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Lesson 45: Caught in the Act (John 7:53-8:11)

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February 23, 2014

Our text is a difficult portion of John, not because it is hard to understand, but because it is hard to know whether this incident should be included in John’s Gospel as an authentic part of inspired Scripture. Many versions put these verses in brackets, with a note explaining that it is not included in the earliest manuscripts of John. So I must give you a mini-lecture on textual criticism.

As you probably know, we do not possess any of the original copies of the New Testament books. Our New Testament is based on the translation of thousands of Greek manuscripts that are, for the most part, remarkably close in their readings. When there are variations between the manuscripts, they are usually only of minor significance. For example, in our text last week in 7:40, some manuscripts read, “when they heard these words.” Others read, “these words of His” or “His word,” or, “the word,” or, “this word.” Obviously, it doesn’t make much difference which reading is adopted.

Textual criticism is the discipline where scholars evaluate both external and internal evidence to try to determine which reading is most likely the original. External evidence refers to weighing the various manuscripts in light of their age, how widespread is their distribution, and what text type they represent. Internal evidence refers to evaluating the probabilities of what a scribe might have done, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to result in the various readings. Both internal and external evidence have to be compared and evaluated.

There are two longer texts where the manuscript evidence is so varied and late that many scholars question their authenticity: Mark 16:9-20 and here, in John 7:53-8:11. Let me add that there are no major doctrines at stake in these or in any other textual variants. With rare exceptions, we can be sure that what we read is what the original authors wrote.

The problem is that John 7:53-8:11 is not found in any of the earliest manuscripts or versions (translations into other languages). The earliest manuscript to contain it is from the fifth century A.D. All the early church Fathers omit this narrative in their commentaries on John, moving from 7:52 to 8:12. No Eastern Father before the tenth century cites the text. Many later manuscripts that include the passage mark it off to show that it’s of doubtful authority. Among those that include it, there are many textual variants. And some manuscripts put it at other places in John (after 7:44; 7:36; 21:25) or after Luke 21:38. Also, although it should not be regarded with as much weight as the external evidence, most scholars argue that the style, Greek constructions, and vocabulary of the story differ significantly from the rest of the Gospel of John. And, they assert that the story interrupts the flow of the narrative from John 7:52 to 8:12. (This paragraph taken from D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 333; and Andreas Kostenberger, John [Baker], pp. 245-247.)

These reasons cause many reputable evangelical scholars to conclude that this story is not a part of John’s original Gospel. Among these are: Leon Morris, Merrill Tenney, D. A. Carson, Ed Blum, Andreas Kostenberger, Colin Kruse, John Piper, R. C. Lenski, R. V. G. Tasker, B. F. Westcott, Alfred Edersheim, Frederic Godet, G. Campbell Morgan, and A. T. Robertson. However, these scholars generally hold that it reports an authentic historical event that is true to the character of Jesus.

Some scholars, however, argue that in spite of the weak textual support, this story should be included in John’s Gospel and treated as inspired Scripture, based largely on internal evidence: R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, James Boice, William Hendriksen, A. W. Pink, J. C. Ryle, David Brown (in Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown) and John Calvin. They argue that the story fits the flow of John’s Gospel at this point and the pattern that John follows of a story setting the stage for the theme to follow. They also point out that both Augustine and Ambrose in the late fourth and early fifth centuries believed that the story may have been omitted because it seems to suggest that Jesus condoned adultery. So, there are solid men on both sides of this issue.

So, how should we view this story? I can’t dodge the weight of the textual evidence. Bruce Metzger, who edited A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament ([United Bible Societies], 2nd ed., p. 187), wrote, “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin of the pericope of the adulteress is overwhelming.” Leon Morris agrees (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans, 1971], p. 882): “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.” But Morris adds (p. 883),

But if we cannot feel that this is part of John’s Gospel we can feel that the story is true to the character of Jesus. Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic. It rings true. It speaks to our condition. It is thus worth our while to study it, though not as an authentic part of John’s writing.

So while I cannot agree with John MacArthur that the story is original to John’s Gospel, I appreciate some questions that he asks of this story (on

Question number one, do these verses teach truth that violates other Scripture? The answer is no, they do not. Question two, do they in fact corroborate other Scripture and substantiate it? The answer is yes they do.

So I will proceed by showing some lessons that this text gives us, which can be supported by other undisputed texts, on how God deals with sinners who have been caught in the very act of sin. In case you’re half-asleep by now, that means all of us, because God knows every sin of thought, word, and deed that we have ever done! The overall lesson is:

God deals with guilty sinners on the basis of the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, this story beautifully illustrates John 1:17, “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The scribes and Pharisees judged this woman according to the Law, which clearly condemned her. Jesus showed her both grace and truth.

