This week we pick back up our teaching series, Love Like Jesus. From our conversation a couple of weeks ago we understand a bit better why loving like Jesus is such a big and important deal (especially for followers of Jesus), but we still need to see it in action. We need examples. What does it look like to love like Jesus. Let’s look together at a story that gives us one of the best pictures we can find in the Gospels.
Two Are Better than One
I want today’s message to be sticky, so we’re going to start out here by talking about glue. Literally, not metaphorically. Have you ever used a two-component epoxy glue before? Admittedly I didn’t know that much about them and had to do a bit of research this week. Epoxies are glues that are chemically activated and form bonds at a molecular level. This makes them much, much stronger than your average bottle of Elmer’s best. Some epoxies use just a single substance that does the trick. Some, though, use two different substances. That’s why they call them two-component epoxies. I know, this is complicated stuff today.
With two-component epoxies, the magic happens when you combine the two parts together in the right way. On their own the individual parts are inert. They just sit there and don’t do anything. They are functionally worthless alone. Together, though, they form a bond that is nearly unbreakable. Today, I want to talk to you about two things that—contrary to common opinion—are functionally worthless when they are on their own. But when you combine them together, something powerful happens that puts us right in line with the love of Jesus.
This morning we are in the second part of our February teaching series, Love Like Jesus. The big idea for this series is that our culture is in a place where it could use a little more love. Many things are broken, and people are tired. That’s a combination for frustration and short tempers. Perhaps you’ve experienced both of those in the last year both personally and on the receiving end. In the midst of such a season, love is the only way we’re ever going to find a positive way out of the mess we are in. But not just any love will do. Human love isn’t going to do the job. Our love always eventually fails. It runs short. It is selfish and ultimately out for personal gain more than the genuine good of the other person. This kind of fake love is in some ways worse than no love at all. It eventually reveals its true colors which just produces cynicism in high volume. And if you have any doubts about that, just look around a bit. What we need is not simply more love, but a reminder of how we can love like Jesus.
Two weeks ago, as we got started, we clarified just how significant this love is for Jesus’ followers. There’s simply no substitute for our loving like Jesus if we are going to claim to be His followers. In fact, Jesus Himself made clear that our loving like Him is the only way anybody is ever going to really know for sure we are His followers. Jesus followers are to be known by love alone. If we miss that, we miss everything.
But, while that understanding is good and important, it’s not enough. We need examples. We need to see what Jesus is talking about. We don’t just need theory; we need to see it. As promised, this week and next we are looking at two specific examples from Jesus’ ministry so we can better get our minds wrapped around just what it actually looks like to love like Jesus did. We’re going to start this morning with a story that is one of the more famous from John’s Gospel. There’s some debate over whether or not John originally included it, but most scholars are uniformly convinced that the story is true. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way with me to John 8. Our story picks up right at the beginning of the chapter.
We find here Jesus and His disciples in Jerusalem. Unlike the other Gospels, John narrates three different trips Jesus made to Jerusalem. Each time He spent time teaching and preaching and provoking conflict with the Pharisees and scribes in the temple. Here Jesus and the gang had spent the night out on the Mount of Olives. The story picks up at v. 2: “At dawn he went to the temple again, and all the people were coming to him. He sat down and began to teach them.”
This was far enough into Jesus’ ministry that His fame had spread pretty far and wide throughout the regions of Judea and Galilee. When He sat down to teach, there was a crowd ready to hear what He had to say. Some came for the miracles, sure, but some came because His words burned in their hearts and they had to know more about this kingdom He kept proclaiming. At the same time, the greater His renown grew the more committed the Jewish leaders became to seeing Him discredited and destroyed. They looked for any opportunity they could find to put Him to the test in front of the people. If they could get just an inch of criticism to stick, if they could find even the slightest chink in His righteous armor, they would exploit it with all the rhetorical and political power they could muster to take Him down.
On this particular day, as Jesus was teaching another group, the religious leaders saw their chance to try yet again to get him. Verse 3: “Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center. ‘Teacher,’ they said to him, ‘this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commands us to stone such women. So what do you say?’”
