It is an interesting term – stumbling block. I seriously doubt if anyone ever set out to purposefully make an actual stumbling block. You can't go on YouTube for an instructional video, and I am quite certain that none of us have ever seen an object that we would recognize specifically as a stumbling block. We have never walked through a museum looking at historic artifacts, and seen a display of a block of some sort with a little identifying placard that said “Stumbling Block,” explaining its use and origin.
Nevertheless, despite this lack of experience, none of us have any difficulty knowing what is meant by the term. It is not difficult for us because all of us have stumbled over something or another at some time in our lives. We know what a stumbling block is.
Stumbling Blocks in the Bible
I believe that the expression stumbling block is strictly a Biblical term. I do not know of any other literature that uses this idiom. To be technical about it, the word block has been added by the translators in an attempt to clarify the meaning for us. The meaning, of course, is quite clear. It first appears in the book of Leviticus (19:14) where there is a prohibition of putting a stumbling block in the path of a blind man in order to trip him.
By the time the phrase appears in the New Testament, this “tripping someone up” came to mean anything that would lead someone else to fall into doing a wrong deed. The Apostle Paul for instance, spoke of stumbling blocks as those things in our lives that will cause another to compromise his faith and fall into sin.
“Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Paul tells us (Romans 14:13).
In speaking about stumbling blocks, the apostle means not only those things that are overtly evil, but even those things that are neutral or innocuous, but which still may be a cause of stumbling to someone else. He uses the example of the proper day to gather for worship, or of the dietary customs of the day. Some people in his experience regarded the eating of meat as wrong, or the drinking of wine.
About these matters, Paul writes, “I am convinced and fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.”
Nevertheless, continuing with the example of eating meat, he writes, “If your brother is distressed by what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother, for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good, then, to be spoken of as evil.”
Paul’s point is that rather than focusing on these external acts as Christians, our focus should be on the inner qualities of ourselves and of others. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
“Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food!” Paul says. “All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to let his eating be a stumbling block. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything to cause your brother to stumble” (Quotations from Romans 14:13-23 BSB).
A Special Consideration for Children
In Matthew 18, Jesus brings up the subject of stumbling blocks in the context of our influence upon children. He told the disciples, “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” (Matthew 18:6 BSB).
We can see that Jesus took this issue of being a stumbling block seriously indeed. This is especially so, it seems, when it comes to our influence upon children. Children naturally look to adults as role models. They look to their parents in particular, but they also look to all of us.
It is understandable why they should do this. They know that they will one day be adults, so to whom else should they look? It is the adults in their lives that give them a guide as to what they should be like.
To many adults, this is a frightening thought. It is frightening because they know that they themselves have certain things in their lives that should not be there. In order to ease our conscience about this, we often will say to ourselves, “This is my personal affair and it is not the business of anyone else.”
We tell ourselves, “There are many adults that do this same thing, so why should it bother me?”
Well… that may work for us for a while, were it not for one thing. That thing is the Holy Spirit. If there is something in our lives that is not according to the way that God wants us to live, the Holy Spirit has a way of letting us know. He points these things out to us and he does not let us rest.
The Holy Spirit Confronts the Stumbling Blocks
The truth be told, there are many things about all of our lives that are not as they should be. But the Holy Spirit does not simply say we are evil people, proceed to list all of our faults for us to prove his point, and then tell us to change. It may be that this is how it is before we become believers in Jesus. We saw our lives as heading in an entirely wrong direction and understood that we need to change everything about it. The Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and convinces us that we need to turn to God in our lives.
This is the way that we become Christians after having lived only for the world and for ourselves. However, once we become believers, the Holy Spirit deals with us in a different way. It is not that our entire lives are heading in a wrong direction any more, but there are still things about our lives that are not right.
These the Holy Spirit points out to us one at a time. He convicts us on one area of our life that we need to bring before Jesus, so that we may confess it to him and ask him to help us in it. When we have victory in that area, the Holy Spirit shows us something else about our lives that we need to deal with.
Does that sound like a lot of work? Well, it is…sort of. But the even greater thing about it is that it is freedom; it is growth. Freedom is sometimes difficult to obtain, and growth inevitably comes slowly, but it is worth the effort. It is worth the time.
Dealing with Stumbling Blocks
“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks!” Jesus said. “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matthew 18:7).
As we can see, this is a central issue for Jesus. This is not something that we can just brush off as being our own personal affair. Whenever Jesus pronounced “woe” on someone or something, the expression carried with it very serious consequences—eternal consequences. This issue of stumbling blocks is an issue that we cannot brush aside and pretend does not matter. We see this even more clearly as we continue to read what Jesus said.
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire.
If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell” (Matthew 18:8-9 NAS).
Those are some strong words. This is one of those instances where I do not think Jesus is speaking literally. I do not think that he is saying that we actually should cut off our hand if we do something wrong with it. I suppose some people might teach that Jesus does mean this literally. If you hear someone saying that, the first thing that I would do is to check to see if they still have both of their hands and both of their eyes.
However, neither do I want to compromise or water down the words of Jesus. He spoke in such strong terms because he wanted to show us that this is an extremely important matter. It is a matter that will have eternal consequences, and woe to us if we do not heed these words.
So if Jesus does not mean for us to literally cut off our hand or gouge out our eye, then what does he mean?
