Once I was at a Bible camp in Romania and some of the Scottish leaders were being interviewed and given ice-breaker questions in order to get to know us better. It was a fairly informal and relaxed occasion. Questions ranged from: ‘What do you usually eat for breakfast?’ to ‘What are your hobbies?’ One Scottish leader was asked: ‘What’s the worst sin you have ever committed’. What answer was given? What would you say? He said: ‘Sin is so serious that it took the Lord Jesus to the cross, and I don’t want to trivialise the sins I have done, and I don’t think it’d be helpful for you to know them’. This changed the atmosphere around the camp fire for a few minutes. But I think the Scottish leader was right. Even as forgiven Christians, we need to keep on taking sin seriously and have a no-nonsense approach to it, both in our own lives and in the lives of fellow believers.
Just because we are surrounded by sinful attitudes and actions all the time doesn’t mean we should become desensitised to how serious sin is, and just shrug our shoulders when we see sinful behaviours in ourselves and in others. Sin must always be dealt with. If it is not, like an untreated cancer, it will spread in a deadly way.
1. The seriousness of leading others astray
Jesus uses the phrase ‘little ones’ in verse 2 to speak of fellow Christians, perhaps with a focus of those who are newer believers. Jesus stresses just how serious it is to lead another Christian into sin by using a shocking picture: ‘It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.’ (Luke 17:2)
It would be better for you to drown than to lead others down the paths of sin. If that picture doesn’t arrest us and get us thinking of how serious sin is, then I don’t know what will. You don’t want to be the person leading others astray. Woe to the person who promotes sin.
When I was in another church, there was a guy who was known as a Christian, but was also known for sleeping around. He was challenged for his behaviour, and the phrase used was, ‘You’re dragging the name of Jesus through the mud.’ That’s exactly what he was doing. He might argue: ‘it’s none of your business, and it’s my life’. But whether he liked it or not, his behaviour had a massive impact on others. For a start, many would have thought, well if that’s how Christians behave then I don’t want anything to do with Jesus. Christians are closely watched, and we have a responsibility to live holy lives so that we attract people to Jesus, and not repel people from him. Who knows how many other Christians heard about this and thought, well he’s doing it and seems to be so happy, so why shouldn’t I do it too?
J C Ryle puts it this way: ‘An inconsistent believer, whether he knows it or not, is daily doing harm to souls. His life is a positive injury to the Gospel of Christ.’
This is sobering teaching which reminds us that we are far more than individuals; our behaviours in church and in society have an impact on others. Do you want to be someone who trips people up spiritually or drives them away from Jesus? We might have some unbiblical ideas and spread them to others. We might say, ‘I know the Bible says this about this issue, but I don’t agree with that.’ Spreading false teaching might well push others far away from Jesus.
D R Davis has an encouraging thought here: ‘This severe warning of Jesus should prove an immense encouragement to His disciples, for it shows how Jesus regards His people. Not even ‘one’ of his ‘little ones’ should be lured from Him.’
No wonder, then, that Jesus begins verse 3 with the words: ‘So watch yourselves.’ We must take sin seriously in our own lives because of the impact that it might have upon others.
2. Caring enough to rebuke and forgive
This is something counter-cultural in 2022. We like to think of ourselves as a church family, so long as it doesn’t get too personal. However, the Biblical teaching on ‘one-anothering’ involves Christians rebuking one another. So, if you see someone in church falling into an obvious pattern of sin, and they don’t seem sorry for it, or are just making excuses, it’s our responsibility to speak to them about it. Is this a part of Jesus’ teaching which you live by? Or are you inclined just to take the easy option and do and say nothing, and say ‘Oh, I just hate confrontation…’
Let’s think about what the options are in this area. A Christian in church keeps passing on gossip to you. You have felt uncomfortable about it, but said nothing. You then find out they are gossiping about you as well. It has become a clear issue. What should you do? What’s the best thing to do? Surely, it is to point it out in a loving way. This would give the person the opportunity to think about what they are doing, and to repent. If they do repent of the gossip then we are to forgive them.
