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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
John 8

 

 

Verses 1-11

Chapter 17

THE WOMAN TAKEN IN ADULTERY.

“And they went every man unto his own house: but Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came unto Him; and He sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and the Pharisees bring a woman taken in adultery; and having set her in the midst, they say unto Him, Master, this woman hath been taken in adultery, in the very act. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such; what then sayest Thou of her? And this they said, tempting Him, that they might have whereof to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they continued asking Him, He lifted up Himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again He stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. And they, when they heard it, went out one by one, beginning from the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst. And Jesus lifted up Himself, and said unto her, Woman, where are they? did no man condemn thee? And she said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn thee; go thy way; from henceforth sin no more.”- John 7:53 - John 8:1-11.

This paragraph, from chap. John 7:53 - John 8:1-11 inclusive, is omitted from modern editions of the Greek text on the authority of the best manuscripts. Internal evidence is also decidedly against its admission. The incident may very well have happened, and it bears every appearance of being accurately reported. We are glad to have so characteristic an exposure of the malignity of the Jews, and a view of our Lord which, although from a novel standpoint, is yet quite consistent with other representations of His manner and spirit. But here it is out of place. No piece of literary work is so compact and homogeneous as this Gospel. And an incident such as this, which would be quite in keeping with the matter of the synoptical Gospels, is felt rather to interrupt than to forward the purpose of John to record the most characteristic and important self-manifestations of Christ.

But as the paragraph is here, and has been here from very early times, and as it is good Gospel material, it may be well briefly to indicate its significance.

1. First, it reveals the unscrupulous malignity of the leading citizens, the educated and religious men, “the Scribes and Pharisees.” They brought to Jesus the guilty woman, “tempting Him” (John 8:6); not because they were deeply grieved or even shocked at her conduct; nay, so little were they impressed with that aspect of the case, that, with a cold-blooded indelicacy which is well-nigh incredible, they actually used her guilt to further their own designs against Jesus. They conceived that by presenting her before Him for judgment, He would be transfixed on one or other horn of the following dilemma: If He said, Let the woman die in accordance with the law of Moses, they would have a fair ground on which they could frame a dangerous accusation against Him, and would inform Pilate that this new King was actually adjudging life and death. If, on the other hand, He bid them let the woman go, then He could be branded before the people as traversing the law of Moses.

Underhand scheming of this kind is of course always to be condemned. Setting traps and digging pitfalls are illegitimate methods even of slaughtering wild animals, and the sportsman disdains them. But he who introduces such methods into human affairs, and makes his business one concatenated plot, does not deserve to be a member of society at all, but should be banished to the unreclaimed wilderness. These men posed as sticklers for the Law, as the immovably orthodox, and yet had not the common indignation at crime which would have saved them from making a handle of this woman’s guilt. No wonder that their unconscious and brazen depravity should have filled Jesus with wonder and embarrassment, so that for a space He could not utter a word, but could only fix His eyes on the ground.

Making all allowance for the freedom of Oriental manners from some modern refinements, one cannot but feel some surprise that such a scene should be possible on the streets of Jerusalem. It reveals a hardened and insensible condition of public opinion which one is scarcely prepared for. And yet it may well be questioned whether it was a more ominous state of public sentiment than that in the midst of which we are living, when scenes, in character if not in appearance similar to this, are constantly reproduced by our novelists and play-writers, who harp upon this one vile string, professing, like these Pharisees, that they drag such things before the public gaze for the sake of exposing vice and making it hateful, but really because they know that there is a large constituency to whom they can best appeal by what is sensational, and prurient, and immoral, though to the masculine and healthy mind disgusting. Many of our modern writers might take a hint from our German forefathers, who, in their barbarian days, held that some vices were to be punished in public, but others buried quickly in oblivion, and who, therefore, punished crime of this sort by binding it in a wicker crate, and sinking it in a pit of mud out of sight for ever. We certainly cannot congratulate ourselves on our advancement in moral perception so long as we pardon to persons of genius and rank what would be loathed in persons of no brilliant parts and in our own circles. When such things are thrust upon us, either in literature or elsewhere, we have always the resource of our Lord; we can turn away, as though we heard not; we can refuse to inquire further into such matters, and turn away our eyes from them.

Few positions could be more painful to a pure-minded man than that in which our Lord was placed. What hope could there be for a world where the religious and righteous had become even more detestable than the coarse sin they proposed to punish? No wonder our Lord was silent, silent in sheer disturbance of mind and sympathetic shame. He stooped down and wrote on the ground, as one who does not wish to answer a question will begin drawing lines on the ground with his foot or his stick. His silence was a broad hint to the accusers; but they take it for mere embarrassment, and all the more eagerly press their question. They think Him at a loss when they see Him with hanging head tracing figures on the ground; they fancy their plot is successful, and, flushed with expected victory, they close in and lay their hands on his shoulder as He stoops, and demand an answer. And so He lifts Himself up, and they have their answer: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” They fall into the pit they have digged.

