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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Serious Business of Avoiding Sin
Text:Mark 9:42-48 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 57:1,2,5                                                                           

Ps 36:1,2

Reading – Mark 9:30-50

Ps 32:1,2,4,5

Sermon – Mark 9:42-48

Hy 55:1,2,3

Hy 15:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ Jesus, we’re living in a wicked world. That’s not an earth-shattering statement, because it is so obvious. If your eyes and ears are open, you’ll see that these days are sinful days, and that wickedness is on the increase.

It’s obvious, and it should also be expected. Jesus told us that this was coming. Listen to what He says about the signs of the end of the age in Matthew 24, “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold” (vv 11-12). And this is what Paul wrote to Timothy about these days, “Perilous times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers… unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving…. without self-control… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:1-4).

Lawlessness abounds. Love grows cold. Pleasure is god. These are the times we live in. And we are comforted that Christ told us about these things in advance. For isn’t that a powerful reminder that our God is in control? He’s not surprised by the activities of the ungodly. They haven’t shocked him with their new ways of disobedience. No, He has seen their agenda—He saw it long ago. So we’re comforted in the perfect sovereignty of the Lord.

But when times are evil, there’s still a lot danger for us. One danger is spiritual pride. It’s always possible to think of someone who’s more evil: “At least I’m not like that! I may not be perfect, but I would never have an affair. Or I’d never lead that kind of lifestyle.” And as long as we can point to someone who’s worse, we can’t be doing that badly, right? Wrong!

A second danger of living in these days is what has been called the “boiling frog” syndrome. The idea is that if you take a frog and drop it suddenly into a pot of boiling water, it’s going to jump out. But if the frog is put in cold water, and then you slowly bring the water to a boil, the poor frog won’t notice the danger. And in the end, it’ll be cooked to death. That’s the threat we’re facing: We’re surrounded by wickedness. It’s on the increase, like Jesus said. But over time you get used to it, don’t you? Some things you don’t even notice anymore. Other things you start to question whether they’re really so bad, or if we’re just being old-fashioned. And then we begin to accept more sin in our life or in the church.

To his people living in a wicked world, the Lord Jesus speaks loving words of warning. In our text He urges us to guard against sin, to avoid it at all costs. And this is true whether in relation to sexual sin, or any kind of sin that we struggle with. I preach God’s Word to you from Mark 9:42-48,

Jesus warns us about the seriousness of avoiding sin:

  1. the many causes of sin
  2. the one radical treatment
  3. the two eternal results


1) the many causes of sin: Just before our text, Jesus was told about a potential rival. Someone was casting out demons in his name, but this person wasn’t part of Jesus’ circle of followers—he was an independent. John reports that the disciples had forbidden the man from doing it again. But they have it wrong: in the kingdom, there are no rivals. Either you’re with Christ, or you’re against him. And this man was with him!

This is what Jesus says in verse 41, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in my name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” If a person shows mercy and care to someone else in order to serve and glorify Christ, he’ll have eternal blessing. Then comes our text: “But 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). See the contrast: helping a person wins an everlasting reward, but causing someone to sin invites severe punishment. Jesus is being very direct, emphasizing just how serious this is.

So when He says, “these little ones who believe in me,” who does He mean? Who should we not cause to sin? A few verses before, Jesus was indeed speaking about children. He even took a little child, set him in the midst of the disciples and said, “Whoever receives one of these little children in my name receives me” (v 37). To love a child in Christ’s Name is good and beautiful, and to make them sin is deplorable.

Yet He’s speaking about more than children. Remember He’s just been told about a believer who wasn’t part of his circle of followers. To the disciples, such a person was unimportant, and should be rebuked. But Jesus forbids looking down on any believer, or harming the faith of any of his followers, no matter their age or status: “Do not cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble.”

