Saving the Stumbled

Posted: September 23, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 18:6-14, “Saving the Stumbled”

Some stumbles are worse than others.  There’s the stumble over an upraised brick, which causes some bruising, bleeding, and embarrassment during a morning run…and then there’s a stumble in a subway station that causes someone to fall onto the tracks.  That stumble can lead to death, and so can others. 

Spiritual stumbling is even worse.  The worse that can happen when you physically trip is physical death; when you spiritually trip, Jesus seems to warn of a much worse potential consequence.  How can someone trip up spiritually?  Just as we physically stumble when our foot collides with something that stops our movement, we spiritually stumble when we collide with certain sin.  Sin can scandalize us and lead us to a place of ruinous offense.  Sometimes this happens from someone else towards us; sometimes this happens by us to ourselves.

The good news is that with God as our Heavenly Father and Jesus as our loving Savior, we have a Protector and a Rescuer.  God is not blind towards those who cause ruinous offense in His children, and He will rise up in judgment against them.  He loves us and will protect us.  And for those who have stumbled and in danger of being lost, Jesus goes out to rescue them.  God loves the lost ones!  God loves you & me, and He proves it through His loving care.

Matthew 18:6–14
6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

  1. Don’t miss the contrast with vs. 5…this is what sets the context.  To receive “one little child” in the name of Jesus is to receive Jesus Himself.  Those who humble themselves before the Lord and continue in their humility as they serve others are those who actively minister unto the Lord Jesus. But the opposite can be true as well.  Someone can not only reject a child, but can cause that child to sin/stumble…and that’s a dangerous thing to do.
  2. Notice that the object Jesus refers to changes a bit.  No longer does He speak of a “little child,” but of a “little one.”  The term for “little child” is very specific to the age range of an infant-toddler, but “little one” is much broader.  This is speaking of the born-again believer in Christ.  Remember that Jesus said that “whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 4)…opening up the invitation to the entire world to humble themselves in faith before Jesus.  Anyone who comes to Jesus with the humble faith of a child can be saved, and it is these “whoevers” to whom Jesus refers.
  3. What’s the problem?  These little ones are in danger of being stumbled into ruin.  “Cause…to sin” is translated from one Greek word that ties verses 6-9 together: σκανδαλίζω (~scandal)…both the verb & noun form show up throughout the passage.  KJV translates this “offense,” NASB “causes…to stumble”, HCSB “causes the downfall.”  Obviously this isn’t a good thing.  The word basically means “cause of ruin.”  This is a bigger idea than causing some casual offense to someone, or “offending” someone’s sensibilities through rudeness.  This is talking about stumbling someone away from walking with Jesus.  To cause them to act in such a way that they depart from the Savior.
    1. Some argue this may even refer to full-fledged apostasy – but that seems unlikely.  After all, Jesus tells us explicitly that these little ones believe in Him; they have legitimate faith in Christ.  So this isn’t talking about the possibility of anyone losing his/her salvation.  Yet someone can be so scandalized by a false teacher or by a legalistic Christian that they want nothing to do with the church.  Perhaps they were promised riches by a someone preaching prosperity, and yet their finances never improved.  Or they were told that God would never allow them to face trials (as opposed to what the Bible actually says), and they entered into a time of deep suffering.  Or someone became a Pharisee in their life and placed upon them a burden that they could not possibly bear, all under the excuse of being “holy.”  People come in contact with these things all the time, and think that perhaps they were sold a “bill of goods” when they were told the gospel, and they end up walking away from Jesus.  Or they simply just lose their joy in simple worship, get disgusted with “Christians” and don’t darken the door of a church again.
  4. God takes this kind of offense seriously!  It would be better to die horribly than to face God on Judgment Day after scandalizing His children.  The “millstone” Jesus refers to is a stone so big that it had to be moved by a donkey in order to grind wheat into flour.  Imagine having a massive stone like that tied around your neck & then being dropped off into the deepest part of the sea.  That would be a horrendous death to the Hebrews to whom Jesus was speaking.  The Jews were famously fearful of the sea, and to be drowned in such a way in which your body had no chance of recovery and burial would have been a terrifying thought.  This was extreme language Jesus was using, and He did so to make a point.  Jesus says even that horrible death would be preferable to making a child of God stumble into ruin.  It’s better to die first. And it certainly would be better than the punishment that awaited them when they faced God for judgment.
    1. God loves us & God will protect us!  To be given the right to be called the children of God is no small matter.  To be born of the Holy Spirit and be given the spirit of adoption is no minor fact.  We are the children of God, and God is our Father.  What parent would not pour out his/her wrath upon someone causing his child pain?  Any father would rush to protect his son or daughter.  Any mother would become the dreaded “mama bear” out of love for her children.  If that instinct is within us, it’s there because we have been made in the image of God.  If we would desire to protect our children because of our love for them, how much more our Heavenly Father desire to protect us?
    2. Of course the question for some might be this: can you truly be considered a child of God?  Many people are fine with describing God as their Heavenly Father (perhaps without knowing what it really means), but would people looking at you be likely to describe you as a child of God?  More than that – would GOD count you as one of His children (humbly trusting Him and following Him), or would He be more likely to count you as one of His enemies?  The good news is that anyone can be made a child of God through Jesus Christ & you have that opportunity today.

