February 4, 2024

The Good Fight Against Temptation (Matthew 18:7-9)

Preacher: Bryce Morgan Series: Our Bible Reading Plan (2023-2024) Topic: One Truth: Walk in Truth Scripture: Matthew 18:7–9

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Children's Lesson (click here)

I. When That 'Other Song' is Playing

Have you ever tried to remember the tune of a song while a totally different song is playing in the background? It's very difficult, isn't it? Whenever I've been in that situation, that other song always trips me up. I don't think there's ever been a time where I didn't have to turn off the other song, or just move to a quieter location, or if it was my only option, to cover my ears in order to remember what I needed to remember.

Do you remember when Jesus addressed this topic? Now, some of you are scratching your heads. “Jesus talked about trying to remember the tune of a song?” Yes, it's right there in 'Second Opinions' chapter 7. You don't recall that story? Okay... Jesus may not have addressed that kind of frustrating, musical circumstance, but he did talk about getting tripped up... and about that 'other song'... and about what you and I can do when that happens. Look with me at a passage from Our Bible Reading Plan last week, Matthew, chapter 18.

II. The Passage: “Cut It Off and Throw It Away” (18:7-9)

So while our focus this morning will be on verses 7-9, it's helpful to know something about the context here. If we look at Matthew 18 from that 30,000 foot perspective, the broad contours in this chapter reveal a concern about how we treat one another within the church, especially in light of the unhelpful, unhealthy, and sinful ways we can act toward other followers of Christ. If you read the whole chapter, it's impossible to miss how Jesus emphasizes here the importance of things like humility, grace, forgiveness, and restoration within the believing community.

Now keep that in mind as we look at the unique emphasis of verses 7-9. Jesus declares...

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! [8] 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. [9] 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.”

So right away, I think it's extremely helpful to point out that the phrase “temptations to sin” in vs. 7, as well as the two other times the word “temptations” or “temptation” is used in verse 7, all of these translate an unusual word... but a word with which all of us are somewhat familiar. The word here, in the original Greek of the New Testament (NT), is the world skandalon. It's where we get our English word scandal. The most literal definition of this word refers to the “trigger” for a trap; or we might say, a “snare”. This word is used fifteen times in the NT, and in most cases is translated as “a stumbling block”... something that will morally and/or spiritually trip you up.

So what exactly does Jesus have in mind when he talks about getting tripped up by these stumbling blocks? Well, in light of the broader context of chapter 18, I believe Jesus may be directing our hearts toward the stumbling blocks every single one of us can place when we, inside the church, are consistently proud toward others (i.e., put ourselves over others), or we are bitter toward others, or we are indifferent toward a brother or sister's spiritual struggles. Even if we have a clear conscience in that way, the chapter as a whole is calling us to pursue a life of placing building blocks among God's people, not stumbling blocks.

But I think when it comes to defining stumbling blocks, the bigger picture from the whole book reminds us that stumbling here relates to anything that discourages another person's trust in Jesus Christ. In 11:6, Jesus declared, “...blessed is the one who [does not stumble over] me."

But notice the shift in verses 8 and 9. In our English translation it's not obvious that a form of the word skandalon is, in fact, being used again in both of these verses. But this time—and this is key—those being addressed in verses 8-9 are those who are stumbling. AND... the stumbling block over which they stumble comes from their own “hand” or “foot” or “eye”. Hmm. What exactly might Jesus mean in verse 8-9? Well, let's tackle that question by thinking together about three ideas that I hope will help us make better sense of these verses.

First of all, stumbling is not ultimately about the 'blocks' of others, but about my own desires. As we've seen, God rightly warns those who place or become stumbling blocks. They will be held accountable. But in verses 8 and 9, Jesus reminds his disciples that their very own hands and feet and eyes can spiritually trip them up. Not that your hand or your foot or your eye is a bad thing. As Matthew Henry wrote several centuries ago: “...those things which in themselves are good, and may be used as instruments of good, even those, through the corruptions of our hearts, prove snares to us, incline us to sin, and hinder us in duty.”

And what is our duty as disciples? It is to follow Jesus in faith. That is the song we need to remember: the song of our salvation. That is the song God is calling us to sing. But we often struggle to remember that song, don't we? And then suddenly that 'other song' is playing. And what happens? We get tripped up as we try to remember (and sing) His song. Follower of Jesus, yes, that 'other song' is constantly playing out there... As the NIV renders v. 7, “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!” But that 'other song' is also inside me. We must acknowledge that fact. But what does Jesus teach us to do in light of this? Well...

