“[They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 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. 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.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 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. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” ]”
John 7:53 – 8:1-11 ESV)
I need to begin by explaining why our text is in brackets, and the resulting implications. The passage we are reading this morning is not in the oldest copies of John’s gospel. What’s fascinating, though, is that this is one of the most often cited stories in scripture. But, most New Testament scholars agree that it is likely a historically accurate and true story. It may have been passed verbally from generation to generation of believers until it began to show up in written form around the 5th century. It has been placed in three other locations in John, and one in Luke before settling in its current location.
Most, if not all, of you would agree that scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for life and faith. However, I would hope that you would also agree that anything added to scripture would not be considered inspired and authoritative. So, how do we know what is and what isn’t inspired and authoritative? Is the Bible a product of God or man? Did God give us His Word, or has man generated this thing we call the Bible? And finally, what are we going to do with this story and why am I preaching from it if isn’t scripture?
First, let me start with what scripture isn’t. It ISN’T the result of some church leadership council or group deciding “this fits with what we believe and accept, and this doesn’t so we will discard it.” There is a myth circulating among modern critics of Christianity that what was included in the Bible are those writings that agreed with the church’s agenda and the rest were rejected as heretical. In other words, those writings that viewed the events of Christ’s life, in particular, from a non-traditional perspective or one that conflicted with the church’s agenda or authority were labeled as not-inspired and, thus, rejected or eliminated from the Bible. While that might make for good fiction (The daVinci Code), it is lousy historical research.
In fact, what the church councils did was to affirm was what was already being done or practiced by the churches. The first and second century churches had received the writings of the Apostles (Matthew, John, Paul, James), or their storytellers (Mark, Luke) and considered them true and authoritative because of their origins (Apostles, those who had been eyewitnesses) and their transforming power. So, the source of these writings is crucial. Here are a few biblical affirmations of these very facts…
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8 ESV)
“”For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.” (2 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)
Isaiah declares that God’s Word will stand forever, and will not return empty but will accomplish the very thing God declares. Notice how Paul says that ALL scripture is “God breathed.” Now, there’s no doubt that scripture carries the clear marks of human character and personality, but it is the very breath of God. Powerful, life altering. Peter even notes that the letters Paul was writing were so hard or difficult that people wanted to twist his teachings to fit their own desires. But, Peter says when they do, or when we do, it inevitably leads to destruction.
So, the real issue here is one of authority. You see, we have a real problem with authority. Not just biblical authority, any authority. It isn’t that we’ve eliminated authority, as such, we’ve just redefined who or what is authoritative. We’ve decided science, reason, and, especially, our feelings are much more authoritative in our lives than scripture or God. We are less concerned with getting things right as we are with feeling right. While we certainly have embraced scientific authority, we have relegated even it as secondary to our feelings. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether something is true it only matters how it makes us feel. In many respects, this is exactly what is happening in our culture today with all of its political and social turmoil and strife. And, it is precisely what was happening in this story. Notice how this story develops…
Jesus is teaching in the temple and the Pharisees bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery. They present her, announce her guilt, and then proceed to challenge Jesus on how he will respond to the charges. They are questioning HIS authority, especially as it relates to scripture. They know exactly HOW he will respond, and do this only to test him. Let’s take a look…
I call this section, What’s wrong with this picture…
Notice the Pharisees emphasize that SHE was “caught in the ACT of adultery.” Now, I’m certain most of you are aware of this, but it takes two participants for this sin.
“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:10 ESV)
So, these guys are standing there with their hands on their hips waiting to see if Jesus will respond in accordance with the Old Testament law. Will he declare that she should be stoned to death? They are confident how he will respond and it is a beautiful trap, from their perspective. However, they fail to account for his wisdom and spiritual insight. Jesus immediately seizes on their hypocrisy. While we can only speculate as to why the other half of this adulterous relationship is not included, it certainly is a glaring declaration of defiance of God, thumbing their noses at God’s authority. They want her to be held accountable, but have intentionally excluded the guilty man.
Their view of accountability and obedience to the law is skewed by their prejudice against Jesus. They make claims to morality while completely ignoring the guilt of the male participant in this adulterous act. That’s not righteousness, that’s self-righteous judgmentalism. They’re not concerned with being obedient to God’s law, they’re concerned with proving their point regarding Jesus. “This man can’t be of God, look at how he disregards God’s law.” Wait, what? Look at how He disregards God’s law? That’s ironic, isn’t it? They claim Jesus disregards God’s law, especially the Sabbath law, while they claim to love and obey it. Hmmm, what’s wrong with this picture?
In many ways, this reflects the way the modern church has approached several issues in recent years. We’ve taken this approach with illegal immigrants, and the election of a president. We’ve taken this approach with conservation and recycling. We’ve even taken this approach with sanctity of life issues. We oppose abortion while ignoring the needs of single mothers and their children. We declare the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, while we race around trying to gather as much of it as we can. We proclaim our allegiance to one God, while bowing at the altar of athletics or consumerism. Feeling guilty? Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” They begin slipping away, one by one, even as we grow silent in the face of overwhelming guilt.
Finally, with all of the accusers gone, Jesus confronts the woman. He doesn’t deny her guilt or declare her innocence. In fact, He acknowledges her failures but he offers her grace and she snaps it up. The only one who could condemn her, offers her forgiveness instead. The difference is that the Pharisees used the law as a sledge hammer to drive people into submission, while Jesus uses it as a conduit of grace.
I think this is the primary reason this story is so often cited, and was later added into John’s narrative. It is so much like Jesus. In fact, that’s one of the reasons scholars are so certain it is a true story. It is so much like Jesus, and so unlike us. We would react just like the Pharisees did in this story, but Jesus defies logic and offers grace filled love and forgiveness. If you want to see an example of how we would react, just turn on the nightly news or check out your Facebook feed. We get loud, hateful, self-righteous, just plain mean. But, Jesus shows us how God reacts and how He wants us to react.
So, the final question is how will you react, how will we react? How will you react to a young man or lady who is angry about your stance on abortion? What will you do when a Muslim mosque is set on fire? What will you do when you meet a young, hungry, scared Syrian refugee? I’m not asking you how our government should respond, I’m asking how YOU should respond. We can’t and won’t change our government’s response until we change our own. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…