Christ Frees The Woman Taken In Adultery
Our Lord found Himself again in conflict with the Jewish religious leaders; but this time, they set a trap, hoping to get enough evidence to arrest Jesus and get Him out of the way. However, their plot failed; but a controversy followed. In this chapter we see a series of contrasts that reveal the gracious-ness of Christ and the wickedness of man.
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. He awoke early in the morning to return to the temple. When He arrived, the people surrounded Him, so He sat down and began to teach them. While He was teaching, the scribes and Pharisees brought in a woman who was caught in the act of adultery; and they stood her before Jesus.
Pharisees: Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. Moses says in the law that we are to kill such women by stoning. What do You say about it?
This was all set up as a test for Jesus; His answers would give them grounds to accuse Him of crimes against Moses’ law. Jesus bent over and wrote something in the dirt with His finger. They persisted in badgering Jesus, so He stood up straight.
Jesus: Let the first stone be thrown by the one among you who has not sinned.
Once again Jesus bent down to the ground and resumed writing with His finger. The Pharisees who heard Him stood still for a few moments and then began to leave slowly, one by one, beginning with the older men. Eventually only Jesus and the woman remained, and Jesus looked up.
Jesus: Dear woman, where is everyone? Are we alone? Did no one step forward to condemn you?
Woman Caught in Adultery: Lord, no one has condemned me.
Jesus: Well, I do not condemn you either; all I ask is that you go and from now on avoid the sins that plague you.
Grace and Law
The Feast of Tabernacles had ended, but Jesus took advantage of the opportunity to minister to the pilgrims in the temple. During the feast, word had quickly spread that Jesus was not only attending but also openly teaching in the temple (see Luke 21:37). He taught in the court of the women at the place where the treasury was situated (John 8:20). The scribes and Pharisees knew where He would be, so they hatched their plot together.
They would not be likely to catch a couple in the “very act” of adultery; so we wonder if the man (who never was indicted!) was part of the scheme. But they didn’t bring the man to Jesus. This is because they weren’t really interested in justice. They were trying to trap Jesus. Jesus had been preaching mercy and forgiveness. If He condemned this woman as the Law required (Leviticus 20:10), then He would lose His followers. If He didn’t condemn the woman, then they would have a right under the Law to stone Him. They thought they had Jesus whichever way He went. The Law required that both guilty parties be stoned and not just the woman. It does seem suspicious that the man went free.
Therefore, they only brought the woman because a woman would evoke more sympathy than a man. Women are honored more than men, and it would be more grievous to stone a woman than a man. They thought this would strengthen their trap. In the name of religion, these perverts had been watching this woman to catch her in the act of adultery. Their sin was as grievous as hers. But, as always, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of man. Jesus didn’t approve of the woman’s sin nor condemn her. He reminded them that they were all sinners, too, and told the one who had no sin to cast the first stone. Jesus didn’t change the standard but disqualified all the accusers from sitting on the jury.
The scribes and Pharisees handled the matter in a brutal fashion; even in the way they interrupted the Lord’s teaching and pushed the woman into the midst of the crowd.
The Jewish leaders, of course, were trying to pin Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If He said, “Yes, the woman must be stoned!” then what would happen to His reputation as the “friend of publicans and sinners”? The common people would no doubt have abandoned Him and would never have accepted His gracious message of forgiveness.
But, if He said, “No, the woman should not be stoned!” then He was openly breaking the Law and subject to arrest. On more than one occasion, the religious leaders had tried to pit Jesus against Moses, and now they seemed to have the perfect challenge.
Instead of passing judgment on the woman, Jesus passed judgment on the judges! No doubt He was indignant at the way they treated the woman. He was also concerned that such hypocrites should condemn another person and not judge themselves. We do not know what He wrote on the dirt floor of the temple.
Was He simply reminding them that the Ten Commandments had been originally written “by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18), and that He is God?
Or was He perhaps reminding them of the warning in Jeremiah 17:13?
It’s possible that He listed these Pharisees’ sins in the sand. This could have caused them to fear that if they took up stones against the woman the Lord would expose their sins. Whatever He wrote it worked.
It was required by Jewish Law that the accusers cast the first stones (Deut. 17:7). Jesus was not asking that sinless men judge the woman, for He was the only sinless Person present. If our judges today had to be perfect, judicial benches would be empty. He was referring to the particular sin of the woman, a sin that can be committed in the heart as well as with the body (Matt. 5:27-30). Convicted by their own consciences, the accusers quietly left the scene, and Jesus was left alone with the woman. He forgave her and warned her to sin no more (John 5:14).
We must not misinterpret this event to mean that Jesus was “easy on sin” or that He contradicted the Law. For Jesus to forgive this woman meant that He had to one-day die for her sins. Forgiveness is free but it is not cheap. Furthermore, Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law so that no one could justly accuse Him of opposing its teachings or weakening its power. By applying the Law to the woman and not to themselves, the Jewish leaders were violating both the letter and the spirit of the Law—and they thought they were defending Moses!
The Law was given to reveal sin (Rom. 3:20), and the Law must condemn us before we can be cleansed by God’s grace. Law and grace do not compete with each other; they complement each other. Nobody was ever saved by keeping the Law, but nobody was ever saved by grace that was not first indicted by the Law.
There must be conviction before there can be conversion.
Nor is Christ’s gracious forgiveness an excuse to sin. “Go, and sin no more!” was our Lord’s counsel. “But you offer forgiveness, that we might learn to fear you” (Ps. 130:4). Certainly the experience of gracious forgiveness would motivate the penitent sinner to live a holy and obedient life to the glory of God.