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By Rev Colin Wong

Preached at / Published Life BPC Weekly, 2005-07-03

Text: John 8:1-11

The Church of Jesus Christ has many unforgiven people because she has too many unforgiving people. The Church preaches forgiveness but many of her leaders and members find it hard to practice forgiveness. 

There is a saying, "To err is human; to forgive is divine." But how many of us practice this truth? When a fellow saint commits a wrongdoing (James 2:2a), it is so easy for us to criticize or condemn him or her. We are indeed good in pointing our finger at others. We have forgotten Jesus' teaching in Matthew 7:1-5. This portion of Scripture does not teach that judgments should never be made (16, 20). In verse 5 Jesus does speak of removing the speck from your brother's eye (Romans 2:1). What Jesus has in mind is that a person should not be habitually critical or condemnatory of a speck of sawdust in someone else's eye when he has a plank (a strong hyperbole for effect) in his own eye. Such action is hypocritical. 

Examples from the Gospels

Jesus was a magnanimous man. He was generous in forgiving. There are numerous examples in the Gospels that portray Jesus as a man of forgiveness. In these passages, Jesus not only taught and preached forgiveness, but he also practiced forgiveness. 

As the people flocked to hear Jesus, He delivered a series of messages commonly known as "The Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7) because it was delivered on a mountain. Touching on forgiveness, He exhorted his hearers to forgive their transgressors as God had also forgiven them. However, if they refused to forgive those who have offended them, then God would not forgive them (Matthew 6:14, 15; Luke 17:3). Elsewhere He said, "forgive, and ye shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37). 

When the Scribes accused Jesus of blasphemy, He said to them that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins, and He proved it by raising a paralyzed man. The people saw it, marveled and glorified God (Matthew 9:6, 8). 

When Peter asked Him how often he should forgive a brother who sins against him in a day, Jesus' answer was "Until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21; Luke 17:3, 4). What did He mean by "Until seventy times seven?" Did He mean 490 times? No. What He meant was unconditional, endless forgiveness. And in order to make sure His hearers understood what He had said, He told them a parable (Matthew 18:23-34) and concluded it with a warning: "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses" (Matthew 18:35). 

Even at the end of His life, Jesus still practiced forgiveness. Before He gave up His spirit, He pleaded with the Father to forgive those who put Him on the cross because they did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34). Indeed, Jesus was a man of forgiveness.

When we look at Him, we see a man full of mercy, love, grace and forgiveness. This is clearly demonstrated in His dealing with the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8:1-11. 

The Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery

The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery portrayed Jesus as a man full of mercy, love, grace and forgiveness. The Scribes and Pharisees called Him a friend of sinners because He defied the religious conventions of His day by mixing with the outcasts and sinners of society. He reached out to them with love and compassion. He poured out His love and forgiveness upon them. 

The story also teaches us the balance between justice and mercy. Raymond Brown writes of this incident in his commentary on The Gospel of John, "The delicate balance between the justice of Jesus in not condoning the sin and his mercy in forgiving the sinner is one of the great gospel lessons." 

Justice and mercy go hand in hand. When Habakkuk heard God's purpose to discipline Judah and destroy Babylon, he said, "in wrath remember mercy" (3:2). That is, in the acts of judgment, remember mercy. James reminds us that God's judgment is without mercy upon those who do not show mercy (2:13).

Jesus says, "But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt 12:7). What did He mean by "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice?" (Hosea 6.6) 

Well, knowing the background of the passage is helpful. Jesus and His disciples were going through the grainfields on the Sabbath. The disciples began to feel hungry. So they plucked the wheat and ate the grain. The Pharisees immediately jumped on them for violating the Law (Exodus 20:8-11) and accused them of working on the Sabbath. According to these self-righteous religious leaders, plucking wheat from its stem is reaping, rubbing the wheat heads between one's palms is threshing and blowing away the chaff is winnowing. 

But Jesus disputed the Pharisees' claim by using three illustrations from the life of David (i.e. for eating the shewbread which was not lawful for him to eat, Matthew 12:3, 4; 1 Samuel 21:1-6), the priest in the temple (i.e. for profaning the Sabbath and are still blameless, Matthew 12:5; Numbers 28:9, 10, 18, 19) and himself (i.e. He is greater than the temple; Jonah and Solomon, Matthew 12:6, 41, 42).