When you’re walking through the house in the dark of night, stumbling onto something like a piece of Lego can be painful. Stumbling into sin is far worse. Literally, Jesus describes putting a heavy stone in someone’s way—like taking one of those big limestone blocks and dropping it right onto their path. That’s when we do something that trips up a person’s holy walk of life, something that shakes a person’s faith.

One clear example of this is false teaching. A minister might preach in a way that he starts to leave doubt in the minds of the congregation: Is the Bible really true in everything that it claims? Or did Jesus actually rise from the dead? And can we say that this or that behaviour is sinful? Such a false teacher is causing people to stumble, and Jesus says he’s got a lot to answer for.

Another example of causing a person to sin is through your bad example. Maybe there’s people you have a lot of influence on: your children, or other family members; your friends; your spouse. They watch you, and learn from you. But your example of words and actions might show that God’s ways don’t really matter, or that church isn’t so important. Then you might well be leading them to sin. And that’s deadly serious. 

A final example is how the society that’s around us can make us stumble. The world has a message that it wants to bring, and it’s so often a message that directly contradicts the truth of God’s Word. For instance, Scripture says that God made people “male and female.” But today there is the teaching that a person’s gender is something that can be chosen—that if you want to be a boy, or you want to be a girl, it’s up to you. Or there’s the concerted effort to present homosexuality as a normal thing, that it’s not only to be accepted as a lifestyle, but celebrated and tried out for a while. We see it happening, that this kind of influence doesn’t only confuse people, but it leads many to sin.

And Jesus has harsh words for those who teach godless behaviour: “Do not cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble.” To sin yourself is a wicked thing, but to teach another person to sin is even worse.

Jesus gives a warning here to all people, not just those who are in a position to  influence and teach and set an example. In verse 43 He switches from causing sin in others, to causing sin in oneself. Jesus speaks of our hand causing us to sin, or our foot, or our eye. And if it’s sometimes easy to lead others astray, it’s even easier to lead yourself astray. That’s because our mind and body can so easily become an instrument for evil.

With our eyes we can watch videos that just pile the fuel onto our sinful desires. There are substances that we can grab with our hands and take into our bodies, substances that promise us great pleasure and freedom. Our feet can take us to those places where we know that there’s going to be lots of excitement and fun, and no rules. There are so many causes of sin!

To be sure, Jesus has already explained a couple of chapters ago that sin comes from the inside. It’s always tempting to blame external factors, to blame the circumstances of our life or the people who are around us. Today too, we could say it’s all the media’s fault, or it’s the government’s fault, or it’s the internet and technology. But we have to know that ultimately, the heart is the source of evil. This is where we make our decisions. This is where we set our affection on things, and it’s where our plans and motives live.

All that is still true when Jesus talks now about causing someone else to sin, or about our hands and eyes leading us into sin. The problem is that our heart is only too ready to give in. Our heart is only too ready to follow the lead of the world, or the lead of our desires. This is why Christ proposes a radical treatment.


2) the one radical treatment: There’s only one goal in life which is worth any effort and sacrifice. There’s only one thing that’s worthy of our total and single-minded dedication, and that is the kingdom of God. Nothing is more precious, nothing more beautiful, nothing more important than living with God, and for God.

This is why in the previous chapter of Mark, Jesus says this, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it” (8:34-35). You have to be willing to give it all, even your life, and security, and current blessings—to gain the greatest gift.

Jesus is working out the same idea in our text when He says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (v 43). This fight will cost you dearly, but because it’s for Christ, you won’t regret it. “And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off” (v 45). “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (v 47). Jesus is saying that as we live in this wicked world, with corrupted hearts, our reaction to the sin in our life needs to be drastic. If we’ll come and follow him, there can’t be any half-measures. Will we love Jesus Christ more than anything else, even more than our sin?

To portray how serious this is, Jesus invites us to think of our hands and eyes and feet. There are few things we value more than these body parts—we rely on them to function in daily life. But, we said, these are the same things that can become instruments of sin. We should know that, and we should be ready to do what it takes to avoid falling into temptation.

