Pastor David B. Curtis


Don't Cause Your Brother to Stumble

Mark 9:38-50

Delivered 11/05/2006

I want to begin this morning with a profound quote from J. I. Packer. This quote is worth our understanding and meditation. To understand this quote is to gain a huge advantage in your study of the Bible:

We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. . . . It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has moulded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be "catholic" tradition, or "critical" tradition, or "ecumenical" tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures. (J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958], pp. 69-70.)

Believer, we must test everything we believe by the text. The beliefs you hold must come from the text. And we must be open to allowing the text to shatter our false ideas.

In our last study we saw Jesus spending some time alone with His disciples in order to teach them. The main theme of Jesus' teaching was how to be great:

Mark 9:35 (NASB) And sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all."

What Jesus does is He takes human values, and He dumps them on their head--He turns them upside down. You see, we think greatness is about being first. Jesus says, "Greatness is about being last." We think greatness is about having a position of power and prestige where we can be served. Jesus says, "Greatness is about being a servant." From Jesus' perspective, a great person puts everyone else before himself and takes on the role of a servant.

Mark 9:38 (NASB) John said to Him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we tried to hinder him because he was not following us."

John was the youngest of the twelve disciples (tradition says he was 8 to 10 years old), and here he is the one who speaks up. A recent encounter troubled him, and he brought it to Jesus. It seems that there had been a certain person casting out demons in the name of Christ. Undoubtedly, this person's ministry was successful. In other words, he was actually casting the demons out. He was doing so in the Lord's name. But because he was not a follower of the twelve, they tried to hinder him. Notice that John describes the person as not following "us." He wasn't part of "their" group.

I think we need to read this concern in light of the disciples' failure to cast out the demon in Mark 9:14-18. Are the disciples concerned, or are they jealous? Are they concerned, or are they embarrassed because this guy is able to do something they couldn't do?

In Acts 19:13-16 a bunch of Jewish exorcists try to cast out a demon in Jesus' name, and it does not go well for them--the demon beats them up. So it would seem that if this guy was successful that God's power was working through him.

John says, "we tried to hinder him" ­ the word "hinder" is the Greek word koluo, which means: "to forbid, or to restrain." Apparently the disciples were not successful in stopping this exorcist, because they tell the Lord that they tried to stop him.

So here the disciples have taken it upon themselves to tell someone else what kind of a ministry they may or may not have. Isn't it interesting that this group of men, who fought with one another for position, also resisted anyone else having a successful ministry? If they were unable to successfully cast out a demon, why should they allow this "outsider" to do so? Jesus responded by rebuking the disciples, reminding them that anyone who was not against them, anyone who was doing good in His name, was no enemy.

The problem with the disciples is one of exclusivity. They felt that they were a part of the only authorized company of disciples allowed to minister in Jesus' name. It's the same problem we have today. There are many who look down at others if they are not a part of their denomination, or if they did not graduate from the right seminary. If people do not fit our particular pattern, sometimes they are dismissed as being somehow inferior, second class Christians, if they are Christians at all.

As we saw last week, everything we have we have received from God. So we shouldn't be so arrogant as to tell others how they should do what they do in the name of Christ. Instead of being arrogant toward other believers we should exercise Christlike qualities toward them such as: Patience ­ realizing every believer is not at the same stage of spiritual growth; flexibility ­ realizing that while some things are real important, others are not, some are non-essentials; tolerance ­ even when others are clearly wrong we must remember that we are not the right hand of God's justice, we are not the agents of discipline; kindness ­ our treatment of other believers should be governed by Paul's words:

Ephesians 4:32 (NASB) And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

As we think back on the disciples' jealousy and insecurity here, I think it's definitely tied to their definition of greatness. Because greatness for them is about getting first place--about getting a position where they can be served. And this guy that just cast out a demon--he's a threat. He might get the place in God's kingdom that they want.

Do you know how they should have responded to this incident? They should have rejoiced: "We've had a demonstration of God's power and someone who has suffered from demon possession has been freed. Hallelujah!" But that's not how they respond. They're getting petty. They're getting jealous. They're getting very envious. If their definition of greatness had been putting everyone else before themselves and taking on the role of a servant, they would have responded differently to this situation.

Look at Jesus' response to their attitude of arrogance:

Mark 9:39-40 (NASB) But Jesus said, "Do not hinder him, for there is no one who shall perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. 40 "For he who is not against us is for us.

