Good morning, church. Thank you, Matthew, for leading us in worship through music. And Merry Christmas Eve Eve to all of you. 2 things briefly, before we get into the Word: 1st, I want to remind all of you to join us tomorrow evening for our Christmas Eve Candlelight. We will have childcare for 3 and under. All other kids we want in there, because it will be geared toward all ages. That’s tomorrow night, at 7:00pm. 2nd, we have an opportunity to provide bags of food to 13 kids at Trail Ridge Elementary each week during the school year. Trail Ridge is one mile from here, and this is a really neat way to get involved in our community. But, in order to say “yes” to this opportunity, we need 1 or 2 people willing to organize volunteers. We have a plan set up, but we need 1 or 2 to take charge and make be over communicating with volunteers each week. And, I need to confirm yes or no, today. So, if you have any interest in helping organize volunteers to see this happen (and again, we have the plan), please talk to me today before you leave. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait for the next opportunity.
As I was prepping for today, I thought about going somewhere different in the Bible for the Sunday before Christmas, but when I looked into what was scheduled as today’s text, I thought: Nope, this is a very suitable story for today. I’m sure for some of you, this might be one of your favorite narratives of Jesus life. It’s the story of the scribes and the Pharisees bringing the adulterous woman to Jesus to test him. And Jesus makes a statement that has truly become famous: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Now, I love this story, and I’m sure many of you do as well. The catch with this story, though, is that it doesn’t actually belong in the gospel of John. I know that sounds weird, but if you open your Bibles, or the blue New Testaments in the backs of the seats—if you open to John chapter 8, you may notice something a bit odd. When you turn there, you may see brackets of some kind around this section, from John 7:53 to John 8:11. Most of your translations have brackets, and may even have a footnote kind-of explaining why those brackets are there.
I’m going to try and explain this without taking too much of our time this morning: This particular section of your Bibles is not found in the earliest manuscripts we have of John’s gospel. In fact, all the way until the 5th century, this section is not there. So, most likely what happened, is that this story did actually happen (in fact, most scholars do not doubt that this narrative is an actual historical event), but it was passed down by oral tradition, and at some point, a later scribe added this story, because everyone knew the story and knew it to be true, as something that actually happened.
So, John, the writer of this gospel, did not write these words in this section. In other words, this is not authoritative as the Word of God. It has the authority of being a historical event, perhaps, but it was not actually part of John’s gospel. Now, I’m leaving a lot out there in the way of explanation, so if you want a bit more information about this section and why it’s not actually part of John’s gospel, there is a Sermon Notes table right there in the back, and I’ve put a short article there explaining a bit more. You are welcome to pick that up.
So, what I want to do today is still see what we can learn from this story, especially because it’s very likely that it actually happened. And throughout, what I’ll do is undergird what we’re learning with other passages of Scripture. In other words, what we’ll learn today is supported not only from this story, but also from the rest of the Word of God. That way, we’re not dismissing that God did preserve this story in the majority of later manuscripts, and it seems like he may have done that for a reason.
So, not the Word of God, but something worth knowing and remembering, especially because what we can learn from this passage we learn elsewhere from the Word of God as well. So, let’s read my favorite almost-Scripture passage in the Bible. Let’s read what is recorded as John 7:53-8:11.
53 [[They went each to his own house, 1 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 midst4 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.”]]
Alright, now that we’ve read the passage, some of you, I’m sure—after being reminded of this story, some of you are likely disappointed in hearing that it wasn’t originally in the gospel of John. But, even with this being added later, there’s a reason it was added later. That’s because it’s a notable event that was part of the oral tradition. They passed this historical narrative down from generation to generation because in it we see some great truths about Jesus.
Though we don’t know the exact context, where this fits in the timeline of Jesus’ ministry, we know he’s in the temple teaching. And lots of people are there listening. The scribes and the Pharisees bring a woman who apparently had been caught in adultery. So, they placed her in the midst. Meaning, likely, they just threw her on the ground in front of him. Now, immediately, there’s something a bit off here. They’re accusing her of committing adultery, but adultery takes two people, right? So where is the man in this? Why is he not here?
We don’t know exactly why—it may have just been that he was fast enough to get away when they were caught. We don’t know. But, no matter why, it already seems a bit off that they’re bringing this woman to Jesus. And we see very quickly that their motivation in bringing her is certainly not because they’re so curious about how Jesus would handle this situation. They’re not asking so that they can learn from Jesus, are they? Of course not! In fact, when they call him “Teacher” there in verse 4, they’re either being sarcastic, or they’re trying to mask their true reason for bringing this woman, which we find in verse 6: “This they did to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.”
So they’re trying to trick him and get him into trouble. And they’re using the Law, God’s Law, for their own personal gain. They want to trap Jesus. Think about it: if Jesus responded by denying the Law of Moses, he’d lose all credibility. They’d just think of him as some lawless man. If he upheld this law, and confirmed that they should stone this woman, this would go completely against everything he was already doing in his ministry, which was focused so intently on compassion, especially toward so-called “sinners.” So, this was a trap, and they thought they had him. I imagine that they were pretty impressed with themselves: “Tell us, Jesus: What do we do?”
