In Luke 17:5 the apostles asked Jesus to “increase our faith.” How did they expect Him to respond? How would you? Many religious folks would probably expect it to be done for them in some direct and miraculous way, the Holy Spirit somehow “injecting” them with faith. However, as usual, Jesus didn’t answer a question the way we might expect Him to. Ironically, increasing their faith is the very thing He was already trying to do.
In verses 1-10, He taught them four things that were involved in increasing their faith, enhancing their lives on earth, and getting them to Heaven, and all four require humility (toward others and toward God). While the direct and miraculous option may be more appealing for some, anyone interested in going to Heaven ought to be interested in what Jesus said.
Humility Toward Others (v. 1-4)
Within the first four verses we find the first two important actions required of us if we are going to grow in faith. The first is to not be an offense or occasion of stumbling to others. Jesus said, “It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.” “These little ones” refer to followers of Christ.
It is impossible for stumbling blocks to not exist. It’s sad, but there are stumbling blocks (offenses; opportunities to sin) everywhere. “But woe to him…!” There will always be people who want to hinder a person from pleasing God and going to Heaven.
Contextually, Jesus is talking about the “offensive” Pharisees (16:14) who refused to obey God and tried to stop others from doing so. His point applies to anyone who causes a follower of Christ to sin. It will happen, but woe (grief) to the one who causes it! Be aware of the things you say and do that could cause a follower or potential follower to stumble. Jesus gives a good example of this in verses 3-4—failure to forgive.
The second act of humility Jesus expects His followers to show to others is to forgive. He said, “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”
Take heed (be cautious, attentive) to yourself (this is very important)! We should always be ready and willing to forgive rather than holding a grudge. But Jesus gives two prerequisites: we must rebuke the offending brother (i.e., make sure he understands his sin) and he then must repent (change his mind, which should result in a change of action). Sometimes a “forgiving” person wants to forgive prematurely, without talking to the offending brother, and he offers forgiveness to someone who doesn’t want it and hasn’t repented of his sin. Jesus says he must first repent. Consider also Colossians 3:13: “Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.” We must forgive as Christ forgave us; and we weren’t forgiven until we repented (Acts 2:38; 8:22).
If he sins against you seven times in a day and each time repents, continue to forgive him! Clearly Jesus did not mean the number seven literally; He meant indefinitely (cf. Matt. 18:21-22–“seventy times seven”). There’s never a time when you aren’t to forgive if he repents. This is important to you, too. Forgiveness of others is a prerequisite to your being forgiven: Matt. 6:12–“Forgive us our debts, as (or when) we forgive our debtors.” Jesus taught us to ask for forgiveness from God and to place upon it the condition that we forgive others. In other words, “if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (v. 14-15).
Contextually, think about how your failure to forgive a penitent brother, or potential brother, (v. 3-4) can be a stumbling block to him (v. 1-2). This is a serious problem. Congregations divide, fall apart, and close their doors because of this. Non-Christians who are seeking the truth turn away forever because of this. Forgive one another!
Humility Toward God (v. 5-10)
The next two lessons that strengthen our faith have to do with, and require, humility toward God. First, we are to trust God (v. 5-6): “And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.”
As He explained in Matt. 13:32, a mustard seed is the smallest seed, but grows into a large tree. Faith as a grain of mustard seed may appear to be small, but can accomplish great things for God.
Is Jesus’ promise literal or figurative? His example is miraculous (i.e., uprooting a tree using no physical force). This could be literal in the first century, since they had miraculous gifts. But did this ever happen? Or were mountains ever literally moved (Matt. 17:20)? Did the apostles not have enough faith to do so? The real question is, did they ever need to do it? No. This wasn’t His will (cf. 1 John 5:14).
His promise was figurative in its example (there was no literal reason for trees or mountains to move). However, the application to the apostles to whom He was speaking was miraculous in nature. If these men had faith, they would (and did) perform many supernatural acts.
So many people misunderstand what Jesus was saying here (and to whom He said it). They think faith is simply to believe He can do something; then they misapply this to themselves, even though they recognize that they cannot perform miracles. But faith isn’t believing what He can do; it’s knowing and believing what He said He would do. And, while He said the apostles would accomplish miraculous feats, He also taught that this ability was limited to the first century (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8f). To believe otherwise is to display lack of faith, since our faith comes from what He said (Rom. 10:17)!
By our faith today, we can also accomplish great things for Christ. Our faith comes from Scripture, and the things He wants us to accomplish are found in Scripture. This includes the actions necessary to become a Christian, as well as what’s necessary to live and be pleasing to Him as a Christian. So, having the faith He’s talking about here comes from reading His Word and doing it.
Again, Jesus is increasing their faith by teaching them His word. The message is “hear God and trust Him.” This requires humility.
The second part is that we are to humbly obey God (v. 7-10). Notices verses 7-9:
But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by (“immediately,” DR) when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow (“think,” DR) not.
This master is not being rude. And this doesn’t mean that a master can never thank his servant. He’s saying that this is the agreed-upon arrangement: “you’re the servant, I’m the master (or employee/employer); you make my meal, then yours, and I pay you for it (room and board, clothing, medical treatment, etc.)” The servant is simply doing his job.
This passage is almost humorous because of how it goes against the expectations of our society. We expect recognition and reward just for doing the job we’re paid to do. We’re offended if we get a pen as a 20-year service award. Did you ever think to acknowledge your employer for keeping food on your table for the last twenty years? Maybe he should get a pen! Acknowledgments and thanks aren’t wrong, but should they be required for simply doing that which your employer paid you to do.
Unfortunately, this attitude can spill over into religion. Someone might feel he’s owed something special for his Christian work or if he thinks he’s better than others (cf. the Pharisee praying–Luke 18:11f). But Jesus said (v. 10), “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”
Just because you obey God doesn’t merit you special favor, as if God were indebted to you; you’ve simply done your duty. It requires humility to accept this. But most everything in Christianity does. Consider again these instructions Jesus gave here in order to increase one’s faith: don’t be a stumbling block, forgive others, trust and obey God, and don’t expect recognition. All of these require us to stop focusing solely on self and have love for God and others. Taking self out of the way is the key ingredient in increasing one’s faith. And it’s something we all can—and must—continue to work on our whole lives.