It’s good to be back at the keyboard after a long week of driving around Chicago. There was €€€ involved, so I won’t complain too much, especially given our current circumstances.
But the driving wasn’t constant, and I had a little downtime, mostly to read and take notes. And I’ve got a handful of blog ideas I’m mulling over. The next week should be reasonably productive. However, Jennifer and I are packing up our worldly belongings and will be leaving Chicago. I’m hoping part of this involves a book tour — churches and bookstores across this fair land! — later this spring. So, blogging will be lighter than normal here as well for a bit. Until the last box is stowed away…
Okay, to the matter at hand.
Something I noticed as I was recently reviewing John 8. The chapter starts out with the marvelous story of Jesus defending the adulterous woman — “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Her sin is not in question, and so the “righteousness” of the judgment is not in question here. Jesus has turned the tables on “the scribes and the Pharisees,” who have actually brought her to him to judge.
And that is his judgement — “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” THAT is the judgement of our Lord.
According to the ESV (and I’m fairly certain the critical apparatus of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament, which is at the bottom of a box as I write), the first ten verses are not included in the earliest manuscripts we have. (I understand these folks have taken this passage out of the Gospel of John, because God apparently does not forgive sin.) And it’s true, there’s clearly an edit/transition here that does not make sense.
In verse 9, everyone walks away, leaving only Jesus and the woman. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more,” he tells her.
The next verse begins right away with, “Again, Jesus spoke to them…” Who are the them? Most likely, the scribes and the Pharisees. But didn’t they just walk away? Sure, this could happen later. It’s an awkward transition, poorly edited (likely the passage on the adulterous woman IS a later insert, though it is also something Jesus would say). But I have every reason to believe it truly belongs there. The structure of the whole chapter suggests it.
Jesus spends the entire chapter in dialogue with the scribes and Pharisees. He proclaims himself “the light of the world” (8:12) who judges no one yet his judgement is true. (John’s Gospel is like this.) Most controversially, for his listeners, Jesus proclaims that he comes from “the Father.” This causes some agitation, but mostly a question — “who are you?”
Eventually, Jesus gets around to telling them that if they abide in his word, they will know the truth, and the truth will set them free. (8:31-32) This leads to the first of two amazing responses from his listeners, the scribes and the pharisees:
33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (John 8:33 ESV)
This is a howler. “Never been enslaved to anyone.” These are a people who do not know their own history and their own scripture. First, there is the matter of slavery in Egypt, as attested from the the Joseph story at the end of Genesis through the first half of Exodus. The whole focus of God’s saving action was to remove Israel from its service to Pharaoh so that Israel could serve God alone.
But better even than that are Ezra’a and Nehemiah’s respective prayers following the end of Israel’s exile, which are confessions of Israel’s own reduced status even in its redemption:
34 Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them. 35 Even in their own kingdom, and amid your great goodness that you gave them, and in the large and rich land that you set before them, they did not serve you or turn from their wicked works. 36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:34-37 ESV)
6 … “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. 7 From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. 8 But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. 9 For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:6-9 ESV)
Despite being freed from captivity in Babylon, and allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, both Ezra and Nehemiah understand this is being done under a foreign (non-Israelite) overlord. Yes, Cyrus acted on behalf of God when he commanded the exiles be allowed to return and rebuild. But this is a deeply circumscribed sovereignty.
Israel is clearly no freer under Roman rule. So, the scribes and the Pharisees proclaim a freedom they do not have. They either do not know they are slaves (they have grown so accustomed to foreign rule they mistake it for liberty) or they willfully refuse to admit they are slaves (because they do not wish to abide in the truth that is Jesus). Either way, they are lying.
Because they are slaves.
The conversation then wanders in a very problematic direction, in which Jesus states that the scribes and the Pharisees really aren’t Abraham’s children because they don’t do what Abraham has done. (Which is to rejoice in rejoice in the coming of Jesus, 8:56) Eventually, he will accuse them of being children of the devil (διαβολος), an accusation that will come in handy for hordes of future Jew-haters, pogrom-launchers and just plain bad, violent people. But before Jesus does any of that, the scribes and the Pharisees confidently state:
They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” (John 8:41 ESV)
I hope my essay on this matter put that claim to rest. Without Israel’s sinfulness — Abraham marrying his own half-sister, Jacob marrying two sisters, Judah “going into” his daughter-in-law, Amram marrying his aunt and fathering Moses and Aaron on her, Ruth seducing Boaz, and David seducing (or being seduced, or raping) Bathsheba and murdering her husband Uriah — there would be no Israel, no people for God to call. Israel was begotten in sexual immorality, and wouldn’t exist without it.
Even scribes and Pharisees 2,000 years ago should have had some understanding of that.
They then accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and even having a demon. Jesus tries to engage them, but it becomes a pointless endeavor. The scribes and the Pharisees aren’t listening, and aren’t taking his witness to who and what he is seriously. “You are older than Abraham who died?” they ask. Finally, Jesus says
“Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58 ESV)
And with that, the scribes and the Pharisees have had it.
59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:59 ESV)
This is why I think the first part about the adulterous woman belongs here. This chapter begins and ends the same way, with accusations made and stones in hand.
But note well what also happens here. Jesus saves the woman with his words, with a successful appeal even to the hardened, self-righteous consciences of those testing him. But he cannot save himself. Not with words. Not with truth. He has to run and hide.
He cannot save himself.
She is like Barabbas, this unnamed woman. She goes free. He does not. His words matter nothing in his own defense.
He cannot save himself.
I wish I had more to say on this. I wish I had clever words, neat ideas. But I don’t. He bears witness to himself, to the truth that he is, and this, this is the cause of his death.
He saved me. But he cannot save himself.