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This is the first of four sayings, held by many to be independent teachings of Jesus, unconnected with the discourse or circumstance in which Luke has placed them. Of course, if that is what they are, there can be no finding fault with such an arrangement by the sacred historian; because Mark also frequently reported such independent items of Jesus' marvelous teaching. This writer, however, strongly feels that there is a connection which will be noted in each of the four sayings.
Jesus had just finished the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which closed with the implication that Dives had influenced his five brothers to follow a sinful course, an error which he vainly sought to correct from the spirit world. Jesus quite logically moved to warn those yet living against such a sin. Spence agreed that "There does seem a clear connection here with the narrative immediately preceding." F1 After noting the opinions of many to the contrary, Geldenhuys also said, "It appears to us that there is a unity between the various pronouncements and that (although Luke does not say so) they were uttered on one and the same occasion." F2
Hobbs thought the four sayings might be entitled "Four things of which the Christian should beware." These were enumerated by him as "the sin of tempting others (Luke 17:1-2), ... the sin of an unforgiving spirit (Luke 17:3-4), ... the sin of overlooking the power of faith in this (Luke 17:5-6), ... and the sin of supposing that one may merit salvation (Luke 17:7-10). F3 We fully agree with Hobbs that there are four pronouncements here, not merely two, as indicated by the paragraphing in the English Revised Version (1885).
The Pharisees, who were constantly on the fringe of every audience Jesus ever addressed, were at that very moment trying to cause the Twelve themselves to stumble; and Jesus spoke in the most stern manner against those who would pervert the faith of others.
Occasions of stumbling ...
One of these little ones ...
is a characteristic reference of Jesus to those who are "babes in Christ," whose faith is young and weak.
The teaching here is that physical death is a far more desirable fate than that which is reserved for those whose intent is to destroy the faith of others. The millstone in view here weighed about forty pounds; and, although Matthew quoted the Lord as referring to "a millstone drawn by an ass," a much larger stone, those commentators who style that a contradiction must be kidding. A forty-pound stone around the neck would have the same effect as a stone ten times as large, if the wearer of either were thrown into the sea.
Jesus often taught on the subject of forgiveness. Just about the longest parable in the New Testament regards this very thing (Matthew 18:20-35); and there is no need to make Luke's account here a "variable" of other teachings of Jesus in similar words and different circumstances. In fact, there is a little different thing in view here, namely, a warning against withholding forgiveness (when it has been asked for). Nor can we agree with Wesley that "forgiveness is due only to real penitents." F5 Summers was nearer the true meaning of Jesus when he wrote:
It is foreign to the intent of Jesus to ask, "But what if he does not repent?" ... The follower of Jesus is not justified in holding a spirit of unforgiveness just because no apology is offered. That would put the responsibility for the Christian's attitude upon the offender; and that Jesus would never do. F6
This subject is more extensively developed in this writer's my Commentary on Matthew, Matt. 6:14-15. As a matter of fact, if one is going to forgive only those sinners against himself who repent and request it, he will not forgive anyone ten times in a lifetime! Besides that, what about those cases in which men sin against others WITHOUT EVER BEING AWARE that they have done so? And in religious matters, many sins are committed unintentionally (see 16:2).
This is the third of the four pronouncements. The apostle's reaction to the command of Jesus for what amounts to unlimited forgiveness appeared to them such a monstrous task that they supposed they needed a special measure of faith to be able to comply with it. The teaching here is that the faith they had was more than enough to enable it, provided only that they got on with the DOING of it.
Apostles ... Lord ...
Those commentators who suppose that these terms were retrospectively incorporated in Luke's Gospel at a time long after the events, and at a time when the early church had "developed" these words are wrong. Jesus himself named the Twelve "apostles" (Luke 6:13); and they referred to Jesus as "Lord," using the word as a reference to the Godhead. Drowning Peter cried out, saying, "Lord, save me," and this student of the word of God will never consent to view these words as the equivalent of "Rabbi, save me" (Matthew 14:30).
Sycamine tree ...
"This word sometimes means the mulberry tree, sometimes the sycamore." F7
What did Jesus means by this promise? There are two things in it: (a)the forgiveness of those who sin against us is, humanly speaking, an impossibility, comparable to the outlandish wonder in view here; and (b) the faith of Christians, without any providential increase of it, is more than enough to enable it to be done.
