THE BUSINESS OF FORGIVENESS
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
July 26, 2020
They went each to his own house, 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
— John 8:1-11, ESV
I miss John Prine. Outside of the Psalmist, and Isaac Watts, and Bob Dylan, He is the most honest, gracious, and redemptive songwriter to ever pen a tune. Due to his age and preexisting conditions, he succumbed to Covid-19 on April 7.
Prine is also one of those rare artists who saved his best for last. “The Tree of Forgiveness,” his final album, is far and away his best. It earned his highest ranking ever on the charts and garnered for Prine his tenth and eleventh Grammy nominations, plus his third Grammy Award, for lifetime achievement. The title of the album came from a line in its closing song, “When I Get to Heaven.” When he gets to Heaven, Prine wrote,
Then as God is my witness, I'm gettin' back into show business,
I'm gonna open up a nightclub called “The Tree of Forgiveness,”
And forgive everybody ever done me any harm.
All of us should aspire to have this final song in life, “When I Get to Heaven.” But you cannot get there unless you climb up the “Tree of Forgiveness” and taste some of the free and un-forbidden fruit. I’m not sure God has a nightclub waiting for us in Heaven, but I do know He is in the business of forgiveness.
The business of forgiveness is pictured here in a spurious text, John 8:1-11. It presents us with a scandalous sinner. And, it centers on the sublime Savior who owns this business of forgiveness. He is a controversial character Himself, who under the greatest of pressure and nearing an appointment with His own death, somehow found the perfect words to say to diffuse a deadly situation and bring peace, and forgiveness, to all who will have it.
The Questionable Story
Those of you who use any kind of Study Bible will notice the notes that call this text into question. There is only scant evidence of its inclusion in early editions of John, and also in Luke. The text disappears from the copied manuscripts of the Gospel of John until it emerged in the second millennium. If you understand the Feast of Tabernacles, with its great emphasis on water and light, then you can see how John 7:37-52 should be immediately followed by John 8:12ff. Also, John never used the combination “scribes and Pharisees” elsewhere in his Gospel, although it is found often in Luke.
On the other hand, it was a Judean story, which primarily interested John as opposed to the Galilean domination of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It painted the Pharisees in a bad light, the only color John used when discussing the group, Nicodemus excepted. The character, courage, and compassion of Jesus is spot on with everything else we read about Him in the rest of the Bible. Furthermore, great saints like Augustine and Calvin attest to the genuineness of this text.
So while the placement of the story may be questionable, it is unquestionable to me that this is an inerrant account of the nature of sin and the character of Jesus. It most likely occurred not at the Feast of Tabernacles, but at the subsequent Passover, which would be Jesus’ last. The motif of sleeping on the Mount of Olives and rising early to go to the Temple and teach matches nicely with the other biblical narratives surrounding Passion Week.
In the story a woman’s life is on the line, but so is Jesus’. He is the one the Pharisees really wanted, and they orchestrate these events to put the Lord between a rock and a hard place, between Jewish customs and Roman jurisprudence, between Old Testament law and New Testament grace, between the death penalty and lifesaving mercy. This so-called spurious story is a spiritual story of a scandalous sinner and a sublime Savior.
The Apprehended Sinner
We do not know her name, we only know what she did. Actions do speak louder than words. Because of one action and in a few words, this person is known to us only as “a woman … caught in adultery.” How would you like to have that written on your tombstone?
Perhaps this was an original story in John that got cut out because the church did not want to be seen as going to easy on adultery. After all, adultery breaks one of the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. It is forbidden in the New Testament as well. Adultery does more to break down virtue and break up families than almost any other sin. It is a serious transgression and the wounds it causes should be taken seriously; but, not with a pharisaical attitude.
The Pharisees … boo! Even though adultery is terrible and the woman is culpable, she does not seem to be the worst sinner in this story. When a little boy is cheating on a test in school and a little girl points it out in public to the teacher, who is wrong and who is right, and who gets our sympathy and who gets our disdain? It is our fallen human nature, or is it the vestige of imago deo, or a little bit of both, that causes us to pity the criminal and punish the police?
