Word of the Week
May 15, 2021
Skandalon: The Tripping Point
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this – not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
It doesn’t take much to trip a person up. Yesterday I stepped into our garage and my foot landed on a pair of shoes discarded by a grandchild. No damage, but it could have caused a fall. Today I was at the garden center and almost tripped over a pallet which I didn’t see because I was dutifully wearing my mask. The last time I actually fell a few years ago was on a low curb outside an Arbys.
Little things can also cause spiritual stumbles. A dismissive comment can trigger a surge of anger. The sight of a chocolate chip cookie can launch a binge, even for a person trying to diet.
That’s why the Bible warns us not to do anything that would cause someone to crash. Sticking to the narrow path is hard enough; I don’t need to place obstacles in your way.
This week we are going to look at the Greek word for “obstacle” or “stumbling block.” It is important to understand this concept so that I won’t be guilty of tripping my neighbor!
The Greek word for “stumbling block” is skandalon, (used 15 times) the source of our word scandal. The corresponding verb, “to cause to stumble,” is skandalizō, (used 30 times) from which we get scandalize. Obviously, the modern meaning has shifted significantly. Nowadays a scandal is a flurry of gossip about the misdeeds of a famous person. A scandal in Greek, however, was something much different.
In secular Greek, skandalon was the stick that served as the trigger for a snare trap. Eventually, the word developed two meanings: (1) a snare or trap that catches an animal, or (2) something that trips a person, causing them to stumble and fall.
The New Testament always uses the word figuratively to describe something that causes a person to stumble and fall spiritually.
A stumbling block is anything that causes a person to:
- Fall into sin
- Wander into false teaching
- Choose unbelief and apostasy
It could seem insignificant. Just a harsh word, a careless moment of inconsistency, an arrogant spirit, that turns its back on the other person. It can be more drastic: false teaching, seduction into sin, a divisive campaign against legitimate leaders. Scripture leaves the definition open. A skandalon is anything that leads someone to fall.
Jesus taught that skandalon is a terribly serious offense. In Matthew 18:6-9, he warned that anyone who causes the “little ones who believe” to stumble faces God’s anger. In fact, he ought to have a millstone hung around his neck and tossed into the Sea of Galilee! In verse 7, he laid out the reality of life: Stumbling blocks are inevitable, but woe to the person who causes them!
That’s not the whole story, however. Jesus Christ was a stumbling stone, a skandalon.
But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23).
[Israel] stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense (Romans 9:32-33, citing Isaiah 8:14).
People are offended at Jesus and the message of the cross, and that’s not Christ’s fault. They stumble over the truth because of their hardened hearts. So a skandalon can be the fault of the stumbler.
Scripture presents a balanced picture of this concept. On the one hand, it is a serious offense to do anything that trips up another person. We should guard our tongues and watch our actions so that we draw people to Jesus, not away from Him. On the other hand, people often stumble because the truth gets in their way. We may grieve for such people, but we should not assume that it’s always our fault.
Is there a secret for avoiding skandalon? Yes, and it is found in 1 John 2:10. “The one who loves his brother abides in the Light and there is no cause for stumbling in him.” Act in love, and you will not trip up your brother.
The word skandalon may also describe the shocked feeling that happens when you see something offensive (Matthew 17:27; John 6:61). It can show up as second thoughts about a decision (Matthew 11:6; 13:21) because of unfulfilled expectations (Matthew 24:10; 26:31). This pair of words will repay careful study of all the verses where they appear. Check a concordance or Bible software for a complete listing.
Q & A
Q – Hebrews 3 and 4 talk about “rest,” but the meaning seems to change. What rest is the passage talking about?
A – You’re right in noticing that more than one kind of rest appears in the passage. It is all the same Greek word, katapausi, a strong word for rest which appears only in this passage and in Acts 7:49.
The writer of Hebrews starts with a description of Israel wandering in the wilderness, waiting for the time when they can gain “rest” by settling down in the land of Canaan. This rest would involve labor and battle, but it would give them a permanent home.
This “rest” was real, but Joshua could not provide the ultimate rest. Centuries later, David applied these words to his own day (Psalm 95), showing that there is still a rest to be obtained. There is a switch from physical rest (gaining a plot of land) to spiritual rest (gaining a relationship with the Lord).
In Hebrews 4:10, we are reminded that we no longer have to work for our salvation. When we rest in Christ’s work for us, we can also take a rest from the backbreaking labor of attempting to pile up enough good works to get into heaven.
One of the best known facts about Greek is that there are multiple words for love. Next week we will look at John 21, a classic but controversial passage that allows us to see the two main words side by side.
©Ezra Project 2021