Jesus was an amazing teacher: “Never has a man spoken the way this Man speaks” (John 7:46). His words always came with power and conviction and the mesmerizing ability to say so much, so clearly, and with such an economy of words (I have a lot to learn from this)! With a small child in arms, He has just taught a room of 12 proud disciples (1 an unbeliever) the sine qua non of Kingdom life: Humility (Matt. 18:1-4). Not simply humility as a virtue, but kingdom humility that marks spiritual life. Humility that has a conscious sense of the glory of God and seeks all grace, all life, all mercy, all joy, and all things from Him in Christ. The humility that trusts, the humility that obeys, and the humility that serves. You would think that’d be enough for one day. It wasn’t. Jesus has more to say. The lesson needs to go deeper, so He adds a gracious, yet sober, warning. Namely, that fellowship in the kingdom should reflect God’s own love for His children and His jealousy for our holiness. Yes, God has a jealous love for His “little ones” (Matt. 18:6) and so should we.
Still looking at the child in His arms Jesus tells this stumbling band of disciples: “Whoever receives one such child in My Name receives Me” (Matt. 18:5). He is not giving a lesson on child care in the kingdom (though He beautifully models tender love for them). He has already made it clear that the small child is a picture of those who have spiritually “become like children” and are “as this child” in faith (18:3-4). In other words, His statement could be paraphrased like this, “Whoever receives another Christian in My Name, receives Me.” This is deep and deeply important. Notice a couple of things about this statement:
One, Christians are to love other Christians by accepting them. Matthew jumps right to the point, Mark fills out some details. Apparently, just prior to this, the disciples were displaying a sectarian spirit and wanted to get rid of a guy because his ministry wasn’t following theirs (Mk. 9:38-41). So, Jesus tells them, “Do not hinder him … for he who is not against us is with us” (Mk. 9:39-40; Lk. 9:49-50). Basically, ‘Look guys, he is doing My work, leave him alone – he’s on our side’ (Mk. 9:41). We would do well to learn from this, particularly in how we view other ministries (ministers) who are faithful to the gospel, but may do things differently. Jesus says we are to “receive” them, that is, welcome them into Christian fellowship. His motivation in saying that, however, is much more profound than, “Let’s all get along.” The weight of the admonition is in the spiritual reality behind it: Our receiving other Christians is really a receiving of Christ, even the Father.
Our love for Christians displays our love for Christ. “Whoever receives one such child in My Name, receives Me.” Mark adds, “[and] Him who sent Me” (Mk. 9:37). To receive a Christian is to receive Christ, which is to receive the Father: “[for] the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38; cf. 16:15-16). There is spiritual oneness and union between the Father and Son: “I and the Father are One” (John 10:30). Stunning, but it doesn’t end there. Christians also share a union with the Son and Father: “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20). Granted it is not with the same fullness as the Godhead (nor could it), but it is just as real. The point: how you treat other Christians is how you treat Me and the Father, for our presence is in them (as in you) through the Spirit. Act accordingly (cf. Matt. 25:35-40; Acts 9:4; 1 Cor. 6:15; 8:12-13). Our love for Christ is demonstrated in how we love one another.
God is supremely concerned about the spiritual effect we have on one another. He is concerned that we are instruments of sanctifying love to each other, which is why Jesus immediately follows with a sober warning: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Frightening. The millstone would be as much as 5ft in diameter and weigh a couple of tons. Imagine having it tied around your neck, being tossed into the sea, being dragged head-first to the bottom as your reflexes force you to grasp for air only to take in water as the water pressure of the sea depths takes its effect. Gruesome picture, but it makes the point: God has an intense love for the purity of His children.
A good question to ask, then, is what is a “stumbling-block,” for I surely don’t want to be one! A stumbling block is anything that causes another to sin, or be kept from Christ. Let me suggest a few ways they come. Directly through false teaching and the enticement to sin. Satan is the exemplar, for he comes on the scene as a stumbling-block to our first parents leading them into sin (Gen. 3:16). The idols of the nations were constant stumbling block to Israel, but was even worse when it came from those meant to be her leaders (Gen. 32; Judges 8:27; 1 K 12:28; et al.). The Jewish leaders who presided over a corrupted Jewish religion had become a stumbling block to the nation, hiding the purpose of the Law, making it means of human achievement and their converts “sons of hell” (Matt. 23:15). Not unlike the Catholic Church, but its not limited to them, for Satan works through through a variety of religious lies (2 Cor. 11:1-15; 1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; 1 John 4:1-6; Jude 1-20; Rev. 2:14) and the empty philosophies of the world and secular classrooms (Col. 2:8).
