One of the best-known passages of the Gospel happens at the beginning of the 8th chapter of John, (verses 2 through 5): And early in the morning he (Jesus) came again into the temple, and all the people came to him; and he sat down and taught them. And the scribes and the Pharisees bring [to him] a woman taken in adultery, and having set her in the midst, they say to him, Teacher, this woman has been taken in the very act, committing adultery. Now in the law Moses has commanded us to stone such; thou therefore, what sayest thou?
If you have heard the story before, you know that the turning point in that passage happens when Jesus tells the crowd, “Let him among you who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Jesus knew what would happen after that. The woman left that place unscathed.
Was that Just?
I have heard sermons (some of which I have preached) about that passage in John that point out that “it takes two to tango.” If that woman was caught in the very act of adultery, so was the man. How come the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t bring the man along also, to be stoned?
Bringing up such an argument implies that those religious leaders were hypocrites (and steeped in the ways of their misogynistic patriarchal society.) And therefore, because of that, the whole scene was unfair… So, it’s a good thing Jesus sent them packing.
But to argue that way would be to say that two wrongs make a right.
You see, the woman did commit a sin, a capital sin according to their society. And whether the man escaped on his own, or by complicity with the Pharisees, is neither here nor there. That doesn’t change her guilt. That doesn’t change the requirements of Justice. Justice is black and white: Do the crime pay the price.
If the woman had been stoned to death, you couldn’t possibly fault Justice. That is what Justice required. She well knew it. (Before she ever decided to commit adultery.) If the man escaped that same fate, you couldn’t possibly fault Justice either. It is not Justice’s fault. The fault and the blame would all lie with the people that perverted the course, or the carrying out, of Justice.
So, did Jesus violate the Law by saving that woman’s life?
The Law is black and white… but is that a good thing?
The following is an event that happened soon after the second Passover of Jesus’ ministry:
Matthew 12:1-2 At that time Jesus went on the sabbath through the cornfields; and his disciples were hungry, and began to pluck the ears and to eat. But the Pharisees, seeing [it], said to him, Behold, thy disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on sabbath.
The Pharisees complained many times about Jesus healing people on the Sabbath. The Law forbid working on the Sabbath; and, to them, a doctor healing his patients was clearly work. Now, we could argue that in all those cases they were overreaching because it wasn’t necessarily Jesus doing any “work” but rather His Father in heaven that did the healing. But that would be to attempt to defend Jesus. And as Søren Kierkegaard used to say, Jesus doesn’t need any apologists.
Here the Pharisees are accusing his disciples of breaking the Law because to reap grain is truly defined as work; even if you don’t break a sweat. I think many of us, appealing to common sense, would have replied “Come on guys… give me a break… How can me peeling the husks off a handful of grains in my hand, to munch on, be what God meant when He said don’t do work on the Sabbath?”
How does such a reply sit with you? Does it bother you? After all, the Law is clear, it’s in black and white. The Law has set well-defined boundaries. If I can choose to disregard those boundaries because of my “common sense”, aren’t I inviting anarchy? How can a mere human presume to discern what God’s intentions were when He wrote down this one of the Ten Commandments?
The Pharisee would feel justified in replying: ‘Did God not mean it when He said we cannot work on the Sabbath?’
If even a hint of those thoughts crosses your mind, then Jesus’ reply isn’t going to sit well with you either:
Matthew 12:3-4 But he said to them, Have ye not read what David did when he was hungry, and they that were with him? How he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests only?
Do you see that Jesus is not apologizing at all for what his disciples did? He is not even trying to come up with a technicality (of the Law) that would justify what they did. He just tells them, if this is wrong, what David did was worse. Not only did he eat of the show bread (which someone could have tried to justify by saying that David was special because he had already been anointed to be the future king of Israel), David gave of it to the rag tag band of ruffians that hung around with him.
So, is the Law relative? Does necessity of the moment justify breaking the Law?
Jesus goes on:
Matthew 12:5-8 Or have ye not read in the law that on the sabbaths the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, that there is here what is greater than the temple. But if ye had known what is: I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath.
By continuing with this example, Jesus points out that He is not dismissing the importance of the Law. But what he is saying is that to keep the Law you must understand it. We must think about it and discern its spirit; and it is that spirit that we are required to obey and uphold.
He is challenging the Pharisees to exercise their brains. He has just told them, You are nitpicking what my disciples do, and you have never realized that the priests are working all day in the Temple on the Sabbath? Why haven’t you condemned them?
And the Pharisee would say: ‘Wait, wait, that’s different… they are priests… that’s their job?’ To which Jesus could then reply back with the Pharisee’s own words: ‘Did God not mean it when He said we cannot work on the Sabbath?’
