GOD’S RESPECT FOR US SINNERS
What will it be like some day to stand in the presence of the Infinite One and realize he knows everything about us? Everything! Will it be comfortable to spend eternity with Someone who knows us so well? Will God haunt us with the memory of our sinful past?
For an answer we have only to watch how Jesus treated all kinds of sinners:
“Early next morning he returned to the Temple and the entire crowd came to him. So he sat down and began to teach them. But the scribes and Pharisees brought in to him a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand in front, and then said to him, ‘Now, Master, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. According to the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women to death. Now, what do you say about her?’
“They said this to test him, so that they might have some good grounds for an accusation. But Jesus stooped down and began to write with his finger in the dust of the ground. But as they persisted in their questioning, he straightened himself up and said to them, ‘Let the one among you who has never sinned throw the first stone at her.’ Then he stooped down again and continued writing with his finger on the ground. And when they heard what he said, they were convicted by their own consciences and went out, one by one, beginning with the eldest until they were all gone.
“Jesus was left alone, with the woman still standing where they had put her. So he stood up and said to her, ‘Where are they all—did no one condemn you?’
“And she said, ‘No one, sir.’
“‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus to her. ‘Go home and do not sin again.’”
This is the way the story reads in J. B. Phillips’ 1958 translation of the New Testament. In this edition, Mr. Phillips prints the story without comment in its familiar position in John 7:53 to 8:11. But in his 1972 revised edition, he adds a note at the end of the New Testament explaining that “this passage has no place in the oldest manuscripts of John, and is considered by most scholars to be an interpolation from some other source. Almost all scholars would agree that, although the story is out of place here, it is part of a genuine apostolic tradition.”
If you are using the 1952 Revised Standard Version, you will have to look in the footnotes and read the story in very small print. The 1989 revision puts the story back in John 7:53 to 8:11, but in brackets. In the New English Bible of 1961, as also in the 1989 revision, the story is on a separate page at the end of the Gospel of John, with this note: “This passage… has no fixed place in our witnesses. Some of them do not contain it at all. Some place it after Luke 21:38, others after John 7:36, or 7:52, or 21:24.” The 1976 American Bible Society Good News Translation leaves the story in its traditional place but encloses it in brackets, with a note explaining that “many manuscripts and early translations do not have this passage.” There are similar explanations in many other versions.
Evidently the early Christians did not know what to do with this remarkable story. Perhaps they were troubled by the fact that Jesus seemed so willing to forgive this woman for so serious an offense. Nevertheless, as Phillips has observed, many scholars agree that the story bears the marks of genuineness and belongs in the Bible. It is hardly the kind of story that would have been made up in Jesus’ day or been created by the typical manuscript copyist in later years.
The distinguished Princeton scholar Bruce Metzger, in his 1964 The Text of the New Testament, page 223, agrees that “the story… has all the earmarks of historical veracity; no ascetically minded monk would have invented a narrative which closes with what seems to be only a mild rebuke on Jesus’ part.”
Some religious leaders of Jesus’ day brought this poor woman to Christ in another attempt to trap him into contradicting the teachings of the Old Testament. This was not the only such attempt. Jesus’ picture of God and his interpretation of the Old Testament were so different from theirs that they even accused him of heresy and of rejecting the authority of Old Testament Scripture.
This is why Jesus had to say, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). That is to say, “Think not that I have come to do away with the teachings of the Old Testament. On the contrary, I have come to complete them, to explain them, to show you what the Old Testament is all about.” But eventually they killed him rather than accept his explanation.
Each attempt to entrap him Jesus met with his customary skill and grace. This time, to be sure that they could carry the crowds with them, the enemies of Christ made certain that they had the necessary evidence. In the hearing of the whole onlooking crowd they announced that “this woman was caught in the very act.”
Then they posed their question: “You know the teaching of the Old Testament on this matter. You know the text about what ought to be done with a woman like this. Will you agree that she ought to be stoned?” And the public watched to see what Jesus would say.
