In this topic, we look at the story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 5. They lied to God and it cost them their lives.
When a person is too casual towards God, they can lose sight of how great and powerful he really is. And when a person loses sight of who God really is, they lose a sense of deep respect for him. When a person loses a sense of respect for him, they can easily fall into sin, end up far from God, and experience severe consequences as a result.
Ananias and Sapphira took God too casually in Acts 5. They lied to God the Holy Spirit, and It cost them their lives.
Lying Is One of the Easiest Habits to Start and One of the Hardest to Stop
Great sacrifice was happening in the early church. People were selling their homes and property to help the spread of the gospel and to care for the Christian community in Jerusalem. This is where Ananias and Sapphira come in.
Acts 5:1-2 But there was a certain man named Ananias who, with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property. He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife’s consent, he kept the rest.
Ananias and Sapphira publicly announced what they were going to give all the proceeds of the land they had just sold to the church. Barnabas had just done this and received instant respect and recognition for his generous sacrifice. It seems that they wanted the same attention while keeping their money, to boot.
Acts 5:3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself.”
Sadly, Ananias and Sapphira wanted recognition for their efforts like Barnabas had received. Peter says, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart?” They wanted others to think highly of them and they were more concerned about what others thought than in truly honoring God and serving his people. George MacDonald, a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister said, “Half the misery in the world comes from trying to look, instead of trying to be, what one is not.” MacDonald’s statement describes Ananias and Sapphira well!
Remember That God Is All-Knowing
Because Ananias and Sapphira took God too casually, they forget that nobody pulls one over on the Lord of Heaven and Earth. God is all-knowing. He knows everything about everything – all the time.
Psalm 139:1-4 O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord.
God cannot be manipulated or deceived by us. He takes sin more seriously than we do and he responds to it. The good news is that he knows the needs of each believer and he promises to meet those needs. He is never caught off guard. He knows every sin we will ever commit and will forgive us anyway through Jesus. He is for us and wants to give us a future and a hope.
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- Share a “little white lie” that you have told. What happened?
- How often do you exaggerate? Give an example of how you have exaggerated.
- Read Acts 5:1-2. Why do you think Ananias and Sapphira lied?
- How can a lie get out of control? Give an example.
- Read Acts 5:3 Has there been a time when you tried to make yourself look better than you actually are?
- In what situations have you been more worried about what others thought about you than what God thought about you?
- Read Psalm 139:1-4 and share what you think the psalmist is trying to communicate.
- How does it make you feel to know that God knows everything about you and loves you anyway?
- Is there a step you need to take based on today’s topic?
General Notes on Reading and Teaching Acts
Acts is an historically important book. It factored into mid-second-century debates (c.144 A.D.) about the canon of scripture when a false gnostic teacher named Marcion of Sinope attempted to do away with the Old Testament (OT) and claimed that the Father of Jesus was a different God altogether than the God of Abraham and Moses. Acts proved the Jewishness of the early church and attested to the leadership of early Jewish Christians like Peter and James the brother of Jesus.
All of this de facto proves that the Book of Acts existed no later than the mid-second-century, with plenty of additional external and internal evidence indicating its mid-first-century origins.
Acts is part of a two-volume set: Luke-Acts. Its ultimate purpose is found in Luke 1:1-4 where the author speaks to his reader, “most excellent Theophilus,” so Theophilus might “know the truth concerning the things of which [he had] been informed.” The phrase “most excellent” was a title used for governing authorities, so many have viewed Theophilus as a Roman governing leader, though it’s difficult to say much more than that.
Luke-Acts focuses on the miscarriages of justice carried out first against Jesus and later against the Apostles while acknowledging that Christianity had a reputation for rabblerousing across the Mediterranean world. It may well have been Luke’s purpose, then, not only to share the gospel of Jesus with Theophilus but to show that the rumors of these “seditious Christians” were false (Acts 5:12-13).
Acts is narrative history. It is an historical account written to a particular person for set purposes (see above). Like the epistles, this means there is an incidental nature to Acts. Acts does not address every possible theological question later Christians might happen upon, nor does it tell every major event that took place in the early church. Rather, it paints a picture of the early Christian community, and some of its key leaders, in broad strokes. Acts is not written in a series of “If…then…” propositions that tell us what to do in any given instance. Acts is not a blueprint or a law book from which we can never deviate.
Notes on Acts 5:1-11
It would be a mistake to read the story of Ananias and Saphira and conclude that lying about money to a church leader is a special kind of sin resulting in physical death. This would be missing the point of the story.
First, their sin was not merely pride-motivated deception, but greed. The end of Acts 2 up through Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7 narrates a period of church history prior to the mission to the gentiles. Some 3,000 people were saved in Acts 2. Many of these 3,000 people were Jewish (or “God-fearers”—Gentiles who were considering conversion to Judaism) pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem from all over the Roman world to observe Pentecost (Acts 2:5-12). Though many of these young Christians returned to their homes and laid the foundations for Christian communities across the ancient world, many others did not. Those who remained in Jerusalem would not have had homes of their own, jobs, or family nearby. On this basis, the communalism we read about in Acts 2-7 is not just meant for show; it had much to do with the thousands of foreign Christians who may well have otherwise gone homeless and hungry. There likely would have been a concerted effort among Christians from the Jerusalem region to make tangible sacrifices for the good of the Christian community (Acts 4:32-37). The story of Ananias and Saphira should be read in the context of Acts 4:32-37; their tale is a direct contrast to that of faithful Barnabas.
Ananias and Saphira would have felt socially obligated to take part in providing for their spiritual brethren, but they were not legally or religiously obligated to do anything with their private property (Acts 5:4). Evidence suggests that these donations were voluntary. By choosing to hold back some of the funds, they not only attempted to receive praise for generosity, they also denied the poor, foreign members of the community of badly-needed financial resources. While there is some evidence showing that charitable “pledging” toward the religious community was practiced by Jews in the region (F.F. Bruce, Acts, 105), such does not serve to prove that is what must have happened here—especially because the sin for which they are judged was not greed but lying. (While the sermon point here focuses on the lying aspect of their sin in order to highlight God’s omniscience, we should not ignore the pride and greed aspects of their sin.)
It should also be noted that though they lied to Peter, this, in essence, constituted a lie toward the whole Christian community and toward the Holy Spirit himself. This is predicated on the notion that God’s Holy Spirit inhabits his people as individuals and as a community (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 14:25). More on this below.
The idea of a “tithe” is not on the table here. Ananias and Saphira were not punished because of the percent held back, but because of their lie. It is not clear that a certain percentage of giving was required. Rather, those who sold their property and shared it with the community during this early period were motivated by love for God and God’s people. Other than teaching against lying and greed generally, preachers and leaders would be unwise to attempt to draw a comparison to Old Testament (OT) tithing or to a particular giving percentage based on this story.
We must also recognize the substantial difference between “communalism” and Marxism, as some have turned to the early chapters of Acts for evidence of “Christian Communism.” Communalism is a social practice visible in many groups throughout history, Marxism is an economic and political ideology rooted in the philosophy of Karl Marx. Texts about early Christian communalism are not justifications for Marxism or evidence of “ancient communism” as we might know it today. These texts are not evidencing Marxism, and the sale or property for distribution to “those in need” (Acts 4:35) was not politically-motivated, nor was it enforced by the Apostles as a necessity. It certainly is not evidence that any human government must adopt it.
