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Caught in the act

Sermon passage: (John 8:1-11) Spoken on: February 14, 2018
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: John

Tags: John 约翰福音

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Title: Caught in the act
Date: 14th Feb 2018
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Thank you for coming for tonight’s Ash Wed service. I know that in the middle of a busy work week, it takes an intentional effort to attend this service. May the Lord bless you abundantly, just as how you have honored him with your presence tonight. Ash Wed marks the beginning of the period of Lent, which is 40 days of reflection before Easter. It is a time when we contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death.

This is the setting in which we will approach today’s passage. The Jewish authorities had come with an intention to kill Jesus. John stated it plainly for us: 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. In order to understand the danger of the trap, we have to understand how the trap worked. This woman was caught in the act of adultery, which meant that there was no doubt as to her guilt. It directly broke the 7th of the 10 commandments: “You shall not commit adultery. (Ex 20:14) And Leviticus 20: 10 “‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. How do you put to death people who had committed adultery? You can also take reference from Deuteronomy 22: 23 If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, 24 you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death… because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you. Such punishment for adultery may appear harsh and brutal by modern standards. “The fundamental concern of Mosaic adultery laws is the protection and stability of men’s property.” In a world without DNA testing, this was one way to ensure that only your own flesh and blood would inherit your land.

So if the guilt was clear and the sentence was clear, how was this a trap? Well, in the eyes of the Jewish leaders, Jesus was not your usual do it by-the-book teacher. He messed up the Temple worship system. He performed healing on the Sabbath. In both cases, it went against the usual Jewish interpretations of the Laws from Moses. Yet in both cases, Jesus claimed to be doing it for God’s sake. The Jewish leaders might have felt that Jesus was breaking the law, but so far it was not yet cut and dried enough to sentence him to death. At least, not with his current popularity. But in this scenario of caught-in-the-act adultery, there would be no room for arguments. If Jesus was unwilling to sentence the woman to be stoned to death, then they would have irrefutable evidence of Jesus breaking the laws of Moses.

But what if Jesus went along with the laws of Moses, and pronounced a death sentence on the woman? Wouldn’t he then escape the trap easily? What accusations could the Jewish leaders level upon him if he went by-the-book? To me, going by-the-book was the true danger of the trap. Because going by-the-book would bring death to the woman, and that would destroy the entire basis of Jesus’ ministry. If there was one core value in the coming of Jesus, it was to bring life.

We are told right at the beginning of the Gospel: (John 1:4) In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. This trap was a moment of temptation for the darkness to see if it could overcome the light, to see if Jesus also had no choice but to bring death. Jesus was supposed to be (John 1:29) the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! But maybe Jesus was also helpless before sin. He could not take away the sin of the woman, and had to pronounce her death. In John 5, Jesus claimed before these very Jewish leaders: 21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. 22 Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son. 24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Yet this was a scenario where the woman would be judged and Jesus would have no choice but to bring death to her. His promise to give life and his claim to authority would fall flat. He said earlier in John 6: 35 “I am the bread of life and in John 7: 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” But whether bread of life or living water, all these would become meaningless if he went by-the-book to bring death. He would be no different from the Jewish authorities whom he was preaching and fighting against.

So this was the trap: Either Jesus freed the woman and be accused of blatantly breaking Moses’ Law, or Jesus condemned the woman to death and be accused of speaking empty promises of life. Either way, the Jewish authorities would win. Jesus chose to bend down and write on the ground with his finger. There is no way to know what he was writing, and I think that since John didn’t tell us what Jesus wrote, it was not the focus of the story. Before these Jewish authorities arrived, Jesus was teaching at the Temple courts. And writing on the ground was a common thing that teachers of that time did, kind of like an ancient PowerPoint. So the main aim of Jesus’ gesture was to ignore the Jewish authorities and get back to what he was doing before they arrived. Since there were no good options to the trap, Jesus chose to ignore them.

