John 8:2, “Now early in the morning Jesus came again into the temple (for context the Feast of Tabernacles had just finished up the day before), and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?’ This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.
But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’”
As John recalls this seminal event in the ministry of Jesus (and it’s interesting of the four Gospel authors only John records this story), he remembers it being “early in the morning” when “Jesus came again into the Temple.” For a moment, please imagine this scene…
With the rising sun cresting over the Mount of Olives located to the east of the holy city the dark shadows that had been dominating the Temple precincts since dusk are slowly erased by rays of flaxen light radiating off the white marble structure inlaid with gold paneling.
Additionally, since the Feast of Tabernacles occurred mid-October, the warmth provided by daybreak is a welcomed reprieve from the chilly night air. The scene itself is majestic.
As you make your way into the Temple, you can’t help but notice the mood is much different now that the Feast of Tabernacles has concluded. Most of the pilgrims have departed for home and the festivities have finally ceased. The atmosphere has returned to a normalcy with the primary activities of that morning focused on all the necessary clean-up.
You also notice the crowd that morning in the Temple is much different than it would have been the day before. Those present on such an early hour would have been a combination of local residents prepping for the day, priests and orderlies finishing up their various duties, and a few pilgrims coming to see the Temple one last time on their way out of town.
When you hear that Jesus and His disciples were also present that morning you’re in complete disbelief. You see just 24-hours earlier the religious leaders had made an unsuccessful attempt to arrest Jesus. And yet, not only had He returned to the Temple but He’s come back with the intention of teaching the people — in public no less!
In contrast to the previous day when “Jesus stood up and cried” out to the masses inviting any and all who had a spiritual thirst to come and drink of Living Water only He provided, His demeanor this morning is much more subdued. Jesus is not standing up and crying out but is “sitting down (the proper position of rabbis in that day) teaching” the people.
As I imagine that particular morning, I see Jesus coming into the Temple and taking up a seat under one of the many outer porticos built years before by Herod the Great. While initially, Jesus began teaching to a small crowd made up of likely His 12 disciples, you can imagine, as word begins to spread, it doesn’t take long for His audience to grow in size.
In fact, John says “all the people” who were in the precincts that morning eventually come to hear what Jesus had to say. How large the audience had swelled to we can’t say for sure, other than the fact a lack of specificity implies the crowd left a considerable footprint.
As you’re standing amongst the crowd listening intently to what Jesus was teaching, you find yourself growing annoyed by a ruckus taking place somewhere outside the Temple. “Why are people yelling and screaming this early in the morning,” you think to yourself. Though you’re doing your best to remain attentive, the truth is it’s becoming more and more difficult to focus as this commotion begins making its way closer to where you’re standing.
Soon it becomes evident this hubbub is intentionally making its way to Jesus. You watch as the crowd begins to part as an interesting entourage of “the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery.” Initially, you’re struck by this posse of religious men.
You have “the scribes” who were the experts of the Levitical Law (they were the lawyers) joined by a group of “Pharisees” who happened to be the ruling, religious, fundamentalist of the day. Their ornate and gaudy robes were a giveaway. The most obvious question that comes to your mind is what were they doing up so early and why had they come to Jesus?
Soon your questions are answered when you notice these pious men have brought to Jesus “a woman caught in adultery.” Again, you immediately wonder, “Why are they bringing this woman to Jesus? And aside from this, why are they making such a public spectacle her?” A palpable awkwardness grips the audience. Everyone is a little un-eased by the scene.
This Greek word “caught” means “to lay hold of” or “to seize upon.” The description of this woman being “caught in adultery” implies she was arrested in the very act of committing this sexual sin. If that sounds terrible, in actuality it’s probably much worse…
Quoting David Guzik quoting Henry Morris, “Legally speaking, the standard of evidence was very high for this crime of adultery. There had to be two witnesses and they had to agree perfectly. They had to see the sexual act take place; it wasn’t enough to see the pair leaving the same room together or even lying on the same bed together. The actual physical movements of the couple must have been capable of no other explanation… Conditions for adultery were so stringent they could have been met only on rare occasions.”
Please understand one thing about this situation this particular morning, both this woman’s sin and her shame have been completely laid bare and placed on public display. There was no hiding it. Her sin committed in a most private setting with someone she likely trusted had been drug into the light of day likely kicking and screaming in sheer panic.