He said nothing. He just bent down and began to write with his finger in the dust. A puff of wind, a few footsteps, and the record would be gone. Then his conscience-pricking words: “The one among you who has never sinned, let him throw the first stone.”
Why didn’t Jesus draw the whole crowd closer and say, “Let me tell you a few things about these accusers of this poor woman.” Didn’t they deserve to be exposed? What does it say about God that his Son did not publicly humiliate those self-righteous men?
This is what Christ came to reveal. This is the truth about God. He finds no pleasure in our embarrassment, in exposing our sins to others.
And when they had all gone, Jesus turned to the woman and gently said, “I don’t condemn you either. Go home, and do not sin again.” Graciously he sought to restore the dishonored woman’s self-respect.
Simon, a wealthy man whom Jesus had cured of leprosy, invited Jesus and other friends to eat with him at his house. Three of Jesus’ closest friends were also there: Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Now Mary is described by Luke as “a woman who was living an immoral life in the town” (Luke 7:37, neb).
While they were all reclining at the table, Mary brought a flask of very costly perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Simon watched with disapproval and thought to himself, “‘If this man really were a prophet, he would know who this woman is who is touching him; he would know what kind of sinful life she lives!’
“Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’
“‘Yes, Teacher,’ he said, ‘tell me’” (Luke 7:39, 40, gnt).
Jesus then told a story of two debtors who both had been forgiven. And as he told it, Simon realized that Jesus had read his thoughts. He began to see himself as a worse sinner than the woman he had despised, and he wondered if Jesus might go on and expose him before his guests.
Nothing was more offensive to the Lord than self-righteous accusation. But did he expose Simon? Did he say to the company, “Let me tell you about our host”?
Instead, the Lord as always did the gracious thing. He courteously accepted Mary’s impulsive act. And with equal grace he corrected Simon without humiliating him before his friends. Simon must have been deeply touched!
When Jesus met the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda, he did not humiliate or condemn him for having squandered his health in youthful indulgence. He simply asked him kindly, “Would you like to be well? Then pick up your mat and go home.” Later Jesus met him and said, “You know what caused your trouble. Go and sin no more, lest something worse happen to you” (see John 5:1–15).
Picture Christ in the upper room the night before he was crucified. The twelve disciples were squabbling like children as to “which one of them should be thought of as the greatest” (Luke 22:24, gnt).
Did Jesus chide them for their folly or scold them for their unwillingness to wash each other’s feet? Instead, he quietly arose, took a towel and a basin of water, and the universe watched as the Great Creator knelt down and washed a dozen pairs of dirty feet. He even washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas.
What fools the disciples were that night to miss a last chance to ask Jesus why he looked so troubled and what he meant when he said, “I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matthew 26:29, gnt)!
What a chance the disciples missed to wash the feet of the Son of God the night before he died! If only one of them had volunteered, what a memory he would have cherished for the rest of eternity!
Imagine the effect on the disciples as each in turn looked down on the head of Jesus bent over the basin and felt those strong carpenter’s hands washing his feet.
Jesus could have looked up at them and said, “You don’t believe my Father would be willing to do this, do you? But if you have seen me, you have seen the Father. The Father loves you just as much as I do. If you are comfortable with me, you will be comfortable with him.”
Later he told them that one of them would betray him. But he didn’t expose him to the whole group. And when he told Judas to go and do quickly the terrible thing he had to do, the other disciples thought he had been sent out for provisions or even to perform such a noble act as to make an offering for the poor.
Why didn’t Jesus expose his betrayer before the others? Surely he deserved to be exposed. Think what it says about God that Jesus did not humiliate such a traitor!
Still later that night, out in Gethsemane, Jesus took Peter, James, and John still deeper into the Garden and there began his awesome experience of separation from his Father. Three times he came over to where the disciples were dozing, hoping for some companionship and comfort in his agony.
What a chance the disciples missed to encourage the Son of God! What if the three of them had arisen and gone back with Jesus and knelt down around him as he prayed? What a memory those three men would have had! But they slept through it all. And Jesus did not reprove them. He sympathized with them for being too tired to help.
