Imagine the fate of your credibility and a complete stranger riding on a decision you needed to make in the heat of a tense moment.
No doubt, it’s hard to fathom such a perfect storm in our personal lives; however, when we look at Christ’s ministry, we find such challenges playing a regular role.
Take John 8 for instance, where we find Jesus, once again, navigating harsh winds, this time in the form of a devious scheme.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The Law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” (v. 4-5)*
Off the bat, we see Jesus disrupted by a parade of Pharisees and religious fanatics, carrying not only an adulteress, but a manipulative plot to derail him of influence. Talk about a flammable situation! Yet, it’s at the point the ploy enters the red zone, when Jesus prepares for a stunning interception.
While Jesus could have delivered a crushing reply right on demand, what we find in verse 6 is as telling as any other Scriptural revelation of Christ’s character. Rather than immediately responding, Jesus, in a remarkable display of humility, puts his finger on the dirt and begins to write.
But before we discuss what Jesus wrote, let’s address the bigger picture first. Regardless of what was written in the sand, the overarching point is Jesus referenced his Father at one of the most crucial points in his entire ministry and postured himself to receive the right response. By aligning his lens, Jesus synced his words to what God wanted him to speak:
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…”**
Talk about life literally speaking, while snuffing out the prospect of death. The moment was essentially a preview of the cross.
Now, we’re going to pause for two reasons:
Number one, to soak in the brilliance of one of the greatest sentences ever spoken; and two, to keep us from a premature analysis of the crowd’s reaction.
Clearly, the apex of the entire story lies in Jesus’ masterfully-executed comeback, a response with inspiration rooted in Scripture (see Deuteronomy 17:7, 22:22).
And while some may question if the woman was caught in the act (since the man in the act was absent from the scene), the genius of Jesus’ counter is how it makes this argument a moot point.
Essentially, Jesus told off an entire mass of bloodthirsty maniacs:
He whose conscience acquits him of any such sin…cast the first stone.***
You talk about a concise, well-rounded retort with no loops holes. If Jesus was a pitcher, no doubt, this was the equivalent of a perfect game.
Yet, there’s also significance in the chronology of the story. After Jesus’ reply, we find another profound observation in verse 8:
“And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.”
So now we see Jesus not only speaking, but operating cool under fire. Instead of standing up to the masses or walking over to console the woman, he hits the dirt for a second time. The question is: Why did he do this and what message was he trying to send, if any?
To answer this, we can now address the significance and content of what Jesus wrote in the sand.
Interestingly enough, the John 8 account is the only report of Jesus writing in the Bible, and the allusion to ‘finger’ may, in fact, point to the only other ‘deity writing’ reference – God’s commandment inscription on the stone tablets in Exodus 31.
Does this imply Jesus was actually writing the seventh commandment in the sand? It’s certainly plausible.
Yet, when we examine Jeremiah 17:13, we uncover a gleam of prophetic foreshadowing:
“O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.”
Now, is this passage directly pointing to John 8? Some scholars would say so, partly based on the hint in v. 9:
“[And] 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.”
Based on the verse’s timetable, Jesus could have written the names of the accusers as well as their respective sins in the dirt. Then again, Jesus could have simply been doodling hearts and/or crosses as he waited on God.
Either way, the act bore symbolic significance, given the ‘finger’ represented Jesus’ messiahship and captured the heart of his character as he, “neither found fault with the law, nor excused the prisoner's guilt; nor did he countenance the pretended zeal of the Pharisees.”
Instead Jesus “aimed to bring, not only the accused to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors also, by showing them their sins; they thought to in snare him, he sought to convince and convert them…in this matter Christ attended to the great work about which he came into the world, that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save.” ****
So whatever Jesus did write, whether one word, an entire Scripture or a reference to one, his goal became fixed on opening eyes to his mercy and compassion. For Jesus knew by conquering evil intentions, he could use drama as a springboard to reveal not only his identity (i.e. “light of the world”), but the power of his testimony.
But before Jesus approaches the second half of his contest with the Pharisees, we note an iconic scene unfolding as the dust settles on what's now an abandoned conspiracy. Sandwiched between his set of disputes, we find Jesus alone with the woman.
“‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ No one, Lord,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and sin no more.’”
Note how Jesus emphasizes the absence of condemnation before personally declaring his lack of it. One could only imagine what the woman might have thought at this point. Chances are no matter how she felt, it was accompanied by trembling and reverent awe (see Psalm 96:9 & Psalm 119:120).
For in one defining moment, Jesus unveiled his very purpose: to save.
Thousands of years later, the story lives on, in part, to remind us how we are all like the adulteress.
Every day, we deserve the stone, but every day, we are being saved from it…
…with every day, a chance to go and sin no more.
And that, my friends, is the joy of the cross – the gift of celebrating resurrection and redemption at the same time. The thrill of commemorating the perfect atonement who spoke the perfect words at the perfect time.
So if you feel lost in the dark, remember the light of the world is always near, ready to author His love onto the tablet of your heart.
All you need to do is believe and receive.
*Cue Admiral Ackbar
**Mufasa tingles, anyone?
***Jamieson Fausset Brown commentary
**** Matthew Henry’s commentary
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