The judgment against Ananias and Saphira is summarized well by F.F. Bruce (Acts, 104):
“What [Luke] is concerned to emphasize is the reality of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence in the church, together with the solemn practical implications of that fact. So early was it necessary to emphasize the lesson later formulated by Paul: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are…’ (1 Cor. 3:16-17). ”
Over and above any particular sin, the real issue was impurity in the Christian community and a disrespect toward the holiness and authority of God. Later in the NT, other forms of impropriety lead to judgment on God’s people (1 Corinthians 11:27-34).
What does it mean that they “tempted” the Holy Spirit? They tested his patience: “How much can we get away with?” A true knowledge of grace shows that we should not push our luck with God. He has the power and authority to dole out capital punishment to anyone for any sin. This gets at the heart of this sermon series. Ananias and Saphira were “too casual” with God. They ceased viewing him as the all-knowing, holy, judge of all creation and took an action consistent with what was in their heart. What we do is oftentimes a better gauge of what we truly believe than what we proclaim to believe. See: Exodus 17:2; Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:7; Luke 4:12.
Summary on Acts 5:1-11
Ananias’s and Saphira’s sin was a public act with a public response. It was an affront to the purity of the community, which was supposed to be filled with and motivated by the Holy Spirit, not Satan. The deceit was an affront to the Holy Spirit, who inhabits the Christian community. It proved that they mistakenly believed grace to be a license to sin, that they were greedy, prideful, and dishonest. It proved that they did not respect God not only as the giver of grace, but as the holy judge of everything.
On the Personhood of the Holy Spirit
Implicit in this story is an important point of theology: the personhood of the Holy Spirit. While some groups teach that the Holy Spirit is a type of “force” or “manifestation” of God, biblical orthodoxy requires us to view him as a person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit can be lied to, as Peter says in this story, because he is a person, not an idea, power, or force.
For more verses indicating the personhood of God the Spirit, see: Acts 7:51; 15:28; 16:7; 1 Corinthians 12:11; Ephesians 4:30.
Peter’s warning in 1 Peter 5:8 may very well have been informed by his experiences with Ananias and Saphira. In line with the views described in the “Unshakeable” series on Romans 8, Satan’s defeat has been inaugurated but is not yet final; it is well-described by the “already/not-yet” framework. As Satan’s ultimate defeat grows ever nearer, he seeks to snatch away who he can through deception. As Revelation tells us, “He is filled with fury because he knows his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). While Satan has been curtailed and his ultimate destiny is destruction (Romans 16:20), he still has some power in the world. See: Luke 13:16; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 12:7; 1 Thessalonians 2:17- 18; 1 Timothy 1:20; 3:7; 2 Timothy 2:26.
Peter claims that Ananias’s heart had been “filled by Satan,” which led to his lie. The NT uses several words to describe Satan, including “devil” (Greek: diabolos—“slanderer”), “satan” (Hebrew: sa-tan—“accuser,” “adversary,” or “slanderer”) and “the evil one” (Matthew 5:37; John 17:15). He is also called “the tempter” (Matthew 4:3), “prince of demons” (Matthew 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15); “the enemy,” “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Other names are used for Satan in Jewish writings which are not listed here.
While “accuser” (Revelation 12:10) is one of the main ways of describing Satan, he should not only be described as an “accuser.” The word satan in the OT is at times used to describe human beings (1 Samuel 29:4; 1 Kings 11:14, 23, 25).
Much of what is assumed in the Christian Church concerning the origin of Satan is not found in the Bible but instead comes from Jewish apocryphal, intertestamental, and pseudepigraphal literature, for example, The Apocalypse of Moses. These assumptions about Satan’s origin tend to be more closely rooted in later church tradition or in the aforementioned Jewish writings. For more, see the pursueGOD.org article for this topic. See also: Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 863 and the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament’s article on σατανός.
Notes on Psalm 147
NLT captures the meaning of the Hebrew of Psalm 147:5 best; God’s knowledge is not reckonable by human beings. It is beyond us.
The psalm is a series of statements instructing people to praise God because of his creative and sustaining power. Within this broader sphere of his attributes, we also read of his infinite understanding.
This psalm highlights many reasons why we should not approach God “too casually.”
Four simple stories in Luke 8 teach us that God has the power to help us through any conceivable problem in life.
- It’s easy to forget that God’s in control (Luke 8:24).
- It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of evil (Luke 8:28-29).
- It’s easy to feel hopeless over our personal circumstances (Luke 8:48).
- It’s easy to believe that death is the end (Luke 8:54-55).
Any discussion about the attributes of God will probably include the idea that God is all-powerful. This is called God’s “omnipotence.” It means that he has the power to do everything he chooses to do. While humans are frustrated because they often don’t have the power to accomplish the things they want to do, this is never an issue for God.
God demonstrates his power throughout the Bible. One interesting example of this is found in Luke 8 where Jesus, who is God the Son, demonstrates his complete mastery over creation, evil forces, illness, and death. Grouped together, these four stories describe the depths of God’s power. And these stories show how God can help no matter what a person faces in life.
It’s Easy to Forget That God’s in Control
Perhaps one of the top reasons why God’s power might be doubted is that life often feels out of control. It seems like disaster could strike at any moment. The disciples faced a situation like this one day when they were on the lake. Jesus was with them, but he was asleep in the boat. As he slept, a great storm started up and threatened the lives of everyone on board the vessel. Panicked, the disciples cried out for help.
Luke 8:24 When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and the raging waves. Suddenly the storm stopped and all was calm.
Through the power of his voice, Jesus ended the storm and the sea was calm. On that day, the disciples realized that Jesus was one who could even control creation. It’s easy to feel like the disciples. Life can seem like it’s spiraling out of control with no way out. But God always has the power to rescue. The danger is never greater than God’s power.
It’s Easy to Feel Helpless in the Face of Evil
After Jesus and his disciples crossed the lake, they encountered a man who was demon-possessed. These demons caused him to run around naked and left him as an outcast. Jesus commanded the demons to come out of the man and he cast them into a herd of pigs that promptly ran into the lake and drowned. In this moment, Jesus demonstrated his complete dominance over the forces of evil. Although it comes in different forms, evil is still prominent today. And in the face of so much evil, it is tempting to think that evil will win. Yet, God’s power is greater than the forces of evil, and eventually, God will demonstrate his victory over evil for all time.
It’s Easy to Feel Hopeless Over Our Personal Circumstances
As Jesus was on his way to help a girl who was sick, a woman reached out and touched his robe. She had been suffering from a bleeding issue for twelve years. She had spent her money on doctors, but they were unable to heal her. The moment she touched Jesus’s garment, though, she was healed. Jesus wanted her to understand what had happened to her, and he said to her:
Luke 8:48 Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.
When you deal with some problem or illness for many years, it is easy to become hopeless. This story is a reminder, though, that God has the power to heal no matter how great a problem might be.
It’s Easy to Believe That Death Is the End
Jesus spoke with the woman above as he was on his way to help a young girl who was ill. Her dad, Jairus, had come to Jesus looking for help. But it looked like it was too late for Jesus to help. When he arrived at the family home, the girl was dead. Everyone thought this was the end of the story – but not Jesus. He cleared the room and brought the girl back to life.
Luke 8:54-55 Then Jesus took her by the hand and said in a loud voice, “My child, get up!” And at that moment her life returned, and she immediately stood up!
Jesus demonstrated that his power didn’t just extend to the living, but over death itself. God’s power is all-encompassing and conquers even death. Though a person dies, in Christ, they have the hope of eternal life. God’s power is complete and his power to overcome any problem a person faces is real.
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Why?
- Read Luke 8:25. Why does Jesus rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith? What had they misunderstood about their situation on the boat?
- How do you respond when life feels overwhelming? Give an example.