7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!

  1. Woe to the world”?!  Why the whole world?  Because it’s a world in which “offenses” can take place.  The world is fallen, and fallen people are going to act in fallen ways.  And because of that (among other things), God will pour out His wrath and judgment upon the world – which is exactly what takes place during the days of the Great Tribulation.  People who are alive during those days will run and hide in caves in a vain attempt to hide from God when they understand that the day of the Lord’s wrath has come. (Rev 6:15-16)  Indeed, “woe to the world because of offenses!
  2. Offenses are to be expected. Let’s be honest: offenses ARE going to come.  God’s children will be scandalized and made to stumble at times.  That’s a fact.  It doesn’t make it desirable (it certainly wasn’t to Jesus) but it ought to make it expected.  Just as we’re to expect trials and personal tribulation (Jn 16:33), and just as we are to expect persecution (2 Tim 3:12), we ought to expect someone to offend us at some point in time.  That’s not to say that all of us are going to abandon our faith, but all of us are going to face someone or something that might cause us to walk in the opposite direction of Jesus for a time.
    1. There will be people who come against us in our walk with Christ.  There will be people who tempt us to sin.  There will be hypocrites that so infuriate us that we’ll stumble in our own faith.  Don’t be surprised by this when it happens.  Be prepared for it so that when it comes, we can run TO Jesus, instead of away from Him.  If you physically trip and end up breaking your arm, the worst thing you can do is refuse to go to the ER because you blame the doctor.  To let the bone heal wrong would cause major problems. Even if the reason you fell was because someone the doctor knew pushed you down, that wouldn’t keep you from getting x-rays, your bone set, etc.  Yet so many people turn away from Christ when they are wounded from someone claiming to be one of His followers.  Be careful not to blame God for the actions of someone else.  Don’t run away from the only One who can truly bring spiritual healing to you!
  3. The person who offends is in danger of judgment.  Woe to that person!  Please note the contrast here with verse 5 again.  The scandalizing offender is the opposite of the person described by Jesus in vs. 5.  The person who receives the humble in the name of Jesus receives Jesus Himself.  The person who offends the humble is in essence rejecting Christ and coming against Him.  (Not wise!)  God will rise up against that person, and they will be held in account for their deeds on the day of judgment.

8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.

