Jesus, Friend of Sinners – Part 1

Jesus and adulteress woman

This is the first few articles that I will be posting entitled Jesus, Friend of Sinners. This first article only scratches the surface of the various sub-topics to which this broad topic has lead. I hope you will enjoy exploring this subject with me.

Recently, I heard a song by the popular Christian band Casting Crowns called “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” for the first time. The song is a call for unity within the body of Christ, to put down pointing fingers and judgementalism and show the world the love of Christ. The first part of the song, I think, accurately paints a picture of the current state of religious Christianity in our present day, while calling for a radical reform within our ranks. Here is the first verse and chorus:

Jesus, Friend of sinners we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus friend of sinners the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

Chorus:
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open
Oh Jesus friend of sinners break our hearts for what breaks yours

In days when homosexuality and abortion are hot topics and call for hard lines to be “drawn in the sand,” we need to know where those boundaries are between the sin and the sinner. We need to be able to stand firm in upholding the biblical definition and rejection of sin, while extending our arms to the sinner to be embraced by the love of our Messiah. However, the the first part of the next verse is what caught my attention. Here it is:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

Here we have a commentary on Jesus’ encounter with the woman “caught in very the act of adultery” (according to the KJV) from the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John (verses 2-11). We are all familiar with this passage, but let me refresh our memory before we continue.

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

In this encounter, Jesus is confronted with a test from some of the religious leaders of his day. As he sits down to teach the crowd, a woman is brought before him with the claim that she was “caught in adultery, the very act” (KJV). They then press Jesus with the question regarding the situation of an adulteress in the Torah (vs. 5). Jesus acts as if he is ignoring the accusers, bending down and beginning to write on the ground with his finger. When he is questioned again he stands, responding with the famous quote, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7). He sits back down and begins to write on the ground a second time. Those around Jesus began leaving “one by one, beginning with the older ones,” until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stands and addresses the woman, asking her where her accusers had gone, and if anyone was left to condemn her. She replies that no one was left to accuse her. Jesus then responds with the celebrated words “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

A Closer Look

Although this passage has been admired by the church over the centuries — and is, in fact, due considerable admiration for the way Jesus, the Master of Torah, uses Torah to uphold the justice of Torah — we have heralded it largely for the wrong reasons. Almost inevitably, when reading the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.” We tend to think that Jesus overrides the Torah with his decision to ignore the “letter of the law” and show mercy to this woman. However, if we have a good familiarity with the Torah and we understand the actual situation properly, it becomes quite clear what is happening in this encounter. But before we get into the technical details of how Jesus handled this dispute, here is the question to which I have been building up:

Who were those who were holding the stones, eager to deal the blows of death to this woman? Were they really the righteous as the song presumes? If they were truly the righteous, then they would and should be loved of God, as it is said, “the Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8). Or does this story help us distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous?

Let’s review the lyrics in question again:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

I’m sure the author had noble intentions when penning these lines. Their honesty, however, exposes a truth within our ranks that needs addressing. When we read this passage in John’s Gospel, the vast majority of us make the same assumptions as the author of these lyrics — namely that those who are ready to stone this poor woman are those who are “righteous” by definition of the Law, and are typical of those living “under the law.” After all, aren’t they just doing what the Law has prescribed – stoning an adulterous woman? Don’t we see their actions as the poster child of Judaism, while we see the “grace” of Jesus in this instance as the epitome of Christianity?

But the only way for these lyrics to make any sense is to turn the tables and make the unrighteous become the righteous, and vice versa. Why? Because if we were to be honest, the only one righteous in this whole story is Jesus. We know the position of the woman. She has been brought before Jesus on grounds of adultery, a serious charge. Regarding the ones who held the stones, we would have to say that they were not upright in their actions. Therefore, they would fall into the category of unrighteous as well. As a matter of fact, they were the ones breaking God’s Law to a greater degree than the woman. They actually knew the measures prescribed by the Torah for dealing with adultery, yet willfully chose to act in opposition to God’s instructions. This automatically places them in the category of “sinner,” rather than “saint;” “unrighteous,” rather than “righteous.”

Here is where “Jesus, friend of sinners” fails. We would never knowingly call Jesus a friend to these hypocrites who turn God’s holy system of justice on its head. We would never rightly call Jesus an advocate of these who would “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). Why, then, do we do so in this story? We loath the villains – those who have brought the woman before Jesus – but at the same time we call them “the righteous.” This is a contradiction and we must admit it. In our zeal to show the sinner love and mercy, we often topple the definitions of “sin” and “righteousness,” completely blurring the lines between the two. We must keep in mind that Jesus does not love sinners because of their sin. There is no merit in being a sinner. His heart is drawn to sinners in order that they might turn from their sin and become one among the righteous of his people. He sees their potential and beckons them to leave their present circumstance and allow him to wipe away their stains and release them from the shackles of their sins (Psalm 146:7).

There is a rabbinic saying, which states, “Even righteous people cannot stand in the place of those who repent”. 1 Although worded in a different manner than we are accustomed, this central theme continues to act as the driving force behind the ministry of Jesus. The words that have the more familiar ring to our saintly ears are, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Why doesn’t heaven rejoice over the one who is faithful, diligent and true? Because of the Father’s love for all of His creatures and His longing to have all of humanity reconciled to Himself. This point is emphasized in Luke’s account of the “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears (of repentance), anointed them with oil and then wiped them with her hair.

