“Does Jesus really want me to cut off my hand or foot?”
The following verses have always bothered me. Even taking the use of hyperbole into account, it perplexed me why Jesus would want anyone to take such drastic measures to deal with sin.
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, 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 stumble, 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. Matthew 18:8-9
For added emphasis, Jesus gave this same message in the sermon on the mount. So why would he make so much of the need to do whatever it took to stop this sinning? We look at that word, stumble, and think, “I stumble. I’ve probably stumbled several times just today. Doesn’t everyone stumble?”
Recently I was reading Steve Gallagher’s book, At the Altar of Sexual Idolatry, and he pointed out that the better translation of the word for stumble would be fall away. It’s the same word Jesus used to describe how the disciples would leave him when he was arrested, when he said, “You will all fall away, for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ ” In Matthew, Jesus wasn’t talking about a little sin, a stumble, but a continuous pattern of sin that demonstrated an unregenerate heart. Such a person had fallen away from God and was in danger of eternal condemnation.
There are two conclusions I draw from this new understanding of Jesus’ warning. First, he’s not talking about the occasional unintended sins. We don’t need to cut off our hand for those. Second, there are people whose repetitive sins trap them (the original word for falling away described the stick holding up an animal trap). For those people their sin is a life and death matter. Their continual sinning signals a separation from God that dooms them. They must do whatever it takes to repent, abandon their life of sin, and turn to God for salvation.
Image by Neil Hester on Flickr, CC by-nc 2.0