Controversial Jesus #7 - Grace
Dr. Kurt Bjorklund looks at a situation in John 8 where Jesus is confronted by a group of people that want to trap him in a situation where he will either keep the standard or be compassionate.
So, have you ever seen one of these shows, usually a cop show, a crime show of some kind, where the good people are closing in on the people who've perpetrated some kind of a crime. And usually there's a moment when the web is tightening, and the person who's kind of charged with the investigation comes, and they have a question that basically traps the person where if they answer one way or the other way, however they answer it, they are going to be caught. Do you know what I'm talking about? And it's usually a moment where you say, "Oh, they've got that person now." You've probably experienced this sometime in your own life on maybe a much less significant scale. And that is when maybe your spouse says something like, "Do these pants make me look fat?" Where you know that if you say yes, it's a bad answer. If you say no, it's a bad answer. You have to actually go off the grid and say, "You could never look fat in any pants that you would wear."
Well today, we've come in our study of the gospel of John. We've been working our way through John to John Chapter eight verses 1 through 11, and this is an account where Jesus is being trapped by the religious leaders. And what I mean is they had come and brought this woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.
In fact, the text says twice that she was caught. And the significance of that is that somebody being caught in the act of adultery for Jewish law to kick in meant that they had to actually literally be caught in the act, not just coming out of the room but caught, and the Old Testament law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, say that if somebody was caught in the act of adultery, that both the man and the woman should be put to death.
And so now, you have them coming and saying, "Let's put this woman to death." It was an obvious setup because they did not want the man there. The man wasn't there, and they're saying, "We want this woman put to death. What will you do?" And here's the trap for Jesus. If Jesus says, "Go ahead and put her to death," what he's doing is he is granting kind of something against the Roman law, which did not give the Jews this ability, and he would have been at odds with the Roman government and potentially at odds with the masses. And yet at the same time, if he says, "No, you don't need to put her to death," the people on the hard line would've said, "Well, you're not holding up law." In other words, you're caught between a standard and between compassion.
Now, before we move on, I just want to say that this text, if you look at it in your Bible, is usually in Italics and there's a little footnote at the bottom that says, "The earliest manuscripts do not contain this text." In fact, this is one of the reasons that we didn't have it read today, because normally if you're at any of our venues, we have the text read before the teaching, and then somebody will say, "This is the word of the Lord." And we do that to mark off the moment in our gatherings where we say this is actually God's word verses the words that come next from me or any other teacher that are merely our words. We certainly hope they reflect God's word, but it's different. It's distinct from God's word.
So, you may say, "Well, if it wasn't in the earliest manuscripts, why would we consider it?" Well, it's historically been in the gospel of John, and most scholars believe that this was a literal event, that it's historical, but that it doesn't necessarily belong in John. In other words, it wasn't part of John's original writings. So, here's what I believe around this. And that is, I believe that it's a good illustration of things that are taught in other places in the Bible. And so, what we'll do with this today is we'll look at this and consider it, but we'll verify or say, "Where are the principles taught in other places in the Bible, and how is it illustrated here?"
And here's what you have. You have Jesus being caught, trapped between expressing compassion or holding to a standard. And this is something, that if you're a follower of Jesus, you've probably experienced yourself. In fact, it's not lost, I think, on me at least, that the issue here was sexual ethics. If you've been a follower of Christ for any time you've been in a conversation with somebody somewhere who said, "I don't care much for what the Bible says about this. How can you believe that?" And you feel caught between being compassionate to somebody or saying there's a standard, and it isn't just around issues of sexual ethics, but it happens all the time.
And so, what you find here is this, and that is you find that this person, you or me, are often caught between saying, "I'm going to keep the standard that God gives us, or I'm going to express compassion." And that those two things feel, oftentimes, like they are mutually exclusive.
You know what I'm talking about? And this is, by the way, one of the reasons a lot of people dislike Christianity and Christians because what they feel like is Christians are always talking about some standards, some archaic standard, and they don't care much for people. They're always trying to insist that people behave in a certain way, that they want people to behave rather than caring about people and where they are.