But we are told that they kept on pestering Jesus for an answer. Ignoring them wasn’t going to work. If Jesus was really going to sentence this woman to death, typically, you would ask the eye-witnesses to the adultery to cast the first stones. This was because the eye-witnesses were the ones who knew for sure the guilt of the adultery, and they could cast the first stones without guilt, or fear of a wrongful punishment. But Jesus gave such a sentencing a brilliant twist. Instead of asking for the eye-witnesses who could cast the first stones with a clear conscience, he said 7 “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 9 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.

This woman was caught in the act of adultery. Surely there must have been eye-witnesses who could cast the first stones without any guilt of a wrongful accusation. Why did nobody cast the first stone? This was because even though they might not be guilty of wrongly accusing this woman, they were guilty of trying to accuse Jesus with this vicious trap. On the surface, this might look like a case of stoning this adulteress, but deep down in their hearts, they knew that they were here to stone Jesus. This was why the older ones left first. These were probably the leaders of the pack who designed this trap with the aim of destroying Jesus. They knew that they bore the sin of trying to kill Jesus. Just like the adulterous woman, they were caught in the act. Matthew 7: 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Caught in the act, these Jewish authorities who were trying to trap Jesus could not be judging the woman. If they judged and stoned the woman, God would use the same measure upon them and judge them. This was why all these people who were trying to trap Jesus were forced to walk away from the woman. Because they were just as sinful as her.

Finally, Jesus ended the episode with these words: 11 “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This is exactly what Jesus declared earlier in John 3: 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. In our passage today, the woman should have died for her sin. But in the end, Jesus gave her life. But we have to ask an important question. What about the adultery? Even if the sinful Jewish authorities could not condemn her, why didn’t Jesus condemn her? Does this mean that Jesus was fine with adultery? Impossible. This was why Jesus told her to leave her life of sin. But what about the condemnation of sin? Jesus could not sidestep the law against adultery.

This is my reflection for tonight. There are two ways to perceive the law. There is the way of Sin. And there is the way of the Spirit. Paul described the way of Sin in Romans 7: 7 Is the law sinful? Certainly not! 10 I found that the very Law that was intended to bring life actually brought death. 11 For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the Law, deceived me, and through the Law put me to death. 13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the Law sin might become utterly sinful.

There is a lot to unpack in Paul’s personal struggles in Romans 7. But one key idea is Sin’s manipulation of the Law to bring death. And that’s what I see in tonight’s bible passage. The Law was manipulated not just to bring death to the woman, but also with the aim to bring death to Jesus. These Jewish leaders were supposed to be teachers of the Law, but they were only interested in using the Law to bring death. Yes, the Law could be manipulated that way. That’s called condemnation. Jesus gave them a taste of their own medicine. If you are so ready to condemn others, why don’t you try it on yourself. You who are caught in the act of trying to kill me, are you even qualified to cast the first stone? The leaders chose to walk away. They could not handle their own condemnation.

Besides the way of Sin, Paul then went on to describe the way of the Spirit in Romans 8: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. …, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

So the way to fulfil the Law is to live by the Spirit in Christ Jesus. Only Jesus can give us life, and set us free from death. And that was why he chose not to condemn the woman. Not because he was sinful like the Jewish leaders, but because he had chosen to bear her sins, and to offer her a new beginning to live without sin. That is the way of the Spirit.

Paul also said this in Galatians 6: 1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. (let’s read this together, again)

It is not just Jesus Christ who has to bear the sins of the world. In a Christian community, we carry each other’s burdens. Of course, Paul gave a warning about temptation. But living by the Spirit is to carry out this restoration from sinfulness together. We can be judgemental about adultery, but are we willing to restore broken families together? We can be judgemental about other people’s flaws and weaknesses, but are we willing to restore each person so that they can be transformed in a supportive community?

When I look at this story, I identify with the woman in adultery. Just like Paul in Romans 7: 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! It is Jesus who bore the death that I deserved. It is Jesus who gave me a new life in his own Spirit. Jesus gave me a new beginning for a new life. 11 Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”