Stumbling Blocks and Millstones
The gospels of Jesus can appear deceptively simple. At least that has been my experience. The teachings of Jesus at first glance can appear to me to be merely wise sayings, perhaps worth saving in a scrapbook as handy quotes applicable to others, but not addressed to me.
However as soon as I stop to seriously meditate on the words of Jesus in the four Gospels, layers of meaning come to the surface. Quite a bit of what Jesus said is highly convicting and stops me dead in my tracks. Does something Jesus said 2000 years ago apply to my life and whom I am here and now? Usually the answer is affirmative.
"For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account." (Hebrews 4:12-13)
On his final trip to Jerusalem, accompanied by a number of disciples, a very mixed crowd of ordinary people, and some increasingly angry religious leaders, Jesus did not follow a "seeker-friendly" approach in asking men to follow Him. He made cleat that it could be very costly to be a disciple,
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Then He said to another, Fellow Me.” But he said, Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” And another also said, Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” But Jesus said to him, Ono one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.” Then He said to them all, If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels." (Luke 9:22-26)
I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am till it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49-53)
Of course the person who decides not to follow Jesus will lose everything in the end. so there is clearly only choice which leads to life. But being changed into new men and women in order to meet the standards of the kingdom of God requires radical changes in how we live and think--and how we treat others. The training program starts now.
"The Christian life is different: harder, and easier. Christ says, "Give me all. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires, which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked-the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself; my own will shall become yours." (C. S. Lewis)
To me, one of the most ominous of Jesus' teachings about our conduct before others is found in two short verses in Luke:
He said to the disciples, It is impossible that no stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones." (Luke 17:1-2)
The "little ones" Jesus speaks of can refer to small children of course, but the main reference is to a weaker brother or sister--a less mature Christian, an inquirer, a person open to God, but not yet fully instructed in the faith. The "stumbling blocks" may come from Christians or non-Christians. In the latter case, we have an additional final warning from Jesus addressed to unbelievers who cause others to stumble, found in Matthew's gospel:
Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:40-42, NASB).
It is easy to find obstacles in the path of seekers or new Christians coming from unbelievers, obstacles which hinder finding and knowing God as He really is. Paul's letter to the Romans indicates that most people don't want a relationship with the real God, so we have invented religion instead. In our fallen state, we all repress the truth about God we already have and pretend we are righteous when actually we are not.
Much of our difficulty as seeking Christians stems from our unwillingness to take God as He is and adjust our lives accordingly. We insist upon trying to modify Him and bring Him nearer to our own image. --A. W. Tozer (1897-1963), The Pursuit of God.
For outsiders to the Christian faith who think they would like to know God, the Christian church is often not a very attractive place to start one's search these days.
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. --Mohandas Gandhi
Many church goers who say they are Christians, are not. Some are seeking to know God, others "haven't decided yet." This group of people may or may not impede the individual who is on his or her quest to know God. Many of the pulpits of our land these days are occupied by men (and women) who do not know God at all, or whose teaching is blatantly heretical.
I remember my first visit to Egypt in 1974. Taxi-drivers and street vendors and "tour guides" besiege incoming tourists, eager to provide every helpful service imaginable. Egyptians are personable, warm and friendly and one can soon see that there impressions of Americans tends to come from our movies and television programs. All Americans must be Christians (since we are not Muslims), they say. We are all rich and self-indulgent, living in the lap of luxury with lots of drinking, promiscuous sex, easy divorce and pleasure-driven life styles. It is no wonder that the conservative Muslims in the world think of us as "the Great Satan." Real Christians are a tiny minority in America today, and we don't stand out from the crowd nor live very differently from the pagans around us.
What about our TV Evangelists, especially the rich and famous ones who got into scandal and big trouble a few years ago? How many inquirers did they drive away from the Christian church? How many outsiders to Christianity consider TV preachers to be our finest and best? Surely some of these self-appointed highly-visible spokesmen for the faith are stumbling-blocks for inquirers, and new Christians?
Over the years I have met dozens of younger men and women who have "left the church" because they found the preaching poor, boring and irrelevant. How is the character of the living God represented to people through poor preaching? Not very well of course. Of course some people drop out of church because they have been convicted by the Spirit of God. They may be running away and not facing what God wants them to learn about themselves. Nevertheless, non-Christians very often get their first glimpses of who God is supposed to be when they drop into a church to see what is being said and done there. How many never return? Sad to say, I have a good many Christians friends who will come to a home Bible study but refuse to darken the doors of a church.
"There is scarcely anything so dull and meaningless as Bible doctrine taught for its own sake. Truth divorced from life is not truth in its Biblical sense, but something else and something less. No man is better for knowing that God in the beginning created the heaven and the earth. The devil knows that, and so did Ahab and Judas Iscariot. No man is better for knowing that God so loved the world of men that He gave His only begotten Son to die for their redemption. In hell there are millions who know that. Theological truth is useless until it is obeyed. The purpose behind all doctrine is to secure moral action." (A. W. Tozer, Of God and Men, 1960)
I have talked to, or emailed, a good number of younger people who made an appointment and went to meet with a "trustworthy" pastor or church leader for help with a sensitive issue in their lives. Many found themselves judged, rejected and condemned on the spot. They left the church, badly burned, and never came back. Thankfully God tracks down these wounded children and helps them find a place in Christ's church in the long run, but what about the judgmental or legalistic pastor still sitting in a place of leadership--a man who lacks the basic compassion to identify with a hurting sinners, a struggling person who wanted help and was turned away?
