The beginning of Luke 17 is a continuation of the teaching that Jesus was doing in chapters 15 & 16. The rest of 17 and 18 take place as Jesus is traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, and in connection with Lazarus’ death in Bethany from John 11. It would appear that He was traveling on the traditional route that Jews took from Galilee into Judea traveling south on the east side of the Jordan River, because at the end of chapter 18 Jesus is approaching Jericho and in chapter 19, He enters Jerusalem, traveling from east to west.
Jesus starts off telling his disciples to not be stumbling blocks. To understand what Jesus is referring to you have to go all the way back to 16:14 and see that He is referring to the Pharisees and their attitudes and actions. Unfortunately we are all sinners and have temptations to sin in this world that could cause someone to stumble. So we must be aware.
We can be stumbling blocks if we allow sins in our lives that lead us astray, just like the Pharisees had. Wiersbe explains the reference to “little ones” in the following way.
Jesus was referring not only to children but also to young believers who were learning how to follow the Lord (Matt. 18:1-6; Luke 10:21). Since Luke 17:1-10 is part of a context that begins with Luke 15:1, “little ones” would include the publicans and sinners who had come to believe in Jesus. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus, and that might well have caused these new believers to stumble. So serious is this sin that a person would be better off cast alive into the sea, never to be seen again, than to deliberately cause others to stumble and sin.
In verses 3-4 Jesus gives a view of repentance and forgiveness. When Jesus says, “Be on your guard!”, He is saying that we need to be watchful in helping each other remain faithful.
- If your brother sins, rebuke him;
- and if he repents, forgive him.
Of course, how you approach someone to rebuke him is just as important the rebuking. Being humble in the process is key, knowing that you will be judged with the same measure (Matthew 7:1-5). Then if he repents, forgive him. Even if he comes to you seven times a day, asking to be forgiven, forgive him. This is not just a one time thing but a continual ongoing process of repentance and forgiveness.
Wiersbe has this to say.
Our aim is not to embarrass or hurt the offender, but to encourage him or her to repent (Gal. 6:1). If the offender does repent, then we must forgive (Eph. 4:32; and see Matt. 5:43-48). In fact, we must be in the habit of forgiving, for others might sin against us seven times a day—or even seventy times seven! (Matt. 18:21ff) No one is likely to commit that must sin in one day, but this use of hyperbole emphasized the point Jesus was making: do not enumerate the sins of others, for love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:4-6). We should always be ready to forgive others, for one day we may want them to forgive us!
The apostles then ask Jesus to increase their faith, to which Jesus tells a short parable about having faith as a mustard seed, they could uproot a mulberry tree and send it into the sea.
Hendriksen offers this explanation.
This double requirement, namely, on the one hand, to steer clear from causing others to stumble, and on the other, always to be ready to forgive, requires strength from above. And believing that such strength will be given to them in answer to their prayers requires more faith than the disciples feel they now have. This situation explains verse Luk 17:5. The apostles said to the Lord, Increase our faith.
… As the note on Luk 17:6 on pp. 801, 802 shows, this probably means, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, and if you would constantly put it into practice, you would say to this mulberry tree,” etc. In other words, no task assigned by the Lord, including even causing a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea, would be impossible for you to accomplish, as long as you remain in trustful contact with God.
Thus also a mustard seed, be it ever so small, because of its vital and uninterrupted contact with its nourishing environment, grows and grows until it becomes a tree so tall that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches. Cf. Mat 17:20.
Applebury adds the following.
No increase in faith in connection with power to perform miracles was necessary; all they needed was simply to believe Him and show that they did by obeying what He said about forgiveness. This faith involves a total commitment to Christ that is intellectual, volitional, and emotional. This is the faith that takes the Lord at His word and does what He says. See it illustrated in the lives of the great men of faith as reported in Hebrews 11:1-12:2.
… Our own unbelief may need to be overcome on many occasions. It can be done by knowing what He would have us do and by a willingness to trust Him even though we may not always see the immediate outcome. Knowing what He would have us do depends on studying His revealed will, the Bible. The examples of those who have acted by faith can help to encourage us to trust the Lord. As we see in our own experience what it means to trust Him we are strengthened in our desire and determination to live the life of faith.
Finally, Butler has this comment.
Their appeal was an intelligent one. Faith is what it takes to live like that. Any man can live without concern for others. Any person can say selfishly, “What I do is my business, and if anyone is offended by it, that is their tough luck,” Any person who thinks this world is all there is to life is sure to seek vengeance, hold grudges and be unforgiving. Only the person who believes God’s word about atonement, judgment and the world to come has the power to live on the spiritual level Jesus described.
