Forum Class, Peninsula Bible Church, May 28, 2006


Taking Sin Seriously
(Luke 17:1-4)

By: Bob Deffinbaugh , Th.M.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 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 of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”


We tend to think of sin as a “singular” matter, that which a particular person commits, for which he or she is individually responsible. That is true, but it is not the total picture. Let me illustrate.

In last Sunday’s newspaper, there was an article entitled: “Women in Prison: Why and How They Got There.” The article begins with these words:

Through the ages, poets have sung of the pain of misplaced affection, and mothers have harangued their daughters against getting mixed up with the wrong kind of man. Mama was right—especially in the case of a woman who breaks the law. Today, huge numbers of women are serving time in prisons because, at least in part, they ran around with the wrong guy.

‘They hook up with a thief, a drug dealer, a robber,’ he says, ‘and get caught up in crime out of misguided loyalty.’ Karl Rasmussen, executive director of the Women’s Prison Association in New York, maintains that although no specific data on the subject exists, 85 percent of the women he has seen over the years wouldn’t have gone to prison if they hadn’t got romantically involved, for what they think is love.” 23

It isn’t just men who get women into trouble. Take Adam and Eve, for example. The Scriptures make it clear that while Eve was deceived, Adam was not, but he abdicated his role of leader and followed his wife into sin—knowingly (cf. 1 Timothy 3:14). I believe it is safe to say that people seldom sin independently. Just as our legal system recognizes that there are accessories to a crime, so the Lord Jesus, in our text, stresses that there are accessories to sin.

If the first sin in the Bible involved one person leading another, as it were, into sin, the second sin of the Bible involved one person refusing to take any responsibility for the well-being of another. You remember the story of Cain and Abel, his brother, from Genesis chapter 4, where Cain sought to defend himself by responding to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9).

We can see, then, not only from experience, but more importantly from Scripture, that sin is not just a “solo” experience. In Luke chapter 17 Jesus spoke about sin as an interpersonal matter, rather than merely as an individual matter. The first two verses are a warning concerning the seriousness of influencing others in such a way as to encourage them to sin. In terms of the first sin in Genesis chapter 3, Jesus spoke words, which if obeyed, would keep us from being “Eve’s” to the “Adam’s” of this world. The last two verses deal with the positive role which they can play in the life of one who has sinned. Again, in Genesis chapter 4 terms, Jesus told us how it is we are to be our “brother’s keeper” when he does sin. The unifying element in these verses is “sin” and the overriding emphasis is that the disciples of our Lord should (1) take sin seriously, and (2) take sin personally.

The Structure of the Text

Looking at the 17th chapter of Luke as a whole, there is little disagreement as to what the segments or divisions of the chapter are:

(1) Not causing your brother to sin—verses 1-2

(2) What to do when your brother sins—verses 3-4

(3) Faith and the disciple—verses 5-10

(4) The healing of the ten lepers and the gratitude of one—verses 11-19

(5) Jesus’ teaching on the coming of the kingdom of God—verses 20-37

The struggle is to determine what the relationship is between these “parts” of the whole. Some, indeed, despair of finding any unity in this chapter at all. Plummer, in his commentary on Luke, entitles this section, “Four sayings of Christ” (p. 398). He goes on to say, “They have no connection with the much longer utterances which precede them.… And the four sayings appear to be without connection one with another.” 24

I acknowledge the difficulty which these verses pose for us in finding a unified theme, but this, for me, is simply a “tension of the text,” a difficulty which serves to stimulate my study of this text. It is my presupposition that Luke has been developing a very orderly argument, even as he has indicated in his introduction (1:1-4). This order is not, to the best of my understanding, chronological, but logical—it is a logical development of the gospel, its issues, and its opposition. I therefore must seek for a unity of thought in the entire chapter, and I must seek to find the thread of continuity between this chapter and those which both precede and follow. I must therefore differ with Plummer (“fools rush in … ”), refusing to view Luke’s words here as a kind of “catchall of miscellaneous sayings.” Luke is not that kind of writer. He has no “Fibber Magee’s closets” in his developing argument. Let us therefore seek to grasp Luke’s unity of thought, recognizing that the failure to grasp it is ours, and not that of the author (who ultimately is the Holy Spirit).


Throughout the gospel of Luke, there has been a building opposition to Jesus and His teaching on the part of the Pharisees. This was that religious group who, in their minds, held firm to the Old Testament Law of Moses, and to its standards. They were “hard on sin” and they sought to use their influence to expose Jesus as a fraud, a law-breaker, rather than the One who came to fulfill the Law.

The opposition to Jesus began in chapter 5, when Jesus not only healed the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof, but told him that his sins were forgiven as well. Such words, the Pharisees, correctly reasoned, could only be spoken by God. But Jesus failed to conform to their concept of Messiah. Jesus associated with sinners. They shunned sinners. Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of His disciples, and then ate together with him and other sinners (Luke 5:27ff.). He even celebrated with them, enjoying it! Jesus spent more time with sinners than with them—the righteous. This was too much. From here on, the Pharisees looked for reasons to accuse Jesus, to discredit Him before the crowds. The violation of the Sabbath became one of their principle charges against Him.

The Pharisees' opposition to Jesus has been intensifying in the last couple of chapters immediately preceding our text in chapter 17. In chapter 14, Jesus was eating at the table of a Pharisee on the Sabbath, and there He healed a man (14:1-4). Although the Pharisees kept silent, Jesus exposed their hypocrisy (14:5-6). He then went on to expose their self-seeking motivation in having dinners in the first place (14:7-11). He taught that dinners should be given to benefit others, not to benefit the host (14:12-14). He explained the rejection of the Pharisees and of others of Israel’s leadership in a parable that revealed their self-interest, and which also explained the Lord’s seeking of the outcasts of society (14:15-24).

In chapter 15, Jesus told three parables about that which had been “lost,” showing how the compassion of the Pharisees was selfish, while that of God was gracious. The refusal of the Pharisees to rejoice in the repentance of sinners was shown to be out of step with heaven, and to be motivated by self-righteousness. The “older brother” of the parable of the prodigal was an ugly portrait of the Pharisees, one which they did not appreciate.

If in chapter 15 the Pharisees were grumbling against Jesus, by chapter 16 they are more angry, more vigorous, and more public in their opposition to Him. After the parable of the “unjust steward,” the Pharisees became scoffers. Luke explains to us that they were “lovers of money” (15:14). Jesus then exposed the Pharisees, who prided themselves as “custodians of the Law” to be the corrupters of it. Instead of seeking justification from God, based upon the heart, they played before the audience of men, hypocritically acting in accordance with men’s values (which are diametrically opposed to God’s—16:15), giving the appearance of righteousness, so that men would praise them. Jesus pressed this point home with the parable of the “rich man and Lazarus,” in which the rich man, who would have been the Pharisees’ hero, went to hell, while Lazarus (whom they would have condemned) went to heaven. Jesus turned their system upside-down.

The teaching of Jesus in chapter 17 can hardly be divorced from this backdrop. Indeed, I understand Jesus’ words to be a thinly veiled indictment of the Pharisees, using their sin as an illustration of what the disciples should not do. Let us now consider our passage in this light, seeking to learn what Jesus was teaching His disciples, in the light of the context. We shall then seek to learn the meaning of his words to us as well.

Sobering Word on Stumbling Blocks 

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 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 of these little ones to sin.

We live in a fallen world. Sin is, in this sense, inevitable, and so are those things which tend to prompt it. In biblical terms “the world, the flesh, and the devil” are all being utilized to promote sin. The world seeks to “press us into its own mold” (Romans 12:2), to cause us to adopt its values and to imitate or join in with it in its evil deeds. The flesh is that fallen nature within us, which prompts us to act on our own behalf, to pursue our own pleasures, even at the expense of others. The devil employs both the world and the flesh for his own devious purposes, and even, at times, personally solicits men to sin, as he did with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), and with our Lord (Luke 4).

These inducements or encouragements to sin are beyond the control of the Christian. In our Lord’s words, they are, “bound to come” (verse 1). There are times, however, when the Christian is actually the source of the stumbling block. Peter, for example, served as a stumbling block to our Lord, when he sought to turn Him from the way of the cross:

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

In this instance, Peter did not (and could not) succeed. So, too, in other cases, the offended party may not fall into the sin we made attractive to them, but we are nevertheless guilty of promoting the evil.

I believe the (NIV) translation can be misleading, therefore, in translating the term rendered “stumbling block” 25 by other versions, “things that cause people to sin.” Technically speaking, we cannot make another person sin any more than we can make him or her do that which is pleasing to God. We can influence people in either direction. We are a “stumbling block” to others when we influence people in the direction of sin. This is the exact opposite to the command of the Scriptures to, “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24, NASB).

Lest we think that the term is always negative, that it always connotes sin on the part of the one who is a stumbling block, remember that our Lord was a “stumbling block” to the Jews:

Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 9:32-33).

But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The Danger of Being a Stumbling Block

In our text, Jesus never said what the fate of a stumbling block would be. He does tell us, however, what would be better for that stumbling block than his ultimate fate. Jesus said that being drowned in the sea, with a millstone hung around his neck, would be a better fate than that which could occur. What is that which could occur? While Luke does not tell us, listen to these disturbing words from the gospel of Matthew, words which cause us to agree with Jesus that drowning in the sea is better:

“Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all STUMBLING BLOCKS, AND THOSE WHO COMMIT LAWLESSNESS, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:40-42, NASB).

Can a Christian Be a Stumbling Block?

When we look at this text in Matthew’s gospel, we will immediately see that the “stumbling blocks” here are viewed as unbelievers. These are those who are the “tares” among the “wheat.” These are those who will be “cast into the furnace of fire.” The “stumbling blocks” of Matthew seem not to be believers. It should also be noted that in Matthew chapter 18 “the world” is the source of the stumbling blocks, and that those who are caused to stumble are the “little ones who believe” (verse 7). Thus, it would seem, the stumbling blocks are unbelievers; the ones caused to stumble are believers.