Romans 14 asks us to be careful not to stumble a weaker brother or sister who may misinterpret our freedom in Christ. Weaker Christians can mistakenly assume our liberty in Christ is license--we may stumble them without even knowing it.
"I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” (Romans 14:14-15:3)
Sin likes to find company. What is the effect on younger Christians of locker-room talk, impure jokes or off-color remarks by the older men of the church on a camping trip? Younger people watch not only what their leaders say but how their leaders live! Loose living puts a Christian leader in the same class as false teachers who are actually apostates from the church. Hypocrisy is a very big sin as far as God is concerned.
Counterfeit Christianity, and Christianity lived in the energy of the flesh: Most professing Christians today are not living the genuine New Testament life style specified by the Lord and the Apostles. Rather they have bought into cheap substitute. Ray Stedman writes,
"The…new Christian may discover what millions of others before him have learned: It is possible to avoid the pain and humiliation of these cycles of repentance and renewal by maintaining an outward facade of spiritual commitment, moral impeccability, and orthodox behavior. He can simply maintain an outward reputation for spiritual maturity that is satisfying to the ego, even though he is inwardly haunted by the fact that his "Christianity" is a hollow shell. Such an outwardly Christian life-style is so prevalent today that a new Christian can hardly be blamed for adopting it and regarding it as the expected thing. He drifts into it with only an occasional twinge of doubt or a rare, faint pang of conscience.
He is in denial, and would be deeply offended if anyone called him what he really is: a hypocrite. To him, the word "hypocrite" suggests something nasty and sinister, like the Pharisees of old. He sees himself as a "real Christian," even though his faith is only an inch deep. It is not the kind of rock-solid, deep-rooted relationship with Jesus that can carry him through any crisis. The fact is, the "peace" he claims to have is present only while his circumstances are untroubled; when his circumstances turn dark and troubling, his "peace" evaporates in an instant. The "joy" he sings about seldom shows on his face, and the "Christian love" he is talks about is reserved only for those who please him and get along with him. It is all a giant (though largely unconscious) sham. He may be a true Christian in whose heart Christ dwells, but he does not live the Christian life on a consistent basis. He may be a highly moral, highly religious, even a highly generous person--but the reality is that he is living pretty much as he did before his conversion, only now his speech and behavior are covered with a thin glaze of Christianity. That glaze is the first thing to crack and crumble when life becomes irritating, difficult, or threatening.
You may think this is a harsh judgment. Many people think that the mark of an authentic Christian is doctrinal purity; if a person's beliefs are biblical and doctrinally orthodox, then he is a Christian. People who equate orthodoxy with authenticity find it hard to even consider the possibility that, despite the correctness of all their doctrinal positions, they may have missed the deepest reality of the authentic Christian life. But we must never forget that true Christianity is more than teaching--it is a way of life. In fact, it is life itself. "He who has the Son has life," remember? When we talk about life, we are talking about something that is far more than mere morality, far more than doctrinal accuracy. Life is a positive quality, not negative--a description of what we fundamentally are, not what we are not. The eternal life that Jesus brings to us is radical, not superficial. It is humble, not self-promoting. It is compassionate, not indifferent. It is courageous, not timid or retiring. It is a far cry indeed from the mild compatibility, agreeability, and affability that passes for Christianity in thousands of churches across the land. In fact, the Great Imitation is so widely accepted as genuine Christianity that the real thing is often regarded as a threat or a heresy whenever it appears." (Ray C. Stedman, Authentic Christianity, http://raystedman.org/authenxnty/.
In ancient Israel, worship in the temple fell to such a low level of vitality that God actually said he would prefer no worship at all to the kind of worship the people were offering Him,
Who is there even among you who would shut the doors [of the temple], So that you would not kindle fire on My altar in vain? I have no pleasure in you,” Says the LORD of hosts, Nor will I accept an offering from your hands. For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For My name shall be great among the nations,” Says the LORD of hosts." (Malachi 1:10-11)
Obviously hypocrisy and phoniness in Christian leaders is more serious than less-than-genuine Christian living in less conspicuous Christians. On the other hand Christians are few and far between in our world--any one of us may find himself or herself to be the only representative of God in an office, or a neighborhood or a social group.
I have omitted here a private list of my own long and painful personal list of occasions when I know something I said or did caused a weaker brother or sister to stumble. I can only guess that my carnal conduct in years past has caused many more to stumble--people I have not heard from or who are still suffering in silence. I speak as a sinner saved by grace. By now I should have a garage full of my own engraved millstones waiting for the day of my judgment. Meantime, I am not about to throw stones or millstones.
