Writing in the Sand: John 7:53-8:11

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As we continue moving through John’s gospel, we come to one of the most fascinating events in the entire Bible record. This event is fascinating not just because of what is described that happened, but because there is controversy over whether this event was actually included in the original copies of John’s gospel or not.

If you pick up any modern translation of the Bible and look up our passage for this event, you will likely find a footnote, or perhaps a more visible note about many or most of the oldest manuscripts not including this event.

However, that is only part of the story. As I researched this event not too long ago, I discovered that while this event likely wasn’t included in the original copy of John’s gospel, there is no doubt that it is a very old story. Sometimes, this event is written in the margin of John’s gospel, while other times this event is included at the end of John’s gospel as one additional event that happened during Jesus’ life.

As I have studied the origins of this event, I am left to conclude that either what we are about to read happened, and that God preserved it even though John didn’t include it in His original, or that this event didn’t happen, but perhaps something similar did happen and that is how this story came to be.

Regardless of the origins of this event, when we open our Bibles and read this event, there is no escaping the clear picture of Jesus’ love for sinners. This theme is one that is included in so many of the gospels that we can easily assume that even if this event didn’t happen the way we are about to read, if a situation like this did happen, Jesus would have responded in an equally loving way!

With that said, let’s read our passage for this episode, and discover what we can learn from this event. Our passage is found in John’s gospel, at the beginning of chapter 8, however we will begin by looking at the last verse in chapter 7. Reading from the Contemporary English Version, John tells us that:

53 Everyone else went home, 8:1 but Jesus walked out to the Mount of Olives. Then early the next morning he went to the temple. The people came to him, and he sat down and started teaching them.

The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses brought in a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn’t her husband. They made her stand in the middle of the crowd. Then they said, “Teacher, this woman was caught sleeping with a man who isn’t her husband. The Law of Moses teaches that a woman like this should be stoned to death! What do you say?”

They asked Jesus this question, because they wanted to test him and bring some charge against him. But Jesus simply bent over and started writing on the ground with his finger.

They kept on asking Jesus about the woman. Finally, he stood up and said, “If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her!” Once again he bent over and began writing on the ground. The people left one by one, beginning with the oldest. Finally, Jesus and the woman were there alone.

10 Jesus stood up and asked her, “Where is everyone? Isn’t there anyone left to accuse you?”

11 “No sir,” the woman answered.

Then Jesus told her, “I am not going to accuse you either. You may go now, but don’t sin anymore.”

In this event, I am always amazed at how Jesus takes the focus off of the sinner and on to those judging. While some traditions say that Jesus was writing the sins of the woman’s accusers in the sand, nothing I see in this event prompts me to think this directly. Part of me suspects that Jesus simply chose a portion of the law that emphasized mercy, or some other relevant topic to this situation, and began writing it.

With Jesus emphasizing the demands of the law, mixed with the heart of the law, then His statement about those lacking any sin should be the first to throw the stones makes sense. I doubt that Jesus would clearly expose the religious leaders’ exact list of sins, because I don’t believe this happens anywhere else in the scripture. If you can think of a place in the gospels where one person is exposed for specific sins and specific events, then definitely let me know in the comments. It’s possible I’m forgetting an event that would set a precedent.

Instead, in other cases, it seemed like Jesus preferred challenging the religious leaders with parables that describe their behavior without calling out specific instances of sin.

With this framework, Jesus could have been writing a parable in the sand that hit at the heart of this situation. However, a story or a parable written in the sand, would likely have been remembered, copied, and ultimately preserved.

The most probable conclusion in my mind would be that Jesus began writing some Old Testament scripture, prophecy, or law, and this served as a reminder to all the accusers how their lives, attitudes, and actions were unfit to cast judgment on this woman, even if they began this event feeling fully justified.

Also, I find this event fascinating because if I’m not mistaken, this is the only time anywhere in the gospel record where I see Jesus writing anything. Jesus quotes what is written, and Jesus taught scriptures on a regular basis, but I don’t see anything recorded about Jesus personally writing anything outside of this event.

If this was the only time Jesus wrote in His entire ministry, and Jesus wrote it in the sand, making it easily removable or erasable, because Jesus chose this as His medium, we can understand several huge truths in the Bible: God’s love covers a multitude of sins. Jesus forgives us when we repent and turn to Him after we have sinned. We are invited to come to Jesus, let Him wash us, and make us as white as snow!

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

As I always challenge you to do, intentionally seek God first in your life and choose to accept the gift Jesus offers to us through what He accomplished for us on the cross. Accept Jesus’ forgiveness and His offer to wash us and make us as white as snow.

Also, continue to pray and study the Bible for yourself to learn and grow closer to God each and every day. Through the pages of the Bible, discover a God who loves us more than we can even imagine, and a God who was willing to be tortured by those He loved in order to redeem those who choose to accept His gift of redemption.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never stop short of, back away from, chicken out of, or doubt yourself out of where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year in John – Episode 19: In a controversial event included in John’s gospel, discover a huge Bible theme that is emphasized in what may have happened, and how we can see God’s love displayed within this event.

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