This answer was not a mere clever retort such as a self-possessed antagonist can always command. It was not a mere dexterous evasion. What these scribes would say of it to one another afterwards, or with what nervous anxiety they would altogether avoid the subject, we can scarcely conjecture; but probably none of them would affect to say, as has since been said, that it was a confounding of things that differ, that by demanding that every one who brought an accusation, against another should himself be open to no accusation Jesus subverted the whole administration of law. For what criminal could fear condemnation, if his doom were to be suspended until a judge whose heart is as pure as his ermine be found who may pronounce it? Might not these scribes have replied that they were quite aware that they themselves were guilty men, but no law could lay hold of any outward actions of theirs, and that they were there not to talk of their relation to God or of purity of heart, but to vindicate the outward purity of the morals of their city by bringing to judgment this offender? They did not thus bandy words with our Lord, and they could not; because they knew that it was not He who was trying to confound private morality and the administration of law but themselves. They had brought this woman to Jesus as if He were a magistrate, though often enough He had declined to interfere with civil affairs and with the ordinary administration of justice. And in His answer He still shows the same spirit of non-interference. He does not pronounce upon the woman’s guilt at all. Had they taken her before their ordinary courts He would have raised no word in her favour; did her husband after this prosecute her he can have feared no interference on the part of Jesus. His answer is the answer not of one pronouncing from a judgment-seat, nor of a legal counsel, but of a moral and spiritual teacher. And in this capacity He had a perfect right to say what He did. We have no right to say to an official who in condemning culprits or in prosecuting them is simply discharging a public duty, “See that your own hands be clean, and your own heart pure, before you condemn another,” but we have a perfect right to silence a private individual who is officiously and not officially exposing another’s guilt, by bidding him remember that he has a beam in his own eye which he must first be rid of, a stain on his own hands he must first wash out. The public prosecutor, or judge is a mere mouthpiece and representative among us of absolute justice; in him we see not his own private character at all, but the purity and rectitude of law and order. But these scribes were acting as private individuals, and came to Jesus professing that they were so shocked with this woman’s sin that they wished the long-disused punishment of stoning to be revived. And therefore Jesus had not only a perfect right, as any other man would have had, to say to them, “Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery?” but also, as the searcher of hearts; as He who knew what is in man, He could risk the woman’s life on the chance of there being a single man of them who was really as shocked as he pretended to be, who was prepared to say he had in his own soul no taint of the sin he was loudly professing his abhorrence of, who was prepared to say, Death is due to this sin, and then to accept such proportionate punishment as would fall to his own share.

Having given His answer His eye again falls, His former stooping attitude is resumed. He does not mean to awe them by a defiant look; He lets their own conscience do the work. But that their conscience should have produced such a result deserves our attention. The woman, when she heard His answer, may for a moment have trembled and shrunk together, expecting the crashing blow of the first stone. Could she expect that these Pharisees, some of them at least good men, were all involved somehow in her sin, tainted in heart with the pollution that had wrought such destruction in herself, or supposing they were so tainted, did they know it; or supposing they knew it, would they not be ashamed to own it in the face of the surrounding crowd; would they not sacrifice her life rather than their own character? But every man waited for some other to lift the first stone; every man thought that some one of their number would be pure enough and bold enough, if not to throw the first stone, at least to assert that he fulfilled the condition of doing so that Jesus had laid down. None was willing to put himself forward to be searched by the eyes of the crowd, and to be exposed to the still more trying judgment of Jesus, and to risk the possibility of His, in some more definite way, revealing his past life. And so they edged their way out through the crowd from before Him, each desiring to have no more to do with the business; the oldest not so old as to forget his sin, the youngest not daring to say he was not already corrupt.

This reveals two things, the amount of unascertained guilt every man carries with him, guilt that he is not distinctly conscious of, but that a little shake awakens, and that weakens him all through his life in ways that he may be unable to trace.

Further, this encounter of Jesus with the leading men gives significance to His subsequent challenge: “Which of you convinceth Me of sin?” He had shown them how easy it was to convict the guilty; but the very ease and boldness with which He had touched their conscience convinced them His own was pure. In a society honeycombed with vice He stood perfect, untouched by evil.

This searching purity, this stainless mirror, the woman felt it more difficult to face than the accusing scribes. Alone with Him who had so easily unmasked their wickedness, she feels that now she has to do with something much more awful than the accusations of men-the actual irrevocable sin. There was no voice now accusing her, no hand laid in arrest upon her. Why does she not go? Because, now that others are silent, her own conscience speaks; now that her accusers are silenced, she must listen to Him whose purity has saved her. The presence among us of a true and perfect human holiness in the person of Christ, that is the true touchstone of character; and he who does not feel that this is what actually judges all his own ways and actions, has but a dim apprehension of what human life is-of its dignity, its responsibilities, its risks, its reality. Our sin, no doubt, hems us round with a thousand disabilities, and fears, and anxieties in this world, often dreadful to bear as the shame of this woman; there gradually gathers round us a brood of mischiefs we have given birth to by overstepping God’s law, a brood that throngs our steps, and makes a peaceful and happy life impossible. Other men come to recognise some of our infirmities, and we feel the depressing influence of their unfavourable judgment, and in the secresy of our own self-reflection we think meanly of ourselves; but this, overwhelming as it sometimes becomes, is not the worst of sin. Were all these evil consequences abated or removed, were we as free from accusing voices, either from the reflected judgment of the world or from our own memory, as that woman when she stood alone in the midst, yet there would then only the more clearly emerge into view the essential and inseparable evil of sin, the actual breach between us and holiness. The accusation and misery which sin brings generally either make us feel that we are expiating sin by what we suffer, or put us into a self-defensive attitude. It is when Jesus lifts His true eye to meet ours that the heart sinks humbled, and recognises that apart from all punishment and in itself sin is sin, an injury to God’s love, a grievous wrong to our own humanity. In the attitude of Christ towards sin and the sinner there is an exposure of the real nature of sin which makes an ineffaceable impression.

