Longing for the Divine

Law in the Hands of Jesus: A Different Way to View Law

In John chapter 8, a group of Pharisees and scribes bring Jesus a woman caught in adultery and ask if they should stone her as the law commanded (John 8:2–11).

Is the choice between punitive law enforcement and allowing lawless behavior? Or is there a third option, a process that transforms?

Christians often hold up the Bible as a symbol of law and order, yet they sometimes do so with little evidence of compassion or grace. Generations of misunderstanding God’s law as intolerably legalistic has caused many to reject God’s definition of law. In dismissing the authority of God’s revelation, however, we trade His law for a different kind of authority. In opposition to cultural turmoil and lawlessness, Evangelical Christians are steadily adopting a tougher charge to restore “law and order.” Rejecting the typical liberal answers as soft on sin and lenient on crime, many conservative Evangelicals are denoting law, whether divine or human, as dictating punishment and unyielding justice. If, however, we abandon the idea of law as caring instructions from a loving God, we merely enforce self-authentication to suit our own convenience. When a fusion of law and order with religion becomes the response to moral quandaries, spiritual concern creates a context of aggressive policing and sentencing—a context that includes using force if necessary to end evil. Jesus, however, never uses law in this way. The good news is that there’s a much better way to conceptualize law. 

Jesus is teaching in the temple courts when religious dignitaries and representatives of God’s law confront Him. They gather with a crowd of hard-faced men ready to stone a terrified woman who has been “caught in adultery.” They come armed with their favorite Bible verses that support the prohibition of adultery with descriptions of punishment. They want to know if Jesus will affirm the social order, the religious establishment, divine judgment, and the moral code of God’s law. Jesus knows they are trying to entrap Him through a discourse over God’s law. The woman has been caught in adultery, but she was most likely entrapped, and a mob has gathered to support the judgment in an ad hoc tribunal. Shedding light on this complex situation, scholar J. Duncan M. Derrett explains that “People are hardly ever caught in adultery, but to require that they shall be seen in coitu by two or three people is to make convictions for adultery rare indeed” (Law in the New Testament: The Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery, 2005, p. 161). 

In Biblical and Jewish law, two or three reliable witnesses are required to establish a fact. To become a legitimate witness in a proper court, therefore, someone must actually witness an adulterous disgrace—and only after seeking to prevent it. The accusers of the woman caught in adultery bring no such witnesses. If anything, the story is about suspected but unproven adultery. The pairing of Jesus’ writing in the dust on the Temple floor with this priestly ordeal to test a woman suspected of adultery is not accidental (Numbers 5:11–31). The image of Jesus writing with His finger on the Temple floor evokes the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God—the power and authority of God (Exodus 31:18). Jesus stops writing in the dust and reminds the would-be executioners of their own sins, calling for those seeking to judge and condemn to cast the first stone. One by one, however, they walk away, and the woman is left alone. 

What causes the accusers to drop their stones and walk away?

It is Jesus’ rightful use of the law—without violating its letter—that exposes the accusers’ sin (Deuteronomy 19:16–19; Jeremiah 17:13). Jesus is not disregarding or undermining respect for the law but correctly interpreting and restoring it (Matthew 5:17). Understanding the situation, Jesus delivers the law from facilitating sinners devoid of pity who misuse and misrepresent it in false reverence. Jesus doesn’t object to affirming the law against adultery. He has no desire to amend the law in favor of what some would call “permissive grace.” His grace does not demand that God cancel His law of love but rather makes it come alive again (Romans 8:2). We often think that the law—and thus the Lawgiver—are full of condemnation, but if we read more closely, we find that this is not the case. The one qualified to execute a sentence against transgressors does not do so. As Karl Barth say’s, “There is only one who might be against us: Jesus Christ. And it is He, precisely, who is for us!” (The Faith of the Church, 2006, p. 118).

Jesus does not face the sinner as an executioner. In fact, He does the opposite, assuring the woman that He neither judges nor condemns her. He does not come to condemn the world but to save it (John 3;17; 12:47). Jesus stoops low with the woman, who is shielding herself from certain blows and quietly tells her to sin no more. Then, he sends her on her way.

