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Where Was God?

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The images are sadly familiar. Buildings ripped from their foundations. Corpses mingled with debris. Parents and friends grieving for lost loved ones. Flowers and candles and makeshift memorials. New Orleans, Newtown, New York, Littleton.

In one sense tragedies like these will never be old news. And when new disasters inevitably arrive, the question on the lips of so many is an age old query: “Where was God?”

One Wrong Answer

One answer is not going to work: the picture of a broken-hearted God, victimized, agonizing over events that are out of His control.

This “finite God” view is Rabbi Harold Kushner’s answer in Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Evil is bigger than God whose hands are tied by the laws of nature and the will of man. Limited in power, He weeps with us at a world out of control.

According to Kushner, this should bring us comfort. “God, who neither causes nor prevents tragedies, helps by inspiring people to help,” he writes.1

Clearly, the God Rabbi Kushner has in mind is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who brought the universe into existence with a single thought. This is not the God of the Exodus or the empty tomb. A God equally victimized by the march of evil may commiserate with other victims, but He cannot inspire or rescue. He is not worthy of praise, prayer, or trust. Nor is there any real comfort to be gained from one so impotent.

Another Wrong Answer

But what alternative is there? How can anyone believe in God in the face of mind-numbing tragedy? The great 20th century British philosopher and atheist Bertrand Russell wondered how anyone could talk about God while kneeling at the bed of a dying child.

It is a powerful image. Like the three-word sound byte, “Where was God?,” it strikes many Christians dumb. How can anyone cling to the hope of a benevolent, powerful sovereign in the face of such tragedy?

They might consider Christian philosopher William Lane Craig’s response: What is the atheist Bertrand Russell going to say at the bed of that dying child—or, for that matter, at the funerals of thousands of dead in Katrina’s wake, or to the parents of 20 dead school children in Newtown, Connecticut, or to the families of 2,977 dead on 9/11? Too bad? Tough luck? That’s the way it goes? No happy ending, no silver lining, nothing but devastating, tragic, senseless evil?

No, that also won’t work for an important reason. In a world bereft of God, there are many ways to characterize hurricanes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, or malicious bloodletting: unpleasant, sad, painful, even ghastly.

Yet if God doesn’t exist, the one thing we can never do is call such human destruction “evil” or wanton murder “wicked.” If in virtue of these tragedies one concludes God doesn’t exist, then the carnage ceases to be morally tragic at all, if by that word we mean a genuine breach of goodness.

Judgments like these require some transcendent reference point, some way of keeping score. Words like “evil” or “tragic” are parasitic on a standard of moral perfection. C.S. Lewis pointed out that a portrait is a good or bad likeness depending on how it compares with the “perfect” original. But if there is no standard, then there is no “good” or “bad.”

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust,” Lewis reasoned. “But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call something crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”2

Evil is spoiled goodness. That’s Lewis’s point. We already know this. Note the words we use to describe it: unrighteousness, immorality, impurity. Evil depends on the good. Where does such goodness come from, though?

This point was explored in the movie, “The Quarrel.”3 The main characters, Hersh and Chaim, were boyhood friends who separated in a dispute over God and evil. Then came the Holocaust. Each thought the other had perished. After the war, they reunite by chance and immediately become embroiled once again in their boyhood quarrel.

Hersh, now a rabbi, offers this challenge to the secularist Chaim:

If there’s nothing in the universe that’s higher than human beings, then what’s morality? Well, it’s a matter of opinion. I like milk; you like meat. Hitler likes to kill people; I like to save them. Who’s to say which is better?

Do you begin to see the horror of this? If there is no Master of the universe, then who’s to say that Hitler did anything wrong? If there is no God, then the people that murdered your wife and kids did nothing wrong.

If there is no God, it’s hard to even begin making sense of the notions of evil or moral tragedy in an objective sense.4 The events that trouble us are reduced to mere “stuff” that happens. There are different kinds of “stuff,” to be sure, some we like (Mother Teresa), and some we don’t (Newtown), but in a universe bereft of God it’s all reduced to “stuff” in the end.

We know better, though. Words like “wicked,” “tragic,” and “evil” are on the lips of everyone constantly. We cannot describe our daily experience of the world without them.

Yet the questions remain: Why doesn’t God intervene? Why is He inactive—apparently impotent—when He could restrain both wayward winds and wicked people? This protest rings hollow, though, because we don’t really want God to end evil, not all of it.

Picking and Choosing Our Moral Tragedies

Why does this question about God only come up with magnum tragedies—like a hurricane or a schoolyard massacre—or when we are personally stunned by deadly disease or financial ruin? What about the mass of evil that slips by us every day unnoticed and unlamented because we are the perpetrators of the evil, not its victims?

On December 14, 2012—the same day 26 were murdered, most of them children, at Sandy Hook elementary school—I wonder how many Americans were committing adultery around the country? What of the cumulative effect of the personal pain and destruction that resulted from all those individual acts of sin? What of the unplanned pregnancies (and subsequent abortions), the sexually transmitted diseases, the shame and embarrassment?

On August 30, 2005 a day when Katrina left so many homeless in the Gulf states, what of the children whose homes were broken through marriages destroyed by infidelity? What of the severed trust, the emotional wounding, the sting of betrayal, the shattered families? What of the traumatized children cast adrift emotionally, destined as adults to act out the anguish of these disloyalties?

One careless act of unfaithfulness leaves in its wake decades of pain and destruction and often generations of brokenness. And—to be sure—this evil was multiplied thousands of times over around the country on the same day the levees broke in Louisiana or when disaster struck in Connecticut.

I saw no outcry, though, no moral indignation in the local papers or national news because God permitted this evil. Why not? Because we don’t complain when evil makes us feel better, only when it makes us feel bad.

If the truth were known, we do not judge disasters based on unprejudiced moral assessment, but rather on what is painful, awkward, or inconvenient to us. We don’t ask, “Where is God?” when another’s pain brings us profit instead of loss.

Why? Because we don’t want God sniffing around the dark recesses of our own evil conduct. Instead, we fight intervention. We don’t really want Him stopping us from hurting others. We only cry “foul” when He doesn’t stop others from hurting us.

The problem of evil is much bigger than hundreds of drowned people or thousands of homeless. It includes all the ordinary corruptions that please us, the hundreds of small vices you and I approve of every day. It entails not only what offends us, but what offends God.

The answer to the question “Why doesn’t God stop the evil?” is the same answer to the question “Why doesn’t God stop me every time I do wrong?” There is a virtuous quality to human moral choice that both dignifies us and makes serious evil possible.

The rules God applies to a serial killer are the same rules He applies to you. If you want God to clean up evil, He might just say, “Okay, let’s start with you.” If you want Him to stop murderers, then you have to be just as willing to let Him stop you every time you do what is evil by His standards. And that covers a lot of ground. Most people won’t sit still for that.

Sometimes the consequences of our evil actions are long-lived. It’s hard to know how much has been spoiled by man’s initial rebellion. However, the prophecy that Adam would now encounter thorns and thistles is suggestive (Genesis 3:18). Ever since man has ventured forth from Eden, the world has been a dangerous place. All the forces of nature are wonderful things in their right place, but ominous foes in a world twisted by sin.

What Should God Do?

When people ask “Where was God?” I ask “What precisely do you expect God to do? If you were in His place, what would you do?” If you would use your power to stop evil, would you punish it or prevent it? Either choice presents you with problems.

