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The Kingdom Principle: The Least is Greatest, Part 2: Stumbling Blocks

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Nov 15, 1998

Matthew 18:7-11

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If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 18 and verse 7.  As we looked together at Matthew 17 verses 24 to 27 we noticed in that incident when the tax collectors in Capernaum came to Peter and asked him whether the Lord Jesus paid the temple tax, Jesus gave opportunity or took opportunity at that incident to attest to his divinity and to show the example of his humility to Peter.  He explained to Peter that though, as the very Son of God, He had no obligation whatsoever to pay that temple tax yet, in His humility because He not only desired to model a humble obedience to Peter and the other disciples, but also because of the position that He had taken as Mediator to come to seek and save and serve those who are lost, He would pay that temple tax. 

In that incident we saw an example of Jesus' humility, but we also saw that that was apparently an occasion of dissention between the disciples.  Peter had been highlighted and will continue to be highlighted by Matthew all the way from Matthew 14 to 19.  In all of those chapters, he clearly appears as the spokesman for the disciples.  Could it have been that the fact that the tax collectors themselves saw that Peter was somewhat of a leader amongst the disciples?  Could that very fact have sparked the discussion that mark records for us amongst the disciples asking the question,  ‘Well, which of us is the greatest?  Who is the real leader of this group of the disciples?  Who is going to be greatest in the kingdom?’  And it is that discussion which Jesus interrupts, and it is that discussion which Jesus draws the question from, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  And then He begins to teach in Matthew chapter 18 about that very subject. 

So I want you to see that that incident in Matthew 17 24 through 27 is connected directly to what Jesus says throughout this chapter.  All of Matthew chapter 18 is Jesus' attempt to get at two very important issues in kingdom life.  First.  What is the character of a person who is part of the kingdom of God?  And secondly, how does a person who is part of the kingdom of God relate to other people who are part of the kingdom of God?  And if you look at the whole chapter, the whole of this chapter falls into one of those two categories as Jesus gives instructions about the character of citizens of the kingdom. 

In verses 1 through 6 last time we saw that He stresses that humility is an essential aspect of membership in His kingdom.  It's not only the way that you come into His kingdom, it's the way that people in His kingdom live.  Humility is an essential character quality of members of His kingdom.  But also in this passage, we see great emphasis on how kingdom citizens relate to one another.  Later in this chapter, if you'll scan down, you will see that the subject of how you go about forgiving one another comes up in this chapter.  Why is Jesus talking about that?  Because He's speaking to his disciples about what is the appropriate way for us to relate to one another as disciples of the Lord Jesus christ.  These disciples are squabbling amongst one another as to who is greatest.  That tells you, a. That they haven't learned humility, and b.That they care more about themselves than the other.  Jesus throughout this passage says two things:  a. If you're going to be my disciple you are going to be humble, and b. You, if you're going to be My  disciple, you are going to care about your fellow disciples more than you care about yourself.  And that even happens when they have hurt you and you need to forgive them.  It even happens when they are straying and weak.  You are to care about them.  And over and over we are going to see that message revisited in this chapter. 

You may again want to look at verses 1 through 6 just to bring back those things that we've already covered.  Remember that Jesus begins this passage by reminding the disciples that kingdom greatness is entirely different from worldly greatness.  Kingdom greatness is seen in humility.  Kingdom greatness knows that the humble are exalted and the least are the first.  Worldly greatness says self assertion, aggressiveness, self-interest, even greed is what gets you ahead.  But kingdom greatness always is humble and looks out for the needs of others. 