The fact that demons were being cast out in the name of Jesus, indicated that there was some reality about his ministry. Jesus says: Don't hinder them, because if their not against us they are for us. Jesus is here calling for tolerance. The disciples should not try to hinder people who are attempting to minister in the name of Christ. Just because they are not in their particular camp does not mean their ministry cannot be valid. Because some churches do not worship in quite the same way, or hold to all the doctrines which we believe, does not mean they are not of God?

Mark 9:40 (NASB) "For he who is not against us is for us.

This is very broad definition of the church. Jesus is saying, If they are for Me they are with us. Don't we, like the disciples, try to exclude people who are not like us? Shouldn't we accept anyone who is a Christian? Remember this: The way we treat other Christians is how we treat Christ:

Matthew 25:40 (NASB) "And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'

So if a person is a Christian, they are one with us in the family of God. What does someone have to believe in order to be a Christian? The Gospel! John put it very simply:

John 20:31 (NASB) but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

Anyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, Who died to pay their sin debt, and trusts only and completely in Christ's finished work on the cross for them, is a fellow believer. Do you agree with that? What about Arminians? Pentecostals? Futurists? Dispensationalists? If they have trusted Christ, they are one with us in the family of God.

In verses 41 and 42 Jesus speaks of two ways in which we can deal with people. We can either deal with them positively, through encouragement, or we can destroy that relationship through selfish manipulation.

Mark 9:41 (NASB) "For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.

Jesus speaks of someone giving you a cup of water to drink because you are a follower of Christ. This may sound like a small thing to do, but it is a very important thing. It is a basic act of encouragement. The picture painted for the disciples was that of a long, dusty journey; a hard day's toil in which they had spent themselves ministering in Christ's name. They were tired and thirsty, then someone comes along and recognizes them as Christ's followers. He sees their need and offers them a little refreshment along their way. It was an act of encouragement. It is far more than a mere glass of water; it is just what they need at just the right time. It says to them, "I'm for you, and I'm with you. Let me encourage you to keep going for Jesus."

Isn't it true that we all need encouragement like that? Sometimes our souls are weary and parched. Our emotions thirst for someone to refresh us and encourage us. A little encouragement will go a long way. All of us need encouragement.

Jesus is saying that any service done to any of His people in His name amounts to service to Him and will be rewarded. But on the other hand:

Mark 9:42 (NASB) "And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.

What John and the other disciples were doing in verse 38 was putting a hindrance, a stumbling block, in the path of this other believer.

The words "to stumble" are from the Greek word skandalizo. In the Greek, that word is used literally of a bait stick in a trap, where an animal would come and grab the bait on the bait stick and the trap would close. The word eventually came to mean: "a snare, a temptation to sin or an enticement." The verb form means: "to lure into sin or to lure astray."

The Greek term scandalizo is the root for our English term "to scandalize." We use it to describe improper or unconventional behavior, often using it to infer a moral or ethical issue. A scandalous person shocks the senses of decency and proper behavior.

Anything that moves us away from our devotion and faithfulness to Jesus Christ is a stumbling block. It affects the believer personally and has a residual, negative effect upon others.

Can a Christian be a stumbling block to another believer?

Matthew 16:23 (NASB) But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's."

There are times when the Christian is actually the source of the stumbling block. In this instance, Peter did not (and could not) succeed. So, too, in other cases, the offended party may not fall into the sin we made attractive to them, but we are, nevertheless, guilty of promoting the evil.

Technically speaking, we cannot make another person sin any more than we can make him or her do that which is pleasing to God. We can influence people in either direction. We are a "stumbling block" to others when we influence people in the direction of sin. This is the exact opposite to the command of the Scriptures to "stimulate one another to love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10:24).

Mark 9:42 (NASB) "And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.

How many of you ladies have millstones at home? Since we're not too familiar with millstones, let me tell you a little about them. A millstone was used for the grinding of corn or grain, every household had one. The household millstones were about 2 feet across and 6 inches thick. It took two women to use it. It probably weighed between 75 to 100 pounds. How would you like to go swimming with that around your neck? You get the point, right? Well this is even stronger than you may think. The Greek word used for millstone here is mulos onikos, which means: "a millstone belonging to a donkey." This was not the average household millstone but one so large that a donkey was used to turn it.

Mark says this millstone was "hung around his neck," which interprets Jesus' words as meaning that the stone was suggested as being placed over the neck of the person being mentioned. Mark's readership could have envisaged such an action being done, there was sufficient room in the millstones hole for a human head to have been placed through it.

