Elon, North Carolina
Today, we want to look at the story of the woman caught in adultery. It is one of the most famous narratives in Scripture. It is moving. It is powerful. It is deep. It has been depicted in many movies (Passion of the Christ, Son of God). It is a story that has all kinds of important lessons and applications for us today. There are also many misconceptions about this story but first we have to answer one question. Did this story actually take place?
Is this Story Historical?
Most would say, “Of course, it is historical. It is in the Bible” but virtually every Bible has a note at the bottom of the page that says that these eleven verses are not in the Bible. Is that true? These verses are part of the majority text. We have 900 Greek manuscripts which contain this passage but our oldest Greek manuscripts in the Gospel of John do not have these verses.
The oldest copy of the Gospel of John that we have dates back to the second century (P75, P66) and these verses are not in those Greek manuscripts. Modern scholars believe that this section was not part of the Gospel of John but was added later. This has led to confusion among many for several reasons.
Confusion about John 8:1-11
1) Some scholarly commentaries on the Gospel of John do not even comment on these verses until the very back of their commentary in an appendix (Bruce, Morris).
2) Some lengthy commentaries on the Gospel of John do not comment on these verses at all. They comment on other verses on John but skip over these like they are not even in the Bible (Beasley-Murray, Haenchen, Bultmann).
3) Some Bibles do not even have these verses in them at all. They go from John 7:52 to 8:12 (e.g., NEB, Goodspeed).
4) Some pastors will never preach on this passage because they do not believe it is Scripture. The ESV Study Bible has a note that says that this passage should not even be considered as Scripture.
The fourth century church father Jerome believed it was authentic. He said that this section was found in not just some but MANY copies both Greek and Latin. He included it in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. St. Augustine, another church father from the fourth century, said that some took it out of the Bible because they thought it might encourage sin.
If that is true, it would explain why it is absent from some texts. The first Greek manuscript that contains these verses (Codex Bezae) was written around 400 AD, late fourth century or early fifth century.
These verses may or may not be a part of the Gospel of John. They are found in some manuscripts in the Gospel of Luke but there is no question that this is Scripture. The church has accepted this story as Scripture for two thousand years.
Even the scholars (like Bruce Metzger from Princeton Theological Seminary) who argue the strongest that this passage is not part of the Gospel of John admit that the story gives every indication of historical veracity. It is true to the character of Jesus.
They admit that this really happened but want to leave it out of the Bible, which seems a little strange. There is a difference between authorship and canonicity. Just because John did not write these words does not mean that it is not inspired or historical. John, in fact said at the end of his book that Jesus did other things that were not recorded in His gospel (21:25).
Historical Background of the Story
John 8 is an interesting chapter. There is not one but two attempted stonings in this chapter. Both are unsuccessful. One takes place at the beginning and one at the end of the chapter. Both take place at the Temple. At the beginning of this chapter, the Jewish leaders want to stone a woman taken in adultery. At the end of the chapter, they pick up stones to throw at Jesus but he escapes (8:59).
What is the context of this story? It takes in Jerusalem place early in the morning in the month of October. How do we know this? John 7 says that Jesus and his disciples went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. It is a Jewish festival that lasted a whole week long. During the festival, Jews would build booths to live in to remember the Jews who lived in the wilderness for forty years.
While he was there, he taught people. He said, “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38 NIV). How did people respond to this message? People were divided.
“On hearing his words, some of the people said, “Surely this man is the Prophet. Others said, “He is the Messiah.” Still others asked, “How can the Messiah come from Galilee? Does not Scripture say that the Messiah will come from David’s descendants and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?” Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.Some wanted to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him.” (John 7:40-44).
As we read the rest of the chapter, we find that most of the religious leaders were against Jesus. They thought he was dangerous and wanted to do everything they could to derail his ministry. At the end of the feast, they all went home (7:53). Everyone but Jesus went home. He went to the Mount of Olives (8:1).
Early the next morning, he went to the Temple and a crowd surrounded him, so he began to teach them, as he had down the previous week in the Temple. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink” and people came to him. He sat down to teach, which was the custom for Jewish teachers (Matthew 5:1; Luke 5:3).
Jesus sat down in the Temple to teach a Bible class. While he is teaching, a group of people bring a partially clothed woman right in front of him and charge her with adultery. In many of the movies, they throw her on the ground. The Bible simply says that she stood in front of them (8:3).
