A stumbling block in Scripture is not simply an obstacle. It is anyone or anything by which someone is drawn into sin or error. Or it may simply hinder them from being edified. Scripture tells that it can happen even through things that aren’t in themselves sinful. The implications of this are virtually all-encompassing. There are few things we must take more seriously than this in the Christian life.
The word which means stumbling block is often translated as “offence”. This is not the same as someone being offended in the sense of being displeased. Rather it is something that causes them to offend against God’s Word. Scripture deals with this matter in the most serious way possible. In his comprehensive treatment of the subject, James Durham says the following about stumbling others:
- there is no sin that has more woes pronounced against it. The Lord himself denounces and doubles a woe against making others offend (Mathew 18:7), and the Apostle confirms it (Romans 14:20);
- there is no duty more commanded. Durham notes that whole chapters are devoted to avoiding stumbling others (e.g. Romans 14, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 8, Matthew 18);
- there are no worse consequences than those connected with it. Durham notes that it brings: woe to the world; destruction to many souls; reproach upon the profession of Christianity; cools love among brethren, begets and fosters contention and strife; mars the progress of the gospel; and, in a word, makes iniquity to abound, and often ushers in error into the church.
- there is nothing more damaging to the fellowship of believers. Fellowship suffers if we are not sensitive to what edifies and hinders edification in others. Spiritual admonition and conversation and prayer together will lack the right spirit and blessing without such sensitivity.
- it hardens us and makes us more inclined to sin. It hardens us by making the conscience less sensitive to conviction. The more we are in the habit of disregarding others in general the less we are restrained from doing that which is actually sinful.
- it damages the success of the gospel. Carelessness in this brings reproach on profession of the gospel. Sensitivity in this greatly adorns the gospel, however.
A number of these serious consequences of stumbling others are drawn from the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 18. David Dickson shows from Matthew 18:7-14 in greater detail how Christ gives seven reasons to avoid putting a stumbling block before others.
Christ forbids laying any stumbling block before others whether by word, action or any other way. This is anything which may induce anyone to sin or may hinder them in the course of obedience of God.
1. Much Woe Comes Through Stumbling Others
Much woe, sin and misery comes on the world through stumbling blocks thrown in front of others. Therefore, beware of offences, for “Woe unto the world because of offences!” There is a necessity that there will be offences (v7). Stumbling blocks or inducements to sin and ways to turn men away from the right paths of the Lord will be laid in their way. This necessity is because men’s corrupt natures are inclined to be drawn and to draw others to sin. God’s decree to permit such stumbling-blocks in order to try some and punishment of others also makes it necessary (v7).
2. The Greatest Woe Awaits Those Who Stumble Others
Woe to that man by whom the offence comes. Therefore beware of offences. Whatever damage comes or may come by a stumbling-block will be imputed to him who gives offence, or lays a stumbling-block in others’ way. “Woe to that man” (v7).
Those who are offended (drawn into sin) cannot excuse themselves. Neither the fact that offences occur in God’s providence nor the guilt belonging to those who create the offence excuses them or will save them from wrath for their sin. This still stands: “Woe unto the world because of offences” (v7).
3. Nothing is Worth Stumbling Others
It is better to lose anything that may cause a sinful fall to yourself or your neighbour than to sin and be cast into hell with it. It is better to lose anything that is even as beneficial or necessary as your eye or your foot (v8). It is better to be deprived of it than to sin and so be cast in hell with it: therefore beware of giving offence.
[a] The cause of stumbling ourselves and others is in ourselves. Some beloved lust may seem as precious and beneficial to us as our eye, our hand or our foot but yet it causes us to stumble (v8-9).
[b] Such beloved lusts must be put to death and cut off or else we cannot but perish. It is better therefore that these lusts be cut off than they and we should both perish. To cut them off is better (v9).
4. Being Careless About Stumbling Others is the Same as Despising Them
Despising any of these little ones must be avoided and so laying stumbling blocks must also be avoided. This is because being careless about stumbling them is the same as despising them (v10).
5. The Angels Minister to Those We are Careless About Stumbling
God esteems the least of these little ones so much that the good angels who daily enjoy God’s glorious presence are ministering spirits appointed to attend on them. Therefore do not despise them by being careless about stumbling or offending them.
If we consider what price God and his holy angels set upon the least Christian we would be loathe to despise or offend them. For “in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven” (v10).
6. Christ’s Care for His Flock Should Prevent Us from Stumbling Any of Them
Christ came to redeem the least of believers even those who count themselves lost. Therefore you should not despise them by being careless about stumbling them. The esteem and love that Christ has for the least Christian should motivate us to beware of stumbling or despising them. “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (v11).
7. Stumbling Others is the Devil’s Work and Opposes God
It is not the will of the Father that the least Christian should perish and therefore you should not despise them or be careless about stumbling them in a way through which they might perish. This is taught in the parable of a good shepherd (verse 12-14). The purpose of the parable is to show that as a good shepherd regards all of his sheep and, if they wander, will carefully seek to reclaim them and save them so does God. He does this for the least of His elect, the least of Christians; He will reclaim them from their sins and danger of perishing, as the text shows.
[a] He that stumbles his neighbour does what he can to make him perish. He opposes the will of the Father to preserve his neighbour from perishing because of a stumbling block.
[b] The devil and those who serve him do what they can to hinder the salvation of believers but God will preserve them. For “it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish” (v14).
[c] Although he that lays a stumbling block before his brother will not be able to destroy him, yet he may put him out of the way a little and hinder him in his course to heaven. The parable of the shepherd recovering the wandering sheep shows this.