  1. Very similar to what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount back in chapter 5 (5:29-30).  Jesus had been teaching about the heart of God’s law regarding adultery.  To someone who thought that he/she could perfectly keep the 7th Commandment by never lying in someone else’s bed, Jesus takes us past the letter of the law to the spirit of God’s intent in giving it.  To even look at another person and lust after him/her in our heart is to commit adultery already (5:28).  Be it on the street, in a magazine, on the computer, or in the pages of a book, we can commit the act of adultery spiritually before it ever takes place physically.  And in response, Jesus teaches what He teaches here in Ch 18.  It’s better to cut off our hand or pluck out our eye if it’s going to cause us to sin.  That’s how seriously God takes it.
  2. The words in Ch 18 are basically the same, but there’s a bit of a distinction in the purpose.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was showing the perfect heart of God, and emphasizing our need to seek His righteousness.  Here, the teaching is similar, but the motivation is slightly different.  Instead of responding to the righteousness of God, we’re responding to the possibility of ruin.  Vss 6-7 spoke about an offender…someone who would cause a believer to come to ruin.  Vss 8-9 show that the offense isn’t always external.  Someone can certainly offend us, but it’s certainly possible that we can also offend ourselves.  Through our own actions and habits, we might lead ourselves away from Christ.  We allow ourselves unchecked time on the internet – or we dwell upon anger or unforgiveness in our minds – or we allow ourselves to get consumed with the latest toys and gadgets to the point that we no longer care about the things of God – whatever the case, we might offend ourselves & be the cause of our own ruin.  Beware!
    1. In addition, we are the ones who might be guilty of being the offender, if we’re not careful.  As a child of God, we might engage in a season of sin & when doing so cause others to stumble away from God.  Like a vandal who removes a warning sign on a road causes others to come to harm, so we might engage in a season of sin & have lasting impact upon others through our temporary actions.
  3. How do you deal with self-offense?  How do you deal with those besetting sins that are ruining your walk with Christ?  If you’re currently sinning, stop it.  If you know you have a weak area, deal with it.  Cut out any possibility that you can go back into sin from the ways you’ve tripped up before.  Be willing to do whatever it takes to block yourself from that sin. How so? Jesus tells us to pluck the eye & cut off the hand.  Obviously Jesus is not advocating physical mutilation.  After all, both of your eyes could be plucked out, and you could still lust after memories in your heart.  The idea is to do whatever it takes to rid ourselves of the opportunity to sin.  The problem is that many people aren’t willing to do whatever it takes.  They may take some steps, but tend to leave a door of opportunity open somewhere in their lives.  Jesus doesn’t teach casual discipline here; He’s talking about taking radical steps to get rid of the temptation in our lives.  What do you know that is a weak area in your life regarding temptation?  Deal with it radically!
  4. Why?  Think about the trade-off.  What would be better: to know without a doubt that you are soundly saved and following Christ – or to have lingering doubts because you always go back to the same sins?  If we’re not willing to do whatever it takes to follow Christ, then at some point we need to question whether or not we’re really following Him at all. After all, Jesus leaves open the question of “hell fire” here.  This is the fire of Gehenna, the typical picture of destruction in eternity.  Obviously that is not a danger for the person who is saved by Christ, but it is the destiny of all who refuse Jesus as Lord.  So what is the danger with hellfire in regards to Jesus’ disciples? Jesus is underscoring the importance of it all. If someone is at the place in which they are continuing in unabated sin (note the present tense of "causes"), they might be in a position in which they are a false convert.  And of course we know of at least one potential false convert among the disciples: Judas Iscariot.  We are to examine ourselves carefully to ensure that we are in the faith. The false convert has no assurance of salvation, and their sin keeps them from Christ. They are to do whatever it takes to turn away from their sin in order to follow Christ.

10 “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.

  1. The warning against engaging in hateful, stumbling behavior.  Those who are the children of God have personal access to God.  Someone purposefully stumbles a Christian into sin is doing so at his own peril.  God will act in response!
  2. What does Jesus mean here about the angels?  Some think this gives credence to the idea that Christians have specific angels that watch over them.  The author of Hebrews implies a similar idea as he writes that angels are ministers/servants (Hb 1:8).  Angels are apparently interested in the lives of Christians, and desire to look into the relationship that we have with God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:12).  The Jews during Jesus’ day had a strong belief that there were multitudes of angels that watched over everything and every person.  Every blade of grass supposedly had its own angel (or angels).  At the same time, there’s no reason to conclude that there are individual angels for individual Christians.  The wording could easily be interpreted as a collective – meaning that the angelS that watch over us and serve us in their service to God have direct access to Him.  They “always see” the face of God because they are in His throne room serving Him.
  3. Whatever the case is with angels, the point Jesus makes is absolutely clear: God personally pays attention to us.  He knows what is going on in our lives, and there’s nothing that happens to us that escapes His attention.  There is not a single scandalizing stumbling sin that goes unnoticed by our Lord.  He sees these things and He will judge these things without fail.

