Famous Words and Beautiful Mercy

Morning Message – John Cline

John 7:37 – 8:11

Scripture Reader – Richard Wallman

I have two boyhood memories that came to my mind as I read this week’s passage in John 7 and 8. The first one was of my dad’s regular usage of the phrase, “What sayest thou?”, whenever he wanted an answer from someone. He was always saying it sarcastically, thus not seriously, but I didn’t realize until this week that he was quoting from John 8:5 of the old KJV, which more modern translations of the bible have as either, “What say you?” or “Now what do you say?” “What sayest thou?” sounds sterner and more demanding than “Now what do you say?” or, “What say you?” It simply holds more gravitas, wouldn’t you agree?

Of course, Jesus and the other first century Jews around him didn’t speak English nor do any of us speak Aramaic, but I can say with confidence that no one in first century Judea would’ve cared what wording of that phrase we use in today’s English bibles. What the people would have cared about, though, was Jesus’ response to that question. We will look at that response in just a moment, but reading it this past week lead to me to a second boyhood memory entering my thoughts, that of me climbing onto the roof of our house and throwing stones onto the roof of the RCMP building located across the back alley and down the hill below us. I remember my mom picking up the ringing phone, and having an RCMP officer say to her, “Mrs. Cline. Get your son off your roof and tell him to stop throwing stones at us.”

Ok, that’s enough of my memories! Let’s look at John 7 and 8. But, before we do so, we need to know its backstory and setting. Jesus and his disciples were at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, a feast held each fall, and to which pilgrims would bring tents to pitch and sleep in. Being a good pilgrim, Jesus would have pitched a tent like everyone else did, a wonderful thought for all you tent-pitchers and campers.

On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given since Jesus had not yet been glorified. (John 7:37-39)

A few months ago, I preached on this famous phrase about the Holy Spirit, so I won’t say anything more about it today, other than to state that next Sunday, May 28th, will be Pentecost Sunday, that annual observance of the “birthday of the church”, that original Pentecost Sunday on which the Spirit was given to all who would receive him. God’s giving of the Spirit happened after Jesus had left this earth and his disciples and ascended back to heaven, being glorified after he had returned to his eternal home and throne in heaven. The process was this: when Jesus went up, the Spirit, who is God amongst us, came down and filled the followers of Jesus, empowering them to go out into the world to courageously share the Gospel message. We are never alone in this world. God is with us always!

On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet.” Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus, the people were divided because of Jesus. Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him. (Jn 7:40-44)

The Jewish religious leaders here quite unintentionally affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah, for he was born in Bethlehem and his family lineage was from King David, just as the prophets of old foretold would be the case for the Messiah. Those religious leaders were so desperate to get rid of Jesus – who was a threat to their authority and very existence – that they were not very careful with their words.

Finally, the temple guards went back to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” “No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards replied. “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” (John 7:45-49)

Note that the religious leaders’ own guards were impressed by Jesus. And, having again been careless with their words, the religious leaders not only berated their guards but falsely stated that none of them, none of the religious leaders) were believers in Jesus, even though both Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were leaning that way.

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier – and who was one of their own number – asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. (John 7:50-8:1)

The religious leaders’ point about “a prophet not coming out of Galilee” was patently absurd as Old Testament prophets such as Jonah, Micah, Elijah, Elisha, and Hosea all came “out of Galilee”. However, this was just another careless wording by the frothing, worked-up religious leaders. What they intended to say was that the Messiah could not have come from Galilee as Jesus did for it was prophesied that the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem. Their statement was what is known as a “red herring” statement, one meant to throw people off a trail, the trail in this case being the one that led people to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. It was not a valid argument but merely a deceptive ploy to make people look elsewhere.

So, the “last and greatest day” of the Feast of Tabernacles had ended with the chief priests and Pharisees in an excitable dither. As they went to their homes for the night, however, they were not happy and began plotting as to how to take down Jesus, seeming as how their hopes that their own guards as well as other people would turn on Jesus and thus lead to him being taken down in that way. The crowds were excited by Jesus’ presence, his teachings, and his miracles.

As for Jesus and his disciples, though, things were calm. They went to the garden on the Mount of Olives and there pitched their tents in accordance with the Feast of Tabernacles practice. By the way, ironically perhaps, that exact spot would be where Judas Iscariot would later betray Jesus to the authorities and see him arrested.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. (John 8:2)

Pilgrims who had been in Jerusalem for the Feast stayed behind once it was over to listen to Jesus. This peaceful scene of him in the temple courts teaching the people was about to be rudely disrupted, however.

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3-5)

Now, there is no one who believes that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees happened to stumble across this woman caught in the act of committing adultery. It was a trap, a planned attack on Jesus. The religious leaders must have been tipped off ahead of time that they would find a woman committing adultery if they went to such-and-such a place at a certain time. Thus, they went to that place – who knows, maybe it was a pilgrim’s tent they went to? – and they dragged her out of that place, across the city, and then to Jesus, throwing her in front of him and the watching crowd. No doubt, Jesus was thinking, “But, what about the adulterous man? Where is he? It takes two people to commit adultery so where is the male adulterer?”

