The Woman Caught in Adultery
In our chronological walk through the gospels, most recently Jesus had returned with His disciples from Caesarea Philippi, back to their home base in Galilee. He has spent time pouring into His disciples: establishing in their minds His role as the Messiah, introducing to them the word “church,” teaching them about conflict resolution and forgiveness. It has now been quite some time since he and His disciples had been to Jerusalem, or to any city within the region of Judea. The last time He had been in Jerusalem He healed a sick and blind man who couldn’t walk. (John 5) And the religious leaders were outraged, and were from that point on, seeking to kill Him. So, for about 6 months, Jesus had been avoiding the religious leaders in Jerusalem, working north of that region, in the Galilee and beyond. In John chapter 7 we find out that a really big Jewish festival was about to take place in Jerusalem. It was the Feast of Booths, the biggest festival that took place once a year, and every Jewish male was required to be present. Each year it lasted a week, and for that week the people set up tents- makeshift booths- in the streets, squares, and rooftops. The people basically camped outside for a week, and it was to remind them of how God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. (Lev. 23:43) When they had left Egypt, they lived in tents as they traveled through the wilderness on their way back to the promised land. So, it was a time of remembering and celebrating God’s rescue. Each year this festival coincided with the harvest season, so in addition to celebrating God’s rescue, they celebrated His provision through the produce of the land. Big meals were prepared and shared together, it was like our celebration of Thanksgiving, except that they were all camping out in tents next to each other, and it was for 7 days straight. So they were roasting turkeys over the open fire instead of inside in the oven. Many in Israel today still celebrate this festival, camping out in tents on their modern-day decks and porches.
Now with such a huge portion of the national population attending, and all of them living for a week in close proximity to each other, this was a perfect time for anyone to rally support, present their agenda, start an uprising against the Roman occupation, etc. And this is what Jesus’s own physical brothers encouraged him to do, although perhaps sarcastically- since in verse 5 of chapter 7 John lets us know that not even Jesus’s own brothers believed in Him. In the following verses Jesus then responded to them stating that it wasn’t the proper time to publicly announce before all of Israel that He was God’s Messiah. So, Jesus told them to go on and travel by themselves to the festival. And what happened, is that within a few days, Jesus did end up going to Jerusalem, but on the downlow- quietly. And what we see upon Jesus’s arrival is that everyone was talking about him, some saying He was good, others that He was bad- but all hesitant to be too vocal because they feared the religious leaders, and didn’t want to be caught upholding a view that was contrary to the religious leaders’ view. And no public statement had come from the religious leaders, so the people didn’t know if there was still conflict between them and Jesus, or if perhaps that conflict had been resolved and they were now starting to believe He was God’s Messiah.
Well, during the festival, Jesus went into the temple, and sat down to teach. He reminded them of how there were some trying to kill Him just because He had healed a man on the Sabbath. And He affirmed to them again that He was sent by God the Father, and then on the last day of the Feast He cried out loudly: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38) And the people became even more divided, some saying He was definitely the Christ- the Messiah, and others saying He couldn’t be the Messiah since He was from Galilee and the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (not realizing that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and thus fulfilled that prophecy). There was a huge argument erupting, everyone had a different opinion, and Jesus escaped from it all and went out to camp on the Mount of Olives. This mountain is next to Jerusalem, outside the city gates, and overlooks Jerusalem.
Now in the morning, Jesus returned back to the temple in Jerusalem, and all the people came out to listen to Him teach. The temple was probably packed out, overflowing with people listening to Jesus. And it’s in this setting that we find the following story, John 8:3-11.
I imagine that this whole scenario could have been schemed by the religious leaders. That previous night while Jesus was camped out at the Mount of Olives, perhaps they all put their heads together in a secret meeting in order to devise a plan to turn the crowd fully against Him. And this plan, this test that they came up with, was a pretty good one. On one hand, if Jesus said that the Law of Moses should be fulfilled and the woman stoned, then He would end up causing problems with the Roman authorities. According to the Romans, who ruled the land, adultery was not punishable by death, and stoning in particular was not a means of death generally practiced by them. On the other hand, if Jesus said that the Law of Moses should be ignored and the woman not stoned, then He would be guilty before the Jewish leaders for disregarding God’s law. Not a good situation, what a clever trap- Jesus was being thrown under the bus, and no matter what He said, He would end up being run over by the bus, whether it was the Roman bus or the Jewish bus. Or so the religious leaders thought.
What’s really interesting here, and what surely seemed fishy to the crowd in this situation, was the fact that the man involved in the adultery was not present. It takes 2 for adultery to occur. The Law of Moses that the religious leaders were referring to, in Deuteronomy chapter 22, states that if adultery takes place within city walls, if the woman does not cry out for help, then BOTH the man and the woman were to be stoned. The idea was that if a woman was being raped, she would cry out, and living in close quarters with others there in the city, someone would hear and come to her rescue. But if no cry for help occurred, then it was safe to assume it wasn’t rape taking place but consented adultery, and both parties were to be held responsible for their sin. The law goes on to even give the woman the benefit of the doubt if such a scenario were to take place outside city walls, in the country fields. It states that only the man would be punished by death, since it would be assumed that the woman cried out for help, but there was no one to hear her cry and come to her rescue. So, if this act of adultery was caught outside Jerusalem, then only the man was to be held responsible, and if this act of adultery was caught inside Jerusalem (which was probably the correct scenario in this case), then both the woman and the man were to be brought before the religious leaders.