11 For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.

  1. Depending on what translation you’re reading, you may be wondering what I’m talking about here.  Verse 11 is not included in some of the older manuscripts, and the ESV & NIV don’t technically include it in their translations (though it may appear in the footnotes).  The majority of manuscripts DO include it, so the bulk of the Church through the centuries believed it was valid as the words of Jesus.  Regardless where you fall in textual criticism, the content here is not debated at all because there is other Biblical witness to the statement in other contexts (Lk 19:10).
  2. That said, don’t miss the forest for the trees.  What exactly is Jesus talking about?  The “lost” one…the one who is in danger of perishing, which is what the word implies.  The same word translated “lost” in verse 11 is the word translated as “perish” in verse 14.  Jesus isn’t referring to someone who is directionally-challenged (many of us fall into that category!); He’s referring to someone who is in danger of being eternally lost to death.
    1. Who is in danger of perishing?  All of us, without Christ!  All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God & the wages of sin are death.  All of humanity is perishing apart from the rescue of God.  …
  3. Contextually, Jesus seems to be talking about something more specific than the general call of salvation.  Yes, the Son of God was sent into the world to seek & save that which was lost (Lk 19:10), as Jesus said after referring to the salvation which had come to Zacchaeus.  Someone who was eternally estranged from the Lord without faith had now repented from his sin and come to faith in Jesus as Lord, and now Zacchaeus was saved.  All of us were “lost” like that at one point (maybe some still are!).  But this context is different.  Here the context is not regarding the world, but God’s children (the “little ones”).  The lost little one would be the believer who was scandalized away from the faith.  The person who is walking away from the God who saved them is someone that is truly lost!
  4. God doesn’t leave this person to the wolves.  He seeks them out to save them. What does this look like?  A good & caring shepherd.  See vs. 12…

12 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying?

  1. The shepherd who loves the sheep will go and track down the one who has strayed.  He’s willing to go wherever the sheep has gone in order to protect it and bring it back to safety.  It’s not that he doesn’t care about the others, but if the 99 are safe, of course he leaves to go save the one.  The “one” is in danger, and unless the shepherd does something, the one sheep is doomed to death.  So he leaves the others to personally seek after the lone sheep who is missing. This is what Jesus does for us!  Even before we ever believed in Christ, He left heaven to come to earth as a man, enduring all of the hardships and humiliation here in order that we might be saved.  This is what Jesus was talking about when He called Himself the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his sheep (Jn 10:11) – the one who is willing to do whatever it takes to protect them from being picked off by the enemies that surround them.  This is what Jesus did (and does) for us.  He laid down His life for us at the cross to protect us from the consequences of our own sin, and He also continually protects us from the devil who would come to steal, kill, and destroy (Jn 10:10).  Jesus is the Good Shepherd for those who trust Him as Lord.
  2. For those who have gone into ruinous scandal from their faith, what does this mean?  Simply this: God doesn’t give up on you.  Jesus pursues you and Jesus desires you to be reconciled to Him!  For the person who is truly born-again and has left the Lord, the Lord Jesus is still your Shepherd, and Jesus still loves you.  He wants you to be found – He wants you to be restored.  He wants to heal your hurts and the wounds that have come from others or perhaps even yourself.  And He’s willing to do what it takes for that to happen.  The shepherd was willing to go into the mountains to search after his sheep – wherever he believed his sheep was, that’s where he went to go look for it.  Likewise for the Lord Jesus.  There are some people that think, “I can’t go back to church now – my life is all a mess.  I need to fix some things first.”  Or “I can’t turn back to Jesus; I’d be so embarrassed and look like such a fool.”  Or “I can’t do that now – not here…it’s just not right.”  Hear this: Jesus meets you right where you are.  To be sure, Jesus won’t keep you in that place of sin – His desire for you is to protect you from its consequences.  But you don’t have to “do” anything before coming back to the Lord; the Lord is right there ready for you to respond to His call.
  3. Jesus doesn’t give up on you; don’t you give up on Jesus!  Yes, there are hypocrites and legalists within the church.  Yes, there are false teachers who claim the name of Christ.  Don’t let those who are false cause you to lose faith in that which is true.  Jesus still loves you!  Jesus still wants you to walk with Him in safety and security.  Turn back to Him today – it’s never too late to turn in repentance.

