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Last week, Pastor Zane told us that the officers sent by the chief priests and the Pharisees returned and were questioned about why they didn’t take Jesus into custody. The officers told those religious leaders that no one has spoken the way Jesus speaks. The Pharisees were concerned that the officers sent to capture Jesus were taken in by His teaching. In fact, the Pharisees were concerned about anyone that was convinced by Jesus’ teaching. Nicodemus reminded the Pharisees about their due process and the right of a person to face one’s accusers. The Pharisees responded by asking if Nicodemus was from Galilee and then they issued another order to ensure no prophet would arise out of that area and then everyone went home. This morning, we’ll pick up the story as Jesus meets with another group of people and begins teaching them.
Read our passage for today that’s found in John 8:1-11.
From a chronological point of view, it is reasonable to conclude that the encounter with the Pharisees occurred late in the day. While everyone else went home, “Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” Did He sleep outside? Did He stay with a friend? We’re still in the time period for the Feast of Booths so did He stay in one of the temporary shelters built for the Feast? Did He stay up all night in prayer? All of those are possible, but we’re not told. The next morning comes and notice something. Verse 2 says, “Early in the morning, He came again into the temple.” Notice that Jesus is an early riser. He doesn’t waste time lounging about in bed. No snooze alarm, no three or four alarm clocks set to get His day going. Early in the morning, Jesus makes His way to the temple. As He arrived, “All the people were coming to Him.” As was His custom, “He sat down and began to teach them.” At this point, Jesus is accustomed to people wanting to hear what He teaches. Who the people were and what was actually taught remain a mystery. The point is that Jesus began doing what He normally did. He sat down and began teaching. This is not a proof text that prescribes the only method of teaching is to sit down. Jesus sitting represents a more informal, casual setting. It’s less intimidating. Think of a Community Group setting: it’s informal, there’s interaction, there’s opportunity to ask questions. There’s a place in our life for formal messages brought by a preacher, but there’s far more opportunities to live life together where we can learn from those more spiritually mature than we are. When we put ourselves in those situations, spiritual growth occurs.
In the middle of His teaching, here comes, “The scribes and the Pharisees.” The Pharisees we know, but who are these scribes? This is the only usage of the term in the Gospel of John which lead many scholars to believe John did not write this portion. The word appears 23 times in Matthew, 21 in Mark, 14 in Luke, and three times in Acts. A scribe is someone that is an interpreter and teacher of Mosaic law. In the Old Testament, teachers of the law were Levites fulfilling the role of priests. To get a better idea about scribes, take the time to turn over and read Neh. 8:1-8. Notice 27 scribes are mentioned by name. These scribes would be the precursor to the rabbi which means my master, my teacher. The combination of scribes and Pharisees appears only here in John. They appear eight times in Matthew, once in Mark, and five times in Luke although twice the order is reversed, and just once in Acts. These scribes were also known as teachers of the law and lawyers. Not all scribes were Pharisees, but there were Pharisees that were scribes. When you see the two terms together, it represents an opposition to the teachings of Jesus primarily because people believed Jesus’ teaching, and according to Matt. 15:2, broke, “The tradition of the elders.” And that brings us full circle to the problem the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus.
Here comes the test. Look at vs. 3-5. John gives us the synopsis in v. 3. The scribes and Pharisees come to the temple with a woman that has been caught in the act of adultery and they bring her to the center of the court where all the people are listening to Jesus teach. So everyone is on the same page, adultery is when a married person has sexual relations with a person who is not their spouse. Adultery was specifically prohibited in the 7th Commandment.
The woman is brought out in public view and her sin is pronounced against her. I have some questions. Why, all of a sudden, do they address Jesus as Teacher? In Chapter 7, the Jews had a big problem with Jesus’ teaching because they said He was not educated. After listening to His teaching, the crowd concluded He had a demon. In 7:30, they sought to seize Jesus, but His time had not yet come. Many believed His teaching and the Jews and the Pharisees grew even more desperate to shut Him down. Their goal is to silence Jesus and they call Him teacher. Is the term dripping with sarcasm? Is it false sincerity? Are they mocking Him? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as we continue on. In what world is it okay to drag a woman into the middle of town and bring an accusation for all to hear? But that’s looking at in a 21st Century context. We would never think to do that, right? We would never think to call someone and say, “Oh my goodness, Myrtle, you are not going to believe this! We need to pray for poor Wilbur, Sister Betty is stepping out on him.”
How exactly was she caught, “in the very act?” What happened to the guy? The law was clear that both parties involved received the same punishment. If she was caught in the very act, how did he get away? How did the scribes and Pharisees know where to go to catch her and what time to be there? How did they get in to wherever this was happening? This has all the indications that it was a sting set up by the Pharisees. They even quote the source document to show Jesus they know what they’re talking about. They tell Jesus, “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” The law of Moses refers to Lev. 20:10 that says, “If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Deut. 22:22 says, “If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.” Ex. 20:14, “You shall not commit adultery.” They used Scripture as a weapon to bring to light the woman’s sin in order to trap Jesus. To be fair, the Pharisees are right. The Law of Moses did require both parties engaging in adultery to be put to death and the method was typically by stoning. The punishment would be carried out by the community.
