Sadly a majority of Christians tend to respond to those caught in sin with harsh judgment and self righteousness. We sometimes feel justified in being harsh or looking down our noses at someone caught in a wrongdoing. Yes, we are commanded in the Epistles to judge those who call themselves Christians and are openly living in sin; but the intention for judgment is not to condemn but to restore and bring the person back to a right relationship with God. Unfortunately restoration is not usually our motive when we judge and act self righteously to those who do get caught in sin.
When a person is caught in sin it should break our hearts. We should never find satisfaction in judgment and condemnation because of bad choices made in one’s life. Sin is a dark, dangerous and deeply destructive thing that we are all susceptible to. It can rear its ugly head in any of our lives at any moment. None of us are free from the temptations and enticements of sin.
In today’s passage we are witness to our Lord’s response to a woman who was caught red handed in the act of sin. We learn from Jesus’ response how we should respond, judge and treat others whose sins have been exposed for all to see.
Most likely your Bible will have a set of double brackets, a line or a sentence that reads something like “The earliest Manuscripts do not contain 7:53 to 8:11”. You may wonder what this is all about. It is pretty much accepted among Bible scholars across the board that this passage is not in the original and earliest texts of John. It is found in a small number of Medieval Greek manuscripts. However it does seem from extra biblical sources that similar stories of a woman caught in sin are recorded during Jesus’ ministry but were not part of the original Gospel of John. Some actually place this account in the Gospel of Luke and some after John 21. Even though it is not in the earliest manuscripts it is widely accepted as authentic, and apostolic (either witnessed by one of the Apostles or was recorded by one who interviewed someone who was an eyewitness). Overall, the point to make is even though it may not appear in the earliest manuscripts it does not mean that it did not happen nor is the story is null and void because of its exclusion.
Read John 8:1 - 11
Verse 2: Jesus was in the Temple teaching and many people were coming to hear him teach. According to some commentators there are several expressions and content that is typical of Luke. Thus some have placed this account in Luke.
Verse 3: As Jesus was teaching the Scribes and Pharisees bring a woman (obviously against her will) who was caught in adultery before Jesus (and all who were in the Temple listening to Jesus). As we will see in a moment their motive was not so much to punish the woman for her sin as it was to put Jesus in his place.
I find it interesting for us to consider where the man was who is caught in this debacle? I like what D.A. Carson writes, “Adultery is not a sin one commits in splendid isolation: One wonders why the man is not brought with her. Either he was fleeter of foot than she, and escaped, leaving her to face hostile accusers on her own; or the accusers themselves were sufficiently chauvinistic to focus exclusively on this woman.” Either reason is just as plausible.
Verses 4, 5: They bring this woman before Jesus because they were testing him to see his response. In some ways Jesus was a rock in a hard place because no matter how he answered he could have not have been right… at least this is what the authorities believed.
According to the Law of Moses being caught in the act of adultery was punishable by death. You can read the rules and regulations in Deut. 22:22- 24 & Lev. 20:10. You will see there are many laws pertaining to sexual purity. You will also see both individuals who were caught in adultery were to be put to death.
We should note that at this time since Israel was under Roman rule the capital punishment of stoning had not been a common practice. The question was really a question of loyalty. If he said let the woman go he could have been tagged as a friend of the Romans. If he told them to stone her he could have been turned in to the Roman authorities as a rebel against Rome. "So,” they say, “what should be done with her?”
Verse 6, 7: We see the motivation behind bringing this woman to him. They didn’t really care so much about the sinner as they were in trying to trick him. They were just trying to find more reason to have Jesus put away.
Jesus’ response is classic! He bends down and starts writing in the sand. I think the one question on everyone’s mind is what exactly did he write? There is a ton of speculation but the truth is we do not know what he was writing. Some suggest that he was imitating the Roman practice of magistrates who would write their sentence down and then read it; but as I stated earlier we can only speculate.
Verse 8: Jesus answers the question in a way that I am sure none of them were expecting. His words of response still ring true for today… “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” Knowing each and everyone of them was far from perfect there was no way any of them could pick up the first stone. Lev. 24:14 suggests that the witnesses of the crime are the ones who are to stone the sinner plus they must not be participants in the sin as well. If we wanted we certainly could read further into their response. Maybe they were guilty of the same exact sin as this woman. Maybe one of them was the one she was caught with. We’ll never know but it certainly was possible.
