The text for this morning’s post is John 8:2-11. If you are reading from a printed Bible, you may notice that there are brackets around this passage.
Let me explain.
Our English Bibles are translations of copies that were made of the original Biblical texts which were written in Hebrew and Greek.
In the first several hundred years following the ministry of the apostles, their writings — what we call the New Testament — were copied thousands of times.
To put the availability of copies in context, only 8 early copies of Thucydides remain, 8 copies of Plato, and 10 of Caesar’s Wars. The earliest copy we have of any of those writings is from 900 A.D. By comparison, in the first 3 centuries AD alone, we have over 5,300 copies of New Testament texts.
Because we have access to so many copies, we are able to compare and contrast them in order to find out what discrepancies, if any, took place in the copying process. That enables us to discern, with remarkable accuracy, the exact text of the original biblical writings. For example, of the 20,000 lines of New Testament text, only 40 lines are disputed as not being original. And we know which 40 those are.
Due to the sheer volume of early manuscript availability, we can have complete confidence that the English Bibles we hold in our hands today are the very Word of God as originally delivered through the prophets and apostles.
And yet, this process of text analysis has revealed a few passages that textual scholars question.
Our passage in John 8 is one of those disputed texts — hence, the brackets.
So, why preach on a disputed text?
1. One reason is that, while the John 8 narrative does not appear in this location in the earliest copies, some early copies include it at the end of John’s gospel as well as in the gospel of Luke.
2. This has led many scholars to conclude that this text is either one of those many events in the ministry of Jesus that John speaks of as taking place but not being originally recorded or it was recorded but was misplaced in the copying process.
3. As one evangelical scholar writes, “Wherever this story should be [placed], there is… substantial manuscript evidence for its authenticity, and it has many elements in it that are similar to other encounters between Jesus and ‘sinners.’ We need have no doubts about the wisdom or appropriateness of… teaching on [this passage] as a genuine part of Scripture.” (Jerram Barrs, Learning Evangelism from Jesus, 23)
One of the lessons students learn in driver’s education classes is that you should never, never attempt to beat a train across the tracks at a railroad crossing.
Ignoring the flashing lights is a risk that may result in a crash of catastrophic proportions.
In John 8, we see the aftermath of such a collision — a moral train wreck.
Sadly, these kinds of injury inducing moral collisions take place all the time. In fact, anytime we ignore the flashing lights of God’s wisdom, there is going to be pain and suffering.
The Lord said to the first two humans, “You may eat from and enjoy any of the thousands of fruit trees in the garden. Just do not eat of this one tree.”
The “do not cross” lights flashed. The warning gate was lowered. But they took the risk and experienced the devastating implications.
Ever since the garden, we have continued to ignore the flashing lights, following the temptation to cross the tracks, whether the tracks of sexual immorality, the love of money, or the need for power and praise.
If only we believed that the warnings are not to prevent us from experiencing joy but to protect us from encountering the pain of a moral train wreck.
We find out in John 8:2-11.
We’ll use 4 headings as a road-map through the text:
First, in verses 2 and 3 we are introduced to…
2 At dawn [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery and made her stand before the group.
We don’t know much about this unnamed woman, except that she was caught in an act of marital unfaithfulness. Was she the one married? Was the man married? Were they both? Was she engaging in prostitution? And where is the man, anyway?
Jerram Barrs notes, “Such people are always… blaming women for the problems of adultery and prostitution, rather than recogizing that, far more frequently, it is men who are the initiators in such situtations.” (Learning Evangelism from Jesus, 24)
What we do know is that what she thought was a private indiscretion became humiliatingly public.
This is probably our greatest fear. Not public speaking or even death, but the public exposure of a private sin.
You know that each of us could be this woman. We all have private sin that could be exposed. You and I easily could be the one standing in humiliation. It may even be that death would be a welcome friend in such a moment. Standing alone with no escape. Only the weight of guilt crushing us as we stood in shame surrounded by the condemning gaze of countless accusers.
I’m assuming that this woman would not have entered the temple courts kicking and screaming, especially when we realize that her accusers will appeal to Israel’s theocratic code of adultery being a capital offense, worthy of death. We can imagine her panic and resistance.
Eventually, her resistance breaks and she stands in the midst of her community, possibly half naked or draped in a sheet.
I was thinking that this would be a great moment for one of those Southwest Airlines “want to get away” commercials.
But no one is laughing. This is a moment of utmost gravity. It is going to be an epic confrontation between law and grace.
In verses 4-6, we are introduced to...
4 They said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
Verse 3 tells us that these accusers are “teachers of the law” and “Pharisees,” members of the religious leadership who are making a two-fold charge. While explicitly accusing the woman of being an adulteress, they implicitly are accusing Jesus of being a false prophet.
