Issue #104 -------
February 9, 2004
Reason and experience both forbid us to
expect that national morality can prevail
in exclusion of religious principle.
George Washington (1732-1799)
Farewell Address --- 17 Sept. 1796
"Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). One of the Ten Commandments clearly declares: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14), which is then reinforced just a few verses later with these words: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" (vs. 17). Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, indicated that the focus of God goes much deeper than one's physical actions -- "But I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). The earnest desire of the HEART, that deep inner longing for another (whether that longing be sexual in nature or not), is a covetousness that is forbidden by God.
Time and again God condemns the various lusts of the flesh, especially those that involve sexual immorality and the breaking of covenantal unions .... and time and again mankind shuns this divine guidance and wallows in the mire of his baser instincts, all to his own shame and harm. It seems sometimes that we never learn; that we are in a losing battle within ... torn between right and wrong, good and evil, the Spirit and the flesh. The apostle Paul, years after committing his life to Christ Jesus, lamented, "For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am dong the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:15). He continues: "For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish" (vs. 19). "I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good" (vs. 21). One can empathize with the cry of this struggling servant as he bemoaned his condition -- "Wretched man that I am!" (vs. 24).
Although the expressions of our sinful nature vary from person to person, we are all equally wretched in that we too frequently succumb to "the sin which so easily entangles us" (Hebrews 12:1). "There is none righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10) .... "All have turned aside" (vs. 12). On one occasion, just such a sinner was brought into the presence of Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees (John 8:1-11). They wanted to see how He would react to such obvious disobedience of God's Law. His reaction, as well as theirs, forms the basis of a most instructive contrast in spiritual focus. I pray that as we examine this incident we will look deeper than the external circumstances, for it is truly upon the heart that our Lord fixes His gaze. By seeking to do the same we shall perceive the meaning and application of His matchless grace in the lives of the "wretched."
The episode found in John 8:1-11 occurred early one morning in the temple courts after Jesus had returned from a night on the Mount of Olives where He often went to be alone and to pray to the Father. A crowd had gathered to hear Him teach. Some of the religious leaders, apparently aware of where He would be at that time of day, appeared and presented Him with an adulterous woman who had been caught in the act. Interrupting His message to the crowd, they placed this woman before Him and declared for all to hear, "We caught her committing adultery ... we caught her in the very act. The Law of Moses says she should die. What do YOU say?!"
It doesn't take much depth of perception to see what these disreputable religionists were up to. Their goal was to utterly destroy our Lord's effectiveness and influence with the people. He was a troubler of their precious religious system, and they were determined to stop Him, no matter what it took. One can just imagine how smug they must have felt as they thrust this sinful woman forward in the sight of all these witnesses. How confident they must have felt in their "trap" as they challenged Jesus to take some action, any action, in the matter before Him. "We've got you now, Jesus! Let's see you get out of this one!"
"The entire affair had the appearance of trickery, a trap specially prepared to catch Jesus. The Sanhedrin would probably not have arisen early in the morning unless there was a special reason for doing so" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 90). In other words, this whole thing was a SETUP. Oh the lengths to which rigid religionists will go in order to destroy a righteous reformer! What godless deception! How did these leaders, for example, catch this woman in the very act of adultery? Were they roaming voyeurs, a cadre of "peeping Toms," prowling the city by night, gazing through windows in the hope of catching a glimpse of sexual activity? Or, far more likely, had they simply arranged the whole thing? I think the latter is highly probable. It is most unlikely they just happened, at that hour of the morning, to stumble across a couple engaged in adultery. The fact that they grabbed this woman and headed straight for Jesus (knowing exactly where He would be at that moment) hints at premeditation and conspiracy.
Well, one could speculate endlessly, but the reality is -- Jesus was faced with quite a dilemma! Before Him that morning was a woman unquestionably guilty of a serious offense. There was no way Jesus could question the validity of the accusation, and there is no evidence He did. She was caught in the act; there were witnesses; the woman herself was not denying the charge. Her guilt was indisputable! Under the Law of Moses the penalty for adultery was DEATH. Leviticus 20:10 declares that when an adulterous situation occurs, both "the adulterer and the adulteress (i.e., both the man and the woman) shall surely be put to death." Deuteronomy 22:22-24 clearly states the same! God views this as a serious matter, even though many of His people obviously do not.
