Theme: Jesus’ Gracious Actions
This week’s lessons show how the grace that came through Jesus Christ fits with the
perfect law of God and its condemnation against us for our sins.
Scripture: John 1:17
The problem these religious leaders brought to Jesus in John 8 was not like the earlier challenges about paying taxes or what life was going to be like in the resurrection. Concerning the test of the woman caught in adultery, there were three important matters at stake: 1.) the life of the woman, which was precious, at least to Jesus; 2.) Jesus’ teaching about the gracious nature of his kingdom; and 3.) the law of Moses, which had been given by God. The way the question was posed, it seemed to the rulers that Jesus would have to sacrifice at least one and possibly two of these three elements. Jesus was known for being gracious. He taught that God was love, and he seemed himself to love sinners. But if Jesus should show love to the woman who had been caught in adultery and recommend that her life be spared, he would be setting himself against the divinely-given law of Moses. How could a teacher do that and still pretend to be a prophet sent by God? No one could both oppose the law of God and also speak for God at the same time. Jesus would be identified as a false teacher.
On the other hand, if Jesus should uphold the law, then he would have to sacrifice both the life of the woman and his teaching about the compassionate nature of his kingdom. “Sure, he tells you that God is love and that we should love one another,” his enemies would scoff. “But what does he do when the chips are down? He turns on you and says you should be killed. Who needs that? Just look what he did to that poor woman.”
That was a real problem, you see. For with demonic insight—this is why I used the words “fiendish” and “demonic” earlier—these men had hit upon the real problem, the problem of all problems in the relationship of a sinful man or woman to God. The problem is this: How can God show love to the sinner without being unjust? How can he uphold his law, which is “good” but at the same time also be gracious? Or, as Paul states the problem in Romans, how can God be both “just and the one who justifies” the ungodly (Rom. 3:26)? From a human point of view, the problem is unsolvable. In this the rulers were right. “Jesus cannot show love even if he wants to,” they reasoned. But what these rulers would not acknowledge is that in Jesus’ case they were not dealing with a mere man for whom this would have been unsolvable. Rather, they were dealing with God, and “with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26).
We know what Jesus did. Instead of replying to the woman’s accusers directly, he bent down and wrote on the ground. I must admit that I do not know what he wrote, because the story does not tell us. Some commentators suggest that he wrote on the ground to gain time, though why the eternal Son of God should need time to think through the issues of the case I cannot fathom. Other writers suggest that Jesus wrote out the men’s accusations to impress them with the gravity of what they were doing. But they knew how serious their accusations were already; that is why they were making them. Perhaps Jesus wrote out the men’s sins, since he knew their hearts and knew acts of which they themselves were guilty.
This is probably the right explanation, because something got through to them eventually. According to the story, they soon began to fade away one at a time, beginning with the oldest. Yet even this is not entirely clear because, strictly speaking, the story tells us that they began to leave not while Jesus was writing, but later, when he told them, “If anyone of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7).
Whatever Jesus wrote and for whatever reason, the woman’s accusers eventually did go away, and at the end Jesus was left alone with the woman. He could have accused her, because he was without sin. But instead, he was gracious; indeed, he was “full of grace and truth.”
At first he asked her a question: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one,” she answered.
Jesus replied, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (vv. 10, 11).
It is hard to imagine a more gracious ending to a story, but we have not reached the meat of the story even yet. Jesus was gracious, to be sure. But the question remains: How could he be gracious and at the same time do the right thing? He was the very Son of God. How could he defend the woman and yet uphold the law?
Some writers have explained what Jesus did by a legal technicality. The law required two or more witnesses, and since the accusers left the scene under Jesus’ scorching gaze and question, in the end there was no one left to accuse her. Jesus could have done it himself. He was sinless, and because he knew the hearts of people he certainly knew the full circumstances of the woman’s guilt, though he had not himself physically witnessed her sin. But Jesus was only one witness even so. Writers who approach the story this way suggest that the legal requirements of the law in regard to witnesses in capital cases freed Jesus from the need to condemn the woman and so permitted him to be gracious. But to reason this way is to miss the true heart of the story, in my judgment.
From the lesson, what three matters were at stake in the situation of the woman?
What was the problem they presented to Jesus? In other words, how were they trying to trap him by forcing him to make a certain choice?
What probable answer is given for what Jesus wrote on the ground in front of the woman’s accusers?