Miller was right in affirming that such a wonder as Jesus promised here suggests "that genuine faith can accomplish what experience, reason, and probability would deny, if it is exercised within God's will." F8 Hobbs was sure that no miraculous ability was promised Christians in this; because, said he, "We cannot even transplant violets in a garden, to say nothing of transplanting trees from the land into the sea." F9 Jesus' true meaning is found in the Jewish usage of such extravagant figures of speech. "Rabbis of intellectual eminence were often called `uprooters of mountains' in allusion to their powers of solving difficult questions"; F10 and, significantly, Matthew quoted Jesus using the term "mountain" in this same context on another occasion (Matthew 17:20). This, of course, is the same figure and should be understood spiritually.
This remarkable parable is clearly a lesson designed to teach humility, obedience, and a sense of lacking any merit in the sight of God. The apparent connection in context is this: the apostles contemplating the marvelous spiritual attainments indicated by Jesus' promise that they had the faith to move trees into the sea would naturally be tempted to pride and vainglory by such envisioned achievements. This parable was to show that no man can merit salvation.
This parable is hailed by Trench as one of "great difficulty"; F11 especially because it presents the relationship of Jesus and his followers in a much sterner aspect than in most of his teachings. Did the Lord not say, "I have called you friends," and that "no longer do I call you servants"? (John 15:15). While this is true, Paul did not hesitate to call himself the "bondservant" of Jesus (Romans 1:1); and this sterner aspect of the Christian's relationship to the Lord needed stress then, and it needs it now. For example, the glaring misuse of this parable surfaces in a comment like this: "Men who only carry out God's commands have no claim on any reward!" F12 Jesus said, "If thou wouldest enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17); and there is absolutely nothing in this parable to indicate that the obedient servant was denied his true reward. As a matter of fact, there was never a servant on earth who did "all that was commanded," as did this one; and therefore he should be called the "hypothetical servant," for that is exactly what he is, as indicated by the supposition (for the sake of the hypothesis) that the twelve apostles would have been bondservants (Luke 17:7)! It is the failure to discern this key fact that has confused the exegetes.
Some have tried to get around the difficulty Trench mentioned by supposing that this is a parable of the religious establishment, so clearly discernible in practically all of the parables in this section. Both Grotius and Venema were cited by Trench as alleging the parable as a representation of the scribes, Pharisees, etc.; F13 but that is absolutely impossible. To view them as having "done all that was commanded, contradicts everything Jesus said about that class of leaders. But is it not true also that no Christian who ever lived did "all that was commanded"? Indeed it is. The message of this hypothetical servant is, therefore, that even if any person whosoever, Jew or Gentile, should actually do "all that was commanded" (repeated twice in the parable), he would not by such obedience place Almighty God in a position of being debtor to him. Salvation is by grace. No man ever did, or ever could, merit God's redeeming love; but, make no mistake about it, this is no promise that God will overlook the principle of obedience in them that hope to be saved. If one performing all that God commanded, if such a thing were possible, is saved by grace, as appears here, how utterly beyond redemption is that man who fancies that there is no requirement for him to obey? Ash summarized the teaching here thus:
Man can never repay God's natural blessings, much less those bestowed by grace. The claim of love can never be fully discharged. Man cannot earn heaven. F14
Russell, in his summary, expressed it thus: "This rebukes the self-satisfied Christian who thinks that in obeying God he has done something especially meritorious." F15
THE HEALING OF THE TEN LEPERS
Interpreter's Bible denies this miracle as having happened, stating that "It is probably a variant of Luke 5:12f ... (Luke) has increased the numbers of lepers from one to ten!" F16 There is no way to justify such a comment; and there is no way to justify churches in purchasing such comments and making them available as "authentic Christian literature" in their libraries.
On the way to Jerusalem ...
This is the third and final of the three references in this long section of Luke, in which it is mentioned that they were on the way to Jerusalem. The three references to the fact that Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem are Luke 9:51, Luke 13:22, and this verse Luke 17:11. Ash's comment that "Jesus is always on the way but is no closer to Jerusalem at the last than at the first" F17 discloses an amazing failure to integrate this portion of Luke with the Gospel of John. Robertson said:
John gives us three journeys, - the Feast of the Tabernacles (John 7:2), the journey to raise Lazarus (John 11:17), and the final Passover (John 12:1). Luke likewise three times in this section speaks of Jesus going to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51; Luke 13:22; and Luke 17:11). It would seem possible, even probable that these journeys correspond. ... This plan is followed by various modern scholars. F18
There was, of course, one mighty, well-coordinated journey to Jerusalem during the last few months of Jesus' ministry; and all of this long Lukan section deals with what Jesus did in that thorough campaign. However, three different times, Jesus interrupted the journey to go into the great religious capital of Israel on specific missions, each time returning to take up the final campaign as before. It is to that which this verse refers. Between this and Luke 17:10, Jesus had gone to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead, after which he withdrew for a while to Ephraim in the hills north of Jerusalem, later going through Samaria and Galilee to resume that campaign trip to Jerusalem.
