John 7:53—8:20, Forgiveness and the Light of the World

[September 4, 2011] Two weeks ago we considered the outpouring of the waters—the coming of the Holy Spirit—in relation to the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles continues to be the setting in the Gospel according to John through chapters 8—10 (the latter part of chapter 10 takes place during Hanukah). Now Jesus announces, “I am the Light of the world.” As such He fulfills another aspect of the Feast of Tabernacles. In chapter 8 He is the Light of the world with respect to the darkness we are in on account of our sin.

The Illumination of the Temple During the Feast of Tabernacles

The Illumination of the Temple was associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. While the outpouring of the waters took place each morning, the lighting of the lamps took place in the evening of the first day of the Feast. Four golden candelabras were set up in the Court of the Women. Each had four golden bowls and against them rested four ladders. Four youths of priestly descent, each with a pitcher of oil, ascended the ladders and filled the bowls. The wicks to the lamps were made from the torn breeches and girdles of the priests. “The ‘Hassidim’ and ‘the men of Deed’ danced before the people with flaming torches in their hands and sang before them hymns and songs of praise; and the Levites, with harp, and lutes and cymbals, and trumpets, and instruments of music without number, stood upon the fifteen steps which led down from the Court of Israel to that of the Women … and sang hymns.” Two priests blowing trumpets descended from the Court of Israel to the Court of the Women and proceeded to the gate that opens on the east (the Beautiful Gate). Then they turned west to face the Holy Place and said, “Our fathers who were in this place, they turned their back upon the Sanctuary of Jehovah, and their faces toward the east, and they worshiped towards the rising sun; but as for us, our eyes are towards the Lord.” I have taken this from Alfred Edersheim’s book, The Temple: Its Ministries and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1997 [1874]), pages 184-187.

Edersheim gives a fragment of one of the hymns. When the Hassidim and Men of Deed sang, “Oh joy, that our youth, devoted, sage, doth bring no shame upon our old age!” the Penitents responded, “Oh joy, we can in our old age repair the sins of youth not sage!” Then both sang in unison, “Yes, happy he on whom no early guilt doth rest, and he who, having sinned, is now with pardon blest.” This is particularly interesting in view of the story in John 8:2-11.

According to Edersheim, the illumination of the Temple symbolized the coming of the light of the divine Presence (the Shekinah) into the Temple of Solomon at the dedication of the Feast of Tabernacles in 1 Kings 8:1-11 (also 2 Chronicles 7). According to Jewish tradition, the pillar of cloud and fire first appeared to Israel on the 15th day of the seventh month (the day the Feast of Tabernacles would begin each year). This was when Moses was said to have come down from Mount Sinai and “announced to the people that the Tabernacle of God was to be reared among them.”

Edersheim says that “the light shining out of the Temple into the darkness around, and lighting up every court in Jerusalem, must have [also] been intended as a symbol … of that ‘great light’ which ‘the people that walked in darkness’ were to see, and which was to shine ‘upon them that dwell in the land of the shadow of death’ (Isaiah 9:2).” If so, then, he suggests, the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world,” probably refer to this ceremony.

Since the Feast of Tabernacles celebrates Israel’s entering and inheriting the Promised Land, the illumination of the Temple celebrates the blessing of God’s Presence among them in the Land. This is something that exiled Israel not only remembers but also looks forward to when the Messiah comes.

The Feast of Tabernacles also looks back on the Day of Atonement which Israel celebrated on the 10th of the same month. The Day of Atonement is also prophetic of the forgiveness that will come to Israel at the end of days as a result of the atonement accomplished on its behalf by the Messiah. Their entering the Promised Land when the Messiah comes depends on the purification of Israel that He has accomplished by His sin-offering.

Neither Do I Condemn You”: the Woman as Israel (John 7:53—8:11)

The passage 7:53—8:11 of John’s gospel is omitted in the ancient manuscripts and thus from the main text of the gospel in many translations. Bruce Metzger finds the evidence against its place in the gospel overwhelming, though he does not doubt its historical veracity. Nevertheless, there are arguments in its favor, which a minority of scholars gives consideration. Without entering the debate (though many scholars consider it a foregone conclusion), I intend to accept the passage as part of the gospel, possibly in chiastic relation to 7:40-52 (7:53—8:2 forming the fulcrum).

