The Woman Caught in the Act: Christ Speaks to the Problem of a Judgmental Spirit
April 22, 2001 | Ray Pritchard
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“It is a terrible thing for a sinner to fall into the hands of his fellow sinners.” F. B. Meyer
This is the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. It is so popular that even those who rarely read the Bible know about it. Clarence McCartney comments that the great museums of Europe always have at least one work of art based on the dramatic moment when our Lord and an adulterous woman came face to face. Our text also contains one of the most famous statements of Jesus: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” In recent years we have heard this sentence applied to various leaders caught in moral transgressions. As we shall see, the way the statement is used is often quite far removed from its true meaning in this passage.
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. Looked at historically, it seems that some church fathers commented on it while others apparently did not know the story at all. A sermon like 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.
Yet when all is said and done, even the textual critics who doubt that it belongs in John’s Gospel all seem to agree that it is an authentic account of a true encounter between Jesus and a woman caught in adultery. And the church as a whole has seen in it the true spirit of our Lord. I personally believe that John wrote it and that it is in its correct place in his Gospel.
Portrait of the Prodigal Daughter
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:
1) The dangers of a judgmental spirit, and
2) The forgiving heart of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Although 2,000 years have passed, this story still captures our imagination. Surely this encounter demonstrates the enduring relevance of the Bible. The thought occurs that in many ways, this incident could have happened yesterday.
I. A Woman Caught 1-3
“But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group” (John 8:1-3).
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 that 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. They were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. 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. As the story unfolds, we discover that they are proud, self-confident, arrogant, ruthless, cunning, clever, calculating, and thoroughly hypocritical.
Other questions arise that we cannot answer fully. Who was the woman? We do not know. Was she single, engaged, or married? We do not know. What previous relationship might she have had with any of these men? We do not know. Is she very young or is she middle-aged? We do not 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.” It must be more detailed and precise than that. 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 is the Man?
And that leads to a crucial question. Where is the man? Adultery by definition requires two people. It is not likely that 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. As the succeeding verses make clear, 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.
II. A Trap Laid 4-6a
“And said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him” (John 8:4-6a).
These religious men could not help her; they could only condemn her. They could not give her a new heart and a new life. They could not set her free from wickedness. They could condemn but they could not save. They could destroy but they could not restore.
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. All other points aside, 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. Therefore, we may say that she was indeed caught in the act and was rightly condemned of a serious sin according to the Law of Moses. 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. And those laws were written from the man’s point of view. Yes, the woman is guilty but the greater guilt lies with the man because he is the responsible spiritual leader in the eyes of the Lord.
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 (which is why Pilate had to agree to Jesus’ crucifixion). 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 Jesus. 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. They humiliated the woman, they professed respect for the Law of Moses, they claimed to protect public morality, and they professed to want Jesus’ advice. But 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?
III. A Challenge Made 6b-9
“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 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” (John 8:7-9).
There are times in reading the Bible when we wish we had a little bit 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.
In the end it doesn’t matter. Perhaps the comparison is with the “finger” of God writing the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and then writing them again when Moses broke the first set of tablets. That would mean something like, “I am writing in the dust because I am the true Lawgiver.” Certainly the Jewish leaders would not have missed such a connotation.
Casting the First Stone
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.” These words were made famous several years ago during the impeachment trial of President Clinton. Unfortunately, that statement was often stretched to mean something like this: “Let the person who is truly sinless be the one to pass judgment.” If that’s what it literally means, then no one anywhere would ever pass judgment on anyone for any reason, since no human being (besides Jesus) is truly without sin. But in John 7:24 Jesus told his hearers they should not judge according to appearance but with “righteous judgment.” In this context Jesus is no doubt thinking of Deuteronomy 17:1-7, which demands two eyewitnesses before anyone can be put to death. It also mandates that the eyewitnesses be the first ones to put the accused 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 do matter. In essence 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. Make sure there is no malice, no deceit, no trickery, no dishonesty, and make sure you are not guilty of the same crime yourself.” He is reminding them that if they testify maliciously or deceitfully, they are signing their own death warrant.
If you are going to keep the law, keep all of it, not some of it. He wasn’t forbidding judgment against adulterers, but he was requiring that the witnesses against the woman be morally qualified to put her to death. This is simply another version of Matthew 7:1-2, where we learn that whatever standard we use to judge others, the same standard will be applied to us.