When we come to Luke chapter 17, we find something similar, if not identical. When Jesus spoke to “His disciples” about the danger of being a stumbling block, He did not use the pronoun “you,” but He rather spoke of the more impersonal “him” and “he”:

And He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble” (Luke 17:1-2, NASB, emphasis mine).

It is my opinion that in the context, it is the Pharisees who are especially in view here when it speaks of the serious consequences which would befall the one who became a stumbling block to others. In Luke, the Pharisees have been the most vocal and visible and vicious in their attacks against our Lord. It is this group who has sought to discredit Jesus, and has sought to turn men and women from following Him.

Does this mean that only unbelievers can be a stumbling block? Not at all. Peter was acting as a stumbling block to our Lord when he sought to rebuke Him for speaking of His death, a death which would be for the salvation of all who would believe. But when Jesus rebuked Peter in this case, He did not call Him “Peter,” but “Satan.” Peter, in this moment, spoke for Satan; he thought not God’s thoughts, but men’s; he spoke not as a disciple, but as the enemy himself. Thus, I believe that Christians can surely become a stumbling block to others, but when they do so they cease to speak for God, and they cease to function as a Christian. At this moment in time, they speak for Satan, they speak as an unbeliever. Not that they are an unbeliever (or that they would become one), but that they function as one, they are indistinguishable from one, for the moment. At the bottom line, being a stumbling block is a satanic thing, that which is characteristic of unbelievers, unbelievers destined to hell. How unbecoming of the Christian. How serious a sin.

The Saint’s Business: 
Seeking to Restore the Sinner 

So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

If it is the unbeliever who serves Satan’s purposes by enticing others to sin, it is the Christian’s business to seek to restore the sinner, when he or she has fallen. How inappropriate to influence one in the direction of sin. How Christ-like to seek to restore the sinner.

Just as the title of “stumbling block” primarily fits the Pharisee, so too the Pharisee is in view in these two verses. The Pharisees were abusing their leadership in an attempt to turn people from listening to, believing, and following Jesus. The teaching of our Lord as to how the disciples should respond to a sinning brother is in direct contrast to the practice and teaching of the Pharisees. The Pharisees felt that the most “spiritual” response to the sinner was to shun him or her. In the case of the “woman taken in adultery” (John 8), they would happily have stoned her. How different is our Lord’s approach.

It is assumed here by our Lord that just as stumbling blocks are inevitable (v. 1), so sin, even among our brethren is going to happen. Because of this, Jesus teaches His disciples what their response should be to sin in the life of a brother (verse 3).26 I believe that the expression “your brother” in verse 3 is pointed and purposeful. The older “brother” of the prodigal seems to have disowned the younger brother (“this son of yours,” Luke 15:30, NASB), something which his father will not allow to stand unchallenged (“this brother of yours,” 15:32, NASB). So, too, the Pharisees seemed to disown their Jewish brethren, when they put them into the category of “sinners.”

By the use of the expression, “your brother,” Jesus may well be implying a couple of important truths. First, He may be informing His disciples that they are not responsible to correct and rebuke mankind in general, but only those whom they know, with whom they closely identify. The Pharisees (not to mention others of us) seemed to love to condemn those outside of their own circles, those on the “other side of the tracks.” Jesus tells us that we are responsible to correct those whom we know, those whose sins are personally known to us. Second, He may be reminding the disciples that their sinning brother is still their brother. We cannot, like the self-righteous older brother of the parable of the prodigal, disown those close to us who sin.

Third, the fact that we are responsible to rebuke and to forgive our brother implies that we must also be alert to the kinds of sin which he or she is most likely to commit. If this brother is close to us, then he is also like us, which means that we must begin by being sensitive to those sins which so easily can beset us. How easy it is to focus on the (visible, cf. 16:15) sins of others, rather than on the (perhaps more socially acceptable) sins of which we are guilty. We may, for example, march on the abortion clinics and speak against homosexuality, but we go easy on sins such as pride, self-righteousness, greed, and ambition—those sins which are most characteristic of us.

If one takes sin seriously, then learning of sin in the life of a brother obligates him to act in a way that seeks to bring that brother to repentance. This begins with rebuke. Rebuke seeks to bring that wayward brother to a realization of the sinful nature of his actions, and also to bring him to an awareness of the seriousness of sin, and thus to take the appropriate action—to repent. If this brother repents, he is to be forgiven.

From the wording of verse 3, one may wonder if Jesus taught that forgiveness should only be granted if the sinner repents. Does repentance precede forgiveness? Certainly not in the case of our Lord. On the cross, He cried out, “Father, forgive them … ” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness is first granted, and then it is experienced by those who repent. Jesus taught that forgiveness was to be granted if the sinner repented, not because we are to withhold forgiveness, but because not all sinners repent. Repentance may not occur, but when it does, we dare not withhold forgiveness. The point here is also that this forgiveness is to be conveyed (verbalized) at the time the sinner repents.

Three Characteristics of Forgiveness

I believe that verse 3 is more general, while verse 4 gets more specific, dealing especially with those cases in which the one who rebukes the sinner might be tempted to withhold forgiveness. In verse 4, Jesus gives three characteristics of forgiveness which are most important.

(1) Forgiveness is to be granted, Jesus taught, to those who have sinned against us. It is one thing to forgive one who has sinned against God, or against others; it is quite another to forgive the one who has sinned against us. Jesus requires His disciples to forgive personal offenses.

(2) Forgiveness is to be granted, on the basis of a verbal confession alone. Frankly, words are cheap. We know how often confession and repentance can lack genuineness and sincerity. Our children, like us, can quickly evoke a hasty, but insincere, “I’m sorry,” in a tone and attitude which betrays a lack of honesty. Knowing this, and the tendency we will have to demand some “proof” of repentance—proof which will undoubtedly take time (thus forestalling our forgiveness and reconciliation)—Jesus teaches that forgiveness must be immediately granted, on the basis of a verbal confession alone.

(3) Forgiveness is to be granted, Jesus said, even to those who sin against us repeatedly and habitually. It is a habitual sinner who is most difficult to forgive—repeatedly, and on the basis of a confession alone. The wife of an alcoholic, abusive, husband has heard, “I’m sorry,” too many times. Humanly speaking, she will come to doubt, even to despise, the “repentance” of her mate. She surely wants to see a change in behavior before she will believe that he has changed, or that he will. Jesus teaches that forgiveness is granted by faith, not by the works of the offending party. It is no wonder, then, that the apostles will ask the Lord to increase their faith in the very next verse. The ability to forgive on the basis of these requirements is only possible by faith.


In this text, our Lord teaches us that we must take sin seriously. It is not in our text, but in both Matthew (5:27-32) and Mark (9:43-50) our Lord has very sobering words for His disciples on the seriousness of personal sins, those sins which become a stumbling block to us. He teaches that it would be better to sever a limb or a bodily member if that would keep us from sin and from hell. While we would like to tone down these words, if taken seriously we must take sin seriously.

If we would take sin seriously, we must look for those forms of sin to which we are most susceptible. Let us not focus on those sins which characterize another culture, another group, another segment of society. Let us not focus primarily on those sins which are external, which are based upon outward actions and appearances alone, but on those sins of the heart. Let us also beware of the fact that our wicked hearts are exceedingly deceptive, and thus we can even succeed at re-defining “sin” in such a way that appears to be a virtue, rather than a vice. For example, the Corinthian saints were not shamed by the sin of one of their members, who lived with his father’s wife. Indeed, they were proud of it (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). How could this be? Because they had re-defined apathy and disregard for sin as “tolerance,” which they saw as a virtue. Many of our sins have been “sanctified” by new, more pious labels, but they are still sins; indeed they are even more insidious sins. These sins can only be known as the Spirit of God applies the Word of God to our lives (cf. Psalm 119; Hebrews 4:11-12).

In our text, the disciples of our Lord are taught that we must take sin (and its consequences) so seriously that we are constantly on guard not to become a stumbling block in the life of another. If we take sin seriously, we do not wish to sin ourselves, nor do we wish to encourage sin in the life of another. There are two questions we must ask at this point. First, “What is it that characterizes a stumbling block?” Let me briefly list a few characteristics for you to consider more carefully and prayerfully:

Characteristics of Stumbling Blocks

(1) Stumbling blocks increase the temptation to sin. To put the matter just a bit differently, the stumbling block makes sin harder to resist.

(2) Being a stumbling block is very much a matter of misused influence. Stumbling blocks are generally “stronger,” more mature, more influential than those they adversely influence (“little ones”).

(3) Leaders, then, are in great danger of becoming a stumbling block.

(4) Stumbling block may or may not deliberately intend to be such; they may or may not be conscious of the impact of their deeds.

(5) Stumbling blocks may or may not cause the other person to sin. A stumbling block makes sin more appealing, although he may not succeed at causing the other person to sin.

(6) The stumbling block issue has some desire or attraction to the weak.

(7) The stumbling block may or may not be a believer.

(8) The occasion of stumbling may not only be appealing, but may well not be evil, in and of itself (e.g. the “liberties” of 1 Corinthians and Romans 14).

Second, we must ask ourselves, “What are some of the ways in which we can become a stumbling block to another?” Consider these ways as a starting point:

Ways we can cause others to stumble

(1) Competition—cf. Matthew 18:1ff.; also Mark 9—when we seek to get ahead of our brethren, we will not seek to build them up, but rather to tear them down; we construct ways in which to see to it that our brethren fall. (Note that the disciples’ arguing over who was the greatest brought about our Lord’s words about stumbling blocks in both Matthew and Mark).

(2) False teaching—Malachi 2:8; Romans 16:17; James 3; Revelation 2:14 (?).

(3) Flattery—Proverbs 7:21-22; 26:28; 29:5.

(4) Ungodly rebuke & counsel—Job’s friends/Peter & Jesus (Matthew 16:23)

(5) Use of liberties which are detrimental to weaker brethren—Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 8:9; 10:32; 2 Corinthians 6:2.

(6) Passing judgment on others—Romans 14:13 (?).

(7) By abusing our position or power / setting a bad example—James 3. Sexual, physical, psychological abuse of children (?)