Imagine what that morning had been like for this poor woman… In the very act of non-marital, consensual sex (which she knew was a grave sin punishable by death) these religious men (who’d actually been watching this intimate moment specifically to ensure a sexual encounter had occurred) burst into the room while she’s still in the act itself.
Without any care, couth, or compassion, these men snatch her from the bed leaving behind her partner. Adding further injury to insult, they proceed to drag this naked woman through the winding streets and alleyways of Jerusalem, into the Temple precincts, through a crowd of onlookers, bringing her before Jesus. Imagine the complete and total humiliation!
As you stand there processing what’s happening, don’t forget this woman had been totally blindsided by a group of men not interested in demonstrating any type of sympathy or common decency. It’s unlikely they’d given her time to dress or compose herself. I’m sure she was not only petrified, cold, and partially nude, but she’s likely totally disoriented.
Aside from this, her obvious distress is compounded by the knowledge she knew what she’d done was wrong. This woman knew adultery was a sin before God. Of all the many laws in Scripture, adultery had made the Top 10 list codified in tablets of stone. She knew the consequence was death. She’d been caught and there was no way out of it!
Knowing her inescapable fate, her thoughts immediately turn to the effects her poor choices were going to have on her family. Oh, the shame her parents were likely to experience would prove to be overwhelming. If she was married with children, I’m sure she thought about the pain her husband would feel as well as the ridicule her kids would have to endure.
While being dragged from one street to another, grief engulfs her… “What have I done? I knew this was wrong. I’ve sacrificed everything I love for one night of pleasure!” This woman had sown to the wind and now she was about to reap the whirlwind. Her life was over!
As these men lug her across town she has no idea where they were taking her. No question she’s crying out for mercy the entire way. Beyond this, when she finally realizes they were bringing her into such a public place as the Temple she would have been mortified.
Standing there fully exposed to a mob of shocked onlookers, this woman immediately struggles to cover up her nakedness or at a minimum preserve some measure of modesty. She’s weeping with her head bowed desperate to avoid making eye contact with anyone.
John remembers once “they had set her in the midst” of the crowd, these men brazenly explain to Jesus that “the woman had been caught in adultery” adding, so that there could be no debating the merits of their accusation, they had caught her “in the very act.”
Without regard for this lady, John then notes how they followed up their explanation with a question that in many ways revealed the entire purpose behind the debacle. They ask, “Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?”
If you had been present that morning and watched all of this play out, there is no doubt you would have found the entire situation highly suspicious. The first and most obvious inconsistency would have been the absence of the participating party in the affair. I mean it doesn’t take a degree in law to understand it takes two to commit adultery! Knowing the incredibly high threshold for such a conviction, you’re left thinking, “Where’s the dude?”
Aside from the fact, the man was nowhere to be found, the other circumstance that would have fostered a clear suspicion as to what had really taken place centered on the obvious ill-intent of her accusers. Everyone present that morning could see these religious men hadn’t brought this woman to Jesus out of some sincere concern for justice. Instead, they were using this woman in order to place Jesus into an impossible situation.
Right from the jump the whole situation stinks. You didn’t have to be Sherlock to surmise the woman had been set up for no other reason than to create a difficult dynamic for Jesus. In fact, John removes all doubt as to their true intentions when he writes in verse 6, “This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.”
Pertaining to the Law of Moses, we should be fair in that these religious leaders were correct that “this woman should be stoned” to death. In Leviticus 20:10, we’re told very plainly, “The man who commits adultery with another man's wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.”
The legal trap set up by these religious leaders was simple… If Jesus advocated for the woman to be shown mercy, He would have been contradicting the Law of Moses. And yet, since the Roman’s revoked the right of the Jewish people to enact capital punishment and didn’t consider adultery worthy of death if Jesus agreed that this woman should be stoned and then proceeded to lead the charge, they could build a case that Jesus was fostering rebellion against Rome and Julian Law. It was a catch-22 for sure.
Thinking through all the possible ways Jesus might try to wiggle His way out of their snare, I’m sure these men did not anticipate what would happen next… Instead of answering them or even mounting some type of counterargument, John says, “But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.”
What a moment! This half-naked woman is brought before Jesus where she is forced to stand before everyone exposed, ashamed, and guilty. Beyond that, because the man wasn’t also arrested, you can reason the reality she’d been used hits hard. She now knows she’s been set up. She’d become intimate with a man who sold her out after getting off. Yes, she’s standing there naked, but more than that she’s broken and utterly alone.
