Controversy in the Temple Courts -- The Accused Woman.
Jesus left the scene of chafe and argument and retired to the congenial seclusion of Martha's house on the summit of the Mount of Olives. He was not long in retirement. He was early astir the following morning as was his wont, and was soon walking down the quiet slope of the hill in the pleasant morning air towards the city, which was then much more picturesque and wooded in its surroundings than it became after the days, forty years afterwards, when the soldiers of Titus levelled every tree in the environs to make banks for the siege of Jerusalem. He was among the first that reassembled for the exercises connected with the feast of tabernacles. Taking his seat on one of the open promenades in the temple enclosure, it was soon known among the assembling people that Jesus was returned; and they came to him in numbers. Sitting and standing around him in an informal way, he taught them in the style peculiar to himself.
While so engaged, the continuity of his discourse was interrupted by the arrival of a band of the scribes and Pharisees, for whom the people made way. The Pharisees had with them a woman, to whom, when they had penetrated the crowd, they directed Christ's special attention. They were about to catch Jesus in his own trap, as they supposed. They had a vague impression that Jesus was antagonistic to Moses; and they thought if they could once make this manifest to the people who believed in Moses, his influence with them would be at an end, and they would have established a ground for successful accusation. It was with this object and with no true zeal for the law, which they disobeyed in a hundred matters, that they brought the woman forward and "set her in the midst." "Master," said they, "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?" This raised the issue direct -- Moses versus Christ. The people listened eagerly for Christ's response: but none at first came. Jesus stooped on the ground and wrote with his finger on the stones as if unconscious of their question. The Pharisees repeated it, doubtless glancing around with that leering appeal for support on which insincere partizanship seeks to strengthen itself to the present day. Jesus still remained in the stooping posture, and silent. His enemies thought he was nonplussed, and kept asking the question.
At last Jesus rises, and quietly says, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her." He then resumes his stooping posture, and leaves his answer to work its own results. It was a master-stroke, by which he escaped with consummate dignity from the apparent dilemma of having to abjure the law of Moses, or do violence to the principles of mercy with which his name had come to be associated in the public mind. Not only so, but he turned the case against his accusers. He honoured the law, magnified mercy, and at the same time impaled his adversaries upon the spikes of self-conviction. His quiet challenge entered their turbid minds and rankled like an arrow. What could they say to it? They stood for a moment looking down on the stooping form of this new teacher who perturbed them so much.
The nonplus was now all on their side. The more they thought of Christ's remark (uttered in the hearing of the on-looking people), the less they felt able to deal with it. At last with a contemptuous snort, in which baffled caste sought to preserve a dignity which it felt to be fatally wounded, the eldest of the priestly company made straight away from the spot, followed by the other members of it in the order of their age. The woman they left standing before Jesus, in the midst of the crowd. Such a case of moral discomfiture belongs only to divine operation. By a single brief remark, Jesus escapes a dilemma without quibble or compromise, and at the same time overwhelms his adversaries with defeat and confusion. There are those who would omit this narrative from John, as an interpolation. It is self-evidently part of the divine context. What if certain MSS. lack it? this is only evidence that if some one has not added, some have suppressed. It is easier to suppress than to add, and antipathy would easily lead a copyist to leave out something that seemed to him to go against the ordinary current of scriptural teaching, in an age when habitual mutilation of scripture text had evoked the censure of the Spirit of God (Rev. xxii. 18, 19). That this might appear to be such a passage, we can easily imagine when we realise that to a shallow copyist, Jesus might appear to be taking sides with vice against the constitutional defenders of virtue in the country.
The Pharisees having confessed defeat by retirement, Jesus, lifting himself from his stooping position, sees the woman standing in the position in which they had left her. "Woman," said he, "where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?" She said, "No man, Lord," and Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more." The Pharisees had power to condemn the woman; Jesus had none, in the same sense, but he had power in a higher sense, a sense soaring beyond all present and transient penalties. And this higher jurisdiction he boldly accepts, and acquits the woman -- of having committed the offence? No, but of guilt in respect to it. Why this, seeing she was guilty? Because the ministry of Christ was a ministry of reconciliation through forgiveness, where sin was confessed and repented of in the scriptural sense -- that is by repudiation and amendment. "Go and sin no more;" this is the universal condition of forgiveness, as proclaimed in the Scriptures.
