The 16th Sunday after Pentecost September 12, 2010
1 Kings 11:1-13
44, 388, 395(1-5,8), 51
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched—where “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire—where “Their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt. Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.
In Christ Jesus, dear fellow-redeemed:
Drivers pull over for emergency vehicles to make a clear unobstructed path of travel. When a person needs to make his way through a crowd of people, others might go in front to make a clear path saying, “step aside,” or “coming through!”
In these kinds of circumstances it would be inconsiderate at best and very likely dangerous for anyone to place an obstacle in the path. How thoughtless to block a path down which someone is running—how cruel to trip someone who is gingerly making his way. God even gave a command about this in His Old Testament law. He said, “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14).
When this principle is applied to spiritual matters it becomes more than courtesy and physical well-being because laying a spiritual trap may well lead someone to eternal damnation. Certainly, no one here would ever think of setting a trap in order to lead someone to Hell; but yet if we do or say anything that causes other people to sin, we may be doing just that. Jesus warns against setting such spiritual traps and teaches us to LOOK OUT FOR ONE ANOTHER. I. Don’t lay traps II. Remove traps, and III. Prevent traps. We pray that the Spirit will bless our study.
Jesus’ disciples had been arguing about who would be greatest and then they came and asked Jesus. Jesus took a child in His arms and told the disciples that unless someone is converted and has a simple child-like faith he would be no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven. “Therefore,” Jesus said, “whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (cf. Matthew 18:1-5).
It was in this context of the disciples’ argument about greatness and Jesus’ words about a child-like faith that Jesus also said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” [v.42]
The little ones of whom Jesus spoke were not just “little ones” by age. Jesus used the child to illustrate the truth that He was teaching, namely, that we are lost without a child-like faith worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The “little ones” are the believers, young and old, who have a humble spirit and simple trusting faith like that of a young child.
Jesus warns against causing any believer to stumble in his faith which might very well weaken his faith or cause him to lose it altogether. To do so would be causing an “offense” in a scriptural sense. Causing an offense in the scriptural sense is to set a spiritual death trap. The jaws of the trap are set and ready to spring and kill the victim with crushing force. A spiritual death trap is set whenever something is said or done which leads someone else into sin.
The seriousness of causing a believer to stumble and fall into sin lies in the result of where that stumble might lead. One stumble may not destroy a believer’s faith, but every sin—no matter how seemingly small—is an attack against faith and a sin against God. Every sin is a danger because it attacks faith to weaken it with the goal that eventually the faith will become so weak that it will crumble and fall. It is through faith and trust in our Savior that His righteousness comes to us and we are forgiven. So if faith is weakened and is lost then the means by which we receive Christ’s forgiveness is also lost and the condemnation of Hell is a result. So everything which causes a fall into sin is truly a death trap.
The nature of life in this sinful world is that spiritual death traps will be set for every child of God—it’s unavoidable. But Jesus adds, “Woe to him through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1).
Jesus used a graphic picture to emphasize His point. A grain mill in those days consisted of two stones. The lower stone was fixed in place and had a wooden peg that went into a hole in the center of the top stone. By man or animal power the top stone would be turned around the peg, grain would be poured into the hole of the top stone, and ground flour would fall out between the stones.
These mills were typically of two sizes: A smaller one which could be operated by an individual or two, and a larger one which required an animal to drive it. The millstone to which Jesus referred is, literally, “a donkey millstone.” In other words, Jesus was referring to the larger of the two millstones and for that reason there would no doubt concerning the fate of someone who was thrown into the sea with such a millstone. Jesus used this to illustrate that it would be better for someone to lose his physical life rather than cause someone to sin and thereby bring spiritual and eternal harm to the other person as well as to himself.
Our concern in looking out for one another is that we do not lay traps which might harm their faith. This involves more than just not intentionally seeking to harm them. It includes exercising great care in all that we say and do. It is important to be aware and keep in mind how our words and actions may affect the faith and conduct of others. Paul wrote to the Romans, “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” (Romans 14:21).
Paul’s actions give a good example of how to adjust for the sake of others. Circumcision was commanded by God in the Old Testament. However, once Jesus came, the Old Testament Law was fulfilled and circumcision was no longer required. Timothy and Titus were two Gentile Christians and neither were circumcised. Paul circumcised Timothy but later refused to circumcise Titus.
Paul circumcised Timothy for the sake of weak Jews. They had grown up with all of the Old Testament Laws. Even though Jesus fulfilled the laws it was hard for these Jews to give them up. To their way of thinking an uncircumcised Timothy was a heathen Timothy. This wasn’t true but they had to grow in their understanding before they could accept that. Out of concern for these weak Jews Paul circumcised Timothy so the lack of circumcision wouldn’t become an offense—a spiritual trap.
When Titus’ lack of circumcision became an issue the situation was much different. Then there were Jews who insisted that circumcision was still necessary and that Titus had to be circumcised. This demand was wrong and if Paul had gone along with it he would have laid a trap by causing people to believe that Christ had not fulfilled the Old Testament laws and that they were still in effect. Therefore, Paul refused to circumcise Titus. There were two different situations and two different reactions by Paul, but in both cases he took care not to lay a trap for others.
