The apostle Paul dealt with this at great length in his Epistles. In Romans 14:21 he said, “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God.” Do not parade your liberty before another who is likely to be influenced wrongly by your behavior. In the second instance our Lord speaks of the forgiveness of injuries, real or fanciful. In verses three and four He says, “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.” Let us stop here for a moment. “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him.” That is, if you feel your brother has said something or done something to injure you, do not talk about it to other people; do not seek some sympathetic person and pour your troubles into his ear, lest in a little while he spread it all through the church. There is an old saying:
“If you are wise you’ll advertise;
And here are all the points essential:
First, tell your business to a friend;
Then say, ‘It’s strictly confidential.’”
So if somebody has offended you, do not tell it to anyone else. Go to him who has done the wrong and rebuke him for it. “And if he repent, forgive him.” Go straight to the one who has offended you; tell him exactly what he has said or what he has done that is grieving you. That takes real manhood. Sometimes it is so much easier to go round muttering and talking to other people about offences instead of going to the one who has done the wrong and telling him what is on your mind. We are great for avoiding our own responsibility. We would rather pass it on to someone else. We would rather bring a charge before the church. But Jesus plainly tells us we are never to bring a matter like that to the church until we have first gone to the person himself. Go to your brother and rebuke him, and if he says, “I am sorry; I did not mean it that way,” or “I am sorry, forgive me,” then you will be able to straighten the matter out at once, and you are not to say anything about it again; that should be the end of it. If we would act on these words more fully how many hurt feelings would be saved; how many church strifes would be avoided! You say, “Well, I talked to him about it, and he said he repented, and I forgave him; but he did the same thing again. What am I to do now?” The Lord says, “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.” This is enough to make almost anybody lose confidence in a man: he says, “I repent,” and then he does it again and again. I cannot believe in a person like that, you say. Never mind that; you do not have to believe in him if you will only forgive him. If he trespasses seven times in a day and says, “I repent,” then you are to forgive him. Remember on another occasion (Matt. 18:21, 22) Peter said, “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, until seventy times seven.” I am afraid none of us have ever had to forgive that many times. Of course, we are not called upon to proclaim forgiveness until the other person professes to repent. I do not have to run after someone, calling, “I forgive you! I forgive you!” He is likely to say, “I do not want you to forgive me; I do not need your forgiveness.” But we are to maintain always an attitude of mercy and to love him until at last he breaks down and says he repents. Then we are to forgive as freely as God forgives us.
The third lesson we have here is that of the power of faith. When Jesus told these things to His disciples, they looked at Him, as much as to say, “You are setting up a standard so high we cannot attain to it.” They exclaimed, “Lord, increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.” Do not misunderstand that. He did not mean that we are to go about demonstrating our power over nature. Faith, you know, is believing God, and faith leads one to act in accordance with His revealed will. Now if God reveals to you that you should pray that some sycamine tree be plucked up and cast into the sea, He will give faith for it; but that is not the customary thing. What the Lord is teaching is that if you have real faith you will be able to triumph in spite of all outward circumstances. You have heard of the Irishman who said, “I learned to trust God, and He has done such wonderful things for me that if He tells me to jump through a stone wall I’ll jump, and I know He will make a way through.” But do not jump if God has not told you to do it! Faith leads us to act in accordance with the Word of God, and when we do God can be depended upon to see us through.
In the fourth instance, the Lord says some things to keep us from over-estimating our own devoted-ness, or the value of our own service. He uses a very simple illustration: He speaks of a farm-hand working in the field, plowing, or feeding the cattle, and doing other duties, then coming back to the house where it is his business to help prepare the meal and to wait upon the owner of the farm. He says in a case like that, after you have done your plowing, carried food to the cattle and finished a number of other duties that are yours and you come to the house, you do not expect the owner to say to you, “Sit down here while I prepare the meal, and I shall be glad to wait on you.” No; you are not looking for that. You are a hired hand, a servant, and you are appointed to do certain things for which the owner pays you. You do not feel that any special commendation is due to you for doing that for which you are being paid. The arrangements were made when you came to work on the farm, and so you do not expect any special consideration. You do not say, “I have given my time, and I think I deserve a great deal more attention.” So the Lord warns His disciples not to allow themselves to be carried away with the idea that because of their service they deserve special commendation. We are bought with His precious blood, and our work is to serve with gladness. We are but imperfect workmen at best. He says, “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.’* It is our duty to continue in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ. We leave it to Him to appraise our work. He will take note of all service for Himself, and everything that has been done out of love for Him will be rewarded, even to a cup of cold water given in His name.