A few hours later Peter was cursing and swearing in the courtyard to prove he was not a Christian. He did not even know this Christ!
Then the cock crowed, just as Jesus had said the night before—right after Peter’s bold speech that, though others might let him down, he would give his life for the Lord.
When Peter heard that sound, he looked to see if Jesus had noticed. Though he was on trial for his life and had suffered so much already, Jesus was more concerned about his erring disciple out there in the courtyard. He turned and looked straight at Peter.
As Peter knew God up to that time, he may well have expected to see wrath and indignation in the face of Christ. He surely deserved it! But instead he saw sorrow, disappointment, and pity—the face of the one who just the night before had knelt down and washed his dirty feet.
Peter went out and wept bitterly, so ashamed he was and so moved by the look he saw on Jesus’ face (Luke 22:54–62).
A little later Judas came into the court, threw down the thirty pieces of silver, and confessed that he had betrayed innocent blood. Then he, too, looked at Jesus. He saw the same sorrow and pity that had touched Peter’s heart—the face of the one who just the night before had knelt down and washed his dirty feet. Overcome, Judas went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:3–5).
If only Judas had responded as Peter did to that look on Jesus’ face! What a scene for all heaven to watch, if Judas had found where Peter was weeping and the two disciples had knelt down together and become new men!
Imagine how Peter felt all that Sabbath. What a fool he had made of himself the past twenty-four hours! Twice he had spoken so impetuously in the upper room. Twice he had disgraced himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. And then the cowardice and disloyalty while his Lord was being tried! Now Jesus was dead, and there was no chance for him to make things right.
No wonder he rushed to the tomb on Sunday morning when he heard the news that the grave was empty!
But it was Mary who had the privilege of seeing Christ first and carrying the good news to the other disciples. Mary, of all people! The woman who had so many problems and so many weaknesses, the one out of whom Jesus had to cast seven devils (see Luke 8:2). Yet it was Mary who was picked for this high privilege. Think what it says about God that Mary should be the one so highly honored.
When Mary recognized Jesus standing outside the tomb, she fell at his feet to worship him. And Jesus gently said, “Do not detain me now, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go and tell my brothers that I am going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (see John 20:17).
Listen to Jesus calling the disciples his brothers—the men who had let him down when he needed them the most!
When the angels confirmed Jesus’ command to Mary to take the news to the disciples, they said, “Tell the disciples, and especially tell Peter, that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee” (see Mark 16:7).
How Godlike it was of the angels to add, “and especially tell Peter”! The angels admire and worship God for the way he has treated sinners. How much they must have enjoyed adding, “Tell Peter”!
This is the kind of God with whom we may spend eternity. That is why, even though we all have sinned, we shall be comfortable in the presence of the one who knows us so well.
We have nothing to fear from the infinite memory of God. God is forgiveness personified. And he has promised not only to forgive us but to treat us as if we had never sinned. He will cast all our sins behind his back (Isaiah 38:17). He will “send them to the bottom of the sea!” (Micah 7:19; gnt).
There is no pretense or forgetfulness in this. God knows how we have lived. We know what sinners we have been. Angels have watched our every deed. But in spite of all this, our heavenly Father will treat us with dignity and respect as if we had always been his loyal children.
As God treats us, so we shall treat each other. This is why David will be comfortable there, in spite of his great sin. It is not because all memory of sin has been blotted out. This would require that every Bible be destroyed and all memory of what it contains. Gone would be all memory of the plan of salvation and God’s merciful handling of the problem of sin!
The sins of David have been immortalized on the pages of Scripture. Rahab’s former profession has been described there. So have the sins of Samson, Gideon, Moses, Jacob, and Abraham. Hebrews 11 indicates that they too will be in the kingdom. And they too will be comfortable there.
When Paul included a long list of sins at the end of Romans 1, he put gossiping right in the middle. No one will be admitted to heaven who cannot be entrusted with the knowledge of other people’s sins and who will not wholeheartedly treat former sinners with full dignity and respect.
