Loving with Truth and Grace
Conversations with Jesus Loving with Truth and Grace John 7:53-8:11 Pastor Pat Damiani March 3, 2019 NOTE: This is a manuscript, and not a transcript of this message. The actual presentation of the message differed from the manuscript through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is possible, and even likely that there is material in this manuscript that was not included in the live presentation and that there was additional material in the live presentation that is not included in this manuscript. When Mary and I were still dating, I was on my way home from her house late one Friday night. I was driving east on Orange Grove Road between La Canada Drive and Oracle Road when suddenly I saw some flashing lights behind me. When I pulled over, the sheriff deputy approached my car and asked me if I knew how fast I had been going. He then took me back to his car to show me that his radar had clocked me at 55 miles per hour in the 45 mile per hour zone. Now you have to understand that I was driving my Ford Pinto and that I had stopped at the red light at La Canada Drive before proceeding, so I’m not even sure my car was capable of getting up to that speed in less than a quarter mile, but I was nonetheless very respectful to the deputy. I answered all his questions about why I was out at that time of night and where I was going in such a hurry. Fortunately, he must have already reached his quota of tickets for the month, so he let me off with a verbal warning. But he also told me that if he ever caught me speeding on that stretch of road again, I could be sure he would throw the book at me. So needless to say, from that night forward I was very careful to watch my speed on my way home from Mary’s house. I was certainly grateful for the grace that deputy extended to me that night. But if I’m honest I sure don’t appreciate it nearly as much when I see that same kind of grace extended to someone else. I’m not going to lie to you. When someone goes flying by me on Oracle Road, I’m secretly hoping that there will be an Oro Valley policeman sitting by the road who will pull that person over and give him or her a ticket. Now before you judge me I’m pretty sure that most of you do the same thing, too. Right? When it comes to speeding, that desire for grace for me and truth for everyone else may not be that big of a deal. But when we have that same attitude when it comes to our relationship with God, that’s another matter. So today we’re going to look at a conversation of Jesus that is going to help us understand how genuine love requires a perfect balance of grace and truth. We’ll see that is how Jesus loves and also how He wants us to love others. So go ahead and turn in your Bibles to John chapter 8. Before I read our passage, I need to share some background. If you’re using the ESV translation like me, you will note that there is a footnote that indicates that John 7:53-8:11 is not included in the “earliest manuscripts”. Some other translations will also have a similar footnote and some translations will leave this section out altogether or only include it in a footnote. This is what is known as a “textual variant” which has been identified through a practice known as “textual criticism”. And we could very easily spend our entire time this morning talking about whether or not this passage belongs here in John, or even in the Bible at all. And if you’re interested in studying that more, you won’t have any problem finding plenty of opinions on that. I am not an expert by any means in this area, but it is my opinion that the preponderance of the evidence supports the position that this account was not originally in John’s gospel account. So, if that is the case, why have I chosen to include this passage in our current series? Even the critics who don’t believe this belongs in John’s gospel almost all agree that it is an authentic account of a true encounter between Jesus, some Jewish religious leaders and an unnamed woman. And even more importantly, it is clearly consistent with the teaching and actions of Jesus that we find in all four gospel accounts. In fact, we’ll see there are a lot of parallels between this account and the account of Simon the Pharisee and another unnamed woman that we studied two weeks ago. [Read John 7:53-8:11] Once again today I’m going to give you our gospel takeaway right up front and then we’ll use this passage to explain it further and help us apply it to our lives. TODAY’S GOSPEL TAKEAWAY Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. As He teaches in the Temple the people marvel at His teaching. But the Pharisees and the chief priests, who were worried about losing their power, send officers to arrest Jesus. But when those officers hear Jesus teach and see how so many in the crowd believe He might be the Messiah, they return without arresting Him. The next morning, Jesus returns to the Temple to teach. And those same Jewish religious leaders hatch a plot to trap Jesus into doing or saying something they can use against Him. There is a sense in which the information