We also learned in that passage that kingdom life is related to the way we enter into the  kingdom.  How do we enter into the kingdom of heaven?  How is it that a person becomes a Christian?  For one thing, everyone who becomes a Christian recognizes that they deserve to be condemned.  And what do they have to do in light of that?  They have to humble themselves  before the Lord.  They have to say, “Lord, it's not them that are the problem, it's me who is the problem.  It's not my genes that are the problem.  I'm the problem.  It's not my circumstances that are the problem.  I am the problem.  Lord, I deserve condemnation.”  That is part of the essence of what it means to repent.  To recognize that ‘I’ am the problem.  And that I need the Lord's gracious forgiveness.  And then you cast yourself upon the Lord and you find His  wondrous mercy.  Well the Lord Jesus Christ says exactly, that's how you enter into the kingdom.  And you don't enter into the kingdom in humble repentance so that you can leave that behind and become as prideful as possible.  No, if you enter the kingdom by humility, you live by humility in the kingdom.  You never get done with humility.  You never get done with humility and move on to pride.  That's not a move up.  So the Lord Jesus stresses in this passage that the way you enter into the kingdom is perfectly appropriate, because that is the life of the kingdom to which you are called. 

And then in verses 5 and 6 He says, one way you can see this kind of true humility manifest  is in your attitude towards others.  And He begins to stress to the disciples how important it is that they not become obstacles to the faith of others, even those who are considered least and weak in the eyes of the world.  They are to be concerned for those who are unimportant,  for those who are marginalized, for those who are not powerful, for those who are least.  Their concern for just those kinds of people manifests the fact that they do not think of themselves as high and exalted.  And so in their very treatment of those who are least, they show that their heart attitude is, ‘No Lord, I am least.  And so I must serve my neighbor first.’  And Jesus says that is a sure sign that you have grasped kingdom humility. 

Now really, everything He says in verses 7 through 11 is an expansion on that idea.  But He brings in several new distinct ideas.  And I want you to understand what Jesus is doing here.  In verse 7, Jesus is launching an argument as to why it is so important for us to care about others and especially not to cause others to stumble.  And in verses 8 through 11, He's basically going to give you two arguments, two inducements on why you ought to care about that.  And so as we look at this passage today, I want you to bear those things in mind.  Let's hear now the word of the living God in Matthew chapter 18 beginning in verse 7: 

Matthew 18:7-11 

Our Father, these words are hard.  They are not only difficult to obey, but they are in some ways difficult to understand.  So we ask You to give us an understanding of what these words mean what the instruction that our Lord is giving here is.  But also, O Lord, that You would  make our hearts willing to do it so that we might become hearers and doers of Your word and so pleasing in Your sight.  We ask this by the grace of the Holy Spirit in Jesus name.  Amen.   

Verses 5 and 6 of Matthew 18 set the stage for this passage that we are looking at today.  In verses 5 and 6 the Lord Jesus warns his disciples that whoever causes a little one to stumble,  shall be liable before the Lord.  And He begins to expand on that in verses 7 through 11, and as He does, He teaches us three important lessons.  Lessons just as important for us as they were when He first taught the disciples.  And I'd like to look at those lessons with you today.   

I. We must determine not to be stumbling blocks.
First of all, if you'll direct your attention to verse 7.  There I want you to see two things.  In that little verse the Lord Jesus stresses two things.  First of all, that temptation is going to be a certainty in this life.  The Lord Jesus wants you to know that there is never going to be a day in this life when you're not going to face temptation.  But along side of that, the Lord Jesus also wants us to understand though we are going to live in a world fraught with temptation, He does not want us to be contributors to that problem.  On the one hand, there is the certainty of temptation.  But on the other hand, in verse 7, there is the culpability for temptation.  He says that temptation is certain, but let me tell you this, if you become a tempter, you will be held responsible for it.  And in verse 7, as He pronounces a woe against the world because of stumbling blocks, He is teaching us as His disciples, as His followers, that we are not to become stumbling blocks.  We must determine not to be stumbling blocks.  Jesus, when He pronounces a woe against the world is using the world in the sense of that system which is allied and united against God; mankind alienated from the life of God; mankind opposed to the life of God.  And He pronounces a woe against those who are part of that world system. 

