It was a little over ten years ago, sometime around 1997 or 98 when I had an experience that forever changed my life and helped me understand the grace of forgiveness. My best friend Thom (who went to be with the Lord a few years ago) father had passed away. I remember when he called me; I was at the church I worked at and I was preparing for an evening service or youth group (I can’t recall which), to tell me of his father’s passing and when his father’s visitation and funeral were. I told him I was sorry to hear the sad news and after a brief discussion I hung up and went back to business as usual. I never did go to the funeral or visitation.
A few weeks passed by (maybe even a month) and I hadn’t heard from Thom so I called him. He was pretty short with me and I asked him if something was wrong. He proceeded to tell me how angry and disappointed he was with me since I didn’t have the decency to come visit him during the difficult time of his father’s passing or even go to the funeral or visitation. He had some choice words with me and he said, “You are no longer my friend. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
Those words cut to my heart. Instantly I was convicted of my selfishness and insensitivity to my best friend. I drove to his house convinced that when I showed up at his doorstep he would either punch me in the face or slam the door on me. I rang his doorbell and he answered and immediately I repented to him and told him I was deeply sorry for my insensitivity and selfishness. I was crying because I felt horrible and I valued our friendship so much that I did not want it to end like this. After I apologized he looked at me and said, “Wow, I am impressed. Of course I forgive you.”
This was a life experience in forgiveness that I will never forget. It was a great reminder of Christ’s forgiveness for us. I vowed that day that I would never withhold forgiveness from anyone who has wronged me and asked for my forgiveness. If Thom (and Jesus for that matter) can forgive me for the stupid and insensitive things I have done then I certainly must be willing to forgive when someone offends me. I tell you this story because it is a perfect example of the grace of forgiveness that Jesus displays in the account in today’s passage.
Our text for today is John 8:1 – 11.
Verse 2, 3: Jesus was in the Temple teaching and many people were coming to hear him. As he was teaching the Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman (obviously against her will) who was caught in the act of adultery before Jesus (and all who were in the Temple listening to Jesus for that matter). This was certainly an attempt humiliate the woman but as we will see in a moment their motive was not so much to punish the woman for her sin (stoning to death) as it was to trick Jesus so they could bring charges against him (probably for not enforcing the laws of Moses).
I find it interesting that the man was who is caught in this debacle is not mentioned nor brought before Jesus and the people. Obviously there was a man involved since the woman was caught in the act. The question is was she framed or was one of the men in the crowd the man she was with. You have heard the phrase, “It takes two to tango” correct? In the case of adultery this is always the case. Adultery cannot happen without two participants. In this instance we do not know what happened to the man who was caught. He may have escaped, he may have been one of the leaders or he was let go because of the leader’s chauvinistic views. We do not know. We do know that the woman is left to face her accusers by herself.
Verses 4, 5: The rulers bring the woman before Jesus because they were testing him to see his response. In some ways Jesus was a rock in a hard place because no matter how he answered he could have not have been right… at least this is what the authorities believed.
According to the Law of Moses being caught in the act of adultery was punishable by death. You can read the rules and regulations in Deut. 22:22- 24 & Lev. 20:10. You will see there are many laws pertaining to sexual purity. You will also see both individuals who were caught in adultery were to be put to death; so this woman put in front of Jesus by all rights is a condemned woman. Her fate does not look good.
I should note that at this time since Israel was under Roman rule the capital punishment of stoning had not been a common practice at this time. The question was really a question of loyalty. If he said let the woman go he could have been tagged as a friend of the Romans. If he told them to stone her he could have been turned in to the Roman authorities as a rebel against Rome.
“So,” they say, “what should be done with her?”
Verse 6, 7: The motivation of the rulers is pretty clear, they didn’t really care so much about the sinner as they were in trying to trick him. The woman is basically a fodder for the fire. They were just trying to find more reason to have Jesus put away.
Jesus’ response is interesting to say the least. He bends down and starts writing in the sand. I think the one question on everyone’s mind is what exactly did he write? There is a ton of speculation but the truth is we do not know what he was writing but the truth is we don’t know what he wrote.
Verse 8: Jesus eventually answers the question in a way that I am sure none of them were expecting. “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” The scriptures are clear as to the state of humanity in relation to sin. Humanity is guilty of sin. Nobody is without sin period. The rulers understood this. Lev. 24:14 states that the witnesses of the crime are the ones who are to stone the sinner plus they must not be participants in the sin as well. Could the reason that they couldn’t cast the stones is because they were guilty of the same exact sin as this woman? Maybe one of them was the one she was caught with. We’ll never know but it certainly was possible.