Along the borders of Samaria and Galilee ...
It will be noted that the English Revised Version (1885) margin renders this place "through the midst of Samaria and Galilee"; and, according to Robertson, that is correct. Regardless of which reading is used, what Jesus did was to go through Samaria (first) and then through Galilee to the point where he took up the "journey." Robertson has this comment on that journey:
When the Passover was approaching, Jesus went from that region (Ephraim, John 11:54) northward through Samaria into the southern and southeastern part of Galilee, so as to fall in with the pilgrims going from Galilee through Perea to Jerusalem. We again combine Luke's account with that of John in easy agreement. F19
Thus, Luke 17:11 appears as one of the key references in understanding the harmony of the Gospels. Interrelated with the corresponding passages in John, Luke's mention of Jesus' going to Jerusalem is understood, not as mere verbosity, but as accurately related to the three great journeys of the Gospel of John. According to Robertson, the first great scholar to uncover this exceedingly important connection was Wiesler. F20
Ten lepers ...
The dreadful malady of leprosy was a terrible scourge of Mid-East cities in the times of Christ; and, for that matter, still is. The disease itself was considered a type of sin, not necessarily related to specific sins of the victims. Their standing afar off was required by the Old Testament law (Leviticus 13:45f).
These men made common cause in their wretchedness. Cox said:
Think what their affliction had done for them! (a) It brought them to a common level, causing them to forget racial hatred. Sin reduced men to a common level before God. (b) It made them unclean, (c) isolated them, and (d) made them hopeless. F21
The marvelous diversity of methods in Jesus' miracles is a mark of their divine originality. Some were healed in one circumstance, some in others; most were healed instantaneously; one or two were healed in stages; some were touched by Jesus, others were not; some were commanded to tell it, others forbidden to tell it; some upon the basis of their own faith, others upon the faith of friends; some were healed in his presence, others in absentia; and, true to such diversity, there is a unique angle here, in that they were commanded to go show themselves to the priests (a necessary requirement of the Law, before they could be pronounced cured and reenter society); and they were healed en route! No forger could have imagined a circumstance like this.
Loud voice ...
An almost total failure of the voice is one of the symptoms of leprosy; and, as Trench remarked, "It is not for naught that we are told that he returned `with a loud voice glorifying God'." F22
This gratitude of the Samaritan, Ash rightly understood as typical of "the future acceptance of the Christian mission by Gentiles." F23 The obduracy of Israel also appears in the ingratitude of the nine.
Sadness seems to have been the dominant emotion as Jesus comtemplated the ingratitude of the nine. How could men be so thoughtless and unappreciative of God's favors? Why, it may be asked, did the nine not return?
One waited to see if the cure was real.
One waited to see if it would last.
One said he would see Jesus later.
One decided that he had never had leprosy.
One said he would have gotten well anyway.
One gave the glory to the priests.
One said, O well, Jesus didn't really DO anything.
One said, just any rabbi could have done it.
One said, "I was already much improved."
"How often do the love and life of the pardoned sinner fail to respond to the grace that saved him!" F24
These lepers had come to Jesus in the extremity of a most loathsome and pitiful disease; they pleaded with him to help, and he healed them; but nine of them never even said, "Thanks." Barclay developed a sermon on ingratitude from this text stressing: (1) the ingratitude of children to their parents, (2) the ingratitude toward our fellow men, and (3) man's ingratitude toward God. F25
Except this stranger ...
Significant words indeed are these.
This very word, "foreigner" ([Greek: allogenes]) is found on the limestone block from the temple of Israel in Jerusalem. It was placed in the court of the Gentiles next to the Court of the Women. "Let no foreigner enter," it said. Alas, a foreigner might not be permitted to enter the Jewish part of the temple (upon penalty of death); but one "foreigner," or "stranger," found grace with the Lord of the temple! F26
Twice in this episode, the worship of the healed Samaritan, was called "giving God the glory" (Luke 17:15,18); and as it was Jesus whom he worshiped, we must understand that Jesus is God in human form; worshiping Jesus is worshiping God. Both the sacred historian and the Christ himself teach this in this passage.
