Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Savior and the Sinner (John 7:53-8:11)

Introduction

In a recent Dallas Morning News, Christine Wicker wrote an article entitled, “Screen Savers,” about people who attempt to find God in contemporary films. In part, the article read:

As Camilla Ballard waits in the darkness for a movie to begin, she asks herself one question, “Where am I going to find God in this film?”

In L.A. Confidential she had to look past profanity, sex and violence for a glimpse of the Almighty. But she did find it—in the unconditional love of a prostitute played by Kim Basinger.

“When her policeman-lover beats her up, she just takes it. What a picture of God!” said the youth director at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas. “And in the police officer”—who misjudges her earlier actions—“what a picture of ourselves. We just rail at God and beat him up, and he takes it because he understands the big picture.

“Oh my gosh, I was just so excited. I thought about it for days.”

Ms. Ballard is among a growing number of religious people who advocate going to the movies for what Baptist layman Bruce Ruggles calls “an experience of worship.”

I prefer to have my worship rooted in Scripture, and my view of God based upon the Bible, particularly upon stories such as we find in our text in these first few verses of John chapter 8. Unfortunately, many would tell us this account should not even be considered Scripture. The marginal note of the NASB is most delicate about it. These verses are placed in brackets, with this marginal note: “John 7:53—8:11 is not found in most of the old mss.” Leon Morris, a highly respected evangelical scholar, writes, “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel.”71

Biblical scholars have raised questions about our text for several reasons: (1) Those Greek manuscripts judged by some to be both the oldest and the best72 omit this passage. When the passage does appear, the text varies considerably, and even occurs at a different place. (2) Some of the older (e.g., Latin, Armenian, Gothic) translations omit it, and some ancient commentators don’t comment on this text. (3) Some would say that both the style and vocabulary of this text differs from that of John. (4) Some argue that this passage does not fit well into the context. (5) A number of highly respected scholars do not believe this text is a part of the New Testament text.

Having said all of this, I am still confident in my own mind that this text is a part of the inspired Scripture, and that it is profitable for teaching as much as any other text of Scripture (whether written by the Apostle John or not).73 Even after his very critical comments on this text, Leon Morris speaks positively of it:

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 worth our while to study it, though not as an authentic part of John’s writing. The story is undoubtedly very ancient. Most authorities agree that it is referred to by Papias. It is mentioned also in the Apostolic Constitutions. But it is not mentioned very often in the early days. The reason probably is that in a day when the punishment for sexual sin was very severe among the Christians this story was thought to be too easily misinterpreted as countenancing unchastity. When ecclesiastical discipline was somewhat relaxed the story was circulated more widely and with a greater measure of official sanction.74

Calvin speaks of this text in a similar way:

It is plain enough that this passage was unknown anciently to the Greek Churches; and some conjecture that it has been brought from some other place and inserted here. But as it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.75

It is my intention and commitment to preach this text with the same zeal and sense of biblical authority as I would any other text of Scripture. I would also add as an aside that I personally find this text one of the most moving portions of the New Testament.

Background

Our text comes to us in a context. In John chapter 1, the Apostle John introduces our Lord, not as the babe born in a Bethlehem manger, but as the One who existed from eternity past, the One who as Creator called everything we see into existence. John the Baptist identifies Him as the promised Messiah, of whom he has been speaking. In the closing verses of chapter 1, Jesus begins to call His disciples.

