Words of Eternal Life

After a particularly challenging sermon during Jesus’ earthly ministry we are told, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Some of Jesus’ followers found his teaching hard to hear and considered it an unbearable burden (6:60). After many of the crowd had left, Jesus invited “the twelve” to go with them (6:67). Simon Peter’s response to Jesus’ invitation is one that I wish I believed as firmly as the apostle clearly did. He starts by answering Jesus’ question with his own question, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (6:68). But notice that Simon Peter is not merely drawn to some aspect of Jesus’ personality. He cannot envision departing from Christ because, as he continues, “You have the words of eternal life” (6:68).

Icon St PeterI wish I believed Peter’s words more often. Even now, as I am writing this blog post, it is the end of another day in which I have demonstrated that I do not believe God’s words to be significant, let alone the words of eternal life. Sure I am a full-time theological student, and I can ease my conscience by reminding myself that I spent the day poring over rich theology. But that does not mean I spent any time today treasuring Christ, or acting in such a way that imitates Peter’s convictions. Peter goes on to say, “We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (6:69). In the Gospels, despite his numerous failings and follies, Peter is a man devoted to Christ. In John 6 we see that his commitment to Christ brought with it a commitment to his words.

Earlier in the same section, Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63). Of course, the Bible teaches us, as this passages does, that this life is tied to the work of God the Father (6:65), as well as the Holy Spirit (6:63). This observation should challenge Christians who imagine the Spirit to work separately from God’s Word, which I have done elsewhere. We could also make a Trinitarian observation here, that the work of the three persons – Father, Son and Spirit – are inseparable. But these segues would only distract us from the topic at hand: Jesus’ words give and sustain life; or as Peter understood, Jesus had the words of eternal life.

DevotionalUnfortunately, as is evident from my own experience and many readers’ too, I am sure, we struggle to appropriate this truth in at least two ways. The first is not a little ironic, we allow the busyness of life to keep us from the words of eternal life. Years ago I would frequent a second hand Christian book store not far from where I lived. The owner of that shop traded in the embarrassing acronyms sadly associated with Christians. One of his favourites was Bible: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I still shudder thinking about it. Peter was not hanging out with Jesus hoping for a couple of helpful throwaways and guidelines—certainly not acronyms. Peter clung to Jesus because his words were eternal life, spiritually sustaining and life changing in the present. I imagine if we told Peter that our lives are too busy to mediate on Jesus’ words he would be confused because those words are life.

Another way I often show I do not share Peter’s evaluation of God’s truth is when I am faced with other options. Unlike the above point, this occurs when I have too much rather than too little time. For example, it is Saturday afternoon and my son and wife are taking a nap. The way our weekends go it is likely that this is the only time I will get to myself on any given Saturday. What should I do with that time? I regularly struggle to give up that time because I wrongly turn to other life-giving things: recreational reading, exercise or blogging. Yes, those things are good gifts from God, and you likely have your own, but if Peter and Jesus are correct in our passage, are we overlooking one of God’s greatest gifts? Let us say with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life”. Then let us delight in them, be sustained by them and desire to know God better through his Word.

Doodle: Did Jesus Decriminalise Sex Work?

Decriminalise sex workJust over a year ago, Central Methodist Mission (CMM), in partnership with a local organisation for sex workers, printed and hung a large yellow banner that read: ‘Jesus was the first person to decriminalise sex work (John 8:7)’. In case you are wondering, the verse goes, “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.’” As a student of theology I have encountered a fair share of embarrassingly specious proof texts yet this is arguably one of the best—and by “best” I trust you know I mean worst, not to mention one of the most laughable. Yes, I am aware that a church that officially offers outspoken support of prostitution is almost certainly unconcerned about what the Bible actually says. Yet I worry that their misreading of the biblical text and misappropriation of Jesus in support of something unequivocally unbiblical has resulted in some confusion. Briefly below I intend to offer some clarity to an issue where ideology and virtue signalling has eclipsed the truth about Jesus Christ. This will be done by thinking a little more about John 8:7.

Firstly, John 7:53-8:11 is a canonically disputed text. In other words, many of the earliest and most reliable manuscripts either do not include it or place it elsewhere, in both John and Luke. I know that issues surrounding manuscripts are prickly for those in the know and bemusing for those who are not. Basically, there are questions around the authority and place of this text. This should immediately cause us to raise questions over its use. But we might ignore these textual critical squabbles. If we treat the text as not only historical – which it might be – as well as inspired can we argue from it that Jesus decriminalised prostitution? When we look at the text and read it as a whole we arrive at a second important point. In John 8:3 we are told that this woman was “caught in adultery” explaining why this text has traditionally been called the pericope adulterae. We might infer from the text that she was a prostitute but the argument is weak because the New Testament has another word for prostitute (see Matthew 21:31-32; 1 Corinthians 6:16). That word is not used here. Thirdly, and the reason I used the word “laughable” earlier, in the last verse of this section Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (8:11). Yes, Jesus does not condemn the woman. However, even if she was a prostitute – which is unlikely – Jesus does not condone her lifestyle; he calls it sinful. One of my favourite authors often refers to “delicious irony,” and I am sure that citing John 8:7 to support the decriminalisation of sex work qualifies for that honour. By loading the text with very improbable details the end result is Jesus calling sex work or prostitution a sin that must be stopped. Remarkable.

