Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Seriousness of Discipleship

In Mark 9:42 Jesus states, “Whosoever shall offend one of [these] little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast in the sea.” Clearly, Jesus was not exclusively referring to actual children, but He did mean all those who are believers. Personal sin is serious, and just as serious, if not more so (if that’s possible), is to cause someone else to sin. I’m sure there were a few – like twelve – jaws on the floor, maybe some “gulps” and wide eyes staring at Jesus when He made this statement because the disciples had been provoking each other to jealousy, envy, and resentment. They had been proud, self-seeking, and causing each other, and maybe even others such as the unnamed exorcist, to sin.

How do we cause people to sin? There are at least three ways.

Directly
Purposefully seducing and leading others to do what we know is wrong. This is the most obvious form of causing others to sin. Jeroboam is the prime Old Testament except of one who caused God’s people to sin. Beginning in 1 Kings 14 and continuing all the way through 2 Kings 23 you will read of “Jeroboam, who did sin, and who made Israel to sin.” In his letter to the church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) the glorified Christ warned them to repent from the false teaching of “that woman Jezebel” who was teaching and seducing “my servants to commit fornication.” If she and those who hearkened unto her would not repent, Jesus warned, they would be cast into great tribulation and killed. We directly lead others into sin when we lead them to follow a path that glorifies ourselves or someone other than the Lord. When we use others for our own pleasure instead of leading them to praise and glorify God; in all these ways and more we directly seduce others to sin.

Indirectly
We indirectly cause others to sin when we set a bad example for them to follow. We may not openly seduce them towards sinful patterns, but by a negative or careless example we indirectly lead them to sin. D.L. Moody used to tell the story of a little boy who one night snuck out of his house in the middle of a heavy snowfall to follow his dad. His dad was going to a bar, and as he was walking he began to hear snow crunching behind him. He turned and saw his little boy hopping from one footstep to the next, literally following in his daddy’s footsteps. The father said, “Son, where are you going?” The boy answered, “I'm just following your footsteps, Daddy.” Moody said that was the last time the man ever took a drink.

In regards to parents, specifically fathers, we are guilty of this when we provoke our children to wrath (Ephesians 6:4) by being overprotective, never affirming, never pleased with their effort, expecting perfection, playing favorites, neglecting them, being physically and/or verbally abusive. Instead of being an example of sinfulness, we are to be an example of holiness (1 Timothy 4:12).

Indifferently
We also cause people to sin through indifference. You may say, “I don’t try to lead people to do sinful things, and I don’t set bad examples. In fact, I don’t get involved at all. I do my own thing. Mind my own business.” That’s the wrong answer. Christianity is not a religion of isolation. Christianity is supposed to be lived out in community. Believers must be engaged with each other, stirring one another up to love and good works; not neglecting the assembly; encouraging one another to faithfully follow Christ all the way to the end (Hebrews 10:22-25).

Instead of provoking others to sin, we are to provoke one another to be joyful, committed disciples of Christ.It is better to suffer the agonizing death of drowning than to cause another believer to sin. I didn’t say that. Jesus Christ did!

Sin is serious, and believers are commanded to deal drastically with it. Jesus did not and does not take sin lightly, and you will never find cheap remedies for sin in the Bible. In order for anyone to be ultimately saved from the penalty of sin, which is death and eternal punishment in a literal hell, Jesus Christ had to die on the cross. He died as our substitute. Jesus Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many, and those who believe have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Sin is serious and hell is real. Mark 9:43-48 read like a horrific song, and the dreadful phrase: “Where their worm dieth not, not the fire is not quenched” is the chorus. That repeated refrain is actually a quote of Isaiah 66:24, which is a vivid description of what awaits those who rebel against God. The word Jesus uses for “hell” is gehenna. Gehenna refers to the valley of Hinnom just south of Jerusalem. It was the place where some of the wicked kings of Israel had offered their children to the Moabite god Molech to be burned with fire. It was a defiled place, and it became the garbage dump of Jerusalem where fires continuously smoldered and repulsive worms fed on the garbage. To the Jews Gehenna fittingly symbolized the eternal fire of hell.