(8) By not living in the light, but continuing in the deeds of darkness: 1 John 2:10. 2 Corinthians 6:3 (cf. vv. 1-13).

(9) By “judging,” I take it, imposing standards above the Scriptures—cf. Romans 14:13; cf. James 4:11-12.

Finally, if we take sin in the life of a brother seriously, we will do everything possible to turn that brother from his sin when he falls. The Pharisees prided themselves for taking sin seriously. They, however, looked for sin in others, and then withdrew from those whose sins they found personally offensive. The Lord, who came to seek and to save sinners, calls upon His disciples to do likewise. Thus, we show that we take sin seriously when we seek out our sinning brother and do all we can to turn him from that sin to God, by repenting.

It may be that you are reading this message and you have never yet received the forgiveness which God offers you in the person of Jesus Christ. What hope this text should give to you. Jesus’ disciples are instructed in this text to act as he does, to seek to bring sinners to repentance. His disciples are to be as eager to forgive those who have sinned against them as Jesus is to forgive those who have sinned against Him. This is why it was so easy for sinners to come to Jesus, but so hard for the righteous to come to Him. Jesus loves to forgive sinners. If you have never experienced His forgiveness, do so today. Jesus has suffered and died on the cross of Calvary. He has suffered God’s condemnation for your sins. All you must do is to repent and to receive that forgiveness. Do it now.


23 “Parade, The Dallas Morning News, Sunday, April 10, 1988, p. 4.

24 Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 398.

25 “The word skandala is perhaps not quite as specific as this translation. It means the bait-stick of a trap, that which triggers off trouble (the corresponding verb is found in 7:23). Moffatt renders ‘hindrances.’ All hindrances to the spiritual life are included, but temptations to sin are clearly the worst of these.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 255.

26 I may very well be mistaken or pressing a point too far, but it seems significant to me that it is a “brother” whose sin should cause us to seek him out. Either Jesus is reminding us that “sinners” are our brothers, like it (or their sin) or not, something the Pharisees could easily set aside, or He is telling us to be on the alert for sin in our own camp. Thus, Pharisees should be alert to the sins of fellow-Pharisees, and not just tax collectors, prostitutes, and so on. This would mean that we would have to be much more sensitive to the kinds of sins we ourselves would be guilty of, for those we are most likely required to seek out are those who are one of us.

Note, that Jesus speaks of your brother. While the warning of verses 1 & 2 was more impersonal (“he” and “him”), this exhortation is much more personal (“your”).



Putting Faith In Perspective
(Luke 17:5-19)

By: Bob Deffinbaugh , Th.M.

And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree,’ Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.

But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”

And it came about while He was on the way to Jerusalem, that He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. And as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten leprous men, who stood at a distance; and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And when He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And it came about that as they were going, they were cleansed.

Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Were none found who turned back to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise, and go your way; your faith has made you well.”


Jesus’ words seem to be too much for the disciples. Sin, Jesus has made very clear in the first four verses of chapter 17, is to be taken most seriously. We are, in addition, our brother’s keeper. For these reasons, we dare not become a stumbling block to our brother. If this were particularly true of the Pharisees, it is also true for disciples. Furthermore, the disciple of Jesus must not only actively seek to avoid being a hindrance to others (verses 1-2), he must aggressively seek to restore one who has fallen into sin (verses 3-4). He must, Jesus said, rebuke the fallen one. The goal is repentance and reconciliation. Thus, even though a brother has repeatedly sinned against us, we must forgive when he comes with a statement of repentance. This, after all, is all that God requires of us for forgiveness.

The apostles are seemingly taken back by what they hear. How can they possibly be expected to do this? Should they repeatedly forgive a habitual sinner, solely on their profession of repentance? It seems like an impossibility to them. Such a miracle would require great faith, they conclude, much more faith than they possess. If they are to obey Jesus, He must increase their faith, and so they all ask for greater faith. Jesus’ reply is indeed puzzling. One would hardly think that Jesus would be opposed to men seeking great faith, but that is exactly what it appears He does.

How many times I have thought that the reason why I could or would not obey a command of our Lord was that I had too little faith. Concluding that our problem is one of insufficient faith, we seem to have but two options. First, we can conclude that faith is God’s problem, and thus we are not responsible until He provides it. That almost seems to be the mindset of the apostles in our text. The second approach is to try to conjure up the faith, on our own. This is virtually futile. Nowhere does Jesus teach us how to build faith in the way we try to build our bodies. In this text, Jesus will teach His disciples and us that it is not a problem with the quantity of their faith, but a failure to grasp the nature of faith, and to act accordingly. Let us look, then, to our text, to see what it is about faith that we need to learn, along with the apostles.

Structure of the Text

(1) Being your brother’s keeper—verses 1-4

(2) Not causing him to stumble—verses 1-2

(3) Seeking, rebuking, and forgiving when he falls—verses 3-4

(4) Faith in the disciple’s life—verses 5-10

(5) Request for faith—verse 5

(6) The power of a little faith—verse 6

(7) A word about obedience and gratitude—verses 7-10

(8) Faith, Cleansing, and Gratitude—verses 11-19


Verses 1-4 of chapter 17 can be viewed under the caption: “You are your brother’s keeper.” These verses especially emphasize the responsibility of a disciple in the context of sin, which we are to take very seriously. Verses 1 and 2 instruct the disciple to beware of causing a brother or sister to stumble. Verses 3 and 4 instruct the disciple concerning his responsibility to seek out, to rebuke, and to forgive the brother who has sinned. The goal of these actions is to bring the sinning brother to repentance, and to be reconciled with him as quickly as possible. The forgiveness for which our Lord calls is to be granted …

(1) To the one who sins against us.

(2) To the one who repeatedly sins against us.

(3) To the one who sins against us and (only) says he has repented.

Such forgiveness is difficult to grant. How easy it would be to protest that granting forgiveness to one only on the basis of a verbal “I’m sorry” may be wasted, for the “repentance” may not be sincere. Jesus does not instruct the disciple to “test” the sincerity of one’s repentance, but to respond to it. We might say, in the light of the following words of our Lord, that the disciple must accept an offending brother’s repentance on faith.

As I understand our text, it is Jesus’ words about forgiveness which precipitate the apostles’ petition for more faith. They seem to understand that forgiveness must be granted by faith. They also appear to believe that such forgiveness would require more faith than they possessed. Thus, they petitioned the Lord to give them greater faith, with the implied commitment to obey His instructions when such faith was theirs.

The Themes of our Text

Before we begin to deal with the problems and interpretations of our text, let us be certain that we identify the major themes of this passage. These themes are skillfully woven together by Luke to convey a message to the reader. We cannot understand the relationship between these themes or their message until we first identify them. The themes, as I understand them are these:

(1) [Jesus’] Authority (position: masterhood and slavehood)

(2) Forgiveness

(3) Faith

(4) Gratitude/thanks (cf. vv. 9, 16)

(5) Worthiness

(6) Obedience

I do not wish to imply that I fully understand any one of these themes, nor the way in which Luke wove them together to form a message. I do wish, however, to make some suggestions, which hopefully will prove helpful to you in your continued study of this text.

The Tensions of our Text

The difficulties which our text presents the student are many. Some scholars, as indicated in the last lesson, have come to despair of their being any connection between the various segments of our chapter, and even question that these segments relate to the surrounding context. I do not question the unity of these segments, that is, that there is a logical argument being developed here. The biggest problem for me is to determine what that argument is. In addition, there are several other nagging questions which spur me on to a more careful consideration of these verses.

First, what is the relationship between the forgiveness which Jesus required above, the faith for which the disciples asked, and the concept of our unworthiness as disciples below? Second, why the change from “disciples” in verse 1 to “apostles” in verse 5? Third, what is the relationship between the Lord’s teaching on the unworthy slave (verses 7-10) and the story of the 10 lepers, only of whom returned (verses 11-19)? Fourth, did the nine lepers actually manifest faith? Fifth, was that healing (or salvation) which the one returning leper received different from or greater than that which the other nine received? If so, how, and why?

A Plea For Faith 
and a Puzzling Response 

And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree,’ Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.

But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”

I understand that this petition for more faith is the direct result of Jesus’ commands above pertaining to rebuking wayward brethren and the granting of forgiveness, under circumstances which would be extremely difficult. Note the change, here, from the term disciples (verse 1) to apostles (verse 5). I understand the “disciples” to be that larger group of followers of our Lord, those who truly believed in Him, as contrasted with the unbelieving Pharisees (cf. 8:1-3). The “apostles” on the other hand were the twelve, the smaller group of disciples. This group was much more informed because Jesus had spoken many things to them which the larger group did not hear (cf. Mark 4:33-34; 9:28; John 2:24-25).

But why are we told that the apostles (plural) petitioned Jesus for greater faith? Often we may not be told who among the apostles spoke. At other times, we are informed as to who the speaker (or spokesman) was. But here we are given the impression that many, if not all, of the apostles spoke, asking for greater faith. I believe that they may all have spoken at once, or perhaps one after the other, but that all (or most) of the disciples spoke because they strongly sensed the need for faith. They thought that in and of themselves they could not do what Jesus had commanded.

For some time I had the impression that this was a very pious petition. How could one be more spiritual than to ask for more faith? This has the same pious look that Solomon’s request for wisdom has (cf. 1 Kings 3). I am no longer convinced that this was such a spiritual request. Indeed, I am inclined to view it as a camouflage. I think that the apostles were sincere in their request, but that something must have been wrong with it. It does not seem to me that faith is what was lacking here, but simple obedience. Think this matter through with me as we consider our Lord’s puzzling response.

First, Jesus’ response, as recorded in verses 6 through 10, has a certain proportion which should be instructive to us. Only one verse, verse 6, is positive in nature, while the next four verses are more negative, that is, they are more corrective in nature, as is indicated by the first word of verse 7, “but.” This would suggest, when taken with other facts, that Jesus is not affirming their response as much as He is correcting it.