One reason God doesn’t wipe out all evil immediately is that the alternative would be worse for us. This becomes evident by asking a simple question: If God heard your prayer to eliminate evil and destroyed it all at midnight tonight, where would you be at 12:01?

The discomfiting reality is that evil deeds can never be isolated from the evil doer. Our prints are on the smoking gun. Each one of us is guilty in some capacity, and we know it. That’s the problem.

While reading on the Littleton shooting several years ago, I stumbled upon a refreshing bit of honesty and moral clarity by John Hewitt in a piece entitled “Seeking to Make Sense Where There Is None.” Hewitt wrote:

We would rather think of bad acts as the unfortunate consequences of discoverable and remedial social and personal conditions. Yet it is precisely the account we do not wish to believe that may best capture what happened in Littleton. The two dead members of the “Trenchcoat Mafia,” together with their fellows, may simply have chosen evil in circumstances where others choose to play football or to crave membership in the National Honor Society.5 [emphasis added]

Simply put, humans—you and I—make choices that cause evil. Consequently, any judicial action God might take today would pin us all under the gavel. When God wipes out evil, He’s going to do a complete job. C.S. Lewis soberly observed, “I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does....When the author walks on the stage the play is over.”6

No, God hasn’t banished evil from His kingdom—not yet. The Bible describes a future time when God will wipe away every tear and repair the effects of evil on the world. Men will no longer endure the ravages of wickedness or be victimized by bouts with nature. And no one will ever ask the question, “Where was God?”

Until then, though, God has chosen a different strategy, a better plan, one that’s moral on a higher level. It’s a plan that ultimately deals with evil, but allows room for mercy as well. It’s called forgiveness.

The Patience of God

God is waiting. Patience, not lack of goodness or lack of ability, stays God’s hand from writing the last chapter of human history. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness,” Peter reminds us, “but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God is patiently waiting for people to turn to Him.

Suffering, tragedy, and profligate evil now function as warning signals. Like the ache of a limb out of joint, the pain of living in a broken world tells us that something is amiss. If God took away the pain, we’d never deal with the disease. And the disease will kill us, sooner or later.

Why doesn’t God do something about evil? God has done something, the most profound thing imaginable. He has sent His Son to die for evil men. Because we are ultimately the source of evil, God would be entirely justified in punishing us. Yet He chose instead to offer mercy. He took the punishment due you and I and poured it out on His Son Jesus so He could make forgiveness available to anyone who asks.

God is not the author of evil. Neither is He incapable of responding nor unwilling to act. But His remedy for evil is not capricious. He doesn’t obliterate us, the offenders, with one angry blow. Instead He waits.

Bertrand Russell had nothing to say while kneeling at the bed of a dying child. He could have spoken of the patience and mercy of God. He ought to have mentioned the future perfection that awaits all who trust in Christ and experience God’s forgiveness. He might have remembered that a redemptive God “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). He may have considered the Gospel, the only source of hope for a broken world.

But Russell could not. As an atheist he had surrendered those resources. We can do better.

Our dilemma should not be why God allows evil. Instead, our wonder should be why He would pay such an incredible price to rescue us at all when we have rebelled so completely against Him.

When this reality grabs our hearts, we will get down on our knees and ask forgiveness instead of criticizing God for not doing enough.

Putting Your Knowledge into Action

  • First, be sympathetic to this problem. It hits all of us sooner or later, and sometimes with great force in very personal ways.
  • Second, don’t let others leverage the problem of evil into an argument against God. It doesn’t work. Ask them how they would answer for evil if there were no God. Further, how would they answer the problem of good?
  • Remember the Bertrand Russell challenge and William Lane Craig’s powerful response. It takes a liability and turns it into an asset.
  • When someone asks “How does Christianity explain tragedy?” say “Christianity doesn’t explain it; Christianity predicts it. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if the Christian worldview is true.”
  • Explain that God’s answer to evil at the moment is not to destroy those who perpetrate evil—each one of us—but to patiently extend an offer of clemency, forgiveness through His Son.

Quick Summary

  • When tragedy strikes it’s understandable to ask, “Where was God?” This question deserves an answer, but some responses are not helpful.
  • An impotent God victimized as we are by evil is not the God of the Bible.
  • Atheism fares no better. A world without God reduces wickedness and tragedy to tough luck. Real evil requires a real God, not a universe without Him.
  • Most of us do not want God to deal with all evil because we are its perpetrators, not just its victims. Our prints are on the smoking gun.
  • God has done something about evil. He’s sent His Son to die for evil men. Patience and mercy stay His hand, not lack of goodness or ability.

1Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York:  Schocken, 1981), 140, quoted in Norman Geisler and William Watkins, Worlds Apart (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1989), 203.

2 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  Macmillan, 1952), 31.

3 “The Quarrel,” directed by Eli Cohen, released 1991.

4Of course, relativistic morality—grounded in personal preference or cultural convention—fares just fine because it’s not a true moral system, but rather a denial of universal moral obligations.

5John P. Hewitt, “Seeking to Make Sense Where There Is None,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1999.

6Lewis, 66.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Character of God, Cultural Issues, Equip, Suffering, Trials, Persecution, Terrorism

Lesson 45: Caught in the Act (John 7:53-8:11)

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February 23, 2014

Our text is a difficult portion of John, not because it is hard to understand, but because it is hard to know whether this incident should be included in John’s Gospel as an authentic part of inspired Scripture. Many versions put these verses in brackets, with a note explaining that it is not included in the earliest manuscripts of John. So I must give you a mini-lecture on textual criticism.

As you probably know, we do not possess any of the original copies of the New Testament books. Our New Testament is based on the translation of thousands of Greek manuscripts that are, for the most part, remarkably close in their readings. When there are variations between the manuscripts, they are usually only of minor significance. For example, in our text last week in 7:40, some manuscripts read, “when they heard these words.” Others read, “these words of His” or “His word,” or, “the word,” or, “this word.” Obviously, it doesn’t make much difference which reading is adopted.

Textual criticism is the discipline where scholars evaluate both external and internal evidence to try to determine which reading is most likely the original. External evidence refers to weighing the various manuscripts in light of their age, how widespread is their distribution, and what text type they represent. Internal evidence refers to evaluating the probabilities of what a scribe might have done, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to result in the various readings. Both internal and external evidence have to be compared and evaluated.

There are two longer texts where the manuscript evidence is so varied and late that many scholars question their authenticity: Mark 16:9-20 and here, in John 7:53-8:11. Let me add that there are no major doctrines at stake in these or in any other textual variants. With rare exceptions, we can be sure that what we read is what the original authors wrote.

The problem is that John 7:53-8:11 is not found in any of the earliest manuscripts or versions (translations into other languages). The earliest manuscript to contain it is from the fifth century A.D. All the early church Fathers omit this narrative in their commentaries on John, moving from 7:52 to 8:12. No Eastern Father before the tenth century cites the text. Many later manuscripts that include the passage mark it off to show that it’s of doubtful authority. Among those that include it, there are many textual variants. And some manuscripts put it at other places in John (after 7:44; 7:36; 21:25) or after Luke 21:38. Also, although it should not be regarded with as much weight as the external evidence, most scholars argue that the style, Greek constructions, and vocabulary of the story differ significantly from the rest of the Gospel of John. And, they assert that the story interrupts the flow of the narrative from John 7:52 to 8:12. (This paragraph taken from D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 333; and Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], pp. 245-247.)