- Read Luke 8:28-33. How do you think supernatural evil manifests itself today? What should you do if you encounter it?
- Read Luke 8:46-48. Why do you think Jesus wanted the woman to reveal herself to him?
- Why does God let us deal with long-term personal challenges instead of just solving our problems right away?
- Read Luke 8:54-55. How is this an example of God allowing hardship to enter our lives so he can redeem it?
- How can these four stories help change the ways that you will face challenges in your life?
- Is there a step you need to take based on today’s topic?
What Does It Mean That God Is “Omnipotent?”
God’s “omnipotence” means he is all-powerful and that he is completely able to do anything he wants to do provided it is logically possible. For example, there is no such thing as a “square circle” or a “married bachelor.” If a shape has four side of equal length at equal ninety-degree angles, it is by definition a square and cannot be a circle. If a man is unmarried, he is a bachelor; if he is married, he is not a bachelor.
The fact that things must be logically coherent doesn’t diminish God’s omnipotence. The issue is that we must understand what God’s “omnipotence” actually means. To quote Philosopher William Lane Craig: “Omnipotence is not defined as the ability to do that which is logically absurd.”
Notes on Reading the Gospels
Though the gospel accounts are ancient biographies of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, each gospel account was written with unique purposes. One purpose of Luke is clear from its first verse—to explain Jesus and the early church to a person named “Theophilus.” One purpose of John is stated in its closing chapters (John 20:30-31)—to help the audience place their faith in Jesus Christ as the source of true, eternal life. Like the epistles later in the New Testament (NT), understanding the purpose of a writing will help the reader interpret it.
The gospel accounts are not exhaustive in their treatment of Jesus’s life and ministry. Consider John 21:25 (NIV), the final verse of the book:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
There are many reasons why the gospels do not give a complete account of Jesus’s life. First, no biography, ancient or modern, gives a full account of the subject’s life. Rather, biographies tend to focus on the important parts of the subject’s life that highlights the biography’s main goals. Second, even if the goal of a writer is to be as detailed as possible, there are physical limitations on what can be written. In the ancient world, these limitations were obvious: paper was not easy to come by, and a standard scroll could only contain so much writing. Even give the technologies of our day, it is simply infeasible that we would ever read a day-by-day record of anyone’s life.
Any story, whether fiction or nonfiction, chooses to include some details while excluding others. Luke and Matthew devote a small space of time to Jesus’s birth/early life, then mostly focus on his public ministry, death, and resurrection. Mark and John focus entirely on Jesus’s public ministry, death, and resurrection.
We should not expect the gospel accounts to be any longer than they are. Because of their length limitations, we are not, as John tells us at the end of his gospel, aware of every facet of Jesus’s life or every statement or teaching he ever made. In Acts 20, Luke writes that Paul quoted Jesus (Acts 20:35), yet this famous quote that is often recited around Christmas time is not found in any gospel account. This is because Jesus said and did much more than what is written in the four gospels, yet the four gospels preserve for us sufficient knowledge that will help us in all areas of “life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
We should not expect, then, that the gospel accounts will answer every question we might have. We should expect that they should accomplish the purposes for which they were written—and they do.
Notes on Reading the Synoptic Gospels
The Synoptic Gospels (from the Greek word meaning “see together”) are Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three gospel accounts mirror one another in their basic outlines, though they differ in length, wording, and at times, the order of their events. There are also some unique events in these gospels.
The Synoptics differ from John in that they seem to be written within a smaller window of time, likely before the mid-60s A.D., whereas John is thought by most scholars to have been written around 90 A.D. by the elderly John of Zebedee, a member of Jesus’s inner circle along with his brother, James, and Simon Peter.
Notes on Reading Luke
Luke and Acts do not identify their single author, but evidence within these writings suggests two things clearly. First, the author was not an eyewitness of Jesus’s ministry but conducted thorough research of the life and ministry of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4). Second, the author was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:14 list some of Paul’s traveling companions—Luke among them—and a tradition had developed no later than 200 A.D. that strongly linked Luke with the gospel account bearing his name.
Allusions to Luke exist as early as the late 90s A.D. (1 Clement 13:2). The testimony of many early Christian writings before 200 A.D. suggest that Luke traveled with Paul and that he was the author of the Gospel of Luke.
“The Messianic Secret”—Luke 8:38-39/Luke 8:51-56
At certain points in the gospel accounts, Jesus instructed people not to speak about what they had seen him do (Luke 8:51-56). At other times, he instructed people to speak about what they had seen him do (Luke 8:38). This refers to what scholars call “the Messianic Secret.” What does this mean?
Often, Jesus instructed Jews not to spread the word about him, especially after he performed a miracle. This is because Jews often had the wrong understanding of who the Messiah truly was. Their expectation tended to be of a military leader who would lead an armed rebellion against the Roman Empire, and this did not match reality. By the very act of attempting to mitigate the spreading rumors about him, Jesus showed that the expectations among Jews in Israel at the time were inconsistent with the reality of who he was and what he actually came to do (John 6:15). Even Jesus’s closest followers regularly misunderstood his true nature and purpose (Matthew 16:21-22).
On the other hand, Jesus often instructed Gentiles to proclaim what they had seen (Luke 8:38-39). Gentiles did not have expectations of a Messiah. To them, Jesus was Jewish a miracle-worker and teacher. They did not have the same historical and cultural baggage Jews did.
Jesus gave different instructions to different people at different times based on what he knew needed to happen to reach the greatest number of people with the correct message. Gentiles in the Decapolis region—like the demon-possessed man healed in Luke 8—needed to know about Jesus altogether. Jews knew of Jesus, but they debated who he was and what he had come to do.
This provides an instructive lesson for Christians today. Not every non-Christian is a non-Christian for the same reason. Some simply have not heard the gospel message. Others may have heard it countless times yet think belief in God is backward. We should prayerfully and wisely seek to address the questions people need to have answered, as Jesus himself tailored his message to have the greatest impact during his earthly ministry.
Uzziah was too casual about God’s holiness because he was too impressed with himself.
- Uzziah started with the right response to God (2 Chronicles 26:3-5).
- God seemed smaller as Uzziah got greater (2 Chronicles 26:26-21).
- God’s holiness is serious business (Isaiah 6:1-5).
Many people today think of God as a kindly grandfather figure, like Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of God in Bruce Almighty. It’s not surprising that we have become pretty casual about God’s holiness. Yet the Bible reminds us how small we are compared to a glorious, transcendent God.
Uzziah Started with the Right Response to God
Unlike many of Judah’s ancient kings, Uzziah started out with great promise.
2 Chronicles 26:3-5 Uzziah was sixteen years old when he became king… Uzziah sought God during the days of Zechariah, who taught him to fear God. And as long as the king sought guidance from the Lord, God gave him success.
Uzziah realized how much he needed God to be a good king. His mentor taught him to fear God – to sit in awe of God’s magnificence. Uzziah got small before the greatness of God. As a result, God gave him success. Under his rule, the nation prospered in every way.
God Seemed Smaller as Uzziah Got Greater
Yet Uzziah’s success eventually got him in trouble. Over time, he no longer saw himself as small before a great God. He became proud until God humbled him in a dramatic way.
2 Chronicles 26:16-21 But when he had become powerful, he also became proud, which led to his downfall. He sinned against the Lord his God by entering the sanctuary of the Lord’s Temple and personally burning incense on the incense altar. Azariah the high priest…confronted King Uzziah and said, “….Get out of the sanctuary, for you have sinned. The Lord God will not honor you for this!” Uzziah, who was holding an incense burner, became furious. But as he was standing there raging at the priests before the incense altar in the Lord’s Temple, leprosy suddenly broke out on his forehead…. So King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died.