Jesus spoke of hell more than any other person in the New Testament, and He spoke of hell more often than He did heaven. When we read these somber and serious words of Jesus about hell, we must understand that when they are applied to an unbeliever who has resisted and rejected the good news of Jesus Christ, it means that the person's whole life is like something tossed on a burning garbage dump; a waste, a total loss. An unbeliever may have won the approval of other people, may have lived comfortably, but at the end of life ends up on the trash heap for eternity for rejecting God’s only begotten Son. This is a warning to unbelievers. Deal drastically with your sin, by turning in repentance and faith from the path that you are on and to the Lord Jesus Christ who has already paid the penalty that a righteous God demands. Remember one of the verses we’ve already quoted from 1 John 4:10: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

That’s one application of this text, but the primary application, in the context of this passage, is to those who have already believed. Jesus is not addressing unbelievers but His disciples. (Now this in no way implies that believers are able to lose their salvation. Just as it in no way teaches that one should literally maim one’s self as a means of avoiding sin and gaining eternal life.) Jesus used hyperbole to demonstrate the seriousness of sin, and to teach us to take drastic measures in our own lives regarding what we doour handswhere we goour feet – and what we see and look atour eyes – so that we avoid sinful behavior and keep away from leading others – directly, indirectly, or indifferently – to sin also. Nothing is so precious that it should be maintained if it leads us to sin. Just as sin leads men to eternal punishment in hell, sin will lead the believer to the depths of discipline from our Lord and lead another Christian into sin. This is why Paul says to the Corinthian church, “I keep under my body, and bring [it] into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Take drastic measures to deal with your own sin; to avoid the chastening rod of God; to keep from leading another believer into sin, and to avoid leading an unbeliever away from Christ. Our lives our like signposts pointing others towards a certain direction and as Christians we must be certain that we are pointing others always to Jesus. To quote Paul’s letter to the Corinthians once again, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also [am] of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Believers are called to be salty rather than sinful Christians. This is not a reference to salty language but to salty lives; in other words, lives consecrated to Christ. Old Testament sacrifices were seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). Believers are to offer their lives to Christ as, in the words of Paul yet again but this time from Romans 12:1-2, “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

Instead of being seasoned with salt, however, disciples of Jesus Christ will be seasoned with the fire of trials, just as Peter wrote about in 1 Peter 1:6-7 and 1 Peter 4:12. It’s what Paul warned the Thessalonians about in 1 Thessalonians 3:3-4, and the Christians of Antioch in Acts 14:22. If we will be disciples of Christ we must willingly be “salted with fire.” Through fiery trials the disciple’s faith will emerge tested and purified for his own good and God’s own glory!

Salt was a crucial commodity in the ancient world. Roman soldiers would sometimes be paid in salt, and the Jews had a maxim which stated, “The world cannot survive without salt.” We primarily use salt today as a seasoning, but salt was so important in antiquity because it was used as a preservative. Salt preserved food from rotting. Jesus’ call for Christians to “have salt in yourselves” is a call for His disciples – then and now – to be a preserving influence in a decaying world. Sinclair Ferguson writes:
Our Lord’s point is that unless we maintain the purity of our own lives and are purified by the flames of testing, and remain faithful to Christ, our lives will have no preserving influence on this corrupt world. If we begin to fall into the same patterns of life as those which are characteristic of the world, we will never be able to point men and women to another world.
Let’s not overlook or downplay Christ’s final admonition in this passage. Our Lord says, “And have peace one with another.” This is not an anti-climatic tacked on phrase but a beautiful summation of His point. When the Christian community in general and the local church in specific is able to “have peace one with another” we are clearly distinguished from the back-biting and back-scratching communities of the world. This calls to mind another of those Johannine passages which we read earlier, John 13:35, “By this shall all [men] know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

Being at peace with one another is a reflection of the God-given peace we have received from Jesus Christ. True Christian fellowship and cooperation is a powerful witness to a divided, loveless, violent world. Jesus leaves us here with some heart-searching questions:
  • Am I seeking supremacy for myself and my group, or I am I seeking to glorify and promote the cause of Christ?
  • Am I treating sin casually? Do I deal drastically with sin in my life?
  • Am I willing to be cleansed through fiery trials?
  • Am I living as a preservative on society, or am I contributing – through action or inaction – to the decay?
  • Am I living and serving with my fellow church members peaceably?

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