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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Our Lord Jesus warns his disciples about stumbling blocks
Text:Mark 9:42-50 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 99
Psalm 38:1,2,8,10 (after the law)
Psalm 119:4-6
Psalm 133
Psalm 93

Reading: Leviticus 2
Text: Mark 9:42-50

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

Beloved congregation of Christ,

The founder of English Bible translation was William Tyndale.  He did this work in the early 1500s.  From Tyndale we’ve received many words and expressions in the English language.  As he was translating, he had to be creative and invent words to capture certain concepts from the original languages.  Before Tyndale, the word ‘atonement’ didn’t exist in English, neither did ‘intercession’ or ‘scapegoat.’  Tyndale invented those words.    

Another expression that Tyndale introduced was “stumbling block.”  The phrase existed in sixteenth-century English but Tyndale popularized it through his Bible translation and it was picked up later on by the King James Version.  It was originally a reference to a tree stump or root sticking up out of the ground, something that you could trip over.  Tyndale used “stumbling block” to translate the Greek word “skandalon.”  Our English word “scandal” is derived from the Greek “skandalon,” but Tyndale didn’t translate the word like that.  Instead, he chose “stumbling block” and that was a good choice.  The word refers to things that will trip you up and make you stumble. 

Now the word “stumbling block” isn’t in the English translation of our passage (though it is used elsewhere).  The Greek word ‘skandalon’ isn’t here either, but there is a verb used here that is directly related.  Literally it speaks about “scandalizing.”  So, in verse 42, we could say, “If anyone scandalizes one of these little ones...”  And in verse 43, “If your hand scandalizes you...”  But then we are using an English word in a way that doesn’t really capture the sense of the original.  As I mentioned the original word has to do with stumbling blocks, things that trip people up.  That’s what this passage is all about.  Our Lord Jesus is warning his disciples about stumbling blocks.  We’ll see that he does that:

1.      With regards to others

      2.      With regards to themselves

Before we dive into the text, let me remind you of where we are here in Mark.  The disciples had been unable to heal a boy with an evil spirit.  Afterwards they had that argument about who was the greatest.  Jesus taught them that his kingdom turns human values upside down – those who are servants are first in his way of accounting things.  Then right before our text there was the rogue exorcist.  Or at least the disciples thought he was a rogue, a renegade.  According to them he had no business casting out demons because he was not one of them.  In the face of their arrogance, Jesus asserted his prerogatives.  He can call whomever he wants and work with whomever he wants.  The disciples need to get behind him again and assume their place as followers of Jesus.

In our text Jesus is still in Capernaum and he continues teaching his disciples.  Verse 42 says, “And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck.”  When we read these words our first question should be, “Who are the ‘little ones’ that Jesus is speaking about here?”  Instinctively our thoughts go back to the little boy who gets a hug from Jesus in verse 36.  There is a connection.  But note that Jesus does not say, “If anyone causes one of these little children who believe in me...”  He could have said that.  He could have used similar words to those used in verse 37.  Instead, he says, “these little ones.”  He is referring not to little children, but to the disciples who take Jesus’ teaching seriously.  He is speaking here of the true disciples of Jesus who humble themselves and take the lowly place.  These are the ones who are not interested in seeing their names in the headlines, but are content to follow their Saviour in humility.  The little boy in verses 36 and 37 was there to reorient the disciples to Jesus’ priorities.  But now here he’s not speaking about children anymore, but about disciples who get this teaching.  That’s why he adds the words “who believe in me.” 

I feel compelled to comment a bit more on this.  Sometimes people appeal to these words with regards to children.  I’ve done it too.  The first article that I had published in Clarion was on the topic of childhood sexual abuse and the title of that article worked with what Jesus says here.  Then, of course, this passage serves as a warning to those who abuse children.  Is such a use of this passage still legitimate if Jesus is really referring to his disciples, rather than explicitly and directly to children?  I would suggest to you that it is.  If Jesus cares about his disciples, the adults who believe in him, would he not also care equally about their children?  Isn’t this the reason why the Triune God comes to the children of believers with beautiful promises to sign and seal at their baptism?  He cares about believers and their children.  Surely causing the child of a believer to stumble is just as heinous, if not more so, than causing a believer to stumble.  So, yes, by way of extension, these words are equally applicable to children.  This is indeed a warning for us in how we deal with others, not only with adults, but also with kids.

