Jesus taught that sons are exempt from the civil and ceremonial laws of the Torah while strangers are under the Law. In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must be converted to be like a child rather than a stranger. It is better for anyone who causes a child of God to stumble and again live like a stranger to have a millstone tied around his or her neck and be drowned in the sea. Matthew is writing to His fellow Jews concerning the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. He has already revealed that legalism is the stumbling block he is addressing. Matthew wants the Jewish community to know how serious a stumbling block their legalism is. In the context of his narrative, Matthew appeals to his legalistic kinsmen by continuing to quote Jesus’s teaching.
Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. [For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.]
Stumbling blocks are necessary (v. 7)
Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!
After mentioning stumbling blocks in verse 6, Jesus now speaks a woe upon the world because of its stumbling blocks, teaching that causes the adopted children of God to stumble and live like strangers again. Jesus also teaches that these stumbling blocks are inevitable. What does it mean that the stumbling blocks of the world are inevitable, and why would God permit stumbling blocks for His adopted children in this world?
For a stumbling block to be inevitable, means it will be there. Jesus teaches that stumbling blocks will necessarily be present in the world. His adopted children will stumble over those stumbling blocks. Jesus does not tell His disciples why in this passage. We have already seen that these stumbling blocks sift the wheat from the weeds, the true children from strangers (Cf. 15:13-14). Jesus speaks another woe upon to ones through whom the stumbling blocks, teaching that causes the adopted children of God to stumble and live like strangers again, come—reemphasizing His statement in verse 6, “…whoever causes one of these little ones (here meaning adopted child of God) who believe in Me to stumble, it would be getter for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
To be a stumbling block, or to be the one through whom a stumbling block comes, is a serious offense. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, stumbling blocks come in the form of legalistic teaching. It is important to understand that Matthew is intentionally structuring his Gospel so that it addresses the legalism of Second-Temple Judaism. He wants people to know the Messiah, not to continue trusting in their rituals to make them righteous. Such an understanding is necessary in order to interpret Jesus’s teaching in verses 8-9 correctly.
The popular view (v. 8-9)
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell.
Stripped from its context, there are three ways to interpret Jesus’s teaching in these two verses. You likely noticed an example of multiple possible interpretations in my title to this blog post. You either read the title to mean “Christians that are themselves trippin'” or “Christians who trip others.” I meant it to mean both. Sadly, many people do quote these two verses out of context and try to interpret them apart from their literary context. Without literary context, we can make the text say anything we want. We will consider each of these three possible interpretations and their veracity:
- “if your hand or eye causes you to sin,”
- The verse is most often presented this way. It is most often applied such that a pastor or teacher admonishes those who are listening to remove themselves from every opportunity to sin, “If you were a drunk, don’t even be around the stuff,” “If you ever looked at things you shouldn’t have on the computer, thrown your computer away.” They will usually insist that Jesus is using hyperbole and does not literally mean we should cut off our hands or gouge out our eyes.
- The English word, stumble, is translated from the Greek word, σκανδαλιζω. Matthew uses the Greek word, αμαρτηνω, when he means “sin” (Cf. 18:15, 21). If Matthew meant that we should remove ourselves from all sin and enter into heaven lame and blind, he would have used the word for sin, here, instead of stumble. A few translation will use the words “temptation” and “sin” in their renderings of these two verses, but those are not the words used. As far as I can tell, their use was more of an interpretive decision than mere translation (temptation and sin are not even used in the Vulgate)—so it’s not an error. The use of those words was an intentional change most likely meant to bring clarity to a reader’s interpretation based on the context of 17:27, where Jesus is described as encouraging Peter to pay the tax even though they are exempt because they don’t want to offend (become a stumbling block to) the Temple tax-collectors. Those renderings are still problematic because they are not literal translations and insinuate that by not paying the tax, Peter would have led the tax-collectors into sin, which is not in view; That verse was not about sin but, instead, about honoring the personal and religious convictions of others for their sakes. Matthew has clearly marked a new teaching section in 18:1; The previous context is essential, but the disciples have asked a new question—who is the greatest in the kingdom?
