Protecting believers from danger
Several warnings are given here - not to cause others to lose their faith, not to be nominal Christians, not to let temptation spoil faith. Eternal judgement is a reality.
Several warnings are given here - not to cause others to lose their faith, not to be nominal Christians, not to let temptation spoil faith. Eternal judgement is a reality.
Hello, and welcome to Series 7 and Episode 7, 'Protecting believers from danger'. We're continuing in our studies in Matthew 18, and also looking at an important parallel passage in Mark 9. Our main passage will be Matthew 18: 6 - 9.
Introduction and Recap
Let's put the whole teaching in context. First, the broader context and then the immediate context of Matthew 18. The broader context of Series 7, as I've mentioned at the beginning of each episode, is the changing direction of Jesus' ministry. After a significant period of his ministry spent in and around Galilee, with three tours of Galilee, which we've described in earlier series very fully, things are beginning to change and Jesus is preparing to leave his home territory of Galilee permanently, in order to make a final journey to Jerusalem, stopping at many points on the way, taking many months about that journey, as far as we can tell, and ending up in Jerusalem for the final culmination of his ministry, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. At the beginning of Series 7, we've seen a number of events take place which define this turning point. Jesus very deliberately took his twelve disciples out of Galilee to nearby territories and he ended up at a place called Caesarea Philippi, (as recorded in Matthew 16 and parallel passages) which was an important town in the territory led by King Herod Philip, the brother of King Herod Antipas in Galilee. He'd got away from the crowds and he managed to talk to his disciples privately about his own identity in a very decisive way, and Peter famously confessed that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus then started teaching about how he was going to build the Church on that confession. Then came the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration nearby, where Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured into heavenly glory, talking to the returning figures of Moses and Elijah and then predicting, in that discussion with them, that he was now going to travel to Jerusalem where he would be departing from this world after his death and resurrection.
Having returned to Galilee, briefly at this point, before they head off south permanently, there are a number of things that take place at this particular time, that are important in the preparation of the disciples, and they're very helpful to us. Jesus has predicted twice already, in Matthew's Gospel, his suffering, death and resurrection, and it says in Matthew 16, that many times he talked to his disciples to warn them that his end, and the end of his life was going to be very different from what they might have expected, and they needed to prepare themselves for it. This caused a problem for the disciples: real confusion, uncertainty, grief, sadness, difficulty, changing their expectations, and understanding what the messianic role was going to be. I've mentioned these things in the recent episodes, where we've looked at these passages. It also led to an informal discussion which Jesus unexpectedly overheard I think, in which they were wondering, where they were going to be placed in his Kingdom? Were they going to have great and senior roles, or not? This was a fundamental misunderstanding, which Jesus explained to them by saying the sort of leaders in the Christian community are going to be servant leaders, who aren't really looking for status, wealth and security. They're looking to enable others to grow and to develop in the faith, and for the Church to function well. That discussion triggered the teaching that we looked at in the last episode, which is why I'm just bringing it to mind now, as we see the flow of the teaching and the thinking of Jesus in this particular context.
We've looked at the beginning of Matthew 18: 1 - 5, which we'll reiterate in just a moment. Before we do that, it's worth remembering again that Matthew structures his Gospel in such a way that he highlights Jesus' teaching, and particularly he gives prominence to five major occasions when Jesus taught extensively his disciples. They're often called discourses. The first discourse was the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5 to 7. The second one was the teaching about the mission of the Church, in Matthew 10 as he sent out the twelve disciples on their tour round Galilee. The third discourse was in Matthew 13, where Jesus taught in parables about the growth of the kingdom and the fourth one is Matthew 18, which has the theme of the community of the Kingdom. The fifth main discourse and block of teaching, will be in Matthew 24 and 25, which talks about the future of the Kingdom, the end of this world, and the Second Coming of Jesus. We'll come to that in due course.
We're now focusing on the issue of the community of the Kingdom. In order to do that we need to look back over what we saw in the last episode because it connects very directly to the short section that we're going to look at in Matthew 18 today, and also connects very closely to a parallel passage in Mark. We have another example here of a pattern we often see in studying the Gospels, that the best results are gained when we integrate the different accounts of the same events and the same teaching, and we find that each Gospel writer adds in something which really helps our understanding. So, we're going to integrate some things from Mark's account into the central passage we're going to look at today, which is from Matthew 18.
Let's start by looking at Matthew 18: 1 - 5, which is the passage before the one that's our topic for today. It's worth just reading it again just to be clear about the context and what has already been said.
‘At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you'll never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me."'Matthew 18:1-5, NIV
It's a beautiful teaching and Jesus strengthens it by bringing a child, who we described in the last episode as being probably of the age of 6 to 8 years that sort of age, and enabling the disciples to look at the child and think about the characteristics of children of that age. We've identified three characteristics which he would have in mind when he encouraged us to be like children; trusting in God - faith; being receptive to God's will, open to do the things that he wants us to do; and being humble towards him. We've got to keep those things in mind from the last episode.
