Today is the third day in our 44th week, reading the Bible through in a year. Our scriptures today are: Ezekiel 22-24; John 8; Psalm 134.
Whenever I see movies or artwork that depict Jesus' encounter with the woman who was caught in the act of adultery, I'm struck by how often she is costumed in red. She must be a "scarlet woman," to be caught so blatantly in the act of adultery, right? Probably not. Likely, she was an average woman who allowed herself to get caught up in a relationship that she never intended. Let's take a look at what the Bible actually says, in verses 3-11 (ESV).
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.”
The Greek word for "adultery" here is μοιχεία, (moicheia). Rather than indicating prostitution, moicheia is when ordinary people sleep with someone they're not married to. We could ask ourselves whether the man is married and she unmarried, or whether she is married and he unmarried, or whether both are married, yet not to each other. The Bible never answers this question, but it does say that she gets caught in the act of adultery. In my mind, this means that she is married, because she is committing adultery. Nothing is said about the man, so I won't make any guesses about him.
While her accusers try to label this woman with a scarlet A, Jesus deals with her quite differently. First, he recognizes that everyone sins. This doesn't disregard the seriousness of sin, but it does acknowledge that sin is simply the state of fallen humanity. Next, Jesus saves her. With words of deep wisdom and authority, He sends her accusers away. Stones that would have done her to death fall harmlessly to the ground. Then, Jesus forgives her. Self-condemnation can be a terrible thing, but Jesus gives grace. "Neither do I condemn you" is a reminder of God's constant understanding and restoration. Finally, Jesus invites her to a holy life. "From now on sin no more," he says, not expecting that henceforth she'll be sinless, but telling her that she needs to leave this particular sin in the past. In other words, don't commit that sin anymore. But more than that--don't revisit this thing in her mind.
This story repeats itself over and over today. Once again, you are caught in sin. Maybe for you, it's adultery. Just like in this woman's case, there are so many different kinds of adultery, both physical and emotional adultery where you have been unfaithful in everything but the flesh. Perhaps you've been caught in another kind of sin. First, you need to recognize that everybody sins, and that no sin is worse than any other. Understand this, but be careful too, because recognizing the universality of sin in no way makes it okay. Too many people justify their actions by saying, "This is just what everybody's doing these days," or "times have changed, this is so common that it's the new normal." These excuses don't cut it with God. Sin is still sin--whether it's enacted physically or concealed in the mind and heart. Jesus tells you, "Of course you got caught in sin...everybody sins, and everybody gets caught by it."
Yet, Jesus doesn't simply leave it at "everybody sins." Next, he saves us. He offers us His eternal life. He sends our accusers packing. What a wonderful God we have!
But He doesn't end there. He forgives us. He wipes our slate clean. He gives us a fresh start.
Remember, though--that fresh start means nothing if we return to the old thing that caused us to sin. This woman could thank Jesus for His forgiveness and rescue, and then return to her sin with the off-limits man whom she loves. But this isn't how we walk in ultimate freedom. She might say, "But I love him--how can I give up this relationship?" Yes, it's true that she may love him. But she can give up the relationship because once that sin has been committed it's impossible to undo it. She can't continue in this relationship and still be with her husband. She has given her heart to her husband, and even if she does love this other man as well, she needs to be faithful to the man whom God has given her. She needs to let her love for her husband outweigh any other love. If she has fallen out love with her husband, she can fall back in love again, if they work on their relationship. In addition, she needs to let her love for Jesus overcome her inappropriate love for the man in whose arms she was found.
Take a journey with me, and follow this woman away from the public arena. Watch as she returns to her lover and tells him of the forgiveness and rescue she received from the Lord. See her tears as she tells him that Jesus told her to end their inappropriate relationship and be faithful to her husband. It's difficult, but she knows it's the right thing to do. Watch him cry, too, as these two agree to leave their improper relationship behind. They embrace and wipe away tears as they decide to leave the past in the past. Then, watch her leave his house and return home to her husband. Listen as she tells him everything that has just happened. See how it pains him to hear, but observe how he, a man of faith, forgives her as God forgives her. Linger with this couple over the next few years as they rekindle their love for one another, recommit themselves to purity and truth in their relationship, and dedicate themselves to their enduring love. This is what it means to "go, and from now on sin no more."
Now, suppose that years pass and the marriage is completely healed. Then, one day by chance she meets her former lover in the marketplace. They stop and have a conversation, catching up on old times. "Could we be just friends," she wonders, "now that my marriage is healed." Yet, at the same time that she asks these questions, she realizes that those strange, visceral, gut-level emotions that she used to feel when she was with him, are returning to her. Even from just one conversation, standing there in a public marketplace, her mind returns to the way things once were.
That's when she knows she has to end the conversation quickly. "It's good to see you again, old friend" she tells him. "I'm glad that your life has turned out well, and that God has healed us both after such a difficult time. But we must leave the past in the past."
This is what it means to "go, and from now on sin no more." It means that even when you think you've gotten past the past, you don't pick it up again. Because you know this history has a way of repeating itself. Leaving the past in the past means never returning to it. If you do, you're tempting trouble. 2 Peter 2:19b-21 says:
For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.
The woman who was caught in adultery wasn't a prostitute. She wasn't even a bad woman. Neither was her lover a bad man. They simply allowed themselves to become entangled in a relationship that never should have been. Jesus forgave and rescued them both. By calling her to purity, Jesus ended the affair for both of them. I hope that they listened--and that even years later, they continued to leave their past in the past.
Maybe you're reading this, and it's hitting home because the past has recently resurfaced for you. You're flirting with the idea of being "just friends" with someone or something that used to be sin for you. Jesus tells you the same thing He told the woman caught in adultery. "From now on sin no more." From now on means to forever leave the past in the past. It means you'd be a fool to once again become entangled in a sin that once enslaved you.
When Jesus forgives your past, He wants you to leave it there.
He wants you to take His hand as He leads you into a blessed future.