God’s Writing 5: Forgiveness
So far in this series we have seen God writing in creation, in providence, in revelation and in judgement. God’s standard of justice is written in our hearts, it was written on tablets of stone and it is written in the books that record our actions, just as God’s verdict was written on the wall in Belshazzar’s feast. If this was the whole story of the Bible, there would be no good news and no hope. Yet to understand the message of the gospel we must understand the justice of God and His righteous wrath because of human sin. God will not and cannot ignore our sin – it is not only a violation of the laws of morality; it is a personal offence against God. When we measure ourselves against the standard of perfection described in the Ten Commandments, we inevitably find ourselves, like Belshazzar, seriously lacking. What hope is there, then, for us?
As we come to the next occasion of God’s writing in the Scriptures, a word of caution is in order. John 7:53-8:11 is not contained in the earliest available manuscripts of John’s Gospel, suggesting that it isn’t original and was added at a later date. For this reason, we must treat this passage with some caution. It would be unwise to rest any doctrine on it alone. Yet the Jesus we read about in these verses is identical to the person who is revealed throughout John and in the other Gospels. This glimpse into the person of Christ from an early Christian author is the only time when we read of Jesus writing. As mentioned in Part 3 of this series, Jesus Himself did not write any of the books of the New Testament. Instead he commissioned apostles who would write down his teaching and explain it as the Spirit guided them into all truth (John 16:13). The New Testament is trustworthy, but it is not written by Jesus. Here in John 8, though, we see Jesus writing. The frustrating thing (at least for someone like me, who struggles with unsolved mysteries) is that we don’t know what he wrote.
The story told in this passage is beautiful in its depiction of Christ. The setting is the Temple, rebuilt by the Jews who returned under Cyrus of Persia and being beautified by Herod (still under construction at the time). This was the centre of Jewish worship. It was a physical parable of God’s relationship with His people. It spoke both of God’s closeness and His distance, of judgement and of forgiveness. It showed God’s desire to live with His people, but reminded them that their sin separated them from His presence. Its sacrifices enacted the realities of death as a just result of sin and of the substitution of an innocent as the only solution to sin. In this sacred place the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. The details are scarce – we don’t know her name or whether she had just been caught or was discovered some time before – but we can imagine how this woman feels – her shame and fear. They remind Jesus that the Law given through Moses demands death by stoning (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24), but, as usual, they are setting a trap for Him. If Jesus disagrees with their verdict He can be accused justly of rejecting the Law. If, on the other hand, he demands capital punishment, they might be able to report Him to the Romans for undermining the authority to exercise the death penalty which they insisted should be theirs alone.
Faced with this dilemma, Jesus doesn’t speak at first. Instead, He bends down and writes something in the dusty ground. They continue repeating their accusation and he simply says (John 8:7):
Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.
Then He writes something additional on the ground and the result is amazing – one by one they turn and leave until He is left face to face with the accused woman. What was it that Jesus wrote? Various suggestions have been made. Some say that he was simply doodling in order to cover up His embarrassment at the predicament and presentation of the woman, but this hardly fits with the person of Jesus as we read of Him throughout the Gospels. He is always master of every situation. Others suggest that He wrote the names and some of the sins of the men who stood before Him. This seems more plausible. Certainly Jesus had insight into the hearts of people and perhaps He is exposing these men as the sinners that they are, reminding them that they too are in need of mercy. It is even possible that the whole sequence of events is a ‘set up’, that the men deliberately spied on a known adulterer in order to create a trap for Jesus. If this is the case, then these men are actually complicit in the crime. A third possibility is that Jesus wrote out the text of Leviticus or Deuteronomy that refers to this punishment. If so, perhaps He is drawing their attention to an inconsistency in the events – both texts say that the man and woman should both be executed, but here we only have the woman. Where is the man she was sleeping with? Did they allow him to escape? Was he known to them? Did Jesus write his name too? Did they fade away because they didn’t want to implicate him or because they realised they hypocrisy in only condemning the weaker of the two wrongdoers. A fourth possibility is that the point of Jesus’ writing was not what He wrote, but the fact that the act of writing reminded them of God’s writing in the Old Testament. We cannot know what was written, but we do know that these men, so full of self-righteousness as they brought their accusation, were exposed and left ashamed in the face of Jesus’ true righteousness. He alone, the sinless One, can ask such a question with absolute authority, setting Himself up as their judge.
We must be careful not to misinterpret this episode in Jesus’ life. He is not ‘soft’ on sin – when he speaks to the woman, there is amazing grace in the forgiveness He offers, but He also charges her not to continue sinning. Jesus always upheld the standard of righteousness revealed in the Old Testament Law, and the New Testament epistles are remarkably consistent with it in the kind of behaviour they expect of Christians. What is remarkable, here, though is Jesus’ statement that he does not condemn the woman. God incarnate, the righteous judge of all mankind, looks at a broken, ashamed woman and pronounces deliverance. The judge has become the Saviour. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:17). Jesus’s statement of acquittal only makes sense in the context of the whole story of the Gospels. This Jesus is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the world’s sin (John 1:29). He is the one those temple sacrifices had spoken of – the perfect sacrifice that can really deal with sin – the ultimate sinless substitute. The story told by John leads on to the cross, where Jesus will die for the sin of that woman and for my sin. Through His death I have forgiveness. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1) and if He does not condemn me, then no one else has a right to bring any accusation against me – He is risen and living to keep me secure (Romans 8:33-34).
God has written justice into the fabric of the universe and He has revealed justice in His Word. His justice reflects His nature. Yet, in grace God has entered into a world of injustice to rescue people who are unjust. Through the death of Christ He justifies the unjust (makes them right with Him)without acting unjustly (i.e., ignoring sin or presiding over a miscarriage of justice by failing to condemn those who deserve it) – it is the only way that He can maintain His justice and also rescue us (see Romans 3:26). This is the heart of the gospel and why it is truly good news. When we look into the face of Jesus we will see both our judge and our Saviour. For now, He sends us out with the good news of salvation and charges us as He did that woman, not to live lives of sin, but to live as a response to grace in the freedom of serving Him.