The ForgiverRev. Philip Miller | January 24, 2021
Selected highlights from this sermon
Few stories in the New Testament are more iconic, gripping, or tender than that of the woman caught in adultery. It’s a story that’s brutally honest, a story of undeniable humanity, a story brimming with redemptive hope, and a story that reveals the forgiveness and love of Jesus in an unforgettable way.
As Pastor Miller shows us how the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with their “clever” question about this woman, we also discover how Jesus’ love transformed her out of the ugliness of her sin into the loveliness of His grace.
Few stories of Jesus are more iconic or gripping or tender than the one we’re about to look at today. It is a story that is utterly honest, it is incredibly human, and it is brimming with redemptive hope. In this story we see a picture of the forgiveness and love of Jesus that is unforgettable. This is the story we know as the woman caught in adultery. It’s found in John, chapter 7, verse 53 over to chapter 8, verse 11. And I invite you to open your Bibles with me there this morning. We’re going to see three things this morning as we navigate this text together. We’re going to see a clever trap. We’re going to see a brilliant escape. And we’re going to see a transforming love. A clever trap, a brilliant escape, and a transforming love.
Would you bow your head? Let’s pray together.
Father, as we turn to this text this morning, we pray that you would open our eyes to see Jesus more clearly. Help us to realize how much we are like this woman and how much we desperately need to hear the very words that He said to her so many years ago in our lives today. Father, help us see Jesus, we pray in His beautiful name, Amen. Amen.
Now, before we jump into the text this morning, some of you probably have noticed in your Bibles that the passage we’re looking at is bracketed off or there are asterisks or markings or footnotes of some kind that basically amount to saying, “The earliest manuscripts do not have these verses.” And so we ask the question, “What’s up with that?” Well, prior to the printing press, for fourteen hundred years or so, the New Testament was hand copied down through the years by scribes, first on papyrus, then later on vellum. First they copied scrolls, and then later they copied in codex, like a book form. And we have nearly six thousand remaining manuscripts from the New Testament throughout the years. And then we have all kinds of versions that have been translated into say the old Latin or other things like that.
And in general what happens is scholars use the very earliest and the highest quality manuscripts to determine the original readings of the text: so, the closest to when they were written, and the ones that were copied with a reliability. In other words, they tend to be very faithful, very exacting in their copying practices.
Now, in the case of this passage we’re looking at today, every single one of the earliest and best manuscripts that we know of do not contain these verses. So in other words, they skip from 7:52 and they just go straight to 8:12, and they skip these twelve verses in the middle. In fact, these twelve verses don’t show up in the manuscript tradition until the fourth century, or much later. The very earliest is in the fourth century, and even then the manuscripts often have asterisks, or what they call obeli, little markings in the margins signifying that these readings are either not original or dubious.
Furthermore, the style and vocabulary of the words, as they are actually narrated here for us, do not fit John’s pattern of writing in the rest of the Gospel, and this story actually shows up in the manuscript tradition in a number of different places. Some manuscripts have it inserted after John 7:36. Others, like here, have it after 7:52 (That’s the majority of them) but others have it after 7:44. Some of them see it inserted all the way at the end of the book of John in John 21:25 after that. And some of this kind of story shows up in Luke, chapter 21, verse 38. And New Testament scholars are virtually unanimous in (for the last hundred years) holding the opinion that this story was not actually original to John’s Gospel.
So then the question is, “Well, how did it end up in my Bible?” Right? “Why is it here?” Well, here’s the thing. This story has all the earmarks of historical veracity. In other words, it’s probably an authentic true story account of something that really happened in history to Jesus, but John didn’t write it. But it’s a little fragment, a little story floating around, and probably someone stored it in their Bible, in their codex, you know, and as it was stored in there eventually somebody took that and said, “Let me copy this.” They saw it sitting in there and they thought, “Oh this page fell out. I’m going to copy it into the text, but I’ll make a little marginal notation saying, “I wasn’t sure about this because it was sort of sitting off here to the side detached.” And then later a scribe copies that manuscript and he forgets to include the little notation. And then eventually it just gets copied into the text. And when you have two different manuscripts of the scribe that you’re looking at, and one of them has the story and one of them doesn’t, you know the general rule was, “When in doubt, don’t leave it out.” Right? (laughs) I mean, you can’t blame him. It’s an amazing story. And then it basically gets passed down to us because of tradition, because it’s been part of the manuscript tradition.