Christians can also be stumbling-blocks to other Christians. It happens when we live proud selfish lives that see spiritual freedom as means of self-gratification rather than an opportunity to self-sacrifice and love (Rom. 14:13f; Gal. 5:13). Or, when we are worldly-minded (Matt. 16:23). Our lives influence others for good, or for bad; for righteousness, or unrighteousness. If our speech, actions, counsel, and interest are not set on God’s ways and glory; we can become stumbling blocks to our brothers and sisters in whom Christ dwells (cf. 1 Cor. 8:12). We can become stumbling-blocks to unbeliever’s by living lives that are inconsistent with the gospel (2 Sam. 12:14; Rom. 2:24). Parent’s can become stumbling blocks to children by failing to live and love with gospel consistency (Eph. 6:4). Let’s not be stumbling blocks!
Ultimately God will remove stumbling blocks from the world (Matt. 13:36-43), through judgement: “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks” (Matt. 18:7), but for now they are “inevitable.” God has, in His sovereignty, granted Satan the dominate influence on this world system (1 J 5:19; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 Pet. 5:8), though ultimately serving His purposes (cf. Job 1-2; 2 Cor. 12:7-9; Rev. 2:10). For now, his influence is seen in every area of culture: media, self-esteem, facebook, and the ubiquitous pornography. The list could go on – just review Romans 1:24-32 and 2 Timothy 3:1-5 (and that in the professing church [v.5]). Yet, Jesus allows for no excuses, each is responsible for their own sin: “Woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes.” Each person who makes themselves available to an unrighteous world system and causes another to stumble is accountable. Sovereignty does not exclude responsibility.
Jesus does not leave it there, but leaves open the possibility of life and the warning of death. He appeals for personal repentance: “If your hand … your foot … your eye … causes you to stumble” (Matt. 18:8-9; cf. 5:29-30). Be aware of the sin in you. Here we need to pray with David: “Search me, O God” (Ps. 139:23-24). And when He reveals something, it must be meet with decisive repentance: “Cut it off … pull it out and throw it from you” (Matt. 18:8-9). Graphic language, but it makes the point. It also identifies four necessary components of repentance.
First, it must be decisive. It is a radical amputation (“cut it off … pull it out”). There can be no compromise with sin (Gen. 39:13). Second, it must be attended with a hatred of the sin (“throw it from you”). True repentance wants to be removed as far as possible from sin. Third, it must be turned from and battled in the heart. Self-mutilation is not the issue (Col. 2:23). He has already made clear – it is a matter of the heart (Matt. 15:19-20). Fourth, it is a pattern of genuine spiritual life. A disciple is a slave of Christ; a slave to righteousness (Rom. 6:12-13; 8:13).
It is also rational. Christ is worth it (Matt. 13:44-45) and the promise is amazing: “Enter into life,” eternal life – the life of God that longs to know Him in conscious enjoyment and loving fellowship (John 17:3). A life entered here and fully experienced in the eschaton, the age to come (Rev. 21-22). There is also a warning not dealing with sin: “Cast into the eternal fire … the fiery hell” (Matt. 18:8-9; Rev. 20:14-15). Notice, hell is a real place that people are “thrown into.” No one will go willingly, or happily at that moment. Hell is a real place of immense suffering – emotionally and physically. In other places described as: “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and “the worm does not die.” A place of searing pain, despondency, despair, fear, and hopelessness. Hell is a real place of immense sufferingthat is eternal. It will never end. This is the most frightening (Matt. 25:46). It will not end, ever. No light at the end of the tunnel.
Hell magnifies the holiness of God and the seriousness of sin. It also magnifies the unfathomable grace of God. It helps us understand the wrath that Christ bore on the cross, the suffering, as it were, of countless millions of hells. That is the mysterious depth of suffering behind the anguished cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” He came to give Himself up for that suffering (John 12:27). He came to rescue rebels from His own judgment and bring them into His own fellowship with the Father and Spirit (1 J 1:3). He came to purchase for us our participation in eternal life, to reconcile us to God; He purchased our faith, our repentance, our salvation. He purchased our worship of His everlasting grace and glory (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14; Rev. 5:1-14). So now we can sing with pleasure and sincerity:
When I survey the wonderful cross / On which the prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss / And pour contempt on all my pride
See from His head, His Hands, His feet / Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet / Or thorns compose so rich a crown
Were the whole realm of nature mine / That were a present far to small
Love so amazing, so divine / Demands my soul my life, my all
O, the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross / Bids me come and die and find that I may truly live
O, the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross / All who gather here by grace draw near and bless Your name.