The temple was the place where a holy God became present among the people. God could not be approached there casually. Only people who were set apart for this task could enter there. So when Uzziah took it upon himself to go into the Temple to do a priest’s job, he was treating God’s holiness with contempt.
The brave priests who confronted him had such high esteem for God’s holiness that they were willing to risk the wrath of a powerful ruler. Uzziah had a moment when he could still humble himself, acknowledge his transgression, and leave the temple. Instead, he burst into rage. Uzziah was not struck with leprosy when he entered the temple, but only when he refused correction.
Thus King Uzziah’s great career ended in shame. He was exiled from the palace and his son ruled in his place. Uzziah the leper lived, died, and was buried alone.
God’s Holiness Is Serious Business
The temple is an object lesson that helps us understand God’s holiness. To be holy means to be set apart. Everything and everyone involved in the temple worship was set apart exclusively for that purpose. That’s why only certain people could enter. No one who served as a temple priest had any other job, because they were set apart to God alone.
To say that God is holy means that God is set apart. First, he is entirely separate from his creation. God is transcendent. He is far above us. He is a completely different sort of being than anything else in existence. That’s why the temple had to be set apart. It was separate from any other kind of place because there, people could encounter a being separate from any other kind of being.
Second, God is entirely separate from sin. God is completely pure from any taint of evil or moral imperfection. This is why, before any priest could enter the holiest, inner room of the temple, an animal had to be sacrificed to cover his sins. No one could approach this holy God in a condition of impurity.
So no matter how talented or successful you are, you are still small compared to God. Don’t be too impressed with your good deeds, your moral character, your church involvement, your ministry, or your religious knowledge. When we start to think too highly of ourselves, we will forget how uniquely holy God is.
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- What was the greatest highlight of your life at age sixteen? Explain.
- Read 2 Chronicles 26:3-5. What were the keys to Uzziah’s early success?
- How do you understand what it means to “seek God” and “fear God”?
- Read 2 Chronicles 26:15-16. Where did Uzziah go wrong? Why?
- Why was it a sin against the Lord for Uzziah to enter the temple to offer incense?
- Does God’s response to Uzziah surprise you? Why or why not?
- The root idea of holiness is to be “set apart”. In what ways is God “set apart”, and from what?
- Read Isaiah 57:15. How does this verse try to capture the idea of God’s holiness?
- According to Isaiah, with whom does this holy God choose to dwell? Why do you think that is the case?
- Is there a step you need to take based on today’s topic?
What Is Biblical “Holiness”?
The Hebrew root for the word “holy” comes from another word which means “to set aside.” It’s not separation without reason, but separation for a purpose. Setting aside some of your paycheck for savings vs. some for fun vs. most for monthly bills is getting at the root of the Old Testament (OT) concept of “holiness.” It’s not about the arbitrary selection of one thing over another.
Many people assume that “holiness” means “goodness” or “moral purity.” A “holy” person is a “very good” person. The common phrase “holier than thou” gets at this idea—it’s about a person who thinks they are more morally pure, and therefore better, than others.
This does not mean that goodness is not an essential component of God’s or our holiness, simply that an independent idea of “goodness” is not the primary frame of reference for the biblical concept of God’s holiness. The “holiness” of God cannot be divorced from the “goodness” of God. Essential to God’s holiness is his goodness, and so to be holy like God is to reflect this essential goodness. This is why non-Christians can do good things without being saved by those good things, and it is also why saved, sanctified (“holy-fied”) Christians are not morally perfect. For the Christian, goodness evidences holiness, it does not create holiness.
God is intrinsically holy, meaning he is essentially different from his creation. We don’t define what “holiness” means and then ascribe it to God. Rather, God in his very nature is the expression of holiness. He is the expression of moral purity, of love, mercy, justice, etc. Because God’s nature defines what these things truly mean, it is illogical to ask the question posed in the Euthyphro Dilemma: “Does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it?”
The Danger of God’s Holiness
Because God is intrinsically holy and human beings can only ever be attributed holiness, God’s presence is dangerous to humans, shown both in the story of King Uzziah but also across the Bible. Whenever a person is exposed to God’s true holiness and glory, they fall down unconscious (Ezekiel 1:28; Revelation 1:17-18) or are warned by God that truly seeing him will result in death (Exodus 33:20). To be in the pure presence of God, a human being must possess perfect holiness. This is why in the closing chapters of Revelation (21:3, 22-23), the Holy City is said to have no sun because it is given light by the presence of God himself. The only people within this city are the redeemed children of God, who by this time will have been made perfectly holy.
For a human being to be “holy” in God’s eyes today means that they are “set apart”—and this only through placing their faith in Jesus Christ and thereby being attributed his holiness. We commonly call this “being saved.” While being saved means our ultimate destiny is with God, we are not, nor will we ever be, morally perfect during our earthly lives. The Apostle Paul describes this as an “already/not-yet” existence (Romans 8) in which we are both “saved” as well as “being made holy” (Titus 2:14).
God’s compassion moves him to help us, and we can develop that same sense of compassion in our lives.
- God is compassionate to all (Psalm 145:8-9).
- God’s compassion is costly (Matthew 20:34).
- True compassion is about others (Colossians 3:12).
God Is Compassionate to All
Many people think that God is a God of wrath and judgment, only to be feared. However, God in his very nature is a compassionate, merciful, and loving God. In fact, one of the very first characteristics that God describes of himself is found in Exodus 34:6. When revealing his presence to Moses he says: “Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy!” God’s description of himself to Moses reveals his nature. These very words from God have been an anchor for many and are quoted throughout scripture assuring us of his goodness. For example, the psalmist writes:
Psalm 145:8-9 The Lord is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. The Lord is good to everyone. He showers compassion on all his creation.
What can we learn from God’s assurances to Moses? They are a reminder to all that God is compassionate, merciful, gracious, loving, and forgiving. He is slow to anger and his love cannot be diminished. Regardless of what we have done, or will ever do, God longs to be in relationship with us. God’s compassion is an aspect of his nature which is reflected in his understanding of our weakness and his restoration of those in trouble.
God’s Compassion Is Costly
It is important to understand that even though God is a God of compassion and that he is gracious and merciful to his people, he is a just God and there are consequences to our sin. The Bible says that our sin separates us from God, both now and for eternity. It doesn’t separate us from his love for us, but it separates us from his presence. Because God is holy, in order to be in relationship with him, we too must be holy. Our sin must be removed. So God took his compassion a step further to pay the payment of sin for his people. God made a new covenant with his people. God gave his people a compassionate savior – Jesus Christ.
John 3:16-17 For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
God’s compassion wasn’t just displayed on the cross when Jesus Christ died for us, it was displayed throughout his entire life and ministry while on earth. Jesus was God, and having the very nature of God, he modeled compassion in his interactions with people. Throughout the New Testament (NT), whenever Jesus felt compassion, he followed it with action, performing many miracles and touching the lives of all who he encountered. Jesus was human, so it was not unusual for him to feel with the same kind of emotion that we experience on a daily basis. But as the Son of God, he could not feel compassion without doing something about it, because God is compassionate!
True Compassion Is About Others
We live in a society that is very self-centered. We are programmed to focus on doing what is best for ourselves at all costs. However, as followers of Christ, we need to understand that we are called to love and care about and for others so much more than we do. The Apostle Paul lists a number of qualities that the Colossian church “as God’s chosen ones” were to incorporate:
Colossians 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Paul lists compassion as the first characteristic to display as followers of Christ. The truth is, there has been so much mercy and compassion that God freely lavishes upon on us that the one thing that we ought to do is to show mercy and compassion to others. Compassion should overflow in our hearts for our family members, our friends, our coworkers, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the lost, and the broken (the list could go on and on). God wants us to have the attitude that looks to reach others where they are and to share his love and compassion with them. Will you do that today?