Second, Jesus seems to be teaching that very little faith is required in order to accomplish incredible things. The apostles’ request implies that what Jesus required necessitated great faith, and that their supply was deficient. Thus, they asked Jesus for more faith, assuming that they did not have enough. Jesus’ answer was that it took only a very little quantity of faith to achieve much. With the quantity of faith equivalent to that of a mustard seed—a very small seed indeed—they could uproot a tree and transplant it into the sea. Did they then need more faith—really? Jesus’ answer seems to question their premise that they had too little faith.

Third, Jesus purposely used an illustration of the power of faith which did not relate directly to forgiveness. When “faith-brokers” today speak to men about exercising faith, the do so with the most “tempting” illustrations, illustrations which incite the gullible listener to action. They tell a person, for example, if you have the faith to send in $10, God will bless you with $100. If Jesus wanted His disciples (apostles) to exercise faith, would He not have used an illustration which showed that faith would produce incredible forgiveness? Instead, Jesus taught them that faith in the quantity of a mustard seed would enable them to command a tree to be uprooted and to be transplanted to the sea. Who cares? Who is interested in transplanting trees in this way? Jesus used this illustration to prove His point, but not to motivate them to exercise faith in the area of forgiveness.

A friend of mine pointed out that this request of the apostles is most interesting in the light of the power and authority already granted them by our Lord. They had been sent out to preach the kingdom of God, with the power and authority to heal and to cast out demons (Luke 9:1ff.). In spite of such great power, some of which seems to abide with them on an on-going basis, they found that they did not have sufficient “faith” to forgive. Now this is truly an amazing thing. In the following verses, Jesus is going to sharpen the focus of the apostles, so that what they really lack will become evident. There is a deficiency, I believe, but it is not in the quantity of the apostles’ faith.

Fourth, and most significantly, we should note that while the disciples made a very clear request for increased faith, Jesus is not said to have granted it. This is such an obvious fact that we hardly even notice it, and yet it is very crucial to understanding our passage. The disciples asked Jesus for more faith, but Jesus did not grant it. A lack of faith must therefore not be the problem.

Lessons on Gratitude 

In verses 7-19 Luke provides us with two lessons on gratitude. The first lesson is taught by our Lord to the apostles. He compares His relationship to them to the relationship between a master and his slave (verses 7-9). He then applies this to the attitude of His disciples toward their obedience (verse 10). The second lesson comes to us from an incident which happened sometime in the ministry of our Lord, which Luke records at this point because of its contribution to the subject of gratitude. Ten lepers call upon Jesus to have mercy, and all ten are healed, but only one returns to thank the Lord Jesus, and this man is a Samaritan. In the first instance, it is the master who is not obligated to have gratitude towards the obedience of his slave; in the second, it is the recipient of God’s grace who is to have gratitude toward God. Let us consider these two lessons on gratitude, and then seek to discover how they relate to faith and forgiveness.

The Hard-Working Slave 

But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”

As was often the case, Jesus began to teach with a story. He speaks from the vantage point of a culture which practices, understands, and to some degree accepts slavery. We will find this lesson very strange indeed, even distasteful. Remember, however, that the slave belonged to his master. He belonged completely to him. Thus, the master could be very severe in his demands, especially in comparison to our culture. Jesus’ words indicate that what He was about to say was something with which all would agree, given that culture. He begins, “Which one of you.…” This is very similar to the first two stories Jesus told of “lost things” in chapter 15. There, it was Jesus’ opponents, the Pharisees, who were represented by the “you” (cf. Luke 15:4, 8). He will make His point, then, based upon the attitudes and value systems represented by His apostles.

Any of the apostles would understand the relationship between a master and his slave. None of them, if they had a slave who had either been out all day plowing or tending sheep, would be welcomed home that night with a hot meal. Instead, the master would rightly expect his slave to clean up, change his clothes, and then fix him his meal. Only after this would the slave be free to care for his own needs. And when the slave had perfectly carried out all of his duties for the day, no one would expect the master to come to him, put an arm around his shoulder, and tell him how good a job he had done. Masters felt no obligation to pamper their slaves, nor to praise them.

In our society, our Lord might have told the story of the man who filled out his income tax form. The form was neatly filled out, with all the supporting facts and figures. Along with the form, mailed before April 15th, there was a check for the taxes which were due. Surely, Jesus might say, this man would not expect a call or a thank you note from the IRS or from the President of the United States, expressing the government’s gratitude for obedience to the laws of the land. Paying taxes is our duty, one for which we expect no gratitude if we obey exactly as required, but one which we expect punishment for failing to perform.

Nobody among the apostles would have argued this point with the Master. But why was this true? Why was it granted that the master need not pamper or praise his slave, but expect him to serve him sacrificially and faithfully? I think that there is one principle reason, and it is almost too simple to repeat: because the master was the master, and the slave was a slave. The underlying principle might therefore be summarized: MASTERS HAVE EVERY RIGHT TO DEMAND COMPLETE OBEDIENCE FROM THEIR SLAVES, BUT SLAVES HAVE NO RIGHT TO DEMAND ANYTHING FROM THEIR MASTERS.


The Lord, in verse 10, puts the principle into very practical terms, applying it to His disciples. It is apparent that the Lord is to be viewed as the Master, and the disciples, His slaves. They, like slaves, are to see themselves as under obligation to obey the Lord completely. Having done so, they are not to expect praise or reward, either. Instead, they are to look upon themselves as “unworthy slaves.”

Our Lord’s words raise two important questions. The first is raised by another text of Scripture; the second, by a very popular contemporary emphasis. This first question is this: WHY DOES JESUS SPEAK OF HIS DISCIPLES AS SLAVES HERE, WHEN HE SEEMS TO REVERSE THIS IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN?

You will recall these words, spoken by our Lord in the 15th chapter of John’s gospel:

“You are My friends, if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves; for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15, NASB).

Note, in the first place, that regardless of whether or not one is a “slave” or a “friend,” they must obey in either case. A slave, by his position, must obey; a friend, by Jesus’ definition, must obey, His commands. Obedience is not set aside, but reaffirmed. Second, Jesus is not saying that the role of a slave is set aside altogether, but only that it is set aside in the matter of being informed of what the Master is doing. A slave is not told the master’s plans and purposes, but is only given instructions. A friend, on the other hand, is privy to the purposes of his friend. Jesus is therefore setting aside the role of a slave in this dimension, but not in every dimension. That is why Paul and others can so frequently (and accurately) refer to themselves as the Lord’s slaves (cf. Romans 1:1).


Frankly, this is a good question. I will leave it to those who advocate a “good self image” to explain. I cannot. Jesus’ words, in my estimation, are too clear to brush aside. It is the Pharisees who had a “good self-image” and were destined for hell. It was those who knew themselves “unworthy” who came to Jesus and found grace and forgiveness.

Our Lord’s words in this text teach us a vitally important principle, which can be summed up in this way: FAITH ALWAYS OPERATES IN THE ARENA OF GRACE AND MERCY, AND IS EXERCISED BY THOSE WHO KNOW THEMSELVES TO BE UNWORTHY.

I believe that Jesus’ words here in verses 6-10 serve as a corrective to the erroneous thinking of the apostles, who asked for greater faith. The important thing, Jesus says, is not the amount of faith, but the attributes of faith. Faith is not here a matter of quantity, but of quality. The disciples’ thinking was that they lacked sufficient faith. Jesus’ answer was that they lacked an accurate understanding of the nature of faith. I believe that Jesus is, in these verses, condemning what we might call Pharisaical faith, a “faith” which is based more upon the possessor of it than its object, a faith which is based more on one’s performance than on God’s character.

Jesus would have us learn that while a master has every right to demand total obedience from his slaves, and the slave has every obligation to obey his master completely, the master has no obligation to be grateful to his slave, even though he obeys him completely. Pharisaical faith becomes a kind of “work” which obligates God to respond. Biblical faith requires obedience to God, without any demands on Him at all. Biblical faith thinks in terms of duty; Pharisaical faith thinks in terms of benefits, obligated by faithfulness.

The Pharisees really believed that by their outward compliance with the Law—that is, their interpretation of it—that they could merit God’s favor. They saw, for example, that their prosperity was the logical and necessary outcome of their piety. Thus, they felt little gratitude toward God, for what they got, they deserved (in their minds). Gratitude, to them, was an obligation which fell more on God, than upon them.

God warned the Israelites of this danger, even before they entered the promised land. In the early chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, God reminded His people of His blessings, all of which were a matter of grace, in spite of their disobedience, grumbling, and all around nastiness. He also warned them that when they entered the promised land they would, once again, partake of the fruits of His grace, but that they would be inclined to credit themselves for these blessings. In other words, Israel would look upon God as obligated to bless them, rather than to be grateful for His grace.

Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today. If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 8:11-20, NIV).

But what does all this have to do with faith and forgiveness? Everything! First, I believe that Jesus is teaching us that faith always operates in the realm of grace and mercy. If the Pharisees thought that God owed them His blessings, Jesus taught just the opposite. Jesus taught that those who would have faith must first recognize their own unworthiness, and must approach Him on the basis of His grace, not on the basis of our merits.

I decided to track the subject of faith through the gospel of Luke, and learned something very interesting. Faith, in Luke, is closely associated with a sense of unworthiness. The first instance of “faith” which is mentioned in Luke is the healing of the paralytic man, who was lowered through the roof of the house in which Jesus was teaching. Luke tells us that it was upon seeing the faith of the stretcher-bearers that Jesus responded to the paralytic, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20, NASB). Why did Jesus say this, rather than to first heal the man? And why did the man not ask Jesus to be healed? He could speak, we would assume. I think the man felt a deep sense of unworthiness to approach Jesus and to ask for healing. Jesus therefore dealt with that which hindered the man most—his sin. It was this man’s sin which made him conscious of his unworthiness, and so Jesus first pronounced forgiveness. And then He healed him.

