WRETCHEDNESS AND PITY (John 7:53; John 8:1-11)
8:1-11 And each of them went to his own house; but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he was again in the Temple precincts, and all the people came to him. He sat down and went on teaching them. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman arrested for adultery. They set her in the midst and said to him: "Teacher, this woman was arrested as she was committing adultery--in the very act. In the law Moses enjoined us to stone women like this. What do you say about her?" They were testing him when they said this, so that they might have some ground on which to accuse him. Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they went on asking him their question, he straightened himself and said to them: "Let the man among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her." And again he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. One by one those who had heard what he said went out, beginning from the eldest down to the youngest. So Jesus was left alone, and the woman was still there in the midst. Jesus straightened himself and said to her: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said: "No one, sir." Jesus said: "I am not going to pass judgment on you either. Go, and from now on, sin no more."
[This incident is not included in all the ancient manuscripts
and appears only in a footnote in the Revised Standard
Version; see: NOTE ON THE STORY OF THE WOMAN TAKEN
The scribes and Pharisees were out to get some charge on which they could discredit Jesus; and here they thought they had impaled him inescapably on the horns of a dilemma. When a difficult legal question arose, the natural and routine thing was to take it to a Rabbi for a decision. So the scribes and Pharisees approached Jesus as a Rabbi with a woman taken in adultery.
In the eyes of the Jewish law adultery was a serious crime. The Rabbis said: "Every Jew must die before he will commit idolatry, murder or adultery." Adultery was, in fact one of the three gravest sins and it was punishable by, death, although there were certain differences in respect of the way in which the death penalty was to be carried out. Leviticus 20:10 lays it down: "If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." There the method of death is not specified. Deuteronomy 22:13-24 lays down the penalty in the case of a girl who is already betrothed. In a case like that she and the man who seduced her are to be brought outside the city gates, "and you shall stone them to death with stones." The Mishnah, that is, the Jewish codified law, states that the penalty for adultery is strangulation, and even the method of strangulation is laid down. "The man is to be enclosed in dung up to his knees, and a soft towel set within a rough towel is to be placed around his neck (in order that no mark may be made, for the punishment is God's punishment). Then one man draws in one direction and another in the other direction, until he be dead." The Mishnah reiterates that death by stoning is the penalty for a girl who is betrothed and who then commits adultery. From the purely legal point of view the scribes and Pharisees were perfectly correct. This woman was liable to death by stoning.
The dilemma into which they sought to put Jesus was this: If he said that the woman ought to be stoned to death, two things followed. First, he would lose the name he had gained for love and for mercy and never again would be called the friend of sinners. Second, he would come into collision with the Roman law, for the Jews had no power to pass or carry out the death sentence on anyone. If he said that the woman should be pardoned, it could immediately be said that he was teaching men to break the law of Moses, and that he was condoning and even encouraging people to commit adultery. That was the trap in which the scribes and Pharisees sought to entrap Jesus. But he turned their attack in such a way that it recoiled against themselves.
At first Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground. Why did he do that? There may be four possible reasons.
(i) He may quite simply have wished to gain time and not be rushed into a decision. In that brief moment he may have been both thinking the thing out and taking it to God.
(ii) Certain manuscripts add, "As though he did not hear them." Jesus may well have deliberately forced the scribes and Pharisees to repeat their charges, so that, in repeating them, they might possibly realize the sadistic cruelty which lay behind them.
(iii) Seeley in Ecce Homo makes an interesting suggestion. "Jesus was seized with an intolerable sense of shame. He could not meet the eye of the crowd, or of the accusers, and perhaps at that moment least of all of the woman.... In his burning embarrassment and confusion he stooped down so as to hide his face, and began writing with his fingers upon the ground." It may well be that the leering, lustful look on the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, the bleak cruelty in their eyes, the prurient curiosity of the crowd, the shame of the woman, all combined to twist the very heart of Jesus in agony and pity, so that he hid his eyes.
(iv) By far the most interesting suggestion emerges from certain of the later manuscripts. The Armenian translates the passage this way: "He himself, bowing his head, was writing with his finger on the earth to declare their sins; and they were seeing their several sins on the stones." The suggestion is that Jesus was writing in the dust the sins of the very men who were accusing the woman. There may be something in that. The normal Greek word for to write is graphein (Greek #1125); but here the word used is katagraphein, which can mean to write down a record against someone. (One of the meanings of kata (Greek #2596) is against). So in Job 13:26 Job says: "Thou writest (katagraphein) bitter things against me." It may be that Jesus was confronting those self-confident sadists with the record of their own sins.
However that may be, the scribes and Pharisees continued to insist on an answer--and they got it. Jesus said in effect: "All right! Stone her! But let the man that is without sin be the first to cast a stone." It may well be that the word for without sin (anamartetos, Greek #361) means not only without sin, but even without a sinful desire. Jesus was saying: "Yes, you may stone her--but only if you never wanted to do the same thing yourselves." There was a silence--and then slowly the accusers drifted away.
So Jesus and the woman were left alone. As Augustine put it: "There remained a great misery (miseria) and a great pity (misericordia)." Jesus said to the woman: "Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. Jesus said: "I am not for the moment going to pass judgment on you either. Go, and make a new start, and don't sin any more."
WRETCHEDNESS AND PITY (John 7:53; John 8:1-11 continued)
This passage shows us two things about the attitude of the scribes and the Pharisees.
(i) It shows us their conception of authority. The scribes and the Pharisees were the legal experts of the day; to them problems were taken for decision. It is clear that to them authority was characteristically critical, censorious and condemnatory. That authority should be based on sympathy, that its aim should be to reclaim the criminal and the sinner, never entered their heads. They conceived of their function as giving them the right to stand over others like grim invigilators, to watch for every mistake and every deviation from the law, and to descend on them with savage and unforgiving punishment; they never dreamed that it might lay upon them the obligation to cure the wrongdoer.
There are still those who regard a position of authority as giving them the right to condemn and the duty to punish. They think that such authority as they have has given them the right to be moral watch-dogs trained to tear the sinner to pieces; but all true authority is founded on sympathy. When George Whitefield saw the criminal on the way to the gallows, he uttered the famous sentence: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."
The first duty of authority is to try to understand the force of the temptations which drove the sinner to sin and the seductiveness of the circumstances in which sin became so attractive. No man can pass judgment on another unless he at least tries to understand what the other has come through. The second duty of authority is to seek to reclaim the wrongdoer. Any authority which is solely concerned with punishment is wrong; any authority, which, in its exercise, drives a wrongdoer either to despair or to resentment, is a failure. The function of authority is not to banish the sinner from all decent society, still less to wipe him out; it is to make him into a good man. The man set in authority must be like a wise physician; his one desire must be to heal.
(ii) This incident shows vividly and cruelly the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees to people. They were not looking on this woman as a person at all; they were looking on her only as a thing, an instrument whereby they could formulate a charge against Jesus. They were using her, as a man might use a tool, for their own purposes. To them she had no name, no personality, no feelings; she was simply a pawn in the game whereby they sought to destroy Jesus.