The scribes and Pharisees didn’t care about this woman necessarily. We don’t have a lot of examples where people are dragged into the public square where their sins are laid out for all to hear. This is first century Jerusalem which is under Roman governance. Stoning was not commonplace during Jesus’ day. Stephen became the first martyr of the New Testament when he was stoned in Acts 7. In 2 Cor. 11:25, the Apostle Paul says he was once stoned. Given the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, the governor would have jurisdiction over this type of matter. It was far easier to secure a divorce than it was to execute a death sentence. The legalist Pharisees were only concerned about one thing: they were trying to trap Jesus. Moses says she should be stoned, what do You say? Is Jesus going to fall into the trap? The Pharisees have brought Jesus what they believed to be a clear violation of Mosaic Law. They cite the authority with the goal of getting Jesus to disagree with Moses by saying something other than death should occur. Doesn’t this type of thing happen to Believers? You speak the truth of Scripture and someone counters with some random fact in the Bible. We’re seeing this type of thing a lot today and the end result is the same thing the Pharisees were trying to do to Jesus. This is polarizing America and it’s polarizing the church. The pandemic has revealed the true colors of a lot of people. We have people in the church that care more about your vax status than they do about your spiritual status. We have people more concerned about properly washing your hands than about being washed by the blood of Christ. We have people on national platforms tell us the only way to fulfil the second greatest commandment is to wear a mask. People tell us if we were prolife, then we would care about immigration, global warming, reparations, and fair wages. People are trying to trap you into saying something they believe is non-Christian behavior and the only thing they’ll accept is complete agreement with them. Don’t fall for it.
And now Jesus demonstrates true wisdom. The trap has been set. In their minds, Jesus is in a no-win situation. If He agrees with Moses that the woman should be stoned, then He would be inconsistent with previous His behavior because He was known to be a friend to sinners. If He disagrees about stoning her, He would be in conflict with the Law, something they believed the Messiah could not and would not do. Mercy and justice are set as opposing principles and the Pharisees are feeling pretty good about themselves. In their minds, the Pharisees have won, there’s nothing Jesus can say to get Himself out of this situation. Because we can read, we know they were, “Testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him.” The Pharisees were not interested in the woman herself. They didn’t care that she was caught in adultery. They used her to get at Jesus. In a stunning turn of events, Jesus says not a word and does not seem flustered by all the posturing and blustering. “But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote in the ground.” What did He write? Some say it was from Jer. 17:13 that says, “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of the living water, even the Lord.” Some say He wrote the sins of those men that were in front of Him. As He continues writing in silence, the Pharisees pressed Him again. “He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus responds with a trap of His own. Deut. 17:7 says, “The hand of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” This is a legalistic bunch. What Jesus really thinks of these men is found in Matt. 23:28, “So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” They make a big show of looking good, but are not. Jesus is not trying to condemn the Pharisees, but to show them there is no hope in following man-made standards or some set of beliefs to get to God. They should evaluate themselves before passing judgment on others. Jesus will not be fooled and will not be goaded into a fruitless argument. “Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.” We still don’t know what He’s writing, but it must have been something incredible. Those things are not revealed and remain a source of much speculation.
“When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.” The “it” refers to Jesus saying the sinless one could cast the first stone. The Pharisees leave one by one from the oldest to the youngest. And when they are gone, only Jesus and the woman remain. The woman, likely completely humiliated and embarrassed, is left alone with Jesus. “Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” Jesus is not surprised they are gone, but I’m guessing the woman was. The case against her has completely fallen apart because there are no witnesses and no authority remaining to prosecute the case. I imagine this to be a scene of incredible compassion and empathy and perhaps some uneasiness on the woman’s side. The woman answers Jesus’ question, “No one, Lord.” Lord in this verse is a term of respect and simply means sir. Jesus’ final word on this matter could be a sermon by itself. Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” The word condemn here means determining guilt and executing punishment. Just a few minutes earlier, this woman was facing death by stoning. A whole lot of nonsense has been preached about Jesus’ words and I’d like to be clear about what He’s not saying. He does not give the woman a pass and does not condone her behavior. He’s not even saying don’t judge people. Jesus tells her, “From now on sin no more.” In Jo. 5:14, remember the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda. Jesus healed him and told him the same thing. “Do not sin anymore,” but added, “So that nothing worse happens to you.”
One of the most misused verses tell us, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1) Mercy and justice collide in this story. The Pharisees are out for blood, yet get a lesson in mercy, compassion, and love. In no way, shape, or form is Jesus condoning sin.
Of this story, commentator G. L. Borchert says moral standards are not diminished in the touch of mercy. This is a lesson for all of us, especially at a time when we seem so divided. Let’s put off those things that are non-essential to our faith that seem to divide and let us be united in Christ. The crowd is still there. What are they thinking? What happens next? Join us next week to find out.