The idea that a man can go on sinning and receive the divine favour is one of the fables of the apostacy. There is no more man-demoralising and God-dishonouring tradition among men than the Roman Catholic notion than by paying money to the priest, a man can get rid of his sins to date (and sometimes beyond). Nor is the Protestant doctrine much better that preaches the blood of Christ as a sort of spiritual benzine or stain-cleaner, by which sin can be blotted out by a single application, and any number of times, without hurting the fabric. The woman, doubtless, took the lesson to heart, and went her way.
Afterwards Jesus resumed his teaching to the crowd, and the Pharisees appear to have stolen back to listen. Listening led to debating. At all events we find them taking part in the conference between Jesus and the people, as the custom of the Temple on the occasion of the feast allowed. Jesus made a statement that certainly challenged debate on the widest grounds. He said, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." Such a statement from an ordinary man in ordinary circumstances would not even be a debatable one. It would be a self-proclaimed evidence of insanity on the part of the utterer. But in the case of Christ, it could not be so dismissed. It stood related to many things favouring its truth. The speaker had "done many miracles," and was daily performing them -- miracles of a class entirely out of the range of ordinary so-called miraculous performances: "works which none other man did," as Jesus defined them. How were these to be accounted for? They could not be ignored. They made the profoundest impression on the people, and through them on the leaders. His declaration, therefore, that he was the light of the world, coming as it did from a mouth distinguished by originality, independence, and truth, and purity, as no public teacher had ever been before, possessed a weightiness of character which they could not make sport of, and which to this day impresses the attentive and discerning listener.
The only thing they could do was to quibble. They laid hold of the legal maxim that no man could bear testimony in his own case. "Thou bearest record of thyself: thy testimony is not true." Jesus had to admit the self-testimony, but could not admit the untruth; because, though it might not be receivable unsupported in the practice of the law, a thing known to only one man would not be less true on account of there being no second man who could testify to it. Jesus knew the truth of what he was saying, and no one else did or could, except as a matter discerned from his testimony, confirmed by the many works of super-human power. "Though I bear record oat myself, yet my record is true: for I know whence I came and whither I go, Ye judge after the flesh." That is, not knowing anything of Christ beyond what they could see or hear of him as of any other man, they judged him by the rule applicable in the ordinary experience of flesh and blood, and made a great mistake in consequence; for though, to all appearance, Christ was an ordinary man and came as an ordinary man, in reality he came from above, in being directly generated by the Spirit of God, and he was God in their midst, in the full indwelling presence of that Spirit which is one with the boundless Father-Spirit, filling immensity.
They judged him, but he did not judge them, though his judgment would have been just. "I judge no man, and yet if I judge, my judgment is true, for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me." This touched and exploded the legal quibble they had raised about the unreceiveability of his testimony. "It is written in your law that the testimony of TWO men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me (is the other that) beareth witness of me." Therefore, on their own showing, they ought to have believed. But men who have no concern for the discernment or the issues of truth, easily evade the result of their own admissions. They run off to a side issue.
"Where is thy Father?" flippantly asked these men. How could Jesus deal with such a question? He could only say, with angry earnestness, as he did, "Ye neither know me nor my Father: if ye had known me ye would have known my Father also." They thought they knew Christ. They knew him after a manner. If they had known him according to what in reality he was in himself, they would have known God, from whom he proceeded, for no man can know Jesus in reality who does not know that he is the manifestation of the Creator of the Universe in flesh and blood for the establishment of the Creator's name and glory in the earth we inhabit. Hence to know Christ scripturally is necessarily to know the Father also, for the two are inseparable. This is the sense of John's remark in his 1st epistle (ii. 23), "Whosoever denieth the son, the same hath not the Father."
This is the predicament of all classes of misbelievers. They think they know and highly compliment Jesus of Nazareth when they speak of him as a great moral reformer, or "the highest teacher of morality the world has ever seen." In reality, they are just where these temple Pharisees were. They were able to recognise the good there was in Christ according to the superficial estimate of the natural mind. They could say when occasion served: "Master, we know that thou art true and carest not for the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth." Yet Christ repudiated their view of him altogether. "Ye neither know me nor my Father," and in these words he condemns all modern views of him that come short of the truth -- that he is God manifest in the flesh.
