A Sinner Condemned, Unclean

53 But They went each to his own house, 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 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. 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.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 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. 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.”John 7:53-8:11 ESV

This section of John’s gospel is a bit controversial because it is not found in the oldest of the extant Greek manuscripts. While there are more than 900 ancient manuscripts that include the story of the woman caught in adultery, it is significant that none of the early church fathers referred to this encounter in their commentaries on the Gospel of John. It is the belief of most modern commentators that this story was a later addition to the Gospel, which raises the question of whether it should be considered as inspired by the Holy Spirit.

While the evidence seems to indicate that the story was edited into John’s Gospel by some unknown source, it does not necessarily invalidate its authenticity. And there is no reason to assume that its inclusion by someone other than the apostle John means that it was uninspired and, therefore, unworthy to be considered a part of the Canon of Scripture. Perhaps it was part of the oral tradition of the early church and later placed within the text of John’s Gospel to further support the theme of Jesus’ power and authority as the Son of God.

There are those who consider this an apocryphal story, spurious in its authenticity and therefore, unworthy to be considered as the inspired Word of God. But the story does provide insight into the growing hostility between Jesus and the religious leaders, a theme that John is gradually unfolding.

Chapter seven ended with a tense exchange between Nicodemus and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. They were frustrated that their guards had failed to arrest Jesus while He was on the temple grounds. Instead, they had let Him go because they had been mesmerized by His teaching. When Nicodemus had suggested that Jesus be given a fair hearing, his colleagues mocked him for being as uneducated and lawless as the Galileans who mindlessly followed after this huckster from Nazareth.

John has made it clear that Jesus’ hour had not yet come. The Sanhedrin, while determined to have Jesus arrested, were powerless to thwart God’s divine timeline for His Son’s mission. So, Jesus left the temple grounds and headed east to Mount of Olives, just opposite Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley. Evidently, He and His disciples spent the night there, rising early the next morning to return to the temple grounds, where He resumed His teaching.

One can only imagine the frustration of the Sanhedrin as they woke that next morning only to find Jesus sitting in the middle of the temple courtyard, surrounded by a large and attentive audience. His persistent presence and uncanny ability to attract a crowd wherever He went caused these religious leaders great angst. So, as was quickly becoming their habit, they devised a plan by which they might trap Jesus into saying or doing something that might give them grounds for having Him arrested. Because of His growing popularity, it was necessary that they devise a plan that would expose Jesus as a fraud and cause the people to turn against Him.

On this occasion, they chose the controversial topic of adultery to “test” Jesus. This was a hot-button issue among the Jews. The people knew what the Mosaic law had to say about the matter, but there was a lot of debate concerning how to interpret and enforce this particular law. Leviticus 20:10 reads: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

But in this case, the religious leaders drag a woman into the temple courtyard and throw her down in front of Jesus. There is no mention of her male companion in crime. This might be because this woman was guilty of violating another aspect of the law concerning adultery. In the book of Deuteronomy, there is another scenario described in which a man marries a woman only to discover on their wedding night that she was not a virgin. In that case, the law prescribed the following punishment:

The woman must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death, for she has committed a disgraceful crime in Israel by being promiscuous while living in her parents’ home. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you. – Deuteronomy 22:21 NLT

It is impossible to know the true nature of this woman’s crime. But she is publicly shamed, dragged by the religious leaders into the temple courtyard, and thrown at Jesus’ feet. To them, she was nothing more than a prop, a nameless tool in their effort to discredit and destroy Jesus. They were not interested in seeing that justice was done. They simply wanted to create a no-win situation in which Jesus would be doomed no matter how He responded. So, using the woman as bait, they set their trap and waited for Jesus to condemn Himself.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” – John 8:4-5 NLT

These men were experts in the law. They were not interested in Jesus’ views on legal matters but were hoping that He would say something that violated the law or infuriated the people. And John makes their intentions quite clear.

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him… – John 8:6 NLT

They already viewed Jesus as a law-breaker, because He had already violated the prohibition against working on the Sabbath by healing a man and then instructing him to carry his bedroll. So, they must have been convinced that Jesus would choose to violate the law once again, and hoped that He would recommend releasing the woman. If He did, they could accuse Him of being in violation of the Mosaic Law and have Him arrested on the spot. But if Jesus surprised them and announced that the woman should be stoned for her crime, the crowd would probably turn on Him. Adultery had become commonplace among the Jews and the laws concerning its punishment were rarely enforced. And if Jesus had condoned the stoning of this woman, He would have been suggesting that they violate the Roman law which prohibited the Jews from enacting any form of capital punishment.

The religious leaders believed they had Jesus in a conundrum. In their minds, they had Him caught between a rock and a hard place. No matter what He said, He would end up condemning Himself. But rather than speak, Jesus knelt down and began to write in the dirt with His finger. As he did so, the religious leaders demanded that He give them an answer to their question. So, He stood up and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7 NLT). Then, He knelt back down and continued to write something in the dirt.

There has been a great deal of speculation concerning what Jesus wrote in the dirt that day. But the text provides absolutely no insight into the content of Jesus’ message. We are simply told that when Jesus said, “let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone,” the crowd began to disperse, including the men who had instigated the whole affair. Perhaps Jesus had written the Ten Commandments in the dust. We will never know. But whatever Jesus scrawled in the dirt that day had caused the woman’s self-righteous accusers to slink away one by one, starting with the oldest among them.

Some have speculated that Jesus had shamed these men by writing down a list of specific sins each of them had committed. Embarrassed at having their personal sins exposed, they quickly vacated the premises. While this is an interesting proposal, there is nothing in the text that supports it. All that is clear is that no one was able to pick up a stone because no one was without sin.

This seems to be the main point behind the entire story. Jesus had come to earth in order to provide forgiveness for sin. And, according to Scripture, all men are guilty of sin. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV). And the apostle Paul reiterated that truth when he wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

The religious leaders considered themselves to be pure and holy, fully righteous before God because they painstakingly and pridefully kept the law of Moses. But Jesus exposed the truth about their spiritual condition, revealing their sinfulness and their need for a Savior. These men had arrogantly set themselves up as judges over the people, looking down their noses at the irreligious rabble who were incapable of living up to God’s holy standards like they did. They saw Jesus as no better than the woman they had dragged before Him. He was a lawbreaker and worthy of condemnation and death just as she was. But they failed to recognize their own guilt and their need for cleansing. The sad reality is that they chose to leave rather than face the truth about their own sinfulness. Only the woman remained. She stood before Jesus and the crowd, accused and condemned, her sin openly acknowledged for everyone to know.

But rather than judging her, Jesus asked her where her accusers had gone. He points out that no one stood before her, stone in hand, ready to condemn her for her crime. They had all disappeared, meaning there were no witnesses left to verify her guilt. So, Jesus, acknowledging that her accusers were nowhere to be found, announced to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11 ESV). There were no witnesses left to condemn her, so there was no evidence to convict her. And on that basis, Jesus encouraged her to go and to sin no more. She had been given a reprieve. While evidently guilty of the crime and worthy of death, she had been graciously given a second chance to change the way she lived. Her sin, while real, was forgivable. Her guilt, though undeniable, was survivable. All thanks to Jesus.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson