God's Trustworthy Word & His Mercy in Christ
Topic: Scripture Passage: John 7:53–8:11
Sermon from John 7:53-8:11 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, February 2, 2014
We’ve had quite an extended break from our study of John’s Gospel. We left off in 7:52 back in November, right before Thanksgiving and the Advent season; but we return to our walk through John today. One of the many reasons I prefer teaching through books of the Bible as a regular practice for the church is that it forces us to deal with difficult passages instead of passing them over at the preacher’s convenience. It’s not that the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus is—on its own—difficult to understand. In fact, it may be one of the easiest stories to understand as it paints a glorious picture of God’s mercy in Jesus triumphing over judgment. We will talk more of God’s mercy in Christ towards the end of the sermon, but first I want to address what does make this passage a difficult one.
The Difficulty of John 7:53-8:11
What makes it difficult are the obvious questions that rise from whether this story originally belonged to John’s Gospel at all. Please hear me say up front that whether this passage belongs to Scripture does not negate God’s truthfulness or his mercy in Christ. I hope to address both of those subjects this morning. But I refuse to leave us naïve to the fact that nearly all modern English translations separate this story from the rest of John’s Gospel with double brackets—as you see the ESV does, beginning with 7:53 and continuing through 8:11—or, other English translations relegate the entire story to a footnote. The two exceptions to this are the King James and New King James Versions, which don’t account for the oldest manuscript evidence discovered since the printing of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament in 1516. That’s not a knock against the King James or New King James Versions, but only to point out the difference.
Based on the earliest manuscript evidence, most English translations do not see this story as part of John’s Gospel. In fact, the ESV Study Bible—which, in my judgment, is the best study Bible available, representing the judgment of 95 evangelical scholars and pastors—makes this comment on John 7:53-8:11:
“There is considerable doubt that this story is part of John’s original Gospel, for it is absent from all of the oldest manuscripts…It seems best to view the story as something that probably happened during Jesus’ ministry but that was not originally part of what John wrote in his Gospel. Therefore it should not be considered as part of Scripture and should not be used as the basis for building any point of doctrine unless confirmed in Scripture” (p. 2039).
That judgment is true of many solid, evangelical scholars, who have weighed the historical data—brothers who are able to confess the same statement of faith that we do on the authority and inerrancy and trustworthiness of the Bible—brothers that include D. A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (John, 333-34), and Andreas Köstenberger of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (John, 245-49); and you need to know that I agree with their conclusions.
Five Reasons for the Brackets in Your English Translations
The reasons for drawing this conclusion usually go something like this. One, the story of the woman caught in adultery does not appear in the earliest manuscript copies of John’s Gospel until the fifth-century AD. Two, when the story does appear in those later manuscripts, it does so in six different places—either after 7:36 (codex 225), or after 7:44 (Georgian MSS), or after 7:52 (codex 115), or at the end of John’s Gospel altogether (Armenian MSS), or in a couple of places in Luke’s Gospel, after 21:38 (f13), or after 24:53 (corrector of 1333). So even when it does appear later, it’s fairly unstable. Three, when the earliest church Fathers give their commentary on John’s Gospel, like Origen, their commentary moves from 7:52 directly into 8:12, meaning their manuscripts likely did not contain it. Four, chapter 7 flows right into chapter 8 without this story present. I’ll take it this way next week, as the whole of chapter 8 still pictures Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles addressing the same Jewish crowds. And five, the style and vocabulary in this story is much different than what you find throughout the rest of John’s Gospel, implying it belongs to someone else. So, those are the reasons why the double brackets exist in your English translations.
The Transmission of the New Testament
Now, what this does is give me an opportunity to address the transmission of Holy Scripture—that is, how God’s word came to us through various copies over the centuries—and help you see that what you hold in your hands is in fact God’s trustworthy word insofar as it represents the original text. We’re about to get somewhat technical—and some of you are going to feel like you’re in a classroom for the next 15 minutes—but I’m doing this so that you’re faith isn’t rocked like mine was when my skeptical professor in college used a text like this one to try to undermine the Christian faith. It’s one thing for various critics to challenge the authority of Scripture through historical objections—like whether the books of the Bible are just a bunch of forgeries, or the resurrection of Jesus is legitimate—or logical objections—like whether Matthew’s Gospel contradicts Mark’s Gospel, or whether Jesus' teaching contradicts Paul's teaching—or even moral objections—like whether God is right to annihilate a city Sodom or destroy the people of Jericho. These are all objections to the authority of God’s word, because they all strike at whether the words of Scripture are actually true. And, at the time, I could handle most of those, and give reasonable answers to each of these objections, especially with the help of others.