The second instance of faith is much clearer. In Luke chapter 7, we are told of the great faith of the Centurion, who begged Jesus to heal his slave, but not to bother to come to his house. I always viewed the great faith of this man in terms of his request for a “long distance” healing. But I now believe that a part of the greatness of his faith was his awareness of his unworthiness. Faith begins with a knowledge of our unworthiness, and thus appeals to God on the basis of His grace and mercy, rather than on the basis of our merit. Incidentally, Luke (alone) informs us that while this centurion knew he was unworthy, the Jewish elders specifically appealed to Jesus to grant his request because he was worthy (Luke 7:3).

The third instance of faith in Luke is found in the same chapter (7:36-50). Our Lord was eating a meal in the home of one of the Pharisees. During the meal a woman with a tainted reputation came, and from behind the Lord, washed His feet with her tears, kissed them, and anointed them with an expensive perfume—the most costly thing she had. When the host Pharisee

saw this, he thought that Jesus must not have known of her past. How could a true prophet allow this woman to touch Him? Jesus contrasted this woman’s hospitality with the reception (or lack of it) He had been given by His host. But the important thing to note in this text is that the woman, by her actions, revealed that she felt utterly unworthy of the Lord. The Pharisees, on the other hand, felt too worthy, but by the treatment they gave the Lord Jesus, did not consider Him worthy of the normal social graces. Jesus sent this woman away with the reassuring words, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (7:50).

In Luke 8 we find the next instance of faith. When the disciples were fearful because of the storm, Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith (8:25). Then, a woman with a hemorrhage (of 12 years) came to Jesus from behind and “stole,” as it were, a healing from Him. Jesus would not allow this healing to be a clandestine one, and thus He called the woman forward to confess her faith and actions, and to make known the fact that she had been cleansed. He sent this woman away with words very similar to those spoken to the woman who anointed His feet, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace” (8:48).

Why did this woman not ask Jesus for a healing? Why did she try to “steal” it unnoticed? To have pressed her way through that crowd was an incredible feat. She surely could have called out for help and healing, but she did not. I think that the woman’s actions are explained by the fact that she did not wish to draw attention to herself, or to “bother” the Master. It is my opinion that she, like the others, did what she did out of a deep sense of unworthiness. She knew she was unworthy (she was unclean, you will recall), but she also believed that merely a touch of Jesus’ garment would heal her.

The next reference to faith is in chapter 12, verse 28, only here it is not the presence of faith, but the lack of it which is stressed. Having little faith, Jesus taught, was the source of worry about food and clothing. This text does not directly bear upon our text.

In chapter 17, the portion of Luke with which we are presently concerned, faith is mentioned three times (verses 5, 6, & 19). In the next chapter, we have the story of the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax-gatherer (18:9-14). The verse which immediately precedes this story reads as follows:

“I tell you that He will bring about justice from them speedily. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8).

I believe that the story of the self-righteous Pharisee and the penitent sinner has a direct connection to this verse, in which our Lord spoke of finding faith on the earth. I believe that one of the characteristics of faith is a sense of unworthiness on the part of the one who beseeches or approaches God. I believe that unbelief, on the other hand, is betrayed by a sense of self-confidence, which foolishly supposes that one is really worthy of God.

In the last part of chapter 18 (verses 35-43) we read of the blind man who persists in calling out to Jesus, pleading for mercy (cf. v. 38). Some who were in the crowd tried to silence him. Obviously, they did not think that he was worthy of the Master’s attention. This man did not think so either, but he did not request justice, but mercy. Only the unworthy petition God for mercy, and that is just what this man did.

The final occurrence of the term “faith” is found in chapter 22 (verse 32). Here, Jesus is speaking to Peter, who, like the Pharisee above, is brimming with self-confidence. When Jesus spoke to Peter about his failure, he assured His Lord that he most certainly would not do so (22:33). Jesus told Peter that while Satan had demanded to “sift him like wheat” (v. 31), He had prayed for him, that his faith would not fail (v. 32). What might cause Peter’s faith to fail? Was his failure to come so great that he might feel so utterly unworthy that he might despair of ever being used of God again. If faith is rooted in a sense of unworthiness, then his faith need not fail, for he was unworthy, but faith looks to God when we really are unworthy. Thus, he faith would not fail, his faith would work in the knowledge of his unworthiness and seek God’s grace.


Consider with me how this conclusion makes sense of our text. Jesus commanded His disciples to forgive those who sin against them, even if that person sins and repents seven times a day. The disciples, like us, are going to wonder whether of not this makes sense. How do we forgive someone who is not worthy of it?

Jesus’ answer is as follows. First, if He is the Master and we are His slaves, we are obligated to obey Him fully, whether we understand why or not. His demands are never to great, for He is the Master, and we are His slaves. Second, while it may take faith to forgive as Jesus has said, it is not just the quantity of it which is the problem, but the quality of it. Faith is that system on which those who are unworthy of God’s favor approach him and live for Him. Would we suppose that those who sin against us are unworthy of our forgiveness? Let us not forget that we are unworthy of God’s forgiveness, along with all of the rest of His blessings. The forgiveness which we are commanded to show to others is a matter of grace, and is thus unmerited. We who live by grace must also manifest that same grace to others, as God manifests it to us.

This is why our Lord stresses the subject of gratitude in these verses. The slave is not to expect gratitude from the master; the slave is to show gratitude toward the master. It is our gratitude, based upon the grace of God in our lives, which is the fuel for the forgiveness which we are to manifest toward others. Thus, Jesus has turned the subject. Faith is an issue here, but it is not the need for more faith on the part of the disciples as it is to remember the basic principles on which faith operates. Faith operates in the realm of grace, and grace should produce gratitude. This gratitude is the disciple’s motive for forgiving others. Those who are forgiven much are expected (on the basis of grace) to forgive.

The Grateful Leper 

Just as gratitude is the key to understanding the first half of our text, so it is likewise the key to the last half. Let us now consider the story of the ten lepers, only one of which demonstrated gratitude.

And it came about while He was on the way to Jerusalem, that He was passing between Samaria and Galilee. And as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten leprous men, who stood at a distance; and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And when He saw them, He said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And it came about that as they were going, they were cleansed.

Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him. And he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Were none found who turned back to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Rise, and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

The time and the place may have changed, but the subject of gratitude has not. Once again, it seems, Luke reveals that his unifying principle is not chronology or geography, but the logical development of his argument(s). At some point in time, Jesus was passing near Samaria. Coming upon a certain village, He encountered ten lepers. They kept their distance, as was prescribed, but they did not keep quiet. They cried out for mercy, and Jesus was more than willing to heal them.

Jesus chose to heal the lepers in a different way, however. Rather than to reach out and touch them (which Jesus had done before, Luke 5:13), He instructed the men to go to their respective priests. They were not yet healed. They were to go in obedience, and if they thought about it, they would probably have reasoned that Jesus must intend to heal them, for they were to go to the priest to be pronounced clean (cf. Leviticus 14). All ten lepers departed in obedience to the Lord’s instructions. On the way, they were all healed.

We know from Jesus’ words that all ten lepers were healed (verse 17), and yet only one of the ten returned, and this one man was a Samaritan. It is implied that the other nine were Israelites. The one who returned did so in order to thank Jesus and to praise God for his healing. Since this man “glorified God” (v. 15) and “thanked Jesus” (v. 16), it would seem that he had come to recognize, to some degree, the deity of our Lord. At least he regarded his healing as having come from God through Jesus.

It was true, of course, that Jesus had commanded the ten to go to their priests. In this sense, the nine who did not return were only being obedient to what Jesus had commanded. Jesus had something to say about this, however. He asked several questions. Whether these were addressed to His disciples or to the one man is not clear. What is clear is that Jesus commended the gratitude of this one leper, and criticized the failure of the others to do likewise.

Luke, of course, has a special message in this, for the one man was not a Jew at all, but a Samaritan. Jesus made a point of referring to this one grateful leper as a “foreigner” (v. 18). Once again, we are being prepared for the gospel to be proclaimed and accepted by the Gentiles, while spurned by the Jews. These nine ungrateful recipients of God’s grace are typical of the nation Israel, while this one grateful Gentile is a prototype of the many Gentiles who will believe and will praise God.

Jesus’ words to this man sound very similar to those which He has spoken before: “Rise, and go your way; your faith has made you well” (verse 19).

Once we become aware of the fact that the term rendered, “has made you well” literally means “saved,” there is a question which must be asked and answered: “Is Jesus pronouncing a special blessing upon this one man, which is above and beyond that received by the other 9?” All ten men were healed, so in what sense is this one leper “saved”? In the New Testament, the term “saved” is used to refer to eternal salvation and to physical healing. Which way does Luke (and the Holy Spirit)n intend for us to understand it here?

Luke appears to use the term “save” in three primary ways. First, the term can describe a physical healing and even an exorcism (cf. 8:36, 48, 50). Second, the term can refer to the saving of one’s physical life, as when Jesus was challenged to come down from the cross and save Himself (23:35, 37, 39; cf. 9:24). Third, the term is used, perhaps most often, of eternal salvation (7:48, 50; 8:12; 18:25-26; 19:10). In some cases, it would appear that there is a blending of the first and third uses, so that physical healing and spiritual salvation are both depicted by the term “saved” (e.g. 8:36, 48).

How, then, does Luke use the term “save” here? It is my opinion that Luke uses it with the added sense of spiritual salvation. In the sense of being healed, all ten lepers were “saved.” But in the sense of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and in giving thanks to Him as such, only this one leper did so. I believe that his “salvation” goes beyond the cleansing of his leprosy to the cleansing of his sin.


The central issue in our passage is forgiveness. The focus of the disciples was on faith. Jesus did not minimize the need for faith, but neither did He affirm that a lack of faith was their problem, and thus that granting more faith was the solution. Jesus’ response in verses 7-10 and the account of the one grateful leper focus on obedience and gratitude. The slave of verses 7-10 is to faithfully obey his master, but not to expect him to show gratitude, for the master has the right to expect obedience of a slave, and has no obligation to be thankful for it. So, too, when the disciple is obedient to Christ, he does not see it as meriting anything from God, nor does he equate his worthiness with it, for all men, even the most obedient of them, are unworthy of divine favor.

