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Monday, March 24, 2014

Creating Our Own Stumbling Blocks (or The Seeking Shepherd and Unending Mercy)

Matthew 18

Matthew 18 caught my attention when I read verses 7-9. This is a hard saying. Would we want to cut off our hand or foot or pluck out our eye? What was Jesus saying? People often write this teaching off because they think it impossible. People consider it one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus. When we look at it closer in context, we see the overall lesson,  verse 11, “For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” What occurs when Christ saves people? They accept that He is the Son of God who died to take away their sins and they ask for forgiveness of their sins. In Matthew 18, Jesus gave us several types of people as well as the temptations that cause people to sin, from which they need saving.

            The occasion that began Jesus’ teaching was when the disciples questioned Him about who is greatest in heaven. Jesus called a child to himself and said, “Unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (vs. 3). That appears easy and straightforward. Each person who wishes to enter heaven must be humble, recognize God’s supremacy, recognize Jesus as the Savior, and with a sincere heart ask for forgiveness. People who are converted and humble are children of God and will be great in God’s kingdom because they are His children and co-heirs with Christ. Jesus went further when He said, “Whoever receives such a child (a believer in Jesus) receives Me, but whoever causes one of these little ones (a child of God) to stumble, it would be better if he or she was drowned in the sea” (vs.5-6). Wow, what a statement! Causing a person, a believer, to stumble by tempting them (to sin) is such a great sin on the tempters part. Jesus had set the stage for what He next taught the disciples. Children of God receive the kingdom of heaven and are “great” because they are children of God. Great sin occurs when a person causes a believer to fall into sin by deliberate tempting or wrong teaching. Jesus said it would be better for that person to tie a millstone around their neck and drown. That is extreme, too. Jesus wanted the attention of the disciples so exaggerated the statement.

            In verses 7-10, Jesus spoke of the person who creates the stumbling blocks. Because we live in a fallen world, stumbling blocks come. Jesus said, “Woe to the man through whom the stumbling block comes!” Jesus was serious when He said this. He became even more serious in the next two verses. He said,

If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. (vs. 8-9 [NASB])

Jesus changed the recipient of the stumbling block in these verses. He now spoke of the person providing the stumbling block as being the one who stumbles. He spoke of the person’s own inclinations creating temptations for him or herself. Jesus recognized that two people stumble from one temptation, the one providing the temptation or stumbling block and the one who stumbled. These two people could be the same and we know this to be a proper diagnosis of sin. Often our desires cause us to act upon temptation and sin. Jesus added a further note to the one creating the stumbling block. He said, “Do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (vs. 10). Sometimes we create stumbling blocks for God’s children because we are jealous of their piety or favored-ness of God. We need to be aware that whatever we do to make them stumble, their guardian angels in heaven are aware of and bring before the Father so He can give the child strength of spirit to stand against the temptation. We can have this, too, so do not despise them, but seek the Father.

            The first two sections of chapter 18 (Jesus spoke of who a child of God is) warns those who make stumbling blocks for God’s children, made the disciples aware that these people create stumbling blocks for the child and for themselves, and angels go before God intervening for the child of God to stand strong during the times of trial. The children of God, because of Jesus dying for them, have strength available from God to withstand temptations to sin, whether the sin to create the temptation or succumb to the temptation. In the next three stories, Jesus gave further details about what He came to give us.

Verses 12-14 speak of a shepherd, who, upon noticing one sheep of the hundred has gone astray, chose to find the lost one. Jesus does not give up on any of us. He came to save us all. In verses 15-20, Jesus told us how to correct a sinning brother or sister first gently then with much greater effort. He reminded us that we can go to the Father in prayer to help lead the person, the sheep, back to the fold of God. Jesus said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (vs. 19-20). We need to confront the sinning believer as to his or her sin. If this does not work then Jesus provided two other steps to approach the person about their sin. These should be done while at the same time praying to the Father. The believers pray for the confronted person and for themselves - that they will not fall to temptation while confronting the person, for the ability to love the confronted person, and for the return of the person, the lost sheep, to the fold.

The final story in the lesson is on forgiveness. Jesus told Peter that His disciples must forgive a brother or sister his sin up to seventy times seven. Since the number seven is a complete number in the Bible, Jesus could have said seven times seven, but He wanted to be emphatic and said ten times that. Jesus said His disciples are to forgive people an infinite number of times, unending forgiveness, just as He forgives us repeatedly. Jesus gave an example of this great forgiveness. He said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents (A talent was worth more than 15 years wages of a laborer.) came before him. Since he did not have the means to repay, the lord commanded him to be sold along with his wife and children and everything he owned, and repayment be made. The slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ The lord of the slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt” (vs. 23-26). Upon receiving the lord’s mercy and having his debt cleared from his name, the servant went to collect debts owed to him. One slave begged for mercy to have more time to repay. The forgiven slave threw the fellow slave into prison until he could pay back what he owed. When the lord heard this, he summoned the forgiven slave, gave him an account of his own mercy to him, and told him he should have learned from the lord his master. The lord in anger handed the slave over to the torturers until the slave could repay the debt that he forgave him . This slave met the lord, but did not give all of himself to him; he had not learned from the lord. By his actions, the servant/slave showed he was not a part of the lord’s true household because he did not extend mercy and forgiveness as his master did.