Mystery about this Woman
Who was this woman? There are many things that we do not know about this woman. In fact, we do not know anything about her. All we know is that she committed adultery but we do not know if she was married or betrothed. In the first century, the Jewish engagement was called betrothal. It lasted a year. The couple did not live together but as considered legally married.
Any unfaithfulness during that period was considered adultery. The way to dissolve this relationship was through divorce. If you remember, Joseph considered divorcing the Virgin Mary when she became pregnant.
So we do not know if this woman was betrothed or married. We do not know if she was young or old. We do not know if this was her first offense or if she was a repeat offender. We do not even know her name.
We do know who brought this woman to Jesus. John 8:3 says that it was the Scribes and Pharisees. These are the professional scholars of the day. They were the ones who had all the answers. They came to Jesus very respectful calling him rabbi when they really had no respect for him and their real goal was to trap him. They presented Jesus with a question. It contained a very difficult dilemma.
A Difficult Dilemma for Jesus
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. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. (John 8:3-6a NIV)
Before we look at how Jesus answered this, you have to see the question they asked. This question was very interesting. It was brilliant.
1. The question was clear.
“In the Law Moses COMMANDED us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” The Law was clear on the matter. There was no debate. There was no room for a difference of opinion. It was a command in the OT. It was not optional. Here you have Jesus versus the Bible. Is Jesus going to say something different from Leviticus 20:10?
2. The question is personal.
The question was not just hypothetical. They brought a woman before him to see how he would respond.
3. The question was based on evidence.
Not only the Bible was clear about what it said about adultery but the woman standing before them was clearly an adulterer. They did not say, “We think she might be an adulterer. That is the common gossip about this woman.” No. She was caught in the very act. There were eye witnesses who could verify that it took place.
4. The question had no way out.
Jesus was given two choices. No matter what he did, he was guaranteed to get into trouble. If he said to kill the woman, he would be breaking Roman law. That would get him in trouble with the Romans, because the Jews did not have the authority to do this legally. That was something that could only be done by the state.
If he said not to kill the woman, he would be breaking Jewish Law. That would get him in trouble with some of the Jews. If he was really the Jewish Messiah, he could not tell people to not follow the Law of Moses. He cannot be the Messiah and tell people not to follow the Bible.
It was a no-win situation. The Scribes and Pharisees think that they have got Jesus in the perfect trap. They asked the perfect question for which there can be no answer. Jesus would be in trouble here if he followed the Law of Moses and he would be in trouble if he didn’t follow the Law of Moses.
Jesus’ Response to the Trick Question
How did Jesus respond to this dilemma? He never directly answered their question. There is a lesson here. We do not have to respond to every question. Some questions, Jesus did not answer. Jesus did do two things in response to this question. He responded to their question in actions and in words.
What were his actions? He bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. Jesus completely ignored the question at first and started writing on the ground.
Why Jesus Ignored the Question
1. This was a trick question.
Their motives were wrong. The question was asked with wrong motives. These men did not ask this question to get more information about what the Bible taught or what the Law said. They asked it to trick Jesus. They wanted to accuse Jesus.
2. This was clearly a set-up
Their methods were wrong. How do you catch someone committing adultery? How do you have two or three witnesses to adultery? Adultery is not the kind of thing you do out in the open. You do it in secret being closed doors. This was a case of entrapment. In addition, they disrupted Jesus’ Bible class in the Temple.
3. They were not following the Law themselves
The Law did command death for adultery but is also commanded death for both parties. Leviticus 20:10 says, “‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—BOTH the adulterer and the adulteress MUST be put to death. They have a double standard. They wanted to stone the woman but not the man.
If this woman was caught in the very act, as they say, they would have caught the man was well. They knew exactly who he was. Why didn’t they bring the man before Jesus and publicly humiliate him as well? The reason is that he was either one of them or was one of their friends.
The point is that these men who accused this woman of violating the Law of Moses were violating it themselves. If you are going to keep the Law, you need to keep all of it. You cannot keep the parts you like and reject the rest. Jesus initially ignored the question and wrote on the ground.
Why Jesus Wrote on the Ground
This is the only time in the NT that we are told that Jesus wrote anything down. Why is that important? The Bible says that Jesus never went to school and liberal historians have wondered if he knew how to read.
