My time preaching through John has been an enjoyable experience and one that God has used to produce fruit in the life of my church as well as myself. Having said that, preparing to preach 7:53-8:11 has been a labor like none I can remember in my brief experience as an expositor. I was torn between my conclusion that this passage was most likely not original to Johnâ€™s Gospel and my fear that our church might not be able to understand how questioning this passageâ€™s authenticity doesnâ€™t undermine our ability to take confidence in our English translations of the Bible.
The commentaries I have access to fall into one of two categories: One, they donâ€™t deal with the passage at all (example: F.F. Bruceâ€™s) or two, explain the problems with the passage and go on without comment (example: Kostenbergerâ€™s). I had very limited access to any advice as to why or why not to preach this passage, let alone commentary on the text. Scanning the sermon archives of Desiring God or Bible Bulletin Board yielded no discussion on the issue either.
Ultimately, I decided to deal with the passage as foreign to Johnâ€™s Gospel but still useful for a sermon. I offer my thought process for discussion as well as a (weak) aid to anyone wrestling with this same subject.
According to those wiser and more scholarly than myself (read: commentators) it is quite apparent that this pericope is not part of Johnâ€™s Gospel as he composed it (for a brief list of evidences supporting that conclusion see the sermon reproduced below). Therefore we canâ€™t talk about this passage as â€œinspiredâ€ and thus authoritative. On the other hand, most every scholar I read indicated that there was substantial evidence that this pericope recorded an authentic event from the life of Christ, most looking to the Gospel to the Hebrews as the source for the passage. My conclusion on this matter is that the passage can be useful, once it is established that the doctrine of inspiration does not extend to this passage, in the same way that other apocryphal texts are useful to the believer.
When I say â€œusefulâ€ I mean several things. One, in this passage one sees the superiority of Christâ€™s thinking to that of His opponents and His masterful ability to extend grace to the sinner without compromising the standard of Godâ€™s Word. These points are consistent with other passages of scripture and nothing in the text serves to open the door to heresy. Two, the discussion on textual criticism and how we can know that we have a reliable English translation of the scriptures is one that is profitable for the church and this passage brings up an opportunity for the discussion nicely. Lastly, in a manner like the apocryphal texts, this passage gives supplemental (albeit limited or flawed) information as to the climate of Christâ€™s day, etc.
So here is what I did when it came time to preach this past Sunday:
- 1. I explained as honestly as possible to our church the difficulty I had in preparing to preach. I have no desire to promote the illusion that Pastors never encounter anything that causes them to struggle intellectually nor do I want my church to think I handle the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy with anything other than a reverent attitude.
2. Having explained my difficulty I did a brief refresher on how the doctrine of inspiration is to be understood, namely that it applies to the autographs and extends only as far as the books already included in the canon.
3. I then read Kostenbergerâ€™s listing of the reasons why the passage most likely isnâ€™t original with Johnâ€™s Gospel, along with his conclusion.
4. I explained that Kostenbergerâ€™s encourages preachers, churches, and Bible translators to refrain from using the passage because He is aware that it is just as sinful to attribute something to God that He did not say as it is to ignore any part of what He has said.
5. I then explained that I had come to agree with the editors of the Baptist Study Edition Holy Bible that the passage could be useful to the church insofar as everyone understood we couldnâ€™t speak of this passage as being inspired, could not build doctrine on this verse, and couldnâ€™t say with 100 percent certitude that the event happened. However, we could view it as a useful passage in helping us understand the conduct of the Jewish leadership towards Christ, how they used the law and people, the habits of Christ, etc.
6. I then preached the sermon below and presented the Gospel, noting that whether or not these events took place we can say its picture of a gracious Christ who compromises neither Godâ€™s holiness nor His grace is consistent with the Bibleâ€™s presentation of Christ.
After having done all I could, to my mind, to properly place the issues surrounding and usefulness of this passage in my churchâ€™s mind I took a straw poll of the people who were leaving the church. Most that I talked to seemed to understand the point I attempted to make about the passage. There was one lady who attends our church who, coming from a Mormon background, seemed to be confused as to how reliable our English translations are. We spoke briefly on the subject and I tried to clear up her misunderstanding, making a note to follow up as soon as possible. Considering the context I felt satisfied in how our people understood the passage. I found that having already discussed the doctrine of inspiration was helpful to the task in that it gave a good foundation which our people were familiar with which they could use to think through the matter.
