Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?
Jesus tells a story:
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. 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 15:4-7 ESV)
This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.
But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.
The Good Shepherd Context
Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.
Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.1
So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)
In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.
The Testing of Abraham
A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:
The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)
Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).
Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33). If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.
The Ethical Problem
An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:
not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)
Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.
In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:
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 8:10-11)
When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.
1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12 ESV).
What does it mean to walk in the light?
The story of the woman caught in adultery is probably the most celebrated capital judgment case in scripture. The woman’s guilt is not in question; the only question was the sentence. The Pharisees asked Jesus: “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5).
Notice that under Jewish law both parties in adultery face the same penalty of death (Leviticus 20:10). Because the Pharisee covered up the man’s identity, they broke the Ninth Commandment (do not bear false witness; Exodus 20:16) in presenting this case. In other words, true justice was not being presented here irrespective of the penalty assigned. Quite the contrary, the Pharisees have no regard for the woman.
Jesus points to the Pharisee’ bias when he says: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). The law required that witnesses to the crime throw the first stone (Deuteronomy 17:7). If anyone picks up a stone, then that person is liable for prosecution under the law because they have not revealed the identity of the man who participated in the adultery. The Pharisees understand the dilemma so they leave. The penalty for perjury was the same penalty as for the alleged crime (Deut 19:18-9).
Jesus’ words to the woman are important. He says: “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 8:10-11). Jesus offers both truth and grace. True alone or grace alone is not the Gospel. Truth alone is too harsh to be heard; grace alone ignores the law. Jesus seeks our transformation, not our judgment (Rom 12:2).
It is interesting the next discussion in John 8 focuses on the nature of Jesus’ testimony. What does it mean to walk in the light? Scholars often argue that the case of the woman caught in adultery does not fit in John—that it was added later. However, the context of the pharisaic controversy makes perfect sense—it is an example of fair treatment under Jewish law that the Pharisees contested.
Jesus said: You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one (John 8:15). Under law, the woman was guilty even though she had been set up. Under grace, the context is important—the law must be applied with impartiality and fairness to all parties.
Where and when does this chapter open? (vv 1-2)
What was Jesus doing? (v 2)
What happened next? (vv 3-6) How did Jesus respond?
What is the significance of Jesus writing with his finger? (vv 6,8) (Possible hint: Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10).
What is the significance of Jesus’ question? (v 7)(Hint: Deuteronomy 17:7) What is the significance of having finger writing before and after? (vv 6, 8)
Why did the Pharisees leave? (v 9) (Hint:Deuteronomy 19:18-9)
Why is the woman unnamed? (vv 3,9-10)
What does Jesus say to the woman? (vv 9-10) Why is it important? (Hint: Romans 12:2)
Who or what is Jesus referring to in verse 15?
What does Jesus mean when he says: “I am the light of the world”? (v 12)
What is this dialog between Jesus and the Pharisees about in verses 13-19?
Who judges according to Jesus in verses 15-16?
Where did these conversations take place? (v 20)
What does Jesus say about sin? (v 24) How do the Pharisees respond? (v 25)
What does Jesus say about his relationship with the Father? (vv 26-29)
What does Jesus say to those Jews who believed him? (vv 30-36)
What is freedom? (vv 32-36)
How does Jesus use the word, father? (vv 37-44)
How do we know who comes from God? (v 47) What is the reward? (v 51)
How do the Pharisees react to Jesus’ words? (vv 37-59)
Why do the Pharisees attempt to stone Jesus? (vv 56-59)