But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me…
To stumble is so to trip as to be hindered in faith or to be turned out of the way (cf. Matthew 5:29, 30; Matthew 11:6; Matthew 13:21; Matthew 15:12; Matthew 24:10; Matthew 26:31, 33; John 6:61, 62, 66; John 16:1). Occasions of stumbling are evil influences - allurements, persuasions, temptations, bad example, calumnies, insults, persecutions. The text teaches -
I. THAT CHRIST HOLDS THE WICKED RESPONSIBLE FOR THE INJURY THEY MAY OCCASION TO THE GOOD. The addition of the words, "which believe on me," shows that Christ is here speaking, not of "little ones" in age. but of his disciples, who are of a humble spirit. Observe:
1. There is no infallible final perseverance of the saints.
(1) The recognition of this truth is the very inspiration of this pathetic discourse. These woes would never have been denounced upon men for the doing of what, otherwise, would be impossible.
(2) Let not the believer in Christ be high-minded. Let him fear. Let him watch. Let him pray.
2. "It must needs be that the occasions come."
(1) They are permitted as part of the necessary discipline of our probation. They come from the abuse of free agency.
(2) To the faithful they prove blessed means of grace. They educate passive virtues. The habit of resisting temptation makes a strong character.
3. The instigator to evil is still responsible.
(1) Where he succeeds in causing the saint to stumble he will have to answer for the soul damaged or ruined. There is no impunity for those who turn the simple from their integrity by teaching them to imbibe sentiments subversive of the doctrines of genuine truth, or to indulge in evil practices which destroy or injure the capacity for receiving the graces of the kingdom.
(2) Where the tempter fails he is still responsible for his wickedness.
4. These things need to be emphasized.
(1) Because the wicked are too apt to transfer the blame of their irreligion to the account of the good, by accusing them of apathy and negligence. The good are undoubtedly responsible for the faithfulness of their testimony. They are not, however, beyond this, responsible for results. Noah's testimony was at once his own justification and the condemnation of the world.
(2) Because the wicked are too slow to recognize their responsibility, not only for their own non-reception of Christ, but for the injury they do in hindering others, and especially for damaging the good. To offend the innocent is to offend innocence.
II. THAT SUCH OFFENDERS ARE WARNED BY THE TERROR OF FORMIDABLE PUNISHMENT.
1. The sufferings of antichristian nations are admonitory. "Woe unto the world because of occasions of stumbling!"
(1) The Jews filled up the measure of their iniquity in crucifying Christ and persecuting his disciples, and wrath came upon them to the uttermost.
(2) Degradation and ruin have overtaken or are pursuing those nations which have persecuted the witnesses for Christ. The atheism of France, with its horrors and the decadence of that nation, are the reaction of the superstition and wickedness of earlier persecutions. Prosperity smiles upon the nations that have accepted the Reformation. They have been enriched by industries brought to them by Protestant refugees.
(3) All antichristian nations are doomed in the anticipations of prophecy. "Woe" hangs over "the world" in the larger sense.
2. Individuals also are admonished. "Woe to that man through whom the occasion cometh!"
(1) The retribution upon those who offend the disciples of Christ is worse than death. Jerome says that Christ here speaks according to the custom of the province in punishing the greatest criminals with drowning. The woe here denounced is worse (ver. 6).
(2) The retribution is as crushing as it is sudden. The culprit had no strength to release himself from the weight of the "great millstone," to turn which, supported in position, required the strength of an ass. "It seems to have grown into a proverb with the Jews for total ruin" (Doddridge).
(3) The more terrible punishment is described as a "Gehenna of fire," in allusion to the sufferings of the victims of Moloch (cf. 2 Chronicles 33:6). Burning there is more dreadful than drowning in the Lake of Galilee hard by (cf. Revelation 19:20). Those who play the devil in tempting saints may tremble with the devils.
3. But there is yet space for repentance.
(1) The offending hand must be cut off. Wrong doing must cease. However useful as the right hand. However dear.
(2) The offending foot must be cut off. Wrong going must cease. However natural it may have become through habit as the use of the right foot.
(3) The offending eye must be plucked out. Illicit desire must cease, whether instigated by covetousness, envy, pride, or passion (see Mark 7:22).
(4) These must be cast away. The hand or foot or eye refer to those sins of honour, interest, or pleasure, which men are prone to spare. The godly in this world are lame, deaf, dumb, blind, both to themselves and to others (see Psalm 38:14). The members most mortified here will shine with the greater lustre hereafter. - J.A.M.
Parallel VersesKJV: But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
WEB: but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.