“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18.7-9)
This is not only a warning about harming another believer, however. We can also harm ourselves, and it is to this point that Jesus turns in Matthew 18.8-9: “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away…” Humility begins with self-examination, and it continues with self-denial. Jesus was not suggesting that we maim our bodies, for harming our physical bodies can never change the spiritual condition of our hearts. Rather, He was instructing us to perform “spiritual surgery” on ourselves, removing anything that causes us to stumble or that causes others to stumble. The humble person lives for Jesus first and others next – he puts himself last. He is happy to deprive himself even of good things, if it will make others happy. Perhaps the best commentary on this is Philippians 2.1-18.
These verses are an almost exact repetition of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was talking about adultery in the Sermon on the Mount, and He was teaching that adultery, or any other sin should be taken seriously. Sin is so serious that any inclination toward it must be dealt with radically. What should be done? Many people know that because of these verses the early Church father Origen had himself castrated in order to avoid sexual temptation. But this is not exactly what Jesus means, since here Jesus explains His reference to hands, feet, and eyes, by speaking of “things that cause people to sin.” He means, get rid of whatever is tempting you to sin: smart phones internet, suggestive movies, the daily blogs and talk shows that wallow in depravity almost endlessly; books that urge you to get ahead by stepping on others; or talk that promotes racial bias. Get rid of the poison. Protect your mind from the defilement.
Of course, in the final analysis the answer to any problem is not merely to run away, especially since it is so difficult to avoid temptations in our culture. The real answer is a love for God and the transformed mind and heart that flow from it.
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus answered the question, and we have been trying to understand Jesus’ answer. But here let us follow up by asking, “Did the disciples get it?” Were they actually turned and changed to become like little children?
We know they did not get it right away, because they are still fighting for the top position two chapters later. On that occasion the mother of James and John came to Jesus asking that one of her sons be chosen to sit at His right hand and the other son be chosen to sit at His left hand when He came into His kingdom. They had probably put her up to it. So when the other disciples heard what she had asked Jesus, “they were indignant with the two brothers.” They wanted those positions themselves.
What did Jesus do? He got them together and went through it all again. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
As long as Jesus was with them, they did not get it. But when He died, they did, for they understood at last that He had given Himself for them and had bought their salvation at the cost of His own life. And they really were changed.
It is beautiful to see. The disciples were all guilty of this self-advancing spirit, according to the Gospel. But among the many who were guilty, James and John stand out as the guiltiest because of their compliance with the efforts of their mother to get them the first places. Yet think what happened to them! At one time Jesus called them “Sons of Thunder,” no doubt because of their arrogant, boisterous attitudes. On another occasion they wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village of the Samaritans that did not receive them. They were changed when they finally got their minds off themselves and onto Jesus.
We are not told much about James, but he must have changed. We do not hear of him struggling for prominence after the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord, and he eventually died for Jesus, being executed by King Herod. John lived to be a venerable old man, known at last as the “apostle of love.” He spoke humbly when he said, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” If Jesus can turn a “son of thunder” into an “apostle of love,” He can conquer your pride and teach you humility so that you can become like one of Jesus’ “little children.” He needs to if you are to belong to His kingdom.
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org