His words were naturally exasperating to the Jewish leaders, who were accustomed to the utmost deference at the hands of the people. They would have given way to their feelings and seized Christ with their own hands: but they were divinely restrained; "his hour was not yet come." He therefore proceeded unmolested with remarks which must have been absolutely incomprehensible to the listeners, but on which his subsequent ascension throws the clearest light. "I go my way, and ye shall seek me and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come." The time came when Christ, crucified and risen, was no more in their midst, and when the Jewish nation found itself helplessly sinking in the gloom and tempest of that long-foretold storm of wrath in which it disappeared from the earth.
Jerusalem, forty years afterwards, crammed with fugitives from a thousand towns and villages of the country: tortured with internal feuds: a prey to the depredations of the lawless elements of the population: without order or government: suffering from famine and bloodshed within, and the destructive assaults of the Romans without, had cause to bring to mind the quiet words which they scorned in the day of peace.
They were puzzled to understand him, or at least professed themselves so. "Will he kill himself?" said they. Where could he go where they could not reach him? He indicated the meaning of his allusion: "Ye are from beneath: I am from above. Ye are of this world: I am not of this world ... If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins" (Jno. viii. 24). Well, and who might he be? This was what they did not know, though he had asserted his character and identify often enough. Here was an opportunity of telling them plainly: but there are people with whom you can never take such an opportunity. They have no capacity to appreciate a rational explanation: they do not want to know the truth of a matter. They are in a chronic attitude of scorn. If you tell them the truth, they laugh. They furnish occasion for the advice of Solomon: "Speak not in the ears of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of thy words." Such were the Pharisees who in the crowd were badgering Christ: so Christ did not answer them plainly. He put them off with a reference to what he had said before: "Even the same that I said unto you from the beginning." He, however, made allusion to a coming demonstration which might be useful to any of the bystanders who might have a heart for wisdom. "When ye have lifted up the Son of Man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself, but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things. He that sent me is with me. The Father hath not left me alone, for I do always those things that please Him."
These words must have been uttered with an earnest and plaintive emphasis; for they made a deep impression on many of the listeners who became disposed to think he must be the Messiah. He turned to this class with encouraging words, but did not have an encouraging reception. The way they received what he said showed how superficial was their apprehension, and how carnal their estimate of things. Jesus said to them, "It ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed: and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." This hurt their dignity at once, -- "We be Abraham's seed," said they: "and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, ye shall be made free?"
Ah, there was a deeper bondage than they knew anything of -- the one great bondage from which Christ came to give deliverance -- a bondage holding rich and poor, bond and free alike; a bondage more real than that in which any man can hold another, but the existence of which is not felt or perceived by those who restrict their view to the mortal relations of man to man; but which will at last be seen in its terrible reality by every one whose responsibility may permit him to see its awful issues in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Jesus gently indicated it in his response. "Whosoever," said he, "committeth sin is the servant of sin: and the servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed."
The argument is evidently founded on the status of the members of a household. Hired servants are not permanent: the son of the householder, on the contrary, remains while ten sets of servants may come and go. If the son of the householder, having abiding rights, confer those rights on one of the servants, that servant is no longer in his original position. Jesus, as the Son, proposes this benefit. The commission of sin had degraded even the descendants of Abraham to the position of mere servants, having no rights, and only a momentary tenure of the Father's long suffering favour, for "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." Christ, by the truth, offering the forgiveness of sins, offered freedom to the bond slaves of Abraham's race, few of whom realised the depth of the bondage in which they lived. They resented what seemed to them the patronising and insulting proposal. They considered that, as Abraham's seed, they were already free, and in no need of deliverance. They were willing to accept Jesus as the Messiah, but not as a Saviour to whom they were to be personally indebted in any sense, except as opening to them the higher privileges of their race. In this they evinced that total misconception of the relation of things which unfitted them for a freedom whose first condition of attainment was the frank recognition of their helpless position apart from it.