And so, we come to this and what I'd like to say today is that that sense of feeling trapped, that Jesus felt, that if you're a follower of Jesus, you might feel, or even if you tried to just interpret the teachings of the Bible or of Jesus, you might feel, we can see that there are two truths that are illustrated in this passage that are taught clearly elsewhere in the Bible that help us understand how to resolve this tension.
Here's the first truth, and that is simply ... I'm going to say that the first truth is the universality of sin. Now again, I understand that many people, when they even hear this word sin say, "This is part of what I don't like about Christians. They're always talking about sin and what's wrong and how people are in violation of God's kind of standards. Why don't we just live and let live? Why don't we just enjoy life and forget all of the standard stuff?"
But here's what we read in Romans chapter two verse one. It says this, "You therefore have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for whatever point you judge another you are condemning yourself because you who pass judgment do the same things."
So, what Romans two says is that if you look at somebody else and say, "You're wrong. You're in sin", that you are guilty yourself.
Romans Chapter two verse 22 has the same sentiment. You who say that people should not commit adultery. Do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? And then a very clear statement. Romans three 23, it says, "For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
And this is exactly what Jesus illustrates in this little story, this account, is Jesus, when the men come and say, "We want to have this woman's stoned. She committed adultery. We caught her in the act." Which would have been a set up. Jesus says, "Well, who of you is without sin? I want you to throw the first stone."
And what Jesus illustrates here is this idea that one of the ways that we address this idea of standard is not by getting rid of a standard, but it's by saying that there's a standard that's given in such a way that all people, including me, including you, can't keep that standard completely. In other words, that we all fall under this idea of sin.
But you see what happens for many of us is we like to break the world into good people and bad people, and we like to assign ourselves to a place with the good people. What we like to do, and it really doesn't matter where you start because you may say, "Well, that's not me." But I'll show you in just a moment how it is still you. What happens is people will do it around sexual ethics. We're the people of family values. We're the party that believes in preserving the future, and there's bad people out there who want something different.
Or, you go on the other end of the spectrum and people will say, "Look, let people do what they want to do in their own bedroom. Their bedroom is their business. It's no one else's business. But what we care about is we care about justice. We care about equality. We care about the poor, and we want a society that's just an equal. And we're not like those other people who don't care about it." Do you see how that works?
And even if you say, "Look, I'm just a person who says everybody should have their own way, their own path." Do you know what you do? You may not say it, but, but in a sense, what you're doing is you're saying, "See, we're the good people who just let everyone else live. And it's those people who are always telling other people how they should live, they're the bad people."
And so what happens is there's this natural pull to say, "Me and the way that I interpret the world, live in my world is good. And other people are bad. They're the bad ones. I'm the good one. And so my standard is good."
And even if you believe in the universality of sin, what happens is it doesn't stop us from sometimes comparing distances, from saying, "I'm going to compare myself with other people to feel somehow better about myself and my own status in whatever standard that I might use." And so the comparisons don't kind of alleviate this. Goodness doesn't alleviate it either because at the core, even our good things are often done to prop ourselves up somehow.
Fleming Rutledge put it this way. "Whenever we are sure that we are among the righteous, we immediately find ourselves among the arrogant." As soon as we're confident that we have it right, what happens is then we're among the arrogant, and here's what Jesus illustrates in this account. These people come, and they probably were technically right, and Jesus says, "But you're wrong because you're not taking into account your own sinfulness in this account."
Now you may say, "Okay, well what does this do for this tension between a standard and compassion?" Well, what it does is it helps somebody to say, not there is no standard, but I, myself, am not somebody who feels I'm above a standard, and you're below the standard. So many times when people look at Christians, and they say, "What I don't like about Christians as they're always judging people." The reason is, is because a lot of Christians have put themselves on the right side of something, and everybody else on the wrong side of something, rather than saying, "We're all on the wrong side."
