Luke 17:1-3 “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 round his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. So watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him.’”
We begin a section about Christian behaviour, how disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ must treat one another. I’d judge that what we have before us today is one of the more difficult passages in the Bible. It is not difficult in the sense that it is hard to understand. It is quite simple and straightforward to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words. What is difficult is putting them into practice, but we have to do that – we’re not given the option of studying them and admiring them because we profess to be Jesus’ disciples and the chapter begins with the words, “Jesus said to his disciples . . .” More than that, these are the words of God the Son, and for us they will last longer than the universe. The word of the Lord endures for ever. If we are ashamed of these words then God will be ashamed of us in the Day of Judgment. So here we are being faced with words that are true, words which search us, and words by which God will judge us.
THINGS THAT CAUSE PEOPLE TO SIN ARE BOUND TO COME.
Imagine that as you entered the church today the deacons had given you a large piece of paper, a clipboard and a pen. There was a heading on the paper in capital letters, THINGS THAT CAUSE PEOPLE TO SIN. You were not aware that those six words had been taken from the first verse of our text. “Now,” I could say to you, “before I begin to preach to you I want you all to write down a list of the things that cause you to sin. Parents please help your children.” So you gnaw the end of your pencils and slowly but then with increasing speed you compile a list. I have written down ten things . . .
- When a guy persuades me of all the benefits I’ll get from taking drugs.
- When a fellow gives me a pornographic DVD or a porn magazine.
- When a preacher tells me lies from the pulpit but pretends they are true.
- When my wife keeps nagging me, and in the end I viciously retaliate.
- When there’s bad news about a person going around and I’m itching to hear it.
- When someone tells me how to cheat in exams.
- When a girl wears a tight, revealing dress.
- When I’m offered something valuable very cheaply, and I ask no questions.
- When I keep pressing a friend to have another drink, and another drink . . .
- When I’m told that I can kill my unborn child.
So that is one list of things that cause people to sin, and then there would be other lists too from everybody here of similar things enticing us to behave improperly.
Then Jesus opens up the phrase saying, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come” (v.1). Why does the Lord say that? Why are these things bound to arise? One reason would be because people today don’t have an understanding of this word ‘sin.’ They don’t realise that sin is a failure to keep the law of God, or even any lack of conformity to God’s law is sin. They think of sin as being narrow-minded, or being bigoted when you think everyone else is wrong except you, or they think that sin is being homophobic or racist or anti-environmentalist. That sort of thing is sin, they agree. I am saying that when the living God our Creator, and his law are kept out of men’s lives that there is bound to be ignorance and confusion about what sin is and what causing other people to sin consists of.
What does God say about sin? He says that worshipping any god except the one and only living God is sin. God says that making an idol of something and giving your life to serving an idol is sin. God says lacing your speech with phrases like, “Oh my God . . . for God’s sake . . . Jesus Christ . . . good God” is sin. Not keeping one day in seven as a special day centred on God and his word and his people and his worship is sin. Not honouring and pleasing your mother and your father is sin. And being angry and threatening and violent and deceiving and telling white lies and being promiscuous in your behaviour and taking what belongs to the business or to other people and never being contented with what you’ve got but aching for what belongs to other people you know – all that is sin! God will put you in hell for behaving like that.
The problem is that people are defiantly ignorant of the law of God and so they dismiss sin, and they dismiss sin because they are dismissing God. So our lists of the things that make us sin and the things that make other people sin are so long and comprehensive because people refuse to take God seriously, and they refuse to take seriously what God tells his creatures (who live and move and have their being in him) how they should live. So in a world without God things that cause people to sin are bound to flood into our lives. It is impossible without the dynamic grace of God to dodge them. So I must say to you that each one of you has a conscience that tells you that worshipping idols, and living for yourself only, and dishonouring your parents, and fighting, and swearing, and blaspheming, and cheating, and lying, and fornicating, and getting drunk, and tempting other people to sin, and stealing, and coveting is all wrong. You know that it is wrong because your conscience tells you so.
But also all around you is a wonderful testimony to the true Creator God. The sunsets, the Welsh mountains, the autumn scenery, the beauty of animals, the evening stars, the waves beating on the shore, the consistency and understandability of the universe, the minuteness of the atom, the breathtaking vastness of outer space – all the creation speaks to you of a glorious omnipotent Designer and Creator. Again, the life of Jesus Christ is unanswerable proof of the existence of God. How that life has impacted people you’ve come to know so that they are wise, and self-denying, and patient, and thoughtful, and prayerful, and holy, and fun, and good companions, and concerned for you and for others – that too is proof that God is. We believe in God because of Jesus.
