MATTHEW 18:6-9
Pp Mark 9:42-47

God’s Jealous Anger
The Believer’s Responsibility
   a. Individual Responsibility
   b. Collective Responsibility

There’s only one direct parallel passage here and, with the close of Mtw 18:9, neither Mark nor Luke continue to record any of Jesus’ subsequent words in the context of this time shortly before His journey to Jerusalem for His final Passover.

Even though the RSV runs 18:5 and 18:6 together, a unity which is probably warranted from the manuscripts from which the translation is made, it belies the fact that the latter verse occurred as a continuing response to a question by John, recorded in Mark 9:38 (paralleled in Luke 9:49) which reads

‘Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us’

Jesus’ reply to this statement cum question ends with Mark 9:41 and leaves the following passage from Mark 9:42 as an apparent change of tack from addressing the issue which John has raised and to a reversion to His original intention of speaking about the importance of status and position within the Kingdom of Heaven and of the Father’s attitude toward the smallest and most insignificant of believers.

It’s tempting to see John’s statement as an attempt to distract Jesus from rebuking the disciples but this would be to go a little too far in the interpretation! It would appear, though, that the reason for Matthew’s neglect of recording the question is that he has no intention of breaking the overall flow of teaching concerning the children of the Kingdom and so continues with the theme that he’s already begun.

Jesus is seen, therefore, to go on to speak of the importance not to write the inferior off as being expendable when it comes to faithfulness to the Gospel. Indeed, as we shall see, the condemnation of those who lead even the smallest of believers astray and into sin couldn’t be much stronger without using some of the present day words which we’d class as being vulgar language!

The correct interpretation of this passage centres around the correct interpretation of two words in these four verses which are interrelated. The first occurs just the once in Mtw 18:6 and is rendered by the RSV’s phrase ‘ sin’ (Strongs Greek number 4624) while the second occurs five times in the final three verses (Mtw 18:7x3, 18:8, 18:9 - Strongs Greek number 4625).

On a previous web page where I dealt with the response of Peter to Jesus’ statement that He must die, I noted that the second of these two words also occurs where the RSV speaks of Jesus as being a ‘hindrance’ to Him (Mtw 16:23) and wrote that the translation

‘ playing down the strength of the Greek word which is employed here...Originally, this word was the name given to the bait-stick of a trap which sprung the snare but, with time, came to be used of the snare itself. In the NT, however, the word was also used of a stumbling block, something which trips someone up from walking the correct way’

and the meaning of ‘stumbling block’ is probably the best in the context here. Personally, I don’t like the RSV’s rendering of the word because it implies that there’s a certain force in the stumbler’s life which makes the childlike believer sin regardless of their own freewill. Their translation which, in Mtw 18:6 for instance, speaks of

‘...whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin...’

should, I feel, better be rendered

‘...whoever is the cause of stumbling to one of these little ones who believe in Me...’

so that the person is not seen to be the force that makes the sin but the lead that encourages it. Matmor, therefore, interprets the verb used as giving the reader (my italics)

‘...its idea of entrapment [which] indicates that the person in question is leading the little one into something that that little one does not properly understand. The little one is deceived into committing sin...’

Although this is an interpretation that will necessarily be a part of what it means to stumble another, it shouldn’t be accepted as being the only method that the stumbler would employ. After all, reasoning and logic can lead many a believer away from what they know in their hearts is true and it doesn’t follow that the stumbled has failed to understand matters and that it is only in these areas that he can be led away from Christ.

All such encouragements to forsake the right way should be included here and, if the ‘little believer’ is in a dynamic relationship with the Father, there should also be the internal witness that the way that’s being offered and opened to them is incorrect. Even so, for numerous reasons the wrong way becomes the path which they eventually choose as they abandon their sincere commitment to the life of the Kingdom of Heaven.

We should really look at these four verses in two specific sections seeing as they deal in Mtw 18:6-7 with temptations and stumbling blocks which are separate from the believer’s life and then move on to Mtw 18:8-9 which deals with those integral parts of a believer’s life which have the ability to self-stumble. Here the terminology is changed from referring to the ‘little ones’ to a general observation of the radical Christianity which the believer is encouraged to adopt in their struggle to live correctly before God.

In this way, the verses are seen to deal with external and ‘internal’ (better ‘integral’) parts of a believer’s life. However, Mtw 18:7-9 provides good comparisons between different types of sin and I have decided not to separate this passage but to use it to try and define the two types of temptation that a believer is faced with.

The section Mtw 18:6-7 also speaks more about the personal anger of God against the stumbler even though this continues into the subsequent verse and I have therefore decided to deal with this issue in a separate article even though it means that I will be dealing with verse 7 in both sections.

