Sermon, May 30, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
I wanted to thank the elders for affording me that week off last week, and I hear that there was a great sermon read in my absence. As we return to John, we come to a sort of troublesome passage, for reasons that we will cover as we expound it. We have just finished chapter 7, which is the record of Jesus’s visit to the Feast of Booths, or Feast of Tabernacles as it is also called. And if you turn with me now to chapter 8, we will read this very familiar story, one that is well-known by many Christians, often poorly interpreted, and has been used many times to justify all manner of sin, when it should do exactly the opposite. We will look at all of those things, those controversies about this passage as we go, but for now let’s read it. You can turn with me now to John where we will read, and every time, yes, but especially this time I’d encourage you to actually turn there in your bibles so you can see what’s going on here. There’s kind of an awkward chapter division here you’ll notice, so we will begin with verse 53 of chapter 7, and then read the first eleven verses of chapter 8. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
53 [[They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]
Like I said, this is a familiar story, one that we know well and have likely heard a number of times, but you may have noticed when you turn and actually read it and look at it, in our ESV translation, the entire episode is contained in double brackets. There is some controversy over the scriptural nature of this account, this whole story, and there is, as it is indicated here in our bibles, considerable doubt that these are the words of John, inspired by the Holy Spirit.
So we should take time here, since it’s in front of us, to consider for a moment not only the origins of this story, but also the greater question of how much confidence we can have in all of the text of scripture. The case for this particular passage is an interesting one. The big question that we have to answer is, “Is this scripture?” Should the first 11 verses of John 8 be in our bibles at all? Translators have dealt with that differently over the course of history. Some include the story with no comment, many set it out like the ESV here and make it clear that the earliest manuscripts of John don’t have these verses, and the RSV, which was one of the most prominent mid-20th Century versions, and the basis for the ESV, it took this story entirely out of the text and put it in a footnote. So why all of this?
Well, it is true that the earliest manuscripts of John do not include these verses. And when the story does appear in later manuscripts, it shows up in different places, like at the end of the book or in another place. In some manuscripts it exists in parentheses, or set off with asterisk-like markings. And in at least one case, the story appears in manuscripts of the gospel of Luke, not even in John. This is pretty puzzling. It’s starting to sound like it shouldn’t be here at all. Furthermore, the story has some stylistic things that make it an odd fit, there are Greek words in the text that John doesn’t use anywhere else, it’s also the only mention in any scripture of Jesus writing anything by hand.
Based on that evidence, there is fairly widespread agreement among textual critics—that’s the technical term for this activity of figuring out what is the most accurate version of the biblical texts, textual criticism—the textual critics generally agree that this was not written by John and it was included later. On that basis, this particular story should not be held with the same stature as the rest of scripture. It should not be thought of as inspired directly by the Holy Spirit and infallible. There is of course a voluminous amount of pages written on this specific subject and this specific text that I won’t bore you with, but that’s the Reader’s Digest version.
So, then, why is it here? Why do we include it at all, if we’re fairly convinced that it isn’t inspired? Well, though we are fairly certain that John didn’t write it, at the same time it’s very likely that this story is historical, that it did actually happen, and that’s why it made its way into the manuscripts eventually. In the great early church history written by Eusebius, he quotes a direct disciple of John that seems to, might be mentioning this story specifically. So it’s likely that this was a story well-known to the early church, but John didn’t actually include it in his gospel. John actually told us to expect such stories to come up. He tells us as much with the very final verse of the gospel, chapter 21, verse 25:
Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
So this is likely one of those stories, one of the many other things that Jesus did that would be written down. We are stuck with not being able to elevate it to the level of infallible scripture, but it’s at the same time very likely a real account of something that actually happened. Probably not John, but probably accurate, that’s where we sit.
And then there’s the most important judge of whether or not we should include it, and why it is here, because this account does present a story that is consistent with other scripture in its theology, in what we learn about Jesus, who he is and what he expects of us, and to that end, it gives us opportunity to consider true things of God, insofar as they are consistent with the character of God. We say the same thing about our confessional standards, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. They are not scripture and we are not to rule our lives with the confessions above scripture or even on the same plane with it. But, we assert that there is real truth in the confessions insofar as they reflect the true teachings of scripture.
I know that’s all a bit dense, but the presence of this passage encourages us this morning to think about the place we hold scripture and what we believe it to be. And furthermore, it reminds us of the confidence that we should have that this is the accurate Word of God! I mentioned on each of the last two Easter services about how we can have great confidence that what we’re reading in this book is, with very very few exceptions like this one, what we’re reading is accurate, is what the Holy Spirit intended the bible’s authors to write. Textual critics have been working, examining, and comparing manuscripts of the bible and its parts against each other for centuries, and we can be confident that the vast, vast majority of the bible is word-for-word accurate. Most of the things that have caused debate have little or no bearing on the meaning of the text, and none of them challenge the doctrines that are derived from the whole of the bible.