1. All of us, like this woman, have been caught in the act of sin and stand condemned by God’s holy law.

To catch someone in the act of adultery so that it would hold up in a Jewish trial for execution was no small feat. The witnesses actually had to have seen the couple going through physical movements that could be capable of no other explanation (Morris, p. 885, note 12). Compromising circumstances, such as seeing a couple coming from a room where they had been alone, or even seeing them lying on the same bed, were not sufficient. The witnesses had to have seen the same acts at the same time in the presence of each other for their testimony to hold up in a Jewish court.

So it’s very likely that the scribes and Pharisees had set a trap to catch this woman so they could trap Jesus on the horns of a dilemma and accuse Him. Either He would agree that the woman must be stoned, thereby undermining His reputation as the Savior of sinners and probably getting Him into trouble with the Roman authorities, who didn’t give the Jews the right of capital punishment; or, He would show her mercy, thus proving that He did not uphold the Law of Moses and was soft on sin. That this was a deliberate trap is also seen by the fact that they only brought one sinner to Jesus. You don’t commit adultery all alone! So where was the man? Probably he was on their side in the trap and thus was allowed to escape. But, note that, like this woman…

A. We’ve all been caught in the act of sin.

We’ve all had the humiliating experience of getting caught doing something that we knew was wrong. Maybe you were checking out the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue on your phone or I-pad when another believer looked over your shoulder to say hello. Or perhaps on a summer day with the windows and doors open you and your spouse were in a loud argument when the doorbell rang and it was someone from church. No matter what the sin, it’s always embarrassing.

In this story, the woman had not only been caught in the act of adultery, but then she was dragged (probably barely clothed) by the religious authorities into the temple where there were always crowds of people, many of whom would have known her. To make matters worse, they accused her before the godly religious teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. And her accusers were pushing for the ultimate penalty of execution. It was both humiliating and frightening!

But even if we manage to keep our sin hidden from fellow Christians or from public view, every single sin that we have ever committed is open and laid bare to the eyes of the living God (Heb. 4:13). He knows every sinful thought that we secretly entertain. He knows every swear word that we mutter under our breath. He knows the hatred that simmers in our hearts towards those who have wronged us. He knows every deceptive word that we have ever spoken to try to cover our tracks. He knows the sins that we commit when we’re alone or when we’re away in another city where we don’t know a soul. Like this woman, we’ve all been caught in the act of sin.

B. Religious people are just as guilty of sin as openly immoral people are.

We tend to look on the woman in this story as the great sinner, while overlooking the fact that the scribes and Pharisees were just as evil, if not more so, in God’s sight. They were callously sinning against this woman. We can’t say for certain, but probably she was a young girl. In the Law of Moses, the penalty for adultery was death for both partners, without stipulating the means of death. But if the girl was engaged to be married, the penalty was specifically stoning to death (Deut. 22:22-24). Since Jewish girls were often engaged as young as 13 or 14, this girl may have been a frightened teenager. Clearly, they didn’t care about her at all. If they had cared about her, they could have held her in private custody until they brought formal charges against her. But they didn’t care about her feelings or about humiliating her in public. She was just a pawn for them to use and discard in their attempt to trap Jesus.

But, even more seriously than sinning against this woman, these religious leaders were also sinning against the sinless Son of God. Their aim was to destroy Jesus and they were using both this woman and the Scriptures to do it! They weren’t concerned about God’s honor or about holiness among God’s people. It just so happened that the Law gave them ammunition to use against this woman and against Jesus. They were using Scripture to judge others, but not to judge themselves.

That’s very common in Christian circles. People use the Bible for their own selfish ends, to judge others or to bring down their enemies. But they never apply it to themselves. And so it is often religious people—those professing to know Christ—who are just as guilty of sin as openly immoral people are.

C. God’s holy law condemns us all because of our sin.

Paul builds this case in Romans 1-3, where he shows that both pagan Gentiles and religious Jews are guilty of sin. His conclusion is (Rom. 3:23), “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So whether we fit more with the immoral woman or with the self-righteous, unloving Pharisees, who used the Bible for their own sinful purposes, we need to see ourselves in this story. It convicts us all of our sin and guilt before God.

This story sets up an important question: If God is full of love and grace, how can He show mercy to sinners and yet uphold His holiness and justice?

2. God’s grace and love do not negate His truth or justice.

Nowhere in this story does Jesus excuse this woman’s sin or condone what she had done. And yet He showed her grace.

A. Jesus deals with sinners first by applying God’s Law and truth to them.

The scribes and Pharisees came armed with the Law as a weapon to use against this woman, but as the text says, mostly to use against Jesus (8:5): “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” But they were saying this to test Him. Jesus responded by stooping down and writing on the ground with His finger. This is the only instance in the Gospels where Jesus wrote anything, but the big question that you’re all wondering is, “What did He write?” Here’s the answer: Nobody knows! Some have said that He was stalling for time so that He could think of what to say, but that demeans our all-wise Lord. Some say that He was writing the Pharisees’ sins in the dust, like people today write, “Wash me” in the dust of a dirty car. Others say that He was writing the Ten Commandments, which God wrote with His finger on the tablets of stone. Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], pp. 319-320) suggested that He was shaming His enemies by ignoring them, showing that they were unworthy to be heard. But, the bottom line is, the text doesn’t tell us and so everyone is just guessing.