But what will Jesus do with this woman thus left on His hands? Will He not visit her with punishment, and so assert His superiority to the accusers who had slunk away? He shows His superiority in a much more real fashion. He sees that now the woman is self-condemned, lies under that condemnation in which alone there is hope, and which alone leads to good. She could not misunderstand the significance of her acquittal. Her surprise must only have deepened her gratitude. He who had stood her friend and brought her through so critical a passage in her history could scarcely be forgotten. And yet, considering the net she had thrown around herself, could our Lord say “Sin no more” with any hope? He knew what she was going back to-a blighted home-life, a life full now of perplexity, of regret, of suspicion, probably of ill-usage, of contempt, of everything that makes men and women bitter and drives them on to sin. Yet He implies that the legitimate result of forgiveness is renunciation of sin. Others might expect her to sin; He expected her to abandon sin. If the love shown us in forgiveness is no barrier to sin, it is because we have not been in earnest as yet about our sin, and forgiveness is but a name. Do we need an external scene such as that before us as the setting which may enable us to believe that we are sinners, and that there is forgiveness for us? The entrance to life is through forgiveness. Possibly we have sought forgiveness; but if there follows us no serious estimate of sin, no fruitful remembrance of the holiness of Him who forgave us, then our severance from sin will last only until we meet the first substantial temptation.

We do not know what became of this woman, but she had an opportunity of regarding Jesus with reverence and affection, and thus of bringing a saving influence into her life. This scene, in which He was the chief figure, must always have remained the most vivid picture in her memory; and the more she thought of it the more clearly must she have seen how different He was from all besides. And unless in our hearts Christ finds a place, there is no other sufficient purifying influence. We may be convinced He is all He claims to be, we may believe He is sent to save, and that He can save; but all this belief may be without any cleansing effect upon us. What is wanted is an attachment, a real love that will prompt us always to regard His will, and to make our life a part of His. It is our likings that have led us astray, and it is by new likings implanted within us that we can be restored. So long as our knowledge of Christ is in our head only, it may profit us a little, but it will not make new creatures of us. To accomplish that, He must command our heart. He must control and move what is most influential within us; there must arise in us a real and ruling enthusiasm for Him.

Perhaps, however, the chief lesson taught by this incident is that the best way to reform society is to reform ourselves. There is of course a great deal done in our own day to reclaim the vicious, to succour the poor, and so on; and nothing is to be said against these efforts when they are the outcome of a humble and sympathising charity. But they are very often adulterated with a spirit of condemnation and a sense of superiority, which on closer inspection is found to be unjust. These scribes and Pharisees, when they dragged this woman before Jesus, felt themselves on quite another platform than that which she occupied; but a word from Christ convinced them how hollow this self-righteous spirit was. He made them feel that they too were sinners even as she, and none of them was sufficiently hardened to lift a stone against her. This is creditable to the Pharisees. There are many among us who would very quickly have lifted the stone. Even while striving to reclaim the drunkard, for example, they arraign him with an implacable ferocity that shows they are quite unconscious of being sharers in his sin. If you challenged them, they would clear themselves by vehemently protesting that they had not touched strong drink for years; but do they not consider that the almost universal intemperance of the lowest class in society has a far deeper root than individual appetite; that it is rooted in the whole miserable condition of that class, and cannot be cured till the luxuries of the rich are by some means sacrificed for the bitter need of the poor, and the rational enjoyments which save the well-to-do from coarse and open vice are put within reach of the whole population? Poverty, and the necessity it entails of being content with a wage which barely keeps in life, are not the sole roots of vice, but they are roots; and so long as we ourselves, in common with the society in which we live, are involved in the guilt of upholding a social condition which tempts to every kind of iniquity, we dare not cast the first stone at the drunkard, the thief, or even their more sunken associates. No one man, and no one class, is more guilty than another in this great blot on our Christianity. Society is guilty; but as members who happen by the accident of our birth to have enjoyed advantages saving us from much temptation which we know we could not have stood, we must learn at least to consider those who in a very real sense are sacrificed for us. Among certain savage tribes, when a chief’s house is built, slaughtered slaves are laid in pits as its foundation; the structure of our vaunted civilisation has a very similar basement.

Still it is one of the most hopeful features of present-day Christianity that men are becoming sensible that they are not mere individuals, but are members of a society; and that they must bear the shame of the existing condition of things in society. Intelligent Christian men now feel that the saving of their own souls is not enough, and that they cannot with complacency rest satisfied with their own happy condition and prospects if the society to which they belong is in a state of degradation and misery. It is by the growth of this sympathetic shame that reformation on a great scale will be brought about. It is by men learning to see in all misery and vice their own share of guilt that society will gradually be leavened. To those who cannot own their connection with their fellow-men in any such sense, to those who are quite satisfied if they themselves are comfortable, I do not know what can be said. They break themselves off from the social body, and accept the fate of the amputated limb.


Verses 12-19

Chapter 18

CHRIST THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.

“Again therefore Jesus spake unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life. The Pharisees therefore said unto Him, Thou bearest witness of Thyself; Thy witness is not true. Jesus answered and said unto them, Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true; for I know whence I came, and whither I go; but ye know not whence I come, or whither I go. Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man. Yea and if I judge, My judgement is true; for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent Me. Yea and in your law it is written, that the witness of two men is true. I am He that beareth witness of Myself, and the Father that sent Me beareth witness of Me. They said therefore unto Him Where is Thy Father? Jesus answered, Ye know neither Me, nor My Father: if ye knew Me, ye would know My Father also.”- John 8:12-19.