- This particular interpretation presents a few problems because it goes against the anti-legalism of Matthew’s Gospel and works against the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel. It is contrary to what we see taught in the New Testament concerning prohibitions (Cf. Colossians 2:20-23). It is contrary to the Gospel message, namely the doctrines of redemption and sanctification. If we are saved by grace alone through faith alone and Jesus promises to conform us to His own image through sanctification, then we are not being maimed for eternity but completed and perfected according to Christ’s will, adorned like a bride before her wedding. This interpretation is also contrary to Jesus’s instruction in verse 10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones (adopted children of God)…” For, to encourage such legalism is to set ourselves up to despise anyone who does not keep the rules we perceive even though Jesus taught that sons are exempt.
- If we interpret these two verses like this, we become the ones through which the stumbling block comes. That is why it is so important to understand the context leading up to these verses before trying to interpret these verses. This cannot be the correct interpretation.
- “if your hand or eye (instruments of works or abstinence) causes you to think that you are righteous or great because of your works or abstinence,” or
- To get this interpretation, all we have to do is insert the meaning of stumbling from the previous literary context. In order for anyone to enter the kingdom of heaven, he or she must be converted to be like children instead of strangers (Cf. 17:26; 18:3). Sons, children, are exempt from the civil and ceremonial laws that drove the pharisaical legalism Matthew addresses throughout His Gospel (Cf. 17:26). Those who are great in the kingdom of heaven are not concerned about their own righteousness by works; Instead they humble themselves away from that sort of ritualistic thinking (Cf. 18:4). For a child of God to stumble is for him or her to regress into works-righteousness.
- If this interpretation is correct, cutting a hand off and gouging out an eye imply no longer doing our works of righteousness in front of others to be seen by them (Cf. 6:1). In this case, our being maimed means being humbled like children who don’t have to work to earn their Father’s favor, and these verses are illustrative and not literal. They mean exactly the opposite of what is popularly taught.
- While this interpretation is consistent with the immediate literary context, Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, and the New Testament in general, there is one difficulty; Matthew does not indicate that Jesus’s teaching, here, is to be read as an illustration. There are no indicators like we see when Jesus tells a parable (e.g. “The kingdom of heaven is like…”). While this interpretation works better than the previous in context, we must still hold it in tension. It might be illustrative, but not perspicuously so.
- Jesus is using the talmudic oral tradition as an example of what it means to be a stumbling block.
- This interpretation is not at all obvious to Twenty-First Century Gentiles. It would, however, be natural for a First-Century Jew to hear the oral tradition they grew up learning when Jesus alludes to it in these two verses. He is quoting from the oral, traditional teachings of the rabbis. After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, these oral, traditional teachings were written in the Talmud, this one in particular is in Talmud Niddah 13b. The earliest current copy of this is dated to A.D. 1342. These oral teachings were developed in the first two centuries B.C. through A.D. 70 using a hermeneutic whereby details were found in the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and were extrapolated on in order to reveal some knowledge that wasn’t necessarily in the text. The Gnostics would do the same thing with the Gospels. Romanism would do the same thing by adding to the Scriptures. Now, we see the same thing happening with the “Word of Faith Movement,” or Prosperity Gospel and in majority evangelicalism.
- The teaching Jesus quotes is taken seriously in the works-based system of Second-Temple Judaism. To keep one’s self from breaking the Law, the teachers encourage people to go beyond the Law so that they do not break the Law and so be condemned. Jesus quotes from this oral teaching and, in so doing, reveals this extra-biblical teaching to be nonsense. People do some atrocious things with verses like these because they don’t look at both the literary and historical context. Jesus is not telling us to throw out our computers or televisions if they cause us to sin. He is not telling us not to listen to bad music because it will cause us to say and do evil things. He is not telling us to stay away from the bar because we will fall into sin and our testimony will be ruined if we go. Jesus is quoting the extra-biblical teachings of the rabbis, almost as if to insinuate that teaching like these cause people to stumble back into legalism. Fruit does not and cannot produce the root. The Gospel is a Gospel calling people to repentance (4:17). Repentance is the proper response when the Law, like a mirror, reveals who we are deep down. Unless we have good roots, humility as adopted children of God, we are unable to produce good fruit (7:15-23). Jesus teaches, “…woe to those through whom the stumbling block comes,” and them gives an example of the sort of teaching that causes God’s adopted children to stumble.