It is always wrong to regard people as things; it is always unchristian to regard people as cases. It was said of Beatrice Webb, afterwards Lady Passfield, the famous economist, that "she saw men as specimens walking." Dr. Paul Tournier in A Doctor's Casebook talks of what he calls "the personalism of the Bible." He points out how fond the Bible is of names. God says to Moses: "I know you by name" (Exodus 33:17). God said to Cyrus; "It is I, the God of Israel, who call you by your name" (Isaiah 45:3). There are whole pages of names in the Bible. Dr. Tournier insists that this is proof that the Bible thinks of people first and foremost, not as fractions of the mass, or abstractions, or ideas, or cases, but as persons. "The proper name," Dr. Tournier writes, "is the symbol of the person. If I forget my patients' names, if I say to myself, 'Ah! There's that gall-bladder type or that consumptive that I saw the other day,' I am interesting myself more in their gall-bladders or in their lungs than in themselves as persons." He insists that a patient must be always a person, and never a case.
It is extremely unlikely that the scribes and the Pharisees even knew this woman's name. To them she was nothing but a case of shameless adultery that could now be used as an instrument to suit their purposes. The minute people become things the spirit of Christianity is dead.
God uses his authority to love men into goodness; to God no person ever becomes a thing. We must use such authority as we have always to understand and always at least to try to mend the person who has made the mistake; and we will never even begin to do that unless we remember that every man and woman is a person, not a thing.
WRETCHEDNESS AND PITY (John 7:53; John 8:1-11 continued)
Further, this incident tells us a great deal about Jesus and his attitude to the sinner.
(i) It was a first principle of Jesus that only the man who himself is without fault has the right to express judgment on the fault of others. "Judge not," said Jesus, "that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). He said that the man who attempted to judge his brother was like a man with a plank in his own eye trying to take a speck of dust out of someone else's eye (Matthew 7:3-5). One of the commonest faults in life is that so many of us demand standards from others that we never even try to meet ourselves; and so many of us condemn faults in others which are glaringly obvious in our own lives. The qualification for judging is not knowledge--we all possess that; it is achievement in goodness--none of us is perfect there. The very facts of the human situation mean that only God has the right to judge, for the simple reason that no man is good enough to judge any other.
(ii) It was also a first principle with Jesus that our first emotion towards anyone who has made a mistake should be pity. It has been said that the duty of the doctor is "sometimes to heal, often to afford relief and always to bring consolation." When a person suffering from some ailment is brought to a doctor, he does not regard him with loathing even if he is suffering from a loathsome disease. In fact the physical revulsion which is sometimes inevitable is swallowed up by the great desire to help and to heal. When we are confronted with someone who has made a mistake, our first feeling ought to be, not, "I'll have nothing more to do with someone who could act like that," but, "What can I do to help? What can I do to undo the consequences of this mistake?" Quite simply, we must always extend to others the same compassionate pity we would wish to be extended to ourselves if we were involved in a like situation.
(iii) It is very important that we should understand just how Jesus did treat this woman. It is easy to draw the wrong lesson altogether and to gain the impression that Jesus forgave lightly and easily, as if the sin did not matter. What he said was: "I am not going to condemn you just now; go, and sin no more." In effect what he was doing was not to abandon judgment and say, "Don't worry; it's quite all right." What he did was, as it were, to defer sentence. He said, "I am not going to pass a final judgment now; go and prove that you can do better. You have sinned; go and sin no more and I'll help you all the time. At the end of the day we will see how you have lived." Jesus' attitude to the sinner involved a number of things.
(a) It involved the second chance. It is as if Jesus said to the woman: "I know you have made a mess of things; but life is not finished yet; I am giving you another chance, the chance to redeem yourself." Someone has written the lines:
"How I wish that there was some wonderful place
Called the Land of Beginning Again,
Where all our mistakes and all out heartaches
And all our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door,
And never put on again."
In Jesus there is the gospel of the second chance. He was always intensely interested, not only in what a person had been, but also in what a person could be. He did not say that what they had done did not matter; broken laws and broken hearts always matter; but he was sure that every man has a future as well as a past.
(b) It involved pity. The basic difference between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees was that they wished to condemn; he wished to forgive. If we read between the lines of this story it is quite clear that they wished to stone this woman to death and were going to take pleasure in doing so. They knew the thrill of exercising the power to condemn; Jesus knew the thrill of exercising the power to forgive. Jesus regarded the sinner with pity born of love; the scribes and Pharisees regarded him with disgust born of self-righteousness.
(c) It involved challenge. Jesus confronted this woman with the challenge of the sinless life. He did not say: "It's all right; don't worry; just go on as you are doing." He said: "It's all wrong; go out and fight; change your life from top to bottom; go, and sin no more." Here was no easy forgiveness; here was a challenge which pointed a sinner to heights of goodness of which she had never dreamed. Jesus confronts the bad life with the challenge of the good.
(d) It involved belief in human nature. When we come to think of it, it is a staggering thing that Jesus should say to a woman of loose morals: "Go, and sin no more." The amazing, heart-uplifting thing about him was his belief in men and women. When he was confronted with someone who had gone wrong, he did not say: "You are a wretched and a hopeless creature." He said: "Go, and sin no more." He believed that with his help the sinner has it in him to become the saint. His method was not to blast men with the knowledge--which they already possessed--that they were miserable sinners, but to inspire them with the unglimpsed discovery that they were potential saints.
(e) It involved warning, clearly unspoken but implied. Here we are face to face with the eternal choice. Jesus confronted the woman with a choice that day--either to go back to her old ways or to reach out to the new way with him. This story is unfinished, for every life is unfinished until it stands before God.
[As we noted at the beginning, this story does not appear in all the ancient manuscripts. See the Note on the Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery (John 8:2-11).]
Note On The Story Of The Woman Taken In Adultery (John 8:2-11)
To many this is one of the loveliest and the most precious stories in the gospels; and yet it has great difficulties attaching to it.
The older the manuscripts of the New Testament are, the more valuable they are. They were all copied by hand, and obviously the nearer they are to the original writings the more likely they are to be correct. We call these very early manuscripts the Uncial manuscripts, because they are written in capital letters; and we base the text of the, New Testament on the earliest ones, which date from the fourth to the sixth century. The fact is that of all these early manuscripts this story occurs only in one, and that is not one of the best. Six of them omit it completely. Two leave a blank space where it should come. It is not till we come to the late Greek manuscripts and the medieval manuscripts that we find this story, and even then it is often marked to show that it is doubtful.
Another source of our knowledge of the text of the New Testament is what are called the versions; that is, the translations into languages other than Greek. This story is not included in the early Syriac version, nor in the Coptic or Egyptian version, nor in some of the early Latin versions.
Again, none of the early fathers seems to know anything about it. Certainly they never mention it or comment on it. Origen, Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyril of Alexandria on the Greek side do not mention it. The first Greek commentator to remark on it is Euthymius Zigabenus whose date is A.D. 11 18, and even he says that it is not in the best manuscripts.
Where, then, did this incident come from? Jerome certainly knew it in the fourth century, for he included it in the Vulgate. We know that Augustine and Ambrose both knew it, for they comment on it. We know that it is in all the later manuscripts. It is to be noted that its position varies a great deal. In some manuscripts it is put at the end of the fourth gospel; and in some it is inserted after Luke 21:38.
But we can trace it even further back. It is quoted in a third century book called The Apostolic Constitutions, where it is given as a warning to bishops who are too strict. Eusebius, the Church historian, says that Papias tells a story "of a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord," and Papias lived not very long after A.D. 100.
