Matthew 18:7-9 (NIV) “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”
These days it is popular to pooh-pooh sin, to think that since it comes so naturally to people, and since even Christians seem to be prone to it, it is not a big deal to God. But such a view does not come from God, nor from Jesus, nor from the Scriptures taken in context.
Whether a sin is against another person (like stealing or murder), or more internal (like lust, covetousness, and idolatry), God has never tolerated sin, even among His own people. Indeed, both Israel and Judah experienced God’s wrath and punishment, including exile into Assyria and Babylon, precisely because of their sins. Even individuals like David, a man after God’s own heart, experience God’s judgment on his sins, as well as the long-lasting effects of those sins on the following generation of his children (cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14).
Jesus had already pronounced His woe on those who lead any of His disciples (not just children) into sin, and He restates that woe in verse 7. But He is not done. He goes on to restate in the most graphic of terms how terrible sin is, and the cost to those who engage in it. He reuses images from the Sermon on the Mount, there used in the context of adultery (Matthew 5:29-30), but here used of sin in general: cutting off body parts that are causing a person to sin, and throwing them away in order to prevent the whole body from being cast into hell.
Remember that both here and in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ audience is not the Pharisees and teachers of the law. Nor is it the pagans, the tax collectors, or the miscellaneous “sinners” that were around. In both places it is His disciples that were receiving these stern warnings about the dire penalties for sin (cf. Matthew 5:1; 18:1). Just as God’s people in the past had stepped out of His grace and into His judgment by allowing sin to reign in their lives, so it is possible for those who follow Jesus to do the same thing, and He is waving them strongly away from that.
This is not an infrequent theme in Jesus’ teachings, by the way. (See also John 8:34 for one), nor is it absent or lightly treated in the writings of the apostles (for example, Romans 6:2, 11; 1 Timothy 5:20; Hebrews 10:26-31; and 1 John 3:4-10). Jesus warned frequently about the cost of sin, and warned His people away from it, even those whom He had forgiven or healed (John 5:14; 8:11b).
Of course, Jesus realized that gouging out an eye, or cutting off a hand or foot will not get rid of the root of sin in a person’s life. But He frequently included these violent, extreme images in His illustrations to help His followers to see the fearsome results of sin, and to warn them to stay far, far away from it, no matter the cost.
Father, I do hear people from time to time tell me that sin is not that big a deal, especially for a Christian, since You know that we are weak, and are willing to forgive us simply for the asking. But I can’t find that attitude anywhere in the Bible. Even when the Scripture writers write about our ability to be forgiven, it is with awe at the terrible cost at which that forgiveness was purchased for us. Help me to never take sin lightly, to never accept it as a norm in my life, or think of it as just “natural,” so that I weaken my horror of ever doing anything that could damage or weaken my relationship with You. Amen.