These reasons cause many reputable evangelical scholars to conclude that this story is not a part of John’s original Gospel. Among these are: Leon Morris, Merrill Tenney, D. A. Carson, Ed Blum, Andreas Kostenberger, Colin Kruse, John Piper, R. C. Lenski, R. V. G. Tasker, B. F. Westcott, Alfred Edersheim, Frederic Godet, G. Campbell Morgan, and A. T. Robertson. However, these scholars generally hold that it reports an authentic historical event that is true to the character of Jesus.

Some scholars, however, argue that in spite of the weak textual support, this story should be included in John’s Gospel and treated as inspired Scripture, based largely on internal evidence: R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, James Boice, William Hendriksen, A. W. Pink, J. C. Ryle, David Brown (in Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown) and John Calvin. They argue that the story fits the flow of John’s Gospel at this point and the pattern that John follows of a story setting the stage for the theme to follow. They also point out that both Augustine and Ambrose in the late fourth and early fifth centuries believed that the story may have been omitted because it seems to suggest that Jesus condoned adultery. So, there are solid men on both sides of this issue.

So, how should we view this story? I can’t dodge the weight of the textual evidence. Bruce Metzger, who edited A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament ([United Bible Societies], 2nd ed., p. 187), wrote, “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” Leon Morris agrees (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans, 1971], p. 882): “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.” But Morris adds (p. 883),

But if we cannot feel that this is part of John’s Gospel we can feel that the story is true to the character of Jesus. Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic. It rings true. It speaks to our condition. It is thus worth our while to study it, though not as an authentic part of John’s writing.

So while I cannot agree with John MacArthur that the story is original to John’s Gospel, I appreciate some questions that he asks of this story (on

Question number one, do these verses teach truth that violates other Scripture? The answer is no, they do not. Question two, do they in fact corroborate other Scripture and substantiate it? The answer is yes they do.

So I will proceed by showing some lessons that this text gives us, which can be supported by other undisputed texts, on how God deals with sinners who have been caught in the very act of sin. In case you’re half-asleep by now, that means all of us, because God knows every sin of thought, word, and deed that we have ever done! The overall lesson is:

God deals with guilty sinners on the basis of the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, this story beautifully illustrates John 1:17, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The scribes and Pharisees judged this woman according to the Law, which clearly condemned her. Jesus showed her both grace and truth.

1. All of us, like this woman, have been caught in the act of sin and stand condemned by God’s holy law.

To catch someone in the act of adultery so that it would hold up in a Jewish trial for execution was no small feat. The witnesses actually had to have seen the couple going through physical movements that could be capable of no other explanation (Morris, p. 885, note 12). Compromising circumstances, such as seeing a couple coming from a room where they had been alone, or even seeing them lying on the same bed, were not sufficient. The witnesses had to have seen the same acts at the same time in the presence of each other for their testimony to hold up in a Jewish court.

So it’s very likely that the scribes and Pharisees had set a trap to catch this woman so they could trap Jesus on the horns of a dilemma and accuse Him. Either He would agree that the woman must be stoned, thereby undermining His reputation as the Savior of sinners and probably getting Him into trouble with the Roman authorities, who didn’t give the Jews the right of capital punishment; or, He would show her mercy, thus proving that He did not uphold the Law of Moses and was soft on sin. That this was a deliberate trap is also seen by the fact that they only brought one sinner to Jesus. You don’t commit adultery all alone! So where was the man? Probably he was on their side in the trap and thus was allowed to escape. But, note that, like this woman…

A. We’ve all been caught in the act of sin.

We’ve all had the humiliating experience of getting caught doing something that we knew was wrong. Maybe you were checking out the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue on your phone or I-pad when another believer looked over your shoulder to say hello. Or perhaps on a summer day with the windows and doors open you and your spouse were in a loud argument when the doorbell rang and it was someone from church. No matter what the sin, it’s always embarrassing.

In this story, the woman had not only been caught in the act of adultery, but then she was dragged (probably barely clothed) by the religious authorities into the temple where there were always crowds of people, many of whom would have known her. To make matters worse, they accused her before the godly religious teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. And her accusers were pushing for the ultimate penalty of execution. It was both humiliating and frightening!

But even if we manage to keep our sin hidden from fellow Christians or from public view, every single sin that we have ever committed is open and laid bare to the eyes of the living God (Heb. 4:13). He knows every sinful thought that we secretly entertain. He knows every swear word that we mutter under our breath. He knows the hatred that simmers in our hearts towards those who have wronged us. He knows every deceptive word that we have ever spoken to try to cover our tracks. He knows the sins that we commit when we’re alone or when we’re away in another city where we don’t know a soul. Like this woman, we’ve all been caught in the act of sin.

B. Religious people are just as guilty of sin as openly immoral people are.

We tend to look on the woman in this story as the great sinner, while overlooking the fact that the scribes and Pharisees were just as evil, if not more so, in God’s sight. They were callously sinning against this woman. We can’t say for certain, but probably she was a young girl. In the Law of Moses, the penalty for adultery was death for both partners, without stipulating the means of death. But if the girl was engaged to be married, the penalty was specifically stoning to death (Deut. 22:22-24). Since Jewish girls were often engaged as young as 13 or 14, this girl may have been a frightened teenager. Clearly, they didn’t care about her at all. If they had cared about her, they could have held her in private custody until they brought formal charges against her. But they didn’t care about her feelings or about humiliating her in public. She was just a pawn for them to use and discard in their attempt to trap Jesus.

But, even more seriously than sinning against this woman, these religious leaders were also sinning against the sinless Son of God. Their aim was to destroy Jesus and they were using both this woman and the Scriptures to do it! They weren’t concerned about God’s honor or about holiness among God’s people. It just so happened that the Law gave them ammunition to use against this woman and against Jesus. They were using Scripture to judge others, but not to judge themselves.

That’s very common in Christian circles. People use the Bible for their own selfish ends, to judge others or to bring down their enemies. But they never apply it to themselves. And so it is often religious people—those professing to know Christ—who are just as guilty of sin as openly immoral people are.

C. God’s holy law condemns us all because of our sin.

Paul builds this case in Romans 1-3, where he shows that both pagan Gentiles and religious Jews are guilty of sin. His conclusion is (Rom. 3:23), “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So whether we fit more with the immoral woman or with the self-righteous, unloving Pharisees, who used the Bible for their own sinful purposes, we need to see ourselves in this story. It convicts us all of our sin and guilt before God.

This story sets up an important question: If God is full of love and grace, how can He show mercy to sinners and yet uphold His holiness and justice?

2. God’s grace and love do not negate His truth or justice.

Nowhere in this story does Jesus excuse this woman’s sin or condone what she had done. And yet He showed her grace.

A. Jesus deals with sinners first by applying God’s Law and truth to them.

The scribes and Pharisees came armed with the Law as a weapon to use against this woman, but as the text says, mostly to use against Jesus (8:5): “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” But they were saying this to test Him. Jesus responded by stooping down and writing on the ground with His finger. This is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus wrote anything, but the big question that you’re all wondering is, “What did He write?” Here’s the answer: Nobody knows! Some have said that He was stalling for time so that He could think of what to say, but that demeans our all-wise Lord. Some say that He was writing the Pharisees’ sins in the dust, like people today write, “Wash me” in the dust of a dirty car. Others say that He was writing the Ten Commandments, which God wrote with His finger on the tablets of stone. Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 319-320) suggested that He was shaming His enemies by ignoring them, showing that they were unworthy to be heard. But, the bottom line is, the text doesn’t tell us and so everyone is just guessing.