Last night before I preached the P.M. sermon I came down from the pulpit and opened the floor for questions on the subject. I thought it important to make sure I gave time for questions after they had the afternoon to think about what was said. I got only one comment, coming from a lady who mentioned that she had noticed the text was bracketed in her Bible. Before going back to the pulpit I encouraged the church to come to me with any questions that might arise.
There is how I thought through the issue, handled preaching the text, and followed up initially with my people. As I mentioned above, I hope it will help anyone working through the same issue as they seek conclusions. Iâ€™m sure a wiser and more seasoned pastor/scholar/theologian can see flaws in my approach. I would love to hear them.
One Adulteress, Many Sinners
John 7:53 â€“ 8:11
Problems with the Passage
Andreas J. Kostenberger in John from the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:
â€œâ€¦scholarship has, almost universally, regarded the pericope as a later insertion for, in Petersonâ€™s words, â€œreasons [that] are massive, convincing, and obviousâ€:
1. Its utter absences from all pre-fifth century A.D. MSSâ€¦
2. Its appearance in no fewer than five different places in the MS tradition (after John 7:36, 44, or 52; at the end of Johnâ€™s Gospel; or after Luke 21:38), bearing all the marks of a â€œbouncing aroundâ€¦â€™floatingâ€™ logionâ€; one should also note the large number of variants pertaining to the entire pericope, which also suggests an unstable MS tradition.
3. Non-Johannine literary features
4. The interruption of the narrative flow from 7:52 to 8:12, breaking up the literary unit 7:1-8:59; on a historical level, the setting of 7:53-8:1 suggests most plausibly Jesusâ€™ pattern during the week before his passion.
5. The lack of citation in early patristic writings up to the fourth century (the earliest Greek patristic reference of a variation of this narrative occurring in a commentary by Didymus the Blind [d. 398].
6. The suggested scenario that the pericope passed from its original place in the Gospel according to the Hebrews to Johnâ€™s Gospel (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 3.39.17, citing Papias).
Kostenbergerâ€™s conclusion: â€œâ€¦the fact remains that the account almost certainly was not part fo the original Gospel and therefore should not be regarded as part of the Christian canon. Nor does inspiration extend to it. In principle, the pericope is no different from other possibly authentic sayings of Jesus that may be found in NT apocryphal literature. Thus, though it may be possible to derive a certain degree of edification from the study of this pericope, proper conservatism and caution suggest that the passage be omitted from preaching in the churches (not to mention inclusion in the main body of translations, even within square brackets.â€
* Most likely not original to Johnâ€™s Gospel
* Most likely an authentic even from the life of Christ which was inserted in Johnâ€™s Gospel during the translation and dissemination period after its composition
* In regards to the preaching of the text I follow the editors of The Baptist Study Edition of the Bible (most likely W.A. Criswell). See quote below.
â€œThe pericope, or story-unit, of the woman caught in adultery is absent from the entire Alexandrian text and most of the ancient versions. On the other hand, it does occur in numerous manuscripts, as well as in the writings of Augustine and Jerome. Regardless of whether these verses were originally in the autograph of John or whether they were added later by John or by someone else, there is every probability that the story represents an actual event in the life of Jesus. No questionable doctrine is present in this text, and the event is certainly characteristic of the way Jesus met such circumstances. It is topically appropriate in this place, since the theme of judging is introduced in 7:51; although from a linguistic/literary perspective, 7:52 and 8:12 naturally flow together without the interruption of this pericope.â€
Therefore, after it is thoroughly noted that inspiration doesnâ€™t extend to the passage, it is appropriate for preaching in that it most likely gives us a glimpse in to the life of our Savior.