At the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus, who knew that He was sent to confer upon men the realities which had been symbolised and promised in all religious rites, proclaimed that He was the fountain of life (John 7:37); and thus responded to the unuttered prayer of those who looked with some weariness at the old routine of drawing water in remembrance of the provision God had made for their fathers in the desert. Another feature of the same Feast leads Him now to declare a further characteristic of His person. In commemoration of the Pillar of Fire that led their fathers in the trackless desert, the people lit large lamps round the Temple, and gave themselves up to dancing and revelry. But this, too, was no doubt felt to be for the superficial souls that can live upon rites and symbols, and do not seek to lay bare their inmost being to the very touch of eternal reality. Not merely the cynic would smile as venerable men joined in the lamp-light dance, but possibly even the grave and pious onlooker, looking back on his own mistakes in life, and conscious of the blind way in which he was still blundering on, stood wondering where the true Guide of Israel, the real Light of human life was to be found. In sympathy with all such longing after truth and clear vision Jesus cries, “I am the light of the world; he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

His words must be interpreted by their reference to the light which was then being celebrated. Of that light we read that “the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way, and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light.” This was a customary mode of directing the movements of large bodies of men, whether caravans or armies. In the case of an army a tall pole was erected in front of the chief’s tent, and from it a basket of fire was suspended, so that the glare of it was visible by night, and its smoke by day. The head of a marching column could thus be descried from a great distance, especially in wide level tracts with little or no vegetation and few inequalities of surface to interrupt the view. The distinctive peculiarity of the Israelitish march was that Jehovah was in the fire, and that He alone controlled its movements, and thereby the movements of the camp. When the pillar of cloud left its place and advanced the tents were struck, lest they should be separated, from Jehovah and be found unfaithful to Him. During the whole course of their sojourn in the wilderness their movements were thus controlled and ordered. The beacon-fire that led them was unaffected by atmospheric influences. Dispelled by no gales, and evaporated by no fiercest heat of the Eastern sun, it hovered in the van of the host as the guiding angel of the Lord. The guidance it gave was uninterrupted and unerring; it was never mistaken for an ordinary cloud, never so altered its shape as to become unrecognisable. And each night the flame shot up, and assured the people they might rest in peace.

Two obvious characteristics of this guiding Light must be kept in view.

1. God’s people were not led by a road already made and used, and which they could have studied from beginning to end on a map before starting; but they were led day by day, and step by step, by a living guide, who chose a route never before trodden. In the morning they did not know whether they were to go forward or back, or to stay where they were. They had to wait in ignorance till their guiding pillar moved, and follow in ignorance till it halted. Our passage through life is similar. It is not a chart we are promised but a guide. We cannot tell where next year or next month may be spent. We are not informed of any part of our future, and have no means of ascertaining the emergencies which may try us, the new ingredients which may suddenly be thrown into our life, and reveal in us what till now has lain hidden and dormant. We cannot tell by what kind of path we shall be led onwards to our end; and our security from day to day consists not at all in this, that we can penetrate the future, and see no dangers in it, but our security is that we shall always be guided by infallible and loving wisdom. We have learned a chief article of human wisdom if we have learned to leave to-morrow to God and faithfully follow Him to-day. A road as it lies in the distance often looks impassably steep, but as we approach and walk it step by step, we find it almost level and fairly easy.

2. This light was to guide, not their conduct, but their movements. All men need similar guidance. All men have practical matters to determine which often greatly perplex them; they must make a choice between one or other course of action that is possible. Steps which will determine their whole subsequent life must be taken or declined; and for the determining of such alterations in the place or mode of their life there is often felt great need of a guidance which can be entirely relied upon. Sometimes, indeed, our course is determined for us, and we are not consulted in the matter; as the pillar of fire was silent, assigning no reasons, condescending to no persuasion or argument, but simply moving forwards; passing over rugged and steep mountain ridges, past inviting and sheltered glens, offering no present explanation of the route, but justified always by the result. So we often find that our course is determined apart from our own choice, wishes, judgment, or prayers. But this we commonly resent, and crave a guidance which shall approve itself to our own judgment and yet be infallible; which shall leave us our freedom of choice, and yet carry us forwards to all possibilities of good. In fact, we would rather have our freedom of choice and the responsibility of guiding our own life, with all its risks, than be carried forward without choice of our own.

This is the great distinction between the light which Christ is and the light by which the Israelites were led from day to day. They had an external means of ascertaining promptly which way they should go. Their whole life was circumscribed, and its place and mode determined for them. The guidance offered to us by Christ is of an inward kind. A God without might seem perfect as a guide, but a God within is the real perfection. God does not now lead us by a sign which we could follow, though we had no real sympathy with Divine ways and no wisdom of our own; but He leads us by communicating to us His own perceptions of right and wrong, by inwardly enlightening us, and by making us ourselves of such a disposition that we naturally choose what is good.

When matters difficult to handle and to manage come into our life, and when we are tempted to long for some external sign which would show us infallibly the right thing to do and the right way to follow, let this be our consolation, that this very exercise of judgment and bearing of responsibility in matters where right and wrong are not broadly distinguished are among the chief instruments for the formation of character; and that even though we err in the choice we make, yet by our error and by all honest effort to keep right with God in the matter, we shall certainly have made growth in ability to understand and to do what is right. No doubt it is easier to believe in a guide we can see and that moves before us like a pillar of fire; but supposing for a moment that this dispensation under which we are living is not a great deception, supposing for a moment that God is doing that one thing which He pledged Himself to do, namely, giving a Divine Spirit to men, Himself dwelling with men and in them, then we cannot fail to see that this guidance is of a much higher kind, and has much more lasting results than any external guidance could have. If, by allowing us to determine our own course and find our own way through all the hazards and perplexities of life, God is teaching us to estimate actions and their results more and more by their moral value, and if thereby He is impregnating you with His own mind and character, surely that is a much better thing than if He were keeping us in the right way merely by outward signs and irrespective of our own growth in wisdom.