Jesus may have been giving these hypocritical accusers enough rope to hang themselves, because the next verse (8:7) says that when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus wasn’t saying that human judges in a court of law have to be sinlessly perfect before they can judge others, because then no law could ever be upheld. Rather, Jesus was applying what He taught in Matthew 7:1-5 to them:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

In other words, these hypocrites had a huge log in their own eyes: They were sinfully using this woman and using Scripture to try to trap Jesus. They came to condemn her and accuse Jesus; but they ended up being accused and condemned. The Law is like a boomerang: You aim it at others and it comes back and conks you on the head. The starting place for receiving God’s mercy is to be convicted by God’s holy law that you are the chief of sinners.

But, rather than falling at Jesus’ feet and asking for mercy, they left Him and went out. Perhaps the oldest left first because they had the most sins of which to feel guilty. But none of them repented, because as a group they kept pressing for Jesus’ death until they finally succeeded. But, maybe you’re wondering, “Why didn’t Jesus apply the Law to this guilty woman?”

B. Jesus gives the Law to the self-righteous, but offers grace to broken sinners who repent.

The Law can reveal your sin (Rom. 3:20), but it can’t offer grace and forgiveness. But Jesus came to reveal both grace and truth (John 1:14, 17). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus confronted the self-righteous with their own sins, but He showed mercy to those who were convicted of their sins and were repentant. Granted, in this story there is no direct statement that the woman was repentant, but I think we can infer that by Jesus’ gracious words to her. He knew what was in every heart and He was always quick to offer grace to the broken. By not stating that she was repentant, the story illustrates the truth that God first revealed to Moses (Exod. 33:19b, cited in Rom. 9:15), “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” It is God’s privilege and His delight to show grace to undeserving sinners.

But it isn’t cheap grace. God’s justice must be upheld. He can be both gracious to sinners and yet uphold His justice because Jesus came to this earth to offer Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for sin that God’s justice demanded. As Romans 3:26 states, God’s righteousness is displayed in that He is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” whose death satisfied God’s wrath against our sin. Or (2 Cor. 5:21), “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The only sinless person in the temple that day who legitimately could have thrown a stone at the adulteress showed her mercy. And if you are heavy with your load of sin and guilt, come to Jesus and cry out for mercy and He will not condemn you. Like the publican in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:14), you will go to your house justified, declared righteous before God!

3. God’s grace is the basis for a holy life.

Jesus said to this guilty woman (John 8:11), “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” He did not say, “Go your way and sin no more and then I will not condemn you.” Her pardon was not dependent on her behavior. Rather, her pardon was the motivation to change her behavior. If forgiveness depends on having a perfect track record, no one could obtain it, because we all sin. So God grants forgiveness as a free gift to all who put their trust in what Christ did in dying on the cross for their sins. His free grace then becomes the motive to live in holiness to please the one who gave Himself for us.

As Paul says (Rom. 6:1-2), “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Or (Titus 2:11-12), “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age ….” God’s amazing grace is the motivation to life a holy life.


I’ve shared this with you before, but it has stuck with me all of my life and God has used it to help me walk in holiness before Him. When I was in high school, like any high school student, I was tempted by many sins. I knew many guys who were involved sexually with girls, which tempted me to do the same. Also, many of my friends would get drunk at parties and I had many opportunities to join them. I think that I was a Christian at that time, but I wasn’t walking closely with the Lord. But, in spite of my weak spiritual life, I never got involved in those sins.

Why not? I distinctly remember thinking on many occasions when those temptations came along, “I can’t do that because it would hurt Dad and Mom if I did it.” I knew that my parents loved me and trusted me. I didn’t want to violate their love and trust. Their love motivated me to want to please them.

That’s how God’s grace should work in our hearts. Like this adulterous woman, I was guilty and condemned before Him. But rather than condemning me, because of His sovereign grace He loved me enough to die in my place and offer me a full pardon. And since it cost Him so much, I can’t take His grace cheaply. I can’t sin and shrug it off by saying, “I’m under grace.” I want to please the one who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). That same grace is available to every sinner who has been caught in the act! Receive it and then go and sin no more.

Application Questions

  1. Why does the evangelical church tend to overlook the sins of hypocrisy, legalism, gossip, and pride, but judge sins like drunkenness, immorality, homosexuality, etc.?
  2. What can we learn about witnessing from Jesus’ pattern of giving the Law to the self-righteous, but offering grace to sinners?
  3. An unbeliever asks you, “Why can’t God just forgive sins? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” Your answer?
  4. Why does a true understanding of God’s grace never lead to licentious living? Can we emphasize His grace too much?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 46: Jesus: Light of the World (John 8:12-20)

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March 2, 2014

One summer day in 1969 I was sitting on the lawn at U.C.L.A. reading my Bible when a barefoot young man came up and began to talk to me. I eventually asked what his name was and he said, “Thomas.” That’s a common enough name, of course. But with all sincerity, this fellow informed me that he was none other than the apostle Thomas, the one who had at first doubted Christ’s resurrection! He said further that Christ had sent him on a mission to proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” So, without money, sandals, or staff, he was going around U.C.L.A., walking up to Jewish-looking “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and announcing, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Then he would walk away.

Having grown up in California, I knew that it was “the land of fruits and nuts,” and it didn’t take extraordinary discernment to figure out that this guy was a true native! I assure you that I did not, even for a fleeting second, wonder, “Could this really be the apostle Thomas?” I shrugged him off as a nut case, as I’m sure everyone else did.

What if a man proclaimed (John 8:12), “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life”? Would you believe him? What if this same man had already proclaimed (6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall not thirst”? He also said (7:37-38), “If any man is thirsty, let Him come unto Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” Would you not have to conclude, either, “This guy is a deluded religious nut”; or, “This is no mere man; this is God in human flesh”? Jesus’ bold claims to deity demand a response!

Note that in John 6, Jesus is the manna in the wilderness who provides for His people’s hunger. In John 7, Jesus is the water from the rock in the wilderness, providing for their thirst. In John 8, Jesus is the pillar of fire in the wilderness, providing protection and guidance by His presence with them. Thus Jesus is the all-sufficient Savior, providing for His people’s every need, even when they are traveling through a barren wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world demands that you respond by following Him.

Background: Jesus was in Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles. During that feast, as we’ve seen, the Jews performed a ceremony where a priest went to the Pool of Siloam, drew water in a golden pitcher, and returned in procession to the temple, where he poured it out at the base of the altar. It commemorated God’s provision of water from the rock that sustained Israel in the wilderness. It was in connection with that ceremony that Jesus proclaimed whoever drank of Him would have rivers of living water flowing from his innermost being.

At that same feast, the Jews performed another ceremony where they lit four huge candelabras or torches in the Court of the Women in the temple, commemorating the fact that the Lord had been a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night to protect and guide Israel in that desolate desert for 40 years. That cloud appeared on the day when Israel left Egypt, standing as a barrier between them and Pharaoh’s armies on the night before they crossed the Red Sea. Then as it went with them in that wilderness, it was a graphic symbol of the fact that the Lord God was with His people.

If, as we saw last week, the story of the woman caught in adultery (7:53-8:11) was not a part of John’s original Gospel, then the incident before us, where Jesus claims to be the Light of the world, took place either during or just after the Feast of Tabernacles, when the spectacle of these huge torches being lit in the temple would still be fresh in people’s minds. John 8:20 tells us that Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, as He taught in the temple. The treasury was the place, in the Court of the Women, where people could put their offerings into some trumpet-like receptacles. So, in the same courtyard where the torches were lit, Jesus boldly proclaimed, “I am the Light of the world.” How would you have reacted if you had been a Jew listening there? How should you respond to this astounding claim today?