And His purpose in pronouncing this woe against world while He's talking to His disciples is precisely this:  He is warning His disciples not to act as if they were part of the world in opposition to God.  And you notice the juxtaposition here: Jesus' disciples and the world.  Now let me tell you that understanding that juxtaposition is a key to understanding temptation, because as we heard from Thomas Watson in the beginning of the service, all temptation is a test of sincerity.  All temptation, all temptation invites you to, believers anyway,  to put one foot in the church and the other foot in the world.  All temptation invites believers to try and be partially loyal to God and partially loyal to the desires and the system of the world.  And the Lord Jesus immediately says to His disciples,  ‘It's got to be one way or the other.  You are either under the pronouncements of woe that I have pronounced upon the world, or you are part of My disciples.’  And so He's making it very clear to the disciples that being part of the world will involve judgment.  And He mentions that judgment explicitly twice later even in this short passage.  Remember it is the Lord Jesus Christ who talks about hellfire and damnation more than any other preacher in the New Testament.  You can't pass that off on Paul.  You can't even pass it off on John the Baptist.  It's the Lord Jesus who talks about it.  And He doesn't talk about it flippantly.  He talks about it with deadly earnest.  And He speaks about it here.  He says that the world is under its woe because of its succumbing to temptation, and because of its enticing  others to temptation.  And so He says to the disciples, temptation is going to come.  It's going to be part of the world which is aligned against me.  But you disciples.  Don't you be part of the problem.  Don't you entice others to sin. 

Let me just say a few words about this interesting word "stumbling blocks." You know that that term  "stumbling block" is a metaphor for either temptation or for an obstacle or for an offense.  Something that offends you.  Something which is an obstacle to faith.  Something which tempts you into sin.  It's a metaphor.  It's a very old metaphor.  In fact, you will find its origins all the way back in Leviticus chapter 19 verse 14.  In the Law of God in Leviticus 19:14, we read this from the hand of Moses, “You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God.  I am the Lord.”  Now at its very most basic level, that command is a command to respect those who are handicapped and to treat them with dignity and respect and care because you revere God.  It has a broader application than that, but that's the starting point, to care for those who are disadvantaged in that way, and not to take advantage of them either mocking them or hurting them  deliberately.   In the case of the blind, putting a stumbling block in the way that that blind person couldn't see.  You're not to treat them that way the law says.  Well, that image of the stumbling block is taken up by the Old Testament authors  themselves.  And it's used as a spiritual picture of how sin works.  What does sin do?  Sin trips us up on the way.  Sin trips us up in the walk that God wants us to live.  And so for instance, in Ezekiel chapter 14 verse 3, God says to the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their  iniquity.  Should I be consulted by them at all?”  In other words, God is saying to Ezekiel, ‘Why should I listen to the prayers of these people when they have placed a stumbling block right before their eyes and not only are they not avoiding that stumbling block, they're not avoiding that temptation, they're worshipping that stumbling block?’  And so now that term "stumbling block"  has obtained a very definite spiritual significance.  It is something which leads one away from allegiance to God.  It is something which causes us to stumble in our relationship with Him.  And so the Apostle Paul, for instance, in 1 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 9 can say to Christians, “Be careful that your liberty does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”  In other words, the way you use your freedom should not become a temptation an occasion to entice others into sin. 

Now by the way, that passage in and of itself reminds us that temptations are not always in and of themselves sins.  A temptation may be occasioned by something which in and of itself is perfectly good.  In this case, your freedom in Christ.  Let me give you another example.  You remember when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that “We preach Christ crucified.”  Do you remember what the next phrase is?  “He is a stumbling block to the Jews.”  Now is Christ crucified a sin?  No.  But He has become a stumbling block to the Jews.  There are certain things which in and of themselves are not bad, but they can become stumbling blocks.  And that truth that message is an important part of what Jesus is saying to the disciples in this passage. 

Let me stop and ask you to think for a moment about those who have been a stumbling block to you.  Perhaps you have had to work, I've spoken to so many of you who have had just this circumstance, you have had to work in the context of an office with people who are exceedingly crude.  They use filthy language.  They speak lewd jokes.  They do it probably because they want your approval and they're nervous.  They're insecure and they're trying to get you to like them.  And yet it makes working around them utterly unbearable and you feel like you have to take a shower when you leave their presence. 

