We once heard scratching and scurrying sounds up in our roof. We had some anxious talk in the middle of the night. "Did you hear that? What is it?" And we came to the conclusion that it must be mice. I don't like having mice in our house. So I fetched the mouse traps out of storage. This had happened before. I broke up some chocolate bar. That's a clear sign of how keen we were to get rid of them – I was even prepared to use up some chocolate in the cause. I put bits of chocolate in the traps, set the traps, and put them up in the attic. Some days later I went back up. And there in one of the traps was a little mouse, with chocolate in its mouth, and its neck broken, dead. Who was to blame for the death of the mouse? The mouse? Yes. If it hadn't gone for my chocolate, it might still be scurrying around some roof. Me? Yes, me as well. I knew the mouse was vulnerable to the temptation of chocolate. It takes one to know one. I deliberately set a trap, encouraging the mouse to behave in a certain way. I was nowhere near when it died. But in a certain and clear sense, I killed it. I too am responsible for its death.
Setting a trap to destroy a mouse is not a sin. We call it pest control. The worst consequence for me was that I had a mouse corpse to deal with, which is not my favourite thing. Setting a trap that destroys a person for whom Christ died, who is loved by Jesus, a child of the Heavenly Father, is altogether more serious. And today we're looking at what Jesus has to say about it. We're working our way through Luke's Gospel at the moment, and we've got to Luke 17.1-4. Just a few verses but they contain a sobering warning and a challenging command that we can't afford to ignore. The warning and the command are like two sides of the same coin. Jesus is saying "don't do that – do this instead." It would be great if you could have those verses open in front of you. My two main headings are those two sides of the coin. First, don't be the cause of other people's ruin. And secondly, do help others to find forgiveness. Let's take a look.
1. Don't Be the Cause of Other People's Ruin
This is the first couple of verses and the start of verse 3. From verse 1:
"And he [that's Jesus] said to his disciples…"
So what he's going to say is directed to those who are his disciples – that is, those who take what Jesus says seriously and who are learning to live it out in their lives. They have come to the conclusion that what Jesus says is the truth. What about you? Do you take what Jesus says seriously, because it's the truth? If not, please start listening, because your eternal future depends on it. If you do, then what Jesus says here he is saying to you. Verses 1-3:
"And [Jesus] said to his disciples, "Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves!""
There are four parts of that warning. We'll go through them one by one. First…
a) Some will stumble and fall.
In verse 1 Jesus says "Temptations to sin are sure to come…" Why am I talking about stumbling and falling when Jesus talks about temptations to sin? Because what Jesus literally says here is, "Stumbling blocks are sure to come…" If you've got good eyesight you can see that there's a little footnote at the bottom of the page that tells you that. "Stumbling blocks are sure to come…" What then is a stumbling block? Well, of course, it's a block in someone's path that causes them to stumble. But what's meant isn't just the kind of stumble that makes you catch your step and then you regain your balance and carry on as if nothing had happened. No. This is the kind of stumble that sends you flying headlong so that you crack your head open on the pavement. It causes not just a minor stumble but a destructive fall.
Jesus actually spoke about two different kinds of stumbling block. There's this kind here, that causes people to be ruined by sin. And then, remarkably, at other times he spoke about himself as a stone that would cause people to stumble. So, for instance, turn to Luke 20.16. Here, Jesus has been warning people that if they reject him, God his father would in the end destroy them. Verses 16-18:
"When they heard this, they said, "Surely not!" But [Jesus] looked directly at them and said, "What then is this that is written: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone'? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces…"
What that means is that if anyone takes offence at Jesus, and won't turn from their sin and put their trust in him, then they will bring ruin on themselves, because there is no other way of escape from the coming judgement day. They will stumble and fall, with eternal consequences. That is the opposite of what Jesus wants. He went to the cross and died to rescue people from hell. But if people take offence at him and turn their backs on him, there will be dire consequences. And what Jesus is saying back in Luke 17 is that some will stumble and fall over another kind of stumbling stone, which is the opposite of Jesus – an evil stumbling stone. So, first, some will stumble and fall. And, secondly…
b) Some will be the cause.
It is possible for people to speak or act in such a way that they lead others away from Jesus and into sin. Verse 1 again:
"Temptations to sin [that is, stumbling blocks] are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!"
'Woe' is a very strong word on the lips of Jesus. He applies it to those who are heading for eternal condemnation and show no sign of changing direction. So, thirdly…
c) Such people will face dire consequences as a result of causing others to stumble and fall.
And it's hard to imagine stronger language than Jesus uses here. This is very sobering stuff. Look at verse 2:
"It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin."
Who are "these little ones"? Children, yes. But not only children. Also adult disciples of Jesus who are vulnerable to being sent flying by those temptations and traps that might be placed in their path. In Mark 9 Jesus speaks of them as "these little ones who believe in me". He has in mind vulnerable believers – whatever their age.