So today what we’re going to do is we’re going to study this text that is almost certainly not written by John, but is most likely an authentic historical account of Jesus. And so we’re going to see here this story and how it reveals the forgiveness and love of Jesus in such an unforgettable way.
So let’s jump in now to the actual text. The first thing we see here is a clever trap. A clever trap. John 7:53: “They went each to his own house.” Chapter 8, verse 1: “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.”
Now, the context, of course, is incredibly difficult to determine for this passage because, again, the scribes just sort of stuck it in the various places in the textual tradition. But what is clear is that Jesus has been teaching in the temple, which was a common practice of His. The evening comes. People go to their own homes. Jesus makes His way across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives, which is kind of a favorite haunt of His. He spends the night there, and in the morning He comes back to the temple. He sits down as a rabbi would and He is teaching His disciples and the crowd that has gathered.
Verse 3: “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.”
So as Jesus is teaching here they bring this woman and she has, as we are told, been caught in the act of adultery, which means, by the way, that she must really have been caught in the act. Jewish Law required for these charges to be levied. At least two eye witnesses were required to have actually seen the event, the act. So it wouldn’t be enough to see her coming out of a room, or in a compromised position, or in a state of undress or anything like that. No, they would have had to have discovered her in the act. So the question here is not whether she’s guilty. That’s been established. The question is whether Jesus will authorize the use of capital punishment in this case.
Now, in verse 6 we are told that this is a trap. The Pharisees and scribes have actually set this trap for Jesus in order to have something against Him, and of course, it’s a clever trap here. They think they’ve got Jesus between a rock and a hard place. They’ve got Him on the horns of a dilemma, if you will. And here’s the question. Will Jesus choose to cruelly uphold the Law, or compassionately break the Law? (chuckles) This is the question. Will He choose to uphold the Law and be cruel, or will He break the Law because of His compassion?
If Jesus says, “The Law must be upheld here; she must die for her sins,” the Pharisees know that the people will turn on Jesus, because this is heartless and ruthless and cruel. This Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” and here He is, “Sure, bring your sins to Jesus and He’ll execute you.” You know–“Some Messiah this is.” They know He’ll be unpopular here. Plus, it could get Him in trouble with the Romans. The Romans retained for themselves exclusive rights to capital punishment in the Roman world, and so this could get Him sideways with Rome. Either way the Pharisees win.
But on the other hand, if Jesus chooses to be compassionate toward this woman, they’ll have confirmation that He’s a law breaker. Right? “He-he-hey, we got you. You broke the Sabbath. Remember you told that guy to carry His mat? You healed on the Sabbath, and now we got you again. You’re denying the Law of Moses. That’s two strikes buddy–two strikes.”
Now, it’s pretty clever. They think they’ve got Him, but of course, they’re outmatched. Jesus smells something fishy going on here. I don’t know if you see it. There’s something that’s not quite right here. Do you see what it is? Something’s off. Where’s the man, hmm? If this woman’s guilt has been so clearly established by the eyewitness testimony of two people who caught her in the act, where’s the guy? You know?
The Law of Moses is abundantly clear that both the man and the woman are required to be punished if they are caught, but he’s nowhere to be seen here. There’s something shady going on, and Jesus sees it. If they’re only pressing charges against her, then apparently there’s some corruption or bribery or politics at play here. Whoever she was with apparently had the power, the connections, the money to kind of wriggle off the hook here. Either he bribed the witnesses or threatened their families or abused his power somehow or circumvented the Law, but something’s amiss, and she doesn’t have those options, see?
And not only that, due process has not yet been followed. She’s supposed to have, under the Law of Moses, a fair trial, not a public shaming like this, but a fair trial. There are supposed to be eyewitnesses that will [be] cross-examined. Again, you have to have at least two of them, and their stories had to line up in every detail.
We have an ancient record of a woman named Susannah who was accused of doing a certain something under a certain tree. Okay? And she was let off because the witnesses couldn’t agree on the size of the leaves on the tree. Okay? So the standards of proof that the witnesses had to meet were stringent. In fact, the Mishnah said that any court that executed more than one person every seven years was considered a slaughter house. So conviction on these kinds of cases was very rare, and actually very, very difficult. And yet, here they are, eager to start throwing stones. Something’s off here. Something’s off. Jesus sees it. He sees the clever trap.
