Does it strike you as strange that Jesus never wrote a Gospel or an Epistle, yet we are told he did write – just once and quite publicly – but ‘in the dust‘? We only know that fact from one of the four Gospels, the last to be written (John 8:1-11). And in many English versions of the New Testament that paragraph is printed in a smaller type face. The reason for that? It had been omitted from most reliable Greek manuscripts – probably because the translators were shocked at the idea that Jesus could tell an adulteress that he would not condemn her. And those translators apparently were not even convinced of her repentance by his final word to the woman, “Go, and from now on, be free from a life of sin” (John 8:11 The Passion Translation).
Consider three very different surfaces upon which the triune God has chosen to write.
- Note how Jesus, the Son of God, wrote in the dust.
There is a unique detail in John’s narrative that we must not overlook. Here’s how the story is presented in The Passion Translation: ‘. . . the religious scholars and the Pharisees broke through the crowd and brought a woman . . . [into] the temple courts . . . in the middle of his teaching . . . [and] said to Jesus, “Teacher, we caught this woman in the very act of adultery.” [Of course, it takes two to tango, as they say; so why have they not brought the adulterous man to court too?] “Doesn’t Moses’ law command us to stone to death a woman like this?” [Yes it does; but to stone her together with the man involved: notice the word ‘both’ in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 and 24 New Living Translation.] “Tell us, what do you say we should do with her?” They were only testing Jesus because they hoped to trap him with his own words and accuse him of breaking the law of Moses. But Jesus didn’t answer them. Instead he simply bent down and wrote in the dust with his finger‘. Then the Saviour did more than merely silence the accusers, he actually cancelled the entire court case by clearing out every potential witness when he ‘stood up and looked at them and said, “Let’s have the man who has never had a sinful desire [Greek anamartetos] throw the first stone at her.” And then he bent over again and wrote some more words in the dust.’ However, we are given ne’er a clue about what his finger then etched there!
- What God [the Father] inscribed in stone – also with his finger!
Here’s a fascinating thought: God recorded the Ten Commandments digitally! He too used his finger [but not a computer!]: ‘When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant written by the finger of God‘ (Exodus 31:18 New Living Translation). That detail is repeated in Deuteronomy 9:10 (NLT), where Moses said: ‘The Lord gave me the two tablets on which God had written with his own finger all the words he had spoken to you from the heart of the fire when you were assembled at the mountain.’
The composer of the longest psalm rejoiced that ‘Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens’ (Psalm 119:89 English Standard Version). By inscribing the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone, God indicated that he intended earthly permanence for them as well. I live in a seaside town that has beaches of golden sand. On many a summer’s evening those sands are covered with impressions and sculptures made and then abandoned by visitors young and old. Then, as the tide flows in and ebbs again overnight, those acres of sand will look pristine when the new day dawns. Anything written in sand – or dust – will certainly have no permanence.
Looking back on decades of Christian ministry I am aware that so much of my biblical teaching and godly counsel has been forgotten by listeners – especially those items that I considered dazzlingly enlightening and brilliantly expressed that have been less memorable than my gaffs! I am reminded of one of the stories that C.H.Spurgeon told his students. When he made a pastoral call on an elderly member of his flock, the old lady testified that she had been blessed by both his sermons the previous Sunday, but she could neither recall what were his chosen texts nor any details of his messages. So he invited her out into her back yard where he picked up a large circular sieve and held it under her bore hole pump and worked its handle. As water gushed through the grating he remarked, ‘This sieve doesn’t hold water, but I’ve just given it a good cleansing. Sunday’s sermons will have done you some good as they passed; for, as you told me just now, you had been blessed.’
- The Spirit of God causes spiritual development by writing on receptive hearts.
Paul testified to the church in Corinth that, ‘As a result of our ministry, you are living letters written by Christ, not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God – not carved onto stone tablets but [more personally] on the tablets of tender hearts’ [therefore even more permanently recorded than on stone!] (2 Corinthians 3:3 TPT). Those tablets of Moses no longer exist. Actually, Paul could have said that Christ had written on those Greek hearers’ hearts ‘by the finger of God’! We can tell that by comparing Luke 11:14-26 with its parallel narrative in Matthew 12:22-30. There’s one verse in each of those two Gospel accounts that is word-for-word identical in the NLT except for a single significant detail. While in Luke 11:20 (margin, Greek) Jesus claimed, ‘I am casting out demons by the finger of God‘, in Matthew 12:28 he does so ‘by the Spirit of God‘. ‘The finger of God’ was a figurative description of God the Spirit’s dynamic ministry of exorcism through Jesus. Therefore any aspect of Christian ministry must be undertaken with reliance upon, and sensitivity and submission to, the leading and enabling of the Holy Spirit.