If you had faced up to that, so that the reality of the God of the Bible became a growing unavoidable fact that you couldn’t get out of your mind, then it would begin to matter to you how you lived, and how you have influenced other people. When you knew that you’d hurt other people by what you did and said then that thought would really trouble you. You would see their faces and wonder how they were doing today. “If only God had been more important to me,” you’d be thinking, “then I wouldn’t have been such a loudmouth, such a bad example, such a seducer, such a weakling, such an anorak,” and it would really get under your skin. You’d see yourself to be a sinner. You’d know you had failed to love your neighbour as yourself. But let’s move on with these words of Jesus . . .
WOE TO ANY PERSON WHO CAUSES OTHERS TO SIN.
Things that cause others to sin are bound to occur in a world that ignores God, but don’t find any comfort in that. Don’t say to yourself, “But everybody’s a sinner . . . everybody causes other people to sin.” Don’t find any peace in that fact any more than a person dying of the bubonic plague can get any comfort whatsoever from knowing that many of his friends and acquaintances are also dying of the plague. As William Cowper wrote,
But misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in another’s case.
The Scripture says that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, that there is none righteous, no not one. So the Son of God proceeds to say, “Woe to that person through whom encouragement to sin comes.” In other words everyone who lives and moves and has his being in God, whose breath is in God’s hands, whom God sustains, whom God blesses with every good and perfect thing they’d ever had will have to answer to him for it. There is a lioness who teaches her cubs how to kill, a woodworm who bores holes into a fine piece of oak, a rabbit who copulates with three other rabbits in a day, an osprey who takes out of the river a salmon just about to lay her eggs and the osprey tears the fish to pieces – none of those animals is going to be judged by God because they are not made in the image of God. They have no conscience. They don’t answer to God for their behaviour, but you do. This is a moral universe, as I often say, and whatever a man sows that he will also reap. We sin and we answer for it. We’ve encouraged others to sin and so God is going to call us to account. We face a woeful future. We face a place of woe. Jesus says, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.” How solemn his words. Not my words. These are the words of the Son of God. You are going to answer to God for your behaviour, and it doesn’t look good.
How bad does it look for such a man? I will tell you; “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck” (v.2). You see this vivid image? You are on the back of a cart and you are being driven handcuffed down to the harbour, and with you in the cart is a vast round millstone. The cart stops at the quayside and they take you out and put you on a fishing boat, and then by the crane on the dock they lift up the millstone from the cart and turn the crane and slowly lower it alongside you in the boat. See how the boat sinks in the water with the weight of the millstone. Then through the hole in the centre of the millstone they pass a strong chain and they chain it round and round and round your neck. Then the boat chugs out to sea half a mile. Then the crew roll the millstone to the edge and with one push over the side it goes . . . and in the twinkling of an eye you go too. Splash! Down and down and down to the bottom of the sea you go utterly unable to escape, drowning until you are quite dead.
I didn’t invent that picture. It was gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who said it. Better, he said, for that horror to have happened to someone rather than that same person had caused one of Jesus’ little ones to sin, because a more terrible woe is going to happen to him. How unspeakable that woe must be! You understand that when Jesus talks of “these little ones” he is not speaking of children or infants. The phrase refers to the children of God, men and women who are poor in spirit, weak and helpless because of their sin, who have fled to Jesus Christ, and he has received them and made them his own dear little children. Jesus is referring to those who have the spirit of adoption, and they can say, “Our Father which art in heaven . . .” Jesus is talking of little Christians being put under pressure, and being tempted to sin, and that it will be the most terrible woe for those who are doing that. All the justice of God will go into making the punishment for such behaviour fit the crime.
WATCH OUT THAT YOU DON’T CAUSE A CHRISTIAN TO SIN.
Now a word of grace appears; a light begins to dawn in this grim monologue “So watch yourselves!” (v.3). Jesus doesn’t say, “There is no escape. If you’re fated to behave like that then you’ll end up in a place of woe.” No. He is telling us how to escape. What he says is not difficult. You don’t need to go to theological college or seminary to know how to avoid the place of woe and how to keep yourself from tempting other people to sin. All of us right through our lives will need to watch ourselves.
i] Obey the Lord. That’s a bit obvious, you think. But that’s one reason why we need to attend to it. The absence of biblical preaching is not the issue in this town. It may be the issue elsewhere. Understanding what we are hearing is not the issue. It may be elsewhere but not here. The preaching is biblical and lucid. Doing is the problem. Hearing the warnings, and knowing what course of action to take is not as important as actually doing what God says. Our Lord never asked his hearers, “Do you agree with me about the place of woe and that a millstone around your neck would be better?” He never said, “Does this sound reasonable to most of you?” or “Get my drift?” Jesus wanted more than mere understanding and agreement. Most of the time they called Jesus “Teacher,” but God’s great prophet was doing more than warning his disciples of the place of woe. What Jesus was after was discipleship. Scripture doesn’t just want to be understood. It longs to be put into action, and so maybe that’s why we prefer to speak of stepping back, pondering, thinking, considering, and reflecting, while the Bible longs for us to get moving, get into the act, perform the text rather than just think or speak or hear it.