In chapter 2, Jesus turns ceremonial cleansing water into the finest of wines and then proceeds to go up to the temple in Jerusalem and cast out those who are abusing it by making God’s house a place of doing business. In chapter 3, Jesus has a private interview with Nicodemus, who is shocked to hear that Judaism alone will not save him. When Jesus tells him he must be born again from above, Nicodemus has no idea what that means. In chapter 4, Jesus and His disciples go through Samaria and stop for lunch at the well outside the city of Sychar. It is here that the Samaritan woman and many other Samaritans come to faith in Jesus Christ. These are the kind of people the Jews never imagined God would save. (The Samaritan woman is the same kind of woman we find in our text.) Chapter 5 begins with our Lord healing the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, in Jerusalem. It is bad enough that Jesus heals him on the Sabbath, but He then dares to instruct this man to carry his bed on the Sabbath, too. But when our Lord makes it clear that He is equal with God as the Son of God, this is too much for the Jews to handle. The Jewish religious leaders are more intent than ever on killing Him (John 5:18). When Jesus feeds the multitude in the early part of John 6, the people are ready to make Jesus their king, by force if necessary. But after hearing Him speak of Himself as the “Bread of life,” many of our Lord’s Galilean “disciples” turn their backs on Jesus, never again to follow Him as they once did.

Chapter 7 brings our Lord back to Jerusalem once again, this time for the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus has kept His distance from Jerusalem and Judea, knowing the Jews are seeking to kill Him. When His brothers challenge Him to “get His show on the road”—to go to Jerusalem, where He can seek to gather a following—He declines, at least for the moment, choosing to go up to Jerusalem secretly. In the middle of the feast, Jesus boldly presents Himself at the temple where He begins to teach publicly. During this time, a number of folks come to the conclusion that Jesus must be the Messiah, or at least “the Prophet,” whose coming was foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). But most come to the conclusion that He is a demon-possessed mental case (at best), or a cunning deceiver (at worst). It is not just the religious leaders who try to get their hands on Jesus (John 7:25, 30, 32, 45-52). In spite of all of the efforts of men to arrest Jesus or to publicly expose Him as a fraud, no one is able to silence or to subdue Him. It is not His “time.” When Nicodemus weakly protests the actions of the Sanhedrin, they seem to come to an impasse, and all of them go home without a consensus.

One thing seems to especially trouble the Jewish religious leaders, whose obsession is the law and whose hero is Moses. Jesus claims that Moses was one of His witnesses, one of those who bore testimony to His identity as the Messiah (5:39-40). This Moses was also the one who would condemn them:

45 “Do not suppose that I will accuse you before the Father. The one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what Moses wrote, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:45-47)

In chapter 6, the Moses matter does not go away. Jesus feeds the multitudes on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As a result, many want Jesus to be their king. Some of those who have eaten and had their fill at the feeding of the 5,000 challenge Jesus to prove Himself equal with Moses. They claim that Moses gave their fathers bread from heaven in the wilderness, and they dare Jesus to do the same for them. Jesus corrects their mistaken assumption that Moses provided that “bread from heaven” for them to eat. It was God; it was His Father. Jesus is a better “bread from heaven,” a bread that gives men eternal life. Jesus needs not prove Himself equal to Moses, when He is vastly greater.

One cannot help but sense that the relationship issue between Jesus and Moses is one of the underlying issues of our text, as seen when the scribes and Pharisees drag a woman caught in the act of adultery before the crowd and before Jesus. They dare Jesus to differ with Moses about how this woman should be punished.

The Challenge
(7:53–8:6a)

7:53 And each one departed to his own house. 1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came to the temple courts again. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The experts in the law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught committing adultery. They made her stand in front of them 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. 5 In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women.76 What then do you say?” 6 (Now they were asking this in an attempt to trap him, so that they could bring charges against him.)

The members of the Sanhedrin have gone home, frustrated and angry that they can neither silence Jesus nor even manage to arrest Him. They are also deadlocked over how to deal with Him. While Nicodemus will not profess faith in Jesus, he does insist on dealing with Him legally, and this means a public trial, not a private execution.

When the council members go to their own homes, Jesus and His disciples go to the Mount of Olives. Jesus also goes there in the latter days of His ministry to avoid being an easy target for assassination or arrest (see Luke 19:37; 22:39). Early in the morning, Jesus makes His way to the temple again. He most certainly has prevailed and is neither silenced nor sent away in fear. The people begin to gather around Him, forming a crowd, and He begins to teach them.