When Jesus spoke of a millstone hung around someone's neck, and that person being cast into the sea, He was using an illustration contemporary to His time. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, in his Antiquities, Judas the Galilean, an early Zealot leader who had led an insurrection, was drowned in a lake in this fashion. The Roman historian, Suetonius, mentions in his De Via Caesarium, a similar punishment being inflicted in another graphic case. No doubt, the apostles had seen the drowned bodies of victims attached to millstones.

Please notice that Jesus says: "It would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea." He is saying that being drowned in the sea with a millstone hung around his neck would be a better fate than that which could occur. What is being drowned with a millstone better than?

Matthew 13:40-42 (NASB) "Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. 41 "The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Now would you rather be quickly drowned or cast into a furnace of fire? I think that we can understand Jesus to be saying that those who cause His children to stumble will be judged. Anything that causes a believer to stumble must be severely dealt with:

Mark 9:43-48 (NASB) "And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 <where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.> 45 "And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 <where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.> 47 "And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.

Verses 44 and 46 are not in the oldest manuscripts. They are a repetition of verse 48. Remember the context here is found in verse 42 ­ we are not to be a stumbling block to another believer. Then He goes on to tell us that anything that is a stumbling block is to be drastically dealt with.

The context requires us to understand these verses, not in a literal sense, but in a broader sense to refer to distinctive behavioral patterns that are disruptive of relationships with other members of the "household" of Christ. It seems to me that the focus in these verses is very close to that of Paul 's discussion of "food offered to idols" in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, and of how tastes and scruples in eating, drinking, etc. may upset relationships between believers:

1 Corinthians 8:4-9 (NASB) Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. 7 However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. 8 But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. 9 But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

We might reword the principle like this: A believer should relinquish the exercise of any and every right he has in Christ if that right is a detriment to another believer, or a stumbling block to their spiritual growth. Paul had taught this principle to the Corinthians in chapter 8. He told them, in response to their question, you have every right to eat meat that has been offered in a sacrifice to an idol, but if the eating of that meat should be to the detriment of another believer, so that you would cause them to stumble, or to be offended, then you ought not to exercise that right. Your rights are to be limited if they will harm another believer's spiritual walk.

Mark 9:47 (NASB) "And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell,

The analogy he draws is very clear and is taken from life itself. If you have an infected arm that develops gangrene, and it is threatening your very life, and the doctors cannot do any more for you, there is only one thing left to do, cut it off, amputate it. Your life is at stake. Jesus uses that very dramatic analogy to tell us how serious it is when we are involved in wrongful and hurtful attitudes and actions, and what we must do about it. We must deal drastically with anything that would be a stumbling block to another.

Mark 9:43-48 (NASB) "And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, 44 <where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.> 45 "And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell, 46 <where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.> 47 "And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, 48 where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.

What is Jesus saying here? Is He saying, If you don't deal with your sin you are going to go to Hell? Is He saying, You are better off maiming yourself than losing your salvation? Who is Jesus speaking these words to? His disciples!

The word translated "hell" in these verses is the Greek word Gehanna. This word never occurs in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint. When we read the word "hell," all kinds of ideas come to our minds. We may think of the abode of condemned souls and the devil, or a place of eternal fiery punishment for the wicked after death, presided over by Satan. We may think of a place of fire and brimstone, where the damned undergo physical torment eternally. It is doubtful that any of these ideas came to the minds of Jesus' listeners; for them gehenna was the garbage dump for Jerusalem.

Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, said:

Gehanna, the name of a valley on the S. and E. of Jerusalem . . . which was so called from the cries of the little children who were thrown into the fiery arms of Moloch, i.e., of an idol having the form of a bull. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible sacrifices had been abolished by king Josiah (2 Kings xxiii.10), that they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed. And since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to pass that the place was called Gehanna.

Gehanna, translated "hell," is found just eleven times in the New Testament (Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). Gehenna began to be used as a place of human sacrifice in the days of King Ahaz. Gehenna is referred to in Jeremiah 7 as the valley of Hinnom. In this passage, people are burning their own sons and daughters as human sacrifices. That is how dedicated and committed they are to the worship of the fire god, Molech.

Jeremiah 7:30-33 (NASB) "For the sons of Judah have done that which is evil in My sight," declares the LORD, "they have set their detestable things in the house which is called by My name, to defile it. 31 "And they have built the high places of Topheth (place of fire), which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind. 32 "Therefore, behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no other place. 33 "And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the sky, and for the beasts of the earth; and no one will frighten them away.

