“Woe to the world because of offenses!” (Matthew 18:7)
An ordinary day. The sun shining. A little child standing nearby. Jesus talking about the kingdom He is establishing and the disciples debating who of them will be the greatest in that kingdom. Jesus overhears them and says: “Woe to the world because of offenses!” (Matthew 18.7)
You scratch your head at this reply. What sort of answer is this? What is meant by these ‘offenses’ and what is this ‘woe’ Jesus speaks of? Sometimes we speak of being personally offended. Is that what is meant here by ‘offenses’? Unlikely, because Jesus had no problem personally offending the Pharisees (Mt. 15:12). Are the offenses then the miserable events in the world that we read about in the news – the murders, rapes, terrorism? Evidently not; commentaries say they’re the results of the ‘offenses’; they’re the woes.
So what does Jesus mean by offenses? This was something we recently discussed at men’s Bible Study. The marginal note in my Bible says offenses are enticements to sin. Commentaries mention stimulants to sin and encouragements to do wrong. Offenses, they say, are stumbling blocks that lead to evil deeds. These offenses result in ‘woes’. So we might conclude that offenses are the thoughts (or thoughtlessness), ideas, “traps, beguiling allurements”[i] that cause others to do wrong and that cause the stream of misery to flow over the world.
Such offenses can indeed merely be the result of thoughtlessness, of carelessness. Some days ago a young man of our congregation told me that, as he was driving, a motor cyclist sped past him. A little later he came upon the scene of an accident where the same motor cyclist lay dead. A car had pulled out in front of him. It would seem that, by not taking sufficient care, the car driver caused the motor cyclist’s death.
Even more serious is spiritual carelessness. When we as parents, other relatives or teachers speak or act in ways that do not reflect the fruits of the Spirit we become an offense for our children that can later bear fruits of woe.[ii] If our entertainment is worldly, if we mirror the world’s devotion to sports heroes or movie stars, if our Christianity is merely a lukewarm going-through-the-motions, we are offenses – stumbling blocks for our children, examples for them to copy – and to take a step further – as they mature and become adults.
But offenses can also be deliberate enticements to evil. Consider the unsafe ‘Safe Schools’ program recently presented as an anti-bullying curriculum for Australian schools. Designed to promote homosexuality, gender theory and sexualisation in schools this offense is a deliberate attempt to change society through anti-family ideology, a change that will lead to the break-down of heterosexual marriage and further misery.
Hence the offense is there where the lie is told, for example by introducing homosexuality under the banner of ‘equality’. It’s there when political parties dream up policies which have a bad effect on society. It’s there when a synod compromises God’s Word on the altar of unscriptural unity, or when a church fails to exercise Scriptural discipline upon blatant hardening in sin. It’s there when we fail to speak up or act where God’s Word calls us to speak or act.
The ‘woes’, on the other hand, refer to the results of the offense, to the consequences of the stumbling blocks, to the misery caused by those enticements to sin or our failure to act when we should. When bombs fall, or terrorists attack, or the government forces us to close down our schools and board up our churches, then we have misery, blood and tears. That is the woe; not the offense. The offence is the root cause of these woes, the sinful ideas from a corrupt heart, the breaking of the commandments, the failure to promote what is right, just and honourable.[iii]
What does all this have to do with the disciples’ debate about who will be the greatest in Christ’s kingdom? Jesus’ reaction to their debate is to point to a little child. Why? Because, says Dr Schilder,[iv] such a child doesn’t think about what leadership roles he will later have. He doesn’t reason about the possible position of authority or influence he may later attain. He simply entrusts himself to his dad and mum. They know what he needs and they will care for him as he grows up. The talents God has given him will later become evident and influence his position. In the same way the disciples, and we, are simply to entrust ourselves to our Father in heaven and not concern ourselves with being the greatest. Simply allow ourselves to be governed by the norms of God’s Word and leave the rest to God.
We can see it in church history where the question of who is the greatest – most influential, most powerful – has involved offenses leading to woe. Think of the Pharisees’ love of power and prestige eliciting Jesus’ words of woe in Matthew 23. Or the struggle for power in the Roman church during the Great Reformation. Events leading up to the Liberation of 1944, too, basically revolved around the question of who is the greatest in Christ’s church. A synod elevated itself, became hierarchical and claimed a power it did not legitimately have, in order to force people to adopt false teachings. It was not careful to test those false teachings on the basis of Scripture and to submit to Scripture alone. That was an offense that led to the woe of faithful ministers being deposed.
The warning is there for us all because we ourselves are sinful and can so easily be an offense to God’s children. Therefore Jesus says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones [indeed any of God’s children] to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and he were to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt. 18:6). That’s how seriously He takes offenses against His children. Jesus acknowledges that, “offenses must come”. Not that they ought to come, but they must come because we are sinful, and because our sworn enemies – Satan, the world and our own nature – don’t let up in their attacks. But Jesus adds: “woe to that man by whom the offense comes” (Mt. 18:7). Better it is to be drowned in the sea than to lead a child of God astray. Extreme care is warranted because even seemingly insignificant actions, a small step in the wrong direction, just a little spiritual poison here and there, can lead to woes.
If this was all Jesus said, our position would look bleak; we would not escape the threefold woe spoken by Jesus, for by nature there is no good in us. Looking back over our lives we would have to confess that our offenses have been many and grievous. The extent that they haven’t caused others to stumble and haven’t caused woe can only be attributable to God. We need not, however, despair; Christ’s words of woe to us sinners stand in the light of further revelation.
That revelation shows us that Christ is not only our Chief Prophet who teaches us the truth about offenses and the resulting woes, but He is also our great High Priest who teaches us to look to the cross for an answer to our offenses. Moreover, He gives us the Holy Spirit to renew us after His image so that more and more the offenses arising from our old nature are put to death and we walk in newness of life.[v]
Nevertheless, to ignore Christ’s warnings about offenses is to invite woe. Let us take the warnings very seriously and humbly submit to His command, as He echoes those the Spirit spoke through Isaiah: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Is. 5:20). Only by strictly observing God’s commands do we avoid giving offenses. We triumph when we speak according to these words: “To the law and to the testimony” since “if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Is. 8:20).[vi]
[i] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 1973, p. 690.
[ii] K Schilder’s sermon on Matthew 18:7 in Preken – Deel 2, Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, Goes, 1954, p. 367ff.