Suddenly, there is a commotion. Heads turn as a group of men rudely push their way through the crowd. They are the scribes and Pharisees. We do not see these two groups paired elsewhere in John, but it is common in the Synoptic Gospels.77 Some wonder that we would find them here. To me, it is logical and predictable. Both the scribes and the Pharisees are self-confident, even arrogant, in their opinion of themselves as interpreters and guardians of the law. In the Gospels, their opposition comes quickly and lasts long (Matthew 5:20; 12:38; 15:1; 23:13ff.; Mark 2:16; 11:27-33; 12:28-34; Luke 6:7; 11:44). Furthermore, the “Moses question” has been prominent lately in the teaching of Jesus. It has also played a significant role in the opposition of the religious leaders to Jesus, especially in regard to Sabbath-keeping. Everyone else has failed to physically lay a hand on Jesus. These fellows are just arrogant enough to try to outwit Jesus intellectually by making use of their greatest strength, their mastery of the Law of Moses.

The group does not come alone. They have with them an unwilling accomplice—a woman whose sin the law condemns, a sin for which she deserves to die. If, indeed, she is caught “in the very act of adultery,” she may be only partly clothed, if at all. I suspect they do not gently bring her along, but probably drag her “kicking and screaming.” No doubt, the woman is in tears, humiliated by her guilt and her exposure. Worse yet, she is stationed before the One who knows no sin—and at the same time, before the eyes of the crowd gathered at the temple.

I cannot imagine a more horrible experience for anyone, and the scribes and Pharisees do nothing to make things easier for her. With self-righteous indignation, these men go about their mission, using this woman no less than a rapist does, and perhaps much more so. The worst is that they are not really interested in this woman, in her sin, or in her execution under the law. They are seeking to make an accusation against Jesus, which we are told clearly in verse 6. This is a sham, no less so than our Lord’s “trial” before the Sanhedrin will be a few months later. The scribes and Pharisees are attempting to manipulate matters in a way that (as we say in Texas) puts Jesus “between a rock and a hard place.”

These scribes and Pharisees claim that they caught this woman “in the very act of adultery.” Given the stringency of the law on how such matters were to be handled, it seems that two witnesses would have had to observe this woman and her partner in such a way that there was no doubt about what was taking place. In our day and time, the video camera makes such evidence possible. In that day and time, it would have been very difficult to convict a person of adultery, which is why many suspect there is a trap or a conspiracy here:

If the conditions required by Jewish law were as stringent as J. Duncan M. Derrett maintains this can scarcely indicate anything other than a trap deliberately set. All the more is this likely to be the case in that the man was not present. Why not? Since the woman was taken in the very act there should have been two sinners, not one, before Jesus.78

With smug satisfaction and confidence, the scribes and Pharisees press Jesus to pronounce a verdict regarding this woman’s guilt and punishment:

They made her stand in front of them 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. 5 In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women. What then do you say?”

They set Jesus against Moses, thinking that in so doing our Lord will be trapped, that He can do nothing other than condemn Himself by opposing the teaching of the law and of Moses.

How can they be so confident? Why are they so bold as to carry out their confrontation is such a public fashion? From experience, they know that Jesus has compassion on sinners. They expect Him to be compassionate toward this sinful woman, and for good reason. Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance (see Luke 5:27-32). It was Simon, the Pharisee, who objected to our Lord’s acceptance of a woman very much like the woman brought before our Lord at the temple; Jesus rebuked Simon and said to the woman: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50). It may sound far-fetched, but our Lord’s opponents are also convinced that Mary, His mother, conceived Jesus by a similar act of immorality (see John 8:41). How then can Jesus condemn this woman? If He cannot condemn her, then (they assume) He must disagree with Moses and the law. They have Jesus just where they want Him.