Here, then, are the facts. This story can be traced as far back as very early in the second century. When Jerome produced the Vulgate he, without question, included it. The later manuscripts and the medieval manuscripts all have it. And yet none of the great manuscripts includes it. None of the great Greek fathers of the Church ever mentions it. But some of the great Latin fathers did know it, and speak of it.
What is the explanation? We need not be afraid that we shall have to let this lovely story go; for it is guarantee enough of its genuineness that we can trace it back to almost A.D. 100. But we do need some explanation of the fact that none of the great manuscripts includes it. Moffatt, Weymouth and Rieu print it in brackets; and the Revised Standard Version prints it in small type at the foot of the page.
Augustine gives us a hint. He says that this story was removed from the text of the gospel because "some were of slight faith," and "to avoid scandal." We cannot tell for certain, but it would seem that in the very early days the people who edited the text of the New Testament thought that this was a dangerous story, a justification for a light view of adultery, and therefore omitted it. After all, the Christian Church was a little island in a sea of paganism. Its members were so apt to relapse into a way of life where chastity was unknown; and were for ever open to pagan infection. But as time went on the danger grew less, or was less feared, and the story, which had always circulated by word of mouth and which one manuscript retained, came back.
It is not likely that it is now in the place where it ought to be. It was probably inserted here to illustrate Jesus' saying in John 8:15 : "I judge no man." In spite of the doubt that the modern translations cast on it, and in spite of the fact that the early manuscripts do not include it, we may be sure that this is a real story about Jesus, although one so gracious that for long men were afraid to tell it.
THE LIGHT MEN FAILED TO RECOGNIZE (John 8:12-20)
8:12-20 So Jesus again continued to speak to them. "I am the Light of the World," he said. "He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but he will have the light of life." So the Pharisees said to him: "You are bearing witness about yourself. Your witness is not true." Jesus answered: "Even if I do bear witness about myself, my witness is true, because I know where I came from and where I am going to. You do not know where I came from and where I am going to. You form your judgments on purely human grounds. I do not judge anyone. But if I do form a judgment, my judgment is true, because I am not alone in my judgment, but I and the Father who sent me join in such a judgment. It stands written in your law, that the witness of two persons is to be accepted as true. It is I who witness about myself, and the Father who sent me also witnesses about me." They said to him: "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered: "You know neither me nor my Father. If you had known me you would know my Father too." He spoke these words in the treasury while he was teaching in the Temple precincts; and no one laid violent hands upon him, because his hour had not yet come.
The scene of this argument with the Jewish authorities was in the Temple treasury, which was in the Court of the Women. The first Temple court was the Court of the Gentiles; the second was the Court of the Women. It was so called because women might not pass beyond it unless they were actually about to offer sacrifice on the altar which was in the Court of the Priests. Round the Court of the Women there was a colonnade or porch; and, in that porch, set against the wall, there were thirteen treasure chests into which people dropped their offerings. These were called The Trumpets because they were shaped like trumpets, narrow at the top and swelling out towards the foot.
The thirteen treasure chests all had their allotted offering. Into the first two were dropped the half shekels which every Jew had to pay towards the upkeep of the Temple. Into the third and fourth were dropped sums which would purchase the two pigeons which a woman had to offer for her purification after the birth of a child (Leviticus 12:8). Into the fifth were put contributions towards the cost of the wood which was needed to keep the altar fire alight. Into the sixth were dropped contributions towards the cost of the incense which was used at the Temple services. Into the seventh went contributions towards the upkeep of the golden vessels which were used at these services. Sometimes a man or a family set apart a certain sum to make some trespass- or thank-offering; into the remaining six trumpets people dropped any money which remained after such an offering had been made, or anything extra which they wished to offer.
Clearly the Temple treasury would be a busy place, with a constant flow of worshippers coming and going. There would be no better place to collect an audience of devout people and to teach them than the Temple treasury.
In this passage Jesus makes the great claim: "I am the Light of the World." It is very likely that the background against which he made it made it doubly vivid and impressive. The festival with which John connects these discourses is the Festival of Tabernacles (John 7:2). We have already seen (John 7:37) how its ceremonies lent drama to Jesus' claim to give to men the living water. But there was another ceremony connected with this festival.
On the evening of its first day there was a ceremony called The Illumination of the Temple. It took place in the Court of the Women. The court was surrounded with deep galleries, erected to hold the spectators. In the centre four great candelabra were prepared. When the dark came the four great candelabra were lit and, it was said, they sent such a blaze of light throughout Jerusalem that every courtyard was lit up with their brilliance. Then all night long, until cock-crow the next morning, the greatest and the wisest and the holiest men in Israel danced before the Lord and sang psalms of joy and praise while the people watched. Jesus is saying: "You have seen the blaze of the Temple illuminations piercing the darkness of the night. I am the Light of the World, and, for the man who follows me there will be light, not only for one exciting night, but for all the pathway of his life. The light in the Temple is a brilliant light, but in the end it flickers and dies. I am the Light which lasts for ever."
THE LIGHT MEN FAILED TO RECOGNIZE (John 8:12-20 continued)
Jesus said: "He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." The light of life means two things. The Greek can mean either the light which issues from the source of life or the light which gives life. In this passage it means both. Jesus is the very light of God come among men; and he is the light which gives men life. Just as the flower can never blossom when it never sees the sunlight, so our lives can never flower with the grace and beauty they ought to have until they are irradiated with the light of the presence of Jesus.
In this passage Jesus talks of following himself. We often speak of following Jesus; we often urge men to do so. What do we mean? The Greek for to follow is akolouthein (Greek #190); and its meanings combine to shed a flood of light on what it means to follow Jesus. Akolouthein (Greek #190) has five different but closely connected meanings.
(i) It is often used of a soldier following his captain. On the long route marches, into battle, in campaigns in strange lands, the soldier follows wherever the captain may lead. The Christian is the soldier whose commander is Christ.
(ii) It is often used of a slave accompanying his master. Wherever the master goes the slave is in attendance upon him, always ready to spring to his service and to carry out the tasks he gives him to do. He is literally at his master's beck and call. The Christian is the slave whose joy it is always to serve Christ.
(iii) It is often used of accepting a wise counsellor's opinion. When a man is in doubt he goes to the expert, and if he is wise he accepts the judgment he receives. The Christian is the man who guides his life and conduct by the counsel of Christ.
(iv) It is often used of giving obedience to the laws of a city or a state. If a man is to be a useful member of any society or citizen of any community, he must agree to abide by its laws. The Christian, being a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, accepts the law of the kingdom and of Christ as the law which governs his life.
(v) It is often used of following a teacher's line of argument, or of following the gist of someone's speech. The Christian is the man who has understood the meaning of the teaching of Christ. He has not listened in dull incomprehension or with slack inattention. He takes the message into his mind and understands, receives the words into his memory and remembers, and hides them in his heart and obeys.
To be a follower of Christ is to give oneself body, soul and spirit into the obedience of the Master; and to enter upon that following is to walk in the light. When we walk alone we are bound to stumble and grope, for so many of life's problems are beyond our solution. When we walk alone we are bound to take the wrong way, because we have no secure map of life. We need the heavenly wisdom to walk the earthly way. The man who has a sure guide and an accurate map is the man who is bound to come in safety to his journey's end. Jesus Christ is that guide; he alone possesses the map to life. To follow him is to walk in safety through life and afterwards to enter into glory.