You ask people what they look for in a good sermon. “I like a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way,” is a predominate response. “I like a sermon which engages my mind, which spurs my thinking and reflection.” We deceive ourselves into thinking that we have ‘done the faith’ when we’ve merely listened, reflected, pondered, agreed. In my experience what we profess is not as important as what we go on to do. Beliefs must be embodied, and enacted in order to be real. Sometimes I have heard people say of church on Sunday morning, “I think of church as a petrol station. I come here empty, and during the service I get filled so that I can make it through the week.” See? That thinking is passive and receptive, not active. It makes church into a place where we come, sit back and say, “OK preacher, do it to me; fill me up.” No. The test for true worship, the mark of a good church is not what we do here during this hour of worship; it’s what we do outside those doors for the rest of the week. But alas we know that even here, in this distinguished congregation, more is being said than being done. So the sermon ends, but the test for the sermon, the mark of whether or not this was indeed a “good” sermon, a “good” service of worship, is going to confront us in a few minutes from now. The issue is immanent: what will we do with this message that is saying bluntly to us that things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come? You might even say to me, “A wonderful sermon.” I would say in response, “That remains to be seen.” It is wonderful only if it energizes us to obey the warning to stop causing Christ’s little ones to sin. So, first, obey the Lord.
ii] Pray for help. Our Lord sets the church an example. As the peril draws nearer and his disciples are watching him in the shadow of the cross, Jesus acts. He goes to God for strength in order that the will of God might be done through him. The disciples, much weaker, but more confident, they don’t pray. Even mighty Peter didn’t pray, and then when the temptation came they simply couldn’t stand and they were driven along as chaff before the wind. Now is it unthinkable to you that there are Christians who don’t pray? Is it unthinkable to you that there are ministers who don’t pray? I would think many Christians would say that yes it is unthinkable. Yet here was Peter, and he fell spectacularly, and you ask why he fell and the answer is because he didn’t do what the Lord said. He did not pray. There are no mysteries to Peter’s fall. There is no need for a complex psychological analysis. The whole problem began there. He did not go in weakness to the throne and ask for grace to help in time of need. He thought he could cope by himself, and out of that there came his fall. How often can we trace our spiritual lapses and calamities to the same particular failing and personal omission!
Never, never trust your own judgment in anything. When common sense says that a course is right, lift your heart to God, for the path of faith and the path of blessing may be in a direction completely opposite to that which you call common sense. When voices tell you that action is urgent, that something must be done immediately, refer everything to the tribunal of heaven. Then if you are still in doubt, dare to stand still. If you are called on to act and you haven’t had time to pray, don’t act. If you are called on to move in a certain direction and cannot wait until you have peace with God about it, don’t move. Be strong enough and brave enough to dare to stand and wait on God, for none of them that wait on him shall ever be ashamed. That is the only way to resist temptation. It seems to take us a long time to learn the lesson that neglect of prayer always leads to trouble, and destroys the spirit of discernment. Neglect of prayer always suggests pride in our own judgment, which is fatal. So pray!
iii] Watch yourselves. These are the actual words of Jesus in our text (v.3).He speaks these words to all his disciples, but he speaks them to individual disciples too. The Lord spoke to Peter and he told him to watch. How do you watch? Maybe there are enemies approaching. They come out of the darkness carrying torches through the olive trees towards you. Be prepared. Watch out for them. Keep an eye open for the in-crowd, your peers that you are so afraid of antagonizing. Watch for them; you are vulnerable. Watch so that others might not be distracted from their duties. Most of all watch yourself. Keep an eye on yourself. No man backslides from closeness to God into the abyss of tempting others to sin in a moment. There is a process, and if you keep an eye on yourself then you can see the onset and progress of the process. Watch, lest you’re growing in self-confidence and not doing what the Lord is telling you. Watch, lest you are omitting prayer. Watch for every indication of declension. Watch for the first risings of backslidings and deal with them; nip them in the very bud. Watch yourself!