Jesus may have been giving these hypocritical accusers enough rope to hang themselves, because the next verse (8:7) says that when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus wasn’t saying that human judges in a court of law have to be sinlessly perfect before they can judge others, because then no law could ever be upheld. Rather, Jesus was applying what He taught in Matthew 7:1-5 to them:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is 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.”

In other words, these hypocrites had a huge log in their own eyes: They were sinfully using this woman and using Scripture to try to trap Jesus. They came to condemn her and accuse Jesus; but they ended up being accused and condemned. The Law is like a boomerang: You aim it at others and it comes back and conks you on the head. The starting place for receiving God’s mercy is to be convicted by God’s holy law that you are the chief of sinners.

But, rather than falling at Jesus’ feet and asking for mercy, they left Him and went out. Perhaps the oldest left first because they had the most sins of which to feel guilty. But none of them repented, because as a group they kept pressing for Jesus’ death until they finally succeeded. But, maybe you’re wondering, “Why didn’t Jesus apply the Law to this guilty woman?”

B. Jesus gives the Law to the self-righteous, but offers grace to broken sinners who repent.

The Law can reveal your sin (Rom. 3:20), but it can’t offer grace and forgiveness. But Jesus came to reveal both grace and truth (John 1:14, 17). Throughout the Gospels, Jesus confronted the self-righteous with their own sins, but He showed mercy to those who were convicted of their sins and were repentant. Granted, in this story there is no direct statement that the woman was repentant, but I think we can infer that by Jesus’ gracious words to her. He knew what was in every heart and He was always quick to offer grace to the broken. By not stating that she was repentant, the story illustrates the truth that God first revealed to Moses (Exod. 33:19b, cited in Rom. 9:15), “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” It is God’s privilege and His delight to show grace to undeserving sinners.

But it isn’t cheap grace. God’s justice must be upheld. He can be both gracious to sinners and yet uphold His justice because Jesus came to this earth to offer Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for sin that God’s justice demanded. As Romans 3:26 states, God’s righteousness is displayed in that He is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” whose death satisfied God’s wrath against our sin. Or (2 Cor. 5:21), “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The only sinless person in the temple that day who legitimately could have thrown a stone at the adulteress showed her mercy. And if you are heavy with your load of sin and guilt, come to Jesus and cry out for mercy and He will not condemn you. Like the publican in Jesus’ parable (Luke 18:14), you will go to your house justified, declared righteous before God!

3. God’s grace is the basis for a holy life.

Jesus said to this guilty woman (John 8:11), “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” He did not say, “Go your way and sin no more and then I will not condemn you.” Her pardon was not dependent on her behavior. Rather, her pardon was the motivation to change her behavior. If forgiveness depends on having a perfect track record, no one could obtain it, because we all sin. So God grants forgiveness as a free gift to all who put their trust in what Christ did in dying on the cross for their sins. His free grace then becomes the motive to live in holiness to please the one who gave Himself for us.

As Paul says (Rom. 6:1-2), “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Or (Titus 2:11-12), “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age ….” God’s amazing grace is the motivation to life a holy life.


I’ve shared this with you before, but it has stuck with me all of my life and God has used it to help me walk in holiness before Him. When I was in high school, like any high school student, I was tempted by many sins. I knew many guys who were involved sexually with girls, which tempted me to do the same. Also, many of my friends would get drunk at parties and I had many opportunities to join them. I think that I was a Christian at that time, but I wasn’t walking closely with the Lord. But, in spite of my weak spiritual life, I never got involved in those sins.

Why not? I distinctly remember thinking on many occasions when those temptations came along, “I can’t do that because it would hurt Dad and Mom if I did it.” I knew that my parents loved me and trusted me. I didn’t want to violate their love and trust. Their love motivated me to want to please them.

That’s how God’s grace should work in our hearts. Like this adulterous woman, I was guilty and condemned before Him. But rather than condemning me, because of His sovereign grace He loved me enough to die in my place and offer me a full pardon. And since it cost Him so much, I can’t take His grace cheaply. I can’t sin and shrug it off by saying, “I’m under grace.” I want to please the one who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20). That same grace is available to every sinner who has been caught in the act! Receive it and then go and sin no more.

Application Questions

  1. Why does the evangelical church tend to overlook the sins of hypocrisy, legalism, gossip, and pride, but judge sins like drunkenness, immorality, homosexuality, etc.?
  2. What can we learn about witnessing from Jesus’ pattern of giving the Law to the self-righteous, but offering grace to sinners?
  3. An unbeliever asks you, “Why can’t God just forgive sins? Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” Your answer?
  4. Why does a true understanding of God’s grace never lead to licentious living? Can we emphasize His grace too much?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

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