But what totally blindsided me was my professor’s textual objection, namely, whether we have the words of Holy Scripture at all. You see, most objections to the Christian faith at least grant you the Bible; but he was attempting to take away even that. What he was arguing was that a passage like the one we’re dealing with today—where there’s great uncertainty about it belonging to John’s Gospel—was actually just one illustration among thousands of others that created uncertainty about the entirety of the New Testament documents. He was arguing—and there’s a very zealous, popular scholar nowadays who’s arguing the same thing, Bart Ehrman (see his Misquoting Jesus)—“what good is it to talk about the Bible, and what it says is true, when we don’t know which words ultimately belong to it and which words do not. In other words, why bother with whether the Bible is true, if we can’t even discern the Bible from the manuscripts we have?”
That objection can really rock your faith five years after you’re converted. And if it doesn’t rock your faith in a classroom setting—like it did mine—are we not all faced with it at some point in our times of devotion. Yes, yes, we trust the Lord has preserved his word overall, but are we not at least somewhat discomforted by these sorts of comments in the margins of our Bibles or even in something like the Women’s Bible Study last year on John. Kathleen Nielson notes the same position on this story that the ESV Study Bible takes, and then moves along without further comment (John, 113-14). Isn’t there at least something inside of you that wonders, “What am I supposed to do with that? What does that mean for everything else I’m holding in my hands?” Some of you may have even had a few questions leap into your mind when we were in chapter 5, and dismissed verse 4 since it was absent from the earliest and best manuscripts of the New Testament: “How can you do that, right?”
And moreover, I imagine a number of you have encountered some skeptical unbeliever or zealous atheist in your personal evangelism efforts, and he’s raised this very objection about the reliability of our New Testament text. Happened to me last Thursday morning. So, as a way to equip you to answer some of these questions, I want to give you a basic framework for thinking about the transmission of the New Testament and about how variant readings like this one do not mean that everything in the Bible is up for grabs. Hopefully this will help you deal more adequately with the objections from the world as well as the doubts from within that may have troubled you before and may be troubling you now.
Inspiration Is Limited to the Original Manuscripts
First of all, we need to remember that historic Christianity has limited divine inspiration—and with that, authority, inerrancy, trustworthiness—to the original [Hebrew and Greek] manuscripts. In our own Statement of Faith, when we deny that any portion of Scripture is marked by error or the effects of human sinfulness, we mean that for the inspired text represented by the original manuscripts (Constitution III.1). The original manuscripts are also called the “autographs,” which is more so a reference to the first divinely approved transcription that “left the desk” of the prophets and the apostles, so to speak. If you want the Scripture verses for that, please see our Statement of Faith.
God Preserved His Inspired Text through Copies
Along with that, we should remember that none of these original manuscripts still exist; and to our knowledge, they perished very early. But, as we will see, we can also say that the inspired words of these original manuscripts never perished. For every generation, God has preserved his inspired word even if he used hand-written copies of the originals to convey his word. We know from our own Bibles that the Law of Moses was copied and passed on to later generations in Israel (1 Kgs 2:3; Ezra 7:14; Neh 8:8); Solomon wrote proverbs that were then copied by the men of Hezekiah (Prov 25:1); Jesus quoted from copies of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings as he taught his disciples; and the apostles quoted from copies of the Old Testament and each other’s writings in teaching the church. I bring that up simply to say that we need not have the original pages of, say, John’s Gospel or Paul’s Letters to prove we have the word of God. Even God’s word shows that a copy of the original manuscript can convey God’s authoritative message quite accurately and sufficiently.
Of course, there are also curses in the Bible that forbid any kind of copying that would misrepresent the words of the inspired originals, but that also further clarified how the copy was to be observed. Insofar as the copy represented the original text faithfully, it was to be headed as the holy word of God. So, having the physical page of an original Gospel or Letter is unnecessary as long as we have the original text preserved in copies.[1. I was immensely helped a few years ago by Greg L. Bahnsen, “Inerrancy of the Autographa,” (Covenant Media), http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pt042.htm (Accessed Feb 1, 2014); appeared first in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979).]