Now secondly, let’s look at the brilliant escape. Brilliant escape. Chapter 8, verse 6b: “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.’” Let me read that again. I memorized this in a different version. (chuckles) “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
So Jesus begins writing in the dirt of the ground with His finger here. Now there are all kinds of theories as to what kind of thing He wrote. You know some people think He wrote verses, or wrote out their sins. Everybody has an interesting idea. The reality is, ready? We don’t know. (laughs) We don’t know what He wrote. And if it was important we would know. I suspect though what He’s doing is He’s stalling for time. They come in all hot and bothered here, and He’s giving them a chance to cool their heads, to calm themselves down, but they keep pestering Him and asking Him what He is going to say. And so He stands up and says, “Let him who who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
That’s very interesting. Jesus is not saying here that the only person who can render a guilty verdict is a sinless person. That wouldn’t make any sense at all. God intended all along for the Mosaic Law to be enforced by human beings, all of whom are imperfect. What Jesus is saying here is He is calling them out. He’s calling out their corruption, their violations of the Law of Moses in this very case. He’s saying, “Look, I see there’s no man here, there’s no due process that’s been followed.” He calls them out on it. He says, “Okay, if you’re sinless here, if you have done everything according to the Law here, if you’ve followed all the legal requirements, the processes and procedures, if everything is above board here, if you are without sin, go ahead and throw the stone.” In other words, “If you think you’ve done everything that the Law requires here, go ahead.”
In verse 8, “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.”
Do you notice Jesus doesn’t take the bait here? Jesus doesn’t take the bait but instead turns the spotlight of conviction upon their own sinfulness. He doesn’t take the bait. He turns the spotlight on their own sinfulness. Notice how Jesus deftly avoids their trap here. He never says, “Don’t throw a stone.” He never says, “She’s innocent.” He doesn’t deny the Law of Moses, and yet He compassionately stands up for her against their corrupt and unjust motives. He says, “Listen, I don’t deny the Law of Moses, but by the Law of Moses, I deny your right to be an executioner. I don’t deny the Law of Moses, but by the Law of Moses, I deny your right to be an executioner right now.”
The next thing we see is His transforming love, a transforming love. This is so beautiful to me. Verse 10: “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.’”
Could you imagine her relief when she looked up and realized that her accusers were gone?
“Has no one condemned you?”
“No one. No one, Lord.”
“Neither do I condemn you.”
Friends, He’s the only one who could have condemned her. He’s the only one who knew the very depths of her sin, who could bear witness as to her integrity, and her intentions, her motives, to know everything about her.
Remember Nathaniel? He saw him under the fig tree. Remember the woman at the well? He knew everything she had ever done. He knows this woman through and through. He’s the only one who can condemn her, and yet when she looks in His eyes, instead of condemnation she finds mercy.
I’m reminded of John 3:16 and 17. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
“Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go, and from now on sin no more.”
Now in these 13 words in English, 11 in Greek, Jesus makes six liberating moves. I want to show them to you. First, Jesus separates the sin from the sinner. Do you see that there? Jesus separates the sin from the sinner. Like a doctor who isolates a tumor from the surrounding tissue, Jesus isolates the sin from the sinner. He will radiate the tumor and save the patient. This is, of course, the opposite of what the Pharisees were doing here. As far as they were concerned, she was her sin. As far as they were concerned, she was her sin. She was beyond redemption. She was beyond hope. She deserved to die, but Jesus will find a way to destroy the tumor of her sin, and save her in the end. It’s beautiful.
Secondly, Jesus calls out her sin without condemnation. Jesus calls out her sin but without condemnation. He tells her, look at this, He tells her, “Go, from now on sin no more.” He calls out her sin. He labels it for what it is, doesn’t He? And yet He prefaces this with, “Neither do I condemn you.” No condemnation.
And friends, if you think about it, this is exactly what we most desperately need. Deep down we know we’re sinners. We live with shame and regret in our lives. We hide and pretend and we filter ourselves to the world. Even we don’t like who we have become a lot of the time. And we live with this fear that if people really knew who we were, they would never love us. In fact, they would condemn us, and so we hide and we pretend and we mask ourselves. But do you see, friends, how beautiful and liberating it is to have someone look you in the eye and say, “Neither do I condemn you. Now, go and sin no more.”