Watch yourself for the onset of temptation. Peter once warmed his hands at a fire on a dark night. He ought to have known at once that he was in danger. He was alone, in the company of the world, and a very hostile segment of the world at that. He ought to have seen the lights flashing and known that he was at risk. Peter was under pressure and so he ought to have been especially watchful. Have we the mentality that in any particular situation we are intent upon that? I find prayer unanswered, and the lights start flashing. I find myself suffering and lonely, and I see the lights flashing. I find myself in the company of the world on some occasion with hardly another Christian in the whole gathering and I want to be well thought of. I want to give the impression that I’m really not such a religious killjoy as people imagine – do I see again the lights flashing? I find myself alone in a room with a member of the opposite sex. Do I see the lights flashing? I find the in-group in school are beginning to tease and torment me about religion. Do I keep smiling and giving gentle answers? Do I see the lights flashing because I am watching? I am tempted to take another Christian along with me into sin, but I am crying out to the Lord for preservation and deliverance and meekness and patience and wisdom. Perhaps God brought me on my first Sunday studying at university to hear words of Jesus Christ warning me about things that cause people to sin, and tempting others to sin, and that my Lord said that being drowned in Cardigan Bay is far happier than the woe that lies before me for doing that, then I am to watch myself. But Jesus has not finished . . .
REBUKE A FELLOW CHRISTIAN WHO SINS.
It might be enough for us to conclude, “Then I must watch myself.” But as good as that resolution is it is not good enough, and what the Lord Jesus says next makes his words even tougher. [I got these next paragraphs from Jay Adams’ book From Forgiven to Forgiving (pp..15-18)]. Let me illustrate them in this way. The helpful London preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who died over a century ago, had a serious case of the gout. He was once approached by a man who claimed that his rheumatism was more painful than Spurgeon’s gout. Spurgeon was not convinced: “I’ll tell you the difference between rheumatism and gout: put your finger into a vice and turn it until you can’t stand the pain; that’s rheumatism. Now, give it three more turns; that’s gout!” I am saying that in these words of Jesus there is both rheumatism and gout. They are so hard to implement, but we cannot ignore or overlook them. That will do our souls no good at all. So see what he says . . .
“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents forgive him” (v.3). Those are the toughest words. The first is hard, extremely hard; it is the rheumatism. The second even more so; it is the gout. Today we will start by examining the rheumatism: “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” How has this man sinned? Jesus is not referring to private sins, say of neglecting prayer and personal devotion. He is not referring to sins of thought and desire and imagination. Go to God with those sins and not man. The sin about which Jesus is speaking is a sin done against you. Someone has been tempting you and maybe causing you to sin. What is your response? How do you handle sins against you? Think about that for a bit. How do you handle the situation when you’ve been sinned against? Here you are, minding your own business, provoking no one to anger, just surveying the scene. All of a sudden, literally or figuratively (probably the latter) a fellow Christian comes along and treads all over your toes, and promptly disappears round the corner. There you stand—through no fault of your own—with ten toes flattened out like ten pound coins. They hurt! Now what do you do next? Well, some begin to whine and feel sorry for themselves. They look for the lavender oil bottle and pour it all over their feet. They hold a pity party and they invite others to join in. But that isn’t what Jesus said we’re to do. Others get furious. They storm about with splashy anger. They either go after the brother to tell him off or they charge around their home kicking chairs or the poor dog gets it. That again is not what Jesus told us to do. A third group, more pious than the rest, get on the phone and go around the congregation talking their flattened toes to as many as will hear them, saying, “Now, you understand that I don’t mean to gossip in telling you what so-and-so did. I’m just warning you so that you can protect yourself from such injury in the future,” but Jesus didn’t tell you to do that either.
What did he say? “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” That’s rheumatism! What he tells you to do is go after the brother, take him (gently) by the collar, and say, “Brother, look at my toes!” Notice, Jesus doesn’t encourage you to tell others about it, to sit in the corner and feel sorry for yourself, to take it out on others in your vicinity, or even to tell the elders. He says go to the one who trod on your toes, and talk to him about it. You wriggle as you hear me and you say, “Why should I go?” “I didn’t start anything. I was an innocent bystander, just getting on with my life when he (or she) came along and flattened my toes. Shouldn’t he be the one who comes to me?”
That’s a reasonable question and one that many persons ask. The trouble is that most of them answer it the wrong way. Jesus is saying, in effect, that whenever your brother or sister wrongs you, that obligates you to take action. No matter how innocent you may have been, you’re obligated to go to him. You protest, “But isn’t he obligated to come to me? I don’t see why his sin against me obligates me to act; let him come to me.” Yes, as a matter of fact, if he has sinned against you, he is obligated to come to you. But that exhortation is found in another familiar passage in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matt.5:23-24). Here the command of Jesus is that you to go to him. Both commands are important; you should go and he should go. Ideally, you ought to meet each other on the way.