1. Jesus makes an astounding claim: “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life” (8:12).

Note four things about this remarkable claim:

A. Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world is a claim to be God.

I had a letter last week from a Jehovah’s Witness man in Georgia who said that he has enjoyed my sermons and that they have helped him understand the Word in preparing for his teaching assignments in his congregation. He claimed that Jesus is his Lord and Savior, but then proceeded to try to convince me that Jesus is not God. He felt that my lumping his group with the cults and accusing them of heresy is unkind. He views the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the true remnant and the rest of Christendom, which affirms Jesus’ deity, as being deceived by Satan!

Well, of course, I beg to differ vigorously! The whole point of the Gospel of John, is that we all would join Thomas in proclaiming the risen Savior as “my Lord and my God” (20:28). Contrary to the explanation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Thomas was not swearing! Jesus would have rebuked him for that. Instead, Jesus commended him for believing the truth.

As I said, in the Old Testament, the Jews recognized the pillar and the cloud as the Lord (Exod. 13:21; 14:19-25). Furthermore, light is often used as a metaphor for God. Psalm 27:1 proclaims, “The Lord is my light and my salvation ….” In a prophecy about Jesus Christ (Matt. 4:16), Isaiah 9:2 predicts, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.” In Isaiah 42:6 & 49:6, the Lord tells His Servant, the Messiah, that He has appointed Him to be “a light to the nations” (or, “world,” in John 8:12).

In Isaiah 60:19-20, God says to His people, “No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory. Your sun will no longer set, nor will your moon wane; for you will have the Lord for an everlasting light.” This is fulfilled in Revelation 21:23-24, where instead of the sun and moon, the nations have the Lamb as their lamp, and that Lamb is identified as “the Lord God” (22:5). Also, 1 John 1:5 tells us, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” This reveals that God is absolutely pure and holy. Since Jesus is the light, He is without any sin (John 8:46; Heb. 7:26). Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world is a claim to be the Lord God in human flesh.

B. Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world means that He reveals the truth about God to us.

As Jesus states (John 8:14), He has come from the Father and He is returning to the Father. As He will further reveal, He and the Father are one (10:30). The one who has seen Him has seen the Father (14:9). John 1:18 put it, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Thus Jesus uniquely reveals to us the truth of who the Father is and what He is like. If you have trouble getting your brain around the fact that God is invisible and that He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), then look to Jesus. He reveals the truth about God to us. We can only know the Father through the Son (Luke 10:22).

C. Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world means that He reveals the truth about us to us.

As we saw in John 2:24-25, Jesus knew all men and He knew what was in man. The fact is, apart from Jesus Christ, we don’t even know ourselves. The fallen human heart is deceptive and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). When we do not know God, we call evil good and good evil, substituting darkness for light and light for darkness. We are wise in our own sight (Isa. 5:20-21). Jesus says here that if we do not follow Him, we walk in the darkness. We think we know where we’re going, but we’re wrong. We deceive ourselves and end up ruining our lives and the lives of those around us.

Jesus also implies here the truth that other Scriptures plainly state, that apart from Him we’re dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1, 4). Paul combines the imagery both of darkness and spiritual death when he says (Eph. 4:18) that unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart.” Jesus states it positively, if we follow Him we “will have the Light of life.” This means the Light that imparts life (see 1:4).

When you’re spiritually dead, you need God’s resurrection power to impart new life to your soul. Exhortations on how to improve your morals are of no use to a corpse. He needs life! Jesus promises that if you follow Him, you will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light that gives life.

D. Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the world means that He reveals the truth about God to all people.

Jesus is not just the light of the Jews, but of the world. And He is the only light of the world. Other religions claim to enlighten and give spiritual insight, but they don’t deliver. Philosophers speculate about the great questions of life, but they can’t offer any true insights, because they’re in the dark. Paul says (Col. 2:3) that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. That wisdom and knowledge applies to all people, whether to primitive, illiterate tribes or to highly educated intellectuals.

When Jesus says that He is the light of the world, He does not mean that all people innately have enough light to respond to Him. Apart from Him, people are in spiritual darkness. Neither does He mean that people can figure out spiritual truth apart from His followers taking the gospel to them. As you know, just before He ascended, the risen Savior gave the Great Commission, telling us to make disciples of all nations. As Paul said (Rom. 10:14-15a), people can’t believe unless we go and tell them the good news. But when we go with the gospel and pray that God will open spiritually blind eyes, He does so as He reveals the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4, 6).

The Bible says that we who know Christ shine as lights in the world (Matt. 5:14; Phil. 2:15; Eph. 5:8), but only Christ is the true light. We just reflect Him. He’s like the sun; we’re like the moon. He is the source of light; we only shine as we reflect His image. As people see Christ reflected in us, we can point them to Him.

So Jesus makes this astounding claim: “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.” That claim inherently calls for a response:

2. The right response to Jesus’ claim is to follow Him as the Light of the world (8:12).

First, we need to understand what it means to follow Jesus:

A. To follow Jesus means to trust Him as Savior and obey Him as Lord.

You won’t follow someone you don’t trust. Suppose that we’re hiking in the woods and there are many trails going in different directions. I say to you, “Follow me; I know the way out of here.” The key issue is, do you trust me? Do you trust that I know what I’m talking about? If I have a track record of getting lost or of getting confused about directions, you’re not going to follow me. But if I’ve been in these woods many times and have guided people out of them successfully every time, and you know my reputation, you’ll follow me. If you say that you’re following me, but wander off in another direction, you’re not really following me. To follow someone means to trust him and to obey him.

So do you trust Jesus and obey Him? Do you trust His many claims about Himself? Do you trust the apostolic witness to Jesus? Do you trust that He died for your sins and was raised from the dead? Do you trust His promise to come again in power and glory and to judge the living and the dead? And does your trust translate into obedience to His commands?

When you trust in Jesus as your Savior and obey Him as your Lord, there are many benefits:

B. When we follow Jesus as the Light, we have the promise of His presence, His protection, and His guidance.

If I listed all the benefits of following Jesus, we’d be here all week. But limiting myself to the picture of the pillar of fire and cloud that’s behind Jesus’ claim here, we see these three benefits: His presence, His protection, and His guidance.

Exodus 13:21 states, “The Lord was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night.” Throughout the time that Israel was in the wilderness, the cloud hovered over the tabernacle and symbolized God’s presence with His people.

In the same way, Jesus promised us His presence, especially as we take the gospel to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:19-20). The Bible tells us that we’re in Christ, but also that He is in us. Jesus promises (John 14:28), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.” He also promises (Heb. 13:5), “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.”

Also, the cloud and the fire protected Israel both from Pharaoh’s advancing army and later from the fierce desert sun by day and the dark and cold at night. In the same way, Jesus is our protection. He shelters us from the wrath of God that is coming on unbelievers. He protects us from the spiritual enemies that wage war against our souls. Just as He protected Jesus here, even though His enemies wanted to seize Him (8:20), so He protects His children until it’s our time to be with Him.

Also, the cloud guided Israel through that harsh, untracked wilderness. When the cloud moved, the people followed (Num. 9:17-23). He guided them to springs of water. He charted their course to the Promised Land. And, the Lord guides us through His Word, His Spirit, and the wise counsel of mature believers. He gives us wisdom in trials as we ask Him in prayer (James 1:3-5).

