Obstacles to Repentance
Having concluded the Kingdom parables, Jesus then taught His disciples about stumbling blocks, repentance, and forgiveness. Luke 17:1, 2 begins by saying,
1 And He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.
The Greek word for stumbling block is skandalon, which was literally the trigger mechanism of a trap—the stick holding up the trap which may be pulled by a rope to spring the trap. Hence, it meant any impediment causing a man to stumble or fall. Skandalon was the accepted Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word mikshowl that is translated “stumbling block” in the Septuagint version of Lev. 19:14,
14 You shall not curse the deaf man, nor place a stumbling block [mikshowl] before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the Lord.
The scribes and Pharisees often tried to trap Jesus by presenting Him with questions that would get Him into trouble either way He responded. Such behavior was unlawful. By the “eye for eye” principle in Exodus 21:23-25, where the judgment fits the crime, God set forth the cross as a stumbling block to them (1 Cor. 1:23). The religious leaders tested Jesus with their stumbling blocks, so Jesus tested them with one of His own.
Paul says in Rom. 14:13,
13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother’s way.
It would have been unlawful for God to put a stumbling block before the blind, but as a judgment of the law, it was lawful to do so. For the same reason, it is lawful to take money from a thief to pay restitution, although such confiscation would be unlawful if done to an innocent man. So we are commanded not to cause our brother to stumble, but since the religious leaders attempted to cause Jesus to stumble, it was a righteous sentence of the law to use the cross as a stumbling block to the Jews. Even so, Christians ought not to increase this righteous sentence by causing Jews to stumble further, for such actions go beyond the principle of proportionate justice.
In Rom. 14:13 Paul says that every believer is accountable to God and is His servant. If we have that attitude in us, then rather than judge others for having a different understanding of Scripture, we will see that we are not our brother’s judge, but his brother and fellow servant. If it is our opinion that our brother is blind to our truth, then the law in Lev. 19:14 should be followed.
Matthew’s Longer Account
There is no way to avoid stumbling or placing stumbling blocks before others. These are “inevitable,” Jesus says in Luke 17:1, but that is why we must also learn to forgive others. No one has grown spiritually to the point where he never lays stumbling blocks before other people. But Jesus’ warning was directed specifically to those who would “cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
This appears to be the same conversation from what we read in Matt. 18:1-10, because a few verses later Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep (verses 12-14). Matthew places the parable afterward, but Luke places it ahead of Jesus’ discussion about stumbling blocks. The two topics thus appear to be from the same occasion.
Luke’s account is short where Jesus speaks of the stumbling block, but Matthew’s account takes a full ten verses and shows us from the context that Jesus was speaking of (spiritual) children. There Jesus “called a child to Himself and set him before them” (Matt. 18:2). He then says in Matt. 18:5-7,
5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!
Jesus referred to new believers as children and warned against causing them to stumble. In such cases, the stumbling blocks were the heavy traditions of men, which the scribes and Pharisees hung around the necks of the people as millstones. The stumbling block was the offense; the millstone was the judgment. They are linked in the metaphor, since both of these were figurative stones.
Thus, Jesus extends the meaning of the law, taking it beyond offending the blind and deaf. He included innocent children, who have not yet developed the ability to discern between the word of God and the traditions of men. Children are, in a sense, like the blind and deaf, for they must be led about as the blind, and, like the deaf, they find it difficult to understand apart from signs and pictures.
Luke 17:3, 4 then builds upon the theme of inevitable stumbling blocks by giving us a lesson in forgiveness.
3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, “I repent,” forgive him.
This is a shortened version of the parable in Matthew 18:23-35. This parable is introduced in Matt. 18:21, 22,
21 Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
If we may reconstruct this scene from the two accounts, it appears that Peter was the instigator of Jesus’ instructions. Peter asked Jesus if it was proper to forgive seven times a day if a brother should repent and come back to ask forgiveness. Jesus said, in essence, that one should forgive 490 times. Since it is unlikely that any man might repent 490 times in a single day, the force of this is to say that one should forgive however often the brother repented.