“And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)

Jesus continually emphasizes this point when he tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (Luke 15:11-32). There are others as well. My point is this: Jesus’ love and longing for the sinner is born out of his Father’s will that “whosoever believeth on him might be saved.” It is not his identification of commonality with sinners. Let me once again emphasize that there is no merit in being a sinner. The point of Jesus’ mission is not to start Club Sinner. His mission is to restore broken people, transforming sinners into saints, and not merely through membership card distribution.

Summary

Yes, Jesus is a Friend to sinners. But his love calls them to leave everything — particularly their sin — in order to follow him. He makes a distinction between the righteous and the sinner, never blurring the lines that define them. The righteous are truly righteous, and the sinners truly sinners.

In my next article we will continue to explore this theme, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, by examining the details surrounding this instance and how Jesus used the justice of the Torah to defend this woman, rather than merely forgiving her and ignoring the Torah’s system of justice.

  1. b.Berachot 34b

Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Part 2

In my previous post on the same topic, I related how the Melchizedek Scroll (11Q13) interpreted the passage of Isaiah 61 and it’s proclaiming “liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” in the same manner that Jesus understood it when he proclaimed this passage’s fulfillment in Luke 4. Both the author of the Melchizedek Scroll and Jesus understand these actions to relate to releasing the children of Israel from their sin.

In this post, I would like to continue with another DSS fragment also related to the same passage of Isaiah. It is fragment 4Q521. It is know by a few titles, but I think Geza Vermes’s “A Messianic Apocalypse” is apt enough for our purposes. A correlation between this fragment and Luke 7 has already been made by Martin Abegg, Jr. (Wise, M. O., Abegg, J. M. G., & Cook, E. M. (1996). The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation. HarperOne, p.420.). I would merely like to introduce my readers to this, and expound upon it briefly.

In this passage we find a glimpse into the author’s envisioning of the Messianic redemption of the future where the Messiah will rule, and the reign of God will be over all the earth. The author describes this time as follows:

. . . [the hea]vens and the earth will listen to His Messiah, and none therein will stray from the commandments of the holy ones.

Vermas, Geza (1998). The Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Penguin Books, p. 391.

A brief observation is in order here. During this time, not only will the earth “listen to His [the LORD’s] Messiah, but the heavens as well. The reign of the Messiah during Messianic era is typically limited in scope to either a heavenly realm (as in much of Christian thought), or an earthly realm (as in much of Jewish thought). Here the author proclaims that both the spiritual and physical realms bend their will to the Messiah as they come under his leadership.

A second observation is that the subjects of the Kingdom will obviously have entered into the New Covenant spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah in which God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33, ESV). The problem of a unruly heart will have been cured, and we will submit ourselves to His lordship without any deficiency. However, in this text, the commandments of the Torah are said to come from “the holy ones,” rather than purely from God himself. I find this interesting, because it seems to attest to a tradition in the Apostolic Scriptures in which the New Testament authors declare that the Torah was administered by angels. This is too much information to insert here, so I will save this for a subsequent article.

Continuing on with our text, a few lines down we read:

For He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor (Isa. lxi, I).

Ibid., p. 392.

The author links these events (healing the sick, reviving the dead, and bringing good news to the poor) to the time of the Messiah (whether through the Messiah or God himself is unclear), just as we have seen by Jesus. Yet there is something deeper in this text. Let’s take a look at another instance in which Jesus uses the text of Isaiah in a similar manner.

In Luke 7, Jesus is questioned by the disciples of John the Immerser as to whether he is “the one who is to come” or if they should “look for another.” Here is the full context:

And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7:18b-23, ESV).

Again, we see Jesus using this same passage of Isaiah 61 as a prooftext of his Messianic appointment. He speaks to John’s disciples in what Daniel Lancaster terms as a “cryptic answer” (see FFOZ’s Torah Club Volume 4: Chronicles of the Messiah, 2010, Parashat Mishpatim, p. 458.). Rather than coming out and answering the question in direct terms, Jesus, the master of remez, couches his answer in scriptural allusions in order to allow the hearer to make several conclusions at once. But his answer brings us back yet again to Isaiah 61.

Let’s return to the line from the Messianic Apocalypse. The text states that during the time of Messiah, “He will heal the wounded, and revive the dead and bring good news to the poor.” The incredible thing about this is how the author associates the resurrection of the dead with the events of Isaiah 61. Although this concept is never explicitly found in the Hebrew Scriptures, the author of 4Q521 associates the resurrection of the dead with the arrival of the Messiah. This is a rare glimpse into Messianic Jewish expectation of the Second Temple period which offers us a perspective we rarely see in today’s Judaism and its scriptural interpretation, which has been shaped over the last two millennia in reaction to Christian exegesis.

One can only assume that both Jesus and the author of 4Q521 view death as a time of captivity awaiting the final redemption, and interpret Isaiah’s use of “the opening of the prison to those who are bound” as glimpse into the time of this time in which all things will be restored, including life. In the presence of Messiah, not even death can hold his captive securely.