What was the problem of the Pharisees? The problem was they were splitting hairs with their technicalities about reaping, threshing, and winnowing. They failed to understand compassion for people's basic needs (in this case, the disciples' hunger; cf. Deuteronomy. 23:24-25), but were intense in their concern for the sacrifices. 

It was in this context that Jesus quoted these words from Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." Jesus is more concerned for your inner spiritual vitality than your mere external formality like coming to church or to the prayer meeting (Isaiah 1:10-17). 

Coming back to the woman caught in the act of adultery, I would like you to take a good look at her from three different perspectives - through the eyes of the Pharisees, of Jesus' eyes and of your eyes.

The Woman as Seen Through the Eyes of the Pharisees

The Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus in the court of the women, in the treasury section of the temple (20). Their motive was to test and trap Him (6) and force Him into a dilemma. If Jesus had set her free, He would have violated Moses' law (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22); if He had her stoned, He could not claim to be One who forgives sins. 

These self-righteous, self-exalted, radical, legalistic religious leaders said to Jesus, "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?" (John 8:4, 5)

As far as the Scribes and Pharisees were concerned they couldn't care less what answers Jesus would give. If He says "Forgive her," then they will be able to accuse Him of going against the Old Testament Law. And if He says, "Well, you're right, go ahead and stone her," then it will be a reversal of everything He has been teaching on mercy and forgiveness of God. 

The Scribes and Pharisees had worked out an elaborate system of rules and regulations. And in their reckoning, the only way to please God was to comply with the whole system. And here came Jesus teaching that people could receive the free grace of God and be forgiven. They could not stand a Jesus who forgave sinners. They could not understand why Jesus did not condemn the woman to death.

Dearly beloved, this is exactly what some Christians do. Like the Scribes and Pharisees, they have a certain system of rules and regulations and if anyone does not follow it, he or she is right away condemned and ostracized. Such a system has no grace and mercy.

There are different persuasions on certain non-essential doctrinal issues. To insist on one's view and condemn others who do not agree with you by calling them names is uncalled for. This is exactly what the Scribes and Pharisees would do. 

How did the Scribes and Pharisees see the woman caught in the act of adultery? - Condemnation and Death. 

The Woman as Seen Through the Eyes of Jesus

For the Scribes and Pharisees the woman caught in the act of adultery deserved to be stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). But to Jesus, she was a woman who stood in need of love, grace, mercy and forgiveness from a loving, gracious, merciful God. 

Jesus understood His mission on earth. He came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). He came not to call the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:17). That is why He spent much time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34). As a result, He was accused by the Scribes and Pharisees for welcoming sinners and eating with them (Luke 15:1, 2).

Jesus agreed with the Scribes and Pharisees that this woman had a sin problem. He did not brush her sin under the carpet or pretend it didn't exist. Some people think Jesus condoned her sin. No. On the contrary, He hates sin. Why would He go to the extreme length of dying on the cross to save sinners if sin was inconsequential? SIN had caused Him to lay down His life in order that sinners might receive the forgiveness of sin (Ephesians 1:7; Philippians 2:7, 8). 

Matthew explains in his record on Jesus' birth that He was given this name "Jesus" which means "Saviour" or "Deliverer" "for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). This part of the verse clearly shows Jesus' mission on earth.

The Scribes and Pharisees laid their charge upon the woman and they expected Jesus to respond - "but what sayest thou?" But Jesus stooped down and began to write in the sand with his finger (John 8:6). What did He write? Nobody knows. However, different people from different ages have made interesting guesses. 

And when He looked up, He said to the people, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" (John 8:7). The message came through loud and clear. They were convicted by their own consciences and they went away, one by one beginning with the eldest first until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there (John 8:9). And Jesus stood up and said to her, "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more" (John 8:11).

That's what the Gospel is all about. That's the heart of the Gospel - FORGIVENESS. Raymond Brown said, "The delicate balance between the justice of Jesus in not condoning the sin and his mercy in forgiving the sinner is one of the great gospel lessons." In the acts of judgment, let us remember mercy.