Prophetically speaking, of course, forgiving 490 times had a very specific application to the nation, for it was a period of ten Jubilees (49 x 10) and applied to Daniel’s Seventy Weeks (of years). It was a period of seventy Sabbath years (70 x 7 = 490). The people were forgiven on the Day of Atonement each year when the high priest made atonement for them once a year. Thus, the limit of 490 times of forgiveness ended with Christ’s death on the cross, which occurred precisely 490 years from the start of the time cycle.
This 490-year limit implies that at the end of the cycle God would settle the national debts. This is precisely what we find in Matthew’s longer account, for immediately after telling Peter to forgive 490 times, He launches into a parable about the man owing a debt of ten thousand talents. (A talent of silver was about 117 pounds.) Matt. 18:23, 24 says,
23 For this reason [i.e., forgiving 490 times as a limit] the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a certain king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 And when he had begun to settle them, there was brought to him one who owed him ten thousand talents.
Here is where it is important to understand the time of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks, which began with the decree of King Artaxerxes in 458 B.C. and ended with Jesus’ death on the cross, where all debts were settled in 33 A.D. Jesus’ own words prophesied that it was unlawful to settle the debts earlier than the full 490-year cycle. The people had to be forgiven for a full 490 times on this prophetic level from 458 B.C. to 33 A.D.
In other words, there is no “gap” between the 69th and 70th week of Daniel. For further proof of this, see my book, Daniel’s Seventy Weeks.
Luke does not include this parable of the debtor, yet it forms the background for all of the five parables that Luke recorded earlier in chapters 15 and 16. If we step back and look at the larger picture once again, we see that the Kingdom parables portray offences, or stumbling blocks, that the scribes and Pharisees had placed in front of the repentant sinners and tax collectors who had been coming to Jesus (Luke 15:2).
In other words, the religious leaders had placed so many impediments in the way that they made it virtually impossible for the sinners to repent and return to God. But the father of the prodigal son shows that when God sees the first sign of the returning sinner, He runs to welcome him. He sets up no stumbling blocks—no lengthy pleas or humiliating acts of penance—in the path of a returning sinner.
Therefore, it is no stretch to see from Luke’s account that Jesus was teaching His disciples not to do as the scribes and Pharisees had done. They were not to cause a child to stumble, and when sinners repent—even if many times a day—they were to forgive with the same attitude as the father who forgave the prodigal son.
On the other hand, the grumbling scribes and Pharisees had shown how grudging and reluctant they were to forgive sinners. Instead of rejoicing over a lost sinner that had returned, they would discuss whether or not the sinner was worthy to be received back into fellowship. Sinners in that day knew how hard it was to return to temple fellowship. Jesus was disgusted with their arrogance and said that these stumbling blocks rightfully should be turned into millstones and put around their own necks before casting them into the sea.
In fact, at the end of the 490 years, wherein God had forgiven the people each year on the Day of Atonement, the day of reckoning was about to occur. Here again, we see more than one level of fulfillment in the divine judgment. First, Jesus atoned for the sin of the whole world, including the sins of the scribes and Pharisees (1 John 2:2). The debtor in the day of reckoning, was forgiven of his debt of ten thousand talents (Matt. 18:27).
In other words, his Day of Atonement (repentance) was turned into a Jubilee, where all debts were cancelled. However, that debtor then refused to cancel the small debt that his neighbor owed him, and so he lost his Jubilee and was imprisoned until he should pay the entire debt himself (Matt. 18:34). The law upholds the right of the creditor to be paid what is his, but every creditor also had the power to forgive all, or any portion, of a debt that others may owe.
This parable was not about salvation as such, but rather the Jubilee. The law says that debtors could be sold into slavery for non-payment of debt, but only until the year of Jubilee. The slave in this parable lost his Jubilee because he himself did not live according to its principles. He was sold into slavery, as the law judges.
The parable ends with the debtor’s imprisonment “until he should repay all that was owed him” (Matt. 18:34). Jesus’ audience would have understood that the debtor would be released in the Year of Jubilee, even if more debt was still owed. Hence, Jesus did not say that his debt would never end, but that he would not be released until the great Jubilee releases all of creation “into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).
The good news is that even these grumbling scribes and Pharisees will be held accountable only until the law of Jubilee sets them free. The bad news is that they will be held accountable until that day because they did not have the law of Jubilee written on their hearts.