Verse 9: After speaking these words Jesus bends down and begins writing in the sand once again. Slowly, one by one the leaders turn and walk away one starting with the eldest. One can imagine their response… Were they like the cartoon character Dick Dastardly who would say, “Curses foiled again!” I can imagine their faces burning hot with anger and frustration as they thought they had a fool proof plan to trick Jesus and it all comes unraveled at the end.
The Christ Encounter
Verse 10: Jesus is standing alone with the woman and looks to her and asks, “Where are those who condemn you? I see they all left.” You can almost hear the authoritative compassion and mercy as he speaks to this woman. If anyone could have legitimately stoned this woman it would have been Jesus himself. He was the one who could have cast the first stone because he was the only one present without sin; but he does not.
Verses 11: Jesus responds with mercy as he tells her that neither will he condemn her. Some have tried to suggest that Jesus is apathetic towards this sin and that he was taking it easy on the woman; but these accusations are from individuals who have never truly understood true acts of forgiveness. He may have responded with compassion because this woman may have realized that she was caught red handed and deserved a stoning according to the law of Moses and saw the fear and regret the woman’s eyes. She was humiliated in front of the masses; her life was essentially ruined because from now on she would be known as the adulterer. It was a good possibility that she was going to be shunned from her family and community if she had one. Yet Jesus responds with compassion as he says to her, “I do not condemn you either.” He takes this sin seriously as he essentially gives this woman a second chance at true life. He says, “I am not going to condemn you, so go away and sin no more.”
Was Jesus calling her to live a sin free life? I don’t think so. He was telling her to quit committing the sin she was caught for. A man or woman could be considered adulterers if they were betrothed to be married but not yet. Or they were adulterers if they were sexually engaged with someone who was not their husband or wife. Or they were sexually engaged with a person who was someone else’s husband or wife. Maybe the woman was betrothed. She could have been having an extramarital affair or she may have been sleeping around. Regardless Jesus tells her to stop what she is doing.
We don’t know what ever became of the woman and we don’t know what became of the man who was never brought before Jesus. However I can’t imagine her life was not forever impacted and changed for the glory of God. So many people who had encounters with Jesus throughout the Gospels are impacted in one way or another (as we have and will see). Some are made well (healed), some are forgiven, and some walk away from him because what he asks is too difficult to do in the flesh.
What I do see here in the opening passage of John 8 are lessons in forgiveness, humility, and compassion. I find it very interesting throughout the Gospels to see Jesus’ response to sinners. He is ultra tough on the leaders of his time because of their self-centered pride, hypocrisy and condescension towards people. These men were constantly pointing out other people’s sins or enforcing laws and not keeping them themselves. However he was even compassionate to one of their own (Nicodemus) when he came and inquired of Jesus in humility and sought to learn from him. Jesus was compassionate to others who were considered sinners. He was never apathetic towards sin, he does confront it (quit doing what you are doing), responds with compassion (your sins are forgiven) and this impacts a person forever. Jesus was tough on the Jewish leaders because they knew better and they were seeking to control people with their authority. The common sinner(s) that we see in the Gospels may have known better but their response was quite similar to the act repentance that is required with sin issues in our lives.
What can we learn and take away from us today? First, be mindful how you respond to someone whose sins have been exposed. Remember Jesus did not respond with harsh judgment, and self righteousness. Secondly, don’t mistake Jesus’ compassion for sinners as tolerance for sin. Jesus is compassionate towards the sinner, yet he does confront it and demands a response towards it. Lastly, I would conclude this passage is not so much a lesson in dealing with sin issues in our lives as it is about heart motive. What is our heart of response towards known sinners? Are we quick to condemn someone just because they are at a point in rebellion in their life? Do you find a certain (maybe really small) amount of satisfaction or “they got what they deserve” attitude towards someone you are not really fond of?
Are we not better off praying for those individuals and lovingly let them know their sins are not God’s plan for their lives? Would we be better serving by showing compassion and letting God be the final judge? This does not and I repeat does not mean we as believers should overlook any open sin in a person’s life. We can’t just apathetically tolerate sin to run rampant and unchecked in another brother or sisters life because we fear offending. Apathy and tolerance towards sin is in no way showing love. As Christians we must confront one another in Christ of our sins and have a heart and attitude of restoration and love and not of judgment and condemnation.
So if you were to put yourself in this story today, where would you fit? Would you be one of the self righteous leaders, the humiliated adulteress (sinner), or the compassionate, sin confronting believer who desires restoration? It’s tough to imagine but take some time today and this week and pray about where you would be in this scenario. The truth is when we experience forgiveness (whether by an individual or from Jesus) we will forever be impacted and changed for the glory of God.
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