The absence of the man in this situation would seem to indicate that perhaps he was in on this set up, convinced by the religious leaders, perhaps even paid by them and then promised to be acquitted, after he seduced a married woman. Perhaps it wasn’t even a hired man, maybe it was even one of them- one of the religious leaders. It was obvious that they knew exactly who the man involved was, for they themselves declared that they had caught the woman in the very act. They saw it happen with their own eyes! (John 8:4) And yet, the man was somehow not brought in alongside the woman. Jesus immediately saw through their hypocrisy, and began writing with His finger on the ground, seemingly ignoring their question. They probably weren’t even paying attention to what He was writing at this point, and anxious to trap Him in a response, they prodded Him further. “What do you say Jesus? Which answer is it? Will it be downfall by the Romans or by the Religious Leaders? Huh?” And in completely brilliant, Jesus fashion, He responded “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
Now this response didn’t show approval of her actions, it didn’t dismiss her part in the sin and shame that was committed- no, in fact Jesus sided with upholding the Law of Moses in basically saying, yes- she is guilty and should be stoned as per the law, but- the one who should carry out the punishment should be one who is perfect!” The implications of this statement are huge! Jesus isn’t minimalizing sin, He’s not saying it’s ok to sin because “well everybody sins,” nor is He saying that the church should be lax and ignore sin and fail to address sin issues in each other’s lives. That’s definitely not what He’s saying here- we just read that the church is to hold each other accountable and for one to approach someone sinning directly in order for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation to take place. No, He’s not downplaying sin here, but what Jesus is saying is that there exists only one person who is sinless, and truly worthy to ultimately judge and carry out justice against sinners. And that one person, is Jesus Himself.
And so He stooped down again, and continued writing with His finger. We have no idea what He was writing. Some have suggested that He was writing down sins of the religious leaders around Him. After all Jeremiah 17:13 says “O Lord, the hope of Israel, All who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, Because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.” Or perhaps Jesus wasn’t writing anything that was legible, if you think about it, He wasn’t on the beach in the sand writing with His fingers, but He was in the temple courtyard, with the floor of the courtyard being large stones. Perhaps there was some slight dust on the stones to write with, but maybe the act of writing was more significant in its symbolism rather than in what possible words could be read in the dust on the stone. Perhaps the minds of those around Him immediately were reminded of the hand that wrote on the wall during Belshazzar’s feast, as recorded in the Old Testament book of Daniel.
The hand wrote on the wall the Aramaic words “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.” Mene translates as a Mina which was a form of money equivalent to about 50 shekels, taken from the root meaning “to count,” Tekel is a spelling of shekel, from the root meaning “to weigh,” and Upharsin signifies half a mina, taken from the root meaning “to divide,” but also resembling the word for “Persia.” Thus Daniel, in Daniel 5:25-28, interpreted God’s message to King Belshazzar as this: “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. You have been weighted on the scales and found deficient. Your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians.” Perhaps as Jesus wrote on the stone, many recalled this event in the book of Daniel, and realized that the hypocritical kingdom of the religious leaders was coming to an end. The ones who abused God’s law were being weighed and were found deficient in having the right heart that God desires. And therefore, God was dividing up the current kingdom and system of Mosaic Law, and was installing His permanent Kingdom through repentance and following Jesus.
Or perhaps some of the people there immediately recalled the 10 commandments being written on tablets of stone, etched in by God’s own finger. Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:10 “The Lord gave me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the Lord had spoken…” If this was the intended symbolism, Jesus would have been reminding the people that the same finger of God that wrote “You shall not commit adultery,” also wrote “You shall have no other gods, You shall not make for yourself an idol, You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy, Honor your father and your mother, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet.” (Exodus 20:3-17) Perhaps in doing this, combined with the words He spoke, all present were reminded of how every sin and wrong doing is worthy of God’s anger and judgement, and that every one of them deserved His judgement for the ways in which they had each broken His law in various ways. Perhaps Jesus was even alluding to the fact that He Himself was God, the very one who came up with each of the laws, and the very one who used His own finger to write them on the tablets of
Each realized that they weren’t in a position to carry out judgement on the woman, since they each had disregarded in some way the law that they professed to so honor and revere. They were caught in their hypocrisy. John gives us the detail that they each left, beginning with the older ones first. Perhaps as we get older we are more aware of the mistakes we have made, perhaps we become wiser, hopefully more humble. Maybe the older ones were in higher positions of leadership amongst the religious, and as they left, their younger disciples followed.
And Jesus then stated a rhetorical question, “Did no one condemn you?” She responded “No one Lord.” And He responded to her, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10-11) Notice He doesn’t say, “Go in peace,” as he does in other situations. Nor does He say, “Your sins are forgiven” as he does elsewhere. Why? Well, it seems that perhaps this woman had not yet repented of her part of the sin. In order to experience the peace and forgiveness of Jesus one has to first repent. It would appear that Jesus knew that in her heart she wasn’t in that place yet. And so He instructs her, “sin no more.” Repent of the sin, be done with it, turn away from it. Perhaps she had a whole publicly known history of marital unfaithfulness, perhaps she was handpicked by the religious leaders because they knew of her weakness to the sin of adultery, perhaps she had lived a long time in adulterous relationships and had long become numb to the shame of her lifestyle. Or maybe she had no history, and this had all happened because the religious leaders were out to get her. Either way, whether she had certain tendencies towards certain sins, or if she was caught off guard in a moment of weakness- Jesus called out to her “from now on sin no more.”
I think this is a statement applicable to each of us. From now on live differently, be changed, make better decisions, hold a higher standard- stop any patterns, be alert to surprise attacks… repent and sin no more. Is there an area in your life that God needs to work on? Is there an area where you perhaps feel His conviction, prompting you to change, an area where He would say “From now on sin no more”? I want us each to bow our heads and to ask God to search our hearts and convict us of any sin that we need to deal with. Let’s prayerfully consider Jesus’s words to the woman in this story, and apply His words to our own lives.