What it meant to the Apostle Paul was even more extreme than what Jesus had said. Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20 NAS). Paul did not stop at cutting off his hand or gouging out an eye. He crucified his entire body!
This did not mean that Paul literally and physically rigged up a cross and had someone nail him to it. However, spiritually speaking, this is exactly what he did do. He considered his life apart from Christ to have no value.
No… even more than that, he considered his life apart from Christ to be dead!
He continues, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20 NAS).
Paul did not physically die in the flesh on that day that he gave himself up for Christ, but spiritually speaking, his flesh did die. From that moment on, he worked on living for Christ in all and every area of his life.
If we are sincere about our own lives with Christ, this is also what we must do. However, even knowing this, it still may leave us wondering about what Jesus said about stumbling blocks. How do we remove these things from our lives?
How to Crucify Your Flesh
Referring to something else that Paul said, this is how he put it. “Take off your former way of life, your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. Then be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Paul spoke of the old manner of living almost as it if were a garment that we can take off ourselves. When you think about it, this is more than simply an analogy, since we accept that these bodies of ours are not what constitute our true beings. Our true selves are our inner selves, our spirits. Our spirits are clothed in our bodies.
Paul tells us to take off our old self. He does not mean, of course, that our entire physical body will change so that we have a different physical body, but spiritually speaking, that is exactly what he means. “Take off that old body,” he tells us, “so that you can put on your new self that is created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
This is to be complete change over. We do not change the pants but not the shirt. We do not dedicate some areas of our lives to Christ, but continue to live for the world in other areas. It is to be a complete transformation into the person that God has created you to be. There is to be no corruption that comes from the world.
“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
This means that when we see something about our former manner of life that has come from the corruption of the world, we are to take it off like an old, ragged garment. We are to cast it away. These things are the stumbling blocks that will cause not only ourselves to stumble, but will also trip up others in their walk with the Lord.
Our New Set of Clothes
I am told that one of the treatments in overcoming an addiction of some kind is to replace the addictive and hurtful habit with a good habit. It is appropriately called addiction replacement. The treatment makes sense to me, since that is also exactly what Paul is talking about in ridding ourselves of the habits of our old self. These are the stumbling blocks in our lives, our “old garments,” as he calls them.
When we cast away these old garments, we are to replace them with new. When we take away what is a hurtful stumbling block to ourselves and others, we are to replace it with a helpful one.
“Put away falsehood,” Paul says, “and learn to speak the truth.”
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up…that it may give grace to those who hear.”
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (from Ephesians 4:22-32 ESV)
Stumbling Blocks in the Church
In Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus puts the matter of stumbling in terms of a farmer planting seeds in his field, with some of the seeds falling onto rocky soil. These spring up quickly, because the soil is shallow, but as soon as the sun begins to dry out the soil, they wither and die. Other seeds grow where there are thorns and other weeds. These choke out the good seed.
All of this Jesus puts into the context of the Kingdom of God. These seeds sprouting in rocky ground or among the thorns are the ones who appear to accept the teachings of God and initially have great enthusiasm in the teachings, but they have no depth to their belief. Then, when they encounter some opposition, not only do they themselves abandon the faith, but they cause others also to fall away.
We can often see these sorts of stumbling blocks in churches today. These are the people who truthfully do not have any interest in knowing the way of the Lord, but instead consider the church as just another organization to belong to. In doing things and making decisions in the church, they do not consider the Word of God, but rely only upon their own opinions or the present culture of the day.
Or, another way in which people can be stumbling blocks in the church is that they have certain things about their lifestyle that is in direct conflict with the teachings of the Bible. This causes confusion to those who are sincerely trying to learn how to walk with Jesus. The people who mislead these Christians are the stumbling blocks to the true believers.
In his story about the wheat and the tares, Jesus talks about “the end of the age” when he will send his angels to gather all of these stumbling blocks to cast them into that place that place of punishment where there will be endless weeping and gnashing of teeth. This is the fate of those who live their lives as stumbling blocks.
Let’s Get Personal
What we do, the way that we act does not only affect ourselves, but also has an influence on those around us and on those who know us. The words that come from our mouths can cut deep wounds into the lives of others. Our actions can ruin their lives.
“Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks.”
This especially seems to be true in regard to our influence on young lives. After Jesus told his disciples that, rather than to cause a little child who believes in Christ to stumble, it would be better to have a heavy millstone hung around ones neck and be cast into the sea, he again brings up the subject of children.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones,” he told them. “For I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 18:10).
Is there something about your life that you know is not consistent with the way that God intended you to be? Cast it away. It is a stumbling block. Replace it instead with something that is good.
Many struggle with some hurtful habit that possesses them or an unwanted activity for their entire lives, never being able to overcome it. There may be many reasons for this and I know that it is sometimes a complicated issue, but one of the reasons may be that we often only consider the harm that this thing or this manner of living is doing to ourselves. If we were to understand that these things are also stumbling blocks to others who are walking through life, it may give us the incentive to cast it away.
Do not despise these little ones. Let them go to Jesus, for such is the kingdom of God.
Do not let stumbling blocks be part of your life.
Jesus asked, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:9-10 ESV)
And from the book of Proverbs, "I have directed you in the way of wisdom; I have led you in upright paths. When you walk, your steps will not be impeded; And if you run, you will not stumble" (Proverbs 4:11-12 ESV)