And I realize that that's not the easiest message because some of us come here, and we say, "I don't want to be told again that I'm part of this universal sin issue." And so what some of us will do is we will deny our own sinfulness, we'll summon our inner lawyer, and we'll argue with this whole notion that we're sinful, and we'll say, "There may be other people who are sinful. I may have done a few like misguided things in my life, but sin real sin, no, no, no, no, that's not me." Or we'll excuse it. We'll say, "Well, maybe I did something that wasn't awesome. You know, I may have done something that wasn't great, but the reason I did it is because she made me do it. He made me do it." If you're married, that's by the way, one of our favorite things, you know? They made me do it.
And then the other option is simply to say, "I acknowledge it. I admit it, I own it." And when we get to that point, what it does is, is it levels the ground. Because instead of saying, "I have it right. You have it wrong." What happens is you say there is a standard, I don't get rid of the standard, but what I do instead is I say, "But I know that I'm not worthy in my own being either."
There's a rendition, not a rendition, but a song that Sufjan Stevens wrote and recorded a few years ago. It was called John Wayne Gacey Jr., and it was about a mass murder, John Wayne Gacey Jr. who lured young men to his home and would kill them and bury them under his floorboards. And the song was about his life and about the trajectory of it. And then in an artistic way, Sufjan, at the end of the song in the last stanza, puts it like this. He says, "And in my best, best behavior, I'm really just like him. Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets that I have hid." And what he says beautifully in an artistic way right there is he says there's a universality of sin. You can look and say, "I'm better than a mass murder", but there is still something hidden in our floorboards that are the secrets that we carry.
And the theological accuracy, I love of that song in the sense of he doesn't say, "That's okay. People will be people. They'll do what they do. There is no standard." But he identifies with somebody that's so horrific that you have a moment of saying, "No, no, no, not me." But theologically it's spot on because that is what the Bible teaches, and Jesus here illustrates this by taking these self-righteous individuals and saying, "Do you want to throw the first stone?"
And the text says that they went away, the oldest first, which is just this little detail, but possibly what it points to is that as we age, a lot of times we become less certain of our own rightness. Now sometimes that seems to work the opposite way, but that's what seems to be in view here.
So, that's the first truth, the universality of sin. Here's the second, and that is the possibility of grace. And we see this in Romans chapter six verse 23, again, just very clearly, explicitly taught, says, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
And then in Titus chapter three, we read these words, Titus chapter three verses four through seven, it says, "But when the kindness and love of God, our savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ, our savior. So that having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs, having hope."
Jesus saves us, not because of the things that we do, but because of his grace, because of what Jesus Christ has done. And here's the overall teaching of the New Testament, and that is there's a universality of sin. There's a standard. You and I can't keep it, but Jesus went to the cross on behalf of people who have blown it, and there's a possibility of grace.
And what we see in this story, what we see Jesus doing is, is he stoops, and he writes down in the sand, and again, we don't really know what he wrote because we're never told, but it's possible that he was just articulating a standard or pointing out something or at least just saying, "I'm the one who gives this standard." But whatever he wrote, what happens is, is the accusers leave, and Jesus turns to this woman, and he says to her, he says, "Where have your accusers gone?" She said, it says, "They've left." And then he says, "Neither do I condemn you."
And he pictures and illustrates for us, this concept of incredible grace that God offers to people. And here's why this is so striking and jarring because when you or I do something that we wish we had not done, sometimes you'll hear a little voice, not maybe a literal voice, but a sense of an impression or whatever that says, "Look what you've done." And it's an accusing voice. And what Jesus, in a sense, is illustrating here is the teaching of the New Testament that is the absolving voice that says, "When you hear that little voice that says, "Look what you've done. You're unlovable. You're unforgivable. You're past any kind of mercy." We hear the voice of Jesus that says, "No, I want you to look at what I've done, not look at what you've done. Look at what I've done because that's where grace is encountered."
