There is no error more dangerous to the Bible student than overlooking the context of a passage. Though all of us know the temptation to proof-text, many of the most pernicious false doctrines of all time arose because someone prioritized the verse over the context.
Of course, dismissing the context doesn’t always lead us into apostasy. Sometimes, it merely leads us to miss the point. This is probably true for most brethren when it comes to Matthew 18:15-18. We know this one as the withdrawal-process passage. It lays out the steps that you have to go through before you can cross a brother off the membership rolls who is “walking disorderly”.
A look at context, though, sheds a different light on these four verses. In Matthew 18:1-5, Jesus informs us that we have to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In vs. 6-9, He warns us about the dire punishment that will come upon one who causes such a child to stumble and emphasizes how far we must go to avoid such a fate. In vs. 10-14, He highlights the value of every such child to their heavenly Father. Even vs. 21-35 show how important God’s children are by explaining the lengths to which we must go in forgiving them.
In sum, the context of Matthew 18 is about the value of every child of God. Every. Single. One. If our reading of vs. 15-18 also does not reaffirm that importance (and it usually doesn’t), we’ve overlooked something vital.
Read in context, vs. 15-18 isn’t the bureaucratic process for excluding a Christian from fellowship. Instead, Jesus is setting out the lengths to which we must go to try to rescue an erring child of God, because every one of them is that precious.
When we see a Christian who looks like they’re getting in trouble, we don’t gossip about them with our friends or wait quietly for the elders to get involved. We go to them ourselves. We act immediately, just as we would act immediately if hackers got hold of the password to our bank account.
If that doesn’t get through to them, we’re supposed to return with reinforcements, bringing in others in a desperate effort to avert calamity. If that doesn’t work, we are supposed to involve the entire congregation. Only then, only after we have done everything we possibly could do, to no avail, are we allowed to consider that Christian as though they are no longer part of us.
Too often, we follow the letter of the law here while ignoring its spirit. One Christian learns of another brother in sin. He informs the elders, who send the erring brother a letter that gets ignored. The elders announce to the church that the wayward member isn’t responding to correction, and two weeks later, they read another letter which they have used to inform him that he has been withdrawn from. None of this produces any outward result because the brother in question stopped assembling six months ago.
Does this follow the form of Matthew 18:15-18?
Does it honor the Lord’s intent?
Like all the gospels, Mark is not written for everyone. Those who come to it casually, not willing to invest the effort to understand, will remain ignorant. Only those who doggedly pursue enlightenment will—eventually—figure things out.
This is certainly the case with Mark 9:38-50. At first glance, this context appears to contain four unrelated sections: the story of the man casting out demons in the name of Jesus (9:38-41), a warning against leading others to fall away (9:42), a warning about what we must be willing to sacrifice for eternal life (9:43-48), and a weird discussion about salt (9:49-50).
However, as is often the case in Mark, these apparently unrelated subtopics are tied together by a common theme. In fact, everything that Jesus says from 9:39 through the end of the chapter explains why He told John to leave the unfamiliar exorcist alone.
His first point (9:39-41) is that anyone who does good while operating under the authority of Jesus is good. Indeed, those who help the workers of righteousness, even by giving them a cup of water in the name of Jesus, will be remembered too. Sadly, though, that’s not the only way that we can treat such people. We also can make them stumble (9:42)—by discouraging them, for instance—and if we do, we will be punished rather than rewarded.
In Matthew 5, Jesus’ cut-off-body-parts discussion is appended to His condemnation of lust. Here, though, it’s directed at a different heart problem—in context, the evil desires that make us want to interfere with those who are doing God’s work. There are many reasons why we might want to do this. It could be, as in John’s case, that the worker doesn’t come from the “approved” group of workers. It could be that we don’t like the way they’re doing the work. It could be that we think we should get to control them. Regardless, the Lord wants us to see that being a stumbling block will cause us to meet a horrifying fate. Nowhere else in Scripture is the ultimate punishment for sin described as graphically as it is here!
Interestingly, in v. 49-50, Jesus describes the fires of hell as having a salting effect. I think that here, as elsewhere, salt refers to palatability, especially palatability to God. In other words, the sin of being a stumbling block leaves a bad taste in God’s mouth, and the only thing that can get that taste out of His mouth is the punishment of the sinner. We’re supposed to encourage one another—that tastes good to God—but if we go through life discouraging one another instead, nothing can salvage us. It is much better for us to be salty people who are at peace with one another.