that is not presented to us in this passage is just as instructive as what we do have. When these religious leaders bring before Jesus the woman who they claim was caught in the act of adultery, a lot of questions are immediately raised here. The most obvious is “Where is the man?” After all, the sin of adultery always involves two people. And according to the Law, both the man and woman were subject to being punished by death. “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22 ESV) A similar command is also found in Leviticus 20:10. The second thing we know is that someone could be put to death for a capital offense like this only upon the eyewitness testimony of two or three witnesses: On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 17:6–7 ESV) In the case of adultery, that meant that no one could be put to death merely on the basis of circumstantial evidence like observing the women go in and out of the man’s house in the middle of the night. The act itself had to be witnessed by more than one witness. We also see in this passage that the witnesses were to be the first ones to carry out the death penalty. As this encounter progresses, we’ll see that is an important and very relevant aspect of the Law of Moses. Although we can’t know for sure, there is pretty good evidence here that this was a setup since that is likely the only way this woman could have been caught red-handed like this. And the fact that the man isn’t with her is also pretty fishy. What we do know for sure is that the religious leaders didn’t care a bit about this woman. As we just saw, the penalty for adultery was death for both the man and the woman, but the method of carrying out that penalty is not stated. But for a girl engaged to be married, Deuteronomy 22:24 specifies that the penalty in that situation was death by stoning. So it’s likely that this is a frightened teenage girl who is dragged into the Temple, probably with little or no clothing on. These religious leaders were merely using her as a pawn to try and trap Jesus and they were willing to publicly humiliate her in order to do that. But before we’re too quick to criticize them, we need to take an honest look at our own lives. It’s very easy for us to slip into the trap of using the Bible for our own selfish ends, too. We can use the Scriptures to judge others and to bring down our enemies while at the same time failing to apply those same Scriptures to our own lives. And then we justify our hypocrisy by claiming that our sins aren’t nearly as bad as those of the other person. The Jewish religious leaders are just arrogant enough that they think they can outwit Jesus by using their greatest strength – their mastery of the Law of Moses. And, on the surface the trap they set for Jesus here is quite clever on a couple of levels. First, even though the Law of Moses specified death by stoning for adultery, that sentence was never actually carried out in Jesus’ day because Roman law forbid the Jews to carry out that penalty. That is why a short time after this, the Jewish leaders have to take Jesus to Pilate to have His death penalty carried out by the Roman government. So if Jesus said the woman should be stoned, He would violate Roman law and if He said she should be set free, He would have been accused of violating the Law of Moses that He had previously claimed He came to fulfill, not to abolish. But there is another potential conflict here that is less apparent but probably more important – the tension between grace and truth. If Jesus says that the woman should be stoned, He would be upholding the truth of the Law, but He would be violating the idea of grace for sinners that He has been constantly teaching about and demonstrating during His earthly ministry. On the other hand, if He says she should not be punished, He would be exhibiting grace but also a disregard for the truth of the Law. But Jesus doesn’t fall for their trap. He just remains in the sitting position He was already in, which was the normal position for a Rabbi when he was teaching. He then bends down and begins to write on the ground. In spite of a number of commentators who think they know what Jesus wrote on the ground, we aren’t told what he wrote because what He wrote obviously wasn’t important for us to know. All we do know for sure - at least according to Jon Settlemeyer – is that He wrote in “Sandskrit”. The religious leaders are getting impatient with Jesus, so they keep on asking Him for His answer. When He is ready, Jesus finally speaks: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” I love how one of the commentators that I read this week described what happened here: The Law is like a boomerang: You aim it at others and it comes back and conks you on the head. These religious leaders, who are experts in the Law aim it at this woman and at Jesus, but as we’ll see, that same law is going to come back around to condemn them. Unfortunately, a lot of people, even some otherwise mature disciples of Jesus have not learned this lesson and they try to use the words of Jesus here as a weapon against others