If this is true, as it must be, then what we need is not a system of rules to keep, for in keeping them there is no merit, no reward. If we are unworthy even at our best—even when we keep all of God’s commandments—then what we need is not Law, but grace. Grace is God’s favor bestowed upon us because we are unworthy, not because we are worthy. Grace and mercy are prompted by our unworthiness, while God’s gratitude cannot even be prompted by our best efforts.

How foolish, then, were the efforts of the Pharisees, and all other legalists, then and now, to try to earn God’s favor. We will never favorably impress God. We can never put Him under obligation to us. If we would gain anything from God it will be on the basis of our unworthiness and on the basis of His grace. And the way that these things are obtained is not by our works, but by His grace, through faith. Faith, Jesus is saying, is operative only in the arena of grace and mercy, which is bestowed only on the unworthy.

It is the grace of God, poured out freely upon sinners, which produces gratitude, and it is this gratitude which serves to motivate the recipient of grace to also bestow it on others. Thus, just as God has forgiven us of our sins against Him, solely on the basis of our confession of sin and repentance, so we are to forgive others on the same basis. It is not a greater faith that is required for us to do this, but a better understanding of what faith is and how it works.

The second story reminds us that the grace of God should not only be manifested in our freely forgiving others, but also should be seen in our worship and praise of God. Loving God and loving men are the two great commandments of our Lord, and of the Law. If gratitude for God’s grace should prompt us to forgive our fellow man, so it should motivate us to worship and praise God. The 9 lepers obeyed God and were cleansed, but they never recognized Jesus for who He was, nor did they every worship and praise Him. They were the recipients of God’s grace, and didn’t respond to it in faith, worship, and praise.

What a perfect picture of the nation Israel. Over the centuries God had poured out His grace upon the nation. His blessings can be found throughout the Old Testament. And yet, for all the blessings of God on Israel, and for all their attention to obeying the law (feeble and failing as it was) the nation never, as a whole, came to worship and adore God, and when God was manifested in the flesh, they did not know it was Him. The nine ungrateful, unbelieving, unsaved lepers, while outwardly cleaned up, were still inwardly unclean. How sad to come so close to God and yet not know or worship Him.

The one Samaritan leper differed little from the other nine, but in a very important area. He recognized that his healing was from God, through Jesus. He not only obeyed Jesus’ command, but He returned to worship and adore Him, to give Him thanks, because He had come to recognize Him as God’s salvation. Because of this, he was saved.

This man is a picture, a prototype of all of those Gentiles who were to be saved by recognizing Jesus to be God’s salvation. This man did not have all of the benefits which the Jewish lepers did, all of the background, all of the exposure to the Scriptures, but He did come into contact with Jesus, and when He did he not only obeyed Him, He trusted in Him as the Messiah. And because of his faith, he was saved. The Jewish lepers obeyed and were blessed, but they were not saved. This man obeyed Jesus, too, but his salvation came as the result of his faith, not his works. So it is with all who find eternal life in Christ.

While the disciples preferred to think in terms of increasing their faith, Jesus chose to emphasize the arena of faith, and especially the grace of God and the gratitude which should result. It is God’s grace, received with gratitude, which should motivate our forgiving others (and all other ministry to men) and our worship of God.

While legalism seeks to motivate men on the basis of fear and guilt, Christ motivates us on the basis of grace and gratitude. It is no accident that Paul introduces the applicational portion of the book of Romans with these words,


Here, my friend, is the basis for all that we do in the Christian life—it is the grace and mercy of God, granted to those who are unworthy of it, which produces gratitude. It is on the basis of this grace and the resulting gratitude which we are to live, both in our service to men and in our worship of God.

It occurred to me as I have reflected on the Lord’s command to forgive and the apostles’ petition for greater faith that the key to our obedience is not only in petition, but in praise. How often, when we pray, we ask God for something, rather than to praise Him for what He has given. How often we assume that the reason we have not acted in obedience is because we lack the faith to do so. Many times, I believe that we lack the gratitude to act, rather than the faith to act. Often, it is not that we lack the means to obey God, but that we lack the motivation to obey Him. Peter tells us in his second epistle that God has given us all that is necessary for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), and this through the knowledge of Him. Let us therefore take praise much more seriously. Let us not seek petitioning God for that which we truly lack, but let us also grow in our grasp of all that He has given, and give thanks to Him.

I challenge you to search the Scriptures and to study the subject of gratitude, looking up such words as “thanks,” “thanksgiving,” “thankful,” and “praise.”

In our church, we observe the Lord’s Table (communion) every week. Some think that this is too frequent, even though the churches of the New Testament did it no less frequently. Some think it can become meaningless and repetitious. I believe that a remembrance of our Lord’s death for us, a remembrance of His grace showered upon us by means of the cross, is the basis for our gratitude, and that this gratitude thus becomes the motivation for our loving both God and men. Let us never cease to recall our unworthiness and His grace, and thus to become people marked out by their gratitude.



Sign-Seeking and the Coming of the Kingdom
(Luke 17:20-37)

By: Bob Deffinbaugh , Th.M.

20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” 22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” 37 “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”


One thing that Jesus has pointed out about the Pharisees (not to mention others) is that they tended to appraise things by appearances. The Sermon on the Mount, as recorded by Matthew, makes much of this. The Lord Jesus told men that sins were not merely external (murder, adultery, etc.), but internal (anger, lust, greed). So, too, righteousness was not so much the doing of external acts (fasting, tithes and offerings, long prayers), but in the attitudes of the heart. In chapter 16, Jesus accused the Pharisees of being far too external in their orientation:

Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things, and they were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Is it not easy to understand that when it came to the coming of the promised kingdom of God, men would expect its arrival to be signaled by various external “signs and wonders”? And who but the Pharisees would expect to observe them and recognize the kingdom first. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, we are told it was the Pharisees who persistently challenged Jesus to prove Himself by performing signs (Matthew 12:38; 16:1; Mark 8:11).

In our passage, the subject is the kingdom of God and its coming. The Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom was to come. Jesus briefly answered their question, in a way that showed they would not, indeed they had not, recognized the kingdom as having already come. From this starting point, Luke records the teaching of our Lord on the coming of the kingdom which was raised by the questioning of the Pharisees.

It is most important to take note of the fact that there are three errors described in our text, all of which have to do with the second coming. The first is the error of the Pharisees (verses 20-21). The second error is that of our Lord’s disciples (verses 22-25). The last error is that of the people as a whole, the masses (verses 26-32). From a study of our text, and from a study of the gospels as a whole, we can see that no one fully understood the prophecies of the Old Testament and how they would be fulfilled in Christ. At best, some had bits and pieces of the story, but no one could put them all together. If this is true, we should be instructed that none of us, who live in the 20th century, have a complete understanding of Bible prophecy. We may, like some in Jesus’ day, feel that we are experts in the area of the coming of the kingdom, but we, like they, are not. We, too, have many misconceptions concerning the return of our Lord and the establishment of His kingdom on the earth. We need these words from the lips of our Lord as much as the people of His day needed them.

In our study, we will focus our attention on these three errors, their causes, and their remedy. We will seek to learn how the second coming, the coming of our Lord’s kingdom, can play a vital role in our lives, and how our lives play a great role in terms of our eagerness for the coming of our Lord and His kingdom. We will see, as well, that the three errors described in our text apply to matters other than the second coming, too. Let us listen well to these inspired words about the second coming, its relationship and its relevance to us.

The Structure of the Text

Our text contains two main paragraphs, the first of which concerns the Pharisees (verses 20-21). The second paragraph is significantly larger and contains our Lord’s instructions directed to His disciples (verses 22-37). The subject of both paragraphs is the coming of the kingdom of God. The text can be subdivided into the following sections:

(1) The Pharisees and the Kingdom of God (vv. 20-21)

(2) The Disciples and the Kingdom of God (vv. 22-37)

(3) The Danger of over-zealous expectation (vv. 22-25)

(4) The Danger of worldly preoccupation (vv. 26-32)

(5) Summation (vv. 33-37)

The Context of the Text

It is fairly easy to determine the paragraph structure of our text. It is not so easy to determine the length of the passage to study in this lesson because Luke is developing an argument and thus there is an on-going interconnection of the paragraphs. The principle subject of our text is the coming of the kingdom of God. The subject does not end with our text, however. In chapter 18 it goes on. The petition of the woman in verses 1-8 is for justice, and the point of the parable is that the Lord’s disciples should not grow weary in prayer. Especially in view is praying for the coming of His kingdom, at which time justice will be brought to the earth. The prayer of the persistent widow is followed by two other prayers, that of the self-righteous Pharisee and of the penitent tax-collector (18:9-14). These prayers reflect the pride and self-righteousness which the Lord will judge at His coming, and the repentance and faith which He will reward when He comes.

Thus, the flow of thought moves from the timing of the coming of the kingdom (the question of the Pharisees) to the nature of that coming, the dangers associated with it, and the appropriate attitudes for true disciples. In chapter 18 steadfast prayer for the coming of the kingdom is urged, followed up by the character of those who will possess the kingdom. The story of the rich young ruler instructs us as to the hindrances to the kingdom which are experienced by the rich. The Lord then reminded His disciples that His death would soon occur in Jerusalem, something which they still could not grasp (18:31-34). The last story of chapter 18, that of the healing of the blind man (18:35-43) provides us with an example of persistence in prayer.

There is a close connection between 17:20-37 and the preceding context of Luke. The Pharisees have, of course, been prominent, largely due to their opposition to Jesus, His teaching, and His practice. The immediately preceding texts have dealt primarily with how disciples should live their life in the present, but we will soon discover that our attitudes and actions in the present have much to do with our attitude and actions with regard to the coming kingdom of our Lord. Let us save this matter for later on.

The Pharisees’ Question and Jesus’ Response 

20 Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”

It is interesting that it would be the Pharisees who would approach Jesus with this question—interesting, but not surprising. The Pharisees looked upon themselves as the experts in spiritual matters. No doubt they would have expected Messiah to have come from among their elite group. They seemed to look upon themselves as the accrediting agency for all spiritual ministries. I understand that the Pharisees’ question about when the kingdom was to come was an implied rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. I believe that it was but another of their efforts in a long-standing commitment (cf. Luke 11:53-54) to trip up the Lord Jesus and to thus be able to publicly discredit Him.

