A pastor makes an announcement: “Great news, church. Our kids’ program is growing and we need teachers. If you have a heart for teaching children, let me know. But take care, if you do a poor job, God will punish you. It would be better for a millstone to be hung around your neck and for you to be drowned in the sea than mess this up.”
Okay, that never happened. And yet that is the message some take from these words of Jesus:
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, also Mark 9:42, Luke 17:2)
What is Jesus saying here? “Misleading believers is an offense against the Almighty,” says the serious man. “Don’t you know that those who teach will be judged more severely?”
And you wonder why we have trouble finding people to run our kids’ programs!
Contrary to what you’ve heard, Jesus is not talking about divine punishment or Sunday School teaching or anything like that. Let’s unpack this verse in context:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me. (Matthew 18:5)
Jesus is talking about causing little ones to stumble. A “little one” is a disciple or a believer. It’s anyone who depends on him like a helpless child (see Matt. 18:3-4). Jesus doesn’t rely on the mighty and famous as much as the weak and the least “who believe in me.” He’s talking about Christians.
But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me (i.e., a believer) to stumble… (Matthew 18:6a)
The word for stumble is sometimes translated as offend. It does not mean stumbling in sin; it means being offended by Jesus. The Pharisees were offended by Jesus and so were those from his home town (Matt. 13:57, 15:12). They were dismissive of him. They didn’t receive him as Lord and Savior.
Did you know that believers can also be offended by Jesus (see John 6:61)? That’s what Jesus is talking about here. He’s saying, “Whoever causes a believer to be offended…”
Imagine there is a Pharisee named Phil who meets one of Christ’s disciples. The disciple tells Phil the good news of Jesus. One of three things could happen next:
- Phil believes the good news about Jesus
- Phil is offended by Jesus
- Phil causes the disciple to be offended by Jesus
This last outcome is the worst. How could it happen? Perhaps Phil lays down the law. “Jesus is a good teacher, but don’t forget you need to keep the commandments to please God.” Suddenly the disciple begins to doubt the grace of God. He takes his eyes off Jesus and looks to his own labor. Soon he will have wandered from his first love and fallen from grace. Like John the Baptist who began to doubt (Matt. 11:3), the disciple stumbles. He is offended. Does this mean he has lost his salvation? Not at all. He who falls, falls inside the kingdom. But doubt and unbelief still have bad consequences.
It would be better for him (Phil the Pharisee) to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
Jesus is talking about those who cause Christians to have doubts. The Judaizers, for instance, or the men from James who drew Peter and Barnabas away from the Gentiles (Gal. 2:12). He’s talking about those who preach dead works and self-improvement and anything that causes people to doubt the grace of God.
Jesus is not saying God will smite Christians who stumble. Nor is he saying God hates Pharisees. He’s saying unbelief has consequences far beyond what we can see.
Peter on the sidelines
Consider Peter. Jesus challenged Peter to “feed my sheep,” and Peter said “I’ll do it.” Jesus said, “That includes Gentiles, because my grace is for everyone,” and Peter replied, “No problemo!” Then certain Jews from the circumcision group showed up and Peter withdrew. He had been personally called by Jesus yet he doubted and drew back. “When Peter came to Antioch,” said Paul, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11).
The leader of the apostles fell from grace back under law and condemnation because someone got to him. Thankfully, Paul set him straight and Peter got back in the game. He wrote two epistles and spoke boldly in favor of grace at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
But imagine if he hadn’t.
Imagine if Peter had remained under condemnation. What a huge loss that would’ve been to the world. Now we begin to understand why Jesus speaks of millstones.
Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18:11). People are dying for lack of a Savior. The lost need people like us to tell them the good news. We are Christ’s ambassadors “as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). When a believer like Peter is rendered ineffective, it affects the lives of countless others.
Tying weights to people’s necks and drowning them was something the Romans did in special cases of infamy. Jesus is basically saying, “Because the business of saving lives is such a serious business, whoever sidelines an ambassador of mine does incalculable harm.”
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! (Matthew 18:7)
The world is lost and in need of salvation, and God uses his little ones to reveal the Savior. But we won’t get on with the business of pointing people to Jesus if we have stumbled or been offended.
This little light of mine
I know believers who have, for one reason or another, opted out of the game. Preachers have quit preaching, writers have stopped writing, and dreamers have stopped dreaming. I know pastors who have closed churches because someone distracted them from the goodness of God. They were once burning bright for Jesus, but their lights have been dimmed by doubt. I’m not talking about people who’ve been hurt by religion (there are plenty of those!). I’m talking about true grace preachers like Peter who’ve been bullied or intimidated into silence or cynicism. It’s a tragedy and the world is a darker place for it.
Yet Jesus remains full of love and grace. When his own cousin began to doubt him, Jesus did not get angry. “Are you the one who is to come,” said John, “Or should we expect another?” (Matt. 11:3). John was imprisoned, in more ways than one. Yet Jesus did not rebuke him for his unbelief. He simply said, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (Matt. 11:6).
What you believe about Jesus is the most important thing about you. Don’t let anyone damage your childlike dependency on the Lord. Don’t let anyone cause you to stumble over the grace of God revealed in Jesus.
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