There’s much more that you can read on that topic, specifically the presence of this story in the text, if you really want to, but for now I’d like to move along, having established the textual evidence for this story, and instead get into it, see what this story can teach us and how it does square with other texts about which we have total confidence. As I said, it wouldn’t be here if it didn’t align with other biblical texts.
So, to go through the story. If this story is in fact placed correctly in time, we read that this would have happened on the day after all of that controversy from the middle through the last day of the Feast of Booths—the Pharisees finally having enough and sending officers to arrest Jesus, Jesus claiming that he is the source of the living water, all of that which we addressed two weeks ago. At the end of that it says that everyone dispersed, they went to their own houses, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. The next day, it says, he comes to the temple and begins teaching the people that come.
So the feast is over, and Jesus remains and goes to the temple to teach again. Based on what he preached the day before, about being the source of living water, it said that many people believed, so it’s no surprise that there were people to teach at the temple, they wanted to see Jesus.
Then enter the scribes and Pharisees. They come to where Jesus is teaching—I picture it like someone barging into one of my college lectures—and they bring a woman, a woman that they say has been caught in the act of adultery. We’re not sure whether this woman was already married, but it is likely that she was betrothed to a man, not married, when this adultery took place, because the Pharisees are saying that she should be stoned, and that was the prescribed punishment for betrothed adulterers, not necessarily married ones.
There’s more to this scene, though. In a way, the Pharisees are correct, if this woman did what they say, then the Law of Moses says that she should be stoned, but let’s not think for even a moment that these Pharisees are operating with a zeal for the Law! They have no interest in this woman or her crime, the entire scene is set to trap Jesus.
they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.
So that they might have some charge to bring against him. This is one of the great consistencies that suggest this story is likely historical, because everyone acts much like they do in other gospel accounts and scenes, don’t they? We receive from the gospels many instances of the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus into saying something that they can use to punish him, put him away. Several times in John already, they’ve tried to trap him as a Sabbath breaker, tried to accuse him of blasphemy for claiming to be equal with God. We remember of course what we use as the opening to our Call to Confession, Matthew 22, about the great commandment:
But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
This sounds like pretty typical Pharisee behavior. The adulterous woman was brought in to trap him, to trap Jesus. The irony is astounding, that the Pharisees would use an act of being very serious about upholding the law, use that to accuse Jesus, who is the author and fulfillment of that law, incredible, and extremely wicked.
The fact is that though this prescribed stoning was in the law, it was actually enforced very seldom by this time in the life of the Jews. They’d been looking past this kind of behavior all the time. We, in our day, are constantly frustrated when we see instances of “selective enforcement” of rules and regulations. The other issue that proves their wickedness and duplicity is that they only brought the woman, not the man that was involved in this alleged act. They said they caught them “in the act,” so they would have had access to the man, so short of him being a really fast runner, he should be accused in the same way in this instance.
But at the root, the trap for Jesus was this. Because Israel was under Roman rule, one of the rules for vassal states like that was that the authority to execute criminals was reserved by the Romans, the Jews could no longer legally carry out an execution. This is why the drama of Jesus’s crucifixion plays out like it does—Jesus is tried in the Jewish courts, and then they bring him to Pilate to ask if the Romans could please execute this man for them. It simply wasn’t legal for them to stone this woman. At the same time, they tell Jesus, the Law of Moses says that we must stone her for her crimes. The trap for Jesus is, are you going to side with Roman law, or the Law of Moses. It’s a lose-lose situation, and they know it, just like asking Jesus to say which one of the commandments is more important than the others.
So how does Jesus get out of this one? Well, first he kind of ignores them and starts writing on the ground. There’s a lot of debate about exactly what Jesus was probably writing, and I don’t think it’s all that important, but there are some theories that have been proposed, because like I said, this is the only record of Jesus writing something. But he remains silent and they press him on it, he must respond. Is it going to be A or B, Moses or the Romans, and of course Jesus responds with option C.
he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
Now this may seem like Jesus just crafting a response out of the blue, delivering us an idea of how to handle things with grace, but with what he said, he was actually also appealing to the Law of Moses. We read it just before in Deuteronomy 17, where it says:
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
It was required in the Law not only that there be at least two witnesses to this crime in order to execute someone, but also that it was the witnesses themselves who were to throw the first stones. So he appealed to their consciences and another piece of the law. They said, choose this law or this law, and he said, how about this law. And when he says “let him who is without sin,” to them, he is not saying that to throw a stone you must be sinless, the context suggests that he is talking about this particular sin. Are you not adulterers also, Jesus says. And none of them are willing to condemn this woman, the trap is sprung without Jesus in it, and there is nothing more for them to do. If they weren’t witnesses to the act, they can’t throw first, and they also shouldn’t condemn her hypocritically. So as they slowly realize that, they all leave. It think it’s an interesting detail that the first to leave are the older ones, the older ones figure it out first. And after that, we have this often misunderstood exchange between Jesus and the woman:
10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
In order to not misunderstand the morality outlined in this exchange, we have to look both at what is said, and also what is not said. He asks her if she has any accusers left, and she says “no,” but nowhere does it suggest that she was not actually guilty of the crime. But Jesus responds with mercy, and forgives the sin as only he can. She receives mercy. He does not say that her sin was no big deal, he does not say that her sin was not actually sin, in fact he had to respond to her accusers with some detailed legal maneuvering in order to have the opportunity to give her mercy, because the crowd was ready to stone her.