THE LIGHT MEN FAILED TO RECOGNIZE (John 8:12-20 continued)
When Jesus made his claim to be the Light of the World the scribes and Pharisees reacted with hostility. That claim would sound even more astonishing to them than to us. To them it would sound like a claim--as indeed it was--to be the Messiah, and, even more, to do the work that only God could do. The word light was specially associated in Jewish thought and language with God. "The Lord is my light" (Psalms 27:1). "The Lord will be your everlasting light" (Isaiah 60:19). "By his light I walked through darkness" (Job 29:3). "When I sit in darkness the Lord will be a light to me" (Micah 7:8). The Rabbis declared that the name of the Messiah was Light. When Jesus claimed to be the Light of the World, he was making a claim than which none could possibly be higher.
The argument of this passage is difficult and complicated, but it involves three strands.
(i) The Jews first insisted that a statement such as Jesus made could not be regarded as accurate because it was backed by insufficient witness. It was, as they saw it, backed by his word alone; and it was Jewish law that any statement must be founded on the evidence of two witnesses before it could be regarded as true. "A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained" (Deuteronomy 19:15). "On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses he that is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness" (Deuteronomy 17:6). "No person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness" (Numbers 35:30). Jesus' answer was twofold.
First, he answered that his own witness was enough. He was so conscious of his own authority that no other witness was necessary. This was not pride or self-confidence. It was simply the supreme instance of the kind of thing which happens every day. A great surgeon is confident in his own verdict; he does not need anyone to support him; his witness is his own skill. A great lawyer or judge is sure of his own interpretation and application of the law. It is not that he is proud of his own knowledge; it is simply that he knows that he knows. Jesus was so aware of his closeness to God that he needed no other authority for his claims than his own relationship to God.
Second, Jesus said that in point of fact he had a second witness, and that second witness was God. How does God bear witness to the supreme authority of Jesus? (a) The witness of God is in Jesus' words. No man could speak with such wisdom unless God had given him knowledge. (b) The witness of God is in Jesus' deeds. No man could do such things unless God was acting through him. (c) The witness of God is in the effect of Jesus upon men. He works changes in men which are obviously beyond human power to work. The very fact that Jesus can make bad men good is proof that his power is not simply a man's power, but God's. (d) The witness of God is in the reaction of men to Jesus. Wherever and whenever Jesus has been full displayed, wherever and whenever the Cross has been preached in all its grandeur and its splendour, there has been an immediate and overwhelming response in the hearts of men. That response is the Holy Spirit of God working and witnessing in the hearts of men. It is God in our hearts who enables us to see God in Jesus.
Jesus dealt in this way with the argument of the scribes and Pharisees that his words could not be accepted because of inadequate witness. His words were in fact backed by a double witness, that of his own consciousness of authority and that of God.
(ii) Second, Jesus dealt with his right to judge. His coming into the world was not primarily for judgment; it was for love. At the same time a man's reaction to Jesus is in itself a judgment; if he sees no beauty in him, he condemns himself. Here Jesus draws a contrast between two kinds of judgment.
(a) There is the judgment that is based on human knowledge and human standards and which never sees below the surface. That was the judgment of the scribes and Pharisees; and, in the last analysis, that is any human judgment, for in the nature of things men can never see below the surface of things.
(b) There is the judgment that is based on knowledge of all the facts, even the hidden facts, and that can belong only to God. Jesus claims that any judgment he passes is not a human one; it is God's--because He is so one with God. Therein lies at once our comfort and our warning. Only Jesus knows all the facts. That makes him merciful as none other can ever be; but it also enables him to see the sins in us which are hidden from the eyes of men. The judgment of Jesus is perfect because it is made with the knowledge which belongs to God.
(iii) Lastly, Jesus bluntly told the scribes and Pharisees that they had no real knowledge of God. The fact that they did not recognize him for who and what he was was the proof that they did not. The tragedy was that the whole history of Israel had been designed so that the Jews should recognize the Son of God when he came; but they had become so involved with their own ideas, so intent on their own way, so sure of their own conception of what religion was that they had become blind to God.
THE FATAL INCOMPREHENSION (John 8:21-30)
8:21-30 So he said to them again: "I am going away, and you will search for me, and you will die in your sin. You cannot come where I am going." So the Jews said: "Surely he is not going to kill himself, because he is saying: 'You cannot come where I am going'?" He said to them: "You are from below, but I am from above. You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world. I said to you that you will die in your sins. For if you will not believe that I am who I am, you will die in your sins." They said to him: "Who are you?" Jesus said to them: "Anything I am saying to you is only the beginning. I have many things to say about you, and many judgments to deliver on you; but he who sent me is true, and I speak to the world what I have heard from him." They did not know that it was about the Father that he was speaking to them. So Jesus said to them: "When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am who I am, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but that I speak these things as the Father has taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, because I always do the things that are pleasing to him." As he said these things, many believed in him.
This is one of the passages of argument and debate so characteristic of the Fourth Gospel and so difficult to elucidate and to understand. In it various strands of argument are all woven together.
Jesus begins by telling his opponents that he is going away; and that, after he is gone, they will realize what they have missed, and will search for him and not find him. This is the true prophetic note. It reminds us of three things: (i) There are certain opportunities which come and which do not return. To every man is given the opportunity to accept Christ as Saviour and Lord; but that opportunity can be refused and lost. (ii) Implicit in this argument is the truth that life and time are limited. It is within an allotted span that we must make our decision for Christ. The time we have to make that decision is limited--and none of us knows what his limit is. There is therefore every reason for making it now. (iii) Just because there is opportunity in life there is also judgment. The greater the opportunity, the more clearly it beckons, the oftener it comes, the greater the judgment if it be refused or missed. This passage brings us face to face with the glory of our opportunity, and the limitation of time in which to seize it.
When Jesus spoke about going away, he was speaking about his return to his Father and to his glory. That was precisely where his opponents could not follow him, because by their continuous disobedience and their refusal to accept him, they had shut themselves off from God. His opponents met his words with a grim and mocking jest. Jesus said that they could not follow where he went; and they suggested that perhaps he was going to kill himself. The point is that, according to Jewish thought, the depths of hell were reserved for those who took their own lives. With a kind of grim blasphemy, they were saying: "Maybe he will take his own life; maybe he is on the way to the depths of Hell"; it is true that we cannot and will not follow him there.
Jesus said that if they continued to refuse him they would die in their sins. That is a prophetic phrase (compare Ezekiel 3:18; Ezekiel 18:18). There are two things involved there: (i) The word for sin is hamartia, which originally had to do with shooting and literally means a missing of the target. The man who refuses to accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord has missed the target in life. He dies with life unrealized; and he therefore dies unfitted to enter into the higher life with God. (ii) The essence of sin is that it separates a man from God. When Adam, in the old story, committed the first sin, his first instinct was to hide himself from God (Genesis 3:8-10). The man who dies in sin dies at enmity with God; the man who accepts Christ already walks with God, and death only opens the way to a closer walk. To refuse Christ is to be a stranger to God; to accept him is to be the friend of God, and in that friendship the fear of death is for ever banished.
THE FATAL INCOMPREHENSION (John 8:21-30 continued)
Jesus goes on to draw a series of contrasts. His opponents belong to earth, he is from heaven; they are of the world; he is not of the world.
John frequently talks about the world; the word in Greek is kosmos (Greek #2889). He uses it in a way that is all his own.