Verse 9: After speaking these words Jesus bends down and begins writing in the sand once again. As he does this the leaders turn and walk away one by one starting with the eldest. I can just see their faces burning hot with anger and frustration as they thought they had this fool proof plan to trick Jesus and it all comes unraveled at the end.
Once again we can only speculate what Jesus was writing. Some have suggested he was writing the names of each leader present and the sins they are involved in. We just don’t and can’t know what he wrote but it is fun to play with various scenarios.
Verse 10: Jesus is standing there alone with the woman and looks to her and asks, “Where are those who condemn you? I see they all left.” One would almost expect Jesus to be standing there with a stone in his hand throwing it up into the air, taunting the woman and glaring down at her while he asks her this question. But this isn’t what happens at all. You can almost hear the authoritative compassion and mercy he speaks to this woman. He was the one who could have cast the first stone because he was the only one present without sin; but he does not.
Verses 11: Instead he tells her that neither will he condemn her. Some have tried to suggest that Jesus is apathetic towards this sin and that he was taking it easy on the woman. The truth is he responds with compassion because he probably saw the regret and fear in the woman’s eyes as she was at the point of potential death by stoning. She was humiliated in front of the masses, her life was essentially ruined because she was to forever be known as the adulterer. She was probably going to be shunned from her family and community if she had one. Yet Jesus says to her, “I do not condemn you either.” He takes this sin seriously as he essentially gives this woman a second chance at true life. He says, “I am not going to condemn you, so go away and sin no more.”
Was Jesus calling her to live a sin free life? I don’t think so. He was telling her to quit committing the sin she was caught for. A man or woman could be considered adulterers if they were betrothed to be married but not yet. Or they were adulterers if they were sexually engaged with someone who was not their husband or wife. Or they were sexually engaged with a person who was someone else’s husband or wife. Maybe the woman was betrothed. She could have been having an extramarital affair or she may have been sleeping around. Regardless Jesus tells her to stop what she is doing.
We don’t know what ever became of the woman and we don’t know what became of the man who was never brought before Jesus. I can imagine her life was forever impacted and changed for the glory of God. So many people who had encounters with Jesus throughout the Gospels are impacted in one way or another. Some are made well (healed), some are forgiven, and some walk away from him because what he asks is too difficult to do in the flesh.
What I do see here in opening passage of John 8 are lessons in forgiveness, humility, and compassion. I find it very interesting throughout the Gospels Jesus’ response to sinners. He is ultra tough on the leaders of his time because of their self-centered pride, hypocrisy and condescension towards people. These men were constantly pointing out other people’s sins or enforcing laws and not keeping them themselves. He was even compassionate to one of their own (Nicodemus) when he came and inquired of Jesus in humility and sought to learn from him. Jesus was compassionate to those others who were considered sinners. He was never apathetic towards the sin, he does confront it (quit doing what you are doing), responds with compassion (your sins are forgiven) and impacts a person forever. Jesus was tough on the Jewish leaders because they knew better and they were seeking to control people with their authority. The common sinner(s) that we see in the Gospels may have known better but their response was quite similar to the act repentance that is required with sin issues in our lives.
What can we learn and take away from us today?
- Be mindful how you respond to someone whose sins have been exposed. Remember Jesus did not respond with harsh judgment, and self righteousness.
- Don’t mistaken Jesus’ compassion for sinners as tolerance for sin. As I stated earlier sin is a dangerous and dark slippery slope. Jesus is compassionate towards the sinner, yet he does confront it and demands a response towards it.
- What is your heart of response towards known sinners? Are you quick to condemn someone just because he is at a point in rebellion in this life? Do you find a certain (maybe really small) amount of satisfaction or “he got what he deserves” attitude towards someone you are not really fond of?
We are better off praying for those individuals and lovingly letting them know their sins are not God’s plan for their lives. Would we be better serving others by showing compassion and letting God be the final judge? This does not and I repeat does not mean we as believers should overlook any open sin in a person’s life. We can’t just apathetically tolerate sin and let it run rampant and unchecked in another brother or sisters life because we fear offending. Apathy and tolerance towards sin is in no way showing love. As Christians we must confront one another in Christ of our sins and have a heart and attitude of restoration and love and not of judgment and condemnation.
If you were to put yourself in this story today, where would you fit? Would you be one of the self righteous leaders, the humiliated adulteress (sinner), or the compassionate, sin confronting believer who desires restoration? It’s tough to imagine but take some time today and this week and pray about where you would be in this scenario.
 Carson, D.A. (1991) The Gospel According to John p. 335 Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdman’s Publishing Co.