Persons whose opinion is not to be lightly esteemed say that if we honestly seek God’s guidance in any matter we cannot err, and have no business to reflect afterwards on our conduct as if we had made a wrong choice. I cannot think that is so. Sincere people who ask God’s guidance, it seems to me, frequently make mistakes. In fact, our past mistakes are a great part of our education. Unless we are habitually in sympathy with God we are not infallible even in matters where a moral judgment is all that is required; and sometimes more is required of us than to say what is right and what is wrong. Other points have to be considered-points which call for a knowledge of life, of places, and professions, of the trustworthiness of other men, and a thousand matters in which we are liable to err. It is of course a great satisfaction to know that we wished to do right, even if we discover we have blundered; and it is also a satisfaction to know that God can use us for good in any position, even in that we have blundered into, although meanwhile we have lost some present good.

The light which Christ brought to the world was the light “of life.” This additional description “of life” He commonly appended to distinguish the real and eternal good He bestowed from the figure by which it had been hinted at. He calls Himself the Bread of life, the Water of life, to point out that He is really and eternally what these material things are in the present physical world. All this present constitution of things may pass away, and the time may come when men shall no longer need to be sustained by bread, but the time shall never come when they shall not need life; and this fundamental gift Christ pledges Himself evermore to give. And when He names Himself the light of life He indicates that it is on the true, eternal life of man He sheds light.

There may, then, be many things and important things on which Christ sheds no direct light, although there is nothing of importance on which He does not shed light indirectly. He brought into the world no direct light upon scientific questions; He did not hasten the development of art by any special light thrown on its objects and methods. There was no great need for light on such matters. These are not the distressing difficulties of human existence. Indeed, men find stimulus and joy in overcoming these difficulties, and resent being told nature’s secrets, and not being allowed to find them out. But the darkness that settles on the life of the individual, and upon the condition of large classes of people through what is human, personal, and practical is often overwhelming, and compels men to cry for light. The strange miscarriage of justice in the life of many individuals; the compulsion put upon them to sin and to disbelieve through the pressure of unceasing failure and privation; the triumph of cold-hearted villainy; the bitterness of separation and death; the impenetrable darkness of the future; the incomprehensible dimness, in which the most important truths are involved-all this men find no pleasure in, but rather a torment that is sometimes maddening, often destructive of all faith, and always painful. This is the kind of darkness that causes men to sink; they run upon the rocks, and go down in darkness, no living soul hearing their cry. This is the darkness which wrings from many a heart at this moment the question of despair, “What has become, of God?”

The darkness regarding conduct in which men are involved has largely a moral root. Men are blinded by their appetites and passions, so that they cannot see the best ends and enjoyments of life. It is the strong craving we have for gratifications of sense and of worldly desire that misleads us in life. As some creatures have the faculty of emitting a dark and turbid matter that discolours the water, and hides them from their pursuers, so it is a self-evolved and home-made darkness that involves us. False expectations are the atmosphere of our life; we live in an unreal world created by our own tastes and desires, which misinform us, and bid us seek the good of life where it is not to be found.

It is then this light that Christ is and brings, light upon human life, light upon all that most intimately concerns human character, human conduct, and human destiny. What each of us chiefly needs to know is, what is the best kind of human life-how can I best spend my energies, and how can I best sustain them? Are there any results of life which are satisfying and which are certain; and if so, how can I attain them? Do not all things happen alike to all; is it not with the wise man and the righteous as with the fool? Is life worth serious devotion; will it repay what is spent upon it? Is not cynical indifference, or selfish caring for present interests, the most philosophical as well as the most pleasant and easy attitude towards life to assume? These are the questions which we find answered in Christ.

The expression, “the light of life,” may, however, have a somewhat different meaning. It may mean that he who follows Christ shall have that light which accompanies, and is fed by, the life which Christ gives. At the outset of the Gospel John declared that “the Life was the light of men.” And this is true in the sense that they who accept Christ as their life, and truly live in Him and by Him, walk in light and not in darkness. The clouds and gloom which overhung their life are dissipated. Their horizon is widened, their prospect cleared, and all things with which they have presently to do are seen in their true dimensions and relations. They who live with the life of Christ have a clear light regarding duty. The man who has entered into the life Christ opens to us, however slow and dull in intellect he may be, may indeed make many mistakes, but he will find his way through life, and issue from it, in his measure, triumphant.

It is further to be remarked that Jesus does not content Himself with a place beside other teachers, saying, “I will give you light,” but affirms that the light is inseparable from His own person. “I am the light.” By this He means, as already observed, that it is by receiving Him as our life that we have light. But His words also mean that He imparts this light not by oral teaching, but by being what He is, and living as He does. Teaching by word and precept is well, when nothing better can be had;(33) but it is the Word made flesh that commands the attention of all. This is a language universally intelligible. “A life, the highest conceivable, on almost the lowest conceivable stage, and recorded in the simplest form, with indifference to all outward accompaniments attractive whether to the few or to the many, is set before us as the final and unalterable ideal of human life, amid all its continual and astonishing changes.” It is by this life led here on earth He becomes our Light. It is by His faith maintained in the utmost of trial; His calmness and hopefulness amidst all that shrouds human life in darkness; His constant persuasion that God is in this world, present, loving, and working. It is by His habitual attitude towards this life, and towards the unseen, that we receive light to guide us. In His calmness we take refuge from our own dismay. In His hopefulness we refresh ourselves in every time of weariness. In His confidence our timorous anxieties are rebuked. Upon the darkest parts of our life there falls from Him some clear ray that brightens and directs. Thousands of His followers, in every age, have verified His words: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”

And as the Teacher taught by living so must the scholar learn by living. Christ brings light by passing through all human experiences and situations, and “he that followeth” Him, not he that reads about Him, “shall have the light of life.” There are very few men in the world who can think to much purpose on truths so abstruse and complicated as the Divinity of Christ and the Atonement and Miracles; but there is no man so dull as not to see the difference between Christ’s life and His own. Few men may be able to explain satisfactorily the relation Christ holds to God on the one hand and to us on the other; but every man who knows Christ at all even as he knows his friend or his father, is conscious that a new light falls upon sin of all kinds, upon sins of appetite and sins of temper and sins of disposition, since Christ lived. It is in this light Christ would have us walk, and if we follow as He leads on, we shall never lack the light of life. We need not be seriously disturbed about the darkness that hangs round the horizon if light falls on our own path; we need not be disturbed by our ignorance of many Divine and human things, nor by our inability to answer many questions which may be put to us, and which indeed we naturally put to ourselves, so long only as we are sure we are living so as to please and satisfy Christ. If our life runs on the lines His life marked out, we shall certainly arrive where He now is, in the happiest and highest human condition.