He sees us for who we are, and loves us anyway. That’s the third thing here. Jesus sees her at her worst, and loves her anyway. Jesus sees her at her worst and loves her anyway. Friends, do you realize this was the worst day of her life? Her sin is exposed. It’s out in the open. Public scorn and shame and spectacle all of her life, her hopes, her dreams ruined and dashed, and in this, her worst moment, Jesus does not recoil from her. He draws closer to her. When she was at her worst, in her darkest day, in her most miserable mess, Jesus loves her.
I just want to talk to you for a second. Some of you, you’re watching this, listening to this, and for whatever happened in your life, maybe some pastor or church somewhere has made you feel like Jesus could never really love you. And maybe you’re too dirty, too far gone. There’s something wrong with you, that Jesus is not interested in a relationship with you. Don’t you see how wrong that is? This passage shows you the heart of Jesus who loves you as you are. No one, no one is beyond the love of Jesus.
But fourthly, what we see here is that Jesus loves her exactly as she is, and too much to leave her as she is. He loves her exactly as she is, but too much to leave her as she is. This is amazing to me. Jesus loves her as she is, sinful, broken, shamed, ruined. And yet with compassion, He forgives her, and then calls her into holiness. “Now go and sin no more.” He calls her into who she was always meant to be, but Jesus loves her enough to call her into holiness. He sees her value, her worth, her potential. He loves her as she is, broken and sinful, and yet He will not rest until she becomes radiant and splendid and blameless before Him in holiness and becomes her own true self as she was always meant to be.
And don’t you see? This is transformational love here, because, number five, Jesus loves her with both truth and grace. Jesus loves her with both truth and grace. Do you see them both here? Truth–Go and sin no more. Grace–Neither do I condemn you. And you need both of those for transformation because, listen, if you have grace without truth, it will affirm you, but it will keep you in denial about your flaws. It’s a superficial love that just says, “Hey, you’re great. I love you just the way you are. There’s nothing wrong about you. You’re perfect in every way.” Oh, it’s rose-colored glasses. It can never change us, you see? Because there no impetus to move. It just leaves us as we are, and we know we’re not perfect. Grace without truth.
But then if you have truth without grace, it’ll give you feedback, honest feedback, but in a way that’s too harsh to receive. It may be accurate, but it will never change us because we can’t receive truth if it does not have grace with it as well, and so we are left unchanged. But when truth and grace come together, like they do in Jesus Christ here, there is a radical truthfulness about who we are and who we are meant to be, combined with a radical grace extending forgiveness and acceptance to us. And that combination, friends, is utterly transforming because grace allows us to receive the truth, don’t you see? And truth presses us deeper into grace in our area of greatest need, and thus the cycle of transformation engages.
Maybe an illustration here would help. One of my favorite movies is “Pride and Prejudice,” this is the 1995, actually T.V. series from BBC. I love the book. I love this production of it. Mr. Darcy, of course, is the rich and prosperous man. He falls in love with Elizabeth Bennett whose family is decidedly beneath his own in terms of wealth and consequence, and yet he has fallen in love and he cannot help himself. And his first proposal is comical. I love this. Let me just read it for you. This is about in the middle of the book. “In vain have I struggled,” he says. “It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
Okay, so far so good. Okay? That part is good. Wait for the rest. “In declaring myself I am fully aware that I will be going against the wishes of my family, my friends, and I hardly need add my own better judgement. The relative situation of our families is such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection. Indeed, as a rational man I cannot but regard it as such myself, but it cannot be helped. Almost from the earliest moments of our acquaintance I have come to feel for you a passionate admiration and regard, which despite all my struggles has overcome every rational objection and I beg you most fervently to relieve my suffering and consent to be my wife.” (laughs) I love it.
But don’t you see? This is like full of truth. Okay? Everything he says here is accurate, but there’s no grace. There’s no grace here. And so she is rightly affronted. She cannot hear what he’s saying, in the book, because Lizzie, at this point, wants total affirmation of who she is in her family, everything about her. “I love you, all about you, everything about you. You’re just perfect the way you are.” That’s what she wants to hear. But, of course, that wouldn’t be true, would it? Because there’s all kinds of things that are messed up about her family and the things that are going on. But neither can she accept the truth, the accurate diagnosis of the situation, because he packages it so poorly, right? Because there’s no grace here. And it takes the rest of the book for Darcy to begin to start extending grace to the Bennett family who do not deserve it. He bails them out of a tough situation at great personal cost to himself. And that grace begins to work on Lizzie, melts her out, and she begins to see and realize that he has been saying the truth the whole time, but it wasn’t until it was paired with grace that it started changing her heart and life. It transforms her and their story. So the second time when he finally asks, of course she says “yes.”
