Should We Preach John 7:53-8:11?

Leonidas HerodotusImagine a Sunday morning at your local church. The band are leaving the stage while the reader makes her way up to the pulpit. She reaches the microphone and announces the passage, “This morning’s reading will be from Herodotus’ The Histories, 7:220-221.” After a brief pause, she says again, “The reading will be from Histories, book 7, verses 220 through to the end of 221.”

Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine the reading being so clearly prefaced, but this is a hypothetical situation. The reader continues, “You can find that on page 492 of our provided Herodotus, the 2003 Penguin edition.” After the passage is read your reader reminds the congregation, “This is the Word of God,” to which the congregation loudly respond, “Thanks be to God.” Then your pastor gets up, thanks the reader and begins, “Good morning Redeemer Church Muizenberg, today we will be continuing with our series in The Histories.” He introduces the three points from the passage just read:

  1. Leonidas had to persevere with his task
  2. Leonidas knew there was greater glory ahead
  3. Leonidas died to save his people

Unpacking these points from the text over the next 40 minutes, the pastor delivers a moving sermon on how the Christian must not give up, but keep striving forward. For we can know – as Leonidas did – that eternal glory and immortality is promised for those who persevere. Finally, all of this was achieved and secured for us by his prophesied death, which he went to willingly to save us. The problem that I hope you have with all of the above is that The Histories is not in the Bible. Sure, it might make for a great sermon. If I’m honest, I’m pretty pleased with my three points. Furthermore, if we ignore Leonidas, the sermon would be consistent with biblical truth. You could make all of those points from biblical texts. For all of these reasons, and a few more I will outline below, I think Herodotus’ Histories is a good analogy for why we should not preach John 7:53-8:11.

In a previous post on John 7:53-8:11, with the assistance of what is considered the best commentary on John’s Gospel ever written, I probed some of the concerns regarding this text’s authenticity and its inclusion in John. The first significant problem that must be faced is that the short narrative is found in a variety of textual locations, in both John and Luke. This raises serious questions over its reliability and Johannine pedigree. If we put that aside, because it does actually appear after John 7 more than anywhere else, we must answer another serious concern: the literary shape and argument of John 7 through John 8. In both chapters Jesus is involved in heated conversations with those who rejected his messianic claims, particularly the Pharisees. These two chapters of John are remarkably polemical, creating a quite unique unit within John’s Gospel. This makes the story about the woman caught in adultery awkwardly out of place—a misfit. Added to this, and here we must defer to Greek scholars, in just 12 verses we encounter a handful of constructions and expressions found nowhere else in John. To explore these arguments in more detail see my linked post (above).

When all of the above is considered, there is still no consensus about whether this story is part of John or Luke. The evidence we have is inconclusive. Despite the growing agreement that this passage is  actually native to Luke’s Gospel, based on its literary nature, the weight of documentary evidence still places it in John. This uncertainty is not inconsequential, especially for expository preaching that places a high value on literary context. Michael Gorman writes in Elements of Biblical Exegesis, “Context is so crucial to interpretation that it is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that if you alter the context of a word or sentence or paragraph, you also alter the content of that text.” Therefore where we place this short episode shapes how it should be read and understood. The insurmountable problem is we are not even sure it is currently in the correct Gospel.

Perhaps you can put these issues aside. Maybe you are hanging onto the fact that John 7:53-8:11 is historical. After all, significant and reputable New Testament scholars believe the evidence we have indicates that John 7:53-8:11 really took place. It bears the marks of an authentic historical event. The problem is, the church does not gather to hear about history but from God. Mentions of Jesus of Nazareth can be found in Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger and Tacitus, all of whom wrote towards the end of the 1st century CE, which is likely the dating for John. But we don’t preach sermons from those texts. I’ve heard the argument that, in addition to being historical, John 7:53-8:11 resonates with so much of Jesus’ teaching. But then so does Seneca the Roman philosopher and statesman. Historical pedigree is not the mark or measure of canonicity.

Should we preach John 7:53-8:11? No. You would not read the authors mentioned above and exegete their writings as Scripture, as God’s Word to his people. Despite liking the outline, I would not preach my three point sermon from Herodotus’ Histories. Similarly, which has been the contention of this post, we should not treat or handle John 7:53-8:11 as Scripture—this is not because of questions over its credibility but rather its canonicity.

Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.

Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

Galatians: No Other Gospel

GalatiansFor the next two quarters my church will be working through Galatians in our small groups. I have decided to attempt a translation of Paul’s letter, with the hope that it will aid insights into the details of the text and illumine the overarching purpose of the book. It must be noted: I am not promising this will result in regular posts on Galatians. In this short post I want to reflect on a point that you certainly do not need Greek to uncover: there is only one gospel. But while Galatians 1:6-9 is fairly straightforward to understand, a closer reading lends striking colour to Paul’s assertion.

The churches of Galatia were deserting – not Paul but – God, the one who called them in grace, for a different gospel (1:6). We might even conclude that they were deflecting to another god. But how and why did this happen quickly? I think the answer partly comes in 1:7-9. The troubler makers had not entirely reinvented the apostolic message but subtly distorted it (1:7). I imagine they still used words like “grace,” phrases like “the gospel of Christ,” and called people to faith in Jesus. However, they had introduced irreconcilable elements that destabilized the gospel, without altering it beyond surface level recognition. As we read through the letter we learn that the Galatian issue was the confusion between our works and Christ’s sufficient work. The success of the false teachers in Galatia, like many today, was due to them being barely distinguishable from Paul. They did not appear to change much; perhaps they claimed to simply emphasise different aspects of the gospel message. But the results are always the same: a different gospel leads us away from the true God.

GalatiansI promised myself that these posts would be short, and therefore not too onerous on you the reader, or my time, so let me make one more point. In 1:8-9, Paul twice uses the verb ‘proclaim good news.’ The false teachers came to the Galatian Christians with an appealing message, something happily received as good tidings. The verb is the same one used throughout the New Testament to speak of God’s salvation. And so as we saw above, the greatest danger of other gospels is when they are difficult to discern from the true gospel of grace. Politicians, advertisements, and preachers proclaim good news. However, the major distinction between the gospel of Christ (see 1:10-12) and the many gospels championed around the world is that only the former tells us what we desperately need to hear, while the others are shaped by what we want to hear.

I have also previously written on Galatians 3, discussing what it means for the Christian to be free from law.

The Pharisees According to Jesus

Last year I wrote a three part series on the Pharisees, prompted by my frustration at how the Pharisees are often portrayed in teaching and writing. My appeal throughout the series was towards a more discerning exegesis, considering literary criticism and historical context when studying the Gospels. In this post I will offer a few observations about the Pharisees found in the Gospels, challenging the view that reduces their theology to works based righteousness. Since Jesus made no secret of his disapproval, and sometimes even disdain, towards this Jewish sect, I have fleshed out four points, headed by a few of his woes delivered against the Pharisees.

Commandments“You neglect justice and the love of God”

One of the repeated ironies found in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ assertion of unflagging obedience to the law coupled with their failure to practice its two fundamental fiats: loving Yahweh and your neighbour (Deuteronomy 6:5, 19:8; see Mark Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus’ many Sabbath miracles expose this failing, as the Pharisees insisted no man of or prophet from God would commit the travesty of restoring life when he should have been resting. The heart of the Old Testament law was devotion to God, as well as commitment to the wellbeing of others but it appears the Pharisees had lost sight of that. God’s laws were given to make his people more loving towards others as they appreciated his grace towards them.

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders”

In a similar vein to the previous point, Jesus accused the Pharisees of supplanting the authority of Scripture, and God’s laws, by the establishment of traditions, which in turn had become litmus tests for orthodoxy and devotion. But Jesus firmly opposed laws imposed by people, even the esteemed “elders,” quoting Isaiah, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Though the Pharisees probably invented these rules to keep them from becoming ceremonially unclean and sinning against God, it seems that by the 1st century those rules had become enshrined traditions, considered to possess the same authority as God’s inspired words. The same legalism, able to take many forms, has plagued the church throughout every generation.

Shut door“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces”

Jesus kept very unsavoury company, according to the Pharisees; and for one who claimed such deep intimacy with God, even identifying himself as God, his fraternisation with sinners implied that God reaches out to the unrighteous. This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Luke 15, where the Pharisees grumble, “This man receives and dines with sinners.” Jesus then uses three very familiar parables confirming their suspicions about God, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who does not need to repent.” The parables of Luke 15 climax in the brilliantly subtle identification of the Pharisees with the elder brother, who served his father and never disobeyed but refused to celebrate the return of the younger brother, the sinners and tax collectors.