In giving them this reply about the priests and the Temple, Jesus has given them the principle to use in answering all such quandaries. It is not the letter of the Law that matters, it is the Spirit. The Pharisees read and memorized that Law, and yet they missed its Spirit. That is why Jesus tells them: ‘you are missing the point of the Law, God desires mercy rather than sacrifice.’ And then he goes on the record declaring his disciples guiltless, even though they broke the letter of the Law.
How can He do that? He can, because ‘there is here what is greater than the temple’. And that greater is the Son of Man. If anyone has a right to interpret the Law and explain what the Sabbath means, it is Him because He is Lord of the Sabbath.
It is the Spirit of the Law that we are required to keep; and the Spirit reveals it.
In the Gospel, I never see Jesus worry about his followers sinking into moral anarchy. To the challenge: ‘How can a mere human presume to discern what God’s intentions were when He wrote down the Ten Commandments?’ His answer is clear:
John 6:45 It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me…
On this side of the cross, we mere humans have been transformed. The prophesied New Covenant is in force. Anyone who wants to hear the voice of the Father, can… because the Holy Spirit has already been poured down on humanity.
John 16:7-8 But I say the truth to you, It is profitable for you that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you. And having come, he will bring demonstration to the world, of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment…
The Holy Spirit restores to the believer the power of his conscience. What habitual sin had weakened, what resentment had buried, what shame and guilt had muzzled, has now been set utterly free by the power of the Living God.
Not only do we know that we know what is right and what is wrong, we need never again be deceived by the enemy. As Paul says:
Romans 8:14-16 for as many as are led by [the] Spirit of God, *these* are sons of God. For ye have not received a spirit of bondage again for fear, but ye have received a spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are children of God...
This is why there is really no danger of anarchy; and no danger that we are going to choose to live by “cheap Grace” … not if we walk like children of God, openly before our Father in Heaven. Why? Because moral anarchy and cheap Grace are the path of least resistance. Those that take that path do so because they prize convenience; they want life to be simple, uncomplicated; and shun hardship and struggle.
But that is not what Jesus offered to those He called to follow Him. That passage I cited from Romans, concludes this way:
Romans 8:16-18 …that we are children of God. And if children, heirs also: heirs of God, and Christ’s joint heirs; if indeed we suffer with [him], that we may also be glorified with [him]. For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy [to be compared] with the coming glory to be revealed to us.
The children of God have chosen to follow in the footsteps of the Son of God. And it’s not easy.
Living by the Spirit of the Law is not easier than living by the letter of the Law.
On the contrary, as Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, the Spirit of the Law is a lot more stringent.
Matthew 5:21-22 Ye have heard that it was said to the ancients, Thou shalt not kill; but whosoever shall kill shall be subject to the judgment. But *I* say unto you, that every one that is lightly angry with his brother shall be subject to the judgment; but whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca [that is, worthless], shall be subject to [be called before] the sanhedrim; but whosoever shall say, Fool, shall be subject to the penalty of the hell of fire.
Matthew 5:27-30 Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But *I* say unto you, that every one who looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. But if thy right eye be a snare to thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand be a snare to thee, cut it off and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell.
Yes, the New Covenant is the age of Mercy and Grace but it is also the age of Either/Or.
It is time to choose. And this imperative is not only for those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus; it has been proclaimed to all humanity. Why? Because the Universe has changed. Because Jesus has already died on the cross; and that sacrifice is once and for all. The Holy Spirit has already been poured out. And God will not call Him back.
Paul made this claim clear to the people of Athens. As he quoted the words of their own Gentile prophets who had declared that all people are the offspring of God, he tells them…
Acts 17:29-31 Being therefore [the] offspring of God, we ought not to think that which is divine to be like gold or silver or stone, [the] graven form of man’s art and imagination. God therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, now enjoins men that they shall all everywhere repent, because he has set a day in which he is going to judge the habitable earth in righteousness by [the] man whom he has appointed, giving the proof [of it] to all [in] having raised him from among [the] dead.
There is now no going back. The time for ignorance is over. The plan of Salvation prepared since before the world began has now begun and it is time for the whole world to know. And the plan probably doesn’t look anything like what we expected.
As Jesus explained in that passage in John 6, this is the way the Holy Spirit carries out the unfolding of the plan:
John 6:8-11 …And having come, he will bring demonstration to the world, of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
- of sin, because they do not believe on me;
- of righteousness, because I go away to [my] Father, and ye behold me no longer;
- of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
Ah, the leniency and the rigor of God!
