Neither Do I Condemn You
August 18, 2017 | Ray Pritchard
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This is the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. It’s the story of an unexpected encounter between the Savior and a sinful woman. Someone has remarked that just as we have the parable of the prodigal son, here we have the story of the prodigal daughter.
People who rarely read the Bible know this story. In his book Great Interviews of the Bible, Clarence McCartney comments that the great museums of Europe always have at least one work of art based on this dramatic encounter. Our text also contains one of the most famous statements of Jesus: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The Story of the Prodigal Daughter
As we approach this story, it is worth noting that there is some question about where it should be placed in the Bible, or if it should be in the Bible at all. Most modern translations note that the entire story is absent in many of the oldest Greek manuscripts. Some translations put brackets around the story, and a few relegate it to the footnotes or place it at the end of John’s Gospel. It seems that some church fathers commented on it while others apparently did not know the story at all. This is not the place to discuss detailed matters of textual criticism, but I am attracted to St. Augustine’s comment (made approximately 1,600 years ago) that some copyists omitted the story because it seemed to make Christ too lenient toward the sin of adultery. Hold that last thought because we will return to it at the end of the message.
We see in this story the forgiving heart of Jesus
This “portrait of the Prodigal Daughter” seems to perfectly illustrate the meaning of John 1:17, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” In it we find two things revealed:
The dangers of a judgmental spirit, and
The forgiving heart of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This story demonstrates the enduring relevance of the Bible. If you update a few details, this incident could have happened yesterday.
A Woman Caught
The story begins early one morning when a crowd gathered in the temple courts to hear Jesus teach. The Feast of the Tabernacles has just come to an end, which meant great crowds would still be in Jerusalem. As Jesus teaches, he is suddenly interrupted by a crowd of men surrounding an embarrassed woman. The men are insistent on pushing their way through the crowd until they (and the woman) are standing before Jesus.
Who were these men? They are “teachers of the law” and Pharisees. That meant they were well educated, well known, and reputed to be men of wisdom and high moral standards. If anyone had a question about the Law of Moses, these were the men who had the answers. But although they were religious, they were not godly and their intentions on this day are not good. They are proud, self-confident, arrogant, ruthless, cunning, and thoroughly hypocritical. As this story makes clear, hypocrites make the worst judges because zeal to condemn often hides an evil heart.
Hypocrites make the worst judges
Other questions arise that we cannot answer fully. Who was the woman? Was she single, engaged, or married? We don’t know. What previous relationship might she have had with any of these men? We don’t know. Is she very young or is she middle-aged? We don’t know. This text tells us all we know about her; everything else is speculation.
How did they catch her in the “act of adultery?” Again, we can’t be sure, but something fishy seems to have been going on. The rabbinic law was very specific on this point. Since adultery was technically a capital offense, the law demanded that any accusation be a literal eyewitness testimony. It would not be enough to say, “I saw them entering the bedroom and then I saw them leave.” Hearsay testimony would not be accepted for a charge like this. So how did these men “happen” to catch her “in the act?” We don’t know.
Where’s the man?
That leads to a crucial question. Where is the man? Adultery by definition requires two people. It is not likely the man somehow escaped, but the woman didn’t. Perhaps it was a set-up. Perhaps they talked the man into seducing the woman so they could catch her in the act. By prearrangement they then let the man go free. These men didn’t care about the woman one way or the other. If this is a set-up, they have already caused adultery and apparently would be willing to cause a murder as well, so great was their hatred of Jesus.
One final question. Why did they expose her publicly? There was no need to do that. And there was no need to bring her to Jesus. Clearly, they weren’t simply seeking to punish her. Something much more sinister is at work here.
A Trap Laid
The religious leaders claim to have caught the woman in the act of adultery. Moses said such a person should be stoned. What would Jesus say to that? It was a trap question, pure and simple.
To the Jews adultery was a terrible sin. The rabbis taught that a man should take his own life rather than commit idolatry, adultery or murder. Evidently this woman is truly guilty of adultery. Nothing in the text suggests her innocence, and the Pharisees would hardly have been so stupid as to have hauled an innocent woman before the Lord. But that is not the whole story. According to Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, both parties to adultery were to be put to death.