Now let me stop and ask you.  Are there areas like that where you have become a stumbling block to others? Think of the person who is constantly worrying or complaining.  Every time that person is in another person's presence, He drags that person down with anxiety and complaint  and thus becomes a stumbling block.  Think of the person who belittles his friends’ attempts to act ethically.  A friend says “No I don't think I should do that because that would be wrong.”  And then this person says, “Why are you concerned about that?  Who cares about that? No one will ever know.”  What is that person doing?  Enticing a person to go against his or her conscience and thus becoming a stumbling block.  Think of the high school student who coaxes a friend to come to a party which his parent has not given that friend permission to go to.  In fact, may have explicitly said, “Now you can go out tonight.  You can go out to the football game and you can go out with so and so, but you can't go to such and such a party because we know what's going to be going on there.”  And that person entices the friend, “Oh, your parents will never know.  Come along.”  And then suddenly that friend is enticing that friend into drunkenness and various other things.  That is precisely what Jesus is saying.  Do not become a stumbling block to others. 

II.    We must take care not to stumble ourselves.
And He gives two inducements in the verses to follow.  I'd like you to look with me first at verses 8 and 9.  The first thing He points you to, He says, why shouldn't you be a stumbling block?  Let me tell you.  Because of the grave consequences of being a stumbling block.  Look at these words, “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you.  It's better for you to enter life crippled or lame that to have two hands or two feet and be cast into eternal fire.”  We must take care not to succumb to temptation ourselves, not only should we be careful not to entice others into sin, but we should take care ourselves not to be enticed into sin.  Why?  Because of the grave consequences.  Look at what Jesus is saying here.  This is an urgent warning against  temptation.  It is very similar to the warning that He gave in Matthew chapter 5 in verses 29 and 30, in the sermon on the mount in the context of his exhortation to men about not lusting with their eyes.  It's a very similar warning.  And what Jesus is saying is this: You must take drastic action against anything against anything which is a conduit for temptation and sin in your life, no matter how precious that conduit might be.  These words have been grossly misinterpreted.  Sometimes they have even been taken literally.  Jesus' point is this: There are hardly any things more precious to a working man than his hands and his feet.  Without them he cannot work.  Now in and of themselves hands and feet are not bad things.  And so the Lord Jesus says this, ‘I don't care how precious  something is to you, how valuable it is to you, if it is the occasion for you being drawn into sin, you must flee from it.  You must cast it away.  You must get rid of it.’  The Lord Jesus is using this as a figure of speech to remind us that no matter how precious something is, if it is a conduit to sin we must be exceedingly careful with it and even shun it if necessary. 

And we see here very clearly again, that temptation may be sin in and of itself, or it may be something good that takes the place of God in our life.  A temptation may be in and of itself an act which is out of accord with the Lord God that our hearts have been drawn to.  It may be looking at things that we ought not look at, listening to things that we ought not listen, speaking things that we ought not speak, thinking things that we ought not think, things that are wrong.  And yet it's wound itself around our hearts and we've been drawn to it.  On the other hand, it may be something perfectly good.  When a businessman is called to succeed in his business, a man doesn't start a business in order to fail.  That would be a foolish thing to do.  None of us in the ministerial staff are praying, “O Lord, may all our businessmens’ businesses fail so that they can be more spiritual.”  That's not something we pray.  We want you to prosper.  We want you to be able to provide for your families as you work -men and women.  But even in that have you not seen people whose efforts at success have so consumed them that God has suddenly become of lesser than priority than their ambition and their success?  The second things in life have become the first things and God has been pushed to the periphery.  And the good has become the enemy of the best.  And they so desire advancement and success, that ambition takes over, and ambition is closer to their heart than God is.  And so something good, success in business, provision for your family, becomes an enemy to one's walk with God. 