Far too often, these words Jesus speaks to the woman caught in adultery—“go and sin no more”—are used to justify judgment and telling people not to sin. After all, God is judgmental and tough on sin, right? To be sure, God judges and condemns sin but not in the ways we expect (John 8:15-16). We must not forget that the first words Jesus speaks to the terror-stricken woman are “I do not condemn you.” He grants acceptance and love before He tells people to change their behavior. By contrast, our response is often judgment—a toxic theology that in no way represents the character of Christ. Such condemnation of sin generally includes an attitude of indifference toward the criminal or sinner—those we see as vile others who deserve full punishment with no opportunity for rehabilitation. It is the powerful impact of God’s love and kindness, however, that leads us to repentance and lasting transformation. An authoritative system of law and order focused on judgment, condemnation, and punishment can never guide sinners into forging that kind of life. 

For example, a common Christian response to a woman who faces an unplanned pregnancy or engages in adultery or other sin is judgment and imposed shame. But imagine if we instead brought insight, wisdom, and grace to the moral dilemmas and public issues that confront us today. What if the church were not weaponized to pick up stones, we were not quick to condemn, and the Bible were not used to justify judging others but to transform people’s lives? Without condemnation, people would sense the presence of Jesus. God understands our struggles far more than we imagine. When considering law and order, we can’t just cite biblical stories about punishing adulterers, Sabbath-breakers, and vile others; we need Jesus’ commentary on the sacred text. 

The biblical story of the woman accused of adultery ends with the law in the rightful hands of Jesus. The law of Christ is not a different or easier law from the Old Testament; it is the same law issued from Sinai, only magnified and made glorious by Jesus. Jesus does not condone adultery or suggest that sin doesn’t matter. He acknowledges truth but rightfully uses the law to create opportunity for change. Jesus gives the woman hope for a new life by liberating her from condemnation and certain death. The case for retribution is dismissed, and Jesus says, “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:10–11). While the law in Jesus’ hands is beautiful, for “we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8), it can end up in the wrong hands. When God’s law is misrepresented and twisted from its original life enhancing intent, it can assume a destructive form. If we use the law in ways not intended, it produces death. In the epistles to the Romans and Galatians, Paul’s Jewish opponents are misusing God’s law in a disparaging way, threatening others with punishment and waging war with others for improper reasons. Paul addresses the problem by saying, “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14, ESV). His critique is leveled against his opponents’ abuse and misuse of law and against the pride of His own people, who mistake law for a source of condemnation and national pride. To practice law without it’s relationship to grace is to misrepresent law as something other than a life-giving commandment. 

Sadly, many Christians have come to believe that God’s law is opposed to love and grace. We think that being pro-law means being hard on sin and is opposed to being pro-grace. On the one side stands the law and on the other sits grace. We must choose either law or grace, and the distance between them is great. In Ephesians 4, Paul describes the truth as it is in Jesus. The law in Christ restores the commandments into the law of life—nurturing and life-affirming (Romans 8:2). This is what the law is like when Christ is placed in it. In the hands of Jesus, the law is beautiful and life-protecting, for “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10, NIV). We need to see Jesus in the law as God intended. We must change our view of law from an authoritative, harsh, and arbitrary set of rules to a caring set of instructions from a loving God. 

Law and grace are not in opposition. To see grace in Jesus, we must also see it in the Old Testament. God reveals His grace in abundance to Moses on Sinai when the law was given (Exodus 34:6). We see the power of that revelation and the sanctification of truth in Jesus, who brings more grace to turn the tide of sin. Jesus is the one true witness qualified to throw stones, but He does not do so. Instead of pointing fingers, condemning, and demanding shame, He writes in the dust, and by the finger of God, everything changes. Liberated from law in the hands of sinners, the woman experiences the transforming effect of law in the hands of Jesus, which removes her guilt and shame. She is liberated from her past and no longer known as adulterous but as a pure, spotless woman beginning a new life (Isaiah 54:4–5). How beautiful! Only God’s grace can bring about this kind of transformation. Only His love can compel us.

Are we upholding the law of Christ to renew and bring us into life, or are we taking the law into our own hands? 

In Luke, Jesus asks a law scholar, “What is written in the Law? … How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). Jesus shows us that the law describes what love looks like. It’s a revelation of what God is like—the merciful and gracious One, abundant in lovingkindness and truth. We are to imitate Him by living  a “life filled with love” (Ephesians 5:2, NLT). Looking at how Jesus handles the law gives us a new perspective that helps us treat others as He does. Said another way, to truly conform to the law is to become like Jesus. As Christians, we should choose to leave the law in the hands of Jesus, so we can rightly relate to others. 

Craig Ashton Jr.

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