In the first three verses of Matthew 18, Jesus uses children as examples of humility, which He demands of those who would be saved. In the next two verses, however, He seems to think of children not in terms of their humility but as those who are weak or helpless. He is not thinking of children literally, however.
Let me make that point again. When Jesus speaks of “one of these little ones who believe in me,” He is not speaking of children literally, though He does not exclude them. He is speaking of normal believers, especially immature saints, and He warns against placing harmful obstacles in a true believer’s way.
This should be a frightening matter for a person who thinks it is somehow fun to get a Christian to sin. Such a person will provoke a Christian to anger or excessive loose talk, sometimes even to overt sinful behavior. When he succeeds in this, he is pleased and feels vindicated: “If I have been able to get this Christian to sin, what I do must be all right, or at least, he is no better than I am.” A person can feel good about that. But Jesus says that instead of feeling good, such a person should be terrified. In fact, it would have been far better for him that a large millstone had been hung around his neck and he had been thrown into the sea to drown than that he should have lived long enough to harm a new or weak believer. If you have ever mocked a Christian, tempted a Christian, or discouraged a Christian from serving Christ, you should tremble before these categorical statements by the Lord.
Yet religious people can do this same harm too. We need to remember Paul’s denunciation in Romans 2.17-24. He had been arguing that everyone, not just obviously depraved people, needs the gospel, and at this point he turns to those who consider themselves religious. In Paul’s day the most religious of all people were Jews.
But what Paul tells the Jews is that God is not satisfied with knowledge of the right way only. He is concerned with deeds, exactly what Paul has told the moral pagan, and by that standard a Jew is condemned exactly as a pagan is condemned. A Jew judges another, but he is judged out of his own mouth because he himself has done what he condemns.
When Paul comes to the end of this paragraph, he quotes the Old Testament to show that “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” This is always the case when religious persons violate the upright standards they proclaim. They become a stumbling block to others. Jesus warns about this in Matthew 18, and it is as true for us today as it was in the first Christian century. “Be warned,” Jesus says. If you are living like this, it would be better to have a great millstone fastened around your neck and you drowned in the sea than that you had lived to harm one of Jesus’ little ones.
That is what happens when people try to become great, of course. They put themselves ahead of others, particularly the small and the weak. They trample on them to get to the top. “What Jesus is saying is … that, instead of striving to become greatest in the kingdom of heaven [and] in the process hurting others instead of guarding them – the disciples should rather learn to forget about themselves and to focus their loving attention upon Christ’s little ones, upon the lambs of the flock and upon all those who in their humble trustfulness … resemble those lambs.”
Verse 7 may refer to what comes immediately before or right after – it deals with the matters of sin, determinism, human responsibility, and free will.
It is not difficult to understand why Jesus said this or why Matthew added it to his collection of Jesus’ teachings at this point. Sinful people want to excuse their behavior by saying that they just can’t help what they are doing. In our day this usually takes a materialistic form. I do bad things because of my genetic makeup, or because of the bad neighborhood in which I grew up, or because I wasn’t properly loved and cared for by my parents. In religious circles it sometimes takes a theological form. I sin because God has ordained it; it isn’t my fault. In Paul’s day some people used this argument to approve of increased sinning. God has willed to bring good from it, so “let us do evil that good may result.”
Interestingly enough, Jesus does not deny the determinism, though that is not the best word to describe the Bible’s teaching in this area. He acknowledges that this is an evil world and that “the things that cause people to sin … must come.” We can even rightly say that God has determined that it should be so, at least passively, since God is not the originating cause of sin. Yet at the same time Jesus is equally insistent that the person who sins or causes others to sin is responsible.
It is impossible in this fallen evil world to avoid enticements to sin, but woe to the one through whom the enticements come. That is the point. The judgment of such a person will be just, and the judgment will be most severe if the enticement causes one of Jesus’ own followers to stumble. Remember that when you look into your heart and examine your actions. Woe to such a person, Jesus says. Woe is the word the Bible uses to lament the terrible end of a person who is judged by God in “eternal fire” or “the fire of hell” for his or her sins (vv.8-9).
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org