The Woman as Seen Through Our Eyes

Now you know how the Scribes and Pharisees and Jesus treated sinners like the woman caught in the act of adultery. Well, I think it's time for us to ask ourselves this question, "How should we be treating sinners (i.e. people whom we may despise or condemn)?" 

Some years ago I was preaching in Malaysia. There was a young couple sitting in the congregation. While I was preaching, I saw the man leaning onto the girl's shoulder. I was distracted immediately. I was very upset. I felt like scolding him at the pulpit. But half way through my message, the Holy Spirit reminded me that Jesus was a friend of sinners. Immediately, I repented in my heart. I said to myself that I would offer the couple a cup of coffee and talk with them after the service.

You see, I could have condemned them. But thank God that I did not. Years ago, I was shepherding a small church. We used a bungalow for our worship. At the pulpit, I could see what went on outside. Sometimes I would stop my preaching, summoned the members who were loitering outside the building to come into the sanctuary. You see, I had a holier-than-thou spirit. I was full of a condemnatory spirit. But now I don't. I pray for wisdom to minister to God's people.

The Scripture reminds us that the Christian life is essentially a life of imitating Christ (Philippians 2:5). Jesus is our model - full of grace, love, mercy and forgiveness. If Christ is our model, then all the more we are to take heed to Paul's exhortation, "Wherefore receive [accept] ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God" (Romans 15:7).

How I wish that God's people should see more of the gracious, accepting, forgiving face of the Church, and less of its harsh, self-righteous, self-justified, legalistic face which only brings hurt and damage to the Body of Jesus Christ.

How long will it be before we renounce the prayer of the Pharisees in Luke 18:11 and 12? "God, I thank you that I am not like other men, robbers, evildoers, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." And how long before we embrace the prayer of the tax collector in the next verse? "God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Pharisaism is alive today! The Church of Jesus Christ needs a fresh dose of the grace of God which makes it possible for us both to feel accepted and to be accepting. In theory we know what grace, love, mercy and forgiveness is. But in practice, we are far from it.

How can we become more aware of the Christ who does not condemn us, but accept us as we are? And how can we follow His example and become more gracious, more forgiving, more accepting of one another?

We can do this only if we acknowledge that we are all like that sinful woman of John 8. You may not have committed adultery but Romans 3:22b and 23 makes it clear that "for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." Isaiah says, "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way" (53:6a).

Dearly beloved, we are all just a bunch of sinners but we are all drinking at the same fountain of grace, and we are all celebrating the fact that God forgives sinners who turn to Him in desperation. Instead of trying to impress each other with how good we are, we should remind each other of how good God is, and of how much we stand in need of His unending forgiveness.

The fact of the matter is that we have met the Pharisees, and they are us! That's because we are all slaves to self-righteousness and judge-mentalism. It's just built into human nature. We set 'the standards' - the list of do's and don'ts - to which others must adhere. And when they don't measure up to the standard, we are quick to declare, "A 'Christian' wouldn't do that!" But Jesus defined righteousness in such a way as to leave no one righteous - not a single one of us. We cannot be made right with God by being "better" than anyone else. Instead by recognising and laying aside the Pharisee in all of us, we can embrace the grace, gratitude and joy which is what the Christian life is really all about.

What a friend we have in Jesus! He is full of grace, love, mercy and forgiveness. The secret to a blessed Christian life is to admit our sins before God because that is the FIRST step to receiving the forgiveness of God. When we are honest before God, we do not need to live in hypocrisy. We do not need to put on a mask and pretend we are okay. 

The problem with us is that we still have a dose of pharisaism in us. We still have that "holier than thou" attitude in us. Let us be honest with God. We cannot be made right with God by being "better" than so and so - "Lord, I am not like this man." Rather we should humble ourselves and pray, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner saved by grace." 

What would it be like to have a church where we could say to each other, "I am a sinner but God is good and He is forgiving" or "Praise the Lord! I am a recovering Pharisee!" Is this what Lifers want and are praying for?

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10