Each of these stories speaks of forgiveness. The stories give us glimpses into God’s character and the characters of humankind. The first story of the lost sheep shows us God’s determination to save humankind. He goes to great lengths to save each of us, which includes unconditional forgiveness and mercy. The second story shows us that God is determined to find and confront us with His love, mercy and forgiveness because He wants each person to come to have a personal and saving relationship with Him. God is persistent in seeking us. It also shows us, believers in Jesus Christ, how we are to approach a sinning brother or sister in love and with the grace and power of God. The third story tells us we are to forgive infinitely. No matter how often we have to forgive a person for causing harm against us, we are to forgive them. Jesus forgave our past sins and will forgive future sins when we come to him confessing and asking His forgiveness.

There is another part to these stories; Jesus tells us who we are to be, to love, and to forgive. The small child in verses 1-6 represents each believer in Jesus Christ. We must remember children of God who are younger in the faith than we and to whom we are more accountable to teach and not cause to stumble. In verses 7-10, the person causing the stumbling block is of whom Jesus spoke. We need God’s strength and forgiveness, too. Verses 12-14 speak of sheep, those who are in the fold of God (current disciples) and the one Jesus is determined (the person not yet a disciple) to follow and bring to safety. Jesus forgave them of their sins and went to great lengths to bring them to His fold. We used to be that lost sheep. As sheep in His fold we can still stray and Jesus will still seek for us to take us home. Jesus spoke of disciples leading other disciples in His name in verse 15-20. He also spoke about following His way and calling upon Him to help the sinning brother or sister return to God’s way. The final story speaks of a lord, symbolic for God, and a servant who supposedly is a devoted follower of the master’s ways. This servant received great mercy and forgiveness, but then showed his true beliefs by exacting from a fellow servant vengeance when he could not repay him. This servant proved his lack of devotion to the master by his lack of following the master’s example and teaching.

In each of these stories, Jesus showed the Father’s forgiveness. To the humble child, He gave forgiveness upon confession and acknowledgement of Him as Lord and Master. To the one who causes stumbling blocks, Jesus gave advice to remove from them that that causes temptation for them and creates temptation for others. Jesus loves so much as to teach His disciples to beware of their own sinful selves and remove from themselves whatever causes temptation. In the third story, Jesus purposely sought for the lost one because the Father’s will is that no one should live an existence separate from Him. Jesus went out of His way to find and forgive. In the fourth story, Jesus taught that He forgives every time a person asks and His disciples should forgive infinitely, too. Finally, Jesus taught that the Father wants everyone to come to Him so much that He will forgive them no matter what they have done. Yet, when that person, such as the first servant, turns out not to be a true son of God, God’s righteousness and justice prevail, especially when it causes one of His children harm or makes them stumble in their own faith. Because the second servant borrowed from the first, I assume the first servant had seniority over the second. The first should have been one to teach, as the master/lord taught him; but, he had not learned well and caused harm to the second servant. By putting the second servant into prison, mercy would not be taught and the servant and his family would be harmed.

This last story brings us back to verses 6-9. Jesus told the disciples not to create stumbling blocks for His children, themselves or other believers. He forgives infinitely a person who confesses his or her sin with a sincere heart. Jesus forgives each of God’s children and goes out of His way to seek the lost so that no one is lost for eternity. There are people, though, who intentionally create stumbling blocks and temptations for God’s people or who allow themselves to live in such a way that they distract themselves from the proper devotion due to God.

What came most to my attention while studying is the hard saying Jesus taught in verses 7-9. What is it that causes you to remove you devotion from God? Is your drive for climbing the ladder at work keeping you from reading the Bible daily? Is your desire for the newest edition of a car or a bigger house keeping you from seeking God’s face and worshipping Him? Is your desire for just a little wine keeping you from praying to God? Is your mental occupation of food keeping you from thinking about God? Possibly the eye, foot, or hand that is causing you to sin are these or a myriad of other things you allow to take priority in your life. Could you live with a smaller or older house or car so that you did not have to work so much and could go to church or Bible study? Could you move to another location so you are not as close to the bar or pub? Could you use the money God gives you to buy less for yourself and buy food for another family who does not have enough? Instead of allowing your eye, hand or foot (things close and dear to you) to guide you, allow your concentration on God and His will for your life to guide you. Do not let your desires drive you away from God as the non-believers do. It is better not to have these reminders of desires that distract your devotion to God than keep them and have to fight the temptation each day. Remove yourself physically from these temptations. Do as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:33 “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”

What is your millstone? What is it that occupies your mind and drives you?

Is it God or

your next meal,

your next house,

your next car, or

your next drink?

Many things can become stumbling blocks. Do not let Satan deceive you into believing you want and need them.

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Are you lost?

Seek the kingdom of God and He will give you His righteousness and all you need.