Silenced
(8:6b-9)

Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 When they persisted in asking him, he stood up straight and replied, “Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground. 9 Now when they heard this, they began to drift away one at a time, starting with the older ones, until Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

As elsewhere in the Gospels, it appears that Jesus is caught on the horns of a dilemma. When, for example, Jesus is asked whether the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar or not, it looks as though there is no way out for our Lord. If He answers “Yes,” then He is in trouble with the people, who hate paying taxes to Rome. If He answers “No,” then Jesus is in trouble with Rome for treason. But where His enemies err is in thinking He is limited to their answers. Jesus is not.

Here, it seems that the scribes and Pharisees suppose they have Jesus trapped, too. If Jesus votes to condemn this woman, then He will be acting against His stated purpose of seeking and saving sinners. If, on the other hand, Jesus proposes that this woman be shown mercy, He will be contradicting the law of Moses, which requires that both partners who are convicted of adultery be put to death (see Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 18:20; 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:18; 22:13-29). It seems that Jesus is indeed trapped. Whatever His answer, it will condemn Him, and His enemies will win.

Our Lord ignores His adversaries, responding to their challenge by His silence. How badly His opponents misinterpret this silence. They think His silence is because they have Him stumped.79 His silence achieves several things. With John Calvin, I believe our Lord’s silence is intended to shame His adversaries:

By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. … For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said.80

If our wives are offended by our reading the newspaper while they talk to us, imagine the offense of having Jesus refuse to look at His adversaries, appearing not to hear them, and instead occupying Himself by writing (or drawing) in the dirt!

Our Lord’s silence should shame His enemies, but in fact, they are not at all ashamed—at least not yet. Jesus’ silence gives them the impression that they have Jesus at a disadvantage, that He either cannot or will not answer them. So, they intensify their efforts. I suspect they raise their voices and press Jesus harder, demanding that He give them an answer. They put on a show for the crowd to see. All of this simply sets the scene for what our Lord is about to say. They could not have given Him a better introduction.

Before we consider our Lord’s verbal response, let me pursue our Lord’s silence further. I believe our Lord’s silence (and His writing in the dust) accomplishes something else, something very gracious. It is my opinion that this woman is only partially clothed. She has been caught in the very act of adultery. If she has been dragged along naked, or nearly so, it only serves to make the point of her accusers. Such was a way of shaming men (see 2 Samuel 10:1-5) and women (Genesis 9:22-23; Deuteronomy 28:48; Isaiah 47:3; Lamentations 1:8; Ezekiel 16:37; Nahum 3:5; Habakkuk 2:15). I believe that when our Lord stoops down to the ground, ignores His adversaries, and writes in the dust, He not only is prevented from looking upon this woman’s nakedness and shame, but He also attracts the attention of the crowd to Himself, rather than to her. I admit no one I have read has come to this conclusion, but it is just like our Lord. The scribes and Pharisees want to put this woman on display, shaming her in public. Jesus seems to take the spotlight off of her and onto Himself. Can’t you see the crowd fixing their eyes on the ground, stooping to see what Jesus is writing?

It is interesting to read all of the speculations concerning what our Lord writes in the dust. One suggestion is that Jesus writes the names and the sins of those who are accusing this woman. Like A. T. Robertson,81 I disagree with this suggestion, but for a different reason. I don’t think there is enough dirt available for our Lord to do so! The fact is that we are purposefully kept from knowing what Jesus writes (or draws) on the ground. The message to this woman’s accusers (and our Lord’s accusers as well) is not what He writes, but what He says: “Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her.”

The scribes and Pharisees think they have Jesus cornered, with no way of escape. Even though Jesus claims that Moses bore witness to Him as the Messiah, and that He also would be their accuser, they seek to use Moses to indict Jesus. What a bad mistake! Masterfully, Jesus deals with their challenge. First, our Lord does not deny this woman’s guilt. As an adulteress, she is condemned by the law, and she does deserve to die. (Our Lord does not deal with the matter of the other guilty party here, as this is a setup.) Jesus does not plead for mercy. He even agrees to an execution, one I’m not sure they want or intend. There is just one problem—who will be the first to cast a stone?