in a way that Jesus never intended. So it ends up coming back to conk them in the head. Jesus is not in any way teaching here that He intends to excuse people from being obedient to the truth of the law or that He expects us to do that either. How many times have you heard someone who has been confronted about some sin in their life use this verse as a weapon and claiming that the other person has no right to point out his or her sin because he or she isn’t sinless and therefore they should not be “throwing stones”. Jesus actually agrees with the religious leaders than this woman is guilty and deserves to be stoned. He is not in any way giving her a pass or a license to sin. We know that Jesus does want us to confront sin in the church because He gave some specific instructions about how we are to do that In Matthew 18. And Paul also writes frequently about the need to confront sin within the church. What Jesus is doing is to help his adversaries understand their own complicity and sin. Essentially here is what He is saying: “You are absolutely right. This woman is a sinner. She is guilty and she deserves to be stoned to death. But since you are all so concerned about the truth of the Law here, let’s make sure we apply it fully and completely. The same law that condemns her also requires that the eyewitnesses that testify against her must be the first to cast their stones. Just make sure that before you do that that you are guiltless in this matter. So Jesus really turns the tables here. He reframes the entire debate here and points out that the question is not whether this woman is guilty and deserves to be punished. Jesus agrees with the religious leaders on that point. The question is who is sinless in this matter and is qualified to carry out that punishment. And the answer to that question is that out of all the people there, only Jesus is qualified to do that. After speaking those words, Jesus bends down and begins to write again. And we don’t know what He wrote this time either. But the text seems to indicate that these religious leaders responded to what Jesus said, not what He wrote in the dirt. Notice that in verse 9 we read that they responded to what they “heard”, not to what they saw. So what He wrote just isn’t important here so it’s really not worth spending our time speculating on that. Apparently, just like the woman, they are convicted of their own sins. But they demonstrate here that it is always more comfortable to focus on the sins of others rather than to confront our own. I ran across a survey this week that demonstrates this idea pretty well. As you’ll see from the names of the people involved, the survey is rather old, but I think that if a similar survey were done today we’d see similar results. People were asked which of 15 prominent figures were most likely to go to heaven and most of the results were predictable: • Mother Theresa – 79% • Oprah Winfrey – 66% • Bill Clinton – 52% • O.J. Simpson – 19% But guess who scored highest in the poll? The people responding to the poll - 87% of the them thought they were going to heaven. That just goes to prove how quick we are to judge others but how reluctant we are to recognize our own sin. So one by one these religious leader leave, beginning with the oldest. Perhaps that is because the older ones had committed more sin in their lives than the younger ones or maybe they were just wiser – we aren’t really told. Jesus and the woman are the only ones left and Jesus now stands up to address the woman directly. That is an act of respect for the woman and he also addresses her with a term of respect when He calls her “woman”. He asks, “Where are they? Has no one condemned You?” And she looks around and replies “No one, Lord.” To which Jesus replied “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” How could Jesus do that? How can a holy God just say, “Go on, just don’t do it again”, just like the sheriff deputy did to me that night on my way home from Mary’s? Jesus knew that according to the truth of the law, someone had to die for her sin. But I believe that as Jesus witnessed this entire event, He knew in His heart that very soon, He would be the one who would die for her sin. Her sin would not go unpunished, but as an act of grace, Jesus would bear that penalty on her behalf. So we see here that Jesus loves her with the perfect balance of grace and truth, just as we said earlier… No wonder that in the opening words of his gospel account, John said this about Jesus: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV) So let’s close by focusing on the second part of our gospel takeaway. HOW TO LOVE OTHERS WITH A BALANCE OF GRACE AND TRUTH You’ll notice that I intentionally left out the word “perfect” here because only Jesus is capable of balancing grace and truth perfectly. But I’m pretty sure that all of us could do a better job of balancing the two in our relationships with others. Most of us likely have a tendency toward either grace or truth. If you’re married and especially if you have kids, it may very well be that you and your spouse have opposite tendencies, and if that is true your kids figure out pretty quickly which one of you favors grace, right? So I’m going to suggest two applications this morning – one directed at those who may tend to favor grace over truth and another aimed at those who favor truth over grace. 