The good news we need to bear in mind is the lavishness of God's grace and mercy. All sin can be forgiven. Though consequences remain, over time God even gives us back our "wasted years" to some extent. Yet damage we have done to others by causing them to stumble can never be fully undone. The hurt we cause others by our failures to faithfully represent God in word and deed sends ripples through time and eternity.
For example, a court of law may award generous monetary damages to an accident victim's widow whose husband was killed by a drunk driver. But the dead man does not return to life after the fines have been paid and earth's limited justice has been served. The widow's entire life, and her family's, and a whole circle of friends has been drastically altered forever. Something of irreplaceable value has been taken from the family and friends of the deceased--and the whole society also bears a loss. How can this be undone? It can't. We who have offended and hurt others can only plead for God's grace and mercy. We offenders will surely suffer sorrow and loss at the Judgment Seat of Christ at the very least.
Fortunately, we can have as much grace a we need.
Do you think that the Scripture says in vain, The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously? But He gives more grace. Therefore He says: God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.” Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up." (James 4:5-10)
Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit in sincere love of the brethren, love one another fervently with a pure heart, having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the LORD endures forever.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. Therefore, laying aside all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all evil speaking, as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, Behold, I lay in Zion A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.” Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone,” and A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense.” They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed." (1 Peter 1:13-2:8)
In summary, we Christians in America, it seems to me, do not take God seriously enough when it comes to the basic standards of conduct which our Lord expects from His own. Probably we all need to make major life-style changes--I know I do.
Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh in his fine commentary on Luke offers a helpful summary off this topic:
Characteristics of Stumbling Blocks
(1) Stumbling blocks increase the temptation to sin. To put the matter just a bit differently, the stumbling block makes sin harder to resist.
(2) Being a stumbling block is very much a matter of misused influence. Stumbling blocks are generally stronger,” more mature, more influential than those they adversely influence (little ones).
(3) Leaders, then, are in great danger of becoming a stumbling block.
(4) Stumbling block may or may not deliberately intend to be such; they may or may not be conscious of the impact of their deeds.
(5) Stumbling blocks may or may not cause the other person to sin. A stumbling block makes sin more appealing, although he may not succeed at causing the other person to sin.
(6) The stumbling block issue has some desire or attraction to the weak.
(7) The stumbling block may or may not be a believer.
(8) The occasion of stumbling may not only be appealing, but may well not be evil, in and of itself (e.g. the liberties of 1 Corinthians and Romans 14).
Second, we must ask ourselves, What are some of the ways in which we can become a stumbling block to another?” Consider these ways as a starting point:
Ways we can cause others to stumble
(1) Competition—cf. Matthew 18:1ff.; also Mark 9—when we seek to get ahead of our brethren, we will not seek to build them up, but rather to tear them down; we construct ways in which to see to it that our brethren fall. (Note that the disciples arguing over who was the greatest brought about our Lord's words about stumbling blocks in both Matthew and Mark).
(2) False teaching—Malachi 2:8; Romans 16:17; James 3; Revelation 2:14 (?).
(3) Flattery—Proverbs 7:21-22; 26:28; 29:5.
(4) Ungodly rebuke & counsel—Job's friends/Peter & Jesus (Matthew 16:23)
(5) Use of liberties which are detrimental to weaker brethren—Romans 14:20; 1 Corinthians 8:9; 10:32; 2 Corinthians 6:2.
(6) Passing judgment on others—Romans 14:13 (?).
(7) By abusing our position or power / setting a bad example—James 3. Sexual, physical, psychological abuse of children (?)
(8) By not living in the light, but continuing in the deeds of darkness: 1 John 2:10. 2 Corinthians 6:3 (cf. vv. 1-13).
(9) By judging,” I take it, imposing standards above the Scriptures—cf. Romans 14:13; cf. James 4:11-12.
Finally, if we take sin in the life of a brother seriously, we will do everything possible to turn that brother from his sin when he falls. The Pharisees prided themselves for taking sin seriously. They, however, looked for sin in others, and then withdrew from those whose sins they found personally offensive. The Lord, who came to seek and to save sinners, calls upon His disciples to do likewise. Thus, we show that we take sin seriously when we seek out our sinning brother and do all we can to turn him from that sin to God, by repenting. (http://www.ldolphin.org/luke/luke17.html)
Postscript: After studying a dozen commentaries and then teaching this passage in Luke--and the related verses which follow--I discovered a sermon On Living Together by Ray Stedman. As usual, Ray wonderfully ties together this great teaching of Jesus in Luke 17:1-10. Highly recommended. See http://www.raystedman.org/misc/0284.html.
Recommended summer reading:
1. John C. Sanford, Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome, 2005.
2. David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales : Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution, 2006.
3. Mary Midgley, Evolution as Religion, 2002
4. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, 2005.
5. Isaac C. Mozeson, The Origin of Speeches, 2005
6. David L. Rowe, I Love Mormons, 2005.
7. Richard and Joan Ostling, Mormon America, 1999.
8. Francis Beckwith, Carl Mosser, Paul Owen, The New Mormon Challenge, 2002
9. Robert Millet, A Different Jesus?: The Christ Of The Latter-day Saints, 2005.
10. Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation, 1997.
June 13, 2006.