This post is longer than I initially set out to make it. For that I apologise. Please allow me to make one final point, in conclusion. Writing in the 20th century, German theologian Karl Barth referred to God’s action as “disruptive grace.” It is an arresting phrase. Today grace seems to be treated by many as something God sprinkles over our lives, however we choose to live them. We think of it as a dismissive wave of the hand, granting permission while expressing love. But that could not be further from the biblical doctrine of grace or the effects of God’s love. If we hold that John 7:53-8:11 belongs in Scripture then we should not miss the narrative’s climax. Jesus disbands the mob, bent on justice against a known sexual sinner. Whether she was a prostitute or simply promiscuous Jesus wants something better for her. But this is no mere escape from narrow-minded moralists; it is a story depicting the love of Christ that disrupts both the crowd and this woman’s life. As much as God’s love is not indifferent to how people are treated neither is he unconcerned with how you live. Jesus demonstrated an incomparable compassion and love, throughout the Gospels and ultimately at the cross. It is a sickening sleight of hand to reduce that love to unconditional affirmation . God loves us too much to let us go our own way, living in destructive sin. His grace is disruptive. His love is directive. “From now on sin no more.”

Should John 7:53-8:11 Be In Our Bibles?

Pieter Brueghel IIIn American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld, Christian Bale’s character, says, “I believe that you should treat people the way you want to be treated; didn’t Jesus say that? Also, always take a favour over money; Jesus said that as well.” While this line is indicative of the wry humour that punctuates an otherwise tense film, it brought John 7:53-8:11 to mind. For that brief account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is very likely the most popular line of Jesus’ teaching, after “Do not judge” (Matthew 7:1). However, and quite ironically, most New Testament scholars remain unconvinced that it was originally part of John’s Gospel, making its authenticity tenuous.

I am not questioning the moral of the episode, though even that is often missed in addition to it being misattributed as most people vaguely familiar with it nearly always cite it as a proof text repelling correction, or ‘judgment.’ Anyone who has read the short story will know that Jesus is not saying, ‘Everyone sins and that’s OK,’ but rather, ‘Let no one can claim to be without sin.’ The point is not: since each of us is sinful we have no right to challenge others’ sin. Central to Jesus’ teaching is the call to repent from sin. Considering the context of John, a better reading of the text would conclude that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn (John 3:17; 12:47). More broadly, with the Gospels as our guide, we might understand Jesus to be challenging those who were confident in their own righteousness and therefore scorned Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness. But this post is not an attempt to rescue the passage from misuse. I want to challenge its use, period.

C.H. DoddIn his magisterial commentary on John’s Gospel, D. A. Carson helpfully summarises some of the issues surrounding the text’s veracity. His point is much more useful than most English translations’ opaque, ‘Some manuscripts (MSS) do not include 7:53-8:11.’ He argues that while many of the MSS that include this story place it here in John’s Gospel, there is a diversity in placement; it can be found in other witnesses after Luke 21:38, John 21:25, and at a couple of different points in John 7. Carson concludes that this varation of placement strongly implies inauthneticity. If I can offer an analogy, the diversity of locations these verses appear in is suggestive of blindly pinning a tail onto a donkey, not the assuring literary reliability of the New Testament documents.

As Carson notes, those variations on the story’s location pale in comparison to its occurrence in John 7:53-8:11. Therefore, we must consider the nature of John’s Gospel and the literary context. C. H. Dodd, in his paradigm challenging commenary, shows how 7:1-8:59 holds together as a unit, “A series of controversial dialogues.” Jesus is unmistakably polemical, as John collects nearly everything Jesus said in reply to those who rejected his messianic claims. It is also worth noting that, either side of the pericope, Jesus’ exchanges are with the Pharisees. Dodd states that the unity of this larger section is seen in the sharp, sustained tone of controversy surrounding his identity. The Pericope Adulterae simply does not match it surroundings in John. Taking the literary point further, Carson writes, “Finally, even if someone should decide that the material is authentic, it would be very difficult to justify the view that the material is authentically Johannine: there are numerous expressions and constructions that are found nowhere in John, but which are characteristic of the Synoptic Gospels, Luke in particular.”

D.A. CarsonBringing all of the above together, the MSS weight forces us to place the story where it is most commonly found, in John 7:53-8:11. However, it fits neither the context nor the literary flavour of John’s Gospel. And this leaves those who would treat the story as authentic with the burden of evidence. I will conclude with an interesting thought offered by my wife: alongside the Synoptic Gospels, John’s Gospel is somewhat of an outlier. It is both strange and unique. Could we deduce that whenever it was inserted, the thinking was that it would go unnoticed? Another possibility, offered by Carson, is that the story was inserted as a tract, which illustrates 7:24 and 8:15; or contrasts the Jews’ sinfulness against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46). Theories aside, I am convinced that we should not treat the episode as authoritative. Lest we start teaching that Jesus encouraged taking favours over money.