Jesus in no way seeks to set aside the law or to diminish its role in this situation. After all, He is the One who has come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (Matthew 5:17-18). Our Lord’s response is a response from the Law:

6 “Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 7 The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:6-7, NKJV).

The scribes and Pharisees boldly insist that this woman should be executed in accordance with the Law of Moses. They seek to force Jesus to differ with the law and thus become guilty of violating the law Himself. Instead, Jesus presses this same law even further than His adversaries. It is as though He says, “You’re absolutely right. A woman who is caught in the very act of adultery is condemned to death under the law. She should be stoned, here and now. And since we are all so concerned with the keeping of the law, let us be sure that her execution is also lawful. The law stipulates that the guilty person must be stoned, and that those who cast the first stones are those who testified against her. These witnesses must, of course, be guiltless in all of this. Now, to fulfill the law, who will be the one to take up the first stone and cast it at her? Who is sinless in this matter? Who is guiltless before the law?” Oops. The law was more exacting, more demanding than they reckoned. It says too much. It not only condemns this woman; it condemns them all.

The question is not whether this guilty woman should be punished. The question is, “Who is sinless in this matter to be qualified to condemn her?”

“But Jesus stood up and invited any one among them who was sinless to throw the first stone. This answer completely disarmed them. It could not possibly be construed as a rejection of the law. Jesus specifically enjoined that a stone be thrown. But His limitation on who might throw it effectively prevented any harm coming to the guilty woman. The saying ‘does not deny that she may be stoned, but insists upon the innocency and therefore the competence of whoever stands forth against her as accuser and witness.’”82

The words of Jesus are both an appeal to conscience and a warning to the hearers that their own lives might very well be at stake. If they stoned the woman they must be very sure of the witnesses.83

Our Lord returns to His previous posture, commencing once again to write (or draw) in the dust. I am not certain whether it is out of conviction of guilt, or due to their failure to prove Jesus a law-breaker, that His adversaries shrink away silently, beginning with the oldest.84 Our text tells us Jesus is left alone with this woman. Many understand these words to mean that those who leave are all of her accusers—the scribes and Pharisees who so rudely interrupted, trying to find fault with Jesus. They believe the crowd remains. I have doubts about this. I wonder if those in the crowd are not as condemned as the scribes and Pharisees. Would they not also be required to participate in this stoning? Who in the crowd is able to cast the first stone?

Not until they all leave does Jesus address the woman, for the first time. Jesus does not ask her about her guilt. He knows. He simply asks her where those are who a short while before seemed so eager to condemn her. Does no one remain to condemn her? Then if there are no witnesses, there can be no condemnation, no execution. The scribes call for an execution, and no one stays for it—no one is willing to cast the first stone.

She is a free woman. She is not an innocent woman, as seen from our Lord’s words to her. Jesus will not condemn her, either. He does not tell her that her sins are forgiven, though I would not be surprised if she later came to faith in Jesus as her Messiah. He does tell her to go, and from then on to give up her sin.

What an amazing turn of events. A woman is probably dragged through the crowd and cast at Jesus’ feet, overcome with guilt and shame, the object of attention. Her sin that seemed such a private matter only moments earlier is now known by the whole city. Her accusers boldly accuse her and virtually dare Jesus to disagree with their verdict. Jesus agrees with them and takes the law even further than they do, exposing their sin in the process. When it ends, her accusers leave with heads hung in shame, silent at last. She leaves a different person, I believe, and she will never be the same.

Conclusion

This text, short though it may be, abounds in lessons for us. Let me begin by observing from our text that some of the most terrible sins are committed by “religious” people, in the name of practicing and promoting righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees are as religious as it gets; yet they are exceedingly wicked in what they do to this woman and in what they attempt to do to Jesus. They are not really interested in righteousness and justice and holiness; they are interested in making themselves look good and Jesus look bad. Sin often comes with a very thin religious veneer.