With respect to the Feast of Tabernacles, let us consider the passage in relation to Israel, for Jesus’ departure to the Mount of Olives would suggest, after the glorification of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit, His ascent to heaven and continued term there. Though this is not spoken of by John in his gospel, it is implied, for example, in 21:22. Many things are not spoken of directly in John’s gospel, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and yet are strongly implied.

The woman who is brought before Jesus for His judgment is an adulteress. Humanly speaking, we wonder where the man is and why he has not also been brought. We are familiar however with the double standards of many cultures when it comes to protecting men. We also have to wonder what the woman’s situation was that she would risk being caught in the act of adultery. Was she married or only the man with whom she was caught? If it was she who was married—no doubt the marriage would have been arranged—then why was her marriage so unsatisfactory? We can only imagine.

Regardless, we also know that the prophets often spoke of Israel as the wife of YHWH whom YHWH courted in the wilderness and sought to bring home. The prophets tell us that she was an unfaithful spouse, who played the harlot with other gods. Because of her idolatry, they called her an adulteress. The Assyrian and Babylonian exile was the result of her adulteries. The prophets spend a great many words on the sinful condition of Israel and God’s judgment of it. They condemn Israel. But they also condemn all the nations.

In our story, the woman is brought before Jesus. There is no question of her guilt. The Torah (Moses) says she should be put to death by stoning. Jesus does not disagree.

Just as the prophets do not say that YHWH chose to have his spouse put to death but rather that He would forgive and restore her, so Jesus acts along the same line.

“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” We do not know what Jesus was writing on the ground. Perhaps He was writing the Ten Commandments (they were written by the finger of God). John does not tell us. The words of Jesus remind us, however, of Paul’s argument in Romans 3: “We have previous charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin, even as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one.’ … Now we know that whatever things the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may fall under the judgment of God” (verses 9-10, 19). This argument is reversed in Romans 11:23-32.

Israel stands condemned. But when those who would accuse Israel, whether they be self-righteous Jews or the multitude of Gentiles, also come under the light of God’s judgment, we find that “God has shut up all in disobedience” (Romans 11:32). The case of Israel only proves the guilt of all. The disobedience of Israel only exposes that the whole world has fallen “under the judgment of God.” No one can condemn Israel, for all are themselves guilty.

God does not abandon Israel. “And they also, if they do not continue in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again … for the gracious gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” for “they are beloved for the father’s sake.” “Thus all Israel will be saved … when I take away their sins.” (See Romans 11:23-32). Jesus says to the adulteress, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” This, after all, is the meaning of the Day of Atonement when it is recalled by Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles.

YHWH, and Jesus, Himself being the Temple of God and the Light of the Shekinah Presence within it, and Himself without sin, could condemn the woman. This, however, is not the promise that the prophets of Israel reiterated again and again. Instead, “God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). The mercy of God comes to Israel unmerited except by the faithful One who bore Israel’s judgment in perfect love and in the obedience of love to the Father.

This mercy is manifested to all who believe (Romans 3:22), and to Israel too when “they do not continue in unbelief” (Romans 11:23). Though God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all,” this does not mean that He forgives everyone indiscriminately by fiat. Those who believe are forgiven, yet their belief is the result of having been forgiven. It is effected by that forgiveness. On the one hand, apart from the forgiveness of sins, belief is not possible, for the spirit is still alienated from God, its relationship to God still ruptured. On the other hand, the forgiveness of sins is completely effectual and, through the Word and Holy Spirit, (which cleanses the spirit), necessarily produces faith. (When, in the course of time, this faith emerges, is another question.) So, everyone is not automatically forgiven (they just have to believe it), nor is faith a good work that earns or brings about forgiveness.

The Woman as an Individual (John 7:53—8:11)

When the woman is brought before Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees demanded, “What do you say?” she stood before Him as her Judge.