I wish I could end the message here and we could all go our way basking in the goodness of the Lord toward those who follow Jesus as the Light. But our text (in fact the major part of it!) shows us that the right response to Jesus isn’t the only option.

3. The wrong response to Jesus’ claim is to reject Him based on superficial reasons (8:13-20).

The Pharisees retorted to Jesus’ astounding claim (8:13), “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.” They were ignoring Jesus’ many miracles, His amazing teaching, the witness of John the Baptist, and the many Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Jesus and rejecting Him based on the superficial reason that the law stipulated that to be valid in court, a claim had to be backed by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). I can only skim these verses, but note two things:

A. People who do not want to follow Jesus come up with all sorts of superficial reasons for rejecting Him.

The Pharisees are going back to Jesus’ statement in John 5:31, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” The translators have added alone; Jesus actually said “If I testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” In the context, He meant that if He acted independently of the Father, His witness would be invalid. But in that same context, He showed that the Father testified of Him through the witness of John the Baptist, Jesus’ works (miracles), and God’s Word. But here, the Pharisees are not raising honest questions. Rejecting the witness that they had been given, they were desperately looking for any excuse they could find to reject Jesus’ claims. Jesus replies (8:14-18),

“Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone. But even if I do judge, My judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the Father who sent Me. Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me.”

Jesus came from heaven and He was returning to heaven. That’s why He can claim to be the Light of the world. But the Pharisees were in the dark. They judged Jesus outwardly, according to the flesh. He did not judge people that way. When He judged people, He did it in truth because He depended on the Father who sent Him. Conceding their point about two witnesses, Jesus claims that He has not only His own witness, but also that of the Father.

Then the Pharisees retorted (8:19), “Where is Your Father?” They were probably thinking of Jesus’ human father, and may have been questioning His paternity based on rumors of His mother’s pregnancy before she was married (8:41). But Jesus answers (8:19), “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” The only way anyone can know the Father is through the Son (Luke 10:22). By refusing to follow Jesus, these religious leaders remained in spiritual darkness. But in their minds, they had “biblical reasons”! Unbelievers always come up with “reasons” why they don’t follow Jesus. Sometimes, as in the case of the Jehovah’s Witness who wrote to me, they’re even “biblical” reasons. But they’re always superficial excuses, not valid reasons.

B. The root reason that people reject Jesus is that they are in spiritual darkness and they love it because their deeds are evil.

As we saw in John 3:19, “men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” Those who do not follow Jesus are living in spiritual and moral darkness. The evidence of spiritual darkness is that you want to get rid of Jesus from your life (8:20). But eliminating Christ from your life does not eliminate God as the sovereign of the world. He is sovereign over all things, including the timing of the death of His Son (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). One day every knee will bow before Jesus, either for rewards or for condemnation (Phil. 2:9-11). The root reason that people reject Jesus is that they love their sin. They don’t want the Light to expose their evil deeds.


So Jesus’ astounding claim (8:12), “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life,” draws a line and asks, “Which side are you on?” With the Pharisees, will you reject Jesus’ claim for some superficial reason because you don’t want the Light exposing your sin? Or, will you follow Him by trusting Him as your Savior and obeying Him as your Lord? He is either a religious crackpot or He is who He claimed to be. There is ample evidence that His witness is true, which means that you should follow Him.

Application Questions

  1. Why do the claims of Christ eliminate the common idea that He was a good religious teacher, but He is not God?
  2. Can a person (e.g. a Jehovah’s Witness) who professes Jesus as his Savior and Lord, but denies His deity, be truly saved?
  3. Some argue that God has done all that He can do to save people and now it is up to their response. How do the following verses refute this: 2 Cor. 4:4, 6; Eph. 2:1-5; John 6:44, 64; 8:43?
  4. What superficial reasons for rejecting Christ have you heard when you’ve shared the gospel? How can you best answer these excuses?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Discipleship, Soteriology (Salvation)

11. God Conquers Spiritual Complacency (Judges 14:1-15:17, Samson)

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12. God Conquers Selfish Indulgence (Judges 16:4-31, Samson)

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Are you known for your selfishness or your sacrifice? Sometimes God has to take things away from us so that we'll recognize our tendency toward selfish indulgence. Such was the case for Samson. God had to "prime the pump" by removing something precious to him. Only then could Samson offer a willing sacrifice. Christians should strive for God's pleasure rather than our own, willingly offering ourselves for the good of others and the glory of God. As we prepare through Lent to celebrate the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus this Easter, may we learn what it means to sacrifice for God and others.

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An Urgent Call to Shepherd God’s Flock — Peter’s Instruction to Shepherds (1 Peter 5)

Biblical Eldership Resources is dedicated to helping believers understand: 1. What biblical eldership is (Teaching) 2. How to implement biblical eldership in your local church (Implementation) 3. How to become more effective in the pastoral care that elders exercise over the local church (Effectiveness). Learn more at

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This six part series contains an urgent call to the leaders of the church to shepherd the people of God. Based on an exposition of 1 Peter 5, Alex Strauch challenges leaders to take seriously their responsibility. In this series Alex explains in detail how Peter writes as an elder to fellow elders, how he gives a specific charge to elders, how he calls them to shepherd God's flock in God's Way, how he shares a promise of future rewards for elders, and how he reminds them of the importance of the shepherd's presence among the flock.

Each of these six lessons is a 15 minute video presentation (audio is also available), and has a detailed outline to accompany it. For the official introduction to the series listen above to the short audio introduction by Chuck Gianotti.

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

1. An Urgent Call to Shepherd God’s Flock

Biblical Eldership Resources is dedicated to helping believers understand: 1. What biblical eldership is (Teaching) 2. How to implement biblical eldership in your local church (Implementation) 3. How to become more effective in the pastoral care that elders exercise over the local church (Effectiveness). Learn more at

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Part 1 of 5

“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” (1 Peter 5:1-2a ESV)


A. So often, Peter is over-shadowed by Paul. We don’t even think of Peter’s instruction to the elders.

1. But may I remind you that the first church was held together, taught, and protected by Peter and the eleven other apostles? Peter was a great man and a gifted teacher and leader.

2. If we want to understand eldership as God intends, we need Peter as much as we need Paul. And we need Luke’s teaching in Acts, and the teaching of James, who was also an apostle.

B. Background

1. Up until this point in the letter, Peter has been addressing the suffering, persecuted churches. He has told them how they are to handle suffering and persecution in a hostile world. Now he turns to the leaders of all the congregations. They are usually the first to suffer persecution or be targeted by the opposition.

2. Peter is writing to many churches throughout northern Asia Minor. He assumes there is a body of elders in each church. This is the consistent pattern throughout the NT – a body of elders in each congregation.

3. When believers are suffering and under pressure, the leaders of the church make all the difference. In times of persecution or trouble, leaders are most needed to keep the flock united, encouraged, rested, and growing.

I. Peter — an Elder — to Fellow Elders (v. 1)

A. A Fellow Elder

1. By identifying himself as a “fellow elder,” Peter establishes a special bond of affection with the church elders. He creates a sense of colleagueship and mutual regard.

a) At one time Peter was a local church elder. He served with eleven other men during turbulent times in the church in Jerusalem.

b) At the time he wrote 1 Peter, Peter was an active shepherd caring for many churches. Hence, Peter has every right to call himself a “fellow elder.”