What actions are in view here?  As I mentioned, our Bible translation speaks of causing these little ones to sin.  This is actually too narrow a way of translating this.  It’d be better to speak of causing these little ones to stumble, or to put a stumbling block in their way.  The idea is that you put something in someone’s path that will cause their ruin and destruction.  Ultimately, at some point or other that will involve sin.  But it is not necessarily in view immediately.  The immediate consequence is a trip and a fall.  Let me give two examples.

As your pastor, I’m called to teach and preach the Word of God faithfully.  I need to be diligent in my study of God’s Word so that what is presented from the pulpit can rightly be said to be the Word of God.  But let’s say I take a turn for the worse.  I become lazy and stop writing sermons so that I can pursue my favourite hobby everyday.  Instead of writing sermons, I go on the Internet and find one of these helpful websites where I can buy sermons and then bring them to church, preach them, and pass them off as my own.  There are such websites.  As a result, let’s say my preaching puts wrong theology in your minds and in your hearts.  As always happens, this wrong theology leads to problems in your lifestyle.  The results are not necessarily immediate, but I have then been the cause of your stumbling.  My laziness has polluted your theology and your life and ultimately has caused you to sin.  If I were to do that, Jesus says that it would be better for me to be thrown in the lake with a millstone around my neck.

Then the second example.  We can take that from what I mentioned a minute ago, the abuse of children.  It is a sad fact that many children have been sexually abused in the history of our Reformed Churches.  Very few perpetrators received justice at the hands of the law because oftentimes our church communities protected them and allowed the abuse to continue.  In some instances, even office bearers were the guilty parties.  It’s all very sad, a black mark on our churches.  Is it any wonder that the survivors of this abuse have oftentimes been very bitter and angry?  Is it any wonder that sometimes they drift away from the church, and sometimes even from the Christian faith altogether?  Yes, they are responsible for how they react to their abuse, but the abusers themselves bear even more responsibility according to the words of Jesus.  With what they did, the abusers put a stumbling block in the way of their victims.  Our Lord Jesus warns us that those who do such things will receive worse than capital punishment at the judgment. 

We could come up with more examples but I think you get the idea.  Causing little ones to stumble, causing other disciples of Christ and their children to eventually sin against God, is a great evil.  Such a great evil deserves a great punishment.  Christ says it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.  A millstone was a huge rock used for grinding grain into flour.  It had a neck-sized hole in the middle and that would make it easy for Jesus’ listeners to visualize it hanging around someone’s neck.  But then the question is:  what would this be better than?  The answer is the judgment that awaits in hell.  In hell such people receive what they deserve, they receive the just and holy wrath of God eternally.

But, loved ones, is that all there is to say?  If you cause a little one to stumble, you are damned forever?  The broader context of Scripture tells us that there is more.  There is a gospel word even for those who have caused little ones to stumble.  The gospel says that anyone who has sinned can find refuge in Jesus Christ.  The only unforgivable sin in the Bible is the sin against the Holy Spirit and if you have committed that sin, you won’t even care that you have.  The sin against the Holy Spirit is committed by the reprobate who talk along the same lines as many of the Pharisees and other religious leaders who said that Jesus was possessed by an evil spirit.  Here in Mark 9 Jesus is not speaking about that sin.  This sin that he’s describing here can be forgiven.  Those who confess their sins and seek forgiveness through the blood and death of Christ will be forgiven even this and be saved from the coming judgment.  Those who repent, who turn from their sin and hate it and fight against it, those who repent and believe can and will be saved.  The gospel is for them too.  But the key is faith and repentance.  Faith means throwing yourself on Christ to be saved, leaning on him and repentance means faith bearing fruit in turning from your sin and turning to God with a new life.  That includes confessing your sin to those you’ve hurt and seeking their forgiveness too.            