That is comical. He creates the world and someone asks if he knows how to read. He knew how to read and write. Jesus went into the synagogue and read the Book of Isaiah in Hebrew and he also knew how to write. Here he writes something on the ground and does that twice.
No one knows what he wrote on the ground. Did He write the word “grace” on the ground? Did he write the names of their sins on the ground? No one knows. We do not need to know. It was a symbolic act. The Ten Commandments were written on tablets of stone by the finger of God. It is almost as if Jesus said, “You want to talk to me about the Law, I wrote it”. Jesus also responded with words. What he said was even more brilliant than the question asked.
“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.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground“. (John 8:7-8 NIV)
Jesus completely turned the tables on these men. He took the focus off of the woman and put it on them. These men saw this woman as a sinner but they did not see themselves as sinful at all.
Jesus is in essence saying, “Before you pick up that stone, take a good look in the mirror. Make sure you are morally qualified to put this woman to death” See how he completely changes the focus of the debate. They wanted to talk about this woman. Instead, Jesus talks about them.
The real question is not whether the woman is guilty. The real question is whether they had the authority to carry out the sentence themselves. The question is not whether the guilty should be punished but who is qualified to condemn her.
The same law which condemned this woman condemned these men as well. Those who are guilty themselves cannot carry out the sentence. Jesus took them back to Deuteronomy 17:7. Witnesses were to be the first to put people to death, according to the Law of Moses.
He also responded to them in words. Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7 ESV) Why did he say this? There was a very good reason. One area that men tend to struggle with is sexual purity. It is virtually a universal problem among men.
It is a problem for about 95% of men and the other five percent are probably lying. Apparently, these men had some sexual sins themselves. They may have been with prostitutes themselves or been with the very woman they brought before Jesus or did something else worthy of the death penalty under the Law. The point is that they violated the Law themselves. All these men could see was this woman’s sin. She committed adultery. Their sin was greater. They were plotting to kill Christ.
The irony of this story is that these men came to trap Jesus and he ends up trapping them. The way he did it is fascinating. Jesus did not accuse these men of anything. He did not say, “You hypocrites. You are adulterers yourself. You are guilty of the same thing”. He did not deny that the woman was guilty. He did not deny that Moses said she should be stone. He simply said: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”
That one statement completely disarmed them. They came and asked Jesus a question. He wrote on the ground and was silent. Then he stood up and said this and again there was dead silence and then you heard the thud of rocks falling to the ground, as they walked away one by one from Jesus, starting with the oldest man. Apparently, he had the most sins. Jesus didn’t have to accuse them. They accused themselves. Their own conscience accused them.
How Jesus Treated this Woman
Note how Jesus treated this woman. We can learn some lessons here. He treated her very differently than the scribes and Pharisees treated her. Jesus had five reactions to this woman that are very important for us to see.
1) He respected her.
They treated her as a thing, not a person. To them she was referred to simply as “this woman”. They just used her to get at Jesus. They didn’t care anything for this poor woman. She was a useless piece of trash to them. Jesus treated her as a human being. He treated her with respect and dignity. He treated her differently than other men had treated her.
2) He defended her.
He literally saved this woman’s life from a lynch mob. Jesus protected her from this group of evil men who wanted to stone her. He prevented an act of violence. When the witnesses left, the case against her was dismissed, because there had to be two or three witnesses
3) He forgave her.
He treated her with compassion and grace. He said, “I do not condemn you.” He grants the woman a pardon. Jesus was the only one there who was sinless and he said, “I do not condemn you”. The Scribes and Pharisees were quick to condemn. Jesus was quick to forgive. The Jewish leaders were quick to judge. They came with rocks in their hands. Jesus was quick to forgive. He gave her a second chance. When we caught someone in an act of sin, we need to show compassion as well.
4) He confronted her.
He lovingly confronted her. He acknowledged what she did something wrong and it was serious. He said, “Go and sin NO MORE”. Jesus did not say that what she did was not really that bad. He did NOT deny her behavior was sinful.
He called it sin. He did NOT make excuses for her behavior. He did not say it was not really her fault. He did NOT ignore her behavior. He did NOT try to justify her behavior or minimize what she had done. When we catch someone in an act of sin, we should see it as important and not try to make excuses for people.