“They love the place of honour”

Reading through John’s Gospel one notices the author has arranged his narrative around Jesus’ signs. Following the resurrection of Lazarus, the sign paired with, and only second to, Jesus’ resurrection in John 20, the Pharisees find themselves in a bind. They cannot deny Jesus’ “many signs” but fear that if he is recognised and followed by the Jewish people then the political privileges they enjoyed from the Romans would be under threat (John 11:47-48). The reader of John’s Gospel cannot help but to be incredulous at this hinge in John’s storyboard, for the Pharisees choose their comforts over the Christ. As I concluded a previous post on John’s Gospel, “In gaining Pilate’s concession [to execute Jesus, the Pharisees] pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor.” The Pharisees exalted themselves and were guilty of an over realised importance. But more damning than this self-preservation was that it blinded them to see God’s messiah, before their very eyes.

Does Barabbas’ Release Illustrate Substitution?

Roman Trial‘When Jesus is held back for execution and Barabbas is set free we have a wonderful picture of substitution.’ Have you heard that before? I have. Perhaps you have even explained this element of Jesus’ trial as an illustration of his place-taking death, which secures release for the guilty. Again, I have. But after working carefully through John’s Gospel in our small groups this year, I am convinced that I was wrong. Substitution is not in view; it is not even an ancillary aspect of Barabbas’ release.

Similarly to Paul’s ‘living sacrifices’ in Romans 12 – which preachers readily tell us is a strikingly strange picture, when really it is not since all sacrifices would be brought to the alter alive (Jonathan More) – we give little thought to this passage in its literary context, hurriedly sharing the pre-packaged theology of substitutionary atonement and old sermons. However, with only a little digging into John’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is not pictured as a substitute for Barabbas. Obviously, Jesus is introduced to us by John the Baptizer as, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36). Added to this, substitution is clear at points throughout the narrative: Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep (10:11) and his friends (15:13), perhaps in response to Peter’s predictably overzealous promise that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37); Caiaphas’ ironic prophecy that it is better for one man to die than for Israel to perish (11:50; 18:14); and Jesus commitment to drain the cup of God’s wrath on the cross (18:11). But Jesus’ messiahship is more than dying on behalf of God’s people.

Interwoven with Jesus’ identification as Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is his authority and power that demands a response from the Jewish nation. As C. H. Dodd has said, in The Founder of Christianity, “zero hour” was upon Israel; “God was confronting men, more immediately, more urgently, than ever before, and an unprecedented opportunity lay before them.” When Pilate presents Barabbas and Jesus (18:39), offering the customary release of a prisoner at Passover, the opportunity and choice reaches its climax. And when they cry out, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” they reject God’s King (18:40).

Andreas Köstenberger, in his essay “What is Truth?”, suggests that a prominent Johannine theme is the trial motif. He proposes that while there is no Jewish trial recorded in John’s Gospel, we can view John’s first twelve chapters as a trial. Jesus comes before the nation of Israel and powerfully demonstrates his divine sonship and authority. Israel is confronting her God. He has come to his own (1:11), full of grace and truth (1:17), fully revealing Yahweh in fleshly glory (1:14, 18). From John’s prologue, the reader knows who Jesus is. And a little later Nathaniel proclaims, “The King of Israel” (1:49). Now, if we return to the Jewish leaders, clamouring in the streets outside of Pilate’s headquarters, we see what John’s purpose is: Will they recognise God’s Messiah? There is immense irony in Pilate’s antagonistic epithet, “The King of the Jews” (18:39). For Jesus truly is.

Roman TrialBut there is more to it. There is an even more striking irony in the Roman trial and the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus. Quoting D. A. Carson, in The Gospel of John, “The chief priests, who would normally have nothing to do with Zealots and…armed rebellion,” request the release of an enemy of Rome over one whom Rome deemed unthreatening (18:36-38). Pilate, in the obverse, and similarly to the Jews, fears for his political position, releases a man who was declared guilty by Rome for murder and insurrection. His conscience and superiors may have allowed him to condemn an innocent man without impunity, but surely releasing a known rebel reveals a lack of political savvy. Finally, the Jews, after rejecting their Messiah in favour of a convicted criminal, exclaim, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). Köstenberger notes that this is a pyrrhic success for the Jewish leaders, for in gaining Pilate’s concession they have pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor. Confronted by the Son of God the Jews make their choice and it is not God’s Messiah.