The Sensitivity of Grace

John 8:2-11

October 24, 1999 | Brian Bill

If you’ve been with us for the last four weeks, you’ll know that we’re in the middle of a series called, “Grace Encounters.”  As we look at how Jesus interacted with people, we’ve been learning about how grace can change our lives.

In the first message entitled, “The Setting for Grace,” we learned about how gracious Jesus was with children.  We were reminded to:

  • Let children come
  • Learn from children
  • Love children intentionally

In week two, we focused on “The Search for Grace” as we observed how Nicodemus came to Jesus wanting to know how he could get to Heaven.  Jesus pointed him to the new birth.  This saving grace is not something we can earn or work for – it’s a free gift given by a gracious God.  If we want what Nicodemus found, we need to do what he did:

  • Admitted his need
  • Came to Jesus personally
  • Trusted Christ completely

Two weeks ago, we tackled “The Scandal of Grace” where we established that:

  • Grace reminds us that God’s favor is a gift
  • Grace keeps us from looking down on ourselves
  • Grace makes us equal to everyone else
  • Grace offers us a fresh start

Last week in a message entitled, “The Scope of Grace,” we established that while some people are like the younger son who left God, and others of us are more like the older brother who sinned while staying home, we’re all in need of grace.  

  • The Father comes out to meet us
  • The Father offers us grace

This morning, we’re going to encounter someone who was in desperate need of grace.  She came face-to-face with her sin – and with Jesus – and drank deeply of the “Sensitivity of Grace.”  Turn in your Bibles to John 8.  

I need to mention before we start that this section is not found in some of your Bibles.  This passage, while very well known, was not included in most of the early transmissions of the Bible.

Having said that, this grace encounter is certainly in the spirit of how Jesus dealt with broken people.  Without a doubt, it does constitute a genuine account of what took place when Jesus met with this woman.  


I like reading the comics.  In one, Calvin and Hobbes are walking along and Calvin says, “You know what the problem is with the universe?”  

Waiting for the shoe to drop, Hobbes responds, “What?”  

Calvin answers, “There’s no toll-free customer service hot line for complaints!  That’s why things don’t get fixed.  If the Universe had any decent management, we’d get a full refund if we weren’t completely satisfied!”   

Hobbes objects: “But hey, the universe is free.”   

To which Calvin retorts: “See, that’s another thing.  They should have a cover charge and keep out all the riffraff.”  

If we’re honest, many of us wish that the riffraff would just go away – or that they be punished.  We tend to be pretty tough on people when they do things that bother us.  We clamor for God’s justice to be poured out on others, while we ourselves long for God’s grace.

It’s like the haughty woman in London who asked a well-known painter to do her portrait.  She added, “And see that the painting does me justice.”   Taking one look at the hard features of this brash woman’s face, the painter observed: “Madame, what you need is not justice, but mercy and grace!” 

In John 8, we come to a powerful story about the sensitivity of grace, which clearly teaches that from the perspective of God’s perfect holiness, we’re all riffraff — we’re all sinners who fall short of God’s glory and desperately need, not justice, but mercy and grace. 

Here’s what we’re going to do this morning.  We’re going to follow a simple three-word outline as we camp in this passage.  After we get a better understanding of the text and its background, we’ll conclude with some principles and action steps that we can apply to our lives

Here’s the outline:

Verses 1-6a Confrontation

Verses 6b-9 Conviction

Verses 10-11 Comfort


Let’s start with the Confrontation in the first six verses.  Let’s read it together.  (1) But Jesus went up to the Mount of Olives.  (2) At dawn he appeared again in the temple court, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.  (3) The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery.  They made her stand before the group and (4) said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  (5) In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?”  (6) They were using this as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

It’s early in the morning, the sun just having come up.  A multitude of people gathered around Jesus because they wanted to hear him teach.  Jesus is seated, which in that culture communicated authority, as the crowds continue to come into the temple court.

Then, suddenly, the arrogant religious leaders barge in, and interrupt Jesus by dragging a woman in front of him.  The text says that they made her stand in front of the group as they shouted out the charges against her.  Can you imagine how she must have felt? 

John tells us in verse 6 that this was all a set-up.  Leviticus 20:10 states that both the man and woman adulterers were supposed to be stoned.  So where’s the guy?   He was probably involved in the trap somehow.  How else would these “morality police” have known just when to barge in and catch the woman?  

It’s actually quite a clever trap.  The Law of Moses specifies death by stoning for adultery, yet Roman law forbids the Jews from carrying out executions.  If Jesus doesn’t condemn the woman, He breaks the Jewish law.   If he does condemn her, He breaks the Roman law.  

What hypocrites!  They accuse a woman of adultery as part of their scheme to commit murder!  The Pharisees justified their hypocrisy in the same way that many of us do – we look at our sins as excusable, while we get down on how other people live.