What happens next is you have this puzzling scene of Jesus bending down and writing with his finger on the ground. It’s almost like he was ignoring them, but we know he wasn’t because he’s about to stand up and give them an answer. In fact, this is a question that’s been debated a lot: what was Jesus doing in bending down and writing on the ground? Was he writing something specific? There’s a lot of ideas about what he could have been writing. But, the fact of the matter is that we just don’t know.
So, they kept asking him what to do, kept laying their trap (at least so they thought), and then finally Jesus stands up and responds: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” If this actually happened, and again, there’s no reason to think it didn’t (even if this doesn’t belong in the gospel of John), this is like the biggest mic-drop moment of all time.
He says this, and they are stunned. And they’re so stunned, that they don’t say anything. And verse 9 paints this picture of these scribes and Pharisees, slowly but surely, one by one, turning around and leaving. It even tells us that it was the older ones who left first, one by one. We don’t technically know why the older ones left first, but it makes sense that, perhaps the older, more mature ones, were the first to see the wisdom in Jesus’ words, or at least they were the first ones willing to admit defeat. This ploy didn’t work. Somehow Jesus got out of it. We thought we stumped him, but actually he stumped us.
It’s like playing Monopoly this week with Jacob. Lauryn gave us an early Christmas present, which was Monopoly, Jr. And I’m very excited to say that Jacob is already as obsessed with Monopoly as I am. And he’s constantly beating me; it’s really frustrating. Anyway, in one particular game we played, I got him down to almost bankrupt multiple times, thinking, “I have you, son!” And then, what happened? What always happens in Monopoly?! BOARDWALK. I land on Boardwalk. I have 9 million dollars, and I go bankrupt! (The junior game’s a little different as far as amounts). But that’s very loosely, kind-of what happens here. They think they have Jesus cornered, then BOOM, Boardwalk. Or, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” A statement even more powerful than Boardwalk. And they’re stunned. They’re completely in shock. I’m not bitter, by the way. Or maybe only a little.
So eventually they were all gone, and it was just the woman standing there before Jesus. And he asks 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.”
Three Warnings from this Historical Narrative
It’s quite a remarkable story, and frankly, I don’t doubt that this actually happened, because it sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? And it sounds like the Jewish leaders, right? We already saw just a few weeks ago in chapter 7, that the Jews do not like what Jesus is doing, and especially don’t like that he’s not taking seriously their version of God’s law. You remember when he healed a man on the Sabbath and they got really mad. Why in the world would they get mad at Jesus for doing good on the Sabbath? Because in their version of the Law, you can’t do something like heal on the Sabbath. How dare you help someone else. How dare you care for people! That’s their attitudes.
We also see Jesus eating with sinners in Luke 15:2, and being accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners in Luke 7:34. So Jesus having compassion on this woman who was caught in adultery, this fits right into the Biblical Jesus. So, what can we learn from this narrative, that is also supported by the Word of God in general? Briefly, this morning: three warnings from this historical narrative:
- Don’t twist God’s Word to support your agenda.
This is exactly what the scribes and the Pharisees are doing here. These Jews are using what is, truly, part of the Old Testament Law, at least sort of. In Deuteronomy 22 and Leviticus 20, you can see two different punishments for a woman caught in adultery, depending on whether or not the woman was engaged to be married, or already married. And certainly, in both cases, the punishment was to be given to both the man and the woman.
But, according to scholars, there is very little evidence that this punishment of stoning was carried out very often at all, particularly in urban Palestine in the first century. So, yet again, these scribes and Pharisees are suddenly interested in the Old Testament, when it fits their agenda. When it is convenient for them in trying to trick Jesus! They’re twisting God’s Word to support their own agenda, instead of submitting to God’s agenda, as seen in His Word.
But this doesn’t just happen in the first century, does it? Of course not. Today, twisting God’s Word—that’s just normal practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this exact story used to dismiss sin, to say that we shouldn’t call sin sin. “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” Meaning, “you have no right to call something sin” unless you have no sin. That’s not what’s happening here in this story. Notice, Jesus does not dismiss sin. He doesn’t say that the woman’s adultery is fine and dandy. What does he say? “Neither do I condemn you; Go and sin no more!” He shows her grace, calls her adultery sin, and calls her to walk in it no longer!
We cannot read the parts of the narrative that we want to just to undergird what we already think and believe. And I certainly think we do this, also, as Christians When we go to the Word of God, we must pray and ask the Lord to help us submit to his Word. Our hearts and our minds, no matter what we see, no matter what sin it may reveal in us, we must ask God to help us submit to it fully. Ask the Holy Spirit to help us in interpreting His Word and responding in obedience.