As these men continue to demonstrate zero regard for the embarrassment they’re causing this woman, were void of any appropriate sense of justice, and lacked even basic decorum by using her situation to raise issues of Mosaic versus Roman Law… Jesus not only ignores them, but He “stoops down” and begins “writing something on the ground with His finger.”
Now it’s true you can find all kinds of theories speculating as to what Jesus may have been writing. Personally, I believe these things are conjecture at best and a waste of time at least because the Spirit didn’t find it necessary to tell us! You see the reason this interesting detail is included in the story is to record what Jesus did and not what He wrote!
Please note, never once does Jesus challenge the assertions of these religious men. Setting aside the fact this woman had been set up, there was no debating her guilt. Jesus knew she had committed adultery and that the Law subsequently condemned her to death. And yet, while she was guilty as charged, the posture of Jesus in the presence of this sinner intended to powerfully contrast the shameless approach of these religious leaders!
We should ask… Why would Jesus “stoop down?” As I’ve watched this scene play out in my mind over the years, I’ve always pictured this woman laying on the ground — meaning Jesus was attempting to identify with her. And yet, the truth is this isn’t what the text says.
In verse 3, John says, “When they had set her in the midst.” Then, in verse 9, he adds, “And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours?” The word translated as “they set her” is the exact same as “the woman standing.”
So why would Jesus “stoop down” when the woman was standing up? While we can assume Jesus was writing something in the dirt for her eyes only, stooping down was likely the only posture that would allow Jesus to make eye contact with a woman looking down!
You see in contrast to these pious, religious men looking down upon the sinner, Jesus stooped down so that the sinner could see her Savior! Jesus adopted a posture so that this woman caught in sin could see Him, look into His eyes, and know she’d be saved!
We’ll address this a bit more at the end of our study, but it really is tragic that when Christians are presented with a person caught in sin we rarely immolate the posture of Jesus. Sadly, like these religious men, many Christians end up more interested in seeing sin properly judged than stooping down to help the sinner see Jesus!
For how long Jesus remained on the ground while these men continued to press Him for an answer to their question we have no idea. And yet, at some point Jesus has had enough. John remembers how Jesus slowly “raised Himself up” before turning to these men and saying, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
Amazingly, after throwing down the gauntlet and without any concern stones might begin flying any moment, John tells us Jesus just nonchalantly sits back down in order to return to whatever it was He was writing in the dirt as these men mull over their next steps.
Regarding this statement that Jesus made to these men, I’m afraid it has been twisted to imply many things it simply does not. Tragically, it happens to be that this verse gets thrown around by people who’ve been caught in sin hoping, in doing so, they might be able to dodge any type of accountability and in turn escape the consequences.
One rather radicle aspect of Jesus’ statement is that He not only concedes the fact this woman was guilty of adultery, but He affirms the reality adultery was punishable by death. In this sense, Jesus is agreeing with Moses and He’s supporting the mandates outlined by God in the Law. Adultery was a justifiable reason to stone a person.
The other misconception of Jesus’ statement is that He was somehow forbidding sinners from holding others sinners accountable for their behaviors. As if the only people who are permitted to cast a stone (or enforce the just penalty for sin) must themselves be sinless.
If this is really what Jesus was articulating, the ramifications would be far-reaching. (1) The vast majority of the Old Testament Law would be unenforceable. (2) The Church would have no right to enact necessary disciplines to address blatant, unrepentant sin. And (3) in the end, no one other than Jesus could ever measure out any type of practical punishment.
Obviously, since such a perspective stands in direct conflict with much of what the Bible says about sin and how we address the sinner, we must consider what Jesus meant when He said to these men, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone!”
For starters, this is the only place in the Bible the statement “he who is without sin” is used. In fact, this phrase is actually one word that doesn’t describe a person who is sinless but a person with no guilt of sin pertaining to a particular situation. You see Jesus is not saying “he who has never sinned can cast the first stone,” but “he who has a clean conscious pertaining to this woman and how she was caught in sin can cast the first stone.”
To this point, David Guzik makes this interesting observation, “In Jewish law, witnesses to the capital crime began the stoning. Jesus really said, ‘We may execute her, but we must do it correctly. One of the witnesses must begin her execution. So who among you is the one who witnessed this crime, and only brought to Me the woman, and not the man? Who designed the humiliation of this poor woman?’ Instead of passing a sentence upon the woman, Jesus passed a sentence upon her accusers. He didn’t say, ‘Don’t execute her.’ He simply demanded that justice be fairly and righteously applied.”