Being watchful for one another and not laying traps may mean that we will give up something that is not wrong and which we would otherwise have every right to pursue and enjoy. In Corinth meat which had been offered to idols was sold to the public. Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they could rightfully buy and eat that meat without displeasing God. However, because eating this meat went against the conscience of some of their brethren they should willingly give it up lest they lay a trap. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
We cannot justify false teaching or ignore part of God’s Word on the basis of not giving offense. However, the way we deal with a weakness or error is important. In the case of Timothy’s circumcision, Paul did not command that the Jews give up their Old Testament way of thinking but patiently instructed the weak. Nor did Paul allow the truth of God’s Word to be ignored in the case of Titus but always stood firmly on its truth while looking out for the weak. Looking out for one another by not laying traps is a weighty responsibility. We need to consider how our words and actions are going to be received by others and how they will effect them. Will what we say and do be a testimony to our Savior or will they detract from Him? Look out for one another, don’t lay traps.
While we seek to keep ourselves from laying traps we will also seek to remove those things which are the sources of spiritual death traps. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” [v.43-48]
Jesus again uses a graphic picture to emphasize His instruction. If there is something that is causing you to sin or to lay traps for someone else, cut it off! The several examples show that we accomplish sin in many different ways with our whole body and being. Jesus is not promoting physical mutilation—God wants us to take good care of our bodies. Besides which, would we last more than a day before we would run out of things to cut off because of our sin? Furthermore, even if we were to cut off the offending body parts, we would still have our sinful heart. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemy” (Matthew 15:19).
We are sinners from within and from top to bottom and are never going to be able to cut off enough to get rid of it; but the message from Jesus is clear: cut off from your life whatever tempts and leads you into sin.
Cutting off a limb would be very painful. Cutting ourselves off from whatever leads us into sin may seem no less painful, but consider the option. Better it is, Jesus says, to suffer the inconvenience and pain of losing something in this life than to have everything and enter the unquenchable fire. It is better to suffer through this life with the inconvenience and pain of shame and disgrace for Christ’s sake than to be damned forever.
Lest there be any doubt as to which misery is greater—the misery on earth because we have cut ourselves off from sin or the misery of Hell—Jesus describes Hell by quoting Isaiah, “Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Isaiah 66:24). Jesus quoted these words three times to emphasize the misery of eternal damnation.
The word Jesus used to speak of Hell in this instance is “Gehenna.” Gehenna was a deep narrow valley outside of Jerusalem that served as garbage dump for the city. The refuse in Gehenna was constantly being eaten by worms and decaying while fires continually burned. Thus Gehenna became an illustration of Hell— a place of constant misery and destruction. Jesus’ description of Hell should be enough to silence all joking about it and remove any doubt as to its real existence. There is nothing on this earth that can be fully compared to the misery of Hell because the suffering of being forever removed from the presence of God is so great.
What leads you to stumble? Is it a circle of friends? Better to cut them off and enter into eternal life friendless than into Hell with all your friends. Is it a certain place? A certain time? A certain activity which time and time again sets traps for you? Cut it off and remove the trap. Better to live without the pleasures of life now rather than in the never-ending miseries of eternity.
Flee the temptations and devices of the Devil. Keep watch and constant vigil on what your eyes see, what your ears hear, how your mouth speaks, and what you do. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). To the Colossians Paul said, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth….put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” (Colossians 3:2,5,8). Look out for one another and remove traps.
The prevention of traps is even better than removal. Since we are sinners by nature, neither the ability for removal nor the prevention are going to come from us. Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross to pay for our sins and He rose again so that our many stumbles are forgiven through His blood. The Holy Ghost has worked in our hearts with God’s Word so that we believe what God has told us about our salvation and through faith receive the blessing of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. God will continue to work through His Word to increase our faith and strengthen us in the prevention of traps. He accomplishes the strengthening in a very unique way. “For everyone will be seasoned with fire.” [v.49]
It is a part of God’s grace that He uses the “fire”—the troubles and miseries of this life—to season us and strengthen our faith against the traps. There are going to be traps laid against us in the things of the world but when the light of God’s Word is the lamp for our feet and the light for our path (cf. Psalm 119:105) we will see the trap and be able to avoid it. Avoiding the trap doesn’t mean that there won’t be danger and temptation and trouble through which we will go, but clinging to God’s Word we will be brought safely through. God says in Isaiah, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction” (Isaiah 48:10). Job, who knew what misery was, said, “He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10)
“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.” [v.49] Certain of the Old Testament offerings to God included salt. The salt was a sign of God’s covenant with the people and their offerings were not to be without the salt. That was the covenant of the Old Testament. God has established a new covenant with us through Christ. In Christ’s blood we are redeemed and reconciled to God. Just as the salt was an essential part of the Old Testament offerings, so our Savior is essential in everything we do. When we are guided by our God we have a preventative defense against all harm and we will be salty, that is part of God’s new covenant in Christ .
Our faith and conduct as children of God also work as salt in the world. Believers, because they are part of God’s covenant in Christ and follow His Word, act as salt against the corruption of the world. In this way we are able to serve in the prevention of spiritual death traps. Jesus went on to say, “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” [v.50]
As long as we remain with our Savior and His Word we will be salty because it is through that Word that we have been made and are kept as His children. If we lose that saltiness then gone is our ability to prevent traps and to keep from falling into sin. So Jesus urges to keep salt within yourselves. Continue to use God’s Word in your defense against the things that lead you to stumble. Continue to use God’s Word to look out for one another in order to encourage and help keep from stumbling.
It was the disciples’ argument of greatness which prompted Jesus to teach them to look out for one another. Jesus concluded by telling them to have peace with one another. When we are looking out for one another there will be no cause for arguments of greatness. There will be peace because we will be seeking the welfare of the other. We will keep watch on what we do so we don’t set spiritual death traps for one another. We will remove those things that cause us to stumble lest we fall and take others with us. We will use God’s Word for ourselves and with each other so that we remain “salty” and prevent our fall into traps. We will walk arm in arm toward our heavenly home with Jesus, our Savior, in the lead. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.