The bigger question that this story is addressing is “who is to judge?” Who has the right to judge this woman, are we able to judge other people? Am I in a place to call out someone else on their sin? This story is used alongside Matthew 7 to try to build the case that no one has a right to judge anyone else, there it says
“Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
Does these two passages mean that we have no right to judge anyone else, never suggest to another that what they are doing might be wrong? That is certainly how this is used by many, particularly progressive churches to justify accepting all manner of sinful behavior, going so far as to proclaim many things to not actually be sins. They would say that because Jesus chose to show mercy to the adulteress in this case, we should in every case do the same. But the truth is different. Both of these passages, and the entire text of scripture is not encouraging licentiousness, it is instead encouraging us to humility and an understanding of our human condition.
The person with the log in their eye trying to call their neighbor on the spec in theirs, that person is being a hypocrite because they are not approaching their neighbor from a place of humility, they are doing so to assert their superiority over their neighbor. And in this case with the woman, he doesn’t say to her, “I gave you mercy for this, now be sure that I will give you mercy for every sin, so go ahead and do what you’d like!” No, he famously tells her “from now on sin no more.” Put aside your life of sin, recognize it for what it is and do no more of it. That’s humility.
If I come to my brother and “judge” him, point out a thing in his life that is sinful, but I do it with a heart of love for my brother, I point out his sin because I want him to be a better person, I don’t want him to be stuck in the misery of that sin, that is a loving thing that I do. As Christians we are all here standing arm in arm together confessing the same thing—that we are all, every one of us, all wretched sinners in need of a savior. And when we reprove each other in that context, with that motive, then we are doing it because we love each other. Jesus is teaching in Matthew 7 about a wrong motive, a wrong heart that is animating the accuser.
Because the truth is if I am truly humble, it is a loving thing that I do to point out the truth of God, uphold the morality that God has laid out for man, even if it is unpopular. In many cases today, merely defining the morality that God has established is labeled “hate speech,” because it does not affirm everything my neighbor does, even if it is sin. But we have to stay strong, and continue to preach what the bible says, even and especially when it’s uncomfortable. Is it kind of me to go to a good friend of mine, even one who is not at all a Christian, is it kind of me to affirm my good friend’s sin so that we can still be friends? No, that’s not loving, because the wages of sin is death. We are to be kind, we are to be merciful, we are to be respectful, we are to be loving to the people around us, but in all of those efforts to love our neighbors, we should never ever compromise the Word of God. Because compromising the Word of God to “love” our neighbors is not actually love. A compromised gospel is not the gospel. A church that affirms and encourages people to indulge their sins is not a church. Compromising any of God’s teaching does not make the gospel more palatable to a wider range of people, like a marketing strategy, compromising at all simply comforts my neighbor that he’s OK, as he continues on a path to destruction. That’s not love.
So on the issue of judging others, if we are humble and have the right motives, we are not judging them, we are showing them how God is judging them. In the story of the adulteress, Jesus chooses to deliver mercy for that act at that time, but he knows, even with his command otherwise that she will continue to sin, and that when she does die she will be in need of his grace and his mercy to not perish. So we go forward with humility, pointing not to our judgements, our morality, our rules, but with heads bowed and arms outstretched we point to Jesus, who has been granted the authority to judge all things.
In the correct place or not, this story of the woman is well-placed because as we’ll see this issue of judgement will continue in what follows in chapter 8. But let’s take this story as it is, as a reminder of this is how we come before the judge, before Jesus. Let us not think that we are any better than this woman, because her plight is our own. She is a lowly sinner, surrounded by accusers, just like us. Her only hope to survive a physical death in that moment was Jesus, before whom she stood, just like us. And what did Jesus do? Jesus chased away her accusers, offered her grace, and then commanded her to live a life of sanctification under grace. A beautiful picture of the Christian life. So also for us, lowly sinners, when we place our faith in Jesus, he removes the hold that Satan, the accuser has over our lives, assures us of his grace, and commands us, with the power of that grace, to live a life that is an honor to him. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We are so humbled that you would come to us and bless us with grace, with mercy, and then would send us out with the power and the command to honor you in mortifying the sin in our lives. Let us all always be mindful of that grace, that we would judge to lift up our brothers and sisters and not tear down. Give us a zeal for your law and your scriptures, that we would know them, fight for them, and never compromise your gospel for even a moment. In the power and the blood of Jesus the Christ we pray these things, amen.