But here’s where matters get more complicated, because there are a plethora of manuscript copies of the New Testament. Just to give you an idea—among manuscript copies of the New Testament, there are 128 papyri (i.e., oldest manuscripts written on papyrus), 322 majuscules (i.e., all capital letters), 2,926 minuscules (i.e., lower case letters), and 2,462 lectionaries (i.e., selected Scriptures someone would read in a worship service), coming to a total of 5,838 manuscript copies of the New Testament.[2. Daniel B. Wallace, “Latest Greek New Testament Minuscules: Gregory-Aland 2916, 2925, and 2926,” (Daniel B. Wallace, August 26, 2013), http://danielbwallace.com/2013/08/26/latest-greek-new-testament-minuscules-gregory-aland-2916-2925-and-2926/ (Accessed Feb 1, 2014).] And that’s not even mentioning the additional help we get from ancient translations of the New Testament or from the over-one-million quotations of the New Testament found peppered throughout the writings of the early church Fathers. Dan Wallace, a professor at Dallas Seminary gives us this picture: “If the average-sized [manuscript] were two-and-a-half inches thick, all of the copies of the average Greek author would stack up about four feet high [authors like Livy and Tacitus and Herodotus], while the copies of the New Testament would stack up over a mile high.”[3. Daniel B. Wallace, “Laying a Foundation: New Testament Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the New Testament Text: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis, eds. Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996), 43.] Now, historically speaking, that’s really incredible that we have such an abundance of copies of the New Testament; and providentially speaking, it bears witness to God’s passion to preserve his word.
But here’s the complication with that abundance of manuscript copies: the majority of those copies differ a bit here and there when they are compared to each other—one copy will have a reading that varies slightly from another copy. And, as you can imagine, the more copies that were written over time, the more variant readings that came with them—some of which do not accurately reflect the precise wording of the original inspired text. That’s not to ascribe error to the original text inspired by God, but to the copies of the original text. Remember that insofar as the copy represented the original text faithfully, it was to be headed as the holy word of God.
Now, that can sound alarming at first that the copies we have of the New Testament contain so many variant readings. And skeptics like my college professor and Bart Ehrman use this to their own advantage, saying we cannot decipher which variant readings belong to the original text. “If so many variants exist between all these manuscripts,” they say, “then who’s to say which one belongs to the original text?” Let me give three answers to that objection.
God Promised His Word Will Abide Forever
First of all, we must trust that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who promised that his word will abide forever (Isa 40:8; 1 Pet 1:24-25) is trustworthy—as has been demonstrated throughout redemptive history and most pointedly in the sending of Jesus Christ—and totally able to do what he said even through fallible human means. The transmission of the New Testament has been imperfect, but it’s not the only imperfect human means God uses to convey his word. He uses fallible translations that at times need slight correction (that’s even true for the ESV); fallible pastors to explain God’s word to his people; fallible theologians throughout church history who’ve helped formulate fallible confessions and creeds. That he uses fallible means to communicate his word shouldn’t surprise any of us who know our sin and frailty. But this we can say with confidence: God is able to uphold all his promises even if fallible human means are involved. And that’s true also for the preservation of his inspired word.[4. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, A Theology of Lordship, vol. 4 (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010), 239-52.]
God Never Permits the Copies of His Word to Become Too Corrupt
Second, by God’s providential control over the universe and all the processes that belong to the preservation of his word, he never permits the copies of his word to become so corrupt that his self-revealing message becomes indiscernible.[5. See Bahnsen, “Innerancy.”] Bart Ehrman and others like him claim that more manuscript copies equals more variants equals less certainty about the original text; but that’s because they interpret the historical data through the lens of their skepticism. Historical data is always interpreted; and when you interpret the same historical data through the eyes of faith in a trustworthy and sovereign God, more manuscripts actually equals greater control over all the variants that then leads to greater certainty about which variant represents the original inspired text.[6. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable (Downers Grove: IVP, 1981), 19.]
So, using the text before us as an example, if you only had two copies of John’s Gospel from the same century, and one contained the story of the woman caught in adultery and the other didn’t contain it, the decision would be rather difficult; but that’s not the case at all with the majority of our copies. There is a multiplicity of manuscripts—from various centuries and traditions and geographical locations—that provide further witness to which variant was more faithful to the original inspired text.
God’s People Can Identify God’s Word through Textual Criticism
That leads me to a third response to guys like Ehrman, namely, Christian scholars are usually able to determine which variant reading best represents the original text. They do this through what’s called the science of textual criticism. I think a better name for it—especially if they’re believers—would be the “stewardship” of textual criticism, because God’s holy word is a treasure to us. The only way we know him and eternal life in Christ is through his inspired word, and so we do what we can to identify his original word wherever there are difficulties among the copies we have. Essentially, that means scholars look at all the manuscript evidence and choose the reading that best represents the original—and that usually means “the earliest, best, and most geographically wide-spread” variant, that “fits the context and the author’s style [and] best explains the existence of all the other variants.”[7. Wallace, “Laying a Foundation,” 55.]