With the new year coming up, it is a great time to jump into reading the Bible on your own, especially if you’ve never really done this. We have Bible-Reading Calendars at the Resource Center in the entryway. I’m planning to follow that reading plan, and I know several of you already follow that plan each year. Feel free to pick one up and use it to get into the Word. Most of the time, when we twist God’s Word without realizing it, it’s because we don’t actually read it on our own in context. I cannot tell you how may misunderstandings about the Bible can be totally avoided simply by reading the text yourself in context. So, I implore you to start a daily discipline of reading the Word, especially so we don’t twist it to fit our agenda. The 2nd warning from this historical narrative:
- Don’t pretend like you, in your flesh, are more favorable to God than others.
This is certainly something we should not miss from this famous story. This is the heart of what Jesus is saying in his statement, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” This doesn’t mean we dismiss sin, or take sin lightly. But it certainly does mean that we should remember who we are in light of our own sin! We are not better than others. We are not more holy than others, except by the grace of God and the transforming power of his Spirit!
I think there is this temptation in seeing people who struggle with depression, or with alcoholism, or pornography, or literally any other thing human beings struggle with, whether sinful or not—it’s so easy to see the struggles of others and puff ourselves up because we don’t have those same struggles. It’s so easy to do this. And yet, all the while, we downplay our own struggles.
I very seriously doubt the scribes and Pharisees thought of themselves as perfect. Maybe a few of them did, but I doubt most of them did. But, they certainly thought of themselves as far more deserving of God’s favor than others. That is exactly the attitude that Jesus is addressing. In this new covenant that Jesus ushered in, no one has the right to throw a stone, except one person! Jesus had the right to throw a stone, but he didn’t. And if Jesus, the most holy man to ever have ever lived, didn’t throw a stone, then we certainly have no right to throw stones.
Don’t pretend like you, in your flesh, are more favorable to God than others. The 3rd warning from this historical narrative:
- Don’t forget the gravity of the grace of God.
Imagine yourself in the shoes of this woman who was caught in adultery. Because let me tell you: you are the adulterous woman! You are the one that deserves no grace, truly. The scribes and Pharisees didn’t realize it, but they too were the adulterous woman! Sinful, rebellious, self-righteous. They too were adulterers! And yet Jesus said to this woman these life-altering words, that I pray this morning you hear as well: “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus showed unspeakable grace toward this woman.
And please notice, Jesus didn’t say, “Well, I tell you what, I’ll give you a year to see how well you do. Maybe you can stop with this adulterous lifestyle, and start living a holy life. Then, maybe I can show you some grace.” He says nothing like that, does he!? Listen, unlike what scribes and Pharisees were thinking: There is no true righteousness before grace. Please hear that today! “Go and sin no more” comes after “Neither do I condemn you!” Any other order of events is Pharisaic legalism. The gospel is, “Neither do I condemn you,” “Now go and sin no more.”
Truly the gospel speaks the words: Come as you are, experience grace, and THEN: don’t expect to stay as you are. Please do not think this morning that God’s love, God’s grace shown to you in Christ is dependent upon your performance. That’s why this grace is so amazing.
This Christmas, more than anything, and no matter where you are in your walk with Christ, hear these words from Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you.” Hear the weight of that! These Pharisees have no right to condemn you! Satan has no right to condemn you, and the only ONE who actually DOES have the right to condemn you, the Holy One himself, says, “Neither do I condemn you!”
Don’t forget, never forget, the gravity of God’s grace. Remember a precious baby being born, God’s own son, whom God would later sacrifice to save you! See, not some flippant or easy dismissal of sin. See the cost of your sin. Be broken by that. And then remember: that was the cost that God was willing to pay by giving His own Son, because he loved YOU. And none of that happened after you showed yourself worthy. After you stopped living the adulterous life for a time. Grace was given while we were yet sinners.
Sometimes I think we forget how easy it is to be like these scribes and Pharisees, and thinking that the Christian life is somehow still about trying to earn God’s grace.
Imagine this for a moment: Let’s say we all treated each other with respect. We all loved each other. Emotionally, we felt like family and treated each other like family. Let’s say we were all trying to live better lives, trying to be better husbands, and wives, and children, and better employees. Imagine for a moment, all that was happening, and we were genuinely trying to be better and happier and more joyful people, together. That sounds like a pretty great picture I just painted, doesn’t it?
What’s missing from all of that, no matter how great it sounds? I didn’t say a word about Jesus! I didn’t say a word about grace. If we miss treasuring Jesus, and treasuring the grace of God shown to adulterous sinners like us, we miss the whole point. We cannot forget the gravity of the grace of God shown in Jesus, because in that grace shown to us in Christ, we find the only power for going and sinning no more. In Christ alone, we can live by faith, and not by self-effort. And in Christ alone, we find freedom from sin.
I want to close our time a bit differently. Many of you have met JP Williams, or his bride Vicki, or one of their seven children. I asked him to share his story of finding God’s grace a few weeks ago, and I want us all to hear his story. Particularly, hearing of the weight of sin, and the freedom found in God’s grace and forgiveness.