Truth and grace together. It’s a beautiful picture of the love of Jesus, just like we see here.
Now the sixth thing that Jesus is doing (don’t you see?) is Jesus loves her into loveliness. Jesus loves her into loveliness. Jesus loves her when she is unlovely, and in His love, He is making her to be lovely. He’s loving her into loveliness. And notice He doesn’t use shame or guilt to try to produce change in her life. He doesn’t rub her nose in what she’s done. He doesn’t use fear. He doesn’t say, “You know you’re going to get in trouble here.” There’s punishment, there’s threats. He doesn’t do that. He doesn’t appeal to her pride. He doesn’t say, “You know, you’re really a better person than this. You want to be better than this, don’t you? You know? Dig down. Have some dignity. You know?” No. He simply loves her into loveliness. He believes in the power of love to transform her from the inside out.
Now how was this possible though? How was this possible? If the wages of sin is death, how can Jesus just give her life? If the Law condemns, how can Jesus accept her? If judgment is due, how can He just give her mercy? In other words, how can Jesus be both just and the Justifier of those who believe? See, this is the question. It’s the question Paul asks. And don’t you see? Stones should be thrown, but it will be His body that is broken. Judgment should fall, but it will fall across His shoulders. Condemnation should come, but He will carry out the sentence.
The wages of sin is death, but it is He who will suffer and die, that Jesus, the only one who could rightfully condemn her instead says, “Now go. Sin no more. Neither do I condemn you.” And then He climbs up on the cross and dies in her place and for her sake and takes her condemnation upon Himself, which she deserves, He took for her.
Listen, the condemnation He alone could bring is the condemnation He alone chose to bear. The condemnation He alone could bring is the condemnation He alone chose to bear because Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made him (Jesus) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” It’s amazing. This is the Gospel.
So three quick takeaways as we close. Three questions. Have you received Jesus’ love? Have you received Jesus’ love? Friends, you realize He knows you completely, He loves you utterly, and He forgives you entirely, that if we will just admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus has done everything to make us right with God when He died for us and rose again, if we will commit our lives to Him, accept Him as our Savior and Lord, we can be born again, forgiven, set free, loved.
The second question is are you abiding in Jesus’ love? Are you abiding in His love? Are you resting in it? Are you abiding in in it? Are you rooted down deep in it? Friends, there’s no other way to change. Shame can’t do it. Guilt won’t do it. Fear won’t do it. Pride won’t do it. The only thing that can change us, melt us, transform us is this kind of truth and grace, the love that is found in Jesus. This is the only way we can be forgiven. It’s the only way we can be set free. It’s the only way we can know we are beloved in Him. And Jesus loves us and forgives us, and then sets us free. He says, “Now go and live like the beloved son and daughter that you really are, because in me you are loved to the skies.” Are you abiding in His love today, friends?
And then thirdly and finally, how can you extend Jesus’ love? How can you extend Jesus’ love? First John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” We love because He first loved us. Having received such abundant love from God, such transforming grace and truth together at once, this love of Jesus we are now called to extend the same love to those around us. That’s the great commandment that Jesus gave us. John 13:34, the new commandment: “As I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” So friends, don’t you realize this? Jesus has loved us at our worst. Now we are called to love others in the same way. So who is Jesus calling you to love today? Who is Jesus calling you to love today?
Could you pray with me?
Father, this love that you lavish upon us in Jesus is beyond our deserving, beyond our expectation, beyond our ability, honestly, to trust. Lots of people in life have promised to love us and then they let us down, and so we get wary to trust in the love that you offer us. But would you help us to be gutsy, to be brave, to be bold, to believe that it is true that in Jesus we are actually forgiven. We are actually loved. We are actually beloved because of all that Christ has done for us. Help us believe it. Help us receive it. Help us abide in it. Help us extend it. We pray this in the beautiful name of our Jesus, Amen, Amen.