This is how it will be possible for David and Uriah to meet and not come to blows. Some day it may be our privilege to see those two men meet again for the first time in the hereafter. Think how David stole Uriah’s wife and then arranged for the murder of the faithful soldier who had helped him become king (see 2 Samuel 11, 12; 1 Chronicles 11:10, 41)! Will the past be all forgotten?
Will Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, David’s son, have forgotten she once was Uriah’s wife? Will the prophet Nathan have forgotten his moving appeal to the king? Will David have forgotten his confession in the fifty-first Psalm? Will we have forgotten David’s prayer for a new heart that has helped many of us pray the same prayer?
Or will it be possible for David and Uriah to approach each other, look into each other’s eyes, remember, and once more become friends? To me that would be far more wonderful!
Could we begin to treat each other this way here and now in this life? It is surely not natural to do so. It would be a great miracle of healing, like the miracle that happened to John. At first, Jesus called him Son of Thunder. But later John became “the beloved disciple” and wrote in his Gospel and Epistles so much about Christian love.
John watched the way Jesus received sinners, how he treated everyone with dignity and grace. Never had John seen such strength of character, and yet such tenderness; such fearless denunciation of sin, and yet such patience and sympathy. As he was moved to ever deeper admiration, John became more and more like the One he worshiped and admired.
It is true that on some very serious occasions Jesus had to call sin by its right name and publicly condemn it. One day some of the religious teachers, the ones so much trusted by the people, denounced Jesus’ picture of his Father. They even told him he had a devil to be so describing God. Think of rejecting Jesus’ picture of his own Father as false, even satanic! And those who opposed him were so pretentiously pious!
Under such extreme circumstances Jesus was moved to reply, “It is not I who has a devil. You are of your father the devil. He is a liar and the father of lies, and you prefer his lies about God to the truth” (see John 8:44, 48, 49). But even then there were tears in his voice.
Even in the final, awesome death of the wicked, God still reveals his respect for the freedom and individuality of his intelligent creatures. He has made it plain throughout Scripture that he is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9, kjv). “‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11).
Like a physician, God stands ready to heal us; but he will not force us to be well. If we refuse his healing, God will respect our decision. If we insist on leaving, he will let us go. But the consequences will be terrible. And as we leave him for the last time, his cry over us will be the sad cry of Hosea, “How can I give you up! How can I let you go!” (see Hosea 11:8).
As a dramatic demonstration of his longing to save his people, God asked Hosea to marry a woman of dubious reputation. Later she left him and took up a life of prostitution. And God said to Hosea, “Go and look for your wife. Buy her back, and see if you can persuade her to stay with you and be your faithful wife from now on.”
For many years God pleaded with his erring people to come back and be faithful once again. Patiently he kept on calling, “Come home, Israel, come home to the Lord your God! For it is your sins which have been your downfall. Take words of repentance with you as you return to the Lord; say to him, Clear us from all our evil.” And God promised, “I will heal their unfaithfulness, I will love them with all my heart” (Hosea 14:1, 2, 4, Phillips).
The prodigal son did just this. He came home with words of repentance. And his father was so glad to see him that he didn’t let him finish his confession. This is how our heavenly Father feels about every sinner who comes back, Jesus explained (see Luke 15:10—32).
But Israel in Hosea’s day did not choose to come home. And God cried over them, “My people are bent on turning away from me…. How, oh how, can I give you up, Ephraim! How, oh how, can I hand you over, Israel!” (Hosea 11:7, 8, Phillips).
God will miss us if we’re lost. He will miss us if we don’t come home.
Think of the eternal void Lucifer will leave in the infinite memory of God.
But for many of us the revelation of the truth about our God, the picture of God presented throughout the whole of Scripture, leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4) and to faith (Romans 10:17). In trust and confidence we look forward to seeing God. We know that when he appears, though he comes in unveiled majesty and power, we shall not be afraid.
Sinners though we all have been, we shall be comfortable in his presence for all eternity.