‘Let a righteous man strike me – that is a kindness; let him rebuke me – that is oil on my head.’ (Psalm 141:5)
Is this really the best option? What alternatives are there? If we do nothing, then they’re likely to carry on and on, betraying confidences, and hurting people. If we do nothing, we’re likely to grow in our resentment of them, especially in their gossip of us. Ironically, if we don’t confront them with the issue, we ourselves might end up as the gossips, telling others about their gossiping. Jesus tells us to go and speak to the person. How they react is not up to us, but is their concern. And if they repent then we forgive them. Of course, we must never go and rebuke someone unless we are prepared to forgive them when they repent. That would be cruel.
D R Davis: ‘Our problem with Jesus’ word here is that we are often too spineless to rebuke and too resentful to forgive. Jesus requires of us both courage to rebuke and compassion to forgive. The Christian life, as usual, demands both guts and goodness.’
Kent Hughes: ‘This is difficult stuff. We must rebuke sin, even though we don’t want to; and we must forgive sin, even though we don’t want to. But obedience in these matters is sublime, because to do so is to become more like God. He always stands against sin in perpetual rebuke, and yet he also delights to forgive repentant sinners. His forgiveness is limitless. Has God not forgiven each of us countless times?’
3. The object of our faith
The disciples are probably struggling with Jesus’ teaching on rebuking fellow Christians and forgiving them in a limitless way. Perhaps that is why they say: ‘Increase our faith.’ (verse 5) Jesus’ response is fascinating. He says, in effect, it’s not really how much faith you have which is crucial, but having genuine faith is what really matters: ‘If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.’ (Verse 6)
Mulberry trees are known for their strong network of roots. They were not easy to shift. I tried to dig an ivy root out of the manse garden and it felt like an impossible task. I wish I could have sent it into the sea! Jesus is using this striking image of the mulberry tree to teach us that true discipleship isn’t so much about focusing on the size of our own faith, but in having confidence in the size of our God. Our confidence should not be in our own faith, but our confidence should rest on God’s greatness. It is this kind of thinking which led William Carey to say: ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’
As we seek to partner Geoff and others in planting a church, is it all about Geoff’s gifts and passion, or faith, or do we go forward in the confidence that God will provide what is needed?
Leon Morris: ‘If there is real faith then effects follow. It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.’
4. Keeping humble
This section closes with a short parable designed to keep us humble. When Christians serve in the church, it is all too easy for us to become proud and self-righteous. I’ve helped out in this particular way and others haven’t done anything like that, we can think. There’s a fine line between humble service and self-righteousness. Jesus doesn’t want us to become puffed up, and so he keeps us grounded by reminding us that at the end of the day, he is the righteous King and we are but undeserving servants.
If we’re honest, sometimes we can start to think, ‘I’ve done creche or Sunday School, or door duty for years, so surely God owes me something now.’ Or we start thinking we’re doing God a big favour by coming to church, or in our sacrificial giving. Jesus wants us to have a humility akin to the servants in the parable, understanding that our service is also our duty.
That’s not to say that God doesn’t notice what we do in Jesus’ name. We read in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matthew 5:21) The Lord is pleased with faithful service and will reward us for it.
However, Jesus wants our posture to be one of humility. When we live for God, living holy lives, doing good, rebuking and forgiving, we are not earning God’s favour, but rather we are doing the things we ought to do. So don’t think more highly of yourselves than you ought. He has given everything to set us free and so it is only fitting that we should live for him and obedience and love.
It is our honour to be servants of God. We should gladly serve him in his church and in the world. We should not serve him to try and get into his good books.
Warren Wiersbe: ‘If a common servant is faithful to obey the orders of his master who does not reward him, how much more ought Christ’s disciples to obey their loving Master, who has promised to reward them graciously!’