So are we hearing what Jesus is saying? Jesus, the Son of God, says that it would be better to suffer a violent death beforehand, than to suffer the dire consequences of putting a stumbling block in the way of "one of these little ones" and causing them to fall. Why is he speaking so harshly? Isn't he supposed to be loving? Yes – and it's because he loves us that he gives such a strong warning. He's warning us to prevent us suffering these dire consequences, and to prevent us from being the cause of others falling. This is the strong language of a rescuer, of a saviour. And it has its effect when we heed the warning and take it to heart.
Where have we got to? First, some will stumble and fall; secondly, some will be the cause; thirdly, they will face dire consequences; so fourthly…
d) Don't be one of them!
"Pay attention to yourselves!"
This doesn't just apply to other people. We need to watch out. It could be us. So be very careful. Don't feed people with lies that will lead them away from faith in Jesus. Don't drag other people along a sinful path that will bring judgement down on their heads. Some people do that. Don't be one of them – both for the sake of the vulnerable, and also for your own sake. Their eternal destiny, and our eternal destiny, is at stake.
That, then, is the first main lesson here. Don't be the cause of other people's ruin. Watch yourselves. That's one side of the coin. The other side of this coin is my other main heading. So:
2. Do Help Others to Find Forgiveness
Let me ask you a personal question. Who has done you wrong? Does someone come to mind? Then here is a three-part life lesson for you. So, first,
a) Be ready to rebuke those who sin against you.
Jesus says to us (verse 3):
"Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother [or sister, come to that] sins, rebuke him…"
That's challenging, isn't it? Jesus is clear that if we're going to help one another in our Christian lives, then we have to be caring enough to confront them when necessary.
This is about wrong being done against us. I say that because Jesus goes on to say, "and if he repents, forgive him". We can only forgive sin that's against us. Now this doesn't mean that we make ourselves obnoxious by picking everyone up on every little thing that in our opinion they're not getting right. But it does mean that we mustn't be a soft touch. We mustn't be too timid to talk to people if they've wronged us. Not to score points, of course. But out of love, and for their sake. Don't expect them to like it. Who does like being rebuked? You wouldn't. I don't. In the short term it'll be uncomfortable. But in the long term it'll be for the good. So keep that horizon in view. And keep in mind that we do this because Jesus tells us to. Instead of dragging people away from Jesus, he wants us to lead them to him.
Now sometimes you'll be wronged but you'll know that the best thing is for you to leave it alone. Maybe somebody else has already got it in hand. Maybe it's just not a big enough deal. Maybe it's right just to let it go. "Love covers a multitude of sins," as the apostle Peter said. At other times it will be clear to you that it wouldn't be right just to let them get away with it, and you have to say something to them. Then the question is not whether you should. It's whether you'll summon up the courage to do it. But what if you're not sure? Should you speak or not? Well, pray about it. Talk to God about what you're thinking, and ask him to give you the wisdom to discern what the right approach is. Then when you've talked it over with Him, make a decision and trust that He's guiding. But the lesson is this: be ready to rebuke those who sin against you. Then, secondly…
b) Freely forgive those who turn from their sin.
The second half of verse 2:
"If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him …"
Our attitude towards the sin of others should always be full of grace and ready to forgive. Those who sin can't be on the receiving end of forgiveness unless they turn from their sin. But our attitude should always be forgiving. That's hard. So we need to think of how God has forgiven us, despite our endless provocation and sin against him. Then we'll learn to pray as Jesus taught us:
"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…"
And remember that forgiveness is not mainly about an emotional response to the sin of others. It's a solid thing. It's like releasing them from the debt that they owe you as a result of their sin. That's the picture Jesus used. God through the cross of Christ has wiped away the unpayable debt that we owe him. So we must wipe away the debts others owe us. Once we have forgiven them, they owe us nothing. God willing, forgiving feelings will grow from those facts. But the fact of forgiveness doesn't depend on feelings.
So, first, be ready to rebuke those who sin against you. A forgiving attitude doesn't make us a soft touch. But, secondly, freely forgive those who turn from their sin. And finally, thirdly…
c) Put no limit on the frequency of your forgiveness.
Repeated sin against us can be very provoking. When a sin is repented of but then repeated, and then repented of again but repeated again, and again, and again, it's so easy to become cynical and hardened. But Jesus is not giving us an option here. This is a command. We must forgive.
The key is to remember how much you have provoked your heavenly Father, and how much you go on provoking him, over and over, doing the same things again and again – and yet he forgives you. Again and again and again. And it's the little sins we repeat that are in a way just as bad as the big ones, because the temptation is so slight and what we gain is so trivial but even so we repeatedly defy our Lord and Saviour. And yet he forgives. Get clear about that, and we can learn to forgive others – over and over. Who is that person in your life who sins against you over and over? Are you tempted to become cynical and hardened against them? Jesus says, "forgive" – and keep on forgiving, as he forgives us.
So, here is powerful teaching from the lips of Jesus. Don't be the cause of other people's ruin. Do help others to find forgiveness. Let's pray:
Lord Jesus, have mercy on us. Prevent us from falling into sin and dragging others with us. Give us wisdom to know when to keep silent and when to speak words of rebuke when others sin against us. And teach us to forgive others, over and over again, as you have forgiven us. Amen.