Yes, the Law of Moses demanded death for this guilty woman, and Jesus knew that. Adding to His dilemma, however, was the fact that Roman law did not prescribe the death penalty for adultery. Furthermore, the Romans had taken away the right of the Jews to impose capital punishment under their own religious Law. Thus, if Jesus declared, "She is guilty; put her to death," He would have been in violation of Roman law, and could even have been accused of trying to incite the Sanhedrin to rebel against Roman authority. This would be treason; a crime punishable by death. However, if Jesus refused to condemn her to death He could be charged by these religious leaders with contradicting the Law of God. Jesus was in a very delicate situation. It certainly appeared there was no way out! He was "damned if you do, damned if you don't." It was not the woman who was "on trial" that morning in the temple courtyard -- it was Jesus!
The motivation of the religionists is clearly spelled out for us by inspiration -- "This they said, tempting Him, that they might have grounds for accusing Him" (John 8:6). These men couldn't have cared less about the woman herself or her sin. She was merely a pawn in their game plan against Jesus; an insignificant piece sacrificed without thought to accomplish a greater end. They had made their move; now they awaited His.
Our Lord's response, however, was the one thing they had not counted on. They thought they had all bases covered; every response calculated and counter-measures in place. What they didn't count on was silence. Jesus never said a word. Rather, He "stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground." The KJV adds an entire phrase to the biblical text here that paints an even more dramatic picture for our minds. It renders the verse this way: "But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground, as though He heard them not." In other words, He pretty much totally ignored them!
I can assure you, nothing irritates the rigid religionists and ultra-conservative legalists and patternists more than being dismissed out of hand! It drives them wild. They are militant factionists, and thus love a good fight. Being shown kindness or indifference is something with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Jesus' strategy was masterful. And, as expected, they began to pursue with greater energy their pre-planned agenda to accuse and discredit, if not actually destroy, our Lord. The NASB phrases it this way -- "They persisted" (vs. 6). While Jesus was stooped down, writing in the dirt, they kept right on questioning Him, demanding some kind of response. Like a pit bull, they would not let up or let go.
Finally, "He straightened up, and said to them, 'He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.' And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground" (vs. 7-8). Once again, this was a response the Jewish leaders who had conspired to entrap the Lord had not anticipated. It caught them completely unawares. Suddenly, they were "on trial" before the crowd. According to Jewish law, in any case involving capital punishment, the witnesses must begin the stoning. Jesus wisely places the force of the dilemma back on His accusers -- "Let the first stone be cast by the one who dares to presume to be above sin in the sight of God!" In other words, "Which one of you is not also worthy of death, if the truth were but known?!"
"And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones" (vs. 9). Again, the KJV adds a phrase to the biblical text (one not found in the original) -- "being convicted by their own conscience." I find it interesting that the older ones left first. Some have suggested it was because they had far more sins for which they were culpable. It might especially have been embarrassing if it was these sins that Jesus was quietly listing in the sand that day! They knew that He knew there were none without equally damning sin in that group of accusers. Others have speculated that they simply had more sense than to make an impossible profession of sinlessness before the crowd. It is also possible they were not as hot-headed as the younger ones and merely decided it was wiser to depart, regroup, form a new strategy, and try again at a more opportune time to discredit or destroy Jesus. When a battle plan begins to fall apart, wise soldiers fall back and regroup.
After the last accuser had drifted away, Jesus stands up, turns to the woman, and says, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" The woman answers, "No one, Lord." Jesus declares, "Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin!" (vs. 9-11). Grace. Compassion. Mercy. Love. In the actions of the religious leaders the people had beheld the face of evil; in the actions of Christ they had beheld the face of God! "Her accusers had made her the bait for a trap. They were more interested in destroying Jesus than in saving her. Their vicious hatred of Him was as bad as her immorality" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 91).
Jesus did not condemn this woman, but neither did He condone her sin. The woman was guilty before God. She knew it, and He knew it. This was not a cover up; there was no sweeping of sin under the carpet. But, the mission of our Lord was not to seek out sinners to destroy them ... it was to call them to repentance. "Leave your life of sin" is the plea to each of us, who, like this woman, have failed our God too many times to count. "For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved" (John 3:17). Although Jesus didn't condemn this woman, neither did He completely let her off the hook. He tried to impress upon her that she had a responsibility to refrain from sin in her life from that point forward. And yet, He didn't assign a disciple to keep an eye on her; He didn't put her on 90 days probation --- He challenged her heart and extended hope! A perfect combination for effecting transformation.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
Imagine the emotions that must have overwhelmed this woman at this time. Disbelief ... relief ... maybe, hopefully, a conviction to change. Certainly amazement at what she had witnessed and experienced. Who was this Jesus who had shown such love and compassion? "Meeting a man who was interested in saving rather than exploiting, in forgiving rather than condemning, must have been a new experience for her!" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 91). Whatever became of this woman is unknown to us. Ancient legends, which state her name was Susanna, declare she married an elderly man named Manasseh, that she was converted to Christianity by James, the brother of our Lord, and that she died while serving as a missionary in Spain. Whether any of this is true, we'll never know. There are some lessons to be learned, however, from the account of this women caught in adultery and our Lord's interaction with her and her accusers.