All temptation is a challenge to God's lordship in our lives.  All temptation is a challenge to God's lordship in our lives.  And we can ask these two questions:  Do I want God more than I want this forbidden pleasure?  That's the sinful temptation.  Or do I want God more than I want this gift that I know that comes from him?  Do we want the gifts that God gives more than we want God Himself?  If we are succumbing to either of those two temptations, either following after forbidden pleasures, or loving God's gifts more than we love the giver, we have already lost the battle of temptation.  And Jesus is saying there are dread results from losing that battle.  Jesus speaking of hell, of eternal fire, in this passage, is an argument, an inducement for us to mortify sin.  He is saying, ‘If your heart follows the way of your desire in temptation, then you will be separated from Me eternally.’  Why?  Because to sin once causes you to lose your salvation?  No.  But because your temptation and your incessant following of that temptation reveals your heart.  It reveals that you love something else more than you love God.  And that is why it is such a danger. 

Chuck Colson tells the story of a gangster in Hollywood in the l930s and 40s named Mickey Cohen.  It's in his book, Loving God, in chapter 8 very provocatively entitled “The Christian Gangster?”  And Mickey Cohen wanted to make a profession of faith in Christ, but he did not want to stop being a gangster.  Now that seems utterly ridiculous to us.  Read the chapter.  You'll understand more.  That seems utterly ridiculous to us.  A Christian gangster?  How can you do that? And yet, my friends, we try that act all the time ourselves.  I want to be a Christian  adulterer.  Now we would never admit that out loud, would we?  We never hear people stand around our rooms and say, “Yes, that's my goal in life to be a Christian adulterer.”  And yet, there are believers that want to do that.  They may not admit that they want to do that, but that's what they're living out.  “I want to be a Christian cheat.”  We would never say that out loud.  We would never say that in our business dealings we want to be a Christian cheat.  And yet, that is what we do in our lives.  What are we doing?  We are giving in to our temptations.  And we could fill in the blank there, because there are as many temptations as there are Christians.  Every temptation is a temptation for the believer to attempt to keep one foot in Christ and the other foot in the world.  And the Lord Jesus Christ says this, ‘If you are keeping that one foot in the world, it would be better for you to cut it off and gain glory than it would be for you to lose life eternally.’  That is how serious temptation is.  And the Lord Jesus makes it clear that we may accept no compromise with temptation. 

III.  We must bear in mind the value God places on His children.
And then finally in verses 10 and 11 He says this, here's the second inducement.  Why should we be careful about temptation? Because temptation harms the faith of others the weakest of God's people.  Our giving in to temptation is a temptation to them to give into temptation.  And He says very clearly, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones for their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father.”  Do you see what Jesus is saying there?  He's saying,  “You have no idea how valuable My people are to Me.  I came to seek and save that  which was lost.  By you disciples giving in to temptation, you are causing spiritual injury to those disciples of Mine who are least able to bear that kind of spiritual injury.”  And so He says earnestly to these disciples, “In your actions, you must think not only of your own soul, you must think of the souls of others who will be injured by your behavior.”

Let me switch back to my high school student and change the imagery.  You are a high school student.  And you are attempting to entice your girlfriend to enter in to illicit sexual  relations with you.  Do you realize, do you realize whose soul you are playing with?  Do you realize the consequences of that?  Do you realize that her angel is before the heavenly Father  constantly?  Are you ready to pay that kind of price?  To lose her soul and your own.  That is the struggle that we face with with every temptation.  May God help us to see the consequences of giving in to temptation.  May He help us to see the eternal value of the souls that we may entice.  And may He help us flee to Christ who is our only hope and rescue against temptation.  Let us pray. 

Our Lord and our God, we know the power of the tempter and if we attempt to fight him with his weapons we shall lose.  And so we ask for the indwelling of the Spirit.  And we ask that by all prayer we would conquer and more than conquer for the good of our souls for the good of the souls of Your children and for Your glory.  We ask it in Jesus' name.  Amen.

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