Jesus’s adversaries are using this woman as a test case to see whether Jesus will uphold Jewish law or not.
The Old Testament theocratic law prohibiting adultery actually indicated that both guilty parties, the woman and the man, were to receive a judicial penalty for covenantal unfaithfulness.
While stoning was on the books as the punishment that fit the severity of the crime, there were options for the offender.
In fact, of the sixteen crimes that called for the death penalty, fifteen of them allowed the offender to make a ransom payment that would substitute for death.
The only one of the sixteen crimes that did not allow for a ransom payment was the case of premeditated murder.
But again, in John 8, it really isn’t the woman who is on trial as much as Jesus.
If he says, “Stone her,” Jesus then would set himelf against the Roman authorities, who reserved for themselves the right to enforce capital punishment.
If Jesus says, “Let her go,” then he is seen as setting aside the commandments of God, going soft on sin, and showing himself to be a false prophet.
Jesus seems to be in a pickle.
What will he say? What will Jesus do?
We find out in verses 7-9 with…
7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
With a stroke of genius, Jesus responds to their question with a challenge that requires self-examination. Not just an examination of someone else’s sin but an examination of my own sin.
According to the challenge, the standard for serving as a judge who is qualified to execute the sentence is that the judge be sinless.
Otherwise, if I condemn someone else, I inadvertently condemn myself.
For example, if I say that everyone who fails an exam should be expelled from school, unless I haven’t failed an exam, I inadvertently expel myself.
James, the brother of Jesus, would write, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails at just one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10)
Breaking the law of God and being accountable for judgment is like shattering a window. It doesn’t matter where you hit the glass or with what. You have shattered it just the same.
The apostle Paul would write in Romans 3:19-20 as commentary on the Old Testament law, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
This is exactly what happens with the accusers. Honest self-examination causes them to realize that they all have failed the exam. They, too, have shattered the window. Having their own nakedness, guilt, and shame exposed, they drop their stones and walk away.
I find it insightful that the older accusers were the first to drop their stones and walk away, showing us that as we grow older, we should not become less sensitive to our need for mercy, but even more, since we have had longer to live and build up a record of sin than those who are younger.
Jesus’s challenge helps us come to grips with the reality that the ground really is level at the foot of the cross.
This leads, in verses 10 and 11, to...
10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
What I find most dramatic about this scene is that there actually is one sinless person in the crowd who never failed an exam or shattered a window. There is someone here who was qualified to judge, condemn, and cast the first stone.
Of course, it is Jesus.
Yet, rather than throwing a stone, he looks her in the eyes, in front of the onlooking congregation, and says, “Neither do I condemn you.”
But how can Jesus say this? Satisfaction of justice under the law demands either the offender pay with her life or that she provide a substitute payment.
Without saying it in so many words, Jesus is offering to be the substitute who will pay the debt of her sin with his own life.
On a cross, Jesus will, in essence, be stoned for her, receiving the death penalty so that she could live.
Jesus can say, “Neither do I condemn you,” because he was willing to be condemned in her place. He was willing to face humiliation, himself being stripped of clothing and hung up for all to look upon and accuse as an object of scorn.
We just can’t miss the parallel. She was standing humiliated and condemned. On a cross, Jesus was hanging, humiliated and condemned.
She is declared forgiven and righteous before the law before she is commanded to live a transformed life. He does not say, if you live a new life I will not condemn you.
Here the teaching of the entire Bible is reinforced. That grace precedes obedience. Receiving mercy motivates and empowers living a new life. Not to earn grace but in view of grace already received.
The example of Jesus dealing with a train wrecked sinner turns the common understanding of religion on its head completely and provides for us a 3-part testimony for every true believer.
If you are truly a Christian, these are three essential aspects of your story.
Now, to answer our original question: What does a sinner need to hear in the wake of a moral train wreck?
We can state the answer with five words.
“There is grace for that.”
Jesus put it this way: “Neither do I condemn you.”
Because of the cross, this is what I can say to someone whose life is wrecked or even if they have just experienced a fender bender.
Or will I heap words of condemnation or speak words of judgement with a facial posture of disgust and disappointment?
Will I set the sinner free, or will I throw stones?
The only way I will not throw stones — the only way I will be able to speak those five words to someone else — is if I have heard Jesus speak those words to me.
Irish hymn-writer, Charitie Lees Bancroft, wrote a hymn when she was only 22 years old that we still sing today.
You know it.
She titled the hymn, The Advocate. We call it, Before the Throne of God Above.
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
Oh, that we would believe this. That we would receive these words as the gospel. That we would put down our stones and set sinners free with the same mercy we ourselves have received through the cross of Jesus.
Then we will be the husbands, the fathers, the mothers — we will be the people God has designed the church to be for the world.
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