Summary: God’s mercy rescues the greatest sinners.
Our text this morning engenders unique debate which would take hours to explain adequately all the issues involved. Since I preach only once per week, for about 30 minutes, I must strictly limit my comments.
When God inspired men to write the Bible, their handwritten pages were carried from city to city, where Christians copied them. These copies were themselves circulated for reading and further copying. Since the parchment written on was frail, the originals and some early copies ended up lost or destroyed. But many were preserved. Maybe buried in the rubble of a military victory or hidden in a house and then forgotten when the owners died. Eventually the church developed a system for keeping these “manuscripts.”
As with any hand-copied work, there are occasional errors: two words are reversed, a spelling mistake is made, a homonym replaces the correct word. But the rare errors were easily recognized and corrected, and so out of thousands of hand-copied Bible manuscripts, there is virtual uniformity of text. However, questions remain about John 7.53-8.11. Almost all modern Bibles either bracket, or in some way note, that some early manuscripts omit these verses.
You should know that some disputes over Bible texts are simply modern unbelief. Those who deny that God could write and preserve his words use textual criticism to disparage Scripture. But it seems that the issues are different here, because questioning these 12 verses is not a modern activity.
John Calvin pastored in the 1500s, and observed: “It is quite clear that this story was unknown to the ancient Greek Churches. Hence some conjecture that it was inserted from another place. But it has always been received by the Latin Churches and is found in many Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an apostolic spirit; so there is no reason why we should refuse to make use of it.”
But the uncertainty goes back much further, at least to St. Augustine, who lived in the 400s. While teaching on marriage, Augustine explained that a Christian man should be reconciled to his wife, upon her repentance, even after adultery, because Jesus said (in John 8.11): “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin nor more.” Then Augustine wrote: “This, however, rather shocks the minds of some weak believers, or rather unbelievers and enemies of the Christian faith, insomuch that, afraid of its giving their wives impunity of sinning, they struck out of their copies of the Gospel this that our Lord did in pardoning the woman taken in adultery; as if He granted leave of sinning when he said, ‘Go, and sin no more.’” So even in 400 AD theologians knew that some manuscripts omitted these 12 verses. From my study, I conclude three things.
First, I believe this a genuine Bible text. I think arguments for it superior to those suggesting omission. (The list of pros and cons are explained in most commentaries.)
Second, you should know that even if this text is questioned, it only proves more convincingly the rest of New Testament manuscripts. Given the ease with which mistakes could be made and errors intentionally introduced by enemies of the gospel, a serious student of the Bible must be amazed at the consistency in the texts. This rare example of confusion shines a brighter light of confidence elsewhere.
Third, if we ask, “Why God allowed this problem?” J. C. Ryle wisely answers: “After all, there is much ground for thinking that some critical difficulties have been purposely left by God’s providence in the text of the New Testament, in order to prove the faith and patience of Christian people. They serve to test the humility of those to whom intellectual difficulties are a far greater cross than either doctrinal or practical ones. To such minds it is a trying, but useful, discipline to find occasional passages involving knots which they cannot quite untie, and problems which they cannot quite solve. Of such passages the verses before us are a striking instance. That the text of them is ‘a hard thing’ it would be wrong to deny. But I believe our duty is not to reject it hastily, but to sit still and wait.”
[Read John 7.53-8.11. Pray.]
Edward Shillito pastored near London during WWI and he wrote several poems describing faith in the midst of suffering. One of the most moving, Jesus of the Scars, tells of a soldier coming to faith in the during war:
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?