Jesus’ response to a trap sprung by the Pharisees is masterful. Though He alone has the moral authority to execute the woman for her sin, Jesus instead chooses forgiveness. This highlights a major concept of Christian ethics: just because one has the power to do something does not mean it’s the best option. All sinners are just a stones throw away.
Follow the series on John here
- Follow Jesus
- Jesus’ Authority
- Looking for Truth, He Must Become Greater
- Living Water, The Second Sign
- No More Lame Excuses, Testimonies about Jesus
- Supernatural Overflow, Walk on Water, I Am the Bread of Life, Do not be driven by selfishness
- Trust God’s timing, ”Right Judgement”, ”Who is the Jesus you trust?”, Rivers of living water
The adulterous woman
The story of the adulterous woman is almost certainly not original to the gospel of John; however, it is a valid example of Jesus’ life and teaching.
1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. She was standing made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 [on questioning him, he himself straight up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” John 8:1-11
You can’t trick Jesus
In this passage, the Pharisees once again attempt to trick Jesus in order to ruin His reputation with the people. Unlike other attempts, however, this one involves both a moral dilemma and a powerful, real-life example. Jesus’ response to this trap teaches us about the importance of restraint, as well as sound judgment.
Here, the Pharisees introduce a new wrinkle: a real-life, flesh-and-blood moral dilemma, both unexpected and scandalous.
A trap laid
The verse here says the woman had been caught “in adultery,” specified in the next verse as “in the act.” Most likely, the woman had been caught, moments before being brought to Jesus, but at some time previously. One way or another, her guilt was not a matter of debate: she was absolutely, unquestionably culpable for the sin of adultery. This, however, raises a question which might well have been part of Jesus’ response. Namely, if the woman was caught “in the act,” then so was whatever man she was with—so where is the guilty man? This entire episode is an attempt by the Pharisees to show that they, not Jesus, are truly following the law. But even their trap fails that test, since they’ve only brought half of the guilty parties (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).
The act of “placing her in the midst” is part of the Pharisees’ intended drama. This is meant to be as public as possible, so that Jesus’ response can be given as much publicity as possible. Of course, that approach assumes that Jesus is about to make a serious public-relations error. As it turns out, this assumption is once again false.
So, as they bring a guilty woman into the area and throw her in the middle of the crowd, they highlight Jesus’ reputation by referring to Him as “Teacher.” This is part of their intent: to be sarcastic, to try prove to the people that Jesus is not a figure worth following.
Jesus evades the trap as always
By bringing this woman into the crowd, the Pharisees are setting a trap. The challenge being issued to Jesus is more or less the same as other paradoxes and conundrums with which Jesus was presented (Matthew 16:1; 19:3; Matthew 22:35; Luke 10:25; 11:54). If Jesus agrees to stone this woman, it would greatly damage His reputation for being a friend of sinners (Matthew 11:19). It would also, more than likely, give the Pharisees something they can accuse Him of to the Romans (John 18:31). On the other hand, if Jesus rejects the law of Moses, the Scribes and Pharisees can write Him off as a heretic and prove their accusations against Him.
What we know is, regardless of what Jesus actually wrote in the sand, is that Jesus successfully answers this dilemma using a principle from which all Christians can learn.
The Pharisees trap this time and all previous times never succeeded. In fact, they often wound up embarrassing the critics! Here, the Pharisees attempt to use a more dramatic approach: a real-life moral dilemma.
Jesus’ critics will abandon their attack, and the prominence it is given in the story, one has to assume His writing factored heavily into their reaction.
What he wrote is less important than the impact it had
While we don’t know what Jesus wrote, we do see how He turns the hypocrisy of these Pharisees against them. They were not wrong to seek justice under the law. However, they are clearly not following it fully, since they have only brought half of the guilty ones. And, God’s law also prioritized mercy over blind punishment (Proverbs 21:10; Zechariah 7:8–9; Matthew 23:23).
Jesus’ reaction includes several layers. Here, he points out that the law also requires the accusers to begin the stoning process. Whomever caught the woman “in the act” was supposed to initiate her death. That, in and of itself, stymies any attempt to get Jesus in trouble with Rome, since the Pharisees would have to act first. Jesus’ response also highlights another problem—a woman caught “in the act” would have been caught with a man, but the Pharisees have brought no guilty man with them.
In one fell swoop, Jesus points out that the Scribes and Pharisees are not actually interested in following the law. If they were, they’d at least follow the entire law, and not merely use it as a cheap publicity stunt. A complete submission to God means more than legalism, it also means using “right judgment” (John 7:24). Jesus’ behavior after the Pharisees leave continues this contrast. The accusing men were ignoring God’s frequent calls for His people to be merciful (Proverbs 21:10; Zechariah 7:8–9; Matthew 23:23).
Not only do they fail to ruin Jesus’ reputation with the people, they actually make Him look even wiser, and themselves even less holy.
The phrasing here can be interpreted to mean that Jesus and the woman are literally the only two people in this area. However, the context strongly suggests that Jesus and the woman are only alone “in the midst” of the crowd, now that the Pharisees have left. In other words, once the accusers are gone, all that is left in front of the crowd are Jesus and the adulterous woman.
Jesus’ response to the adulterous woman is valuable for our understanding of judgment, mercy, and God’s perspective on sin. Christ’s question here sets up His response in the next verse. This is an instance of forgiveness, not ignorance. Jesus is not going to claim that the woman is innocent or that her sin is trivial. On the contrary, Jesus will explicitly refer to her behavior as sinful, even as He demonstrates how mercy is meant to take precedence over retribution, even under the Old Testament law (Proverbs 21:10; Zechariah 7:8–9; Matthew 23:23).
No condemnation in Christ Jesus
What happens in this verse must be taken in its full context. Jesus does not tell the woman, “you did nothing wrong.” He does not say, “don’t worry about what you did.” Instead, Jesus simply states that He does not condemn her—which in this context refers specifically to stoning her for this particular sin—and also explicitly tells her not to sin anymore. This incident is often misapplied by those who think Christians ought never to speak out against sin. The exact opposite is true: Jesus showed this woman spectacular grace, while still holding firm in calling her adultery what it was: a moral failure which should not be repeated.
This incident serves as a useful example for Christians. The adulterous woman is morally and legally guilty.
No one on earth had greater justification to kill her for her sin than Jesus did in that moment. And yet, Jesus chose not to do what He was allowed to do. Instead, He chose to do what He should do, which was to exercise “right judgment” (John 7:24), to show mercy (Proverbs 21:10; Zechariah 7:8–9; Matthew 23:23), while still speaking out against sin.
Having the right to do something does not mean it’s the best option; sometimes, the right thing to do is to be softer, gentler, and more forgiving than the world.
Judge not as the world does – judge as Jesus would. Be merciful.
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