13 And if he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.

  1. How does Jesus respond to the repentant Christian?  Does He chastise them, lecture them, or berate them for being lost?  Of course not…He rejoices that they are found!  The fact that the lamb was found safe made the trip into the mountains more than worth it for the shepherd.  The fact that you have been saved and returned to the care of God makes all of the suffering worthy it to Jesus.  He rejoices over you!
    1. Notice it’s not that the shepherd hated his other sheep.  It’s not that this one sheep was somehow “more special” than all the others.  It’s just that this sheep had gone astray, and now it was found.  That was something worth rejoicing over!  To those who have not gone astray from the Lord – God still rejoices over you (Zeph 3:17) and of course God loves you greatly.  We can also join in the celebration of those who have been found.  When a Christian who was lost repents and returns to the people of God, this is a time for rejoicing; not condemnation.  There is no thought of casting guilt; only celebrating that they have been found by our Savior.  When someone is restored, they are truly restored.
  2. There’s a great picture of this in the parable of the prodigal son.  Recall that this son was a true son of his father (not an enemy), but he ended up treating his father like an enemy, to the point of wishing him dead and desiring only the inheritance he believed that was due to him.  He went off into sin, wasting his resources and eventually wasting away into starvation, in danger of death.  He decided to turn back, repent, and seek his father’s forgiveness, if only be treated as a servant and live.  Yet once his father saw his boy, he had far more in mind.  Luke 15:20–24, "(20) “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. (21) And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (22) “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. (23) And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; (24) for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry." []  The father rejoiced!  Why?  His son was dead, and now alive – he was lost (same word as used here in Ch 18), and now is found.  God rejoices over His found ones!  (We are the ones who are supposed to rejoice over God and yet we find that He rejoices over us?!  Incredible!)
    1. There are some today who understand that they are the lost ones.  God will rejoice over you today when you respond to His call! 

14 Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

  1. Not only does God rejoice over those who are found, we’re told that His will is that none would be lost at all.  God doesn’t want His children to be lost or to perish.  God doesn’t want His children to come to ruin.
  2. These aren’t empty words…God is willing to do what it takes that those who are lost might be found.  Sometimes, that is allowing us to face the consequences of our actions, in order that we might be brought to repentance.  Sometimes, it is the proactive discipline of God in order that our consciences may be convicted.  Sometimes it’s the still small voice that reminds us of the Father’s great love for us.  What will it take for someone to be found?  There is no limit as to what our God will do.  Want proof?  He already did everything possible when Jesus went to the cross.  Jesus died upon the cross not because the Pharisees hated Him or because the Romans didn’t want competition to the crown.  Jesus died upon the cross willingly because we were supposed to be there.  Our sin meant that all of the human race was in peril of perishing – we are all eternally lost because of our rebellion against God.  And Jesus suffered the wrath of God in our place, and died the death that we deserve, in order that we might be spared those things.  Jesus rose again to life to offer us freedom and forgiveness, and extends His grace and love to all those who would respond to His call.  He’s done everything.  For the child of God who has strayed, what more proof of the love of God do you need than what has already been offered?  God doesn’t want you to perish & He has already made that clear.
  3. Beyond Christendom, God doesn’t want any of His created humans to perish.  God’s desire is that all would come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9).  God’s desire is that all would be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4).  God’s desire is to save you.  He gave His only begotten Son that you might not perish; He wants you to have everlasting life.  He already made every provision for you to have life.  Will you respond to the love and grace of God?

Conclusion:
God saves those who stumble.  Jesus is not some pie-in-the-sky idealist who teaches that those who follow Him as Lord won’t ever have troubles or problems.  He is very honest about the fact that there will be times that we get tripped up – scandalized in our faith – and we walk away from the One who loves us unconditionally.  What happens to people when this happens?  When someone has no desire to come back to the Lord, how is it that they will ever repent?  Jesus seeks them out, calls them, and brings them back to His loving care.

There may be some here today that are like the lost sheep.  You had made a commitment to follow Christ, but somewhere along the way your faith was scandalized.  Maybe that was from someone else who was a hypocrite, or laid a legalistic burden on you, or just so bludgeoned you through sin that you lost your way from Christ.  Maybe you’re the one who scandalized yourself.  Instead of truly following Jesus as your King, you went back to the sins of the past.  Whatever the case, there once was a time you knew Jesus as your loving Lord & Savior, but perhaps now you’re not so sure.  You’re lost – your faith is in a ruinous place and you don’t know what to do.

Jesus is calling out to you today.  He is the Good Shepherd who not only laid His life down for His sheep, but personally goes to seek His sheep out.  Respond to the voice and call of your Shepherd today.  Come back to Christ, leaving all of the distractions behind to follow Him alone.  Today you have the opportunity to be found once again by your Savior; don’t run from Him.

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