Stumbling blocks can be placed in the way of others, but they can also be in your own life.  That’s what’s in view in the verses 43 to 47.  Jesus says if your hand puts a stumbling block in your way, chop it off.  Same thing with your foot.  And your eye too, if it puts a stumbling block in your life, gouge it out.  You can do without one hand, or one foot, or one eye.  You can enter into heaven handless, lame, or half-blind.  Better that than being thrown into hell with two hands, two feet or two eyes.

What is our Lord Jesus saying here?  Does he mean that we should literally get out the axe and start lopping off body parts?  No.  He’s using these intense word pictures to make a point.  We could call it radical amputation.  He is simply saying that if there is anything in your life that is causing you to stumble, anything that is ultimately leading you further away from God and causing you to sin, you have to get rid of it.  Radical amputation.    

One of the best examples I’ve heard of radical amputation came from a man named Mike Cleveland.  Mike Cleveland was an airline pilot for many years.  Airline pilots spend a lot of time in hotels away from their wives and families.  During these hotel stays, Mike would often find himself cruising the channels and then watching inappropriate programs, usually of the pornographic sort.  Eventually, the Holy Spirit did his work in Mike and he became convicted of his sin.  He started reading the Bible more and came across this passage from Mark.  Mike realized that Christ was calling him to radical amputation.  So, what do you think he did?  He didn’t quit his job as an airline pilot – he needed to provide for his family.  He didn’t stop travelling overnight – his job required that, it wasn’t optional.  Instead, when he went to hotels he would ask the hotel staff to take the TV out of his room.  Of course, they thought it was odd and it made for some interesting conversations, but this helped Mike in his battle against immorality.  It was how he put radical amputation into practice. 

Loved ones, brothers and sisters, where do you need to put radical amputation into practice in your life?  Are there relationships that are causing you to stumble?  Remember what Paul says in Corinthians, “Bad company ruins good morals.”  Are there things like the TV (or maybe the cable or satellite) that your life might be better off without?  What about the Internet?  Do you have a filter on your computer to cut off the filth that could cause you and your family to stumble?    Maybe radical amputation for you means deleting the web browser from your mobile device – I don’t think there are any filters available for those yet.  I’m sure there are other examples.  Sin and the things that cause us to stumble and sin cannot be babied and pampered.  They need to be decisively chopped off and the sooner the better.  Loved ones, as disciples of our Lord Jesus this is something we all need to take seriously.     

Because if we don’t take it seriously, listen to what Jesus says:  apart from radical amputation, our destination is not the kingdom of heaven, not eternal life, but hell.  In the original Jesus used a word there to describe hell that should have given his listeners the creeps.  He spoke of Gehenna.  Gehenna was literally the valley of Hinnom, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.  Worm-like maggots could always be found there, as could perpetually burning fires.  The garbage dump of Gehenna became a picture of hell.  And then Jesus also adds the concluding words of Isaiah, in Isaiah 66:24, to drive the point home.  Isaiah is full of beautiful promises, but there are also grim warnings and the final words of the prophecy are one of those warnings.  Isaiah describes a place where you don’t want to end up.  Jesus takes those words over as a deterrent to those who don’t take the call of discipleship seriously.  You can’t be a disciple of Jesus and have everything intact.  There are things that need to be cut off.

Disciples of our Lord Jesus are those who have been redeemed by him.  They have been bought with his blood to be his own possession.  Disciples of the Lord Jesus live out of union with him.  They love him and they are thankful to him for his work in their lives.  Because of this union, because of our love and gratitude, we hear the words of our Saviour here and we seek to follow him.  He says cut off the thing that’s leading me away from him.  I’ll do it because he’s mine and I am his.  I’ll do it because I love him and I want to show him my thankfulness with everything I am and everything I do.  Disciples of the Lord Jesus practice radical amputation, even though it hurts. 