That is easily done ninety-nine percent of the time, especially since the vast majority of the variants are insignificant to the meaning of the text and very easy to discern—variants like one-letter-off spelling mistakes, the use of synonyms, word order changes (which doesn’t matter a whole lot in Greek like it does in English), and harmonization of similar stories (especially in the Gospels).[8. Wallace, “Laying a Foundation,” 35.] Listen to this: only one percent of all the thousands of variants—that guys like Bart Ehrman like to bank on so much—affect the meaning of a passage,[9. Wallace, “Laying a Foundation,” 39.] and even these never call any cardinal belief of the Christian faith into question;[10. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 20: "The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affects no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice."] and that is rather amazing when you consider the transmission of Scripture over a period of 2,000 years, 1500 of which included hand-written copies. So, “yes” to the many variants, but the overwhelming majority of them can be sorted out, and even those that remain difficult never contradict the Christian faith.
John 7:53-8:11 Illustrates the Bible’s Message
In fact, the story before us today is a prime example of how a variant like this one—which English translations now rule off as a later addition—would never call into question any doctrine of the Christian faith. If anything this story illustrates what the gospel teaches us about God’s mercy in Christ; and from that we can even see why part of the church eventually found it a home in their Bibles. Many have even believed this story to be an authentic, historical account of Jesus that circulated in the church even if it doesn’t originally belong to John’s Gospel (e.g., D. A. Carson, H. Ridderbos, B. Metzger). And that may very well be the case; I hope it is. John himself even tells us toward the end of his Gospel that “there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (21:25). So there are "many other things Jesus did" and then there are what things Jesus did that were also written and recorded in Scripture such as from the hand of John the apostle. So, it could very well be a historical event, but that doesn’t make the account part of the originally inspired text.
But here me now: that does not mean we lose God’s mercy in Christ if this story does not carry with it the authority of Scripture. There are plenty of other places in the text we are certain is holy Scripture that speak of God’s mercy to guilty sinners. Plenty of places, numerous passages, hundreds of verses that bear witness to God showing mercy to sinners that looks much like the mercy Jesus shows the adulterous women in this story; and I want to leave you today grounded on that certainty as we reference other places in God’s trustworthy word to highlight it. You’ve got to love the fact that Scripture is so redundant about everything it teaches, such that even if we can’t appeal to this story as authoritative, there are many other authoritative texts to which we can appeal; and they give us the assurance that God is merciful to sinners in Jesus Christ.
I’m going to summarize what this story illustrates and then reference a few other places in the Bible that actually teach the same thing. A woman is caught in adultery—someone walked in on her sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband (8:3). The scribes and Pharisees then bring her by herself into the temple and set her before all the people and the other religious authorities. And they turn to Jesus in order to trap him—to get him to say something that undermines the Law of Moses—and say, “The Law of Moses commands us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?” (8:5). And Jesus responds, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (8:7). In other words, “Will the guiltless party please stand up?” And all of the woman’s accusers eventually walk away, leaving only Jesus with the woman (8:9). If anyone has the right to condemn the woman, it is Jesus who alone always upheld the Law to its deepest intent of love for neighbor. But he doesn’t condemn her. Jesus says to her, “Woman, where are [your accusers]? Has no one condemned you?” And she says, “No one, Lord.” And so Jesus responds, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11).
1. The Law of God exposes our guilt before God.
I think we see three major themes illustrated here that saturate the Bible. One is that the Law of God exposes our guilt before God because of our sin, our rebellion against him. This woman deserves to die for her adultery according to Deut 22:22. She is guilty and shamefully exposed, not only before the people in the temple, but before her God, namely Jesus. Romans 3:19-20 says, “we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The Law exposes us as guilty sinners, and lays us shamefully naked before God without help. The guilt is real, the shame is unbearable before the Lord. Before the searching gaze of God’s word, we are undone much like Isaiah was—“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips”—or like Peter was—“depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Hebrews 4:12-13 say, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