What we dare not conclude from this story is that Jesus refuses to judge or condemn anyone. Over the years, I have heard this line of argument many times in slightly different forms: “Jesus taught us that just as He would not judge anyone, neither should we.” Let me remind you that what our Lord’s adversaries most want is for Him to refuse to acknowledge this woman is a sinner, deserving of death. They are disappointed because Jesus agreed with them that she is a sinner, deserving of death. Their problem is that they fail to see themselves as sinners as well. Jesus not only sees her immorality as sin, He urges her to forsake her sin in the future. Jesus does not give her a license to sin, but a reason and (shortly) the means to cease from sin. Jesus exposes much more sin than anyone expects, and He condemns it all. Jesus is not “soft on sin.”

Neither is our Lord teaching that we should not condemn sin or punish sinners.85 In the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus instructs His disciples that they are to confront a brother who sins, and if necessary, to discipline him (18:15-20). Many New Testament texts make dealing with sin our duty (see, for example, Acts 5:1-11; Romans 12:9; 15:14; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 13:1-10; Galatians 6:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:14; Titus 3:10-11).

What our Lord teaches, I believe, is that when we must deal with the sins of others, we recognize that we too are sinners, and vulnerable to sin as well. We must first deal with our own sin, and then with the sin of others:

1 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. 2 For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. 3 Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of timber in your own eye? 4 Or why do you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite, first remove the beam from your eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. 2 Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself (Galatians 6:1-3).

As I have thought through this amazing story of the Savior and the sinner, it occurs to me that this story is yet one more proof that Jesus is, indeed, the Messiah. I am reminded of Hannah’s prayer, recorded in the Old Testament Book of 1 Samuel, and taken up to some degree by Mary (see Luke 1:46-55):

1 And Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the LORD; My horn is exalted in the LORD. I smile at my enemies, Because I rejoice in Your salvation.

2 “No one is holy like the LORD, For there is none besides You, Nor is there any rock like our God.

3 “Talk no more so very proudly; Let no arrogance come from your mouth, For the LORD is the God of knowledge; And by Him actions are weighed.

4 “The bows of the mighty men are broken, And those who stumbled are girded with strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, And the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven, And she who has many children has become feeble.

6 “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. 8 He raises the poor from the dust And lifts the beggar from the ash heap, To set them among princes And make them inherit the throne of glory.

“For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, And He has set the world upon them. 9 He will guard the feet of His saints, But the wicked shall be silent in darkness.

“For by strength no man shall prevail. 10 The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken in pieces; From heaven He will thunder against them. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

“He will give strength to His king, And exalt the horn of His anointed” (1 Samuel 2:1-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).

In our text, our Lord “put down” the arrogant scribes and Pharisees. He “lifted up” this humbled woman. Jesus is acting like the Messiah He is, like the Messiah He claims to be.

Someone has said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I believe this is true of the “pictures” John’s Gospel gives us in our text. There are two “pictures” I want to call to your attention, and with these, I shall conclude. The first “picture” is of the conflict between legalistic Judaism (the kind of religion Paul had before he was saved—see Philippians 3:1-16) and true Christianity (grace). These scribes and Pharisees, as intelligent and well taught as they are, do not understand the purpose of the Old Testament law. Ironically, the woman caught in adultery does seem to grasp the essence of what the law is about.

The scribes and Pharisees think the law is the means for obtaining righteousness. In their minds, if one will but keep the law, one will be righteous, and God’s blessings will be assured. No wonder these two groups are so devoted to the interpretation and application of the law to daily life—it is their life, their eternal life. But the law was never given so that men could work their way to heaven. The law was given as a standard of righteousness. The law was given to show all men that they are sinners, deserving of God’s eternal wrath. The law was given to show men that they need grace. The woman seems to see herself as the law does—as one guilty of adultery, as one without any excuse, without any basis for mercy. The scribes and Pharisees feel as though they are above the law as its interpreters and guardians. They use the law to condemn others and to justify themselves. This short story of the Savior and the sinner captures the essence of the difference between our Lord’s use of the law and the legalistic system of that day.