First, however, there is the judgment of others. In the scribes and Pharisees (probably the Pharisees of Jerusalem associated with the Temple scribes), we see our own willingness to condemn others without taking a clear look at ourselves. The judgment of God is not in question. Neither the scribes and Pharisees nor Jesus question the rightness of what Moses commanded in the Law. They condemned the woman. However, the corruptness of their intention comes out in their willingness to use this occasion to “tempt” Jesus “so that they might have reason to accuse Him.” (Did they want to accuse Him of disagreeing with Moses, saying that the woman should not be stoned—which seems to be what they expected—or of giving approval to an act that the Romans might not allow?) What is clear in any case is that they have set themselves up as judges without competently judging themselves. They did not see themselves in the light of God’s judgment and yet they were willing to apply the judgment of God to others.

Yet Jesus turns out to be the light of God’s judgment that exposes and silences them.

Perhaps the woman was thrown down on the ground. When Jesus stooped down to the ground, He put Himself on her level. (If she stood there because they were holding her, then Jesus made Himself lower than her.) While God on Sinai wrote the Ten Commandments on the heights, Jesus wrote words on the ground, words of God no doubt, whatever they were. It is a picture of the Incarnation; God come down to the level of sinners, and even below their level as He willingly submitted to the judgment of God on sinners. Before He would condemn her, He would “condemn” Himself by submitting to the judgment of God that falls on humanity. Only He who IS without sin can voluntarily—out of love for the Father—make such an offering, and He could only do so legitimately when could do so in obedience to the Father and not presumptuously.

Her accusers left, one by one, themselves accused by the Light of Jesus, and “Jesus was left alone, and the woman [remained] where she was.” “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Sir.” She was no longer condemned by any of her accusers. No one except Jesus is in any position to act in God’s place and judge another.

Yet she was still condemned by the letter of the Law, though not yet condemned by Him who had the authority of the Law, who Himself gave the Law, who alone could sentence her.

Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” This is the mercy of God, and Jesus acted with the authority of God in offering it. By His act of forgiveness, for this is what it was, He gave her the gift of a new life: “Go, and from now on sin no more.” We do not hear of her faith, of her regeneration, or of anything of that sort; only of this offer. Yet if properly received it was an offer and invitation to believe, and as spoken to her by Him, if she received His words with faith in God, it was also an enabling and empowerment to believe in His Person, in the One who lifted her condemnation and gave her her life back.

He Who Is the Light of the World is the Light of Life (8:12)

In chapter 7 Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes into Me, as the Scripture said, out of his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” John tells us that Jesus spoke of “the Spirit, whom those who believe into Him were about to receive” when He was glorified. It is the Holy Spirit (and before then the authority of Jesus’ own Person) cleansing and regenerating the human spirit that enables the believer to receive the word of forgiveness. The Christian life begins with the reception of this word. This word is light that clears away our darkness. Our alienation from God brought on by our guilt causes us to live in the darkness of our own lights (Isaiah 50:10-11). The word of the forgiveness of sins cleanses our spirit and reconciles us to God, and enables us to open our eyes to God’s light. Hence, the story of the man born blind follows this story in chapter 9.

It is unfortunate that some believers do not have the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. It is their birthright. Without it, we are always struggling to get started. The Christian life actually takes off when we have the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins. It is on this ground that we begin to grow. We come under the discipline of the government of the kingdom of God and there is an accounting of our sins that remains, but we do so with the assurance of our sins being forgiven as far as our relationship to God is concerned. Where we still must give an account of them has to do with the Father’s discipline and the rule of Christ; it does not have to do with establishing the relationship itself. Unbelievers do not know God as their Father; they are cut off from this because they do not know the forgiveness of sins, even if they mistakenly presume it. Believers do not always know it either; but I think on some level they “remember” it, even if they have been taught not to believe it, and have tangled themselves in all kinds of guilt and mistaken ideas.

“I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me shall by no means walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” We need to notice all that this says. The world is in darkness and Jesus is the Light that overcomes this darkness. In the story we have just read, the Presence of Jesus and the liberating words that He spoke both brought to light the condemnation those who do not believe and gave to the woman the gift of the forgiveness of sins and of a life in reconciliation with God. He is the Light that destroys the darkness (and artificial light) of the world.

