Luke 17:1-10 (winter, AD 29)
Jesus said scary stuff sometimes, but some of the scariest things he said containing the most comforting truths.
“Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (v.1-3)
Read out of context, this verse is terrifying. Who among us hasn’t – at some point and in some way – been a cause of temptation for someone? Parents exasperate their children, causing them to feel temptation into bitterness. Gossiping causes people to be tempted to think and speak badly of other people. Laziness and disobedience as children, young people, employees, citizens, tempts those in authority over us into resentment.
So do we risk the fires of hell if an act of hours prompts a temptation in someone else that leads to them sinning?
The word translated ‘stumble’ in the NIV, and ‘temptation’ in the ESV is a strong one. It doesn’t refer to a momentary lapse or a one-off sin. James translates the same Greek word in a seemingly minor context (James 3:2) where he points out that we all stumble many times. In that case, if the stumbling into an isolated sin doesn’t have eternal consequences, then obviously the one who caused the temptation to arise wouldn’t be facing that kind of punishment either.
Peter refers to stumbling as a fundamental collapsing of the faith that appeared to be there (2 Peter 1:10), which seems to be what Jesus is referring to here. Especially as in the very next verse, involving being sinned against (and being sinned against provokes temptations in our own heart), has Jesus commanding his disciples to forgive people every time. To never withhold forgiveness from a repentant person. It goes without saying therefore, that the person who sinned against us, if we are to forgive them, is not simultaneously doomed by their sin against us.
I give a few paragraphs to that because it can be easy sometimes to assess God by our own sense of morality and dismiss passages out of hand. Or to apologise for them when people query how God could possibly say something like that.
What Jesus is referring to is the systematic poisoning of someone’s mind against God. That could be through habitually pushing them towards sinful behaviour, or it could be through giving them the same kind of demonic teachings that the Pharisees were pouring out. The kind of teaching that says, unless you’re good enough God doesn’t like you. The kind of teaching that says you must obey ME or God will be upset with you because I’m his representative.
The latter of those would prove a temptation in its own right when the disciples were threatened with death if they continued to claim that they had seen the risen Jesus. It must have been tempting, at some point, for one of them to give in to the lie, to tell people that they were making it all up about Jesus and he had stayed dead. I’m sure they gained strength from each other, knowing that God was giving them all the strength to keep telling people what they had seen, and the message of eternal hope that came with it.
You can’t spasm yourself into this sin that Jesus warned his disciples about. You can’t have a bad day and spontaneously lose your salvation over it. But if you dedicate your life to a religious or anti-religious programme of pulling people away from the truth of Jesus, then never having lived really would have been better.
But wait….where’s that comforting bit I promised?
Why do you think God through Jesus threatened such dire consequences?
Because he loves you. Because he loves you enough to send Jesus to die for you. He loves you enough to be patient with you through your entire life, no matter how many times you mess up. He loves you enough to say I have put your sins away from me and I will never look at them again, and I will treat you as if you lived the life of Jesus. He loves you so much that if anyone threatens that, then God will never let you go but that person is in danger of the worst punishment imaginable. If you are a Christian then you are God’s child. And God won’t tolerate any threats to take his children away from him, and he will never let them go.
You are safe.