2. Where the Law rightly condemns us, Jesus came to bear the condemnation.
Two, where the Law rightly condemns us for our sin, Jesus came to bear the condemnation in our place. Jesus doesn’t say to her “Neither do I condemn you” as if to wink an eye at her adultery, or even as if to undermine the Law’s demand that she be punished. No, Jesus didn’t condemn her, because he would be condemned for her. The only Judge who could rightly throw the first stone, would become the judged one for her adultery. Does that not illustrate the truth of 2 Cor 5:21? “For our sake [God] made him who knew no sin to be sin [to be our adultery and our lies and our laziness and our self-righteousness and our ingratitude], so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God is so merciful to guilty sinners, because he has a perfect substitute for them. In fact, his love for guilty sinners constrained him to send the Substitute, to send the Curse-bearer. John 3:17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This is the way God is pictured throughout the Bible. I’ve been in the prophets lately for my devotions. This past week was Hosea. You cannot read the first three chapters of Hosea without having your breath taken away by God’s mercy for his adulterous people. Hosea is even asked to marry a woman that would eventually cheat on him and sell herself into all kinds of whoredom from which Hosea is then asked to rescue her again; and all of it is to be an illustration to God’s people that despite their wretched whoredom—chasing after all kinds of other gods—he will come and allure her, and bring her into the wilderness again, and speak tenderly to her. “And in that day,” he says, “You will call me, ‘My Husband’…and I will have mercy [on her who was called] No Mercy, and I will say to [the one called] Not My People,” you are my people.” It’s just breathtaking to think that this most holy God of the universe whom I’ve spurned and angered is so willing to turn to an adulterous nation like Israel and an adulterous man like me and show mercy.
Paul quotes Hosea in Rom 9:25-26 and Peter quotes Hosea in 1 Pet 2:10 to explain that such mercy finds its ultimate expression and fulfillment in the work of Jesus Christ and it comes to any one of us by faith in him, by giving yourself to him, by embracing him as your substitute, and following him as your Lord. God is in the business of rescuing guilty adulterers like all of us. He draws near to them in Christ as we saw with the Samaritan women in John 4:1-32; he delivers them from destruction as we read of Rahab in Joshua 2 and 6; he forgives their sins like we know from the ex-adulterers mentioned in 1 Cor 6:9-11; he washes away their iniquities as we know from David’s own prayer as an adulterer in Ps 51; he atones for their sins and removes their shame forever as we learn from Ezek 16; he comes to their defense when self-righteous hypocrites snub their noses at them in Luke 7:36-50; he gives them wedding clothes without spot or wrinkle as it says in Rev 19:7-8; he exchanges their ashes for a beautiful headdress and jewels as we hear the promise of Isa 61:3; and he makes them trophies of his grace in the kingdom as we learn from Eph 2:7. The Bible is replete with examples of God showing mercy to guilty, adulterous sinners through the work of Jesus Christ. And he will show mercy to you, too, if you trust him.
3. True Holiness That Glorifies God Is Fueled by the Power of Grace.
Third, true holiness that glorifies God is fueled by the power of grace. He says to the woman, “Go, and sin no more.” His word of command to “sin no more” is built on the power of grace “neither do I condemn you.” Don’t continue in your adultery not because you fear shame, but because I took your eternal shame away by forgiving your sins. The root of grace will bear the fruit of grace. We saw that very same thing as Wes exhorted us last week to do good works from Tit 3:8, and showed us very pointedly how those works flow from a heart that treasures the great things God has done for us in Christ. Or how about what Paul says in Rom 6:17-18, “thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart…having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.” Or Rom 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore…by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
So this story may not belong to the Gospel of John, but what it illustrates is found plastered everywhere in the Bible. God’s Law exposes us as guilty sinners; Jesus comes to take the punishment in our place; and he empowers holy living through the revelation of his grace in Christ. The Psalmist gives us a good summary in Ps 130:3, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, [so] that you may be feared.”
As we come to the Lord’s Supper today, may we worship God and give him thanks for preserving his trustworthy word. He has inspired and taken great care to preserve this trustworthy word, that we might find in it massive assurance about his incalculable mercies in Christ. The bread we are about to eat and the wine we’re about to drink stand as emblems to remember his mercy toward you. Though you’ve strayed and loved other idols and false gods—though your heart is prone to wonder—he has brought you once again to himself through grace, washed you clean, and invited you to sit with him at his Table. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Let us thank him for his mercy and drink with gladness.
More in The Gospel According to John
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May 17, 2015Loving Jesus & Feeding His People at All Costs
May 10, 2015Believing the Apostle's Testimony When Not Seeing Jesus