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- How would you define “compassion”? Explain.
- Is there a difference between “empathy” and “compassion”? Explain.
- Is it easier to be compassionate toward a friend, a stranger/neutral acquaintance, or an enemy? Explain.
- Read Psalm 145:8-9. Are there any circumstances where the Lord will withhold or withdraw his compassion from us? Explain?
- In what situations is it easy to be compassionate? When is it difficult? Why?
- Do you think God feels the same way? Explain.
- Read John 3:16-17. In what ways do Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection show us God’s compassion?
- Describe a time that you experienced an act of compassion from someone directly or observed it in someone else. How did it make you feel?
- Read Colossians 3:12. Why is compassion an important quality that a follower of Christ should have? Explain.
- Are there certain qualities that Paul describes that are better than others? Explain.
- What is one practical way you can display compassion this week?
- Is there a step you need to take based on today’s topic?
What Does It Mean That God Is “Merciful?”
God’s mercy is a key component of his character. A repeated phrase across the entire Old Testament (OT) is that of God’s lovingkindness (Hebrew: חֶסֶד), grace (Hebrew: חֵן), and compassion/mercy (Hebrew: רַחַם). Jonah 4:2 (NIV) reads:
I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate [“merciful”] God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a god who relents from sending calamity.
Restatements of this formula or something quite close to it are found across the OT. By the time of Jonah, Israel was well-acquainted with this formula, and Jonah grudgingly admits that he knew God would show mercy on Nineveh because of God’s reputation of graciously showing mercy. “I just knew you would show mercy on these people, God, if I preached to them.” Like many Israelites at the time, Jonah both feared and hated the Ninevites (Assyrians) and did not wish them to receive God’s grace. As conquerors in the region famed for their brutality, we cannot entirely blame Jonah.
But God’s grace is for everyone who will accept it, “To the Jew first, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). This has never not been true of God (Exodus 19:6; Psalm 22:22, 30-31; Jeremiah 4:2).
Psalm 145:8-9 (NASB) The Lord is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works.
Practically, what is on the forefront in Psalm 145:8-9 is the concept of grace, though the words for “lovingkindness” and “tender love/compassion/mercy” are used alongside the typical word for “grace.”
Psalm 145:8 is a hendiadys. It is describing one concept with two very similar words linked by “and”—this is the case both in the Hebrew of v8 and is reflected in the major English translations. This is a common aspect of speech in English, as well. If we say something is “rough and tumble” we are using a hendiadys to say “haphazard” or “disorganized.”
Grace, broadly speaking, is defined by J. Feinberg (No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God, 354) as: “…Unmerited favor. That means something good happens to you even though you have done nothing to merit or earn it. Scripture portrays God as a God of abounding grace. It is important to understand that God owes no one any grace.” What is being described in Psalm 145:8-9 is common grace , not saving grace.
God is merciful to all in that Jesus holds together creation (Colossians 1:15-17). The God of the Bible is not the God of deism; he has not created a “system” and then stepped away to let everything work itself out. Rather, God is directly responsible for the continued existence of the universe through Jesus. If God were to so choose, he could remove his sustaining power and all existence would unravel into nothing. And so God is “Good to all, And His mercies are over all His works.”
See: Matthew 6:28-30; Luke 6:35; Acts 14:17; 17:28.
God’s Justice/Judgment (John 3:16-17)
Why is God’s compassion “costly”? Why did God have to give Jesus to die as a sacrifice so that we could receive God’s love? It seems more like God is merciless than loving. The answer to this age-old question is that God’s attributes do not exist in isolation from one another. Theologian M.J. Erickson writes:
“If we begin with the assumption that God is an integrated being and the divine attributes are harmonious, we will define [his] attributes in the light of one another. Thus, justice is loving justice and love is just love. The idea that they conflict may have resulted from defining these attributes in isolation from one another. While the conception of love apart from justice, for example, may be derived from outside sources, it is not a biblical teaching.” (Christian Theology, 324).
See: Romans 3:24-26.
“Mercy” in Colossians 3:12
The Greek term for “compassion” in Colossians 3:12 is οἰκτιρμός. Its earliest usage is closely related to the concepts of “grief” or “sympathy,” thus the translation “mercy” is at times a better rendering of the Greek meaning in English than “compassion,” which often has the connotation of sharing with those who are less-fortunate than us or generally being caring people. In Colossians 3:12, we are told to reflect mercy in accordance with our status as holy and beloved saints of God. We are, in essence, to “be holy as God is holy” (1 Peter 1:14-16). See: Luke 6:36; Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Philippians 2:1; James 5:11; Hebrews 10:28.
When it comes to living as a Christian, mercy is one way of reflecting God’s character toward others. We are to “be holy as God is holy.” Because God’s attributes perfectly reflect his essential nature—being like God means reflecting all aspects of God’s character rather than some isolated from the others.
To be holy as God is holy is to be loving as he is loving, merciful as he is merciful, forgiving as he is forgiving (Ephesians 4:32), just as he is just, etc. If you have ever met someone who is “very holy” or “holier than thou” but is not loving, kind, merciful, etc., you have seen a living parable of this principle at work. There are such things as mercy without justice, kindness without truth, moral purity without mercy. Often, we would say these sorts of contradictions are wrong. It is wrong for a Christian to be “nice” to everyone but to never tell the truth. It is wrong for a Christian to follow all the rules yet be merciless—legalism. The teaching in Colossians 3:12 is an important corrective in this regard. When we reflect God’s holiness, we aim to reflect all of what that means, not some aspects of it isolated from the others.
When we’re too casual about God’s justice we allow injustice to prevail in the world.
- Jesus exemplifies God’s justice (Mark 11:15-17).
- God’s justice is a comfort and a threat (Proverbs 21:15).
- A God of justice requires justice from us (Micah 6:8).
Batman captures the imagination of our culture because he imposes justice when the legal system can’t. His ongoing popularity shows how people yearn for justice. But true justice is rooted in God. God defines what is ultimately just and unjust. One day God will enact perfect justice in the universe. But justice takes place in our world now as his people take his justice seriously.
Jesus Exemplifies God’s Justice
Justice involves giving everyone his or her due, whether punishment, protection, or care. Justice means treating everyone equitably. Jesus demonstrated the qualities of justice in one famous incident in the temple of Jerusalem.
Mark 11:15-17 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”
The practice of selling animals for sacrifice violated justice in two ways. First, it abused the Gentiles. God had appointed the outermost court around the temple as a place where Gentiles could approach him in worship. The temple rulers turned that area into a shopping mall. This was unjust because it did not give the Gentiles what they were due. Second, it exploited traveling worshipers. Many, coming to Jerusalem from far away, had to find the required offering from a local source. The temple rulers cornered the market and jacked up the prices, getting rich at the expense of people who came only to worship God.
When Jesus protested these practices, he was reflecting God’s justice. God always gets justice right. It’s who he is. He will always give the right verdict in every case. God hates oppression and exploitation. He shows no partiality.
Psalm 99:4 MIghty King, lover of justice, you have established fairness. You have acted with justice and righteousness throughout Israel.
Justice is not just a legal concept of what is right and wrong. Justice is a quality of relationships. It means treating every other person with decency and fairness, recognizing their worth to God. When you are in right relationship with others, you don’t exploit them, oppress them, or falsely accuse them.
