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Block the Stumbling Blocks - 05-17-2020
Dr. Stephen Johnson
Mark 9:42-50
May 17, 2020

Two weeks ago in our pre service chat room I asked if you would like to hear someone other than my son-in-law Stephen Tavani playing or singing as we waited together for the service to start.

Someone suggested that I sing.  And I mistakenly said I would if there were 10 people online who would ask me to. 

Then the Duckworths chimed in saying that there were eight of them, so we all too quickly got up to the required ten.

I said I would try.  I had it in my mind that I could record myself in four part harmony.  I thought Wonderful Grace of Jesus would be a good song to try – it has some great parts and I love the song.

Then I tried it.  Okay, I thought I should try something different.  Turns out I’m not that good singing alto or bass.

So I thought maybe something a little less complicated.

So I turned to It is Well, another one of my favorite songs.

It also had some distinct parts, so I gave it a shot.

I can do it.  I decided against four part harmony and stuck with just two parts.

I got the timing down right.

I got the words right.

I got the harmony right.

And then I listened to myself.

I don’t know about you, but I almost always have a problem listening to myself – listening to a recording of my sermons is usually painful for me.  I think my voice sounds wrong.

When I listened to the recording of that song I came right up to the edge of sin.  I wanted to curse somebody.

But the somebody was me!

How can I sound so good in the shower (and no, I wasn’t recording myself in the shower)

How can I sound so good in the shower and so, so incredibly bad in front of a camera?

Now, I tell you this for two reasons.

First to let you know that I tried, but I decided not to torture you with a solo.

Second, I fear that if you heard me sing a solo I would cause you to stumble in your Christian walk. 

For upon hearing me, you would be tempted to tell me how good I sounded, so as to not hurt my feelings. 

While at the same time muttering under your breath “Who asked him to do that?”

Since our text for this morning has a lot to say about stumbling in your faith, and specifically warns against causing others to stumble my solo will remains so low you can’t hear it.

Consider it my secret way of blessing you this today.

Now let’s turn to our text, Mark 9:42-50

 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 

For everyone will be salted with fire.

 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

This is the word of God.

At this point in our text, Jesus is in Capernaum, most likely in Peter’s house.

One the blessed experiences I had a year ago was to visit Capernaum and see the ruins of the home where this event likely took place.

Today there is a church built directly over those ruins, with a glass floor which enables you to look down into the rooms of Peter’s house and imagine Jesus teaching his disciples the words included in this text.

As we delve into the text for today there are a couple of interesting translation issues with this particular section of Mark (there will be other translation issues later in the book – particularly in Mark 16, but they will have to wait)!

The first issue is one you may have noticed if you were following along in the King James Bible or the NASB.  You also would have noticed it if you were paying close attention while reading the NIV or ESV.

There are verses missing!

Verse 44, 46 and 48 are identical.

The ESV leaves 44 & 46 out.

The NIV has them as a footnote.

The KJV and the NASB include them all.

The thing is, there is an ancient textual variant where some ancient texts include verses 44 & 46 while others omit them.

Those who study Biblical translation rely upon ancient texts which are vetted and scored for which are older and therefore thought to be more likely to contain the original writing.  It is surmised that those verses were added by a copyist – remember the early manuscripts were all copied by hand.

And somewhere along the line, someone added verses 44 & 46 to enhance the parallelism of the text.  And when the KJV was translated, they utilized those texts as a basis for their work.

It turns out that the ancient texts without verses 44 & 46 were found well after the year 1611 when the King James version was first printed. 

With nearly 400 years of history behind the inclusion of those verses in the most common English translation the NASB, which published the New Testament in 1963 and the full Bible in 1975, decided to include them with a footnote.

The NIV published 10 years after the NASB and the ESV published in 2002, both chose to omit the verses and merely include them in a footnote.

This is not much of an issue because the inclusion or exclusion of those two verses doesn’t change the meaning of the text in any way.

The second translation issue has to do with how to translate the word translated as sin in the ESV.

The root of the word means to snare or cause a stumbling block.

It is not normally translated as “sin” in the New Testament.  To its credit, the ESV does translate it as sin in each of the parallel passages to our passage today. 

Yet strangely, in every other passage where the word is used it is translated as “fall away” or “give offense”

I believe that a better translation is the word “stumble.”

That is how both the NASB and the NIV translate it (although older versions of the NIV translate it as sin).

Recognizing this meaning as either to stumble or to fall away we come to a richer understanding of what Jesus is teaching in this text.

On the one hand, he is teaching about the seriousness of sin – sin which we entice others into and sins we commit ourselves.

To speak against sin is something we can easily and willingly accept.  Just about anything is better than being cast into hell.

We should pay any price to ensure our entrance into heaven.

So sin is a great target.  We all abhor it.

If your hand causes you to sin – cut it off.

If your foot causes you to sin – cut it off.

If your eye causes you to sin – pluck it out.

Except that none of us really believe this because we go on sinning with both hands intact.  Both feet attached and looking around with both eyes.

If he is warning against sin, we both understand that and know that he’s got that covered for us.

And Jesus knew he would go to Jerusalem to cover our sins.  So what is the point Jesus is making here?

The point isn’t about sin so much as it is about maintaining our faith and making sure we don’t do anything which causes us or others to lose their faith. 

To see this passage as speaking only of sin fails to recognize the stumbling which Jesus is speaking of in the larger passage of Mark 9. 

We need to understand this text as speaking against causing others to stumble or fall away. 

We need to understand that the lessons on cutting off your hand or your foot or plucking out your eye are about the importance of maintaining your faith.

