53 Then they all went home,
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. They 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 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened 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 7:53 – 8:11 NIV)
As we begin this section, it is important to mention that the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel do not contain this section (7:53 – 8:11). Other later manuscripts do contain this section; still others include this section but place it in slightly different locations in John’s Gospel.
There are a variety of theories about this section’s omission from the earliest known manuscripts. The most prevalent theory is that the scholars making copies of John’s Gospel felt this passage showed that Jesus was condoning adultery. Those early scholars were likely Jewish converts to Christ, and their high regard for God’s Law made it inconceivable that Jesus would condone sin in any form or fashion.
The theories go on to say that as the scholars learned more about God’s grace, this section was reinstated because Jesus was teaching both the religious rulers and the woman about God’s amazing grace that covers our sins and fulfills God’s Law.
Most of the scholars agree that John wrote this section, as it matches the rest of John’s writings in style, content, and voice. With these facts in mind, we’ll proceed and treat this section like it is part of God’s inspired Word to John’s readers and us.
Assuming John’s chronology is literal, this passage takes place the day after the end of the Feast of the Tabernacles. Jesus is back in the temple courtyards teaching, and the crowds have gathered around Him. The Pharisees burst on the scene with a woman caught in adultery and demand that Jesus decide her fate.
There were several issues with the Pharisees’ demands to Jesus:
- The passage of Scripture the Pharisees referred to (Leviticus 20:10) stated that both the man and woman caught in adultery were to be put to death. If the Pharisees caught them in the act like they said they did, why did they not arrest the man as well as the woman? The Pharisees were just as guilty because they did not apply God’s Law and judgment equally to all parties involved.
- The Romans had taken away the Jews’ right to exercise the death penalty, with the exception of a Gentile unlawfully entering the inner portions of the Temple. That was clearly not the case here, and Jesus pronouncing the death sentence on this woman would be breaking the Roman law.
- While God’s Law did say that adulterers were to be put to death, the Leviticus passage mentioned above does not call out how the death penalty was to be applied.
John clues us in that Jesus knew that this was a trap (v. 6) designed to find something that Jesus was violating in their traditions or God’s Law so they could accuse Jesus and arrest Him. Once again, Jesus ignores their questions and demands and gets to the heart of the matter.
John records that Jesus bent down to the ground and started writing in the dirt. John does not tell us what Jesus was writing. It could be names of the men that had committed adultery, or just a listing of sins that were also called out in God’s Law and required some punishment.
No matter what Jesus wrote, His actions had the intended effect and the crowd eventually dispersed until it was just Jesus and the woman there. John makes an interesting observation that the oldest among the gathered crowd were the ones that left the scene first. Were they the ones that realized that Jesus was correct and knew they could not cast the first stone? John does not tell us directly but implies this was the case.
So what’s the faith lesson from today’s passage? As the woman stood before Jesus, likely wrapped in only a bedsheet or a blanket, Jesus forgave her and told her to leave her life of sin. And so it is with you and me – when confronted with our sin, Jesus forgives us and tells us to sin no more.
As followers of Christ, may we remember to receive God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy and live for God’s glory and not our selfish interests.