FIRST --- The hideous nature of self-righteousness! These Jewish religionists and legalists considered themselves to be righteous men, yet their actions and attitudes displayed their true nature. The by-product of self-righteousness has always been the affliction of others. The more self-righteous we become, the more judgmental we become, and the oppression and affliction of others is never far behind.
The humiliation of this sinful woman was not even a concern to these religionists. They could have cared less about her as a person. She was a pawn in a plan, nothing more. Such is the thinking of legalists; it is always pattern over people, law over love, command over compassion, method over mercy. Those who are different deserve to be destroyed. There are few people more despicable or dangerous than those who believe they have "arrived" and others have not. Such arrogance is afflictive, both to those who possess it and to those about them who are deemed "the unenlightened."
SECOND --- The Lord, in this passage, has given us the primary qualification of a stone thrower -- sinlessness. Only the sinless -- the morally, ethically and spiritually perfect -- are qualified to pass judgment and pass sentence on the rest of humanity. I think that eliminates most all of us, don't you?!! Yes, we can and should use God's inspired Word as the Standard by which to measure ourselves and others with regard to our attitudes and actions, but only for the purpose of encouragement or admonition to greater love and service to God and others. God's Word is indeed "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), but it is never profitable for use as a hammer to beat into submission all those who differ with us. None of us has attained unto perfect enlightenment with respect to ultimate Truth; we are all spiritual and intellectual novices. Casting stones is an action for which we are ill-equipped and under-qualified. Of all the men who have ever lived, there was only ONE who was qualified to cast a stone at that woman that day ... and He refused to do so! That ought to tell us something!
THIRD --- Christ does not condone sin, and neither should we. Nevertheless, our Lord is far more interested in saving people from their sins, than in destroying them because of their sins. He came preaching repentance, not retaliation. He offers cleansing, not condemnation; He wants to heal, not hurt. Jesus is all about mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation; the extending of hope and assurance. If it is not a gospel of grace we preach, then we are not preaching the gospel. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. ... If God is for us, who can be against us? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? Who is he that condemns? God is the One who has justified us" (Romans 8:1, 31-34).
Throwing stones is easy. Any fool can pick up a rock and hurl it. It takes a real man in Christ, however, to rise above that human nature and evidence the spirit of the Lord when confronted with the faults and failings of another. Forgiveness, mercy, understanding and acceptance do not come easily, but come they must if we are to be ambassadors of grace and ministers of reconciliation. It's easy to be worldly in our dealings with one another; no effort is required. The real challenge is to be Christ-like. When you are tempted to point a finger at another and utter words of condemnation, remember the finger of our Lord as it wrote in the sand. In a way, that finger was directed directly toward you (and me). Perhaps our Lord's message in the sand that day long ago was simply a list of concepts and characteristics that too frequently indict us all by our lack of observance: Compassion ... Mercy ... Forgiveness ... Acceptance ... Love ... GRACE!
From a Minister in Missouri:
Al, your in-depth look at The Lord's Day is very, very good. This study is needed very much among those of us who need balance in our understanding of its significance in the life of Christians. It is important to review Jesus' position concerning its real meaning, and how it was to be viewed and observed by God's people. Not strictly, but in spirit and truth. From your writing, and historically, we can intelligently see how people have twisted the attitude and practice of this wonderful day known as the Lord's Day. We can also see the truth of what it all means, how we are to honor Jesus but not be bound by the dogmas of men. This is a really good study. I will share it with others. You are truly a blessing for those of us who love the truth and resist being perverted by the minds of men.
From a Reader in Nevada:
I just arrived home and the first thing I did was read your latest Reflections from Readers. Thank you for your godly and sensible attitude toward debates. I attended one debate and decided immediately that I would never attend another one. My reasons for this decision are pretty much defined by you in your answer to the brother in Alabama. They really are not designed to bring anyone closer to God. Debates seem to be designed for verbal and (thank God) bloodless entertainment. I feel that debates bring people closer to God about as much as a Super Bowl football game or a MTV show! Thank you, and keep up the good work!
From a Minister in New Mexico:
Greetings from Albuquerque! Let me give you another reason public debates are to be avoided. In the spring of 1967, the University of Southern California debate team came to Stillwater, Oklahoma to debate the Oklahoma State University team. The debate question that year was (what else?) on the Vietnam War. At the first debate, the USC team took the "dovish" position, at the second debate they took the "hawkish" position. They handily won both debates. And what did I learn? That in a debate, truth is irrelevant, skill is everything. Keep writing, brother!