… Note, He did not say faith “as big” or “as small” as a grain of mustard seed. Jesus used the mustard seed to illustrate a faith that has life in it—seed—like faith. Life that is in a grain of mustard seed is powerful enough to overcome obstacles which seem insurmountable and produce a plant. Put a mustard seed into fertile soil and it will grow. If a clod or a rock gets in the way it will grow around it and come forth. The answer of Jesus was a strong rebuke which underscored the fact of their own personal responsibility for the quality of their faith. Christ cannot do for them what they must willingly do for themselves. He never gave them faith. He performed some miracles to prove Who He was and that His every word could be believed. But they had to do the believing. He always left people (including the apostles) to wrestle with their problems themselves by applying whatever lived in their hearts. If faith in Him lived there, any obstacle could be overcome; if unbelief lived there, even the smallest obstacle spelled defeat. Jesus is not talking about miracles of faith—but works of faith. He did not mean that everyone who believes can go around uprooting trees and dropping them into the oceans, literally. After all, trees and mountains are not man’s real obstacles anyway! The real mountains to men are temptation, sin, guilt, death. Men can move mountains and trees with bulldozers-but not guilt. The most impossible things are possible and the absolutely unattainable things may belong to men who believe and follow the will of God. To keep from falling into temptation or from tempting someone else a person needs not miracles but a living, working faith. Jesus Himself overcame temptation, not by miracles, but by faith in God’s word (cf. comments on Lk, 4:l-13). To forgive unlimitedly one needs not miracles, but a working trust in Christ’s promises. We can live on heaven’s plane if we believe. The kingdom of God on earth, the church, is supposed to be living on heaven’s plane—it is in the world, but not of the world.
Jesus then gives the illustration of a servant plowing who is under obligation to do the master’s bidding. So too, the disciples (and by default we as fellow disciples) were under a similar obligation to forgive others and to guard themselves because Jesus commanded it to be done.
Luke then tells of the healing of ten lepers. They beg for mercy and he heals them by telling them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” While they were going, that they were cleansed. The act of faith on their part was to start going, trusting that they would be healed. Upon seeing he was healed , one of them then turned back and came to Jesus, glorifying God and giving thanks. Luke tells us that he was a Samaritan. Jesus’ response to this is a question that He probably still asks today, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine—where are they? Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” How often are the children of God unthankful for the blessings that God has given us? How often am I unthankful for the blessings that God has given me?
Luke closes the chapter with Jesus’ response to being questioned by the Pharisees regarding when the kingdom of God was going to come. His answer.
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
Wiersbe has this to say with regard to the “signs”. Material in  added for clarification.
The word translated “observation” (Luke 17:3=20) is used only here in the New Testament and means in classical Greek “to observe the future by signs.” It carries the idea of spying, lying in wait, and even scientific investigation. The point Jesus made was that God’s kingdom would not come with great “outward show” so that people could predict its arrival and plots its progress.
… [The Pharisees] did not understand who Jesus was or what He was seeking to accomplish. Their views of the kingdom were political, not spiritual; Jewish, not universal. Jesus did not deny that there would be a future earthly kingdom, but He did emphasize the importance of the spiritual kingdom that could be only entered by the new birth (John 3:1-8).
Jesus then compares their present time as being just like the days of Noah and the ark, and days of Lot and Sodom before the brimstone fell. We cannot live unaware of our lives, going about doing things and not considering the consequences. That is what Jesus had been teaching all along. Jesus asks us to live making intentional choices as a result of being a disciple of Jesus and doing the work that He has given us to do.
Finally, The Preacher’s Commentary gives this summary.
We get ready for the last days by living in the kingdom now, and by loving the King and His world. We get ready for Him today, tomorrow, and ten thousand years from now, by doing His will as best we understand it, by spending time with Him. We are living in the kingdom when we trust the King. Ultimately, Christian faith is not having to worry about whether or not we have enough faith when the last days come. None of us has enough faith now, and we won’t have enough when that time comes. Real faith means trusting God to supply what’s missing.
No matter how stormy life gets for us, we need not panic because we have read the last chapter. God in Christ loves us, and we are now and will be forever in His kingdom. Sir William Osler, the great pioneer Christian doctor, once said, “If we throw all of our energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm into doing superb work today, there will be nothing to fear tomorrow.”
Luke next includes two parables about prayer and explains that the parables are in response to two specific situations. The first is to show how a person ought to pray and not lose heart and the second is to show a proper attitude in prayer and to not trust in their own righteousness and then view others with contempt.
The first parable is about a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man.” A widow kept asking him to grant her legal protection from her opponent. He kept denying her request but she kept insisting. He then concludes that she would wear him out with her requests, so he grants her the protection.
Jesus makes the comparison for us between God and the judge in this manner and adds a question regarding faith if His disciples.