A recent survey raised the question: “Of fifteen prominent figures, who is most likely to go to heaven?”  Mother Teresa received 79%; Oprah Winfrey, 66%; Bill Clinton,

52%; Pat Robertson, 47%; Dennis Rodman, 28%; O.J. Simpson, 19%.  But none of these celebrities received the highest score, which the respondents attributed surprisingly to themselves.  87% believed that they themselves would go to Heaven.  


The next step is conviction.  Can you sense the tension here?  The religious leaders have just dropped a very difficult question on Jesus.  Everyone’s wondering what Jesus will say.  The leaders are feeling pretty smug.  Let’s read the second half of verse 6 though verse 9.

(6) But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  (7) When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him begin stoning her.”  (8) Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  (9) At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

 Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer their question in verse 6.   Instead, He bent down and started to write on the ground.  While we don’t really know what He wrote, we do know that this is the only time in the Gospels that we read of Jesus writing something.  Scholars have different opinions as to what Jesus wrote.  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Made a list of their sins.  The word “katagrapho” has the nuance of “making a list,” so many believe Jesus, knowing the hearts of these men, was listing their specific sins by name.  
  • Wrote out the Ten Commandments.  Just as God had inscribed them “with His finger” (Exodus 31:18), so Jesus did with His finger.  In that case, Jesus was saying, “Guys, don’t instruct me in the law; I wrote it the first time just like I’m doing now, and I know each of you have broken it.”
  • Wrote down their names.  Listen to this judgment from Jeremiah 17:13 – “O lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame.  Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.”

In verse 7, we read that they kept on questioning Him.  The meaning here is that they “continued asking obstinately.”  Jesus then straightens up, which gives the picture of strength of force, and says to them, “If any of you is without sin, let him begin stoning her.”  Wow.  The word Jesus used here is “sinless.”  

Jesus upheld the standards of God’s perfect holiness but made it clear that there was only one person present who could have judged the woman.  Only one who was sinless.   With these words, Jesus made the religious leaders as uncomfortable as they had made the woman who was still in the middle of the group.

I’m sure the leaders were stunned.  They probably thought Jesus was going to let the woman go, but instead He upholds the Law of Moses.  Adultery is sin.  It violates marriage.  It wrecks homes and injures innocent children.  

I want you to notice that Jesus does not say, “You had better not throw stones on her.”  Rather, what He said was more like a command, “Throw stones…if you are sinless.”  When a person was deserving of a stoning, he or she would be thrown into a pit.  Then, the person who witnessed the grievous sin would spit on the victim, pick up a stone and throw it first.  The others would wait until he threw the first one, then they would send a volley of sharp and heavy rocks, which would cut the skin and crush the bones. 

It was kind of like not eating until the hostess picks up her fork (which, by the way, I learned just recently).  When the fork is picked up, it’s a signal that the feast can commence.  Likewise, when the first stone was launched the execution could begin.

In effect, Jesus is saying to these men (and to us), “You are no better off than she is.  Your hearts are filled with murder and hatred.”  Someone has said that if our inner thoughts were written on our foreheads, we would always wear a hat!

Jesus then stooped down and drew in the dust again.  I get the sense that no one talked.  I bet there was kind of an eerie silence, much like what we read about in Revelation 8:1: “When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”

During this time of awkward quietness, conviction began to settle in their hearts.  What was Jesus writing this time?    Maybe just four words, which were written once before by the finger of God in chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel – “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPSHARIN,” which was translated to mean, “You are weighed in the balance and found wanting.”

Now, like the woman, the leaders have been caught in the act.  Verse 9 says that they began to go away one at a time, the older ones first…  They are finally convicted of their own sins.   It is always more comfortable to focus on another person’s sin than it is to confront our own.  As they filed out, with shame on their faces, they admitted that they were unable to judge others.  Perhaps the older ones left first because they had committed more sins than the younger ones – or maybe they were wiser and appreciated the wisdom of Jesus’ response.

Jesus is the only one qualified to deliver judgment

I love the last part of verse 9: “…until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.”  Jesus is the only one qualified to deliver judgment.  I also find it interesting that the woman was still standing there – have you ever thought of that before?  She could have left with the others, but she stayed.  This leads to the third point – she was confronted, she was convicted, and now we will see that she was comforted.


Let’s read verses 10-11: (10) Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  (11) “No one sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared.  “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

At this point, we realize how little we know about this woman.  Was she gentle and likeable or harsh and obnoxious?  As she stood in the midst of her accusers, was she softly sobbing the tears of a person crushed by her shame, or was she defiantly glaring at those who dared to drag her to the temple?  All we know is that she had been caught in a sin and was publicly paraded through the temple grounds.  What makes this story so beautiful, is not the woman, but the way Jesus responded to her.  