From a Reader in Texas:
Another winner on a subject that has been much misunderstood by most in and out of the community of faith. Also, your answer to your critic in Alabama is gracious and to the point without being offensive. God is really using you to promote His cause and His Son.
From a Reader in California:
I really appreciated your answer to these people in Alabama. Of course, their invitation to debate you is simply one more way of letting you know how much they disapprove of you and your attitudes (beliefs). Their minds are made up, and, of course, they are right. Therefore, you are most assuredly going to eternal punishment (hell). The money they planned to spend on this debate would be better given to an orphanage or hospital or anti-abortion clinic. But, my guess is they don't "believe in" any of those things .... that is, they believe in them, but not out of their pocket. HA! I'm glad you won't lower yourself to debate them. I personally have never seen (nor heard) of anything good coming from a public debate.
From a Reader in Oregon:
Thanks for the article on The Lord's Day. I have been contemplating this subject and my understanding has been challenged. My affection for Sunday as the "Lord's Day" is very comfortable, possibly due more to my heritage and tradition. I am now recognizing that most of the reason for holding to a "Sunday as the Lord's Day" position is not based on CLEAR biblical evidence that GOD wanted this day to be elevated above others. Some of the historical examples indeed shed light on the fact that MEN have elevated this day and eventually developed a legalistic approach to recognizing this day. Is there not historical evidence that Christians cherished every opportunity to get together, regardless of the day? Observance of the Lord's Supper was more frequent than Sunday by some early groups.
It seems our concept of worship may be restricting us more than we care to admit. Did Jesus not set straight the passing away of "time and place" concepts of worship with the woman at the well? In a very real sense, is not every day the "Lord's Day"? Could we be elevating one day above another and binding the practice on others without realizing its consequences? Like the well-meaning Jews who instituted feasts that were pleasing to God, I believe SOME of the early Christians MAY have chosen Sunday for a number of reasons. However, through the centuries, like the Jews, we began to over organize, formalize, ritualize, and eventually idolize, the practice, landing a million miles away from the original intentions. I am certainly not suggesting scrapping Sunday gatherings, as our culture certainly makes it convenient, and, in the proper environment, edifying. Should we not rather simply put these gatherings in perspective and recognize that other days may also be worthy of the same activities and certainly be days dedicated to the Lord? These are some of the questions that plague me when I become involved in a little self-examination. I wonder if others may have the same questions. Thanks again for your research and perspective. Have a great Day in the Lord.
From an Evangelist in Scotland:
I was very much encouraged by the people who read and enjoyed your article Reflections from Edinburgh. Their thoughts and prayers are very encouraging to us here in Edinburgh, as are yours. I was also interested to read about the debate offer. I agree that written dialogue is superior to verbal debate, and I would love to see this happen -- but I won't hold my breath! (Nor shall I -- Al Maxey) My thoughts are with you and your ministry.
Just a few words on the recent Reflections (#103) regarding The Lord's Day. Lots of interesting stuff there. The examples of the early church, in Acts, as you pointed out, show that they met regularly, like a family, sharing a meal (which I think included the taking of the Lord's Supper). They did not restrict worship/service to Sundays only, although it seems this quickly became the norm. In my opinion, this has helped to foster a mentality of a Sunday "worship service" in a building being the ONLY time of worship for the saints. There are many Christians, I am sure, who "go to Church" on a Sunday but who have no other fellowship, with God or fellow disciples, throughout the week. They are "pew-warmers," a phrase we in Scotland would use to describe the Church of Scotland, but should recognize as being applicable to us also. In my experience the churches that are most alive and joyful are the ones who meet regularly during the week, and, importantly, they do this because they WANT to, and because they are being fed spiritually and are encouraging one another daily. I feel we have a problem with this "only on a Sunday" thing.
From a Reader in Mississippi:
Very well written Reflections on "The Lord's Day." I agree with all of your conclusions! Additionally, I admire the exhaustive research you put into this article and your honesty with the text of Colossians 2, Acts 15 and Romans 14. I work with a gentleman that observes the Sabbath, and he too has been led to believe that Sunday worship was an apostasy introduced by the Catholic Church. We have studied together briefly with my pointing out NT observance on the first day of the week by the early disciples. I will make him a copy of this issue of Reflections for his consideration, not to convert him to Sunday worship, but so that he will understand the liberty and inspired authority for those of us who choose to do so. May God continue to bless your efforts in this ministry.
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