Deuteronomy 17:5 describes stoning the guilty at the city gate. The stones were like small boulders, designed to cause a quick death. The first eyewitness was required to hurl the first stone, the second eyewitness the second stone, and so on. This laid a heavy moral obligation on the witnesses to tell the truth.
So a great deal was at stake that morning in Jerusalem.
Jesus turned the tables on these hypocrites
By presenting this woman to Jesus, the Jewish leaders hoped to impale the Lord on the horns of a dilemma. If he said she should be put to death, he might be seen as rebellious to Rome since the Jews did not have the right of capital punishment. If he said she should not be put to death, that would appear to be a violation of the Old Testament and would put him at odds with Moses. Either way he would be in trouble, or so they thought.
This might have worked with an ordinary teacher, but they were dealing with the Son of God. Soon he will turn the tables on their evil plan. We should note again that these men didn’t care about the woman at all. To them, she is simply “this woman.” She’s not a person, just the bait to trap Jesus. Although they professed respect for the Law of Moses while claiming to support public morality, it was all a sham. They had an “evil eagerness” that led them to publicly degrade this poor woman in an attempt to ruin Jesus’ reputation.
Thus the trap is laid. What will Jesus do?
A Challenge Made
John 8:7 says that “Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.” There are times in reading the Bible when we wish we had a little more information. What did Jesus write when he stooped twice to write on the ground with his finger? After all the speculation is over, we simply don’t know the answer. Evidently what he wrote isn’t crucial or we would have been told what it was. The word for “write” is used only here in the New Testament and can mean something like “doodle” or it can mean to make a list. Some have thought he wrote the Ten Commandments to remind the men of their sins. Others have suggested he wrote the names of the accusers by the Commandments they had broken: “Sam—Adultery,” “Joe—Murder,” “Jacob—Coveting,” and so on. Various Old Testament Scriptures have been suggested, and more than one writer has suggested that he wrote in the dust the names of their girlfriends, which does have the advantage of explaining why they cleared the area so quickly.
No one knows what Jesus wrote
But it is the words he spoke that matter: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). Jesus is no doubt thinking of Deuteronomy 17:1-7, which demands two eyewitnesses before anyone can be put to death. Deuteronomy 19:15-21 adds that witnesses must not testify falsely or from malicious intent. If they do, the punishment that would have been inflicted on the victim will be meted out to them. This law protected the rights of the accused and made it dangerous for evildoers to use the law for their own crooked purposes.
The Jewish leaders would have known all this. Jesus’ words are meant to remind them of the seriousness of their charges. Motives matter. He is saying, “Before you pick up that stone, take a good look in the mirror. Make sure you are morally qualified to put this woman to death. If not, put that stone down.” If they testify maliciously or deceitfully, they are signing their own death warrant.
They wanted to talk about this woman;
Jesus wanted to talk about them
No doubt these men were troubled by what Christ said. They wanted to talk about the woman; Jesus wanted to talk about them. Our Lord saw the woman’s sin, and he saw their hypocrisy. Compared to them, she looked almost innocent. Their sin was far greater because it was couched in terms of pious religiosity. In the end, there was more hope for this sinful woman than for these conniving Pharisees. Having been caught in the act of adultery, she was closer to the kingdom than they were. She doesn’t deny her sin; they don’t admit they have any.
They were so convicted that they began to disappear one by one. Perhaps the oldest left first because they had more sin to account for. They knew they were not innocent.
So it ended this way: They wanted to trap him, they ended up trapped by him, exposed by his moral purity and their base hypocrisy.
A Pardon Given
Here is how our Lord treated this sinful woman:
- He faced her—He straightened up.
- He questioned her—“Woman, where are they?”
- He forgave her—“Neither do I condemn you.”
- He challenged her—“Go now and leave your life of sin.”
He treated her sin with total honesty.
He imparted grace and hope.
He forgave her sin and sent her out to start a brand-new life.
“You have committed adultery. But there is more to your life than your sin. You can be much more than you have been. You can turn from this sin once and for all. You can have a new life.”