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off” (v 43). Better to cut it off than to die. And in ordinary life, this is sometimes what happens, quite literally. When there’s a body part that is badly infected with gangrene or something else, the doctors might recommend the amputation of that leg or that finger. It’s drastic, but in the end it can stop the spread of disease, and preserve a person’s life.

Or maybe you’ve heard of the film 127 Hours. It’s the true story of a man who is hiking in a canyon in Utah. He falls, and somehow his arm gets pinned beneath a rock. He spends days trying to get free, and hoping for rescue. Finally he realizes that the only way he’s going to live is by amputating his trapped arm. So he uses a pocket-knife to cut it off, to free himself. That man lived, because he was willing to leave his arm behind.

In our text Jesus isn’t advising physical amputation. But He’s telling us to do something that can be just as hard. For sin can be such a destructive force. Name the sin—anger, greed, pride, jealousy, worry, lust, hatred—whatever the sin is, it has a power to infect us, to get rooted deep inside us. And when it’s so deep it can even kill us, when a person refuses to repent, refuses to see his wrong and ask for God’s grace.

So sin has to be put to death right away. If there’s a temptation, throw it aside, immediately and decisively. Don’t let it hang around and start to persuade you. If you see a place of weakness in your life where you’re likely to fall into sin, take away the opportunity, and avoid the occasion. And if there has been a sin, bring it into the open by confessing it to God, and to others. Let it die in the light.

This is true in general, we said—it’s true for any kind of sin. There may be a bad habit that we need to abandon, or some illicit pleasure we should give up, or a poisonous friendship that we need to break. There might be a sin that’s become very dear to us, one that even feels like an important part of our lives, yet it keeps us from being obedient to God’s will. If there’s anything like this coming between us and whole-hearted obedience to Christ, then it must be finished with. Better to be rid of it and live, than to hold onto it and perish forever.

We can also relate this how this world is busy corrupting God’s good gift of marriage and sexuality. There are many ways that it’s being twisted, and these things can affect us—remember that frog in the water, being slowly roasted alive, and not even knowing it.

With the increase of wickedness, we can start to accept a lower standard for our entertainment. What’s a bit of nudity nowadays, when there’s a lot worse stuff out there? Or because it seems like everyone else is having sex before marriage, why can’t we? Hooking up with someone for the night or looking at pornography seems so normal—and does it really hurt anyone? The devil works in such a subtle way that we might not notice that we’ve changed our view, or let down our guard. Which makes the words of Jesus all the more needed: When it comes to sin, we need to cut it off, and pluck it out.

Jesus’ approach is like what we find in other places of the New Testament. This is what Jude says, “Hate even the clothing defiled by sin” (v 23). Or in Colossians: “Put to death whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexuality immorality, impurity, lust” (3:5). Or Ephesians, “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” (5:3). That reminds me of a book published some years back about strategies for the Christian’s fight against sexual sin. This book took its title straight from what Paul says in Ephesians; it was called, Not Even a Hint.

We live in a world where it’s very hard not to pick up on the “hints.” Just browsing the news online, a person is faced with stories and links that seem to offer something sexual, just enough to get your interest. Checking out sport highlights on YouTube, you can’t help but notice lots of other appealing videos. There are hints everywhere: in clothing, in popular songs, in movies.

Perhaps more than any other, it’s sexual temptation that we find so hard to refuse. Call it hormones or self-gratification, compare it to a drug or some other addiction—explain it however you want, but Satan loves this way of leading God’s people astray. For once we give in to the hints and suggestions, the infection begins to do its work.

But the radical treatment means fighting every wandering thought! It means not letting your mind go there, and praying for God’s help not to let it. It means dragging your eyes from every provocative picture and video, and understanding how even a small taste can lead to more. The radical treatment means separation, taking away the opportunity, and avoiding the occasion, and confessing the failures.