Sadly, the need for this teaching has not declined over the past 2000 years. It’s still true that so-called disciples of Christ have a bad habit of hindering the work of other disciples. This shows up in those cross-grained folks who have it in for the preacher and criticize and oppose him at every turn. It appears in the fossilized pew-sitters who squelch the zeal of the new convert because they “aren’t doing it right”. It flourishes in those who know in their hearts that they could do a better job of leading singing than the song leader, a better job of teaching class than the Bible-class teacher, and a better job of leading the church than the elders. Somehow, these convictions always end up revealing themselves somewhere, and there are many thousands of Christians who sit on the sidelines because some brother or sister told them they didn’t belong on the field.
When it comes to others’ work for the Lord, our work is simple. Support. Encourage. Praise. Help. Don’t say anything critical unless we’ve thought about it and are 100 percent sure that our critique will be received gratefully. When we find ourselves in the role of the discourager and the stumbling block instead, we endanger our souls.
When we read the gospels, it is often the stories that strike us as strange that have the most to teach us. This is the case with the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26. It begins like a typical Jesus miracle. Someone with an incurable problem, in this case a blind man, is brought to Jesus for help. In response, Jesus does a Jesusy thing (spitting on his eyes, laying hands on him) to heal him.
However, the miracle doesn’t seem to take. When the man looks up, though he can see, he can’t see clearly. Jesus has to touch his eyes before his vision is perfected.
Given that Jesus is the One who does all things well, this is bizarre. How could He fail to heal someone perfectly the first time around? Was the Master having an off day?
As is often the case in Mark, the answer lies in the context. Mark always has a moral to his stories, but he almost never directly tells us what it is. Instead, he arranges material thematically, so that an apparently unrelated story offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.
That’s exactly what is going on with the story of the blind man. It occurs in the context of stories about incomplete understanding. In Mark 8:14-21, the disciples mistake Jesus’ warning about the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod for a complaint that they had failed to bring any bread on the boat. In Mark 8:27-33, Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah, but he fails to see (get it?) that God’s plan for the Messiah was for Him to be taken and killed by His enemies.
I believe that Jesus could have healed the blind man in one shot, as He completely healed other blind men on other occasions. However, He chose instead to use the blind man as a live-action parable, an illustration of the imperfect spiritual vision of His followers.
At this point, the disciples see some things. They’re different from the hard-hearted and unbelieving Pharisees of Mark 8:11-13. However, like the blind man after Jesus’ first healing, they don’t yet see clearly. They’re focused on questions of physical nourishment instead of spiritual danger, despite having seen miracles in which Jesus produced practically unlimited quantities of food on demand. They acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but they want to force-fit Him into their Christ-shaped preconceptions rather than waiting for the unfolding of God’s mystery. Jesus could heal physical blindness instantaneously, but not even the master Teacher could bring immediate enlightenment to the eyes of the heart.
Today, all of us are in the same boat. We have God’s completed revelation, but our understanding of that revelation remains incomplete. We may have read, but our spiritual vision still is imperfect.
Like the blind man, then, we must return to Jesus, acknowledging our need for His work to continue in us. For us, it won’t take two passes, or even two hundred passes, but a lifetime of Him refining our understanding. As Jesus points out in John 9:41, at the end of a different story about vision, there’s no shame in acknowledging our blindness. The problems begin when we start thinking we already see well enough.
Matthew 16:1-4 is one of the more off-putting passages in the gospels. Some Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus asking for a sign. A reasonable request, right? Don’t you have the right to ask a self-proclaimed prophet to show that he’s really from God before you believe in Him?
However, Jesus does not accede to this apparently reasonable request. Instead, He condemns the sign-seekers as belonging to an evil, adulterous generation and then leaves. If Jesus were merely human, the exchange might leave us wondering if He woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning!
Of course, Jesus is not merely human, and His response clues us in to an important piece of spiritual wisdom. Contextually speaking, the Pharisees and Sadducees were not seeking a sign. After all, Jesus had just miraculously fed more than 4000 people! Instead, they were seeking another sign, not because they were looking for a reason to believe, but because they were looking for a reason to doubt.
Jesus makes this point in vs. 2-3. His critics were perfectly capable of assessing the atmospheric conditions and reaching a conclusion about the weather, but when it came to Jesus, they all of a sudden got dumb: “We don’t have enough information yet! We need more!”