The leniency: because you don’t need to memorize the Ten Commandments, or the hundreds of others in the Law, to make sure you avoid sin. Throw away the check list. There is only one thing required: Believe in the Son of God.
The rigor: because you can’t lie to the Spirit. He knows. And if I truly surrender all, and believe, then nothing hidden remains within me. Nothing within me is out of His reach. My whole life is His domain. And whatever He finds in there that does not belong in the Kingdom of God, I have already yielded to Him all authority to remove it… whatever it takes.
The leniency: Because Righteousness has already been satisfied. He, the Son of God, paid the price for all my sins. He proved this triumph over sin and death by coming back to life from among the dead and then returning to His Father.
The rigor: Because though I can know this truth deep in my heart, I can never demand proof of it in the flesh. He has gone and we can behold Him no longer. The fellowship I can have with Him, from now until the day I die, can happen only in my heart, mediated by the Holy Spirit.
When He was here in the flesh, I could run to Him in desperation, fall at his feet, even just touch the hem of His garment; and any sickness, any pain was defeated right then and there. It’s not that way anymore. Yes, I can fall at His feet for hope, for strength, for life. But the miracles… they are not like that anymore. Why must it be this way? Does He not want to do miracles anymore? Maybe He does want to do them… through us.
The leniency: Because the enemy I could never defeat with my strength, the one who lured me with lies and then framed me, and enslaved me… he has met his match. His dark schemes have been revealed by the light and he has been judged. Rendered powerless, his hands are bound, and he can never touch me again.
The rigor: Because even though I am out of the enemy’s reach, the enemy has not been removed from the world. His final judgment is not yet. And so, though he cannot touch me, his evil still spreads through the whole world. And he can touch and lure and frame and enslave so many out there who are just like me. Why? Why delay the final day? Why not bring his thousands of years of guilt down upon his head right now?
Because in that delay, just one more day, another one just like me can flee the enemy’s claws, and fall at the feet of the Son and be set free.
This is the age of Mercy and Grace.
I understand the allure of the Law of black and white. There is comfort in its appearance of certainty. If there are no gray areas then there is no doubt. I know how to be in the right. I can follow the rules. I don’t have to be like those that go wrong.
That is what the Pharisees thought.
Black and white is like hard and soft, like the contrast between flesh and stone. It’s all fine until I realize that the stone in my hand has a more deserving target than that wretched woman weeping all alone… my own head.
Jesus’ verdict left her all alone in a different way. The crowd was gone, replaced by a circle of dropped stones.
John 8:10-11 And Jesus, lifting himself up and seeing no one but the woman, said to her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Has no one condemned thee? And she said, No one, sir. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
That is a good kind of alone… to be alone before the Son of God. He knows my sin, and so do I. There is no excuse to be found, no loophole to be discovered in those letters of black and white. I know what I deserve, and so does He. But He chooses not to condemn me.
Because He has given me the way out: Go and sin no more. Though acknowledged guilty, I am out on my own recognizance.
And you might wonder, how can He do that? How can He trust that I will obey His word… when I paid no heed to the Law? But if you wonder, you missed the point. When I go, I don’t go alone.
John 14:23 Jesus answered and said to him, If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.
Matthew 28:20 …And behold I am with you to the end of the age.
Mercy is not the denial of sin.
As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matthew 5:17-19 Think not that I am come to make void the law or the prophets; I am not come to make void, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Until the heaven and the earth pass away, one iota or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all come to pass. Whosoever then shall do away with one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of the heavens; but whosoever shall practise and teach [them], *he* shall be called great in the kingdom of the heavens.
I know there are people who want to claim the Law is outdated, that morality has evolved with the centuries… that would even claim this passage in the gospel, about Jesus and the adulterous woman, is proof of that. If that is what you believe, all I can tell you is that someday you are going to have to talk to Jesus about it, face to face. (And given what he said in Matthew 5:17-19, I’d remind you that you just called Him a liar. Which doesn’t seem to me the best way to start a conversation.)
Mercy is not the denial of sin. Mercy is the enemy of sin. Mercy will do whatever it takes, even fight to the death to destroy sin. Which is, in fact, what He already did… His own death on the cross.
The passage I just cited from the Sermon on the Mount ends with this statement:
(verse 20) For I say unto you, that unless your righteousness surpass [that] of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of the heavens.
There is only one way that ‘my righteousness’ can meet this requirement: Accept the reality of my sin, repent of it, and walk away from it. This is what ‘go, and sin no more’ means. From that point on He promises to walk with me. And my righteousness is no longer measured by my struggle with sin; it is measured by my trust in Him.