Ingratitude was punished, and gratitude was rewarded. The nine received physical healing; the one received in addition the salvation of his soul. "Jesus commended only the faith which said, `Thank you'!" F27
Being asked by the Pharisees ...
Some have made it out that these were sincere questioners; but all of the evidence is against it. "Their question amounted to a request for a `sign from heaven'." F28 Ash also saw this as "a rejection of the `signs' Jesus had already performed, and of what he had (already) said upon the subject." F29 Geldenhuys thought the Pharisees might have been sincere; but the view here is that these old enemies of Jesus were up to their old tricks. "The question was probably a mocking one, `When is this kingdom of God of which thou sayest so much, and of which thou claimest to be King, visibly to appear?'" F30
Cometh not with observation ...
means that the kingdom would not visibly appear at all. There would be no proclamation of a king, in the political sense, no definition of boundaries, no setting up of any kind of material state at all. Hobbs noted that the word here translated "observation" is from the vocabulary of Greek medical writers (Luke being a physician), and that the word meant "closely watching the symptoms of heart disease." F31
The kingdom of God is within you ...
Special attention is due this statement, because of the error that is associated with it in popular thought. Summers declared: "One thing only can be derived from this ... Jesus' emphasis of the kingdom as internal and spiritual, not external and material." F32 There is an element of truth in such a comment; but it must not be understood as teaching that the kingdom is simply something that gets into men. Summers appears to have had something like that in mind, basing his conclusion upon the fact that the word here translated "within" occurs only twice in the New Testament, the other instance being Matthew 23:26 where "the word refers to the inside of a cup or a dish." This, however, is not the whole story. The word in Matthew (used with an article) is a noun, and here it is an adverb; and W. E. Vine particularly stressed that, in Luke 17:21, "The English Revised Version margin, "in the midst of," is to be preferred. The kingdom of God was not in the hearts of the Pharisees!" F33
Geldenhuys has an especially pertinent comment on this, thus:
The contention of some critics that the Saviour by these words taught that the kingdom of God is merely an inner, spiritual condition in the human heart, must very definitely be rejected. Such a condition may qualify for entrance into the kingdom, but it is not itself the kingdom ... It is not ... a state of mind ... nor a disposition of men. The kingdom of God is a fact of history, not psychology ... Jesus speaks everywhere of men entering the kingdom, not of the kingdom entering men!" F34
Lo here ... lo there ...
In the next paragraph (Luke 17:22-37), Jesus explained that the external, visible "signs" so desired by the Pharisees were to be seen, not during the forthcoming church phase of the kingdom of God, but at the Second Advent. We agree with Barclay that "Luke 17:22-27 speak of the Second Coming of Jesus." F35 That there are, in the very nature of such a passage, difficulties that we cannot fully understand should not deter us. The things here prophesied shall surely come to pass.
This verse is a reference to the present dispensation, during which Christians, oppressed by temptations and tribulations, will, like the Pharisees of old, desire to see just such cataclysmic events as they wanted to see, and which they erroneously understood would usher in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus shows here that those great physical, cataclysmic disorders and cosmic signs shall indeed come to pass (at the Second Coming,) but not now. Like the martyred saints, Christians who find themselves a conscious, hated minority in society, reviled, and set at naught by a hostile secular world, will cry, "How long?" (Revelation 6:10); but the end is not yet.
The word here is clear enough. The Second Coming of Christ will be an event that all men shall see and recognize instantly. It will in no manner resemble the unostentatious, concealed, unrecognized coming of the Saviour in the First Advent. Like a stroke of lightning at midnight, saints and sinners alike shall see it; and "all the tribes of the earth shall mourn for him" (Matthew 24:30). The Second Advent will be bad news for the vast majority of mankind; but it will not be the kind of news any man will be able to ignore.
The satanic insinuation that Jesus expected his glory in the final phase of the kingdom to come shortly to pass is here refuted. The Lord envisaged a time-lapse, measured not in years, but in generations. There is an abundance of this in the New Testament; but some seem unwilling to see it. Jesus here clearly predicted that his contemporaries would reject the message he came to deliver. See under Matthew 26:13.
Jesus in this verse announced that a gloomy state of things would prevail on earth before his Second Advent. As Spence said:
The torch of religious feeling will have waned in that unknown and possibly distant future when Messiah shall reappear, and will be burning with a pale, faint light. The bulk of mankind will be given up to sensuality .... They will argue that the sun rose yesterday, and on many yesterdays, and of course it will rise again tomorrow, etc. F36
Some have vainly supposed that Christianity, like some conquering army, will sweep over every land, capturing the whole world for Jesus, binding all the world, and laying it in golden chains at the blessed Redeemer's feet. Would to God it could be true. Jesus, however, did not look forward to any such results. "When he cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8). The next few verses tell how it really will be.