Imagine this scene playing out in your mind for a minute. Jesus is sitting there teaching in a corner of the enormous temple courtyard. The place was big enough most people wouldn’t have even noticed them, nor would they have noticed much commotion going on around them. Suddenly, though, a group of scribes and Pharisees, arrayed in their official costumes so everyone understand just how important they were, appeared on the edge of the group. Without warning they began pushing through the crowd in the direction of Jesus. The group began to move around and make room for them—as much in deference to their position as to avoid getting stepped on or being caught up in the fray.
The group of religious leaders was imposing enough, but they weren’t alone. There were a couple of temple guards with them. Between the two of them was a woman. She looked terrified and utterly disheveled. She was filthy and her clothing barely met the standards of modesty. Hardly allowing her to walk on her own, they were dragging her roughly along with them. Whatever she had done, it must have been bad.
Once they were certain they had everyone’s attention they began to make their case. We caught this woman in the act of doing something terribly wrong. The Law says we should stone her to death. What do you say, Teacher?
All eyes turned to Jesus. The trap the Pharisees and company were laying was immediately obvious. Jesus was understood to be a teacher of the Law. He had said clearly that He had not come to get rid of the Law; not one jot or tittle. At the same time, He had spoken often and clearly about the love and grace of the Father. This woman, regardless of the awful thing she had done—the thing she had in fact been caught in the very act of doing—was a pretty pitiful sight. Surely if God was a God of grace and mercy, He would extend such a gift to one like her. And yet, to do that would be a clear violation of the Law. If Jesus took that route, the religious elite there would immediately label Him a lawbreaker and set about thoroughly discrediting Him. The Law may be hard, but the Law is the Law. God gave the Law through Moses. Even if you didn’t like it all the time, you still kept it because that’s how you stayed in God’s good graces. If we were to let this one little thing go, what would be next? Eventually the whole society will be undone by lawlessness. But then again, look at her. She doesn’t represent a threat to anyone, let alone the nation as a whole.
What would Jesus do?
The answer to that question is: Not what anybody expected. Because He’s Jesus and He never does what anyone expects. Jump back into the text with me in the second half of v. 6: “Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with his finger.” Wow, right?!? Here we are in this incredibly tense and significant moment when Jesus could have made a profound argument for God’s kingdom. He could have called out the religious leaders for their glaring and obvious hypocrisy (after all, if this woman was truly caught in the act of her crime, she wasn’t alone and there’s no evidence the Pharisees brought along the guy who was with her and who the Law condemned in equal terms). He could have done a whole lot of things to take control of the situation. And so He…stoops down and starts writing in the dirt. Boy, that’ll show them!
Worse for us, Mark doesn’t bother telling us what He was writing. That fact absolutely kills interpreters. They almost can’t help themselves from guessing. Some preachers will make their guess the focal point of their sermons about this passage. But we don’t know. Whatever it was, though, it obviously left the religious leaders as unimpressed as we were. They kept pushing Jesus to answer their charges. “Teacher, you cannot ignore this woman’s crime. This woman has done a terrible deed and the Law on the matter is clear. You’re not going to be able to wiggle out from under this one. Do you support the Law or not?”
Verse 7: “When they persisted in questioning him, he stood up and said to them, ‘The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Then he stooped down again and continued writing on the ground.” Can you imagine the cone of silence that descended in that moment? Jesus was finally going to render His verdict. And He invited the very judgment the Law demanded. The crowds were going to hear this and turn on Him now! But then He invited “the one without sin among you” to take the first shot at her. This is the point at which most interpreters assume He was somehow writing sins the religious leaders there had committed. We still don’t know what He wrote, but the combination of His words and scribbles in the dirt resulted in the accusers gradually disappearing, starting with the oldest among them, until it was just Jesus sitting there with the woman and the crowd.
And this is the part that makes this story so famous and popular. This is the image of Jesus people want to embrace—the Jesus who refused to condemn a sinner, but instead extended to her His amazing grace. Let’s all go home and do the same! And that sounds great and all…but it’s not the full picture of what’s happening here. Come back to the text with me again in v. 8 and let’s see together how this story really ends. “Then he stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only he was left, with the woman in the center. When Jesus stood up, he said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, Lord,’ she answered. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus. ‘Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.’”