The Woman Looks Better Than the Men
No doubt these men were troubled by what Christ said. They wanted to talk about the woman; Jesus wanted to talk about them. He did not say, “Let her be stoned” but “Let him be the first to cast a stone.” There is a huge difference. In Jesus’ mind, the issue wasn’t the woman, it was her hypocritical accusers. They wanted to talk about the Law as it relates to outward behavior; He wanted to talk to them about the Law as it related to their hearts.
Our Lord saw the woman’s sin and he saw their base 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 without sin in this matter. As some have said, “If the inner thoughts of a man were written on his forehead, he would never take his hat off.”
So it ended this way: They wanted to trap him, they ended up trapped by him, trapped by his moral purity and their base hypocrisy.
Malcolm Muggeridge has a helpful word at this point:
It is precisely when you consider the best in man that you see there is in each of us a hard core of pride or self-centeredness which corrupts our best achievements and blights our best experiences. It comes out in all sorts of ways—in the jealousy which spoils our friendships, in the vanity we feel when we have done something pretty good, in the easy conversion of love into lust, in the meanness which makes us depreciate the efforts of other people, in the distortion of our own judgment by our own self-interest, in our fondness for flattery and our resentment of blame, in our self-assertive profession of fine ideals which we never begin to practice.
One by one these religious hypocrites disappear until no one was left but Jesus and the woman alone.
IV. A Pardon Given 10-11
“Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’” (John 8:10-11).
Here is how our Lord treated this sinful woman:
1) He faced her—He straightened up.
2) He questioned her—”Woman, where are they?”
3) He forgave her—”Neither do I condemn you.”
4) He challenged her—”Go now and leave your life of sin.”
He treated her with dignity and compassion.
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.
“No one, Lord”
But there is more to this than a simple dismissal of the charges. When she answers, “No one, sir,” 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 had 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.
As a side note, we may be tempted to think that 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.
Doomed and Damned
Let us 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 own condition. We are condemned by our conscience, condemned by our true moral guilt, and often condemned by others. If people knew us better than they do, they would condemn us even more than they do. They don’t know the half of it.
And 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 that sin should be paid for. But it was paid for on a Roman cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem when Jesus died for the sins of the world. Jesus didn’t condemn this woman because he knew that not many days hence he would be condemned for her when he died on the cross. This is what Paul means when he says in Galatians 3:13 that Christ has become a curse for us. He took our pain, our shame, and our guilt, and the heavy load of our sins was laid fully on him. This woman was not condemned by Christ, but he was condemned on the cross for her sake.
Grace vs. Rules
Not long ago I ran across this saying: “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.” If you are a saint, you do indeed have a past and you would be a better saint if you remembered your past and considered the pit you were in before Jesus found you. If you are a sinner, then by God’s grace you can have a wonderful future if you will come to Christ and trust him as your Lord and Savior.
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: “Clean up your act and then we will accept you.” Jesus says, “I will forgive you and give you the power to clean up your act.” Religion says, “Change or I will condemn you.” It uses fear and intimidation to make people measure up. Grace says, “I have forgiven you. Now let me also change your life.” We don’t change in order to be accepted; we change because we have already been accepted. Nothing motivates a new life like grace received into the heart. Grace does what rules can never do.
Lest anyone think that 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.
Why did Jesus let her go? 1) He never denied her guilt, only the means the Pharisees used to bring her to justice, and 2) He never excused her sin, only the hypocrisy of her accusers. He did not condemn her because she stood condemned already. He didn’t condemn her because he came to be condemned on her behalf.
Write over this story two Scriptures: John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Add to that Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
As I was preparing this sermon, the words of a wonderful old gospel song were ringing in my mind: “Mercy there was great and grace was free, Pardon there was multiplied to me. There my burdened soul found liberty, At Calvary.” Let everyone who reads this sermon give thought to the grace and mercy of God. If you are a Christian, think of what Jesus has done for you. Consider your own sins, think on your transgressions. You will never see yourself rightly until you know that you are the chief of sinners. Remember his mercy and then turn away from a judgmental spirit toward sinners. Let this be your watchword: “There but for the grace of God go I.” Cling to the blood of Jesus as your only hope and your only claim to heaven.
And to all who 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. It is the goodness of God that spares you and leads you to repentance. You are alive by God’s grace. Let that grace lead you to Jesus for everlasting life.
Child of God, the Savior speaks to you the same words he spoke so long ago: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Amen.