And the hurting is the point in verse 49, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  A lot of people have struggled with these words.  The meaning isn’t immediately clear.  But many agree (and I do too) that they have a background in what we read from Leviticus 2.  All the grain offerings were to be seasoned with salt and then placed on the altar.  The fire would then consume the offering.  Salt is a preservative and a purifying agent.  What Jesus means here is that there will be trials and difficulties ahead for his disciples and indeed for all disciples.  All who want to follow the Lord Jesus in a serious way are going to be faced with challenges, pain, and discomfort.  They will have to chop things out of their lives that have given them comfort, even though it was a false comfort.  Being a disciple of Jesus means going through the fire, but this is a fire that purifies.  It is a fire that sanctifies, that shapes us more and more into who God wants us to be.  Through this fire, our union with Christ is becoming more visible in our lives.             

Then in the last verse our Saviour works this image of salt into one further teaching.  He says that salt is good.  It’s good as a preservative, as a purifier, and as a seasoning.  But then what he adds might at first glance be confusing:  if salt loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?  Have you ever left some salt in your cupboard for months on end and then try to use it, say on your eggs?  Was it any less salty for having sat there for months?  No.  It wouldn’t be.  Because the salt that we have today in our kitchens is almost 100% pure sodium chloride, pure salt.  It wasn’t like that in Jesus’ day.  Most of their salt came from the Dead Sea and was much less pure, often mixed with other elements, for instance gypsum.  It could happen that water could get into your salt and wash away the sodium and all you would be left with would be gypsum or something else that doesn’t taste anything like salt.  That’s the background to what Jesus is saying here.  The salt in his day could become unsalty.

Our Lord Jesus says his disciples ought to be conscientious and intentional about being salty.  “Have salt in yourselves.”  That means:  strive for the purity that I’ve just been outlining.  Taking radical amputation seriously is going to contribute to your pure walk of life and will season your life.  Your life will be different than the worldlings around you.  The worldlings just go about doing whatever they want. Why would they even care about something that makes them stumble before the face of God?  But you are to be different, salty, HOLY.  Why?  Because you love God and you realize the grace he’s shown to you and pleasing your Father is your highest priority in life.

And part of being salty is also being at peace with other disciples.  The last words tie back into the first point about not causing other disciples (little ones) to stumble.  They also then tie back into the bickering and arguing that the twelve were caught up in earlier in the chapter.  Being at peace with others means having wholeness and harmony in our relationships, especially with other believers.  That’s also why we’ll sing Psalm 133 in a moment, a psalm that celebrates the unity and fellowship of God’s people living together as they should.  As a fruit of our union with Christ, we also make it one of our highest priorities to preserve peace and harmony among our brothers and sisters.  We pray that we may grow in love for one another.  We pray that we may treat each other as family – as a healthy family.  Being at peace with one another is a way of being salty, as being a savoury people, a people different from the world.  We love one another in meaningful ways and seek to share that love too. 

Stumbling blocks come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  There are many ways that we can trip up ourselves and others.  Christ’s teaching here warns us to be on the lookout for stumbling blocks.  He instructs us that when we find stumbling blocks, when we become aware of them, we are to do something about them.  May our gracious God help us in this with his Holy Spirit.  AMEN.


Heavenly Father,

As the Psalmist said, we are prone to stumble.  Prone to wander, Lord we feel it.  Sometimes we are deliberately blind to the stumbling blocks in our own lives and the ones we place in the lives of others.  Please heal us from our blindness.  Please open our eyes more and more to our stumbling blocks.  Convict us of our sin, we pray.  We ask for your forgiveness for the hurt that we may have caused others.  We ask you to forgive us for all the times that we have loved the things that made us fall.  Please grant your forgiveness through Jesus our Saviour and all that he has done for us.  We also pray for your Spirit to make us salty.  Let him work in our lives so that we practice radical amputation wherever we need to.  Please him work so that we would be a savoury people to you and to the world around us.  Father, we also ask that you would give us peace.  You have given us peace with yourself through Christ, Father we also desire that we may always be at peace with the people in our lives, and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Help us to be patient with one another, help us to love one another, please help us to always look out for one another’s best interests.

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

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