So, what is this? What are we seeing about Jesus’ love here that’s so important for us to understand better how to love like Jesus in our own lives? Well, what did Jesus do when He refused to condemn her? He extended to her what? Grace, right? He showed her incredible grace. He refused to give her the death sentence the Law demanded, instead opting to give her another chance to do better. That’s incredible. That kind of grace should absolutely draw us to Jesus. It has been drawing people to Him for 2,000 years. But that wasn’t the only thing He said to the woman, was it? What else did He say? He told her to quit sinning. Well, what’s that? That’s truth. Because the truth was that she had indeed done something wrong. Grievously wrong. Nobody was denying that. Just because Jesus refused to see her condemned in that moment does not by any stretch mean her sin somehow didn’t matter or didn’t count. It still absolutely did. And if she kept on that path, the judgment of the religious leaders was nothing compared to the coming judgment of God. If she wanted to be right with Him, she had to quit sinning. That was truth.
Jesus’ love wasn’t merely grace or merely truth. It was—and is—both. Entirely. Neither is lacking in Him and in His love in even the slightest amount. This isn’t some kind of a 50-50 mixture. It is 100% of both grace and truth. Just like He is. If we want to love like Jesus, our love must look the same.
In His day, Jesus’ culture tended to err in the direction of truth. Truth keeps things in line, but it is hard. It does not make room for falling short. You’re either in the truth or you’re not. There’s no middle ground or grey area there. You always know where you stand, but if you don’t measure up—and let’s be honest: we don’t measure up a lot—the whole weight of the truth comes right down on you like the religious leaders were trying to do to this woman.
In our day, we have more of the opposite problem. We tend to err in the direction of grace. Now, if you’re going to lean to one side or the other, it would seem like grace is the way to go, but not so fast. Grace doesn’t condemn, but grace alone also gets very squishy very quickly. Just how far does the lack of condemnation go? After all, this woman’s actions may have deeply hurt another person. If she was simply refused condemnation and that was that, what recourse did this other person have to make things right? Just as you might cry unfair at someone who gets the book thrown at them for what you perceive to be a minor offense, you’ll also cry foul if someone does something obviously heinous and gets little more than a slap on the wrist. Lean too hard in the direction of grace and this latter problem can become enormous quickly.
No, the reality of Jesus’ love is that if we are going to model ours after His, we have to have both of the aspects fully in view. Truth and grace. One without the other, like the ingredients of a two-component epoxy, is worthless. In fact, they’re worse than worthless. They’re actively harmful. It is only when both exist in their fullest forms together that we really hit the mark. Loving like Jesus requires grace and truth.
Now, if you would not count yourself a follower of Jesus, this is unbelievably good news. Listen to this: Jesus’ love comes with no strings attached. None. Not a single one. No matter how deep in a mess you happen to be, if you will turn in Jesus’ direction, He will run to scoop you up, clean you off, and embrace you with His love like a loving parent whose toddler has fallen trying to walk. Just as He refused to condemn this woman whose sin was obvious and awful, He will refuse to condemn you. In fact, it’s even better than that. He took your condemnation on Himself. He paid the price you couldn’t pay so you didn’t have to worry about it any longer. You just have to trust your life to Him, and the rest will fall into place. That’s grace and it’s amazing.
He is also going to insist that you leave your sin behind entirely. That’s what He said here to the woman: quit sinning. You can’t have both Jesus and your sin. It just doesn’t work like that. It is an either-or proposition, not a both-and. If you want to keep sinning you can, but that is a sign you aren’t yet willing to receive the grace He longs to give. That’s truth. The kingdom of God is real, and you’ve got to fully embrace reality if you want to be there.
If you would count yourself among Jesus’ followers, this love is our standard. Loving like Jesus requires grace and truth. We can’t slack in either direction or we fail to love like He did. We must—that is, must—receive sinners just like Jesus did. Never do we condemn someone trying to come to Jesus. It does not matter how ugly their sin might look from our perspective (ours looks just as ugly from God’s perspective), we receive them with arms open wide. Period. Full stop. No exceptions. Imagine if a church today got just that right. What a difference it would make!
But while we must do that much, we can’t stop there. We receive them just as they are and then walk with them—do you hear that?—on a path away from their sin and brokenness in the direction of the righteousness of Christ. That’s truth. Unless we enable them to yield to the truth—a position we earn with our commitment to grace—we aren’t really loving them. Love is an intentional decision to see someone else become more fully who God designed them to be in Christ. And that requires grace and truth. Loving like Jesus requires grace and truth. Let us embrace both and see the world around us changed. Grace and truth. Loving like Jesus requires grace and truth.