What really makes this approach by Jesus so brilliant is that, on the one hand, He agrees with Moses that the woman should be stoned, while at the same time not directly contradicting Roman law by instigating the stoning of the woman Himself!
Aside from this — and it’s probably the one detail I love most about this story, is the fact that, after issuing the challenge, Jesus returns to the woman. While the religious leaders were focused on punishing sin, Jesus was more interested in ministering to the sinner.
What a moment it must have been when each of these self-righteous men “being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.” And notice, it wasn’t what they read in the dirt that “convicted their conscience” but what they had just “heard” Jesus say! You see they wanted to trap Jesus so badly they used this woman in a terrible way. The incontrovertible truth is they were all complicit in this setup.
They knew if they ended up stoning this woman, her blood would have been on their hands for they were all culpable. My guess is Jesus’ approach wasn’t what they expected. Never in their wildest imaginations would they have believed Jesus would have told them to stone the woman. He called their bluff and in doing so revealed their own depravity.
Once these “accusers” had departed one by one, John tells us Jesus and this woman share a private moment. After getting up, He asked her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” To which she replied, “No one, Lord.”
Not only is this the first recorded words of this woman, but what she says is incredibly significant. In the Greek, the title “Lord” is “kyrios” from which we get the English word “Christ.” Additionally, from its construct, this woman was not just attributing to Jesus the title of Christ or Messiah, but she was personalizing it as “my kyrios” or “my Christ!”
Through this painful experience fostered by her sin, this woman encounters a Savior! In the end, she gives her life to Jesus. You see her life was no longer her own as “kyrios” literally means “he to whom a person belongs.” In response to His question, “Where are your accusers?” she responds, “There are none” before declaring, “I am yours!”
While this is in and of itself radicle, in her answer, this woman was also making an appeal to Jesus as her Lord that would demand a response from Him. Though none of her accusers remained to condemn her, she recognizes Jesus could have. In fact, Jesus had been the only sinless person present that morning who could have stoned her! It’s for this reason Jesus then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
There is no question the woman’s sin had left her in a tough spot. She was the woman caught in adultery. She stood condemned. She was guilty. She was brought before Jesus. And yet, how incredible that in her lowest point, when she was at her worst and most vulnerable, left naked by sin and filled with shame, Jesus compassionately stooped down to meet her with love and grace. Though religion was all too willing to throw stones at the sinner, Jesus had a much better plan. Instead of condemnation, He offered her salvation!
In closing, there are all kinds of practical applications you could draw from this story… Only those with a false sense of their own self-rightness like exposing other people’s sins… The people most ready to throw stones at sinners are typically the least qualified to do so…
In contrast to religion that can only condemn a person, Jesus came to save… Jesus can’t change our past but He’s more than willing to provide us with a new future… Experiencing Jesus’ forgiveness doesn’t negate the practical consequences of our sin… As a much larger illustration, we are all the woman caught in adultery… This woman was only able to “go and sin no more” after hearing Jesus utter the words “neither do I condemn you.”
And while all of these points could make for a great ending… I want to close by emphasizing the way in which this story challenges how we handle a person caught in sin. As I’ve already noted, while the religious leaders were focused on punishing the woman on account of her sin, Jesus was more interested in ministering to the sinner.
Keep in mind… This woman didn’t need anyone to tell her what she’d done was wrong. She’d been caught in her sin. She committed adultery. Her secret life was exposed. This woman had been laid bare. At this point, a swift stoning would have put her out of her misery. Sadly, religious people condemned her future because of her past!
This wasn’t something Jesus dismissed. He didn’t turn a blind eye to her sin or make up an excuse. Jesus affirmed she was an adulterer and that she deserved to die. And yet, the difference is that Jesus wanted to give her a fresh start in spite of her past mistakes. The heart of Jesus towards this woman was salvation and not further condemnation!
It’s been rightly said the Church is the only living organization that eats it's wounded! Christian, instead of standing ready to judge the sinner by casting stones, we should instead be willing to stoop down, make a connection, all with the intention of helping the sinner see Jesus! The profound truth illustrated by this story is that a man or woman caught in their sin will never see the face of Jesus in the person throwing stones!
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