Trespasses (Luke 17:3) are committed against believers by those who have been influenced by the believers’ enemies—i.e. the very people who have set traps for believers in an effort to make them and the Gospel look foolish (Luke 17:1; cf. 16:14). Trespasses (G264) are mistakes or errors, but they are not traps (offenses – G4625) laid before the believer to make him (or her) and the Gospel look irrational. Trespasses (G264) are often translated as sins in the New Testament, but the more encompassing definition (from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon) includes to be mistaken or to err. It is also defined as missing the mark or to go or do wrong. In other words the folks committing the trespass (Luke 17:3) against a believer might also be believers, but believers who are weak in the faith and susceptible to opposing arguments. They might also be folks who are considering the Gospel message, but, upon hearing a more humanistic viewpoint, fall prey to opposing arguments and begin to take up the argument of the believers’ enemies, ridiculing the believer and the Gospel, just as the enemy does.
Jesus tells us that believers need to confront folks who have mistaken the purpose of our reaching out to them in the name of the Gospel of Christ. Although they may have joined with others to ridicule Christ and us, we need to forgive them, if they repent. Moreover, Jesus makes a point in Luke 17:4 that it makes no difference how often trespasses are committed against us (cf. Matthew 18:21-22), if our brother repents, he must be forgiven. It seems Jesus desires that the believer’s relationship with his brother needs to be characterized by forgiveness. Not many attitudes illustrate the meaning of love as much as forgiveness when a wrong has been committed.
Although believers are required to forgive trespasses (G264), I don’t believe we are required to forgive offenses (G4625), nor do I believe it is advisable to do so. I believe there are key differences in motive between those who commit an offense (G4625) and those who commit a trespass (G264). An offense is a trap set by an enemy, and his trap may have the lives of believers hanging in the balance. Jesus tells us to be as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). To forgive is to act as though the deed has never happened. Jesus didn’t treat the Jewish leadership in the same manner as he did the general public. He kept reaching out to the general public (cf. Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29), but he treated the Pharisees and rabbis with a greater sense of judgment (cf. Luke 6:6-11). They were the ones who set traps for him, and he didn’t naively allow himself to be taken in by them. He was always aware of their intentions (cf. Matthew 16:1-4).
For our part, we need to be aware from whom offenses come and who might be identified as their followers, who take up their argument against us and the Gospel. On the one hand, we need to avoid those who set traps for us, but on the other hand, we need to forgive those who naively take up the argument of our enemies. The one has made up his mind and has rejected the Gospel, but the other is readily influenced by folks with what they believe to be a good argument. This one can be nurtured by our tuning the other cheek, as it were, allowing them to continue to insult us and ridicule the Gospel. At some point they might be enabled to see how believers respond righteously to unrighteous behavior and be won over as friends for Christ (cf. Luke 16:9).