5) He challenged her.
He said, “Do not do it again”. He told her to change her life and live differently and stop committing adultery. He said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more”. He did not say, “Go in peace. God accepts you just the way you are. You do not need to change a thing. Go and do whatever you want to do”. Jesus restored this woman. He was more interested in her healing and restoration than her execution.
Notice also the order of these words. He did not say, “Stop sinning, clean up your act or I will condemn you. Change and I will forgive you.” That would be salvation by works. That is the way the religion works. He said, “I forgive you. Now stop sinning. Change because I have accepted you”. That is the way grace works. We do not change our life in order to be accepted by God but because we have been accepted by God already.
Why Jesus Forgave this Woman
Why did Jesus forgive this woman? According to the Law, this woman deserved to die. Why didn’t Jesus follow the Law of Moses here? There are two basic reasons. One reason had to do with Jesus and one reason had to do with this woman.
1) The condition of this woman
This poor woman was completely broken. She was caught in the act. She was publicly humiliated, shamed and embarrassed. She was threatened with death. She thought she was going to die. She knew what she did was wrong. She never denies it or tries to justify it and she called Jesus Lord.
“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, Lord,’ she said.” (8:10-11). That is significant. The scribes and Pharisees NEVER called Jesus Lord. They called Jesus “teacher” (which just means “rabbi” in Hebrew) but not Lord. Paul says, “No man calls Jesus Lord except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3).
Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (NIV) Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (NIV) What did the OT say would be true of the Messiah? “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20).
What is a reed? It is a tall blade of grass which grows by the river bank. The wick is not talking about a candle. Wax candles did not exist in bible times. It is talking about an oil lamp. There are two pictures here of broken things and they represent people: a broken reed, a flame that is ready to go out. What kind of people do they represent? They represent broken people. What are some characteristics of broken people?
They are people who are needy, weak, frail, helpless and fragile. They represent wounded and bruised people who need healing. They represent people who have given up, people who have no hope. They represent people that you do not pay attention to, people that society has thrown away. Lots of things can come along and leave us bruised and beaten up. It could be some type of abuse, a harsh word, a job loss, a death in the family, an illness, a spouse who left you. Jesus was sensitive to the broken and hurting.
2) The mission of Jesus
John 3:17 says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (NIV). John 12:47-48 says, “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.“(NIV)
Notice that Jesus does NOT say, “I will not judge people,” but “I do not judge people right now.” The purpose of the first coming was to save people. Jesus said that “The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.” (Luke 19:10 NCV). “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” (I Timothy 1:15 NIV)
One day, Jesus will be the judge of all people. Revelation says that he is coming back to judge and make war (Revelation 19:11). In fact, Jesus even said, “For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). The Father committed all judgment to the Son but he will not judge people until the Second Coming (cf. Acts 17:31).
The First Coming was the period of salvation. The Second Coming will be the period of judgment. Jesus the Savior will become Jesus the Judge. In fact, he will not just the wicked, he will judge us. Paul said that “we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (II Corinthians 5:10).
Is it Always Wrong to Judge People?
The idiom “don’t throw stones” means don’t judge people. Casting stones in John 8 means killing someone. It was the way you executed someone. Today, throwing stones at people has come to mean criticizing and judging people. Many believe that the main lesson of this story is not to judge people. Even Jesus didn’t judge this woman. That is a very common interpretation of this passage today.
It was used during the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” If we take that literally, it would mean that no one should ever pass judgment on anyone for any reason, since no one is truly without sin.
Of course, if that is the case then we could not judge racism. We could not judge mass murderers or child molesters. We could not judge Hitler. Many believe that judging is wrong, not only from this story but from what Jesus said in Matthew 7:1-5
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (ESV)
Is it wrong to judge people? No. It is not wrong to make evaluations. We do it every day. We make judgments about what clothes we wear each day and what we want to eat. Everyone judges, not just Christians. We could not survive without making judgments. We would have no legal system and no laws if we could not say that certain behavior was illegal or criminal.
In fact, anyone who says, “You should not judge” is making a judgment. They are saying that judging is wrong and are making a judgment on anyone who judges. It is a self-refuting statement. They are guilty of the same thing they are accusing others of doing.