As usual, Jesus was not taken back by their question. Jesus’ answer has two parts. The first part of His answer pertains to the “careful observation” of the Pharisees (note the “your” in verse 20). The second part of Jesus’ response pertains to the people of Israel at large (note “people” in verse 21). The general thrust of our Lord’s response is that neither the Pharisees nor the people would recognize the coming of the kingdom.

I believe that the Pharisees wrongly thought they had everything under control. They had a very neatly packed religious system. They had their beliefs carefully organized, and they had a very precisely laid out code of conduct—a law for every occasion. Thus, they had a theological formula for the kingdom and its coming. They felt, I think, that they would simply apply the standards they had set up to every potential “Messiah” and would thus be able to judge when the true Messiah had come. They seemed to think, as well, that they would have ample time to apply their tests and to come to their conclusions. The term that is translated “careful observation” in the NIV is one that was used by the ancients for a doctor who carefully observed the symptoms of a patient, in order to diagnose his illness (very appropriate for Dr. Luke). The same term was used for the “careful observation” of the heavens, of those who were experts in astronomy. One could watch the course of a planet, or could plot the trajectory of a comet, and thus be able to forecast where it would be at a certain time.

The Pharisees may very well have thought that they could deal in the same fashion with the arrival of the kingdom of God. They would simply apply all of their standards and tests (assuming, of course, that they were absolutely correct and infallible) over a period of time, and then in a very cautious and scientific way pronounce the true Messiah to be such. Surely they would be able to tell the real thing.

Jesus said otherwise. They would not be able to do so, and neither would the people at large. They would not be able to point to the Messiah or the kingdom and say, “Here it is” or “There it is.” The question must therefore be, “Why?” I do not think the answer is that there are no indications of His coming, but that the expectations of what the “King” and the “kingdom” would be like were so distorted that they would never recognize the real thing. The concept of the kingdom was so secular, so earthly, so materialistic, that the kingdom of our Lord was never seriously entertained as an option. Jesus simply did not fit the preconceived expectations of the Pharisees and the people, and neither group had any thought of changing these. Thus, Jesus simply had to go. And this was in spite of the fact that Jesus did produce many signs, attesting His identity as Messiah (cf. John 9:16; 11:47; 12:37).

The last statement of our Lord, reported in verse 21, is the most perplexing of this paragraph: “The kingdom of God is within you.”

Just what does this mean? Is Jesus saying that the kingdom is a spiritual matter, a matter only of the heart, and thus an “inside” thing? I think that while there is some truth here, it was not at all our Lord’s point. The specific term used may never have been used with the meaning “among.” This I can readily accept. But perhaps the unusual term “within” is stressing two things at once. First, the kingdom of God was already present in the person of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Second, however, while Jesus was “in their midst” (so to speak), He was never one of them, never one of the Pharisees, and never one with the Jews either. Jesus was utterly different in that His kingdom did not conform to the Pharisaical expectations nor to the popular ones. Jesus was “within” His people, but not “one of them” in the sense of what His kingdom entailed.

Lest we conclude that no one could recognize the King and His kingdom, let us recall that several people did, even at His birth. Those whose expectations conformed to the prophets of the Old Testament, and who were illuminated by the Holy Spirit could and did recognize the King. Mary, Elizabeth, Zacharias, Simeon, Anna, and John the Baptist all recognized Jesus as the coming King, and spoke of the coming of His kingdom. While the words and works of Jesus should have been sufficient evidence, the hardness of men’s hearts prevented them from seeing the obvious, no matter how hard they looked.

Jesus’ Response to His Disciples 

Several observations are necessary before we proceed with our exposition of these verses.

(1) The kingdom of God is viewed as a whole, encompassing all aspects of it, including the first and second comings of Christ.

(2) Though Jesus focused on the first coming in His response to the Pharisees, He stresses the second coming in His instruction to the disciples.

(3) Though the coming of the kingdom of God means many blessings to those who eagerly await it, the emphasis here falls on the judgment of God which will come upon sinners at His return.

(4) The emphasis of our Lord in these verses is on the dangers which face men in conjunction with the coming of the kingdom, especially those which can lead them astray.

(5) While Jesus is speaking to His disciples, He is also speaking of those dangers which face men in general, especially the unbelieving world.

With these observations in mind, let us look at what our Lord has to say, beginning with His words directed to the disciples, concerning the dangers which they face in relationship to the coming of the kingdom.

The Coming of the 
Kingdom and Excessive Zeal 

22 Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. 23 Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them. 24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. 25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

The disciples of Jesus face a different danger, and for different reasons. The Pharisees rejected the kingdom of God because they rejected the Lord Jesus as the Messiah. The disciples, on the other hand, had come to love Him and were deeply committed to Him. Jesus warns His disciples of the dangers that face them because of their love for Him, and their desire to see Him.

The disciples’ understanding of the coming kingdom and how it will be established is distorted, too. Jesus must therefore remind them of His coming rejection and death. In addition to this, Jesus will not be physically present with them after His ascension, and thus for a time they will yearn for His physical presence. This personal, physical presence will take place (on earth) at the time of the second coming, at the time when the kingdom of God is established on the earth.

In His physical absence there will be hard times for the followers of Jesus, who will be rejected and persecuted even as He was to be. In such times of adversity, a great hunger for Christ’s kingdom and His presence on the earth will be experienced by those who love the Messiah. This eagerness for His coming has its potential problems, for the danger will be to be distracted from their devotion and duty by going off after everyone who claims or who is thought to be a “messiah.” We know from other texts on the coming kingdom that many will arise with messianic claims, some of whom will do mighty signs and wonders. These will tempt some to follow them, and thus to be distracted from their devotion to the true Messiah, and to what He has called them to do in His absence.

There is a “cultishness” in all such movements, for in order to follow such “messiahs” they will have to leave their present place of service. Each of these false messiahs will have a following, but they will not be regarded by all as God’s Messiah, nor will they institute the kingdom. Jesus instructs the disciples here that chasing after messiah’s, as though they might miss His coming is foolish and unnecessary. When He returns, it will be universally known and evident. There will be no mistaking it. Thus, there is no need to worry about missing out on this kingdom and no need to follow-up everyone who claims to be the king.

When I was younger and lived in the Northwest, I used to go salmon fishing. Usually, this meant using a large plate, called a dodger, which was followed by a hook, on which a herring was placed as bait. That dodger accomplished several things. First, it flashed in the water, attracting the attention of the fish (or so the manufacturer told us). Second, the dodger wobbled in the water, due to its shape, causing the herring to appear injured, so that the salmon would think it was an easy catch.

The dodger did something else, though—it tugged on the line, appearing to the novice to be a fish. To the inexperienced fisherman, more precisely, to the eager, inexperienced fisherman, every little tug on the line gives the promise of a catch, and so the line is constantly being reeled in to see if a fish is there. It won’t be. But all the time that the line is being reeled in, the chances of catching a fish are reduced. The poor herring on the end of the line is being worn out (and thus must be replaced).

The experienced fisherman knows that these little “tugs” are to be expected. He also knows that when a salmon is on the hook, there will be no doubt about it. You know when you’ve hooked a salmon! Thus, the key to effective fishing is patience and endurance. This is precisely what Jesus is teaching His disciples—not to be confused or mislead by every tug on the line, every hint of a claim to the messiahship, but to faithfully endure, trusting, worshipping, and serving Him, knowing that His coming will not be missed, by anyone. Being over-eager can therefore have its dangers. Our eagerness should be expressed through those energies which serve Him, not those which seek to discover Him in some false messiah.

The Blinder of 
Worldly Preoccupations 

26 “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. 28 “It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. 29 But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 30 “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. 32 Remember Lot’s wife! 33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. 34 I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” 36 37 “Where, Lord?” they asked. He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”

In verses 20 & 21, Jesus had told the Pharisees that neither they, nor the people, would recognize the kingdom of God, even though they were looking for it. We have not yet heard the reason why this was true. I believe that verses 26-37 provide us with an explanation and application. Jesus reserves this explanation for here because He is using it as an example and as a warning to His disciples. Apart from the miraculous work of God in their conversion, the Pharisees will not be able to grasp this warning, but the disciples will better understand, at least later on. We know from the second epistle of Peter that he learned from this incident, for he, too, refers to the lessons which could be learned from both Noah and Lot with respect to the coming judgment of God (cf. 2 Peter 2:5-8).

Several lessons are taught by the Old Testament incidents concerning Noah and Lot. Both men, as we know from the book of Genesis (Noah, Genesis 6-9; Lot, chapter 19), lived among wicked men. Both men (and at least a part of their families) were taken out of God’s judgment, which was poured out upon the rest. In the cases of both men, the judgment of God was poured out on a wicked generation and many died. And in both cases, no one seemed aware that the judgment of God was coming until it was too late.

But why did none of the people seem to sense that God’s judgment was at hand? Was there no warning? We must say, in the first place, that there was no spectacular warning of impending judgment. There were no “signs and wonders.” There was, however, the testimony of that ark, which was being built over a period of 120 years. Peter refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5). Peter implied (2 Peter 2:7-8), as Moses also did (Genesis 19:9-11, 14), that God’s judgment was at hand. There may not have been any spectacular warnings, but then neither was there anything but Jonah’s preaching to the wicked Ninevites. They had heard all they needed to.

Back to my question, then, “Why did none of the people heed the warnings of judgment which God had provided?” The answer is quite clearly suggested by the Lord’s description of the activities they were engaged in at the time judgment fell upon the unsuspecting people. Simply put, everybody was going about their daily activities of living. People were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, buying and selling, planting and building. It was “life as usual” for these people when the end came. They never realized that judgment was coming upon them.