There's a play that has gotten a lot of acclaim in recent days. It's made its way from Broadway to touring the country. I'm speaking of Hamilton. It came to Pittsburgh a while back. I didn't go, but Alexander Hamilton's on our $10 bill, and the play has had a lot of acclaim because of the great writing, acting, the costumes, everything that goes with it. But you know how the play starts with, what the very first line is? Again, I haven't seen it, but I've heard this, read this. It says this. It says, this is Alexander Hamilton asking the question. He says, "How does a bastard orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"
And I think that at least part of the reason for Hamilton's success, beyond the kind of theatrical brilliance, is that it asks this question about how can I, who was born in an impoverished area, to horrible situations, with so many things against me, rise to this level? It's a question about grace, and there's something in us that loves a story about somebody receiving and experiencing grace, and this is actually the story, the story that Jesus illustrates that's told over and over by the cross of Jesus Christ.
Now, notice that at the end, after Jesus has said, "Neither do I condemn you." He says, "Go and sin no more." He doesn't say, "There's no foul here." He says, "Go and sin no more." But here's the challenge. What happens for many people, especially people who've been around church a long time, is we start to think that if we go and sin no more then we'll experience grace rather than understanding that grace always precedes ultimate obedience. And what I mean by that is when we obey out of fear for saying, "I hope that if I obey, I'll get grace, I'll get something from God." What happens is now we're working and trying to get something, but notice the order Jesus says, "I don't condemn you." Then he says, "But go and sin no more." Or go and leave your life of sin is what he says.
And so, we have the universality of sin, and we have the possibility of grace. Now, let me come back to the tension that we started with, this idea of standard and compassion. And I want to speak here just for a few moments about what happens when you or I are confronted with, there should be a standard, but I want to be compassionate, and I want to, and if you were in the Strip district a few weeks ago when I spoke there, I did something similar. So, forgive maybe a smudge of repetition. But, if you think of this as a little two by two chart, and you think here of kind of keeping the standard, and down here you kind of relax the standard on the other end, and over here you demonstrate or show compassion. You have much compassion, and over here you have little compassion.
If you think of it this way, what happens is in our culture, what we're told is high compassion means no standard. In other words, if you want to be loving, what you have to do is you have to accept everything and not say anything to anybody about what could be wrong about what they do. Now, there is certainly a time to say, it's not your place to just give your opinion to everybody every time, but I would argue that in a lot of ways, this is an indulgent approach.
And the reason I say this is because when you say, "I'm simply going to be compassionate and not have any standard or any kind of higher authority", what you're doing is you're saying, "Just do whatever you want."
I don't know if you've ever been in a store when you come across some parents who have this approach in parenting. You know, you're in a grocery store somewhere, and you come across the parents who act like they're negotiating with a terrorist to get the kid through the store. You know what I'm talking about? And the parent will say, "Hey, look, if you'll just be good through the frozen foods, I'll get you some ice cream or a candy bar at the end." And they'll do this whole thing, this whole song and dance to get the kid just to get through the whole store experience. Well, do you know what they're demonstrating? It's saying, "We're all about loving on little Timmy. We don't have any standards." And the truth is that love actually involves standards.
Again, if you were to take the parenting analogy, if you were to say to your child, "You can go ahead and swim in that pond that has toxic waste because I have no standards. You do what you want. You do you. You live the way you want to live." That's not loving. That's actually indulgent. It's negligent, in a way.
Now, I realize, as a parent, you have a responsibility that you may not feel like you have with people in general, and that's probably true, but there's still a sense of being indulgent.
In this quadrant here, when there's little compassion, but you want to keep the standard, what you end up with is self-righteousness.
Somebody last night suggested an I-word because this one's an I-word too. This is indifference down here, and they said, "Indignant works up here." But this is indifference down here. So, if you have little compassion, relaxed standard, you're indifferent. You just say, "I don't care. Do whatever you want." If you say, "I'm all about the standard. The standard is the standard. I have to keep telling people what I believe all the time, and there's little compassion." You become self-righteous. But what you see in Jesus here, and I'm just going to call this Jesus' way, is you see high compassion, high standard keeping. And I believe that this is actually what is most compelling, especially when this understanding of the universality of sin is part of it and the possibility of grace, because the universality of sin says, "Yes, there is a standard, but I don't keep it either. I need compassion."