When He said to the woman, “Go, and from now on sin no more,” He was giving her an invitation. “He who follows Me shall by no means walk in darkness.” To sin is fundamentally not to violate the rules of Halakah (the legal requirements of the Law) but to insulate oneself from God and attempt to live by one’s own soul, independently of God. It is to live in the darkness of a delusion, to light our soul with our own flame. This is what it means to live by the “flesh.” “Flesh” does not refer to our biology or physicality. It refers to our being when we think we can keep it going when we have nipped it off from our spirit, as if our soul had a life of its own. When we act as if it has a life of its own (its “life” depends on its connection to the world), we are in darkness, and what we think is life is really death.

To receive the forgiveness of sins from Jesus and to follow Him is to live in the daylight. It is to have the “light of life.” In chapter 1 we learn that, speaking of the creation, “what has coming into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” This light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The light that shines on every human being is the light of life, for what makes us alive is our spirit which animates our body and gives rise to our soul. It is our spirit that makes us aware. (The soul is the interior content of which we are aware: our consciousness and its subconscious layers.) In the course of creation emerging from chaos, from matter to fish and birds to land animals to humans, it is life that is coming into being, and it comes into being in Him, in the Word that gives them being and form. It is this life from which we are cut off when our relationship to God is ruptured by sin.

When Jesus came into the world, He came with the eternal life of God, which is the same life that ignites our spirit, but we do not possess this life as such. When our soul and body, our spirit returns to God from whence it came. Jesus, as the Incarnation of God, possesses the life of God in a different way. This life—not as an energy but as the essence of His Person—is incarnated in His entire human being, as body, soul and spirit. His body and soul die on the cross, yet they are also resurrected, and when they are resurrected they are transformed—divinized—so that they share all the properties of His divinity. He is the incarnation of the divine life. So that, when, in His resurrection, we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive all that He is, which means that we receive Him as life, as the divine life of God, eternal life. He IS eternal life. To receive Him is to receive eternal life.

When Jesus speaks of having the light of life, He is speaking of Himself as eternal life. It is this presentation of Himself to us as light through the word and Spirit that penetrates our darkness and transforms our natural life (our spirit) into a dwelling place for the life of God (by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit). This light enlightens our spirit and thus opens the eyes of our heart to see light. God reveals Christ to us more and more so that we can perceive and apprehend Him as our Everything.

True and False Judgments (8:13-20)

The Pharisees react to Jesus when He says, “I am the Light of the world.” “You are testifying concerning Yourself,” they say. “Your testimony is not true.” Jesus speaks of where He came from (namely, the Father who sent Him) and where He is going (back to the Father). After He passed through death, He would bring His humanity to the Father. He is speaking of His divinity, and the divinization of His incarnate humanity. Concerning this He says that they are unable to know it for they judge according to the “flesh,” the artificially insular “bubble” of the soul that sees only itself and the flesh through the soul’s referential symbol system. In other words, not only can the soul not perceive the divine, for it tries to see everything in its own terms. “God” is another idea. But also, the soul cannot properly see the creation either. Instead of seeing the creation directly, it sees the creation through its symbols and the images it has manufactured of the creation. Lust, greed and envy are all indirect ways of seeing creation that depend on an image or symbol system that actually blinds the person to the reality of creation.

Jesus says, “I judge no one.” Spiritually He can judge (this is what He means when He says, “Even if I do judge, My judgment is true, for I am not alone, but I and the Father who sent Me”), but He denies His soul and is unwilling to judge as a human being.

If the people were not so blind (because they live out of the artificial construct of their souls) they would recognize Jesus in their spirits and “know” Him; and in knowing Him they would know the Father (verse 19).

Those who believe into Him are those whom He has encountered in His own Person (even if it is by the Word) and whose eyes have been opened by the radiancy of His light. His light creates the sight by which a person is able to see—and it does this through the gift of divine forgiveness (imparted by Himself Personally).

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