We're going to integrate the next few verses, verses 6 to 9, a very important passage, with Mark's account. We're going to start in Mark's context, then we're going to study this passage in Matthew. Then we're going to return to Mark who adds in an extra bit of Jesus' teaching which Matthew doesn't record.
Let's start in Mark 9: 38 - 41.
"Teacher," said John, "we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he's not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us, is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward."Mark 9:38-41, NIV
The issue here that John is pointing out, is that other people are copying what the disciples are doing. He said “He's not one of us”. The ‘us’ there, is the Twelve, “He's not one of us,” so why should he be allowed to challenge evil spirits and bring Jesus' blessings to people? Jesus' answer indicates that the man in question was a true believer, since he was using Jesus' power to cast out demons and therefore, he would not deny the Messiahship of Jesus. In other words, ‘say anything bad about us’ in terms of Jesus' identity. You see, hostility was rising against Jesus at this point in his ministry. Those who are not specifically against Jesus will be for him, because people are turning against him, which we've described in our discussions in Series 6, and the beginning of Series 7, as opposition has begun to rise. Those who give disciples a cup of water are open to Christ - not necessarily believers - but they're open to Christ, and they will receive their reward. I mention this passage because Mark integrates it very specifically with the teaching about the topic of today, and has a parallel account that we've got in Matthew 18. The question introduces the context.
We're going to return to Matthew 18: 6 - 9, bearing in mind that extra discussion that was taking place at the time. We're going to talk here about the danger that Jesus is trying to address, about those who believe in him falling away, stumbling, getting into difficulty, being led astray. It's a very sensitive and important topic. Let's read Matthew 18: 6 -9,
"If anyone causes one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung round their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It's better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell."Matthew 18:6-9, NIV
There is hardly any more sobering teaching of Jesus than the one we see here. Let's try and work out specific areas of meaning in order to be clear what Jesus is talking about. Our first key issue concerns the little ones, verse 6, ‘the little ones - those who believe in me’. Here we have to connect the passage very clearly to the previous passage where children are the subject. You might assume that Jesus continues to be talking here about children but I think what's happening in this text, is that the literal little child - who Jesus brought in front of his disciples, in verses 1 - 5, represents the category that Jesus wants us to consider within the Church. He describes here little ones as “those who believe in me”. He's changing the context here . He's talking about those who believe in him, in a sense, those who have a simple faith in Christ, as like the child, who trusts the adults in the previous analogy and situation. I think the focus here for ‘little ones’, is disciples of Christ. He is talking about disciples of Christ, particularly those who have a simple straightforward faith. He's talking about the risk of them stumbling in their faith. They start well and then they stumble. They come into some particular difficulty.
Jesus goes on to say that it's a very serious thing to be the person who causes believers with a simple faith to stumble - to cause them to doubt their faith; to be tempted away from their faith; or to deny their faith. He warns such people that they will face God's judgement for turning people away from the Christian faith. There is hardly any more serious warning than the sort of warnings that are given in the passage today. In the whole of Jesus' ministry this is one of the most sobering and serious passages that we need to discuss.
There's a danger here for believers themselves to stumble because of temptation that they fall into. Jesus speaks in such drastic terms that people have really struggled to know what we're talking about here. He speaks of struggling or stumbling in temptation and it's caused by your hand or your foot, it's better to remove your hand or your foot from your body in order to prevent yourself continuing in that sin. Jesus is using a figure of speech here, which we call hyperbole. It occurs a number of times in Jesus' teaching. For example, we have it also in the Sermon on the Mount. The point about hyperbole is that it's not meant to be taken absolutely literally, but the example is exaggerated in order to make a real point that we need to take notice of. Dealing with our own temptations to sin, Jesus uses hyperbole and exaggerated image in order to make the point that true believers need to act drastically to avoid falling into the temptation of regular sin. Nominal believers who don't really have a sincere faith and just regularly carry on sinning, are in danger of eternal judgement. It's quite a serious thing that's being described here.
This is closely paralleled to the specific example that Jesus gives of this process in Matthew 5: 27 - 30, where he uses a very similar hyperbole. It's worth looking at this example, because here is a practical way that Jesus is applying this general teaching in Matthew 18. If we look at Matthew 5: 27 - 30, he says,
"You've heard that it was said. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go to hell."Matthew 5:27-30, NIV
We have the same hyperbole here, the same type of example. What's useful about this passage - which we studied when we studied the Sermon on the Mount in Series 4 - (you can refer back to that episode if you want to look at it more closely), is that Jesus is giving a practical example and he's basically saying that the person who becomes habitually involved in sexual lust for another person or people, should take radical action. They don't want their life to become unproductive and dominated by a prevailing sin, which they don't seem to have any control over. This is a sexual example here - a very common example, a very real example - but not the only example that Jesus would have had in mind when he spoke here in Matthew 18, about disciples taking radical action to avoid sin coming to dominate their lives. We've got here those who cause people to stumble, presumably mostly focused on non-believers who are influencing the little ones, those who believe in Jesus. Although that could apply to Christians who've turned away from their faith and rejected the foundations of their faith and are now nominal Christians. He's also applying this to everybody who's in the Church. If you're getting into a habitual pattern of sin then you need to take drastic action.