2. As a fellow elder, Peter sympathizes with the problems and dangers the Asian elders face.

a) He knows spiritual warfare and the practical problems of shepherding a church.

b) He serves daily on the front lines of battle. He knows how difficult the work is and is well-acquainted with the many pitfalls, abuses, and temptations of leadership.

c) He, too, feels the daily pressures and strains of pastoral responsibility.

B. A Witness of the Sufferings of Christ

1. The “sufferings of Christ” to which Peter testifies are the sufferings common to all believers as a result of confessing Christ and living in a Christ-like manner in an unjust, sinful world.

2. It is similar to 2 Corinthians 1:5, where Paul talks of sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Peter himself will face death soon, so he is a fellow sufferer.

3. This phrase could mean, however, that Peter witnessed the many sufferings of Christ over a period of two years from his opponents and ending at the cross.

C. A Partaker in the Glory to be Revealed

1. The future glory that Peter shares with the Asian elders is the joyous anticipation of the glory that will be revealed when Christ returns.

2. In the same way they have shared in Christ’s sufferings, so, too, they will share in the glory to come. This is a very encouraging promise (1 Peter 1:7, 11; 4:13).

II. Peter’s Charge to the Elders (v. 2)

A. Do all that a shepherd should do.

“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” Peter exhorts the elders to be what good shepherds should be, or, as one commentator says, “do everything that shepherding requires.” Peter’s charge encompasses the full shepherding responsibility of feeding, folding, protecting, and leading.

1. Peter knows people and the common temptations leaders face. He knows how often leaders:

a) Fail to be alert,

b) Do not push themselves to grow and change,

c) Get preoccupied with self-interests,

d) Are passive in their work,

e) Are minimalists,

f) Fail to be the kind of leaders that connect with the people,

g) Are not hands-on shepherds.

2. Reality is sad.

a) The Galatian elders and the Ephesian elders all failed to guard the church. False teachers entered in with minimal resistance.

b) The religious leaders of Jesus’ day failed the people. In Mark 6, when Jesus saw the people, He said they were like sheep without a shepherd. And He began to teach them. The problem was, the religious leaders had failed to shepherd the people with good teaching.

3. What Peter said needs to be said today. There is always this problem of elders not doing their job as they should. Do the job. Be effective. Be diligent. Be skilled. Know what you are doing.

a) On the authority of the apostle Peter, I say to you: Be everything that a shepherd should be to the people. Be like the Chief Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ. When he saw the people, he felt compassion and taught them many things (Matt. 14).

b) These are the words of our Lord to Peter 35 years before: “Shepherd my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-19).

c) Lord loved the church and gave himself for her (Eph. 5:25).

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Biblical Eldership Resources is dedicated to helping believers understand: 1. What biblical eldership is (Teaching) 2. How to implement biblical eldership in your local church (Implementation) 3. How to become more effective in the pastoral care that elders exercise over the local church (Effectiveness). Learn more at

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II. Peter’s Charge to the Elders (v. 2) (cont.)

B. What Shepherds Do

Peter, like Paul, uses the powerful, vivid imagery of shepherding sheep. This imagery appears throughout the Old Testament, and thus, is ready-made for explaining the tasks of elders. Elders are to shepherd sheep. However, they are not literal sheep but people.

1. The imagery of shepherding sheep pictures the following concepts:

a) Hard Work – Shepherding is hard work. It’s a busy life. Paul says to the Ephesian elders, “In all things, I have shown you that by working hard in this way, we must help the weak” (Acts 20:35).

b) Long Hours – The shepherd’s task is really never done. It starts early in the morning with taking the sheep out of the fold, being with them all day, returning to them to the fold in the evening, and guarding them at night. As elders you may get phone calls at any time of day. The state of the church is on your mind 24 hours a day. It is an intangible aspect of the work.

c) Sacrifice – There is a great deal of sacrifice on the part of the shepherd. He gives his life for the sheep. He must be dedicated to them. They are dependent upon him. In some cases, the shepherd will literally give his life for the sheep.

d) Dangerous Work – Sheep have many predators, and the shepherd must be constantly alert to danger. This means the shepherd must have courage. The chief enemy of the church of Jesus Christ is the false teacher. But the false teacher is only an agent of Satan. Like wolves, they never give up and never rest. Shepherds are in the direct line of Satan’s attacks. He will always attack them most viciously.

e) Skills – Shepherding entails many skills. It requires management of land, water, and the sheep’s health. There is a great deal of knowledge that goes into raising a healthy flock. Elders have to be good managers of the people, to be sure their gifts are not squandered. They have to know how to motivate and guide people and solve problems. In other words, good shepherd-elders are effective in their work.

f) Presence – One of the most mysterious parts of this job is the presence of the shepherd with the sheep. The sheep only rest when the shepherd is present, and the sheep know instinctively if the shepherd is not there. In other words, the sheep and the shepherd build a relationship. You cannot be a cold, unfriendly, absentee elder. The people will not follow you.

g) Love – Ultimately, the shepherd must love the sheep because he has to be with them all the time. This implies care, tenderness, gentleness and at times, toughness.

h) Authority – The shepherd has authority over the sheep to lead, discipline, teach, protect and care for them.

All of these ideas are entailed in the phrase “Shepherd God’s flock.” Thus the image is rich in its meaning for an elder. Some leaders today don’t like this old-fashioned image, and they would rather use the image of a CEO of a corporation. But this does not fit the nature of the church. It is the wrong imagery for the family of God.

2. What Shepherds Actually Do

a) Protecting

1) The church has many enemies. Satan and his merry band of false teachers are constantly attacking the church. If elders are sleepy, the church will be devoured.

2) You need to know who the wolves are who are surrounding your church and in your culture. It is our job to protect the church from the wolves that now attack our flocks. This means you need to be knowledgeable of the present-day theologies that will divide and ruin your church.

b) Teaching/Feeding

1) One of the best ways to protect the church is through feeding it nourishing food to make the sheep strong. In Acts 20, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that he did not shrink from declaring to them the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).

2) Feeding is the first and most important job of the elder. Everything the elders do is by means of the Word of God. That is why an elder must meet the Titus 1:9 qualifications.

3) You need to know how to feed the flock, and how to teach the whole counsel of God. This requires a clear philosophy of feeding the flock. This will include knowing how to teach the Word of God accurately, how to deliver a message in an interesting and challenging way. Just filling in the pulpit with a warm body is not teaching the people.

c) Leading

1) Sheep must be led in and out of the fold. They must be brought to fresh pasture in the hot summer months. They also have to be found when they are lost.

2) The biggest complaint I hear about elders is that they are not leading. They don’t solve problems. They don’t confront issues that are hurting the church. They have no fresh vision, no mission. They are caretakers, maintaining the past. They are not in touch with the people or the problems and they may not even know what to do.

3) People want to be led! They want their leaders to solve problems, to challenge the church, to take the church forward, and to be attentive.

d) Healing

1) This is the healing ministry – the many practical aspects dealing with disease, the sheering of sheep, keeping them from fighting, and keeping them clean.

2) For the elders it is counseling people, marrying people, burying people, and ministering to families.

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Pastors

3. An Urgent Call to Shepherd God’s Flock

Biblical Eldership Resources is dedicated to helping believers understand: 1. What biblical eldership is (Teaching) 2. How to implement biblical eldership in your local church (Implementation) 3. How to become more effective in the pastoral care that elders exercise over the local church (Effectiveness). Learn more at

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II. Peter’s Charge to the Elders (v. 2) (cont.)