What John’s Gospel teaches through this story Paul applies to Judaism in the Book of Romans. Paul was a legalistic Pharisee himself. Like the Pharisees and scribes who are “attacking” Jesus, he thought that religious zeal and devotion to the law was his salvation. Anyone who challenged this view, or who taught otherwise was, to Paul, a heretic that deserved to die. But then he is confronted by Jesus Christ, and he comes to faith. From that point on, he sees legalistic law-keeping as worthless, and he gives it all up for faith in Christ’s work at Calvary:

2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh! 3 For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, exult in Christ, and do not rely on human credentials 4 —though mine too are significant. If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. 6 In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. 7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I might gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because of having my own righteousness derived from the law, but because of having the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:2-11).

In the Book of Romans, Paul shows that all men are sinners, who have failed to meet God’s standard of righteousness and thus are under divine condemnation, unable to save themselves. In short, all men need to be saved, and they must be saved by grace, not by works.

17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God 18 and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, 19 and if you are convinced that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, 20 an educator of the senseless, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the essential features of knowledge and of the truth— 21 therefore you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who boast in the law dishonor God by transgressing the law. 24 For just as it is written, “the name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:17-24).

9 What then? Are we better off? Certainly not, for we have already charged that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin, 10 just as it is written:

There is no one righteous, not even one,
11 there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away, they have together become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, not even one
.

13
Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues,
the poison of asps is under their lips
.

14
Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
15
Their feet are swift to shed blood,
16 ruin and misery are in their paths,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.

18
There is no fear of God before their eyes.

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God, which is attested by the law and the prophets, has been disclosed—22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 3:24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:9-24).

The Jews are eager to condemn the heathen, and so they are certainly “amening” all that Paul writes in chapter 1. But in chapter 2, Paul does to his Jewish readers what Jesus does to the scribes and Pharisees of John 8. Paul challenges them to apply the same standard of law to themselves that they apply to others. Note especially his words of verse 22: “You who say not to commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” He presses them to acknowledge that the law does not merely condemn pagans (Gentiles) or “sinners” (like the woman caught in adultery); it condemns all. The law also condemns self-righteous Jews. They may meticulously keep one part of the law (as they appear to be doing in condemning the woman caught in sin), but they blatantly ignore or disobey other portions of the law (which Jesus calls to their attention by requiring that the one who casts the first stone must be without sin). In Romans 3:10-18, Paul draws together a number of Old Testament texts which articulate this same truth: the law condemns everyone as a sinner. Then, in verses 19 and 20, Paul states the principle again so that no one can miss what he is saying. The law was never given to save men, but to show men their sin. Notice, again, what the law was to produce—silence: “so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (verse 19).

John chapter 8 is what the gospel is all about. The law condemns all men as sinners. The only One truly qualified to condemn anyone is Jesus, because He is without sin. And yet the One who alone can condemn is also the One who came to save. Jesus is not minimizing or excusing sin at all; He is exposing sin, and within a few months, He will endure the punishment for sin on the cross of Calvary. The reason He does not condemn this woman, the reason He does not stone her, is because He came to bear the sentence of death she deserves.

This brings us to our second “picture.” Is the story of the Savior and the sinner in John chapter 8 not a picture of what Paul writes later in the Book of Romans?

31 What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 Who is the one who will condemn? Christ is the one who died (and more than that he was raised), who is at the right hand of God, and who also is interceding for us (Romans 8:31-34).

The only One qualified to condemn us is the One whom the Father sent to save sinners. He who could have condemned us bore our condemnation on the cross of Calvary.

