Jesus tells dozens of stories. He uses amazing, uplifting illustrations. However, there is one teaching where He uses some graphic language. In Matthew 18:1 it begins by says: At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. But 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.” That’s very graphic! but it gets much worse.
Jesus continues saying: “Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! 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. 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.“
I don’t know about you, but He’s got my attention! What on earth would cause Jesus to say such things? I suppose it is because of the seriousness of causing a little one to stumble, or lose their faith. How can we cause people to stumble? What does it mean to hinder their faith or mislead them? Some might say we could discourage their spiritual walk, discredit thier ministry, dispute their actions, or dilute the truth. We might intentionally (or unintentionally) pour water on their passion. Jesus abhors that.
The primary reason why this affects Jesus is seen in the next story of the lost sheep. As our Shepherd, He wants to protect the weak. If our actions cause “little ones” to quit serving the Lord, leave the safety of the fellowship of believers, or cause them to be bitter against God... it is the antithesis of true Christian work. It actually goes against the work of the Lord. We are suppose to seek and save, not hinder and frustrate. The choice is to either get on board with God's vision for His people, or get out of His way.
So Jesus says it might be best, if you do those evil things, to put a millstone around your neck and go swimming in the sea. Ultimately it leads to death, right? And not a swift, easy death. Drowning is not an easy, painless way to die. It takes strain and struggle. Our normal reaction is to preserve our life. Coroners say that the corpse of a drowning victim looks awful. The fight for life, and struggle to breathe, contorts the face and body. It’s truly awful.
Why does this sin bring such a heavy punishment? Jesus wanted us to appreciate the extent of punishment to those who keep people out of the Kingdom of God. Hell brings justice to them, but this kind of death would be seen as a mercy or a welcome end to life that causes others to stumble. It would be better for them to be drowned. Hmmmm. It would be "better," but why? Because the actual consequences for that person would be much worse than drowning with a millstone and the neck. Wow!
The graphic teaching is meant to grab our attention. The verses that follow are similar. Being maimed or lame are better than being sent to Hell. Jesus doesn't want us to drown or destroy our flesh. What He wants is for us to get on board with His mission. Seeking and saving the lost. Helping to bear burdens, not create them.
Do the words of Jesus in this text grab your attention? Don’t discourage or lay burdens on innocent believers. Look after the little ones. Let’s build up the kingdom! If we choose hypocrisy, judgment, or stumbling blocks we need to grab a millstone necklace and take a long walk off a short pier.
You are loved.
Dr. Ray Reynolds
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