C. The Church is God’s flock.

Since the elders are to “shepherd” the local church, those they tend are figuratively called “the flock [poimnion] of God among you.” What makes this flock special is that it is God’s flock. The flock metaphor signifies the Church’s true ownership and recognizes its dependence and need for feeding, protection, and care.

1. Ownership

a) As Paul reminded the Ephesian elders, this flock is the one “He [Christ] purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). Elders must never forget that the flock is not their own.

b) They should never be indifferent toward a single one of the sheep. The sheep are of immense value to God because of the price paid for them. It is a great honor to be under-shepherds of God’s blood-bought flock. Do you see it that way?

c) Cranfield draws out the implications of this truth when he writes,

“A church that could be ours would be only a false church. So the sheep are not ours for us to use or misuse as we like. If we lose one, we lose another’s property, not our own; and He is not indifferent to what becomes of His flock.” – Charles Cranfield

2. Dependence

a) The Bible teaches that people are like sheep (1 Peter 2:25), and sheep cannot be left unattended. Their well-being depends on a great deal of care and attention.

b) As God’s sheep, Christian people need to be fed God’s Word and to be protected from wolves in sheep’s clothing. They need continuous encouragement, comfort, guidance, prayer, and correction.

c) Elders, you are needed. The people need you to do the job that the Holy Spirit has called you to do – to shepherd them effectively. Don’t let them down. Give your life, your time, your energy, and your efforts for the sheep. Give them your all.

D. Exercising Oversight

1. Following the imperative command to shepherd God’s flock, Peter further describes the elders’ duty: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight.” This word is the verbal form of the noun, “overseer.”

2. The terms shepherding and overseeing are often closely associated because they are similar in concept. In this passage, overseeing is equivalent to shepherding.

a) Shepherding is the figurative expression, while overseeing is the literal term, which can be used to clarify the first.

b) To shepherd the flock entails oversight--the overall supervision and watchful care of the flock.

III. Peter’s Call to Shepherd God’s Flock in God’s Way (vv. 2-3)

God is preeminently concerned about the motives, attitudes, and methods of those who lead his people, so Peter considers the attitudes or motives that should or should not characterize the elders to be very important. Therefore, he carefully describes how the elders are to serve.

A. “Not Under Compulsion, but Willingly, As God Would Have You”

1. God doesn’t want reluctant, unwilling shepherds to care for his people, so Peter warns against an elder serving “under compulsion.”

a) If a man serves as an elder because his wife or friends pressure him to serve, or because he is trapped by circumstances, or because no one else will do the work, he is serving “under compulsion.”

b) Lenski captures the spirit of Peter’s thought well when he says elders are not to serve “like drafted soldiers but like volunteers.”

2. In contrast to serving under compulsion, Peter emphatically says that elders are to shepherd the flock “freely,” “willingly,” and “voluntarily.” Those who oversee the church “voluntarily” do so because they freely choose to serve. It is what they want to do.

a) The willing spirit that Peter speaks of is “according to the will of God” (literally, “according to God”). Glad, voluntary service is God’s standard. It is the way God expects things to be done. God is not a reluctant, unwilling shepherd. He cares for his sheep gladly, willingly, freely, and graciously. In the same way that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7), he loves cheerful, willing elders.

b) This motivation comes from the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 20:28. When the Holy Spirit moves a person to desire eldership, he gives the motivation, energy and desire.

B. “Not for Shameful Gain, but Eagerly”

Peter next addresses what Cranfield terms “the spirit of hirelings.” This is a big problem worldwide.

1. I have collected over the years many newspaper articles about the Lord’s servants stealing or misappropriating money.

a) This is why, whenever money is handled, it must be done by a group of people and accountability, open to the church. Even the best of people are tempted to steal.

b) Example: one pastor was caught playing golf every week and charging it to the church’s credit card. When he was caught doing this, he said it was ministry he was doing with other men. The problem was no one knew the money had been appropriated to this so-called ministry. There are many other ways people can misappropriate the Lord’s money and excuse petty theft.

2. In contrast, Peter describes the right spirit in which to shepherd God’s flock as “eagerly.” The word means “readily,” “zealously,” and “enthusiastically.” “Eagerness” emphasizes, even more than the term “voluntarily,” personal desire and passion. It is this kind of eagerness--a strong desire and motivation--that is endorsed by the “trustworthy statement” of 1 Timothy 3:1.

a) Eager elders are driven to care for the sheep. The sheep are their life, their chief concern. Hence, they are not concerned about the personal sacrifice they make or their own financial gain.

b) Like Paul, who at times provided his own income through tent making, they gladly serve without pay or recognition (Acts 20:33-35). They go beyond minimal duty, self-interest, and money. They love to shepherd God’s people. They are eager to do the work of an elder.

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors

4. An Urgent Call to Shepherd God’s Flock

Biblical Eldership Resources is dedicated to helping believers understand: 1. What biblical eldership is (Teaching) 2. How to implement biblical eldership in your local church (Implementation) 3. How to become more effective in the pastoral care that elders exercise over the local church (Effectiveness). Learn more at

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III. Peter’s Call to Shepherd God’s Flock in God’s Way (vv. 2-3) (cont.)

C. “Not Domineering over Those in Your Charge, but Being Examples to the Flock”

The third unworthy motive for an elder is a far more subtle and widespread temptation than that of greed. It is the desire to rule over others.

1. The verb for “domineering over” (katakyrieuo) means “ruling over” or “lording it over.” This term is used here in a negative sense. The idea is seeking to control people.

2. Jesus, on the other hand, in what has been called the “great reversal,” taught servant leadership and modeled it for his disciples:

“I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27b ESV).

a) He taught that leaders are to serve one another, to act humbly toward one another, and to live in loving brotherly community. It is others-oriented leadership, not self-oriented leadership. It is giving one’s life for the building up and advancing of others.

b) Jesus Christ, thus, taught a style of leadership that emphasized service and humility. This does not mean people do not have authority to shepherd and oversee people. It means they are to exercise their authority in a way that builds up other people and is not abusive.

3. The clause, “those in your charge,” further strengthens the concept that the people are not the elders’ possessions to be ruled over. The people do not belong to the elders; they belong to the One who assigned them to the elders’ care, that is, to God.

a) Kleros means an “allotment” or “portion assigned to someone” (Acts 1:17; 8:21). Kleros, then, is something given, not earned. In this context, it is not land, money, or responsibility that is allotted, it is God’s people. Thus the elders are prohibited from ruling over them as a lord rules over his subjects. The people are not the slaves of the elders.

b) Peter is saying that God has allotted portions of the whole flock of God to various groups of elders (John 10:16; 1 Peter 5:9). In a similar way, Peter refers to the specific flock of God in which the respective elders function as “the flock of God among you [in your care]” (1 Peter 5:2; italics added). The elders, then, are not to rule over their allotted portions of God’s flock. Peter’s warning against ruling over others certainly demonstrates that elders had authority to govern.

4. In contrast to ruling over others, elders are to be examples or models of godly living.

a) Much of the Bible is biographical, demonstrating by example how and how not to live for God. Jesus is the greatest example of all and the chief example to follow (1 Peter 2:21).

b) So in the church, the elders’ primary style of leadership is to model Christ. They are to be role models. Ultimately in the end, people follow those they respect and love. People don’t care what your title is. They care about how you live and minister to others.

5. Throughout this epistle, Peter emphasizes the importance of humility and submission (1 Peter 2:13-3:12; 5:5). If elders are petty rulers over the local church, others will follow their example, fighting one another to gain power and recognition. This is the wrong role model, as we will see in the next verse.

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership, Pastors