I. Attempting to Trap the Teacher
â€œâ€¦the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in a woman caught in adulteryâ€¦and said to Him, â€œTeacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, the very act.â€
A. How were they able to secure her at such a fortuitous time? It is hard to believe that many adulterous acts took place early in the morning, near the temple, on the very day Jesus made an extended appearance. If this event took place in the timeline of the Feast of Tabernacles (unlikely) then it is possible that the use of the booths betrayed the adulterous coupleâ€™s privacy. Another possibility is that the Jewish leadership had in some manner arranged the encounter that led to the arrest of the woman.
â€œâ€¦the law commanded us that such should be stonedâ€¦â€
A. Technically True: Leviticus 20:10
B. Whether or not the adulterer was â€œcaughtâ€ in the act determined what consequences they faced: Numbers 5:11-15
C. In order to execute the guilty party multiple witnesses must be involved and one of those witnesses must initiate the stoning of the guilty party: Deuteronomy 17:6-7
â€œWhat do you say? They were saying thisâ€¦that they might have something of which to accuse Him.â€
John makes their motivation clear: Christâ€™s destruction.
A. If Christ said â€œrelease herâ€: Christ appears to break the Mosaic Law.
B. If Christ said â€œexecute herâ€: Christ will violate Roman law and be seized as a rebel against the Empire. Roman law did not allow the Jews to execute capital punishment, thus Christ would be violating Roman law. (This legal prohibition against Jewish execution of capital punishment explains why Christ Himself was tried before Pilate so that He might be crucified.)
Note: The actions of the scribes and Pharisees seen here is a classic example of how legalism operates. In this scenario, as with all actions born of legalism, the standards of Godâ€™s Word are hijacked by those who would use Godâ€™s revelation to advance their own agenda. These men cared nothing for the holiness of God nor the purity of Godâ€™s people (which the laws against adultery were given to protect) but were being used as tools to accomplish their own sinful goal.
II. The Master Turns the Tables
â€œJesus stooped down and wrote.â€
A. Why is unanswerable but much fun has been found in the speculation. Perhaps Christ wrote out Exodus 23:1.
â€œâ€¦as if He did not hear.â€
A. Again, only speculation can answer why.
â€œHe how is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.â€
David Guzik: â€œ[Christ was saying] â€˜Alright, letâ€™s execute her. But lets do this right. One of the witnesses has to have a hand in her execution. So who among you is the one who witnessed this crime, but only brought to me the woman, not the man?â€™â€
â€œThey began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones.â€
A. The dispersion of the crowd takes place in such a unique manner that the author of the pericope feels compelled to record it. As to what significance it holds, none readily presents itself. Perhaps it is tied to what Christ wrote on the ground when He stooped back down but this is more speculation.
III. The Grace of the Lawgiver on Display
â€œWoman, where are thy? Did no one condemn you?â€
A. The address to the adulteress is on of polite respect, the same one Christ uses to address His mother at other times. Note to that Christ has very little to say to the Jewish leadership, ignoring them for an extended period when they arrived, speaking briefly, and then ignoring their departure. Yet after that He takes time for a comparatively extended discourse with the woman. This is consistent with Christâ€™s concern for the sinner and His disdain for those who pervert His law for their own ends.
â€œI do not condemn you either.â€
A. The irony here is that Christ alone, out of everyone involved in the story, had the right to condemn. He is both the lawgiver against whom this woman sinned and the â€œone without sinâ€ who could have cast the first stone.
â€œGo and sin no more.â€
A. This is further evidence of Christâ€™s masterful interaction with those who sin, showing both His Lordship and His grace. His response is gracious and kind, yet it acknowledges her sin and calls her to leave it behind.
Question: Does Christâ€™s treatment of the adulteress set Him against the law?
I would argue no on the following grounds:
A. As the one who would bear the penalty for her adultery Christ could offer forgiveness, knowing His body would bear the punishment she deserved.
B. Christâ€™s actions could very well indicate that salvation has come to this woman. She was apparently used to being in the vicinity where Christ taught. His gracious actions and call to repentance could have been the turning point in her own conversion. She offers no verbal confession but one could argue that the thief on the cross who petitions Christ to remember him gave no precise confession of faith either.
C. Christâ€™s actions are consistent with His mission to bring salvation: John 3:17
D. Christâ€™s actions are consistent with His calling of sinners to repentance: Luke 5:32.