(i) The kosmos (Greek #2889) is the opposite of heaven. Jesus came from heaven into the world (John 1:9). He was sent by God into the world (John 3:17). He is not of the world; his opponents are of the world (John 8:23). The kosmos (Greek #2889)is the changing, transient life that we live; it is all that is human as opposed to all that is divine.
(ii) Yet the kosmos (Greek #2889) is not separated from God. First and foremost, it is God's creation (John 1:10). It was through God's word that his world was made. Different as the world is from heaven, there is yet no unbridgeable gulf between them.
(iii) More than that, the kosmos (Greek #2889) is the object of God's love. God so loved the world that he sent his Son (John 3:16). However different it may be from all that is divine, God has never abandoned it; it is the object of his love and the recipient of his greatest gift.
(iv) But at the same time there is something wrong with the kosmos (Greek #2889). There is a blindness in it; when the Creator came into the world, it did not recognize him (John 1:10). The world cannot receive the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). The world does not know God (John 17:25). There is, too, an hostility to God in the kosmos (Greek #2889) and to his people. The world hates Christ and hates his followers (John 15:18-19). In its hostility Christ's followers can look only for trouble and tribulation (John 16:33).
(v) Here we have a strange sequence of facts. The world is separate from God; and yet between it and God there is no gulf which cannot be spanned. God created the world; God loves it; God sent his Son into it. And yet in it, there is this blindness and hostility to him.
There is only one possible conclusion. G. K. Chesterton once said that there was only one thing certain about man--that man is not what he was meant to be. There is only one thing certain about the kosmos (Greek #2889), it is not what it was meant to be. Something has gone wrong. That something is sin. It is sin which separated the world from God; it is sin which blinds it to God; it is sin which is fundamentally hostile to God.
Into this world which has gone wrong comes Christ; and Christ comes with the cure. He brings forgiveness; he brings cleansing; he brings strength and grace to live as man ought and to make the world what it ought to be. But a man can refuse a cure. A doctor may tell a patient that a certain treatment is able to restore him to health; he may actually tell him that if he does not accept the treatment, death is inevitable. That is precisely what Jesus is saying: "If you will not believe that I am who I am you will die in your sins."
There is something wrong with the world--anyone can see that. Only recognition of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, obedience to his perfect wisdom and acceptance of him as Saviour and Lord can cure the individual soul and cure the world.
We are only too well aware of the disease which haunts and wrecks the world; the cure lies before us. The responsibility is ours if we refuse to accept it.
THE TRAGIC INCOMPREHENSION (John 8:21-30 continued)
There is no verse in all the New Testament more difficult to translate than John 8:25. No one can really be sure what the Greek means. It could mean: "Even what I have told you from the beginning," which is the meaning the Revised Standard Version takes. Other suggested translations are: "Primarily, essentially, I am what I am telling you." "I declare to you that I am the beginning." "How is it that I even speak to you at all?" which is the translation of Moffatt. It is suggested in our translation that it may mean: "Everything I am saying to you now is only a beginning." If we take it like that, the passage goes on to say that men will see the real meaning of Christ in three ways.
(i) They will see it in the Cross. It is when Christ is lifted up that we really see what he is. It is there we see the love that will never let men go and which loves them to the end.
(ii) They will see it in the Judgment. He has many judgments still to pass. At the moment he might look like the outlawed carpenter of Nazareth; but the day will come when they will see him as judge and know what he is.
(iii) When that happens they will see in him the embodied will of God. "I always do the things that are pleasing to him," Jesus said. Other men however good are spasmodic in their obedience. The obedience of Jesus is continuous, perfect and complete. The day must come when men see that in him is the very mind of God.
THE TRUE DISCIPLESHIP (John 8:31-32)
8:31-32 So Jesus said to the Jews who had come to believe in him: "If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples: and you will know the truth: and the truth will make you free."
Few New Testament passages have such a complete picture of discipleship as this.
(i) Discipleship begins with belief. Its beginning is the moment when a man accepts what Jesus says as true, all that he says about the love of God, all that he says about the terror of sin, all that he says about the real meaning of life.
(ii) Discipleship means constantly remaining in the word of Jesus and that involves four things.
(a) It involves constant listening to the word of Jesus. It was said of John Brown of Haddington that when he preached he paused every now and then as if listening for a voice. The Christian is the man who all his life listens for the voice of Jesus and will take no decision until he has first heard what he has to say.
(b) It involves constant learning from Jesus. The disciple (mathetes, Greek #3101) is literally the learner, for that is what the Greek word means. All his life a Christian should be learning more and more about Jesus. The shut mind is the end of discipleship.
(c) It involves constant penetrating into the truth which the words of Jesus bear. No one can hear or read the words of Jesus once and then say that he understands their full meaning. The difference between a great book and an ephemeral one lies in the fact that we read an ephemeral book once and never wish to go back to it; whereas we read a great book many times. To remain in the word of Jesus means constantly to study and think about what he said until more and more of its meaning becomes ours.
(d) It involves constant obeying of the word of Jesus. We study it not simply for academic satisfaction or for intellectual appreciation, but in order to find out what God wishes us to do. The disciple is the learner who learns in order to do. The truth which Jesus brought is designed for action.
(iii) Discipleship issues in knowledge of the truth. To learn from Jesus is to learn the truth. "You will know the truth," said Jesus. What is that truth? There are many possible answers to that question but the most comprehensive way to put it is that the truth which Jesus brings shows us the real values of life. The fundamental question to which every man has consciously or unconsciously to give an answer is: "To what am I to give my life? To a career? To the amassing of material possessions? To pleasure? To the service of God?" In the truth of Jesus we see what things are really important and what are not.
(iv) Discipleship results in freedom. "The truth will make you free." "In his service is perfect freedom." Discipleship brings us four freedoms. (a) It brings us freedom from fear. The man who is a disciple never again has to walk alone. He walks for ever in the company of Jesus, and in that company fear is gone. (b) It brings freedom from self. Many a man fully recognizes that his greatest handicap is his own self. And he may in despair cry out: "I cannot change myself. I have tried, but it is impossible." But the power and presence of Jesus can re-create a man until he is altogether new. (c) It brings freedom from other people. There are many whose lives are dominated by the fear of what other people may think and say. H. G. Wells once said that the voice of our neighbours sounds louder in our ears than the voice of God. The disciple is the man who has ceased to care what people say, because he thinks only of what God says. (d) It brings freedom from sin. Many a man has come to the stage when he sins, not because he wants to, but because he cannot help it. His sins have so mastered him that, try as he will, he cannot break away from them. Discipleship breaks the chains which bind us to them and enables us to be the persons we know we ought to be.
O that a man may arise in me
That the man I am may cease to be
That is the very prayer which the disciple of Christ will find answered.
FREEDOM AND SLAVERY (John 8:33-36)
8:33-36 They answered him: "We are the descendants of Abraham and we have never been slaves to any man. How do you say: 'You will become free'?" Jesus answered them: "This is the truth I tell you--everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave is not a permanent resident in the house; the son is a permanent resident. If the son shall make you free you will be really free."
Jesus' talk of freedom annoyed the Jews. They claimed that they had never been slaves to any man. Obviously there was a sense in which this was simply not true. They had been captives in exile in Babylon; and at the moment they were subjects of the Romans. But the Jews set a tremendous value on freedom which they held to be the birthright of every Jew. In the Law it was laid down that no Jew, however poor, must descend to the level of being a slave. "And if your brother becomes poor beside you, and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: ... For they are my servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves" (Leviticus 25:39-42). Again and again Jewish rebellions flared up because some fiery leader arose who insisted that the Jews could obey no earthly ruler because God was their only King.