Later in Israel's history, a godly king, Josiah, came to the throne in Jerusalem and wanted to do away with the system of human sacrifices that had been practiced in the valley of Hinnom:

2 Kings 23:10 (NASB) He also defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech.

Josiah wanted to do away with this practice, so he defiled the place by making it the garbage dump of Jerusalem. All of the trash, refuse, and dung from the city was dumped out there for centuries until the time of Christ. Characteristic of this place were the fires which were kept burning all the time ­ night and day. This fact is referred to by Christ in the Gospels as the place where the fires are not quenched and the worms have not died. That means the fires burn there constantly. The Valley of Hinnom was a place that had become identified in people's minds as a filthy and accursed place where useless and evil things were destroyed. Christ used it to describe a place of suffering and torment. That is the background of Gehenna.

Notice that Jesus says in our text, "to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire." The word "unquenchable" is from the Greek word asbestos. This word is only used three time in the NASB, once here and in Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, where John the Baptist said Jesus would baptize with "unquenchable fire." Unquenchable fire is unstoppable fire! It's fiery destruction brought about by God. God promised such a national judgment on Judah:

Ezekiel 20:47-48 (NASB) and say to the forest of the Negev, 'Hear the word of the LORD: thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it shall consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched, and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. 48 "And all flesh will see that I, the LORD, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched."'"

Babylon fulfilled these words in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The fire was not quenched ­ the destruction was unstoppable, but Jerusalem didn't burn unendingly from 586 B.C. on.

So when Jesus spoke of "unquenchable fire" in our text, He used language that his Jewish listeners would associate with the national judgments God had brought on nations in the Old Testament. In fact, unlike us, they had never heard such language used any other way!

Notice what Jesus says about hell:


What is this language referring to? Where would we go to find out? The tanakh:

Isaiah 66:24 (NASB) "Then they shall go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm shall not die, And their fire shall not be quenched; And they shall be an abhorrence to all mankind."

This verse is talking about God's destruction of Jerusalem in the generation when Jesus was crucified. When Jesus spoke about "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched," the disciples would have been familiar with these words as referring to a national judgment.

So Gehenna was a place that had become identified in people's minds as a filthy and accursed place where useless and evil things were destroyed. This is not talking about eternal damnation. It was a defiled place, and it became the garbage dump of Jerusalem. Fires smoldered there continuously; repulsive and ugly worms ate at the garbage. That becomes the symbol of judgement, the waste of life.

So Jesus is saying, Deal with your sin, use drastic measures if necessary, or I'll deal with it. I'll judge you and you'll end up in the garbage dump.

From here, Jesus uses the catch word "fire" to move to verse:

Mark 9:49 (NASB) "For everyone will be salted with fire.

In Old Testament times, all the Temple sacrifices had to be accompanied by salt. Salt speaks of sacrifice. Fire speaks of judgment or testing. To be "salted with fire" means that we will be tested and tried in order to develop the character of Christ in us.

Mark 9:50 (NASB) "Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another."

Salt was a preservative, and the saying of the day was: "The world can't survive without salt"-- because the food would rot. And the implication is clear. The world cannot survive without Jesus' followers. They are the preservative. They're the ones through whom God works to preserve the world.

A final warning closes the exhortation. Salt is good as long as it is salty. If not, it is thrown away. Now salt in the ancient world was used in several ways: as a catalyst for a fire, as seasoning, as a preservative, and as fertilizer. In each case the presence of salt facilitated some function. But once salt ceases to perform its role, it is good for nothing. Similarly, the disciple who loses "saltiness" can become useless to God.

I think what Jesus is saying is that we should not be a stumbling block, but we should be a positive influence on our fellow brothers and to the world. We should be salt. Our lives should count for something, because we stand for something. Our very presence ought to raise the moral atmosphere of society. The salt of our life ought to have a healing and preserving influence. Our lives can positively impact fellow believers and society. We can make a difference.

History is replete with examples of individuals who, by the strength and force of their inner character, made a drastic difference in society. One such example is William Wilberforce, a tiny, almost elfish man, who by the strength of his character almost singlehandedly brought about the Slavery Emancipation Bill in England. He was salt to the British society. James Boswell wrote of him after he heard one of his speeches, "I saw a shrimp become a whale." Those who are salty make a difference in society. They season it. They preserve it.

Jesus closes this section by saying, "Be at peace with one another." That's what this section is all about! If you want to be great in God's kingdom, you need to be the servant of all; not merely looking out for your own personal interests, but looking out for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). When you seek to be the servant of all, you will be an encouragement and not a stumbling block to other believers. You will be at peace with each other.

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