Really, though, their problem wasn’t an information problem. They had all the information they needed. Instead, they had a heart problem, and all the information in the world wouldn’t help.
Today, Christians frequently encounter modern-day sign-seekers. These are people who already have made up their minds that they don’t want to believe in the Bible, or that they don’t want to believe something in the Bible. However, they hide their hard-heartedness behind reasonable-seeming requests for more evidence, and whatever evidence is supplied, it still won’t be enough.
Here, I’m particularly reminded of a story that a sister in Joliet once told me. She was talking Bible with a friend of hers who belonged to a denomination that practiced baptism by sprinkling. Naturally, they started talking about the necessity of immersion.
The friend asked to see a passage that showed that baptism was by immersion. The sister turned to Acts 8 and the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. She noted that Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and came back up out of the water. Ergo, immersion.
The friend replied, “I want to see another passage besides that one.”
No, she didn’t. She wanted to go on believing that sprinkling was an acceptable mode of baptism, and a whole Bible-full of evidence wouldn’t have been enough to change her mind.
In our discussions with others, it is useful for us to be able to recognize the “one more sign” pattern of behavior. If we make a solid Scriptural argument, and a friend immediately asks for more proof without engaging the proof we’ve provided, that’s a sign that they’re not being honest. Nothing we say is going to get through to them, and we might as well stop wasting our time.
Most of all, though, we need to watch out for such a spirit in ourselves. One passage is enough to establish a spiritual truth, and if somebody reasons from that passage to a conclusion, we are responsible either for rebutting the argument or accepting the conclusion. What we must not do is cry out for more evidence when the evidence provided is sufficient.
The law of Christ is not as I would have written it. There are actions that don’t bother me very much that God labels as sins, and there are things that chap my hide but are not condemned by Him. I think pineapple on pizza ought to be classed as an abomination, but Jesus declared all foods clean, so there I am.
More seriously, there are plenty of people out there with serious, serious problems with portions of the word of God. Their problems are so serious that they go hunting for reasons to become atheists, just so that they won’t feel obliged to keep that abhorrent commandment. Sometimes, it’s not even something that they have to do. They just don’t like that God said it, so they leave.
This is not a new problem. Indeed, it is clearly on display in John 6. Contextually, Jesus’ ministry has reached a high point after His feeding of the five thousand. Throngs of new disciples think so highly of Him that they want to make Him king by force.
In response, Jesus preaches one of the most alienating sermons of His ministry. Among other things, He tells His disciples that they have to eat His flesh and drink His blood if they want to inherit eternal life. 2000 years later, this is still a difficult concept, and its effect on its immediate hearers is predictable. His new followers desert Him in droves, grumbling that His teaching is too hard to understand.
I doubt this result was accidental. I’m sure Jesus would have been pleased if the crowds were sufficiently devoted enough to stick around even though they didn’t understand what He was saying, but He knew they weren’t. He made such challenging statements in order to separate those who were truly committed from those who weren’t.
Today, God’s word continues to serve the same function. I’ve never met anyone who was upset by the content of John 6, but I have studied with those who stumble over baptism, sexual morality, and marriage. Others don’t like what the Bible says about authority. Still others would rather zero in on grace and ignore Scriptural teaching on obedience.
Sooner or later, all of us are going to run into a hard saying in Scripture, something that we don’t want to do or don’t want to believe. That’s not in question. The question is what we will do when it happens. Either we turn tail like most of the disciples in John 6, or we struggle on regardless.
If we want to be pleasing to God, though, this choice is no choice at all. Either we submit to Jesus in everything, whether we understand it, whether we like it, or we submit to Him in nothing. If we pick and choose from His precepts, we have removed Him as Lord and set ourselves in His place.
The temptation to do so can be severe. If we decide to reject the words of Christ, the devil will hand us half a dozen justifications for doing so in a heartbeat. We must remember, though, that the troublesome issue really isn’t what’s at issue. It’s just a tool that the devil is using to get what he really wants—our souls. As long as he can separate us from Jesus, any method will serve.
That’s the decision that we have to make, then—whether we want Jesus to save us or not. If we do, we will accept Him, hard sayings and all, because there is no other option. Peter says lots of dumb things in the course of the gospels, but in John 6:68, he gets it exactly right. He asks, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Next to those words, the hard words pale into insignificance.