Josephus writes of the followers of Judas of Galilee who led a famous revolt against the Romans: "They have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and they say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord" (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18: 1, 6). When the Jews said that they had been no man's slaves they were saying something which was a fundamental article of their creed of life. And even if it was true that there had been times when they were subject to other nations, even if it was true that at that very moment they were subject to Rome, it was also true that even in servitude they maintained an independence of spirit which meant that they might be slaves in body but never in soul. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote of Joseph: "Joseph was sold to be a bond slave, yet he was free, all radiant in the nobility of his soul." Even to suggest to a Jew that he might be regarded as a slave was a deadly insult.
But it was another slavery of which Jesus was speaking. "Everyone," he said, "who commits sin is the slave of sin." Jesus was reiterating a principle which the wise Greeks had stated again and again. The Stoics said: "Only the wise man is free; the foolish man is a slave." Socrates had demanded: "How can you call a man free when his pleasures rule over him?" Paul later was to thank God that the Christian was freed from slavery to sin (Romans 6:17-20).
There is something very interesting and very suggestive here. Sometimes when a man is rebuked for doing something wrong or warned against such a thing, his answer is: "Surely I can do what I like with my own life." But the point is that the man who sins does not do what he likes; he does what sin likes. A man can let a habit get such a grip of him that he cannot break it. He can allow a pleasure to master him so completely that he cannot do without it. He can let some self-indulgence so dominate him that he is powerless to break away from it. He can get into such a state that in the end, as Seneca said, he hates and loves his sins at one and the same time. So far from doing what he likes, the sinner has lost the power to do what he likes. He is a slave to the habits, the self-indulgences, the wrong pleasures which have mastered him. This is precisely Jesus' point. No man who sins can ever be said to be free.
Then Jesus makes a veiled threat, but one which the listening Jews would well understand. The word slave reminds him that in any household there is a difference between the slave and the son. The son is a permanent dweller in the household, but the slave can be ejected at any time. In effect Jesus is saying to the Jews: "You think that you are sons in God's house and that nothing, therefore, can ever banish you from God. Have a care; by your conduct you are making yourselves slaves, and the slave can be ejected from the master's presence at any time." Here is a threat. It is a terrible thing to trade on the mercy of God--and that is what the Jews were doing. There is warning here for more than the Jews.
REAL SONSHIP (John 8:37-41 a)
8:37-41a "I know that you are the descendants of Abraham, but you are trying to find a way to kill me, because there is no room in you for my word. I speak what I have seen in the presence of the Father. So you must do what you have heard from the Father." "Our father is Abraham," they answered. "If," answered Jesus, "you are the children of Abraham, act as Abraham acted. But, as it is, you are trying to find a way to kill me, a man who has spoken the truth to you, truth which I heard from God. That Abraham did not do. As for you, you do the works of your father."
In this passage Jesus is dealing a death-blow to a claim which to the Jews was all-important. For the Jew Abraham was the greatest figure in all religious history; and the Jew considered himself safe and secure in the favour of God simply because he was a descendant of Abraham. The psalmist could address the people as : "O offspring of Abraham his servant, sons of Jacob, his chosen ones!" (Psalms 105:6). Isaiah said to the people: "But you, Israel, (are) my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend" (Isaiah 41:8). The admiration which the Jews gave to Abraham was perfectly legitimate, for he is a giant in the religious history of mankind, but the deductions they drew from his greatness were quite misguided. They believed that Abraham had gained such merit from his goodness that this merit was sufficient, not only for himself, but for all his descendants also. Justin Martyr had a discussion with Trypho the Jew about Jewish religion and the conclusion was that, "the eternal kingdom will be given to those who are the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, even though they be sinners and unbelievers and disobedient to God" (Justin Martyr, The Dialogue with Trypho, 140). Quite literally the Jew believed that he was safe because he was a descendant of Abraham.
The attitude of the Jews is not without parallel in modern life.
(a) There are still those who try to live on a pedigree? and a name. At some time in the history of their family someone performed some really outstanding service to church or state, and ever since they have claimed a special place because of that. But a great name should never be an excuse for comfortable inaction; it should always be an inspiration to new effort.
(b) There are those who try to live on a history and a tradition. Many a church has a quite undue sense of its own importance because at one time it had a famous ministry. There is many a congregation living on the spiritual capital of the past; but if capital be always drawn upon and never butt up anew, the day inevitably comes when it is exhausted.
No man or church or nation can live on the achievements of the past. That is what the Jews were trying to do.
Jesus is quite blunt about this. He declares in effect that the real descendant of Abraham is the man who acts in the way in which Abraham acted. That is exactly what John the Baptist had said before. He had told the people plainly that the day of judgment was on the way and that it was no good pleading that they were descendants of Abraham, for God could raise up descendants to Abraham from the very stones, if he chose to do so (Matthew 3:9; Luke 3:8). It was the argument which again and again Paul was to use. It was not flesh and blood which made a man a descendant of Abraham; it was moral quality and spiritual fidelity.
In this particular matter Jesus ties it down to one thing. They are seeking a way to kill him; that is precisely the opposite of what Abraham did. When a messenger from God came to him, Abraham welcomed him with all eagerness and reverence (Genesis 18:1-8). Abraham had welcomed God's messenger; the Jews of the present were trying to kill God's messenger. How could they dare cam themselves descendants of Abraham, when their conduct was so very different?
By calling to mind the old story in Genesis 18:1-33, Jesus is implying that he too is the messenger of God. Then he makes the claim explicit: "I speak what I have seen in the presence of the Father." The fundamental thing about Jesus is that he brought to men, not his own opinions, but a message from God. He was not simply a man telling other men what he thought about things; he was the Son of God telling men what God thought. He told men the truth as God sees it.
At the end of this passage comes a shattering statement. "You," said Jesus, "do the works of your father." He has just said that Abraham is not their father. Who then is their father? For a moment the full impact is held back. It comes in John 8:44 --their father is the devil. Those who had gloried in the claim that they are the children of Abraham are devastatingly confronted with the charge that they are children of the devil. Their works had revealed their true sonship, for man can prove his kinship to God only by his conduct.
CHILDREN OF THE DEVIL (John 8:41 b-45)
8:41b-45 They said to him: "We were born of no adulterous union. We have one Father--God." "If God was your Father," said Jesus, "you would love me. For it was from God that I came forth and have come here. I had nothing to do with my own coming, but it was he who sent me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? The reason is that you are unable to hear my word. You belong to your father, the devil, and it is the evil desires of your father that you wish to do. He was a murderer from the very beginning, and he never took his stand in the truth, because the truth is not in him. When he speaks falsehood it is his characteristic way of speaking, because he is a liar and the father of falsehood. But because I speak the truth, you do not believe in me."