Jesus would have known that if he agreed to stoning the woman, he would be breaking Roman Law which forbid Jews from carrying out capital punishment. And Jesus would have known that if he agreed to stone the woman, but not the man, that he would be breaking God’s Law. Plus, Jesus would have known that the religious leaders had misquoted God’s Law in that it doesn’t say that a person must be “stoned” if caught committing adultery. As well, Jesus would have known that he would be breaking God’s Law if he agreed to a trial of this lady without the protective provision in God’s Law being followed that insisted that any such serious accusation required two or three witnesses before it would be allowed to proceed to a court trial. This was a demand for mob justice at work. In the Greek language, the phrase, “What sayest thou?” shows that in that it is vehemently repeated with a clear lust for blood on display.

They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. (John 8:6).

Jesus was being careful in processing the situation. The religious leaders were using this woman for their own personal agenda, to get rid of him for he was a threat to their power. In response to their question, Jesus didn’t answer. Instead, he wrote in the dirt with his finger. No one knows what Jesus was writing in the dirt with his finger. Maybe he was just doodling. But, perhaps, he was thinking about the coming end of those religious leaders reigning over people and terrorizing their lives. He knew that the end of their reign was coming, which it did in 70 A.D. when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and there was no more place for priests to sacrifice animals or handle guilt offerings, or the like. Jesus knew that their exalted place in Jewish society was about to be made redundant, unnecessary, a truism that has never been overturned, and never will, because Jesus said it wouldn’t.

Perhaps, Jesus was equating the loss of the religious leaders’ rule over the people with that of King Belshazzar of Babylon, some 500-plus years earlier, at the time of the prophet Daniel. Belshazzar had refused to humble himself and worship YHWH, Daniel’s God, our God. His father, King Nebuchadnezzar, had humbled himself and converted to worshipping YHWH but Belshazzar refused. God forewarned him that his reign was about to end, and his kingdom destroyed by having an apparition of a floating finger appearing on a wall in front of horrified guests at a palace dinner which Belshazzar had arranged. The ghostly finger was seen spelling these words:

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN – God has numbered the days of your reign and has brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:25-28).

By the way, I once saw a humorous cartoon in a Christian magazine about an arrogant pastor of a huge church who innocently breathed onto a steam-filled mirror after a shower only to see the words, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN appear on the steam-filled mirror. The caption read, “Pastor Smith realizes in horror that his kingdom-building plan for his mega-church is about to be brought down and stopped by God.”

Jesus may also have been thinking about the institution of the Law itself and how God had written with His finger onto two stone tablets the all-important Ten Commandments of the Law. “If we are going to be talking about the Law,” Jesus may have been thinking, “let’s remember how God created the Law in the first place.” Or, Jesus may have been simply doodling and buying time to make the leaders sweat.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. (John 8:7-9)

To again use the old KJV: “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her.” Such a famous phrase! Things weren’t quite going the way the religious leaders had hoped, were they?

Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:10,11)

In the courts of that land, this case would have resulted in a verdict pronouncement of ‘not proven.’ ‘Acquitted’ is what we call a ‘not proven’ accusation in Canadian courts. This happens when the judge feels that this is a lack of reliable witnesses or evidence to make a ruling of either “guilty” or “not guilty”. In this case, without anyone present to accuse her, the woman stood ‘without condemnation’. Neither did Jesus condemn her. By the way, the tradition among the Jews was that the oldest witness had to be the one to throw the first stone. So, it was significant that the oldest accuser dropped his stone and walked away when he realized that he could not claim to be without sin. And, then, the others, according to their descending ages, followed him out.

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Here is the irony: who in that crowd, other than Jesus, was without sin? If Jesus had acted on the truth of the situation but without compassion, he, being without sin, could have picked up a stone and thrown it at the woman. But he didn’t. Instead, compassion for the woman filled his heart. That is a lesson for us. The New Testament teaches that we are all sinners and that the act of adultery carries its own punishment, meaning that we don’t put people to death for adultery anymore. Sexual sin, the New Testament teaches, is an offense committed against one’s own body that it results in guilt, a loss of honour and prestige amongst other believers – and unbelievers – a ruined reputation, terrible self-esteem and self-loathing, the loss of ministry, and de-fellowshipping or excommunication from one’s church. It is a way that a person can kill himself or herself, in a fashion. In some ways, the suffering and negative consequences it can bring are worse than if physical stoning had taken place!

Note that Jesus did not say to the religious leaders, “Leave her alone. She can do whatever she wants. If she wants to commit adultery, that’s her choice. Let her live her life any which way she chooses”. Our society wrongly claims that we are “to live and let live”. Jesus never said or did that! In this instance, Jesus did not say to the woman, “Your sin is forgiven!”, granting her forgiveness without her needing to repent of her sin. He told her she was guilty of sin. He knew it and so did she. Jesus said to her, “I am not going to condemn you, but I do have some instruction for you: Go now and leave your life of sin.”

For us, this is the model of how we are to “judge” people. We are not to condemn, but we are to have discernment in this world, and to be insightful and wise in judging a situation and in helping a person to live their “best life possible” (to quote a modern saying). Jesus judged between what would be good or bad for that woman. We are to live with such an attitude, helping people – if they are open to it – to follow the path in life that will bring them the most joy, fulfillment, freedom, and peace. Jesus knew what was best for that woman and he knows the same for us. Following this event, Jesus revealed that he could shine light into a person’s darkened world. He is there to help every person see clearly.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Isn’t that refreshing and reassuring? We are not told about that woman’s sin, but we do hear Jesus encouraging her to lead a different and better lifestyle. Jesus knows what is best for us. He will shine his light so we can clearly see the path to go on. In an earlier sermon, the famed Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this to the listening crowds:

“Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Let’s pray…

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