How Jesus Treated Her

  • With Dignity.  The leaders had treated her as an object, speaking about her in front of everyone.  Jesus spoke to her  He did not view her as an embarrassing failure or an irritating difficulty; He saw her as a person, a creation of God who possessed incredible worth.  Friend, if you feel worthless today, remember that Jesus will always treat you with dignity.
  • With Compassion.  The first compassionate act that Jesus did was to write on the ground.  The scribes and Pharisees loudly proclaimed her sins.  Jesus stooped down and wrote in the sand.  Suddenly no one was looking at the woman.  By diverting the stares of the crowd from the sinner to the Sinless One, Jesus gave her the precious gift of compassion.
  • With Frankness.  Some people have said that Jesus was too easy on sin in this Grace Encounter.  But, I want you to notice that Jesus confronted this woman with her root problem when he said, Go now, and leave your life of sin.   She had already been confronted and convicted by her sin.  Now, Jesus is talking straight with her.  Christ-followers are to leave sin, to move on by following Him with their whole hearts.
  • With Grace.  This woman was condemned by the leaders and by her own sins.  But, because of the grace of Jesus, He looked at her and said, Then neither do I condemn you.   I love the truth of Romans 8:1: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
He is ready to give her a new life, a new identity, and the power to overcome her sin
  • With Hope.  This woman needed hope for the future.  The phrase, “Go now” literally means “from the now.” Jesus is forward-looking, not past-focused.  He is ready to give her a new life, a new identity, and the power to overcome her sin.  Jesus is not only interested in what we’ve done but also in what we can become.   He loves us too much to let us keep living the way we have been.  I am so glad that the Christian life is really a series of new beginnings, aren’t you?

Action Steps

Now, how can we bring this passage home to us today?  Let me give you two principles for each part of our outline – confrontation, conviction and comfort.


  • Sometimes we need to confront others.  The Bible says that we all have this responsibility.  If you see me doing something that is not right, come and talk to me.  If I notice that you’re involved in something that God does not permit, I’ll come to you.  Sometimes the Elders of this church need to address sin issues in the body.  When we do it, we’re to do it with gentleness, with humility, and with the desire to restore the sinning brother or sister.  In short, we’re not supposed to come with stones in our hands, but with grace in our hearts.  But, we’re to do it.
  • Sin has a way of coming to the light.  Friends, don’t make the mistake of thinking you can hide your sin – you can’t.  God knows about it already – and others will eventually.  We need to be more severe with sin in our own lives, than with the sin we seen in others.


  • Conviction is good, not bad.  It’s God’s way of letting us know how much He cares for us.  Without conviction, we can’t change.  The great British Christian G.K. Chesterton demonstrated his awareness of sin’s impact in his own life when he responded to a London Times question asking what was wrong with the world.  His notable reply: “Dear Sirs: in response to your question, ‘What is wrong with the world?’  I am.  Yours Truly, G.K. Chesterton.”  
  • Be courageous, not a coward.  The Pharisees had their wounds and their needs opened by Christ, but instead of sticking around to be forgiven and cleansed, they went away.   Don’t run away from Him.  We are left, like this woman, alone with Jesus.  Do you feel like your sins have begun to control your life?  Face them, don’t run.  Own them.  When you do, you can have the freedom you long for.


  • Grace leads us to repentance.  Romans 2:4 says “…God’s kindness leads you to repentance.”   Aren’t you tired of living with your guilt and shame?  Weary of trying to hide?   Come to Jesus and let His grace flood your wounds with rivers of forgiveness.  
  • Grace demands a fresh start.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been sleeping.  You can have a fresh start.  You can start over.  From this day on, you can lead a life of sexual purity.  If you’ve made some mistakes, don’t let them dictate your future.  Make a commitment today, right now, to start over.  With Jesus’ help, you can.  It’s never too late.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus let the woman go?   After all, there was One present who was qualified by His own sinlessness to cast the first stone—Jesus Himself.  If Jesus cared so much about God’s law, why didn’t He insist that payment be made for the woman’s transgression?

He didn’t condemn her because He had come to be condemned for her.  He wasn’t sweeping her sins under the carpet, just anticipating shedding His blood for them on the cross.  

That’s God’s solution for sin—not ignoring or minimizing it, but taking it upon Himself. Jesus’ forgiveness of the adulteress was free, but it was not cheap.  It cost Him everything, and that high cost should make us shudder at the seriousness of our sin.

In reality the woman was the blessed one that day.  Her partner may well have escaped, and the leaders sure left in a hurry when the heat was turned up, but at least she did not walk away.  The leaders were cowards; she was courageous.  When you think about it, she could have left, too.  While Jesus was stooped down, writing in the dirt, she could have slipped away.  But, something kept her there.  Grace kept her there.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?