You say, “Well, if he’s obligated to go, I don’t see why I must do so too.” Let me try to explain with this imaginary scenario. You haven’t seen your friend Sian for several months; she’s been visiting her family in New Zealand. Then one morning you see her at church, seated on the opposite side of the building. You can’t wait till the service is over to talk to her. At the conclusion of the service, you walk around the pews and you call to her, “Sian! Sian! Sian! Lovely to see you after this long time.” But Sian sticks her nose into the air, turns on her heel, and sails out of the church as rapidly as possible, without so much as a “how do you do?” You stand there really hurt, and perplexed. “What have I done to her?” If you respond as many do, you’ll say, “Ha! If that’s the way she’s going to act, then that’s fine with me! I can wait till she comes down off her high horse and wants to talk. Then maybe I’ll be ready to talk too, but maybe I won’t!”
But, you see, you are a disciple of Jesus and your Master won’t let you do that. He tells you in this passage to go after her and show her your toes. Suppose you do. Having recovered from the shock of her rejection you say to yourself, “Something’s wrong here. I’ve got to get to the bottom of this. This has never happened to me and Sian before.” So you go out of the church after her. There she is at her car. You go over and you say, “Sian! What’s wrong? I was so glad to see you home again from New Zealand that I rushed over to see you after church, but when I called to you, you stuck your nose in the air and left. Have I done something? What’s wrong?”
Perhaps Sian’s response will be something like this: “Oh no! Eirlys, I didn’t even hear or see you! You see, I caught a bad cold in New Zealand – it was winter there – and our pastor preached forever today, and I’d left my tissues in the car, and I thought for sure I was going to drip all over my jacket. That’s why I put my nose back and rushed out here to get these tissues. I never saw you Eirlys. I was so preoccupied with all of this. So sorry.”
You might think that this is a silly illustration, but I chose it because I’ve known cases like that where friendships have been destroyed over misunderstandings just as ridiculous as that. Don’t you see? You are obligated to go after your fellow Christian because the brother or sister may not know that he (she) has stepped on your toes. It may all be a misunderstanding. So, here is the golden rule of Jesus; The one with the sore toes goes because he’s the one who always knows.
Do you see how gentle and inquiring the ‘rebuke’ is? “Have I offended you? Why have you ignored me?” I believe that there are two words in the New Testament for rebuking. One means “so to prosecute a case against another that he is convicted of the crime of which he was accused.” Needless to say, that is not the word used here. The other, which Jesus uses in this connection, means “to rebuke tentatively.” That is to say, when you go, you must do so with caution. You go with the facts as you see them. You present the facts. Then you wait for any possible forthcoming explanation that might clear up a misunderstanding or that might mitigate the situation. If there is none, the offense has been committed, and if your brother or sister repents, you are to forgive him or her but we shall look at forgiveness next time, and if he refuses to acknowledge his sin, there may be informal (and eventually formal) church discipline. But we are not getting into that today. Right now, it is important to stress that when Jesus tells you to go to your sinning brother or sister you’re going to give them an opportunity to explain any misunderstanding – if he or she can. You are moved by love for them. You love your neighbour as yourself, but here is a fellow Christian and you are to love him or her as Christ loves him. You are to love him with a pure heart fervently. You are to lay down your life for your brother, and so you do this relatively easy thing. You go, and you say, “Is everything O.K.?” Or you say, “I’ve been unhappy with the way you treated me and what you said.” You do that because you loved them.
That is how Jesus Christ, the Son of God treated you. He saw all your sin and guilt and he did two extraordinary and divine things. He took your sin like a great millstone and he chained it to himself and he took it into the lake of fire with him so that it would be destroyed for ever. He freely and lovingly forgave and pardoned you for all your sin and guilt. It is gone; it is remembered no more in heaven, and so he left us an example of how we’re to live. But the Lord Christ did more; he changed your heart and the hearts of all his people. He gave you a new heart like his own and that heart enables you to humble yourself and say sorry, and point out the sin of others tenderly, knowing yourself. He has made you a new creature. So he is of sin the double cure; he cleanses us from its guilt and he overcomes its power to warp and twist us. Who is going to deal with the vast millstone of your sin? Are you going to be chained to it for ever or are you going to humbly ask Jesus Christ to deal with it by the power of his atonement? “Take my guilt from me . . . take it now . . . take it away for ever!”
25th September 2011 GEOFF THOMAS