1. Never ignore or excuse sin There are a lot of reasons that some of us have a tendency to excuse sin in the lives of others. Some of us might genuinely believe that is the most loving thing to do. Others of us just don’t like confrontation of any kind. So we will use what Jesus says in this passage as an excuse not to address sin in the lives of others by saying something like this: “I have my own sin to deal with, so I really don’t have any business pointing out sin in someone else’s life.” While that might seem like the most loving thing to do, allowing sin to live unchecked in the lives of the people we love is really not very loving at all. That is why we’ve seen Jesus consistently point out sin in the lives of the people He encounters. We clearly saw that with the woman at the well and here again with this woman. But, and this is the key, we’ve seen that He always does that with great compassion, out of genuine concern for the other person, and not to make Himself look good compared to them. On the other hand, there are probably some of us here who take way too much pleasure in pointing out the sins of others, whether we do that openly, or we just do it in our thoughts. If you’re more in that category, then this second application is primarily for you. 2. If I’m going to err, err on the side of grace As I was working on the message this week, I kept getting the feeling that God led me to preach on this passage because I need to be reminded of this particular lesson in my own life. While I don’t think that I necessarily go around looking for sin in the lives of others or comparing the sins of others to my own, as I reflect on my life, I can see that I’ve often had a tendency to exercise truth than to exercise grace. Looking back, I know that I did that at times as a parent, and all I can say is that I’m glad that I had Mary there to temper that with her grace. And I also know that I’ve had a tendency to operate like that in the business world and even in my leadership as a pastor, by being more focused on the task than the people doing that task at times. More recently I’ve noticed this in another area of my life. On several occasions recently, I’ve been led by God to help out some other people who had needs, sometimes financially and sometimes in other ways. But as I considered what it was that God wanted me to do, I began to think that there were some reasons that these people weren’t worthy of my help. Some of these people had gotten into the situations they were in because of their own bad decisions and choices. And in one case, the person had publicly taken some very unbiblical positions in some Facebook posts. And so my initial reaction was that I just wasn’t going to help them out because they weren’t deserving. But fortunately, God began to remind me that I’m not worthy of His grace either and that in these situations, that if I was going to err, I needed to err on the side of grace. Obviously, it is possible to take this principle too far to the point where we enable people to continue in their harmful or unbiblical behaviors. So certainly some discernment is needed. But in general, I think we do a lot less harm when we err on the side of grace, rather than being harsh and judgmental because we’re so committed to the truth. I was really grateful that night on my way home when the sheriff deputy treated me with what I still consider to be at least an almost perfect balance of grace and truth. In the moment, I was certainly happy that he let me off with just a verbal warning. But I’m also grateful that by stopping me that night, I was reminded of the importance of obeying the law, a lesson that has stayed with me all these years and probably kept me safe on many occasions. I’m even more grateful that Jesus treats me like that – that He loves me enough to not let me continue a lifestyle of sin, but at the same time He extends grace to cover that sin. And out of gratitude for what He has done for me, I want to live in a way that I also love others with that same balance of grace and truth. I pray that you do too. Discussion questions for Bible Roundtable 1. Why do Christians have a tendency to emphasize certain sins, while overlooking others? How does that impact the effectiveness of our evangelism? 2. What are the dangers of emphasizing truth to the exclusion of grace? How about the dangers of extending grace without regard for the truth? 3. Does Jesus mean that we have to be perfectly sinless before we can point out sin in the lives of others? How does this passage relate to what Jesus said in Matthew 7:1-5? 4. How do we know that Jesus’ words here are not a license to sin? 5. (For your own self-reflection) Do I have a tendency to err on the side of truth or the side of grace? What practical steps can I take to keep the two in balance in my life?