Verses 21-59

Chapter 19

JESUS REJECTED IN JERUSALEM.

“He said therefore again unto them, I go away, and ye shall seek Me, and shall die in your sin: whither I go, ye cannot come. The Jews therefore said, Will He kill Himself, that He saith, Whither I go, ye cannot come? And He said unto them, Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for except ye believe that I am He, ye shall die in your sins. They said therefore unto Him, Who art Thou? Jesus said unto them, Even that which I have also spoken unto you from the beginning. I have many things to speak and to judge concerning you: howbeit He that sent Me is true; and the things which I heard from Him, these speak I unto the world. They perceived not that He spake to them of the Father. Jesus therefore said, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am He, and that I do nothing of Myself, but as the Father taught Me, I speak these things. And He that sent Me is with Me; He hath not left Me alone; for I do always the things that are pleasing to Him. As He spake these things, many believed on Him. Jesus therefore said to those Jews which had believed Him, If ye abide in My word, then are ye truly My disciples; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. They answered unto Him, We be Abraham’s seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man: how sayest Thou, Ye shall be made free? Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Every one that committeth sin is the bondservant of sin. And the bondservant abideth not in the house for ever: the son abideth for ever. If therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed. I know that ye are Abraham’s seed; yet ye seek to kill Me, because My word hath not free course in you. I speak the things which I have seen with My Father: and ye also do the things which ye heard from your father. They answered and said unto Him, Our father is Abraham. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill Me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I heard from God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the works of your father. They said unto Him, We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love Me: for I came forth and am come from God; for neither have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do ye not understand My speech? Even because ye cannot hear My word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father it is your will to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and stood not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father thereof. But because I say the truth, ye believe Me not. Which of you convicteth Me of sin? If I say truth, why do ye not believe Me? He that is of God heareth the words of God: for this cause ye hear them not, because ye are not of God. The Jews answered and said unto Him, Say we not well that Thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil? Jesus answered, I have not a devil; but I honour My Father, and ye dishonour Me. But I seek not mine own glory: there is One that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep My word, he shall never see death. The Jews said unto Him, Now we know that Thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and Thou sayest, If a man keep My word, he shall never taste of death. Art Thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest Thou Thyself? Jesus answered, If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing: it is My Father that glorifieth Me; of whom ye say, that He is your God; and ye have not known Him: but I know Him; and if I should say, I know Him not, I shall be like unto you, a liar: but I know Him, and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad. The Jews therefore said unto Him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. They took up stones therefore to cast at Him: but Jesus hid Himself, and went out of the temple.”- John 8:21-59.

John has now briefly detailed the self-manifestations of Jesus which He considered sufficient to induce the Jews to believe in Him; and he has shown us how, both in Galilee and in Jerusalem, the people, with few exceptions, remained unconvinced. He has also very clearly shown the reason of His rejection in Galilee. The reason was that the blessings He proposed to bestow were spiritual, while the blessings they craved were physical. Their Messianic expectation was not satisfied in Him. So long as He healed their sick, and by His mere will furnished famishing thousands with food, they thought, This is the King for us. But when He told them that these things were mere signs of higher blessings, and when He urged them to seek these spiritual gifts, they left Him in a body.

In Jerusalem opinion has followed a similar course. There also Jesus has exemplified His power to impart life. He has carefully explained the significance of that sign, and has explicitly claimed Divine prerogatives. But although individuals believe, the mass of the people are only perplexed, and the authorities are exasperated. The rulers, however, find it impossible to proceed against Him, owing to the influence He has with the people, and even with their own servants. This state of matters, however, was not destined to continue; and in the eighth chapter John traces the course of popular opinion from a somewhat hopeful perplexity to a furious hostility that, at length, for the first time, broke out in actual violence (John 8:59). Jesus did not indeed immediately retire, as if further efforts to induce faith were useless, but when the storm broke out a second time (John 10:39-40) He finally withdrew, and taught only such as sought Him out.

At this point, then, in the history we are invited to inquire what grounds of faith Jesus had presented, and what were the true reasons of His rejection.

1. But first we must ask, In what character or capacity did Jesus present Himself to men? What did He declare Himself to be? What demand did He make on the faith of those to whom He presented Himself? When He required that they should believe in Him, what exactly did He mean? Certainly He did not mean less than that they should believe He was the Messiah, and should accept Him as such. The “Messiah” was an elastic title, perhaps not conveying to any two minds in Israel precisely the same idea. It had indeed for all Israelites some contents in common. It meant that here was One upon earth and accessible, who was sent to be the Bearer of God’s good-will to men, a Mediator through whom God meant to make His presence felt and His will known. But some who believed Jesus was the Christ had so poor a conception of the Christ, that He could not accept theirs as a sound faith. The minimum of acceptable faith must believe in the actual Jesus, and allow the idea of the Christ to be formed by what was seen in Jesus. Those who believed must so trust Jesus as to be willing that He should fashion the Messiahship as He saw fit. It was therefore primarily in Himself the true believer trusted. He did not, in the first instance, believe He was this or that, but he felt, “Here is the greatest and best I know; I give myself to Him.” Of course this involved that whatever Christ claimed to be, He was believed to be. But it is of importance to observe that the confession, “I believe that Jesus is the Christ,” was not enough in Christ’s own day to guarantee the soundness of the faith of the confessor. He had further to answer the question, “What do you mean by ‘the Christ’? For if you mean a national Messiah, coming to give you political freedom and social blessings only, this faith cannot be trusted.” But if any one could say, “I believe in Jesus,” and if by this he meant, “I so believe in Him that whatever He says He is, I believe He is, and whatever be the contents with which He fills the Messianic name, these contents I accept as belonging to the office,” this faith was sound and acceptable.