Jesus admitted their Abrahamic extraction but not their Abrahamic rights, which depended upon an Abrahamic character, "I know," said he, "that ye are Abraham's seed," but he denied they were Abraham's children. "If ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham." To be Abraham's descendants was a privilege, in so far as concerned the relations and possibilities to which it introduced them; but by itself, it was of no more value than descent from any other son of Adam. Abraham's selection was based upon character; and the position of his descendants would depend upon the same. "The flesh (by itself) profiteth nothing," as Jesus said: His interrogators were men of Abrahamic blood, but not of Abrahamic works. "Ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God. This did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father." Here was a new aspect of paternity, the introduction of which greatly offended them. Jesus admitted that as regards literal descent, Abraham was their father, but now he asserts they had another father as regarded the type of their character. They could not follow him here. They supposed he insinuated some taint in their racial extraction. "We be not born of fornication." They went farther, and claimed a higher fatherhood than even Abraham, of whom they boasted. "We have one Father, even God." Jesus said, "If God were your father, ye would love me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but He sent me." If neither God nor Abraham were their father, who was? Jesus spoke plainly. "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lust of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own, for he is a liar and the father of it."
This is one of those unvarnished declarations of truth that galled the Jews beyond measure, and laid the foundations for that bitter antipathy shown by the Jews of all generations to the name of Jesus ever since. It belongs to a class of denunciations that distinguish Jesus from all other so-called teachers of moral truth. Superficially considered, it is a singular and anomalous fact that one who enjoyed a reputation for "meekness and gentleness," unapproached by any man that ever lived, should at the same time have been characterised by a severity of condemnation unknown to any other teacher except Moses and the prophets, whom he entirely resembles in this. Looking below the surface, the anomaly disappears. Jesus was divine, and expressed the thoughts of God in the various situations that arose. Those thoughts are as often thoughts of severity as of gentleness. The whole Scriptures and the whole history of Israel and of man before Abraham's call attest this. "Our God is a consuming fire," in certain relations. He is severe towards all disobedience and rebellion, as illustrated by Adam's expulsion from Eden, the destruction of Noah's generation by water, the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah, the judgment on the Egyptians, the terrible retributions against God's own nation (concerning whom he says in Deut. xxxii. 22, "A fire is kindled in mine anger and shall burn unto the lowest hell.")
Because, therefore, Jesus spoke the words of God, he spoke with a superhuman vehemence against all that was displeasing to God, as occasion arose; and at the same time discoursed with an equally superhuman sweetness and gentleness when dealing with the humble class, to whom God himself said he would stoop -- viz., such as were broken and contrite in heart and trembled at His word. There is no greater proof of the divinity of the Bible than this peculiarity, which extends through all its pages -- its unsparing impartiality and stern truthfulness and disparagement of man, combined with a purity and sweetness of precept and promise that characterise no other work whatever. The Jewish nation condemned and killed all the prophets, and last of all the Lord Jesus, for this very reason, that these found fault with their ways instead of flattering them with smooth speeches. In all other nations, the public men please by complimentary speeches and rule by the self-complacence they produce. In God's nation only do we see the spectacle of the best of men uttering the bitterest of speeches and paying the penalty of their faithfulness with their lives in a long series of generations.
What Jesus meant by saying they were of their father the devil, was not, perhaps, quite clear to them. There is no indication of what their ideas of the subject of the devil were. They believed in Beelzebub, a mythical deity of the Philistines, and entertained various other traditions that made void the word; that they held the notion of the personal supernatural devil of orthodox religion is inconsistent with all accessible information as to their opinions. It matters not. It is Christ's view and not theirs that is important. He was given to personification and parable, as when he spake of mammon, the prince of this world, &c., and in this case he employed his own way of defining their spiritual pedigree. He spoke of the devil as a person. The orthodox devil would suit his language exactly, but Jesus spoke of the true devil -- the devil of Bible history, and it is to this we must fit his allusion.