We turn now back to Mark's Gospel, because Mark adds in some specific teaching that Jesus gives about eternal judgement and eternal destiny that follows directly on. Let's take up Mark's account in Mark 9: 47 - 50.
"And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. For it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other."Mark 9:47-50, NIV
Here is one of Jesus' direct predictions of eternal judgement and the destiny of those suffering eternal judgement, which we can describe as hell. He uses a quotation from Isaiah 66, which is one of those passages in the Old Testament which prophetically foresees the end times, and end time events, and end time judgements. This passage in Isaiah 66: 22 - 24 predicts,
"As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me," declares the Lord, "so will your name and descendants endure.’(Those who believe) ‘From one new moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me," says the Lord. "'And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."Isaiah 66:22-24, NIV
This is a complex passage about end time judgement. They're the final verses of the book of Isaiah. It looks forward towards a new heaven and a new earth. It predicts the reign of God. It also predicts the judgement of God, and it uses this language of fire that continues to burn, and worms that continue to eat and not to die, as a way of explaining the state of judgement that God brings upon those who have turned against him, and rebelled against him. That's quite a sobering passage.
“Everyone will be salted by fire.” This is probably a reference to the fire of opposition and persecution. The Church will be refined by that process, and indeed is being refined by that process, as many of us know very well. Whereas the disciples should be the ‘salt of the world’, using the metaphor in a different sense to describe the powerful influence that we can have on the world around us.
There's a lot of themes compressed in a few words, and a few powerful phrases, metaphors, and use of hyperbole, in this passage. It's a compressed and challenging passage. The overall meaning is not difficult to find. Jesus wants to protect those who are true believers from the danger of being led astray. He warns against those who actively lead believers astray, try and influence them against following their faith in one way or another. He warns believers not to fall into the habit of habitual sin but to take drastic action so that they don't become completely unproductive in their lives, which can happen. He warns that, unless we truly believe and trust in Christ, then we are in danger of eternal judgement. There are a number of warnings in this teaching and these warnings constitute my reflections on this passage. It's a passage you probably won't have heard preached on very often in churches but the point of going through all the Gospels is not to avoid important teachings that are challenging. We are the richer for taking on board, and engaging with, everything that Jesus taught.
There's a warning here about exclusivity. John said that we shouldn't really be allowing other people to minister apart from the Twelve. No, no group, no church, can claim that they are the only true church, just as the Twelve were not the only true believers at that time. The second warning here is a warning to unbelievers who actively oppose believers and undermine their faith. They will face eternal judgement. It's a terrible thing to do. Faith is so important and it should be nurtured not challenged. There's a warning here to nominal believers, those whose lifestyle of persistent sin leads to the realisation, at the end of their lives, that they never really, truly followed Christ. A drastic decision is made if the faith we profess turns out to be nominal, because we're dominated by sin. Something drastic has to be done. That drastic action is to face up to the sin, to turn away from it, and to seek saving faith in Christ - not nominal faith but real, profound, saving faith. Ask his forgiveness and ask for his empowering. There's a warning to everyone: eternal judgement is a reality. There is an eternal destiny for those who are eternally judged. It's an actual destination for unsaved humanity and we need to seek to avoid that destiny, and to warn others about the risks of that destiny for themselves. Matthew 7: 13 - 14 summarises my conclusion.
"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."Matthew 7:13-14, NIV
The good news is that faith isn't complicated. True, living faith is simple. Go back to the beginning of Matthew 18. We have to be like little children. Little children trust, little children are receptive, and little children are humble. Jesus describes those who follow him as little ones, ‘those who believe in me.’ in this passage, Matthew 18: 6. We're safe if we wholly trust in Jesus, in his atoning sacrifice for us; we turn away from our sins; and we resist temptation. We're not safe if we as unbelievers are undermining Christian faith or, as just nominal believers, we're not really sincerely following Christ, and not altering our lifestyle, and not having saving faith. Those are the things to avoid. This teaching has a powerful potential to change our lives, to get eternal realities in clear focus, and then to live productive lives as we follow the example of the little children: we trust God, we believe in what he's done for us through Christ; we commit our lives to him; we seek to obey him, receptively and humbly all our lives - then we will find his blessing.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What are some of the habits of sin that people might fall into in your culture? What steps should you take when faced with sin that comes again and again?
- How might you cause others to stumble? The warning is clear!
- How is the Church in your country being ‘refined’ at this time?