God’s Justice Is a Comfort and a Threat
God’s justice is good news for people who suffer injustice.
Psalm 10:17-18 Lord, you know the hopes of the helpless. Surely you will hear their cries and comfort them. You will bring justice to the orphans and the oppressed, so mere people can no longer terrify them.
Human legal systems don’t always get justice right. They often reward evil and penalize good. They don’t always protect the weak. But God will set everything right one day.
God’s justice is also a threat to those who profit from injustice. Unjust systems prevail because they help people gain power and wealth. God is patient in dispensing justice. But we will all answer one day for every act of evil and selfishness.
A God of Justice Requires His People to Act Justly
The Bible talks about two kinds of justice. Batman is a symbol of retributive justice, where a person is punished for wrongdoing. Restorative justice, by contrast, involves setting things right for those hurt by injustice. Most of us don’t have the authority to mete out retributive justice. Yet we are expected by God to act justly in our daily dealings.
Micah 6:8 (NIV) He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
To act justly means to help those who don’t have any power to protect themselves. The Bible reveals God’s heart for people who are less fortunate and more vulnerable, like widows, orphans, the poor, and outsiders. In our society, this might include the elderly, the mentally ill, immigrants, the unborn, migrant workers, many single parents, and the homeless.
Living in light of God’s justice means it should bother us when our social systems show favoritism or bias. It is appropriate to have righteous anger against injustice, just like Jesus did in the temple. But we should also act. We can speak up for people who don’t have a voice. We can treat everyone we meet fairly, regardless of their race, social class, or economic status. We should never take advantage of people who have less clout than we do.
If we’re too casual about injustice in our society, we’re too casual about God. Justice is about much more than conservative or liberal politics. It’s about honoring the character of God – the God of justice – in how we live.
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- When have you observed an act of injustice? What happened? How did it make you feel?
- Read Matthew 11:`15-17. Describe how Jesus’s actions in the temple were a response to injustice.
- Is his action an example for us to follow? Explain.
- Read Psalm 99:4. How does this description of God help us understand what justice is?
- What do you think it means that God loves justice?
- Have you been treated unjustly? What happened?
- Read Psalm 10:17-18. How is God’s justice a comfort?
- Why do you think God is especially concerned about justice for people like the helpless, orphans, and the oppressed?
- Read Micah 6:8. Have you ever thought of acting justly as a requirement of God for his people? Explain.
- What are one or two ways that you can implement justice more fully in your life?
- Is there a step you need to take based on today’s topic?
“Justice” is a buzzword in our era. Many people today are seeking justice on behalf of actual or perceived wrongs, and to be a victim of injustice in the U.S. in 2019 is to hold a veritable trump card when it comes to proving a point or dodging a well-put counterpoint.
The Christian responses to this broader cultural trend have been myriad (some unfortunately so) but our goal here is to turn back to justice itself. The Bible speaks of justice and righteousness—the concepts are essentially inseparable in both testaments—at length. What does it mean that our God is a God of “justice” and “righteousness”? What does it mean that Christians should be “righteous”?
What Does It Mean That God Is “Just”?
God’s attributes are inseparable from one another. For example, God’s righteousness/justice and his faithfulness are linked grammatically by hendiadys in some passages (Zechariah 8:8). The interconnectedness of God’s attributes can at times be seen in the translation of the OT Hebrew and Aramaic into LXX Greek, as the Hebrew for “righteousness” (צְדָקָה; tsadikah) is at times translated with the Greek for “mercy” (ἔλεος; eleos) in Daniel 8:12 and Isaiah 56:1. (Elsewhere, the words for judgment, law, lovingkindness, and perfect/complete are used as parallels to righteousness/justice in the Hebrew.) Clearly “justice” and “mercy” do not mean exactly the same thing, yet each are attributes of God that temper one another; God’s mercy is just and his justice is merciful. This principle of interconnectedness applies to all of God’s attributes.
On God’s righteousness/justice, J.S. Feinberg (No One Like Him, 345) writes: “In the OT, the basic words denoting righteousness and justice cluster into one word group [צְדָקָה]…The root word basically speaks of conformity to an ethical or moral standard. In the OT that standard is the character and nature of God. Hence God is called just and righteous in himself, and in a forensic [judicial] sense, his judgments and dealings with mankind are just.”
The same is true of the relevant Greek terms within the Greek for “righteousness” (δίκαιος; dikaios) word family.
We cannot, then, isolate God’s justice from his other attributes, nor can we exempt ourselves from interpreting Christian justice alongside Christian mercy, love, etc. Jewish interpreters around the time of Jesus considered acts of mercy to be acts of righteousness/justice, typically through the practice of almsgiving. They recognized the connection between righteousness/justice and mercy, though Jesus’s criticisms showed that some of these experts in the Law were behaving hypocritically (Matthew 6:2-4).
Not only is God just or morally pure, but he acts on behalf of his justice as a judge. J.S. Feinberg (No One Like Him, 346) writes: “Though there is massive biblical evidence on God’s righteousness as his moral purity, this isn’t all that Scripture says about the righteousness of God. There is a biblical theme that theologians refer to as the rectoral justice of God. This refers to God’s instituting moral governance in our universe. As a result, there are rules that define good and evil acts and stipulate rewards and punishment for those who obey or disobey, and God enforces those rules as judge over all.”
We see the above principle all across scripture and are promised of the final judgment in which hell and death themselves will be destroyed (Revelation 20:11-15). No one has more right to act as a judge than our righteous God.
The Human Dimensions of “Justice”
The word shalom (שָׁלוֹם) is known the world over as a common Jewish greeting or farewell; “peace,” we are told it means. But the English word “peace” does not capture the full meaning of the Hebrew concept of shalom in the Bible. Shalom is not just “peace” as in the “absence of conflict,” which is how English-speakers often think of it. Shalom has many dimensions and often refers to the concept of “completeness” or “correctness,” “health” or “welfare” in some places. Everything going well on the farm is shalom. Balancing an equation is shalom. When things are as they should be, they are shalom. Even in contexts in which the word itself is not used the concept comes across. Biblical shalom doesn’t exist in a relationship, a family, a church, or a society in which there is no righteousness.
In the realm of human justice, shalom is often about “harmony.” Shalom is when we live with God and others as we, by God’s standard, should. “Peace” in English might have us avoid people or situations where open conflict is inevitable; “harmony” would have us intentionally enter into circumstances in which we must work toward reconciliation as peacemakers. A marriage characterized by cold, tense silence—despite the lack of open fighting or arguing—is not a marriage characterized by biblical shalom. “Quiet” does not necessarily mean “peaceful.”
Similarly, the law of the land might allow a judge to sentence a convicted to criminal to eight years in prison for their crime. However, extenuating circumstances might lead the judge to only sentence the convict to 364 days in jail, a fine, or community service. By taking into account extenuating circumstances surrounding a crime or the life situation of the convict, a judge does not merely seek to enforce the law, but to maintain harmony; just because someone can be sentenced to a decade in prison doesn’t mean they should be. Even some crimes themselves reflect this: Involuntary manslaughter and first-degree murder are not the same, though both resulted in the death of a person.
We see this principle of shalom as “harmony” reflected in some of the social practices of ancient Israel. Every fiftieth year, Israel was to observe the “Year of Jubilee” (Leviticus 25). At this time, bondservants were to be freed, debts were to be forgiven, and all of a family’s ancestral lands, had those lands been sold, were to be returned to them. The people were not to plant crops during the Year of Jubilee but were to allow the land to yield its bounty naturally.