So, it's not pointing the finger at somebody and saying, "You're wrong." What it's doing is it's saying there is something that that is right and wrong in this world, and Jesus offers a way out. You see what happens in our society today, and this may be why the church, on a whole I think, is losing a voice in our culture, is because what happens in so many places is churches or Christians will say, "Jesus loves you. God is a god of grace. God is a god of love." And that's all true, and that's all good. But if you say that with no context, the question is so what? Of course, God loves me. I'm awesome that's what people think. But when you understand the God of love, the God of grace, the God of mercy with a God of holiness, a God of justice, a God of standards, what happens is now you understand that that grace is really amazing.
I was talking with a Christian leader recently who runs an institution of some renown, and he was trying to explain to me that in the institution that he runs that the institution doesn't take positions on any of the sexual ethics of our day. And he said, "What we do is we just simply say that each person has to follow their own conviction about what Jesus lays on their heart. Each person, that's what they need to do." And he was touting this like they a bastion of tolerance, and it was good. And that was their approach to everything, and I knew because we had talked enough that he felt that way on the sexual issues, but he didn't feel that way on race issues as he should not by the way. He had very strong opinions about the evils of systemic racism.
And so, I just said to him, I said, "You know, it's interesting to me that you've chosen sexual ethics to say everyone does their own thing, but on race, you believe that there's a standard." And he said, "Well." And he kind of danced on it. And the reason I said that was because he's absolutely right to say there is a standard, and most people should agree that racism is wrong. It's sinful. It's something that doesn't belong in our society. But yet when it comes to other issues, people want to say, "Well, you do whatever you want." Well, you wouldn't want to say that about the issue of race.
And if you do say that, and you want to be consistent, what that means is then you have to say, "Hey look, if you want to be a bigot and a racist, it's all good. If that's your conviction about how Jesus leads you, it's all good." Now, don't get me wrong. I don't think you should go around having to call out every last thing that you ever see, but what I'm saying is, is the idea of a standard of saying there is something and compassion come together beautifully in Jesus, and when his followers live the same way, I believe that it actually becomes winsome in our culture and in our world. Not with a self-righteous, we have it right, you have it wrong, but with a standard that says, "I know that we all stand short of God's glory at some point, but that's why we have grace." And here's where you will actually have this encounter for yourself that will help you live this way with people. And that is by coming back to the cross because what does the cross do? It perfectly holds a standard and expresses grace.
See at the cross, the standard is kept. Everyone's so sinful that they deserve eternal punishment, but Jesus graciously goes and takes the punishment so that those who believe in Jesus would have eternal life.
See, to the degree that you ignore or forget or just simply don't consider the cross, you will end up either becoming indulgent and overly identifying with people and lowering the standard to try to be accommodating, or you will have a standard that leads to self-righteousness, but when you sit in the reality of your own sinfulness and the grace that God has given you, then you will be able to say, "I want to live in a way that's gracious and yet holds to a standard, both."
Now, there may be disagreements about how that's all lived out, but that is how Jesus, in this illustration, got out of this tight spot, out of this trap that he was put in, and it's a way that when maybe you experience a trap, you can get out of it. And if you're here and you're saying, "Look, I still don't love that there's a standard, and I'm not sure I want a God who has a standard. I just want to God to help me." Just understand that if you read your way through the Bible, what you will see is that God has a standard, but it's for your good. But every time you blow it as you will, as everyone else does, instead of running away from God to try to avoid any responsibility, you can run toward God because of what Jesus Christ has done on your behalf, and it changes everything.
Father, we come to you today, and we ask that you would help each one of us who's a part of Orchard Hill this morning to be people who can appreciate both the standard and compassion and can live fully in both worlds because of what you've done for each person. And Father, we pray this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.