God’s Jealous Anger
Mtw 18:6-7

Although not mentioned directly in these verses, the subject of God’s anger is not far from the surface and appears to be the underlying concept as to why it would be better for the stumbler to physically die rather than to lead astray one who belongs to Jesus.

Firstly, though, let’s consider Jesus’ language here. The RSV translates two words in the Greek which the AV renders by a single ‘millstone’, preceding this word with ‘great’. This is undoubtedly a better translation seeing as the defining word as to which type of millstone is being meant is one which translates literally as ‘donkey’ (Strongs Greek number 3684), giving the phrase either as ‘donkey millstone’ or ‘millstone of a donkey’.

There were numerous millstones being employed in ancient Israel, from the simple manual grinding of corn by laying it on a flat stone while rubbing it across with a handheld flatstone to the hand operated dual millstones which had a handle inserted into the top, moveable stone to rotate it about its axis and which were between eighteen and twenty-four inches in diameter (having seen pictures of some of these, I have to also marvel at the strength of the average woman in Jewish society who would have used these on a daily basis - they certainly couldn’t have been as dainty as the modern ideal of women in the present day and must have had biceps like Mr Universe!), right through to the four or five foot in diameter animal or human drawn top stone that was often rotated by the use of pulleys and levers.

It was this latter sort of upper millstone that’s being referred to here by Jesus and it was these which appear to be distinctively Roman in origin, even though there’s evidence in Judges 16:21 which suggests that such a millstone set up was in existence since the earliest of days. This would have been the type of crushing tool which would have been used to obtain flour for large communities.

Descriptions differ as to the exact set up of the mill, but NIDBA speaks of the ones which would have been directly Roman as having a lower stone which was funnelled in shape and which stood higher than a man. Into this conical shape, another, upper millstone was placed which carried sockets in its top through which wooden shafts would have been inserted and attached to animals which would be used to turn it.

The wheat and barley was inserted into the top, was ground as it fell by gravity and was collected as flour at the bottom. This large type of upper millstone was referred to in the Greek as a ‘donkey’ through an association of that animal with the mechanical turning of the mill and the phrase ‘donkey mill’ was coined to refer to the entire structure.

Matthew translates Jesus’ words here into the phrase ‘donkey millstone’, something which should have been immediately understandable to all of Matthew’s immediate readers. Indeed, the author could have just called the stone a ‘donkey’ which would, no doubt, have caused various textual revisions to be proposed by modern day commentators who may not have been able to conceive of how it could be suggested that a donkey be fastened round the neck of someone and then be thrown into the sea!

The word used to speak of this millstone’s fastening is also interesting seeing as both Matthew and Mark differ in the exact word that they use. Mtw 18:6 uses a word that, according to Kittels, has the primary meaning of ‘to hang on or from’ (Strongs Greek number 2910) but, when applied to the context, it could mean either that the millstone was placed over the potential stumbler’s head or that it was fastened in some way about the neck.

Mark 9:42, however, uses a word which means ‘to lie around’ or ‘to have around’ (Strongs Greek number 4029) which interpret Jesus’ words as meaning that the stone was suggested as being placed over the neck of the person being mentioned. It may be that Mark’s immediate readership could have envisaged such an action being done and that there was sufficient room in the spindle’s hole for a human head to have been placed through, whereas Matthew’s readership would have found it hard to have imagined how such an action was possible and so the author interpreted the word to make it more relevant.

It may, however, just be the freedom of the relative authors in their use of different words to convey the truth but the point that’s being made is certain - it’s best that a person who would stumble a ‘little believer’ end his life immediately than to go ahead and pull one away from a relationship with God the Father.

But why would the losing of one’s life be more advantageous to the person who might be the one who leads astray? Isn’t our physical life more precious than anything we have and to be protected at all costs?

The point, which is only implied, appears to be that there is One who stands with the ‘little believer’ who it is more frightening to stand against than any contemplation of the end of one’s physical life. There is an anger which burns in the heart of the Father towards any who wilfully lead His childlike followers astray and into sin. Even so, this is an anger which springs out of His great love for His children.

It’s better, therefore, that a stumbling block remove himself from earthly life than to be the cause of another’s falling away from a relationship with God. The language appears to express this importance by the choice of words that are employed.

For instance, the millstone specified in the text could have been the ordinary hand grinding millstone for this would have been sufficient for the job - instead, the largest commonly known one is employed, as if there needs to be a certainty of self-removal.