Luke 18:7-8 NASB … “now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? 8 I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
How this connects with praying and not losing heart is in the fact that she was a poor widow in a patriarchal society probably didn’t have the means to gain the attention from this unrighteous judge other than by continually pestering him with her rightful demand for legal protection. We are not dissimilar to the poor widow, as sinners we have no standing before God the Righteous Judge on our own. I believe that this is the reason for Jesus’ question of “will He find faith on the earth?” It is only through faith in Him that we have standing before God and thus, God will hear our prayers and petitions.
Lockyer explains the persistence in prayer in the following.
The object of The Parable of the Judge was to teach perseverance in prayer. God will certainly answer though He may seem for a time to disregard out petition. Two features are to be noted about the kind of earnest prayer we are to pray. First of all, it must be always, which means “continually.” We are to “instant in prayer.” Too many of our prayers are like naughty boys’ runaway knocks – given and the giver is away before the door can be opened. But we are not only to ask, but to keep on asking, seeking and knocking until the door of heaven opens. In our continual praying we are to specific as the widow was who day after day, approached the judge with the same petition. Often our prayers are too general and aimless.
Wiersbe explains the delays in answer to prayer like this.
How, then, do we explain delays in answers to prayer, especially when Jesus says that God would “avenge [give them justice] speedily”? (Luke 18:8) Remember that God’s delays are not the delays of inactivity but of preparation. God is always answering prayer, otherwise Romans 8:28 could not be in the Bible. God works in all things at all times, causing all things to work together to accomplish his purposes. The moment we send Him a request that is in His will (see 1 John 5:14-15), God begins to work. We may not see it now but one day the answer will come.
The next parable contrasts a Pharisee and a Publican in their attitude while praying.
The Pharisee (clearly self-satisfied in his works based righteousness): ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
The Publican, on the other hand displayed a different attitude: standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
So while persistence in prayer is important, humility in prayer is equally important. The Pharisee really answered his own prayer and didn’t need God’s justification but the publican knew his condition. “The publican repeatedly smote his breast, for he knew where his greatest problem was, and called to God for mercy.” (Wiersbe)
These parables are connected to the next event because Jesus uses the common practice of people bring their small children to a rabbi to be blessed as an opportunity to teach about the proper attitude needed to be enter the kingdom of God, that is to be childlike in their faith.
Jesus wants us to be childlike but not childish. An unspoiled child illustrates humility, faith, and dependence. A child has a sense of wonder that makes life exciting. The only way to enter God’s kingdom is to become like a child and be born again (John 3). If the proud Pharisee had become like a child, he too would have gone home justified.
The next teaching event is occasioned by the approach of the Rich Young Ruler who comes to Jesus seeking to learn the means to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by telling him to keep the commandments, to which the young man reports that he had kept them from his youth. Jesus then tells him the one thing that he is lacking – sell his possessions and give it to the poor and he would have treasure in heaven, and then follow Jesus. To that the young man went away sad because he was extremely rich.
Jesus then gives a short parable to the disciples regarding the difficulty for those who are rich to enter the kingdom of God. He compares the experience to a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The difficulty in not in the riches themselves but our attitude in connection to them. Wiersbe explains “It is not possessing riches that keeps people out of heaven, for Abraham, David and Solomon were wealthy men. It is being possessed by riches and trusting them that makes salvation difficult for the wealthy.”
Peter’s comment of leaving everything to follow Jesus is given the response of, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.”
Christ balanced this with the warning that they were going to Jerusalem where He would be crucified, but the disciples didn’t yet understand what Jesus was talking about.
The chapter closes with an example of the persistent prayer and pleading that was discussed at the beginning of the chapter. While Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man, Bartimaeus, asks the crowd what the commotion was all about. Upon hearing that it was Jesus, he cried out asking Jesus to have mercy on him. People tried to quiet him, but he kept crying out.
Finally, Jesus went to him and simply asked, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He asks to regain his sight and the Lord permits it as a result of his faith. Bartimaeus regained his sight and then began following Jesus and glorifying God, and many others praised God too.
Applebury, T. R. Studies in Luke. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publishing Co., 1965. Bible Study Textbook.
Butler, Paul T. The Gospel of Luke. Joplin, Mo.: College Press Publishing Co., 1981. Bible Study Textbook.
Hendriksen, William. Baker’s New Testament Commentary: Luke. Baker Academic; e-Sword, 1978.
Larson, Bruce. The Preacher’s Commentary: Luke. Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson, Inc.; e-Sword, 1982.
Lockyer, Herbert. All the Parables of the Bible: A Study and Analysis of the More Than 250 Parables in Scripture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988. Print.
Wiersbe, Warren. The Bible Exposition Commentary: Matthew—Galatians. Vol. 5. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books; SP Publications, Inc., 1989. Print. 6 vols.