Second, faithfully following Christ as Lord means radically rejecting what trips me up. Jesus describes that radical rejection by using imagery that's extremely hard to forget. (v. 8) “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” You severing your own limb... and then discarding that hand or foot or eye... that's a gruesome picture, isn't it? It's a painful picture. It's a repulsive idea. But that's exactly why Jesus is using this language. He wants you to understand the truth about the radical surgery that is absolutely necessary in order to save your life. He's not going to sugarcoat this truth. In love, he is clear and direct.

Is this a new idea for Jesus? Not at all. Not only did He use this same limb-severing imagery in 5:27-30 when he talked about battling lust, but. throughout this Gospel, he also describes this same radical rejection using several other images. One example is in 10:37-39...

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. [38] And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. [39] Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Was Jesus calling them to literally take up a wooden cross? Or literally sacrifice their lives? While those things certainly did happen to some, this passage is for everyone, not just some.

Jesus is using imagery here to describe the radical rejection of, the liberating loss of, a faith-filled forsaking of... sin and self. The severing of our limbs is just one more image. Not literal... but still radical. Christ is clearly asking us here, “To what lengths will you go to follow me faithfully? What are you willing to give up in order to steer clear of that which will trip you up?”

Sadly, we're often looking for or trying to figure out some kind of compromise; some way to keep our fleshly comforts and worldly ambitions, some way to keep both hands, both feet, both eyes, while at the same time, reassuring ourselves that we are faithful followers, walking upright after Jesus. But in reality, many of us are spiritually stumbling. Jesus knows this. He knows we can struggle in precisely this way. That's why he says what he says here in 18:8-9. That's why he call us to take drastic, spiritual action to cut out and distance ourselves from such stumbling blocks. Brother, sister, what trips you up? Be honest with yourself. What impedes your forward momentum in following Christ? Many of us know the answer to that question, even if we don't want to face it. But our Lord is calling us to face it, and to do so, from God's perspective.

Third, loss and gain must be understood through the lens of eternity. In both verse 8 and verse 9, Jesus describes two eternal destinies. The first is “to enter life”, and the second is to be “thrown into the eternal fire”. Like the limb-severing language in these same verses, both of these destinies are meant to get our attention. Both of these are meant to communicate the incomparable seriousness of the topic. Please understand what Jesus is telling us here...

If we accept this idea that the loss of certain fleshly comforts and worldly ambitions is like the loss of a limb, doesn't that then lead us to having to live an impaired life? Jesus says, “Yes. That's exactly right.” (“crippled”, “lame”) But we say, “No. I don't want to live an impaired life. I want my best life now.” And this is where Jesus point us to eternity. He asks us, “Isn't it far, far better to struggle through this fleeting world with one eye or one hand or one foot... if it means fullness of life forever in God's presence?” Moreover, the alternative is absolutely horrifying: trading today's, temporary, fleshly comforts for an eternity of suffering for my sins. You see, Jesus wants eternity to bring everything into perspective for us. And when that perspective leads to faith, there is actually joy, because what is gained is far, far greater than what is lost... “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has [radical rejection] and buys that field.” (13:44)

But wait? If this is how Jesus wants me to approach temptations/stumbling blocks, does it mean I should always be motivated by pursuing heaven and avoiding hell? That sounds like a mindset based on my works. So yes, we need to be crystal clear about this Gospel passage in light of the entire gospel of grace. My gain is not based on my loss. It isn't about what I offer. It's about what Jesus Christ offered. It's based on the radical rejection he suffered; the loss of his life, not mine. Not the figurative severing of my hands or feet, but the literal piercing of his. The language here not only takes into account that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven...” (7:21), but also that saving repentance and saving faith in Christ establish a pattern of ongoing repentance and faith. That means a genuinely grace-transformed, grace-motivated, Spirit-filled disciple will ultimately obey this word about radical rejection. Jesus absolutely acknowledges the struggle here. But he also wants everyone who confesses him to be clear about what the consistent rejection of radical rejection reveals about one's heart (and destiny).

III. Clear Eyes & a Faith-Filled Heart

Brother and sisters, even this morning, our King is calling us to remember and sing the song of our salvation. But maybe this morning you also hear him calling you to this radical rejection in light of his amazing grace. Ask him even now for clear eyes and a faith-filled heart to cut off and throw away that which is tripping you up. Maybe that means new boundaries in a relationship, or the reordering of your priorities, or letting go of that 'security blanket', or the sacrifice of a coveted possession... or promotion... or position that has become so precious to you that losing it would be like losing a limb. Whatever this means, be encouraged: the One who calls you to radical surgery is the One who has and will bring you the ultimate healing you are ultimately seeking.