The phraseology about drowning is also significant. Mathen comments that the literal translation would run something like

‘...that he be plunged down into the sea, into the sea of the sea’

where the last phrase means the deepest part rather than a depth which would be sufficient for the task at hand. One might easily drown a hundred yards from the shore, but the deepest part again shows that the certainty of death is what is of paramount importance. Mathag notes that the last phrase isn’t really important enough to warrant inclusion if a simple statement is what’s necessary but that Jesus appears to have emphasised the drowning ‘for effect’. It would have been simpler just to say that the person who would stumble a follower of Christ would be better drowned than to take lengths to describe the millstone being attached to the head and then for the drowning to take place in the deepest part of the sea.

The lack of an economy of words is what bring emphasis to the statement.

Finally, the word which is rendered by the RSV’s ‘be better’ is better translated ‘would be advantageous’ where there is a certain irony in the statement that death could ever be considered to be the best possible alternative to an action within earthly life. Matfran comments that

‘...the Greek makes it clear that it is preferable from his point of view...’

rather than for the congregation of God’s believers to be rid of him.

All in all, the words are demonstrably extreme and the statement in Mtw 18:7 that pronounces woe upon the man by whom the temptations and stumbling blocks come sums it up well. This isn’t a curse laid upon those who are channels to cause believers to fall away but genuine compassion (Matmor speaks of ‘regret and compassion’) for the ones who destroy God’s relationship with His people.

Though the word ‘anger’ in connection with God is far from this short passage, one wonders how else the words could have been understood except to see God’s fiery character burning fiercely against those who lead astray His chosen ones.

Mtw 18:7-9

The RSV’s translation (my italics) that

‘ is necessary that temptations come...’

makes the inference that God has a specific purpose in allowing temptation to come upon His followers, a statement which seems out of place with Jesus’ pronouncement of woe upon the person through whom such temptations come. Therefore, the RSV translates the same Greek word (Strongs Greek number 318) in Heb 9:16 (my italics) by

‘For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established

where the implication is that, for the will to come into force, the death of the one who made it must have taken place. The AV makes this interpretation all the more obvious by translating the word with a phrase that includes the word ‘necessity’.

The original word, however, needn’t imply this wherever it occurs and the NIV’s rendering of Heb 7:12 (my italics) which runs

‘For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must also be a change of the law...’

shows a slightly different meaning where one action is considered to have consequences which are unavoidable. So, too, in the AV’s rendering of Luke 14:18 which reads (my italics)

‘...I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it...’

The NIV at this point doesn’t translate the Greek word italicised, the same as the RSV, and therefore fails to show the necessary cause and effect which is intended in the sentence. That is, that the purchase of the piece of land meant that there was a consequence of action laid upon the purchaser to go out to his new acquisition and observe the ground.

Therefore, the word used here to describe necessity may be used rather to infer the consequence of the world in which the disciple lives rather than that temptation is necessary from the point of view of the disciple’s testing and, even worse, that it may originate in the will of God that such things take place.

James 1:13 urges believers that

‘ one say when he is tempted “I am tempted by God” for God cannot be tempted with evil and He Himself tempts no one’

so that Mtw 18:7 is more likely to mean that, in the world in which we live, temptations to sin are a consequence of its fallen state rather than that there is a need which is fulfilled by their coming upon the childlike believer. Though Mathag is uncertain about the correct interpretation of the words which speak of the need for temptations to come and interprets the saying to mean that they come

‘...presumably because of the nature of a fallen world...’

Matmor is more certain and explains that

‘The world being what it is and people being what they are, it is inevitable that the things that lead to sin...will make their appearance. But that they are certain to come does not excuse the person who brings them about’

Necessity, therefore, is better translated ‘necessary consequence’ to show the inevitability of temptation and to safeguard the reader from understanding the phrase to mean that, in some manner, God has a need that such temptation comes to the point of Him being the actual instrument which causes it to occur.

The Believer’s Responsibility
Mtw 18:7-9

We have seen above that, as a consequence of the world in which we live, temptations or stumbling blocks will come upon the believer, to tear them away from a sincere and wholehearted commitment to the Father. The believer is not meant to sit idly back and think that there is little or nothing that he can do about them but is warned in two specific areas to make sure, firstly, that they aren’t the channels through which the temptation comes (Mtw 18:7) and, secondly, that they haven’t things in their own lives which will self-stumble (Mtw 18:8-9).

Mattask sees the inclusion of these latter two verses as an attempt by the author to remind the reader what Jesus has already said in Mtw 5:29-30 and that, because the ancient world couldn’t use the concept of the ‘footnote’ as a cross reference, chose to repeat the words in a similar form for his readership to compare with Jesus’ new words of Mtw 18:6-7 (there are significant differences, however, and the subject matter is reversed).