And, according to this Gospel, Jesus at once made it plain that His idea of the Messianic office was not the popular idea, It was “eternal life” He constantly proclaimed as the gift the Father had commissioned Him to bestow; not physical life, not revived political life. So that it very shortly became impossible for any one to make the confession that Jesus was the Christ, in ignorance of what He Himself judged the Christ to be. It may be said, therefore, that when Jesus required men to believe in Him, He meant that they should trust Him as mediating efficiently between God and them, and should accept His view of all that was needful for this mediation. He meant that they should look to Him for life eternal and for perfect fellowship with God. What was doctrinally involved in this, what was implied in His claim regarding His eternal nature, might or might not at once be understood. What must be understood and believed was, that Jesus was empowered by God to act for Him, to represent Him, to impart to men all that God would impart.

II. This being so, we may now inquire, what sufficient reason Jesus, as already reported in this Gospel, has given why the people should accept Him as the Christ. In these eight chapters what do we find related which should have furnished the Jews with all the evidence which reasonable minds would require?

1. He was definitely identified as the Christ by the Baptist. It was John’s function to recognise the person sent by God to fulfil all His will, and to found a kingdom of God among men. For this John lived; and if any man was in a position to say “yes” or “no” in response to the question, Is this the Christ, the Anointed and commissioned of God? John was that man. No man was in himself better qualified to judge, and no man had such material for judging, and his judgment was explicit and assured. To put aside this testimony as valueless is out of the question. It is more reasonable to ask whether it is even possible that in this matter the Baptist should be mistaken.

Jesus Himself indeed did not rest upon this testimony. For His own certification of His dignity He did not require it. He did not require the corroborative voice of one human being. It was not by what He was told regarding Himself that He became conscious of His Sonship; nor was it by an external testimony, even from such a man as John, that He was encouraged to make the claims He made. John was but a mirror reflecting what was already in Him, possibly stimulating self-consciousness, but adding nothing to His fitness for His work.

2. He expected that His claim to have come forth from God would be believed on His own word. The Samaritans believed Him on His own word. This does not mean that they believed a mere assertion; they believed the assertion of One whom they felt to be speaking the truth. There was that in His character and bearing which compelled their faith. Through all He said there shone the self-evidencing light of truth. They might not have been able to stand a cross-examination as to the reason of the faith that was in them, they might not have been able to satisfy any other person or induce him to believe, but they were justified in following an instinct which said to them, This man is neither deceiver nor deceived. There was nothing in the claim of Jesus absolutely incredible. Nay, it rather fell in with their idea of God and with the knowledge of their own needs. They wished a revelation, and saw nothing impossible in it. This may nowadays be judged a homely rather than a philosophical view to take of God and of His relation to men. But primary and universal instincts have their place, and, if scientific knowledge does not contradict them, should be trusted. It was because the Samaritans had not tampered with their natural cravings and hopes, and had not allowed their idea of the Messiah to harden into a definite conception, that they were able to welcome Jesus with a faith which He rarely met with elsewhere.

And the main authentication of Christ’s claim at all times is simply this, that He makes the claim, and that there is that in Him which testifies to His truth, while there is that in the claim itself which is congruous to our instincts and needs. There was that in the bearing of Christ which commanded belief in natures which were not numbed and blunted by prejudice. The Capernaum courtier who came to Jesus expecting to bring Him down with him to heal his boy, when he saw Him felt he could trust Him, and returned alone. Jesus was conscious that He spoke of what He knew, and spoke of it truly. “I speak that which I have seen with My Father” (John 8:38). “My record is true” (John 8:14). “If I say the truth, why do ye not believe Me?” (John 8:46.) This consciousness, both of an intention to speak the truth and of a knowledge of the truth, in a mind so pellucid and sane, justly impressed candid minds in His own day, and is irresistibly impressive still.

Again, we judge of what is probable or improbable, credible or incredible, mainly by its congruity with our previous belief. Is our idea of God such that a personal revelation seems credible and even likely? Does this supposed revelation in Christ consist with previous revelations and with the knowledge of God and His will which those revelations have fostered? Does this final revelation actually bring us the knowledge of God, and does it satisfy the longings and pure aspirations, the thirst for God and the hunger for righteousness, which assert themselves in us like natural appetites? If so, then the untutored human heart accepts this revelation. It is its own verification. Light is its own authentication. Christ brings within our ken a God whom we cannot but own as God, and who is nowhere else so clearly revealed. It is this immediacy of authentication, this self-verification, to which our Lord constantly appeals.

3. But a great part of the self-revelation of Christ could best be made in action. Such a work as the healing of the impotent man was visible to all and legible by the dullest. If His words were sometimes enigmatic, such an action as this was full of significance and easily understood. By this compassionate restoration of the vital powers He proclaimed Himself the Father’s Delegate, commissioned to express the Divine compassion and to exercise the Divine power to communicate life. This was meant to be an easy lesson by which men might learn that God is full of compassion, ceaselessly working for the good of men; that He is present among us seeking to repair the mischief resulting from sin, and to apply to our needs the fulness of His own life, and that Jesus Christ is the medium through whom He makes Himself accessible to us and available for us.