Jesus warns that this process can seem as painful as a surgical operation, like cutting off a part of own body. That’s because we usually like our sin. We also hate shame, and we think that openness means shame. But it actually means freedom. Cutting off the arm frees  us from the trap. Plucking out the eye helps us to see clearly.

None of this will work without the help of Christ. It’s actually impossible without him. Remember what He said, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Follow me! It’s not enough to block websites, filter your device, and make lots of rules for your kids. It’s not enough to sign petitions for the government, and make sure your marriage is strong. We need to follow Christ. Trust in his power. Delight in his grace. Pray for his Spirit. Listen to his Word. It’s only in him that we find life, now and forever.


3) the two eternal results: Let’s go back to the person in verse 42 who was causing someone to sin. This is what Jesus says, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” In the Greek, the word for “millstone” there says literally, “a donkey millstone.” That’s because you could have a small handmill in your home for quickly grinding a bit of flour, or you could have a proper millstone out in the barn, one so big that it needed to be turned by a donkey. In the middle of the top-stone there’d be a hole through which grain can be poured, so it can be crushed between the two stones. And because there was a hole in it, you could also put it around someone’s neck like a collar. Among the Romans it was a form of punishment, throwing a person into a river with heavy weights around their necks.

Death by drowning would be awful, but Jesus says that if you could choose, it’s far better than causing someone to sin. For God will hold us to account if we lead someone away from him, if we corrupt them or destroy their faith. This should make us very careful about the example of our life, and how we affect the behaviour of others. With our words, with our suggestions, with the things we allow, are we pushing a person into sin? Better to wear a donkey millstone and drown!

Notice how serious it is in the next verses too: “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” (v 45). Jesus mentions hell, or literally, Gehenna.

You may have heard of Gehenna before; it’s from the word “Hinnom.” The valley of Hinnom was to the southwest of the old city of Jerusalem. It used to be a place for heathen worship, but as part of his reforms King Josiah made it a place where all the rubbish from the city would be piled. Like most rubbish tips are, this was a foul, smelly, unclean place. There were maggots and flies everywhere, and there was almost always a fire smouldering as the rubbish burned. And so Gehenna came to be another name for hell.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah, who described it as the place where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (vv 44, 48). A fire doesn’t die as long as it has fuel to feed it, and worms will keep eating as long as there’s rotting meat. Such is hell: a place of unending torment, where sinful people are the objects of God’s holy wrath forever.

So this is better, says Christ: Better to cut off your hand or foot, or to pluck out your eye, than to take these things with you into the torment of hell. Better to deal with sin today, and to deal with it harshly, than to have your sin dealt with by God forever.

No, repentance isn’t easy. Struggling with this world’s temptations and pressures isn’t easy—it’s probably going to get harder as the day of Christ gets closer. But better to have a little pain now, than great distress forever. Better to avoid sin today than to miss out on eternal glory.

And then see the alternative to hell in our text, the alternative to the undying worm and the fire that won’t be put out. Jesus says, “Better for you to enter the kingdom of God…” (v 47). Or, “Better for you to enter life…” (v 45). That’s the goal which is worth any sacrifice, any effort, any persecution. For all people in this world, and for all people in this church, there’s only two possible results for eternity, and it’s either this, or the other: life and the kingdom, or worms and the fire.

Jesus knows He’s asking a lot. He knows this is a hard teaching, because it’s an evil world, and our hearts are weak. But He promises that it’s worth it. If you admit that you’re a dirty sinner, remember that in Christ there is cleansing available, and life! If you feel like an outsider right now, a stranger in this world, that’s good—and remember that there’s a kingdom waiting for you, a kingdom that is open to all who seek God’s grace.

The society that we live in right now doesn’t even realise that it needs this grace. Sometimes we forget that we need it. But let us live in his grace. Let us show his grace to all people. And let us share this grace with those who are still so lost and confused. For those who believe in Christ and obey his will gain a peace that passes all understanding, and they inherit an unspeakable joy!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2017, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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