However, as I’ve previously said on numerous occasions, just because the same text occurs in different places shouldn’t require an interpretation that it could only possibly have been said at one time in one place throughout a three year ministry to Israel. It’s better that we interpret Jesus to have repeated Himself here because it was relevant for the disciples to be reminded, than to simply think that Matthew is trying to remind his readership of a previous passage which wasn’t spoken at the time of this discourse in chapter 18.

We’ll deal with both these principles of temptation - the individual (Mtw 18:8-9) and the collective (Mtw 18:7) responsibility, though we’ll deal with them in reverse order.

a. Individual Responsibility
Mtw 18:8-9, Mark 9:43-47

It’s certain from Scripture that the person who sins is responsible for his own sin (Ezek 18:4,30) and that it’s not accurate to point the finger either at the situations in which one finds oneself or at the people who offer a way of living that is contrary to God’s will and to claim that ‘they made me do it’. Each of us has individual freewill which, although giving us the liberty not to be automatons, also rests responsibility in our own lap to act and react correctly when temptation comes our way.

In these two verses, Jesus teaches that the source of temptation that causes men and women to be lured into sin must be cut off from them by the individuals themselves. The solution is certainly radical but not literal - though a believer may need to remove themselves from situations and personalities or remove material things away from their own lives that they know are potentially damaging.

The internal desires of the heart must also be radically dealt with in the cross of Christ (Rom 6:6, Gal 2:20). We’ve already come across this radical instruction to the disciples in their dealing with sin in Mtw 5:29-30 where Jesus spoke of the need to remove an eye or a hand in order that sin might not be committed. I commented on this passage on a separate web page and noted there that it represented a ‘radical approach to purity’ but that it was unlikely to have simply meant that temptation needed to be dealt with solely on an external basis when Jesus knew that the problem with man lay within him (Mtw 15:19-20).

What Jesus was there pointing out to His hearers was summed up in a quote from Mattask which I used and which stated that

‘...a limited but morally healthy life is better than a wider life which is morally depraved...’

with the consequence of eternal consequences being attached to our earthly actions. Mathen paraphrased this first passage also as

‘Take drastic action in getting rid of whatever in the natural course of events will tempt you to sin...Nothing, no matter how precious it may seem to us at the moment...should be allowed to doom our glorious destiny’

Here, then, is a call to the disciple for a radical lifestyle (Matmor calls it ‘a drastic remedy’), one which will sacrifice anything and everything to follow after God and to please Him.

There also remains the possibility that the stumbling stone which appears in the believer’s own life could be the very same temptation which causes another to fall. This doesn’t appear to be implied in the text even though some commentators go on to expand on the words through logical inference and so must remain a possibility rather than the main reason why Jesus spoke the words at this time.

b. Collective Responsibility
Mtw 18:7

As I noted at the conclusion of the previous section, the removal of individual stumbling stones may also consequentially be a safeguard against the disciple of Christ causing another believer to stumble through themselves. As such, it provides a dual purpose in safeguarding the life of Christ in the world in all disciples who one comes into contact with.

Jesus pronounces a ‘woe’ here upon those through whom temptation comes and which is the stimulus which stumbles another believer. His pronouncement upon the channels of temptation in Mtw 18:6 has already demonstrated to the disciples that He takes the spiritual health of the ‘little believer’ with the utmost seriousness and importance, plainly stating that it would be more advantageous for a person to die a violent death before they ever got to that stage of pulling one away from Him.

Therefore, believers bear a collective responsibility with others for their sin when we have become the means whereby the temptation has come which lures them away from God to be ensnared by sin. Temptations will most definitely come as a consequence of this fallen world but they should not come through fellow believers (see Romans 14:1-15:6 especially verses 14:13,15, 15:1-3 and my notes on this passage here).

A good example of both aspects of Jesus’ teaching is found in Mtw 16:21-23 where Peter is the ‘man by whom the temptation comes’ (Mtw 16:22), enticing Jesus with satan’s words. Jesus reacts by radically cutting away the temptation from Himself, refusing to desire the crown without the cross (Mtw 16:23).

The external source of all temptation to a believer is satan and his dominion (Mtw 4:1, I Cor 7:5, I Thess 3:5) - even if man is often the instrument - who work in and through the situations around us. The internal source, however, is the flesh, the old nature (James 1:14) which produces desires that are opposed to the will of God. And, as James says (1:15)

‘...sin when it is full grown brings forth death’

To let temptations lure the believer into being ensnared by sin means inevitable spiritual death. So, Jesus says (Mtw 18:8) that

‘ is better to enter life be thrown into the eternal fire...’

and (Mtw 18:9)

‘ be thrown into the Gehenna of fire’

The consequences aren’t separation from God solely in this life but, worse, eternal separation from God in the world to come. Therefore, the believer is urged to be radical in his dealing with sin - not only in him and through him but also as he encounters it in the world.