But the Pharisees were not the police. They were perpetrators, having conspired to set the whole thing up to shame the woman and corner Christ into a no-win situation. They were chauvinists, too, for where was the man caught in adultery? They were abusers of Scripture, for not all adultery is commanded to end in stoning, otherwise how did King David die of old age? They were cruel, without compassion, trying to make themselves look spiritually rich at this other sinners’ expense. They, not the woman, were the most scandalous sinners in this story.
All to often we team up with them, the woman and the Pharisees. Anytime we if we have lust in our hearts, or anytime we have been unfaithful to God, we are the woman caught in adultery. Anytime we think someone else’s sin is worse than our own, or we want someone punished for a sin we too are guilty of, we are Pharisees.
So who is the scandalous sinner now? Who desperately needs forgiveness now? We all do. We all need to go shopping in the business of forgiveness.
The Merciful Savior
The business of forgiveness is run by the ultimate Joe Cool. Jesus is His name, and grace under pressure is His game. The way He was born, the way He slid in and out of the Temple at age twelve, the way He came on the scene and conducted Himself during His three years of public ministry, were supremely sublime. I especially love this story, spurious or not, for He was never more cool, calm, and collected than right here.
Christ did not answer them at first, which means that He, the God-man, took time to think before He spoke, a practical lesson for us all. When He did speak, Jesus correctly applied Scripture where the Pharisees had misinterpreted it. When stoning is to be carried out, it has to be instigated by the witnesses to the capital crime, and it is stipulated that said witness cannot be in any way party to or guilty of the same crime (ref. Deuteronomy 13:9, 17:7). Therefore, the Lord’s words based on God’s word came out this way:
Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.
This devastated and disarmed the Pharisees, who were no doubt already collecting rocks. They were guilty of spiritual, mental, and in some cases physical adultery themselves. Their murderous plot was foiled, both to kill the woman before the Jews and to kill Jesus before the Romans (though they would succeed on another day). So they crawled back into the hole they came out of and went away, at least for a time, leaving Jesus and the woman alone, to conduct the business of forgiveness.
The Business of Forgiveness
The business of forgiveness begins with just you and God, alone. You must stand before him, guilty of a multitude of sins, the greatest of which is unfaithfulness to Him. You cannot hide your guilt from Him, for He has seen it all. And you must know He has the power and authority to punish you, capitally and eternally.
The business of forgiveness is run by God, and God alone. God alone has the power to forgive sins, which Jesus claimed during His ministry, thereby claiming to be God. The woman caught in adultery would not have known Jesus as God, at first, but by the end of the episode she did call on the name of the “Lord.” I think the woman saw something in Jesus’ eyes that she had never seen in another man. Instead of lust, she saw love. Instead of arrogance, she sensed forgiveness, which was confirmed when Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” Perhaps she saw in His eyes a reflection of her past self, sinning in a bed in which she did not belong. Perhaps she saw in His eyes an image of His future self, condemned by Pilate, nailed to a cross, buried in a tomb. The business of forgiveness requires such a sacrifice.
The business of forgiveness deals in currency issued by God in a two-sided coin. On one side of the coin is faith, the faith that recognizes the Lordship of Christ and calls upon His name, His grace, and His mercy. On the other side of the same coin is repentance, the gift and the will to “go, and from now on sin no more.” Without faith in Jesus and repentance from sin, you cannot receive anything from God’s business of forgiveness.
The business of forgiveness is open to everyone. However, people do not usually come on their own. They have to be brought, or in the woman’s case, caught. Those Pharisees unintentionally did this woman a favor, for they brought her to Jesus, and His business of forgiveness. Have you been caught? Or, is your sin known only to you and God. Either way, come on in. Enter into God’s business of forgiveness, where amazing grace and abundant mercy are absolutely free.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org