It is ironic that Jesus was the only one qualified to stone her and he didn’t do it. The Law required two witnesses for death, and after all, it wasn’t Jesus who brought an accusation against her in the first place. Since the “witnesses” had disappeared, the charges are dismissed. The woman is now free to go.
She made no excuses
But there is more to this than a simple dismissal of the charges. When she answers, “No one, sir” (v. 11), it is literally, “No one, Lord.” This is a statement of faith, brief though it may be. She makes no excuses but waits for the Lord to render his verdict. In Christ she saw a man who was different from all other men, a man who treated her with grace instead of contempt.
Why didn’t she leave when the Pharisees left? Because she knew she was a sinner and she didn’t try to hide it. Her sin already had been exposed. She trusted Christ to do right.
She trusted Christ to do right
As a side note, we may be tempted to think the man—whoever he was—got away with his sin. That he was lucky and she was unlucky. But no, he didn’t get away with anything. God saw it all. His guilt would follow him forever. And she wasn’t so unlucky in the end. She met Jesus, and he transformed her life. Meanwhile, the man (whoever he is and wherever he is) is still mired in his sin. He would have been better off being exposed like this woman was.
A Debt Paid
Let’s wrap up this story with a few brief thoughts. All of us are like this woman. We are truly guilty in the eyes of a holy God. All have sinned, all are caught by God’s justice, all deserve death. We are helpless and unable to change our condition. We are doomed and damned unless someone steps in to help us. We can’t buy our way out of trouble, and we can’t deny our condition. We are condemned by our conscience, condemned by our true moral guilt, and often condemned by others. If people knew us better, they would condemn us even more than they do. They don’t know the half of it.
That’s where the gospel message becomes so powerful. Just when we are about to be condemned, Jesus steps in to rescue us. Some people may have grumbled that day, “Her sin should be paid for.” It was! Jesus paid for her sin on a Roman cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem
When Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you,” what he meant was, “I do not condemn you because one day soon I will be condemned for you. Galatians 3:13 says Christ became a curse for us when he died on the cross. He took our pain, our shame, and our guilt when the heavy load of our sin was laid on him.
Nothing motivates like grace
The order of Christ’s words is very important. He didn’t say, “Sin no more and then I won’t condemn you.” That’s what religious people like to say. Jesus says, “I will forgive you and give you the power to break free from a life of sin.”
Religion says, “Change or I will condemn you.”
Grace says, “I have forgiven you. Now let me also change your life.”
Nothing motivates like grace received into the heart. Grace does what rules can never do.
Lest anyone think adultery doesn’t matter, Jesus never plays it down. He doesn’t say, “It’s no big deal” or “I’m going to let it slide” or “It’s not your fault.” He forgives her sin and then sends her forth to live a brand-new life. Even though she is guilty (caught in the act), by God’s grace she leaves with a clean slate, a new life, and a new power within.
A Verdict Explained
Why did Jesus let her go?
He didn’t condemn her because he came to be condemned on her behalf. Write over this story two verses:
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Jesus is the Lord of the second chance! He pardoned this woman caught in the act, and then he set her free to live a brand-new life. It’s easy to see why some people in the early church questioned this story. We’re uneasy about this kind of grace until we get in trouble. Then we cry out, “Have mercy, Jesus! Have mercy on me.”
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven cannot heal
I love these words from the song Come As You Are by Crowder:
Come out of sadness
From wherever you’ve been
Come broken hearted
Let rescue begin
Come find your mercy
Oh sinner come kneel
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t heal
No wonder they called him the Friend of Sinners!
If you have been involved in sexual sin, there is good news for you. What Jesus did for this woman, he will do for you. You can be forgiven, cleansed, and set free.
He is willing to die for your adultery.
He is willing to die for your theft.
He is willing to die for your murder.
He is willing to die for your anger.
He is willing to die for your blasphemy.
He is willing to die for your lies.
No wonder they called him the Friend of Sinners. He is the friend, and we are the sinners! If you feel the heavy weight of sin, run to the cross where Jesus died for you. Come to Christ and he will not turn you away. The Savior speaks the same words today he spoke so long ago: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”