- The difficulty with this interpretation is similar to the previous difficulty. There is no immediate textual indication that Jesus is doing this. This is why we must consider the whole of Matthew’s Gospel as we read every passage. Matthew did this in his record of Jesus’s sermon on the Mount (Cf. 5:29-30) with the same talmudic teaching. There, Jesus was explicitly addressing it as false, talmudic teaching. Since Jesus has already addressed it as false teaching, we know what Jesus is doing here and we can discern what Matthew is up to.
Of these three possible interpretations, the third one has the least number of difficulties and makes the most sense without having to render the text another way. Matthew is writing to Jews. Here, he identifies the oral, talmudic tradition of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes as a stumbling block and those who teach such oral, legalistic traditions as those through whom the stumbling blocks come.
Jesus’s view (v. 10-11)
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven.
After critically quoting the talmudic, oral, legalistic tradition, Jesus instructs His disciples to, in contrast to teaching some form of legalism, like Jesus made evident in verses 8-9, and so become a stumbling block like the religious teachers of the day, do not despise even one adopted child of God. Jesus’s teaching, here, means much as we interpret upcoming passages concerning sin. Before getting at sin in disciples’ lives, Matthew is sure that we know we are not to despise any child of God for any reason. After he does talk about church discipline (Cf. v. 15-20), Jesus will teach about unconditional forgiveness (Cf. v. 21-35). Matthew orders his Gospel this way on purpose. I refer to this particular occasion as the sin sandwich, hamartia hoagie, or discipline Dagwood. Remember, Matthew is writing to Second-Temple Jews who have grown up under the popular legalistic, oral, talmudic traditions of the Jewish elders.
Why do we not despise one single adopted child of God? Well, because their angels in heaven continually see the face of Jesus’s Father who is in heaven… What do you think that means? Without context, it seems as though Matthew reveals that every child has a guardian angel. In context, though, it seems every Christian (adopted child of God in Christ) has an angel—or, collectively the church body has angels in heaven. It is dangerous to try drawing too many details out of such a vague statement. If we look at Hebrews, the preacher proclaims that Jesus Christ is of higher status than the angels. Jesus is the Son, we are coheirs with Him, and the angels are “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). Angels are ministering spirits sent out to serve God’s adopted children, His church. What a thought!
[For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.]
This verse, like Chapter 17, verse 21, does not appear in the earliest and best manuscripts. Its inclusion does not change the meaning of the text. In fact, it is a good reminder. Jesus came to save that which was lost. People cannot save themselves or become great by their works. Jesus came to convert strangers of God into children of God. Jesus did say this during His bodily ministry on this earth (Cf. Luke 19:10), but it was probably not included in the autograph of Matthew’s Gospel; After all, Matthew is writing to Jews and Jews would not have classified themselves as lost, but Luke’s Gospel is addressed to a Gentile named Theophilus for the purpose of tracing the Gospel through the Roman world for Theophilus’s assurance. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, “the Son of Man has come to seek and save that which was lost,” has significantly more depth than it would in the context of Matthew’s Jewish Gospel, in which he addresses people who are already called by God’s name.
Legalism is a stumbling block to God’s children called to live by faith instead of by works. Woe to those who teach works or abstinence as a means to gain God’s favor. Once again, we do not work to gain God’s favor; We serve and obey Him because He has already favored us. We are children of our Father by adoption, not by wage.
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