These works were done by our Lord not only to convince the people that they should listen to Him, but also to convince them that God Himself was present. “If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not. But if I do, though ye believe not Me, believe the works, that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” It was this He strove to impress on the people, that God was with them. It was not Himself He wished them to recognise, but the Father in Him. “I seek not Mine own glory” (John 8:50). And therefore it was the kindness of the works He pointed to: “Many good works have I showed you from My Father” (John 10:32). He sought through these works to lead men to see how in His Person the Father was applying Himself to the actual needs of mankind. To accept God for one purpose is to accept Him for all. To believe in Him as present to heal naturally leads to belief in Him as our Friend and Father. Hence these signs, manifesting the presence and good-will of God, were a call upon men to trust Him and accept His messenger. They spoke of gifts still more akin to the Divine nature, of gifts not merely physical, but spiritual and eternal. Possibly in allusion to these intelligible and earthly signs our Lord said to Nicodemus, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” If ye are blind to these earthly signs, what hope is there of your understanding things eternal in their own impalpable essence?

III. What were the true reasons of our Lord’s rejection?

1. The first reason no doubt was that He so thoroughly disappointed the popular Messianic expectation. This comes out very conspicuously in His rejection in Galilee, where the people were on the point of crowning Him, but at once deserted Him as soon as it became clear that His idea of the needs of men was quite different from their’s. The same reason lies at the root of His rejection by the authorities and people of Jerusalem. This is brought out in this eighth chapter. “Many had believed on Him” (John 8:30); that is to say, they believed on Him as Nicodemus had believed; they believed He was the Christ. But as soon as He explained to them (John 8:32; John 8:34) that the freedom He brought was a freedom attained through knowing the truth, a freedom from sin, they either were unable to understand Him or were repelled, and from believers became enemies and assailants.

It may have been with reluctance our Lord disclosed to those who had some faith in Him, that in order to be His disciples (John 8:31) they must accept His word, and find in it the freedom He proclaimed. He knew that this was not the freedom they sought. But it was compulsory that He should leave them in no dubiety regarding the blessings He promised. It was impossible that they should accept the eternal life He brought to them, unless there was quickened within them some genuine desire for it. For what prevented them from receiving Him was not a mere easily rectified blunder about the Messianic office, it was an alienation in heart from a spiritual conception of God. And accordingly in depicting the climax of unbelief John is careful in this chapter to bring out that our Lord traced His rejection by the Jews to their inveterate repugnance to spiritual life, and their consequent blinding of themselves to the knowledge of God. “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God” (John 8:47). “Ye seek to kill Me, because My word hath no place in you [finds no room in you]. I speak that which I have seen with My Father; and ye do that which ye have seen with your father” (John 8:37-38).

2. Here, as elsewhere, therefore, our Lord traces the unbelief of the Jews to the blindness induced by alienation from the Divine. They do not understand Him, because they have not that thirst for truth and righteousness which is the best interpreter of His words. “Why do ye not understand My speech? even because ye cannot bear My word.” It was this word of His, the truth regarding sin and the way out of it, which sifted men. Those who eagerly welcomed salvation from sin because they knew that bondage to sin was the worst of bondages (John 8:34), accepted Christ’s word, and continued in it, and so became His disciples (John 8:31). Those who rejected Him were prompted to do so by their indifference to the Kingdom of God as exhibited in the person of Christ. He was not their ideal. And He was not their ideal, because however much they boasted of being God’s people God was not their ideal. “If God were your Father, ye would love Me; for I proceeded forth and came from God” (John 8:42). Jesus is conscious of adequately representing God, so that to be repelled by Him is to be repelled by God. It is really God in Him that they dislike. This is not only His own judgment of the matter. It is not a mere fancy of His own that He truly represents the Father, for “neither came I of Myself, but He sent me.” He was sent into the world because He could represent the Father.

The rejection of Jesus by the Jews was therefore due to their moral condition. Their condition is such that our Lord does not scruple pungently to say, “Ye are of your father the devil.” Their blindness to the truth and virulent opposition to Him proved their kinship with him who was from the beginning a liar and a murderer. They are so completely under the influence of sin that they are unable to appreciate emancipation from it. They look for satisfaction so determinedly in an anti-spiritual direction, that they are positively enraged at One who certainly has power, but who steadfastly uses it for spiritual purposes. Out of this condition they can be rescued by believing in Christ. Into the mystery which surrounds the possibility that such a belief should be cherished by any one in this condition, our Lord does not here enter. That it is possible, He implies by blaming them for not believing.

It is, then, those who are unconscious of the bondage of sin who reject Christ. One of the sayings with which He sifted His profoundly attached followers from the mass is this: “If ye continue in My word, then are ye My disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The “word” of which Jesus here speaks is His whole revelation, all He taught by word and action, by His own habitual conduct and by His miracles. This it is which gives knowledge of the truth. That is to say, all the truth which men require for living they have in Christ. All knowledge of duty, and all that knowledge of our spiritual relations, out of which we can draw perennial motive and unfailing hope, we have in Him. The “truth” disclosed in Christ, and which emancipates from sin, must not be too carefully defined. But while leaving it in all its comprehensiveness, it must be noted that the truth which especially emancipates from sin and gives us our place as children in God’s house, is the truth revealed in Christ’s Sonship, the truth that God, in love and forgiveness, claims us as His children. In its own measure every truth we learn gives us a sense of liberty. The truth emancipates from superstition, from timorous waiting upon the opinion of authorities, from all that cramps mental movement and stunts mental growth; but the freedom here in view is freedom from sin, and the truth which brings that freedom is the truth about God our Father, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on John 8:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/john-8.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, July 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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