I recently watched a very interesting segment on TED Talks where a comedian unpacked for the audience how comedy works. First there’s the setup, and then there’s the punchline. The setup is where the comedian uses his talents, observations, and resources to seize any opportunity to ensure that the audience is moving in the same direction as his storyline. The punchline occurs when he changes that direction in a way that they’re not expecting it. The results are revelation, fulfilment, and joy expressed through laughter.
Here’s an example:
Three men are about to be executed. The guard brings the first man forward, and the executioner asks if he has any last requests. He says “No”, and the executioner shouts, “Ready! Aim!” Suddenly the man yells, “Earthquake!” Everyone is startled and looks around. In the confusion, the first man escapes.
The guard brings the second man forward, and the executioner asks if he has any last requests. He says “No”, and the executioner shouts, “Ready! Aim!” Suddenly the second man yells, “Typhoon!” In the confusion, the second man escapes.
By now, the last man has it all figured out. The guard brings him forward, and the executioner asks if he has any last requests. He says “No”, and the executioner shouts, “Ready! Aim!” and the last man yells, “Fire!”
(In this blog, ‘punchline’ is used to emphasise the point that, no matter what the enemy throws at us, God has the ‘last laugh’.)
I thought of a ‘setup and punchline’ story in the Bible except that this setup has a negative connotation but the ending has a positive outcome of forgiveness, restoration, and hope. In fact, this story involved a ‘double’ setup – a setup within a setup. It’s a fascinating story found in John 8:1-12 where Jesus rescued a woman caught in adultery.
Jesus was teaching in the temple early in the morning to a crowd hungry for God’s Word when the religious teachers and Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd and asked Jesus, “What do You say?” They were trying to trap Jesus into saying something they could use against Him.
If Jesus says to let her go, then His claim that He is the Son of God is invalid because the law of Moses, given by God, requires stoning to death as a punishment for committing adultery. But if Jesus says to stone her, then it nullifies His message and ministry of bringing hope and salvation to mankind. It was a catch-22 situation. It was a setup and Jesus walked right into it! It was a tense and bleak atmosphere.
However, when pressed further for an answer, Jesus delivered the punchline – “He who is without sin (or never had a sinful desire) among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” Jesus answered their question with another question. That is mastery at its best! Oh, what a Saviour we serve!
The Bible tells us that, when the accusers heard this, they were convicted in their hearts and slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. She was brought into the temple, hopeless, defenceless, and ashamed, but she left forgiven with a new lease of life. That day, she walked out from the darkness of her past because she met the ‘Light of the World’ (John 8:12).
It’s noteworthy that, on the morning of this story, the temple’s four great lamps of the court, whose light could be seen from the entire city of Jerusalem, were being extinguished after being lit for the entire week of the Feast of Tabernacles. Thus, in contrast to these extinguished lamps, Jesus is giving those who follow Him the inextinguishable, life-giving light, and they shall no longer walk in darkness.
There are several other stories in the Bible where Jesus was seemingly trapped in a setup and then He delivered the punchline, e.g. the healing on Sabbath (Matthew 12, Luke 13) and most remarkably, His death and resurrection. In these accounts, Jesus not only delivered Himself out of it, but also the people involved.
Perhaps you’re going through a difficult season in your life right now, or experiencing a time of uncertainty, or bearing the consequences of a past mistake. I want to encourage you to keep ‘abiding under the shadow of the Almighty.’ (Psalm 91) Those hurting who come to God always experience healing and hope. King David understood this. When the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from King Saul, he proclaimed in Psalm 18:1-2, “I will love You, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength (rock), in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn (strength) of my salvation, my stronghold.”
Jesus is the Author and the Finisher (Perfecter) of your faith (Hebrews 12:2), which means He owns the rights to your story. You are His ‘work in progress’ – He has the final say. The setup is not the end, wait for the punchline!