Are you a stumbling block or a building block for Jesus?

Number 562 • September 13, 2020


QUESTION: “What is a stumbling block and what does it mean to be a stumbling block to someone else? What should you do if you encounter a stumbling block?”

A stumbling block is anything, whether or not designed and intended as such, that will cause one to go astray, to stumble, fall, or fail in a required task or required path or to make a mistake for which he can be held accountable. In the midst of a series of laws regulating the treatment of others we find this: “Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:14). Obviously, putting a rock or brick or some other hazard or object to cause stumbling in front of a blind person is cruel, but the New Testament takes the practical adage and turns it into a spiritual metaphor.

Example: After Peter rebuked Jesus, denying the crucifixion would take place, Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s” (Matthew 16:23). Under the influence of Satan, Peter would have distracted Jesus from what He had come to do so Jesus would “stumble” in His path to death on the cross. But do not judge Peter too harshly here.

There is no evidence or inference that he knew and understood the mission of Jesus and deliberately tried to divert him from it, in effect to defeat the plan and purpose of God. Quite likely he was trying to protect Jesus or at least to calm the Lord’s apparent fears and forebodings about what he would encounter in Jerusalem. Having been inspired by God to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), when Jesus then declared to the apostles that he would suffer much and be killed by religious leaders in Jerusalem Peter tried to reassure him that such a thing would not be allowed by God. The part about being raised to life again on the third day seems not to have been noticed or understood by the apostles (Matthew 16:21).

Part of the apostles’ problem was no doubt due to their misunderstanding of the nature of the Christ and his mission and work as intended by God. Paul reiterates the idea: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The idea that the warrior Messiah/Christ they wanted and expected would be crucified was not only a shameful humiliating death but an unthinkable ignoble defeat of both him and God who sent him. Such a concept was a stumbling block that tripped up their beliefs of what the Messiah would be like and kept them from recognizing or accepting the one God sent to them.

Are you a little embarrassed for Peter, or ashamed of what he did – as if he knew what he was doing and was showing that he had a little of Judas in him? Don’t be. Stop it right now before it develops into something that will embarrass you and cast doubt on your own judgment. Remember that, having congratulated Peter on being inspired by God, Jesus called him Petros/Peter, a rock or stone and promised that in the church/kingdom he would build Peter would have a prominent part, as a key-carrier (Matthew 16:18-19). Jesus did not accuse Peter of setting a stumbling block before him. He did not say, “You have set a stumbling block before me,” but rather, “You have become and are a stumbling block to me.”

Jesus recognized the presence and activity of Satan who was setting uncomprehending Peter as a trap for him, he spoke admonishingly to Satan in Peter, admonishing Peter too for thinking like ordinary men and not with the wisdom given him by God, “Get behind me, away from me Satan.” Jesus would not be deterred by either maleficent Satan or misguided men.
Often in scripture a stumbling block refers to something or someone who keeps another from a proper relationship with truth or with God. In Matthew 18:5-7, Jesus says,

“And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!”

Stumbling blocks may also be self-inflicted, even though done ignorantly. Better examine carefully any act or intended action before doing it – anticipate the outcome; do not do it if it will or may cause you to stumble and sin, or cause innocent others to do so. Just as it would be better to chop off one’s hand than to sin (Matthew 18:8), in the perspective of the Kingdom it would be better to drown than lead a child into sin. Similarly, in Romans 14:13, Paul points out that God alone judges; we are not to judge others but rather to be concerned that we are not the ones leading them into the sin we’re so concerned about.

Stumbling blocks also arise when the path is a little more ambiguous. The mature Christian life allows some freedoms that seem contrary to an obedient, disciplined faith. The Corinthians were concerned about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Christians would and should know idols are not realities and sacrificing meat to non-entities did not really change or pollute the meat. But not all have such knowledge and one must not do something that puts a stumbling block in the way of the weak and unknowing. Modern moral issues include drinking alcohol in moderation or dancing or immodest clothing. “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). Our liberty is not worth jeopardizing another’s walk with God. If something God allows would lead another to sin, especially a newcomer to the faith or one with an underdeveloped conscience, we need to avoid it, unless it is something we are commanded and required by God to do, which we can easily teach others to do.

We are given great freedom as Christians, but the greatest is the freedom to consider others’ welfare over our own and give up a liberty – not a command or requirement but a matter of true freedom and conscience – rather than be involved in the moral and spiritual destruction of others.

Avoiding being a stumbling block depends on the situation and the hearts of those around us. The security we have in God’s love and provision allows us to show concern to the weaker ones who need specific encouragement to understand who God is. In some situations that means living in those freedoms to exemplify that God is a God of grace. In others, it means disciplining ourselves to build up weaker believers and not push them into a liberty they’re not ready for. But, always, it means not encouraging another to act in a way the Bible specifically identifies as sin.

Some may try to cause Christ to stumble but they will not succeed. He always recognizes the traps set for him – nothing will tempt him to disobey or disappoint God; nothing will induce him to mislead or fail his followers. But none, if any, of his disciples – even apostles, as we saw with Peter – is as astute as Christ, none whose eyes are so fully open and clear that they are incapable or even unlikely to be deceived and led astray.

All Christians should be intent on building for Christ, of being material that Christ can use in building his church and the kingdom of God. We might wish that he would rebuke Satan and be more directly involved in defending us against the stumbling blocks and unworthy ideas Satan can put into our minds – we might wish Jesus would make it so that we would be impervious to the wiles and snares and devices of the devil, that Satan would be unable to tempt or deceive us or hurt us spiritually in any way. But that is not the way it with us and with the Lord and with our enemies. We are to become aware of the devil and his ways and avoid them (1 Peter 5:8-9, 2 Corinthians 2:11, James 4:7).

Not only are we required to be fruit-bearers for the Lord (John 15:1-8, Galatians 5:22-24) – which includes offering ourselves and our resources for him to use in building his church, and also includes building for him with the resources and materials he supplies (1 Corinthians 3:15-13-16) – but we are not to cause stumbling in ourselves or any others. We are to be building blocks, not stumbling blocks. Which am I? Which are you? <><>