And a lesson on avoiding things which cause stumbling makes our understanding of verses 49 and 50 more coherent and in line with the lessons to be learned here.

If we read this text as a caution against stumbling rather than a caution against sin we gain a different, and I believe, more serious perspective of what Jesus taught.

The text we are looking at here is at the tail end of a discussion Jesus began back in verse 30 where Jesus told his disciples once again that he was going to Jerusalem to die.

They enter a discussion about who is the greatest.

Whereupon Jesus begins teaching about being servants and culminating in this lesson on not being a stumbling block to other believers, to ourselves and to the world around us.

At this point in the conversation the disciples have reached what was mostly likely Peter’s home.

Here he takes a child and warns against doing anything to cause the faith of those who believe in Jesus to falter.

Verse 42

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

Don’t be a stumbling block to other believers.

Disciples do all they can to protect the faith of those who believe in Jesus.

The price of being a faithless disciple isn’t really given.  Jesus just uses an illustration.

It would be better…

What Jesus describes is no piece of cake.

It doesn’t sound very positive at all.

Death by drowning, with no hope of escape doesn’t sound like much fun.

But according to Jesus, that death would be better than what is in store for those who cause others who believe in Jesus to stumble.

Now, what does this mean for the disciple of Christ.

It means that we are charged with doing all that we can to help the faith of others to grow.

We nurture their faith rather than their doubt.

We encourage them to serve in the name of Jesus instead of trying to stop them because they aren’t doing it right.

And we live our lives in such a way that our actions build the faith of others rather than destroy it.

Disciples do all they can to protect the faith of those who believe in Jesus.

Don’t be a stumbling Block to your own faith.

Disciples do all they can to protect their own faith

This is where Jesus gets into the illustration of self-mutilation in the preservation of our faith.

Jesus obviously wasn’t recommending self-mutilation.

But he was saying that we need to do everything we can to protect our faith.

If you want to lose your faith, have faith in weird stuff.

Just pray and have faith that you will win the lotto.

And then doubt God when he doesn’t give you a winning ticket.

You want to lose your faith?  Get mad at God when he doesn’t take away your sinful desires but instead does what scripture says he will do and just gives you a way of escape which you choose not to take.

Our sin is not God’s fault.  He always gives us an escape route!

You want to lose your faith?  Spend all your time with an atheist.  Read what he recommends.  Forsake the gathering together of believers.  Stop reading the Bible.

Stop obeying what you read there.

Jesus is seeking to teach the disciples the importance of guarding their faith.

Jesus starts this discussion with teaching on his upcoming death and resurrection.

They started out worried about who is the greatest and who should be able to perform miracles in Jesus’ name.

Their loss of focus risks becoming a loss of faith.

Is our faith really going to wrapped up in who is greatest?

We are to do all we can to protect the faith of those who believe in Christ.

We are to do all we can to protect our own faith.

We must not be a stumbling block to other believers.

We must not be a stumbling block to our own faith.

Which leads to the final point Jesus makes in this makeshift teaching session.

We must not be a stumbling block to the world around us.

We are to make sure we promote faith in the world.

In what seems at first glance to be an out of place reference, Jesus ends the teaching with these words:

For everyone will be salted with fire.

 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Salt?  What does that have to do with the present context?

Jesus has spoken of the fire of hell, and he suddenly segues to salt.

Specifically being salted with fire.  And then becoming salt to the world.

Commentators suggest that being salted with fire is about the upcoming persecution the disciples will face and the way it will preserve their faith.

Jesus gently turns the attention of the disciples away from questions of greatness and towards the importance of being salt to the world – of taking care not to cause others to stumble in their faith and not to risk stumbling themselves.

But they will face a fire.  A fire of purification.  A fire which will test their saltiness.  Their ability to impact the world. 

The ancients wrote that the world cannot survive without salt – it is a vivid reminder that salt was a necessity of life in the ancient world because it preserved food –

Pliny the Elder, who lived at the time of Christ, observed that the salt from the Dead Sea can lose its savory quality and become insipid. 

Insipid, not a word we use everyday – it means lacking flavor or zest, lacking qualities that excite, stimulate or interest.

What Jesus says presupposes these two truths.

As disciples, we are to be salt to the world.  We are to add flavor – to invoke interest in the gospel.

We are to have the salt of the gospel in us.

Salt which will interest the world in Jesus.

If we lose our saltiness, we become a stumbling block to a world which needs Jesus.

Our salt-like qualities can mean life for the world.

The salt of the believer is that distinctive mark of the disciple – a life lived in as Christ commands.

And when we live as though how we live doesn’t matter we lose that saltiness become worthless for the kingdom.

When we lose that quality we become a stumbling block to others.

The exhortation to guard their salt-like quality in order to be at peace with one another has direct bearing on the question of who is the greatest.  On who can properly serve Jesus.

What sets one man apart from another is not distinctions of rank or worth, but the quality of saltness.  The quality of his life lived in Christlikeness.

A life lived in harmony with our beliefs.

A life lived in such a way that we make the gospel attractive to the world.

Jesus warns against giving up our ability to impact the world by causing others to stumble

By allowing ourselves to sin and thus stumble ourselves.

He warns against destroying our influence in the world through comparison games – asking who is the greatest,

He warns against destroying our influence in the world through restricting the ministry of others because it isn’t the way we would do it.

He warns against destroying our influence in the world through actions which cause others to stumble.

He warns against destroying our influence in the world through our refusal to deal with sin in our lives.

He challenges us to be salt in a world so desperately in need of disciples who help others accept Christ.

He challenges us to be at peace with one another as we serve him together without regard for earthly rewards, rank or recognition.

Knowing that in the end He will reward all those who serve in His name.