He refers to a "beginning," and to the birth or introduction of sin into the world, when the devil of his discourse performed the part of father to the he that prevailed. The Bible exhibits only one such history, and that is when the serpent in Eden expressly contradicted what God had said on the subject of the effect of Adam doing what he was forbidden to do. God said Adam would die; the serpent said, "Ye shall not surely die." Eve believed the lie, and, under the power of this belief, enticed her husband to do what had been forbidden. Thus the he prevailed, and became established in the state of sin and death that prevailed in consequence; and the serpent became the father of liars in the sense in which Jubal is said (Gen. iv. 21) to be "the father of all such as handle the harp and the organ," and Jabal, "the father of all such as dwell in tents and have cattle." Thus the serpent is used as the symbol of the present evil world in its political constitution (Rev. xii. 3-9; xvii. 9-14), and is declared to be "the devil and satan" (Rev. xx. 2), from which we may understand how the constituted authorities, antagonising the truth in the first century, were said to be the devil (Rev. ii. 10), and the same in their antagonism to Paul, Satan (1 Thess. ii. 18).
Literally construed, Christ's words amounted to an allegation that the Jews who were opposing him belonged to the sinful stock of the world -- mere flesh which passeth away -- instead of having any real kinship to Abraham, in whom they made their boast. Their father was the serpent, the original enemy of God, and not God, whom they claimed, for if they had been God's children, they would have loved and submitted to the "first-born among many brethren." As he said, "He that is of God heareth God's words: ye therefore hear them not because ye are not of God." He could appeal to their knowledge as to whether he (Christ) were a sinner or no. "Which of you convinceth me of sin?" There was a powerful logical sequence in the question with which he followed this: "If I say the truth, why do ye not believe me?" But his words fell on unimpressible ears. "The heart of this people" was "hardened." Their rejoinder, that Christ must be mad, was indicative of their own state. "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan (that is, a merely pretended Jew, having no connection with Abraham, the holder of the promises), and hast a demon?" Jesus could only deny the suggestion, and maintained that what they took for madness was his desire to honour the Father, with whom they had no sympathy. Nothing so readily appears madness to those who have no faith in God as a strong disposition to take God into account in every word and action.
The conversation was about to close when Jesus earnestly said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, if a man keep my saying, he shall never see death." This was a declaration of truth without reference to the attitude of his hearers -- a truth very precious to such as are able to receive it. The immediate hearers were unworthy of it. They found it only a crowning evidence of the insanity which they had long affected to suspect. "Now we know that thou hast a demon, Abraham is dead, and the prophets (are dead); and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham ... Whom makest thou thyself?" Jesus admitted that if his declaration rested on his unsupported word, their incredulity was excusable. A man saying such things of himself without an exhibition of extraneous evidence of the truth of the things spoken would only give evidence of that lunacy which they imputed to him: but supported as he constantly was, by "works which none other man did," and which he himself disclaimed the power of performing, his statement was entitled to belief. The honour he appeared to claim was not self-imposed. "If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me, of whom ye say that he is your God."
There was no confuting this argument. To this day it remains unanswerable. The powers exhibited by Christ have to be accounted for. They cannot be denied. They could not be his own, for when he was killed, they were still exerted on his behalf: he rose from the dead. Whose were they? Whose could they be but those of God, who had similarly interposed in Israel's midst many a time since the day he brought them out of Egypt by unexampled power? But Israel had shown they did not know God. It remained God's own accusation against them by the prophets, and that while they drew near to Him with their mouths, their hearts were far from Him. Jesus confirmed the accusation, "Ye have not known Him: but I know him, and if I should say I know Him not, I should be a liar like unto you." As for his implied supremacy over Abraham -- the very idea of which so shocked the shortsighted conventional Jews -- Jesus owned to it. "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it and was glad." "What?" indignantly exclaimed the Jews, rising to the climax of their long-gathering wrath, "Thou art not yet 50 years old: and hast thou seen Abraham?" This was a perversion of Christ's words. He did not say he had seen Abraham. He said Abraham had been gladdened by the prospect of his (Christ's) day. Nevertheless, Jesus feared not even to accept the imputed claim of contemporaneity with Abraham; for the Father was with him to speak directly when occasion required: -- "Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am." This was too much for them. They took up stones and would have vented their indignation in personal violence had not Jesus "hid himself" and escaped from the temple unperceived.
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