Significantly, these were cataclysmic physical disasters. The Dead Sea today lies on the site of the cities of the plain which were destroyed by the cataclysm mentioned here. The ravages of the flood were genuine, worldwide, and attested not merely in the word of God, but by the legends of fabled Atlantis and many others. Moreover, there is hardly a hill on earth that does not show signs of once having been beneath the sea.
The fact that Jesus selected these two great physical phenomena from the Old Testament, making them comparable to the Second Advent, is a clear word that the Second Advent will also be such a physical thing; a cataclysm of unbelievable and unprecedented destruction; and that in the midst of the Great Disaster, the Son of man will appear to redeem the faithful from the earth, who shall be caught up with the "Lord in the air" (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Men either believe this or they don't; and this writer, striving to read the word of the Lord aright, BELIEVES it, with no pretensions whatever of being able to EXPLAIN it.
We shall not detail all of the incidents relative to Noah and Lot; those Old Testament narratives should be well known to every Christian; and the lesson here is not what happened to those generations, but what is going to happen to all the world and the generation that abides when the Lord shall come.
Harrison pointed out that "Both in the case of Noah, and that of Lot, God's people were taken away from the scene of Judgment before it occurred." F37 Paul indicated that the same will be the case with Christians when the final Disaster falls (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Other analogies which we are perhaps justified in drawing are: (1) faith will virtually have ceased on earth; (2) men will be busy in the same old ways, pursuing their same old interests; (3) materialism will have won the minds of men; (4) the utmost security shall be felt by men; (5) all appeals regarding the worship of God shall be scoffed at; (6) the Second Coming shall be an instantaneous thing, like lightning; (7) it shall be worldwide, occurring everywhere simultaneously, and therefore involving the totality of the earth and its enveloping atmosphere; (8) the Christians shall be caught up out of the "conflagration" and shall suffer no harm from it; (9) Jesus and his holy angels shall deliver them; they shall ever be with the Lord. These analogies, some of which are in the text here, and some of which have been imparted into it from the writings of Paul, are all nevertheless true.
Jesus used some of this teaching when he gave the combined answers regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world; but here it is their application to the latter event which is in view, the application being, not so much to the prohibiting of anyone's wishing to turn back AFTER the Great Event has begun to unfold, as it is to the PRIOR temptation to turn back, in their hearts, to secular and material things, even as Lot's wife did, a temptation that will be unusually strong in the society that shall prevail at the end.
This is a reiteration of the gospel message to all people. Those who run their lives as they please shall be lost. Those who submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ shall be saved.
In that night ...
contrasts with "in that day" (Luke 17:31); and some of the ancient skeptics scoffed at the idea that Jesus' coming could be both at night and in the daytime also; but present knowledge of the fact that it is always night on part of the earth, and always day on the other part, has eliminated the question from the writings of modern critics.
Shall be taken ... shall be left ...
Which of these refers to the saved, which to the unsaved? From 1 Thess. 4:13-18, it would appear that the saved are the ones who shall be "taken." Harrison, however, cautioned that "TAKEN is often applied to saints, but it may refer to the gatherings of offenders to judgment (Matthew 13:42)." F38 The evidence, however, favors the other view.
This enigmatic statement is difficult of understanding; and perhaps it was not intended to be otherwise. Even the word "eagles" is stoutly maintained by some to be "vultures," and other scholars, as in the English Revised Version (1885), insist on translating it "eagles."
The body ...
In all probability, this refers to the body of mankind, at last completely dead in sin, demanding by their sins and rebellion against God that the final judgment be executed upon them; just as a dead body would draw vultures, so humanity that is morally dead will inevitably draw the judgment of God upon them. "As surely as a carcass draws birds of prey, so sin would draw judgment, and there would the Messiah be found." F39 Also Bruce wrote, "Where there is a situation ripe for divine judgment, the executors of that judgment will unerringly find it out, just like vultures find the carrion." F40 However, it should be remembered that Jesus was not here speaking of just any situation ripe for judgment, but of the final and terminal situation with the posterity of Adam, when at last, their day of grace expired, God shall make an end of all human probation, summoning all people to the judgment of the Great White Throne.
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.