Those who are familiar with the New Testament recall the account in Matthew 18 where Jesus is discussing the kingdom of heaven with His disciples. Specifically, they want to know who will be greatest, and Jesus uses a child as an object lesson.
Here’s the account: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!’” (Matthew 18:1–7, NIV).
Christians are quite familiar with this dialog, but I fear that our familiarity sometimes causes us to miss the point of Jesus’ instruction. Most, when referring to this passage take the “little child” thing literally (forgetting that this is an object lesson), and think that only if a person causes a person who is chronologically a child to stumble, that is what Jesus is talking about.
No doubt there is some truth to that, but let’s not forget the broader context. Jesus is not saying that a person has to become a child chronologically all over again (that would be impossible), but he’s equating the faith and innocence of a child to any believer, particularly new believers.
My contention on this is quite clear if you look at verse 6, “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” In this verse Jesus has just defined who He is referring to when he uses the analogy. A child in this context is anyone, no matter what their “spiritual age,” who places their faith in Christ.
Now, here comes the difficult message: there are those in our churches who seem to make a specialty out of offending fellow Christians. These people must think that the gift of offense is a spiritual gift of some kind. They are mean-spirited and just plain mean.
They say what they think without any regard to the affect it may have on their victims or the church, and then they claim that they are “just speaking the truth.” Nine times out of 10 they are speaking the truth of some tradition which they support with some misquoted or misapplied verse, but they are not speaking the truth of Scripture.
Jesus was unique among men. John describes Him this way, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NIV).
Please note this: Jesus is the balance of grace and truth. He is the fullness of grace and truth.
When we Christ-followers try to balance grace with truth, one or the other is always going to suffer. Those who are all grace and no truth refuse to take a stand on any issue and those who are all truth and no grace take a hard and fast stand on every issue, and, by golly, they would rather destroy for the sake of doctrine than redeem for the sake of Christ.
If I’m reading Jesus’ instruction correctly, those who take this approach are in for a world of hurt when they stand before God in judgment.
Here’s His promise: if you are the one through whom offense comes, woe is promised to you. Here’s what I know: there is a Holy Spirit whose job is to convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8), and in church, he has not relinquished that role to our care and dispensation.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway website at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.