Jesus’ statement “judge not, that you be not judged” has to be interpreted in light of its context. In its context, it CANNOT mean that all judgment is wrong. The very next verse says, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” (Matthew 7:6 ESV) If we cannot judge at all, how do we tell who the dogs and pigs are? They clearly refer to people.
In the very same chapter, Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15 ESV). If you can’t judge people, how can you tell who the false prophets are? It takes a bit of judgment to determine which preacher is a false teacher or false prophet and which one is not. It is a judgment call. What then is Jesus saying when he says, judge not, that you be not judged”?
Jesus is not telling us to never judge anyone for any reason. He is speaking about hypocritical judgments. Jesus’ prohibition against judging was aimed at hypocrites. We see that in Matthew 7:5.
“YOU HYPOCRITE, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye”. Hypocritical judgment takes place when we criticize someone for doing something that we do ourselves. In some cases, we criticize someone for doing something when we do something even worse. That is what Jesus is talking about.
Jesus is not saying, “Stop making judgments. Never judge”. He is saying, “Don’t try to judge someone with a log in your eye”. Get rid of the log first and then you can judge. There is nothing wrong with helping someone get a speck out of their eye but you can’t do that very well when you have a log in your own.
This passage shows that Jesus had a sense of humor. Here someone gets all bent out of shape over some minor flaw that someone else has but he has an even bigger problem in his own life that he is not even dealing with. Hypocritical judgment is what is happening in John 8.
Some accused a woman of adultery. They picked up stones to stone her when they were guilty of the same thing. That is wrong. In other passages, Jesus actually commands us to make judgments’. John 7:24 says, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (NIV)
There is nothing wrong with taking a stand on a moral issue. Any time you take a stand on an issue (e.g., abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage), you often hear people say, “Don’t judge” or “Who are you to judge?” The answer is that we are not judging anyone. We are simply saying what God says in His Word about a particular topic. He is doing the judging.
If you believe in moral relativism, there is no absolute truth. Everyone has their own opinion. It would be wrong to judge if you believe in moral relativism. It is one thing if I try to impose my views on someone else. That would be wrong. It would be like eating ice cream. I like one flavor. Someone else likes another flavor. I can’t judge someone for eating a different flavor. If there is no absolute truth, we cannot judge people at all.
If there are moral absolutes, it is a completely different matter. You would not be judging someone, just telling them what God says. That does not involve judging anyone. The whole Christian message involves judgments. It calls people “sinners”. It says that God will judge people for how they live but it also contains a message of grace and forgiveness.
Two Kinds of People
As we close, I want us to think about two kinds of people in the church. There are grace people and truth people. Which are you? What is the difference?
Both have strengths, as well as weaknesses. We actually need both. Jesus had both. “For the law was given through Moses; grace AND truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17).
We do not want to have grace without truth. That would be to throw morals out the window. People could do whatever they wanted. We do not have to compromise the truth to love people. We also do not want to have truth without grace. The Bible says that we are to “speak the truth IN LOVE” (Ephesians 4:15) but there are many myths about what this means and does not mean.
1) Speaking the truth in love does not mean that you can never say some harsh things to people or speak forcefully to people.
“Open rebuke is better than love carefully concealed. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27:5-6). Some time you have to say some difficult things to people and it is actually an act of love. Stephen called people murderers, heard hearted and resist the truth. Jesus had harsh words for the Pharisees. Paul had some harsh words for the Judaizers. Speaking the truth sometimes makes people mad.
2) Speaking the truth in love does not mean that you have to compromise or water down the truth.
Paul says that we are to “SPEAK THE TRUTH in love”. We are not to water down the truth. It is HOW we speak it. We can speak the truth and be completely rude (Simon Cowell) or we can say the same thing in a loving way. It is the REASON we speak. Is our motive to help people or hurt people? It deals with the motive, goal and the manner of our speech.
 “Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if He who had said ‘sin no more’ had granted permission to sin” (On Adulterous Marriages, 2.7)
 This manuscript is located at Cambridge University (Folios 133V to 135). It is called Codex Bezae (or Codex D by scholars) because it used to be owned by Theodore Beza, who was a student of John Calvin and became his successor in Geneva. He donated it to Cambridge University in 1581.
 Metzger says it has “all the earmarks of historical veracity” (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 221).