Jesus had just told the Jews that by their life and conduct and by their reaction to him they had made it clear that they were no real children of Abraham. Their reaction was to make an even greater claim. They claimed that God was their Father. All over the Old Testament there is repeated the fact that God was in a special way the Father of his people Israel. God commanded Moses to say to Pharaoh: "Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son" (Exodus 4:22). When Moses was chiding the people for their disobedience, his appeal was: "Do you thus requite the Lord, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your Father who created you?" (Deuteronomy 32:6). Isaiah speaks of his trust in God: "For thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us and Israel does not acknowledge us; thou, O Lord, art our Father, our Redeemer from of old is thy name" (Isaiah 63:16). "Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father" (Isaiah 64:8). "Have we not all one Father?" demanded Malachi. "Has not one God created us?" (Malachi 2:10). So the Jews claimed that God was their Father.
"We," they said proudly, "were born of no adulterous union." There may be two things there. In the Old Testament one of the loveliest descriptions of the nation of Israel is that which sees in her the Bride of God. Because of that when Israel forsook God, she was said to go awhoring after strange gods; her infidelity was spiritual adultery. When the nation was thus faithless, the apostate people were said to be "children of harlotry" (Hosea 2:4). So when the Jews said to Jesus that they were not the children of any adulterous union, they meant that they did not belong to a nation of idolaters but they had always worshipped the true God. It was a claim that they had never gone astray from God--a claim that only a people steeped in self-righteousness would ever have dared make.
But when the Jews spoke like this, there may have been something much more personal in it. It is certainly true in later times that the Jews spread abroad a most malicious slander against Jesus. The Christians very early preached the miraculous birth of Jesus. The Jews put it about that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph; that her paramour had been a Roman soldier called Panthers; and that Jesus was the child of that adulterous union. It is just possible that the Jews were flinging at Jesus even then an insult over his birth, as if to say: "What right have you to speak to the like of us as you do?"
Jesus' answer to the claim of the Jews is that it is false; and the proof is that if God was really their Father, they would have loved and welcomed him. Here again is the key thought of the Fourth Gospel; the test of a man is his reaction to Jesus. To be confronted with Jesus is to be confronted with judgment; he is the touchstone of God by which all men are judged.
Jesus' closeknit indictment goes on. He asks "Why do you not understand what I am saying?" The answer is terrible--not that they are intellectually stupid, but that they are spiritually deaf. They refuse to hear and they refuse to understand. A man can stop his ears to any warning; if he goes on doing that long enough, he becomes spiritually deaf. In the last analysis, a man will only hear what he wishes to hear; and if for long enough he attunes his ears to his own desires and to the wrong voices, in the end he will be unable to tune in at all to the wavelength of God. That is what the Jews had done.
Then comes the scarifying accusation. The real father of the Jews is the devil. Jesus chooses two characteristics of him.
(i) The devil is characteristically a murderer. There may be two things in Jesus' mind. He may be thinking back to the old Cain and Abel story. Cain was the first murderer and he was inspired by the devil. He may be thinking of something even more serious than that. It was the devil who first tempted man in the old Genesis story. Through the devil sin entered into the world; and through sin came death (Romans 5:13). If there had been no temptation, there would have been no sin; and, if there had been no sin, there would have been no death; and therefore, in a sense, the devil is the murderer of the whole human race.
But, even apart from the old stories, the fact remains that Christ leads to life and the devil to death. The devil murders goodness, chastity, honour, honesty, beauty, all that makes life lovely; he murders peace of mind and happiness and even love. Evil characteristically destroys; Christ characteristically brings life. At that very moment the Jews were plotting how to kill Christ; they were taking the devil's way.
(ii) The devil characteristically loves falsehood. Every lie is inspired by the devil and does the devil's work. Falsehood always hates the truth, and always tries to destroy it. When the Jews and Jesus met, the false way met the true, and inevitably the false tried to destroy the true.
Jesus indicted the Jews as children of the devil because their thoughts were bent on the destruction of the good and the maintaining of the false. Every man who tries to destroy the truth is doing the devil's work.
THE GREAT INDICTMENT AND THE SHINING FAITH (John 8:46-50)
8:46-50 "Who of you can convict me of sin? If I speak the truth, why do you not believe in me? He who is from God hears God's words. That is why you do not hear, because you are not from God." The Jews answered: "Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan, and that you have a devil?" Jesus answered: "It is not I who have a devil. I honour my Father, but you dishonour me. I do not seek my own glory. There is One who seeks and judges."
We must try to see this scene happening before our eyes. There is drama here, and it is not only in the words, but in the pauses between them. Jesus began with a tremendous claim. "Is there anyone here," he demanded, "who can point the finger at any evil in my life?" Then must have followed a silence during which the eyes of Jesus ranged round the crowd waiting for anyone to accept the extraordinary challenge that he had thrown down. The silence went on. Search as they like, none could formulate a charge against him. When he had given them their chance, Jesus spoke again. "You admit," he said, "that you can find no charge against me. Then why do you not accept what I say?" Again there was an uncomfortable silence. Then Jesus answered his own question. "You do not accept my words," he said, "because you are not from God."
What did Jesus mean? Think of it this way. No experience can enter into a man's mind and heart unless there is something there to answer to it; and a man may lack the something essential which will enable him to have the experience. A man who is tone deaf cannot experience the thrill of music. A man who is colour blind cannot fully appreciate a picture. A man with no sense of time and rhythm cannot fully appreciate ballet or dancing.
Now the Jews had a very wonderful way of thinking of the Spirit of God. They believed that he had two great functions. He revealed God's truth to men; and he enabled men to recognize and grasp that truth when they saw it. That quite clearly means that unless the Spirit of God is in a man's heart he cannot recognize God's truth when he sees it. And it also means that if a man shuts the door of his heart against the Spirit of God, then, even when the truth is full displayed before his eyes, he is quite unable to see it and recognize it and grasp it and make it his.
Jesus was saying to the Jews: "You have gone your own way and followed your own ideas; the Spirit of God has been unable to gain an entry into your hearts; that is why you cannot recognize me and that is why you will not accept my words." The Jews believed they were religious people; but because they had clung to their idea of religion instead of to God's idea, they had in the end drifted so far from God that they had become godless. They were in the terrible position of men who were godlessly serving God.
To be told that they were strangers to God stung the Jews to the quick. They hurled their invective against Jesus. As our present form of the words has it they accused him of being a Samaritan and of being mad. What did they mean by calling him a Samaritan? They meant that he was a foe of Israel, for there was deadly enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans, that he was a law breaker because he did not observe the law, and above all that he was a heretic, for Samaritan and heretic had become synonymous. It would be extraordinary that the Son of God should be branded as a heretic. And beyond a doubt it would happen to him again if he returned to this world and its churches.
But it is just possible that the word Samaritan is really a corruption of something else. To begin with, we note that Jesus replied to the charge that he was mad, but did not reply to the charge that he was a Samaritan. That makes us wonder if we have the charge of the Jews rightly stated. In the original Aramaic the word for Samaritan would be Shomeroni (compare Hebrew #8111). Shomeron was also a title for the prince of the devils, otherwise called Ashmedai and Sammael and Satan. In point of fact the Koran, the Mohammedan bible, actually says that the Jews were seduced into idolatry by Shomeron, the prince of the devils. So the word Shomeroni could quite well mean a child of the devil. It is very likely that what the Jews said to Jesus was: "You are a child of the devil; you have a devil; you are mad with the madness of the Evil One."
His answer was that, so far from being a servant of the devil, his one aim was to honour God, while the conduct of the Jews was a continual dishonouring of God. He says in effect: "It is not I who have a devil; it is you."
