John’s Gospel: The Woman Taken in Adultery, The Story

(John 7:53-8:2 ESV) 53 [They went each to his own house, 8:1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

There is no indication what Jesus taught. The point is simply that Jesus was about his business teaching.

(John 8:3-5 ESV)  3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst  4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

If this were part of John, it would be the only reference to the scribes by that term. “Scribes” is only found in the Synoptics.

It is, of course, true that the Law commanded that an adulterer be stoned.

(Lev 20:10 ESV)  10 “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

(Deu 22:22 ESV)  22 “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”

You’ll notice, though, that the command applies to both adulterers — the man and the woman. It’s hard to imagine how they might have caught the woman without also catching the man.

The scribes and Pharisees, like many Jews of the day (and unlike Jesus) would have had a generally low view of women. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly how society felt about women, because the culture was so very different from ours. Some women were very prominent and even powerful. But women were not allowed to testify in court. They were considered too unreliable.

Nuance it as you will, ultimately, the leadership looked down on women, and their prejudice appears to have influenced their decision to stone her and let the man go.

Of course, it was also true that the Romans forbade the Jews from executing the death penalty. Rome claimed the exclusive “power of the sword” to execute criminals. In part, this practice developed because Rome often found local practices to be barbaric (and they often were). In this case, it’s surely impossible that the Romans would have executed a woman for adultery, as their culture approved of adultery in most circumstances.

Some have argued that the desire of the Jewish leaders to stone the woman proves that the story is untrue, but later in John 8, the crowd picks up stones to kill Jesus for blasphemy. Vigilante justice was not uncommon among the Jews of the day. They hated Rome and felt empowered by God himself to execute criminals as the Law of Moses instructed. It’s not surprising at all that a group of Pharisees and scribes might decide to stone an adulteress.

(John 8:6 ESV)  6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.

They were, of course, testing Jesus, forcing him to choose between Roman justice and Mosaic justice. Say “yes,” and the Romans might come after him. Say “no,” and he’d violate a direct command of God in the Law. Clever. (And that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have killed her had they not found Jesus.)

The detail about Jesus’ writing on the ground is just the sort of detail that an eyewitness might remember. It tells us that Jesus was not impressed with this crowd of Mosaic “scholars.” For a time, he ignored them. He wasn’t being rude; he was controlling the pace and tone of their conversation. He’d speak when he was ready, and so he made them wait
— showing who was really in authority.

(John 8:7 ESV)  7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Like pesky children, they refused to be ignored. Jesus eventually spoke the wisdom of God — when the time was right to achieve the effect he wanted. He wanted them to be desperately ready to hear his words so they’d seriously think about them before deciding what to do.

(John 8:8-9 ESV)  8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.  9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Again, the line “beginning with the older ones” has the hallmark of an eyewitness, as does the fact that Jesus went back to writing on the ground. He was so confident of the outcome that he no longer paid attention to the Pharisees and scribes. It was as though he was saying, “This is not a hard question; you shouldn’t have had to ask!”

As the oldest in the crowd came to grips with their own hypocrisy, the realization that no one there was qualified to judge this woman dawned on them all. Of course, there was one there without sin and so qualified to judge.

(John 8:10-11 ESV) 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]

Jesus now, for the first time, turns to the woman who’d been left behind. It was only with the Pharisees and scribes gone that she would feel present in her full humanity. Until then, she was merely a victim, a criminal — someone to be used to embarrass Jesus for political reasons. Jesus is the first to treat her as a person, a daughter of God.

Imagine her hopefulness in being led to say, “No one, Lord.” Surely she had no idea what was to happen next. She was indeed a sinner. And under the Law, she deserved death. What would the Lamb of God say? How would this prophet react to being in the presence of a woman ripped from her lover’s arms, caught in a damnable sin with no excuse?

“Neither do I condemn you.” How could the Messiah — God’s king — utter such words? And why contradict the Law of Moses? Why not follow the very plain letter of the Law?

“Go, and from now on sin no more.” Jesus certainly did not condone the sin. But neither was he willing to see her die for her mistake. Rather, he forgave her, and the forgiveness of God overrides the laws of God. This is the very definition of grace.

Why show her grace? Did she deserve it? Did she even have faith in Jesus? Was Jesus merely offended that she’d been used by these men — the second time she was used by a man in the same day. Or is there something deeper here?

We began this series of lessons asking about the personality and character of Jesus. Jesus is the image of God. What we learn about Jesus we also learn about God. And so we learn that we serve a God who is quick to forgive — even when he has to violate his own laws to do so.

We often want to balance law and grace. There is no balance. Grace overcomes law. God forgives even when there is no good reason to do so. There never is a good reason for God to forgive. It’s not reasonable. It’s love.

You see, our hearts leap at this story because we know that we are the woman. We’ve all sinned in ways that make the Pharisees among us rejoice and seek to pick up stones to hurl at us. We’ve felt the sting of their abuse, even when we knew deep down that we deserved it.

But the Pharisees were also the woman. They were sinners, too, but their hearts were hardened against their own sins until they faced someone capable of shaming them just as publicly as they were shaming the woman. None of us can stand the scrutiny of Jesus!

And so we easily understand why the Pharisees put their stones down. But why Jesus? Jesus would have been fully justified in casting the first stone in obedience to a Law he’d written through Moses.

Adultery really is a sin, and adultery is a particularly nasty one. It’s extremely painful and harmful. Why show mercy for adultery?

Well, why did God show mercy to David after he’d committed adultery with Bathsheba? Why does God forgive anyone at all? Not a one of us deserves it.

And that’s a critical part of this story. We’re all the woman. We’re all sinners who deserve death. And we’re all astonished that we stand before God and yet no one accuses us.

And so we’re reminded that we should be like Jesus, and we should make no accusations either. If we deserve grace, then so does the man or woman who sinned against us. If we can receive undeserved forgiveness, we must grant undeserved forgiveness.

(Eph 4:31-32 ESV)  31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

It’s a hard command. We pretend that God is slow and reluctant to forgive — so we can be the same way.

But the Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus who refused to cast the first stone. And that’s who God is. And that’s who we must be.

It’s strange, crazy religion. It’s too good to be true. And so we try to improve it by toughening the rules, by keeping the impure and unclean out. But that’s not the religion of Jesus.

So who is this “Son of Man”?

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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