The Year of Jubilee was instituted for many reasons, firstly as a type of sabbath—allowing the land to go untended and for the people to simply harvest what it naturally produced, trusting God to provide their needs. This practice also prevented a small portion of cunning Israelites from consolidating resources to the detriment of their countrymen, and stipulations existed on both ends of land ownership: The price of a parcel of land was dependent upon how many years remained until the next Jubilee (Leviticus 25:14-17, 25-28), so a person could not sell the land for a high price in the forty-ninth year and then soon after repossess the land, re-selling again for a high price and gaining exorbitant profit. Other provisions about the buying and selling of land are outlined in Leviticus 25.
The call to practice righteousness and justice are often tied to the very nature of God himself, seen with the OT refrain: “Fear the LORD your God” (Leviticus 25:17) or “I am the LORD” (Exodus 20:2; this preludes the entirety of the Ten Commandments; See also: Leviticus 11:45; 25:38, 55). This statement meant that out of reverence for God and upon reflection of his attributes, the Israelites were to do what he had commanded and to reflect his very righteousness.
Practicing Righteousness as Christians
Christians are to reflect God’s attributes (1 Peter 1:16). In practicing righteousness/justice, we must not divorce one side of the coin from the other. Righteousness and justice are about doing what is right, but not at the expense of mercy, love, or other Christian virtues. It is, in fact, a part of rightness to show mercy (Micah 6:8).
“Scholars have described [righteousness] as the quality of a person, an attribute of power given as a gift by God, an attribute of God’s love that brings and maintains social health in communities, and their individuals, God’s and humanity’s covenant faithfulness within communities, and faithful action within the whole created order.” (Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, 225.)
McKnight (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 411) writes, “In biblical thought the idea of justice or righteousness generally expresses conformity to God’s will in all areas of life: law, government, covenant loyalty, ethical integrity or gracious actions. When humans adhere to God’s will as expressed in his Law, they are considered just or righteous. Jesus taught that those who conform their lives to his teachings are also just or righteous.”
McKnight adds (415): “In inaugurating the kingdom of God and salvation, Jesus revealed that his followers were to be characterized by the pursuit of righteousness and justice. This is so central to Jesus’ message that he states that without a righteous status/character one will not enter the kingdom of God. Though righteous character is expressed in righteous behavior, a righteous status is not obtained by good works. Rather, the person who is committed to Jesus in discipleship and has entered the kingdom of God can and should be expected to show righteousness in character and actions.”
All of us have done things we hope no one will ever find out about, like the woman caught in adultery. But Jesus showed grace to this woman as he does to all of us.
- It’s possible to know a lot about God and not really love him (Matt 23:13-15).
- Jesus is the only one who is large and in charge in this life (John 8:7).
- In one way or another we are all like this woman (John 8:9).
- God’s grace is always deeper than our sin (John 8:10-11).
Have you ever messed at some point in your life? Well, how would you like to be caught in adultery and made to stand in front of a large crowd to explain yourself? Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
The religious leaders of the day hated Jesus and were constantly trying to trap him and make him look bad in front of his followers and in front of the authorities. These supposedly pious and godly leaders decided to use a woman caught in adultery to discredit Jesus.
John 8:1-3 Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.
It’s Possible to Know a Lot About God and Not Really Love Him
These religious leaders knew a lot about God, but they didn’t really know him personally. They didn’t care about God, just like they didn’t care about the woman. She was only a pawn to bring down Jesus.
Matthew 23:13 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites!
Jesus saw right through their hypocrisy. He knew that even though they knew a lot about him, the really didn’t love him. If we are not careful,l we can make the same mistake.
Jesus Is the Only One Who Is Large and in Charge in This Life
The religious leaders assumed that they had the upper hand and they believed that they could shape how people felt about Jesus. They thought they had Jesus cornered, but they were badly mistaken. They quickly learned that Jesus is the only one large and in charge in this life.
Jesus showed confident wisdom and authority by not answering their question right away. He made his hypocritical accusers wait, and wait, and wait some more. These leaders took Jesus too casually.
We Are All Like This Woman
Jesus is the only person in human history that hasn’t sinned. The rest of us are broken people like this woman. Some have committed adultery, others have thought about it. Some have lied, others gossiped, or have been religious hypocrites like these guys. The Bible is clear that all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. We have all gone our own way instead of God’s way. In other words, in one way or another, we are all like this woman – we need of forgiveness.
God’s Grace Is Deeper Than Our Sin
One of the most encouraging and life-changing aspects of God is that his grace is always deeper than our sin. Grace is God’s undeserved love and favor on full display for all to see. God grace means that he loves the woman even though she did not deserve it, couldn’t earn it, and couldn’t pay him back. And that same grace is available to all of us as well.
John 8:10-11 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Jesus wasn’t okay with the woman’s sin. That is why he told her in no uncertain terms to stop it. But his loving grace overcame her sin, just like it does anyone who has placed their trust in Jesus.
Talk About It
- What is your initial reaction to this topic? What jumped out at you?
- What do you think the was going through the woman’s mind when she was brought in front of the crowd?
- Read John 8:1-3 and share why you think the religious leaders would go to such great lengths to hurt Jesus.
- Explain how you think it is possible to know a lot about Jesus and not be close to him.
- Read Matthew 23:13-15 and share why you think Jesus was so firm in his criticism of the religious leaders.
- Has the been a time in your life when you thought you knew better than God…or at least acted as if you did?
- Read John 8:10-11 and share a time in your own life when you felt that God demonstrated his loving grace to you.
- Is there a step you need to take based on today’s topic?
On God’s Characteristics
Throughout the Too Casual series, we have argued in the digging deeper notes that God’s attributes cannot be divided from one another and must be taken as a whole: God does not show grace at the expense of his justice, his mercy is not lawless, his patience is not dishonest, etc. And all of these moral attributes are further tailored by God’s divine qualities—his infinite knowledge, power, and presence. This means that God acts mercifully/justly/lovingly/etc. with complete power in complete knowledge of all that was, is, will be, or might have been.
We cannot, then, divorce God’s graciousness from any of his other qualities.
What Does It Mean That God Is “Gracious”?
In English, “gracious” tends to mean “courteous” or “kind.” The Bible means much more than this, often adapting the Greek and Hebrew words (there are two in Greek and several in Hebrew) to denote a special kind of favor shown by God to creation or shown by redeemed, growing Christians to others.
Theologically, grace, as defined by J.S. Feinberg (No One Like Him, 354), means, “That something good happens to you even though you have done nothing to merit or earn it…It is important to understand that God owes no one any grace. If God or anyone else were obligated to give grace, it would no longer be grace—blessing would simply be a matter of justice. The very nature of grace, however, is that it is never owed or earned.”
That God is “gracious” means he does good things for his creation even though his creation has done nothing to merit or earn it (See: Exodus 34:6; Psalm 111:4; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; John 1:14). God’s grace is seen in two main ways, though it is not limited to these two main ways.
Common grace. This is the idea that God gives grace to all creation by providing for his creation and preventing evil from reigning. Jesus Christ “holds together” all creation, Colossians 1:15-17 tells us. In Luke 6:35, Jesus taught that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus taught that God cares for the birds and the lilies and that it “rains on the just and the unjust” and Paul preached about this in Athens (Acts 17). In Romans 13 and Titus 3, Paul taught that God instituted the very idea of governing authority to maintain order in the world and curtail evil. “This grace is called common,” Feinberg (No One Like Him, 354) writes, “because it falls on all members of the human race (and more generally on all creatures in the universe) regardless of whether they are God’s children by faith.” When viewed through a Holy Spirit-inspired perspective, the very existence of the world and the cosmos testifies to God’s creative power and sustaining grace (Psalm 19; 145:9; Acts 14:17; Romans 1).