Then comes the radiance of the supreme faith of Jesus. He says: "I am not looking for honour in this world: I know that I will be insulted and rejected and dishonoured and crucified. But there is One who will one day assess things at their true value and assign to men their true honour; and he will give me the honour which is real because it is his." Of one thing Jesus was sure--ultimately God will protect the honour of his own. In time Jesus saw nothing but pain and dishonour and rejection; in eternity he saw only the glory which he who is obedient to God will some day receive. In Paracelsus Browning wrote:
"If I stoop
Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud,
It is but for a time; I press God's lamp
Close to my breast; its splendour, soon or late,
Will pierce the gloom: I shall emerge one day."
Jesus had the supreme optimism born of supreme faith, the optimism which is rooted in God.
THE LIFE AND THE GLORY (John 8:51-55)
8:51-55 "This is the truth I tell you--if anyone keeps my word, he will not see death for ever." The Jews said to him: "Now we are certain that you are mad. Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you are saying: 'If anyone keeps my word, he will not taste of death for ever.' Surely you are not greater than our father Abraham who did die? And the prophets died too. Who are you making yourself out to be?" Jesus answered: "It is my Father who glorifies me, that Father, who, you claim, is your God, and yet you know nothing about him. But I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar, like you. But I know him and I keep his word."
This chapter passes from lightning flash to lightning flash of astonishment. Jesus makes claim after claim, each more tremendous than the one which went before. Here he makes the claim that if anyone keeps his words, he will never know death. It shocked the Jews. Zechariah had said: "Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live for ever?" (Zechariah 1:5). Abraham was dead; the prophets were dead; and had they not, in their day and generation, kept the word of God? Who is Jesus to set himself above the great ones of the faith? It is the literalmindedness of the Jews which blocks their intelligence. It is not physical life and physical death of which Jesus is thinking. He means that, for the man who fully accepts him, death has lost its finality; he has entered into a relationship with God which neither time nor eternity can sever. He goes, not from life to death, but from life to life; death is only the introduction to the nearer presence of God.
From that Jesus goes on to make a great statement--all true honour must come from God. It is not difficult to honour oneself; it is easy enough--in fact, fatally easy--to bask in the sunshine of one's own approval. It is not over difficult to win honour from men; the world honours the successful man. But the real honour is the honour which only eternity can reveal; and the verdicts of eternity are not the verdicts of time.
Then Jesus makes the two claims which are the very foundation of his life.
(i) He claims unique knowledge of God. He claims to know him as no one else ever has known him or ever will. Nor will he lower that claim, for to do so would be a lie. The only way to full knowledge of the heart and mind of God is through Jesus Christ. With our own minds we can reach fragments of knowledge about God; but only in Jesus Christ is the full orb of truth, for only in him do we see what God is like.
(ii) He claims unique obedience to God. To look at Jesus is to be able to say; "This is how God wishes me to live." To look at his life is to say: "This is serving God."
In Jesus alone we see what God wants us to know and what God wants us to be.
THE TREMENDOUS CLAIM (John 8:56-59)
8:56-59 "Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it and was glad." The Jews said to him: "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them: "This is the truth I tell you--before Abraham was I am." So they lifted stones to throw them at him, but Jesus slipped out of their sight, and went out of the Temple precincts.
All the previous lightning flashes pale into significance before the blaze of this passage. When Jesus said to the Jews that Abraham rejoiced to see his day, he was talking language that they could understand. The Jews had many beliefs about Abraham which would enable them to see what Jesus was implying. There were altogether five different ways in which they would interpret this passage.
(a) Abraham was living in Paradise and able to see what was happening on earth. Jesus used that idea in the Parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-31). That is the simplest way to interpret this saying.
(b) But that is not the correct interpretation. Jesus said Abraham rejoiced to see my day, the past tense. The Jews interpreted many passages of scripture in a way that explains this. They took the great promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 : "By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves," and said that when that promise was made, Abraham knew that it meant that the Messiah of God was to come from his line and rejoiced at the magnificence of the promise.
(c) Some of the Rabbis held that in Genesis 15:8-21 Abraham was given a vision of the whole future of the nation of Israel and therefore had a vision beforehand of the time when the Messiah would come.
(d) Some of the Rabbis took Genesis 17:17, which tells how Abraham laughed when he heard that a son would be born to him, not as a laugh of unbelief, but as a laugh of sheer joy that from him the Messiah would come.
(e) Some of the Rabbis had a fanciful interpretation of Genesis 24:1. There the Revised Standard Version has it that Abraham was "well advanced in years." The margin of the King James Version tells us that the Hebrew literally means that Abraham had "gone into days." Some of the Rabbis held that to mean that in a vision given by God Abraham had entered into the days which lay ahead, and had seen the whole history of the people and the coming of the Messiah.
From all this we see clearly that the Jews did believe that somehow Abraham, while he was still alive, had a vision of the history of Israel and the coming of the Messiah. So when Jesus said that Abraham had seen his day, he was making a deliberate claim that he was the Messiah. He was really saying: "I am the Messiah Abraham saw in his vision."
Immediately Jesus goes on to say of Abraham: "He saw it (my day) and was glad." Some of the early Christians had a very fanciful interpretation of that. In 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Peter 4:6 we have the two passages which are the basis of that doctrine which became imbedded in the creed in the phrase, "He descended into Hell." It is to be noted that the word Hell gives the wrong idea; it ought to be Hades. The idea is not that Jesus went to the place of the tortured and the damned, as the word Hell suggests. Hades was the land of the shadows where all the dead, good and bad alike, went; in which the Jews believed before the full belief in immortality came to them. The apocryphal work called the Gospel of Nicodemus or the Acts of Pilate has a passage which runs: "O Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life of the world, give us grace that we may tell of thy resurrection and of thy marvellous works, which thou didst in Hades. We. then, were in Hades together with all them that have fallen asleep since the beginning. And at the hour of midnight there rose upon those dark places as it were the light of the sun, and shined, and all we were enlightened and beheld one another. And straightway our father Abraham, together with the patriarchs and the prophets, were at once filled with joy and said to one another: 'This light cometh of the great lightening.'" The dead saw Jesus and were, given the chance to believe and to repent; and at that sight Abraham rejoiced.
To us these ideas are strange; to a Jew they were quite normal, for he believed that Abraham had already seen the day when the Messiah would come.
The Jews, although they knew better, chose to take this literally. "How," they demanded, "can you have seen Abraham when you are not yet fifty?" Why fifty? That was the age at which the Levites retired from their service (Numbers 4:3). The Jews were saying to Jesus: "You are a young man, still in the prime of life, not even old enough to retire from service. How can you possibly have seen Abraham? This is mad talk." It was then that Jesus made that most staggering statement: "Before Abraham was, I am." We must note carefully that Jesus did not say: "Before Abraham was, I was," but, "Before Abraham was, I am." Here is the claim that Jesus is timeless. There never was a time when he came into being; there never will be a time when he is not in being.
What did he mean? Obviously he did not mean that he, the human figure Jesus, had always existed. We know that Jesus was born into this world at Bethlehem; there is more than that here. Think of it this way. There is only one person in the universe who is timeless; and that one person is God. What Jesus is saying here is nothing less than that the life in him is the life of God; he is saying, as the writer of the Hebrews put it more simply, that he is the same yesterday, today and forever. In Jesus we see, not simply a man who came and lived and died; we see the timeless God, who was the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, who was before time and who will be after time, who always is. In Jesus the eternal God showed himself to men.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on John 8". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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