It is interesting to note that while the people of Noah’s day, as well as those of Lot, were exceedingly wicked Jesus did not emphasize their wickedness. He did not say that when the end came, the people were busily engaged in their sinful practices. There is nothing intrinsically evil about eating and drinking, about marriage, or about one’s daily activities. These people were judged for their sin, but they were caught off guard doing what everyone does. Indeed, when we look beyond to verses 34 & 35, the one that is taken and the one that is left are both doing the same things.

What, then, is our Lord’s point in telling His disciples that those who were destroyed were simply going about their normal activities? Here, the Lord Jesus is not stressing who will possess the kingdom or why men are “left” or “taken.” Instead, He is underscoring the reason why men can be totally unaware of the coming of the King and the kingdom, so that it comes upon them totally unprepared. Jesus has just told the Pharisees that neither they nor the masses would recognize the fact that the kingdom had come. Now, I believe that He tells us why. The reason is that men do not look for the kingdom when their “life” is wrapped up in this life, and especially in the “things of this life.”

In both Noah’s day and in Lot’s, people were preoccupied with “living.” Life to them consisted of the earthly, temporal things which bring men pleasure, meaning, and joy. “Life,” as Jesus is using the term here, is not just one’s physical existence, but one’s source of meaning and significance. When people’s “lives” are caught up in the pursuits of living, they become insensitive to spiritual matters, and in particular to those warnings of the Scriptures and the saints concerning God’s coming and His judgment. The same spiritual dullness which unbelievers face because of their worldliness (finding their “life” in the world, in temporal things), Christians can experience (cf. Luke 21:34-36). Look at Lot and his family. Lot’s son-in-laws refused to leave Sodom, and thought Lot was out of his mind. Lot himself was most reluctant to leave. While Lot’s wife left Sodom, her heart was still there, and thus she turned back to see all that she loved, her “life” going up in smoke.

In verses 26-37 there is a blending of historical illustration with future application. Jesus was likening what happened in the days of Noah and Lot to what was yet to happen to Israel. Thus, He said,

“… on the day that Lot went out from Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. It will be just the same on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let not the one who is on the housetop and whose goods are in the house go down to take them away; and likewise let not the one who is in the field turn back. Remember Lot’s wife” (verses 29-32).

Mrs. Lot is the specific illustration here. I wonder if, as they were leaving Sodom, she suddenly turned and said, “My new sewing machine. I simply must have it!” Whatever it was, Mrs. Lot’s treasure was in Sodom. She hated to lose it. She had, at least, to have one last, longing, look.

Jesus is speaking of a very particular event in verses 30-37. It is a part of the overall program of the coming kingdom of God. The emphasis is on the judgment side here, rather than on blessings. We are certainly not being told of the “streets of gold” but of the hellish sufferings of a sinful generation. Men will not be prepared for it. Those who are present at the time of this judgment must flee without any delay, without any turning back, without trying to save anything which wrongly brought “life”—namely, it would seem, worldly possessions.

In this time of judgment, two will be in bed. One will be taken and one will be left (verse 34). My (NASB) text tells me that two men will be in the same bed. It is possible, as some translations render it, that it is really a man and wife who are thus pictured. It is also possible that it is two men, but without any sense of immoral conduct. In those days a bed was not like the “beds” which we have today—single, twin, standard, queen, king, water, etc. In those days there were no bedrooms usually and thus the whole family slept together on the floor, on what must have been mats, at best (cf. Luke 11:7, where the head of the house speaks of he and his children being in bed).

The second case is that of two women, both of whom are going about their daily duties in the grinding of grain. One is taken, and the other is left. But where is the one taken to? It is possible here to see a reference to the rapture, that event when the saints are removed from the earth to be spared the judgment of God, poured out on the earth in the time of the great tribulation. But it is also possible to see the ones taken as those taken in judgment, just as many are said to perish in the tribulation.

The disciples, in verse 37, ask the question, “Where?” They are asking, as I understand them, where those who are taken away are taken to? “Where are they taken to, Lord?” The answer of our Lord is vague, but we must conclude that the place was very bad, as was their fate. They were told that where the (dead) body is, there the vultures would be gathered. It is thus to death that those taken are taken, but this gruesome fate is not carefully detailed. Who would want to hear more on this matter?

I understand our Lord’s words here to be more directly relevant and applicable to his audience. I believe that Jesus is specifically speaking of that judgment which God is going to bring upon Jerusalem and upon those who have rejected and have crucified Him. I understand Jesus to be referring to the “sacking” of Jerusalem by Rome, under the leadership of Titus, in 70 A.D. When news reaches this unsuspecting city, everything must be left and those who would be saved must leave everything behind and flee for safety outside the city. This subject will be taken up in much greater detail by our Lord (according to Luke’s account) in chapter 21. As is typical with Luke, he seldom goes into detail on any subject until he has first, earlier in the writing, introduced his subject and prepared his reader for it.


In our text the Savior informs us of three dangers with reference to the second coming. The first danger is that of shaping the second coming in accordance with our own desires and expectations. Neither the Pharisees nor the people of Israel would not recognize the coming kingdom because they had false pre-conceptions of what the King and the kingdom would (must) be like. When Jesus failed to fulfill these expectations, He was rejected, and ultimately put on the cross. The Pharisees had a very intricately worked out set of standards and codes of conduct for virtually any occasion. Would we think they would have done otherwise with the kingdom of God? Thus, though the Pharisees were watching closely for the kingdom, they were looking for the wrong kind of kingdom, and they would insist that this kingdom conform to their standards. Given this set of values and expectations, they would never see it. And as Jesus said, they had not seen it in Him, even though He stood in their midst, even though His message was consistently about the kingdom of God, and even though John had introduced Him as the King.

It is here that you and I need to be very careful, too. We are a part of a Christian community that (rightly) places much emphasis on the coming of our Lord. The difficulty is that we have worked out such an intricate plan as to how and when (the sequence of events) this will happen, we, like the Pharisees, have begun to view ourselves as the experts. We actually seem to think that we will stand by, watching it all happen, checking each event off on our list. My friend, I do not think that we can know most of the details about the coming of our Lord’s kingdom until they actually occur. We are no more likely to have things all figured out than did those upon whom the first aspect of our Lord’s coming came. If you had asked Simeon or Anna, Elizabeth or Zacharias or Mary how the kingdom of God was going to come, they would not have been able to say, “Well, there will be this little baby born … ” They knew it when they say it, because their hearts were tuned to the right frequency, so to speak. But they did not know what would happen until it did. Let us beware of feeling to expert about the coming of the kingdom. And let us be particularly careful not to demand that God’s kingdom conform to our understanding of it, our expectations for it, or our distorted and even sinful desires of what it should be.

The second danger is that which posed a threat to the disciples: over-eagerness to see the Lord Jesus again, manifested in a chasing after every potential “messiah” which may arise. Our Lord’s return cannot (as the Pharisees supposed) be all figured out in advance, but we can be assured that we will know it when it comes. The emphasis of our Lord is not on us finding or discovering Him and His coming kingdom, but on how He will find us. Repeatedly, Jesus urged His disciples to be faithful and diligent when He returned. Let us therefore focus our attention and our efforts on being found faithfully carrying out the task which He has given us, and that is making disciples of all nations. We ought not to be chasing after every self-proclaimed messiah, but we should be bringing others to the true Messiah, by faith.

The third danger is that of worldly pre-occupations, which diminishes our desire for the kingdom, and dims our view of its reality, and dulls our desire for it to come. When our “life” is found in Christ, and we can give up all else, all other things in which the world find “life” then we will eagerly await His return, and we will work to hasten it. This is why Jesus has had so much to say about possessions. Possessions will possess us if we find our “life” to be wrapped up with them. When we use our possessions to further the kingdom, then we lay up treasure in heaven, and we quicken our hearts toward heaven.

The way in which we go about our daily life determines our hunger for heaven, and our sensitivity to its nearness. I fear that many of us have this reversed in our minds. We seem to think that if we study the kingdom of God enough, our hearts will be warmed to it, and we will then let loose of those earthly things which sap us of our spiritual strength and desire for God. It seems to me that Jesus is saying to opposite. If we would have a heart and a hunger for heaven, then let us obediently give up all that the world spells “life” and then our hearts will yearn for heaven.

These three dangers are relevant not only to the coming kingdom, but to all other areas of our life as well. Take, for example, our desire for godliness. Some, like the Pharisees, have a neatly packed definition of spirituality, with all kinds of external check points. They think that by merely “following the program” men will be spiritual, and that anyone who is not “in the program” (whatever that program may be—and there are many programs) cannot possibly be spiritual.

There are those as well whose desire to be godly and to sense God’s personal presence in their lives is so great that they lack stability and endurance. They are persistently chasing off after some new claim of spiritual vitality. They go to this church and then the next, the follow after one “spiritual” leader after another. A misguided desire to be spiritual can be the source of many cultish pursuits. Spirituality, like the kingdom of God, will finally and fully come in time, when God has sovereignly determined it would, and in the way He has chosen. We should not seek to be “spiritual” per se, but to be obedient and faithful to Him who both saves and sanctifies.

As I have thought about this text, it has been very helpful to me in putting “signs and wonders” into perspective. Some read the book of Acts and then either demand or yearn for the same kinds of signs today, thinking that such would persuade the wicked to repent. Such is simply not true. The daily lifestyle of men, determined by their values, determined by their definition of “life,” is what speaks most loudly. As Jesus put it in His parable of the rich man and Lazarus, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:31). It is not more signs and wonders that are most needed, but a simple proclamation of the gospel, accompanied by a biblical lifestyle and conduct. If men would be saved, they will be saved by heeding the Word of God. Let us proclaim it to them.

If you, my friend, have not yet trusted in Christ as your Savior, you should do so today. Jesus tells us in this text that you will not have any warning signs of the coming day of judgment, any more than the preaching of the gospel. There will be no time to repent when that day comes. If you would believe and obey, if you would acknowledge your sin and trust in the work of Christ in your place, do it now. The day of judgment does draw near. Let neither you nor I be unaware or apathetic about its coming. Let us find in Christ that our judgment has already been meted out, and that all that we await is our salvation.