Saving grace. Feinberg defines this as “God’s grace extended to us to establish a spiritual relationship with God and to grow believers in that relationship.” This saving grace is necessary because all people are unholy, in violation of God’s holiness, due to sin. This unholiness makes it impossible to make ourselves holy before God through good behavior, right thoughts, moral refinement, charitable giving, community service, literally sacrificing our life to save another’s, or anything else at all. Unholy humans cannot will themselves to be holy and thereby save themselves; only God’s saving grace can do that.
God’s Grace is spoken of in the Bible in other ways. Paul spoke of the grace of God in making him an apostle (Romans 1:5). He also spoke of the material blessings of grace shown to the Macedonian Christians (2 Corinthians 8:1) and how God’s grace sustained him in spite of physical ailments (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In its varying contexts, when the Bible speaks of God’s grace, it is almost always talking about the undeserved kindness God shows to his creation. It is through this grace that we live and breathe and move. Paul correctly wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10,
“But by the grace of God I am what I am.”
NT passages that relate grace to some aspect of salvation (Feinberg, 358): John 1:17; Acts 11:23; 13:43; 14:3; 15:11; 20:24, 32; Romans 4:4, 16; 5:15, 17, 20; 6:1, 14, 15; 11:6; 12:6; 1 Corinthians 1:4, 30; 2 Corinthians 4:15; 6:1; 8:9; Galatians 1:6; 2:9, 21; 5:4; Ephesians 1:6; 2:5, 7; 4:29; Colossians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; 1 Timothy 1:14; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 12:15; 13:9; 1 Peter 1:10; 3:7; 5:12; Jude 4.
Textual Questions on John 7:53-8:11
Many modern Bible translations preface John 7:53-8:11 (the story of the woman caught in adultery) with a note along the lines of, “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” What does this mean about the story in question and about the faithful transmission of the biblical text through the ages?
What Is Text Criticism?
Text criticism is a field of biblical studies. Text critics work to determine the wordings of the biblical autographs—the original written documents of the Bible, i.e., the actual letter of Romans Paul originally wrote to the church there, or the very first written Gospel of John that John himself wrote.
Because we do not have the biblical autographs, text critics must work with ancient copies of the New Testament (NT) books and work backward from there. As these books were copied time and time again through the ages, human error inevitably entered the picture, almost always through simple mistakes like misspellings of words, writing a word twice in a row, or accidentally skipping a line of text. By comparing hundreds or thousands of manuscripts, it is simple to see where such errors occurred. For this reason, modern Bible translations are far and away more accurate than older translations like the King James Version.
In a handful of instances, John 7:53-8:11 among them, text criticism has determined that a small portion of Biblical texts were most likely not part of the original autograph in question. This handful of instances constitute a tiny amount of the NT overall, and they are usually highlighted in modern Bibles like John 7:53-8:11 is; other clear examples are the long ending of Mark and 1 John 5:7-8.
The Textual Witness to John 7:53-8:11
G.R. Beasley-Murray (Word Biblical Commentary: John, 143) writes of John 7:53-8:11: “It is universally agreed by textual critics of the Greek NT that this passage was not part of the Fourth Gospel [John’s Gospel] in its original form.” He lists the following nine reasons for this:
- The passage is omitted from our earliest, best copies of John in Greek.
- In the Eastern family of texts, it is not found in the oldest forms of several important manuscript groups.
- No Greek commentator on John before an important twelfth century A.D. commentator discusses the passage, and this commentator said that accurate copies of John did not contain the story.
- No Eastern Church Father cited the passage prior to the tenth century A.D.
- The story is found in some majority Western manuscript families, but majority does not necessarily imply priority.
- Even many ancient manuscripts which contain the story note in the margins that the story was known by the copyists to be of questionable origin.
- There are very many variant readings of the story, i.e., in different manuscript families, the wording of the story greatly differs.
- The story appears in some manuscript families not just in John 7:53-8:11, but in Luke 21:38, Luke 24:53, John 7:36, John 7:44, John 21:25.
- The style and language of the story are inconsistent with the rest of John in Greek; it reads more like the style and language of Greek seen in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
There is, however, evidence of an oral tradition in the early Christian Church of how Jesus rescued a woman who was to be executed by the Jewish authorities. A story of a woman who was “accused of many sins before the Lord” was recorded by the early church historian Eusebius of Caesarea. Syrian bishops in the early 200s A.D. corresponded about repentant sinners, advising each other to do “as he also did with her who had sinned, whom the elders set before him, and leaving the judgment in his hands, departed.”
While not ironclad, these seem to be references to the story of the woman caught in adultery, possibly indicating that the story was known in the early Christian Church despite not being originally included in John’s gospel.
Did Jesus Actually Rescue a Woman Caught in Adultery?
What modern scholarship has determined with certainty is that this story most likely circulated orally throughout the early Christian Church. What is unlikely is that this story was a part of any of the four gospel accounts in their original autographs.
Does this mean Jesus never rescued the woman caught in adultery? Not at all. It is entirely possible that what is written in John 7:53-8:11 happened—this would explain why people talked about it—and the story itself is consistent with Jesus’s words and actions elsewhere. Even the end of John highlights the fact that Jesus did and said much more than was written down about him during his earthly ministry (John 20:30; 21:25). In Acts 20:35, Paul quotes Jesus, yet nowhere in the four gospel accounts do we read Jesus saying this famous phrase. Similarly, it may be that later copyists, aware of the story of Jesus’s rescue of this woman or having read it elsewhere, felt that the story needed to be preserved. This may explain why the story appears in multiple places in John in different manuscript families and even in Luke in others.
Because we do not know with certainty whether this story is a true event that was later added to John or if it is a completely fabricated event made up by a well-intended copyist, pastors and teachers should exercise caution in teaching John 7:53-8:11 as 100% gospel. If they choose to teach the text, they should provide justification for why they believe it is a true account in spite of its dubious textual witnesses. Reasons for believing the story to be true are: (1) Despite appearing in different places in different gospels, it is a very old story; (2) The story is consistent with the teachings and actions of Jesus elsewhere in the gospels—the mercy Jesus showed to the woman and the wisdom he used in befuddling the Jewish leaders to escape their trap is clearly seen in in other stories (the little children and Jesus, the woman with the bleeding issue, the woman who washed Jesus’s feet, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”).
See: “Does John 7:53-8:11 belong in the Bible?” on gotquestions.org.
Is the NT Reliable?
The evangelical-Protestant teaching on inerrancy has long been that the Bible’s autographs were inspired, but the copying process was subject to human error. The reality of human error does not mean the NT is an unreliable source concerning the ministry of Jesus or the actions, beliefs, and teachings of early Christians any more than a preacher misspeaking on a Sunday morning means his entire sermon is heretical. Where and how human error is recognized, modern text critics work to, and largely have, presented the most accurate text possible. Where a few major issues are obvious, modern translations make it known.
Christians today can trust the NT as a reliable witness to the events it narrates and the teachings it records. Due to the preponderance of textual evidence and even assuming the inevitable human errors that came about during copying, it is nonetheless implausible to argue that the NT was written centuries after the events it narrates or that it was created by some ancient form of the “telephone game.” Plenty of outside historical evidence testifies to the first-century existence of the Christian Church and the early existence of the NT writings. Even critical Bible scholars who are not Christians reject the claim that Jesus never existed; there is simply too much evidence to the contrary.