Where are you in this “picture” in John chapter 8? Are you one of the self-righteous religious folks, who are only too eager to point an accusing finger at the sins of others, while avoiding your own? Are you one of the crowd, enjoying the role of a spectator, seemingly uninvolved? Or are you like this woman, all too aware of her guilt and sin and shame? It is this last category of people that our Lord came to save—guilty, helpless sinners, who deserve God’s wrath, and who cling to Him for grace and forgiveness. No one is too sinful, too guilty, to be saved, but many are too good to be saved—too good in that they think they don’t need grace, when they desperately do.

May God use this story of His amazing grace to change your life, as I believe He changed the life of this “sinner.”


71 Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 882.

72 There is a great debate taking place over the issue of whether the oldest manuscripts are also the best.

73 I am not conceding that this passage was written by someone other than John, but even if it were, I would still consider it a part of the inspired text. (We don’t reject the Book of Deuteronomy simply because someone other than Moses wrote the words about the death of Moses—see Deuteronomy 34.)

74 Leon Morris, p. 883.

75 John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 7: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n.d.), p. 734.

76 There is clearly a curling of the lip, a clear note of disdain—“such women.” Morris comments, “It is perhaps worth noticing that they slightly manipulate the text of the law. They speak of ‘such’ as being stoned, the word being feminine, ‘such women,’ whereas Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22 both lay it down that the man as well as the woman is to be put to death. They are also a little more specific than the Old Testament, for they speak definitely of stoning, whereas the passages we have cited do not indicate the manner of execution. Stoning is prescribed for the guilty pair when the woman is ‘a virgin betrothed unto a husband’ (Deut. 22:23f.).” Morris, p. 886.

77 Carson writes, “The teachers of the law (lit. ‘scribes’) and the Pharisees are often mentioned together in the Synoptics, but never in the genuine text of John. The scribes were the recognized students and expositors of the law of Moses, but so central was the law in the life and thought of first-century Palestinian Jews that the scribes came to assume something of the roles of lawyer, ethicist, theologian, catechist, and jurist. Most of them, but certainly not all, were Pharisees by conviction …” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 334.

Morris cites Barclay, with this helpful observation, distinguishing the scribes and the Pharisees: “For a useful account of the scribes and the Pharisees see W. Barclay, The Mind of Jesus (London, 1960), pp. 158ff. He neatly sums up the differences between the two by saying, ‘It was the scribes who worked out all these rules and regulations; it was the Pharisees who devoted their whole lives to the keeping of them’ (op. cit., p. 161).’” Morris, p. 884, fn. 9.

78 Morris, p. 885. Morris here cites some very interesting work by Derrett, which may be of interest to the student of Scripture.

79 They wrongly conclude that His silence is like their own (see Matthew 21:27; 22:34, 46; Mark 12:34; Luke 20:40).

80 John Calvin, p. 734.

81 “There is a tradition that Jesus wrote down the names and sins of these accusers. That is not likely.” A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1932), vol. 5, p. 139.

82 Morris, citing Derrett (op. cit., p. 22), p. 889.

83 Morris, p. 889.

84 This seemingly incidental comment is intriguing. Jesus raises the question as to who should be first to cast the stone, and none is willing to step forward. There seems to be no problem deciding who should be the first to leave.

85 Calvin comments: “In this way, however, Christ appears to take out of the world all judicial decisions, so that no man shall dare to say that he has a right to punish crimes. For shall a single judge be found, who is not conscious of having something that is wrong?

“I reply: this is not an absolute and unlimited prohibition, by which Christ forbids sinners to do their duty in correcting the sins of others; but by this word he only reproves hypocrites, who mildly flatter themselves and their vices, but are excessively severe, and even act the part of felons, in censuring others. No man, therefore, shall be prevented by his own sins from correcting the sins of others, and even from punishing them, when it may be found necessary, provided that both in himself and in others he hate what ought to be condemned; and in addition to all this, every man ought to begin by interrogating his own conscience, and by acting both as witness and judge against himself, before he come to others. In this manner shall we, without hating men, make war with sins.” Calvin, p. 735.

Related Topics: Forgiveness