I want to call your attention to three aspects of this passage from John:
- How Jesus sidesteps another dilemma.
- What textual problems are associated with this passage.
- How this passage gives us a preview of the Last Judgment.
Those who knew Jesus personally in the flesh must have continually been impressed with His quick-wittedness and His ability to see past deceptions into the heart of a matter, because the gospel writers never cease to delight in telling us stories about how Jesus adroitly eluded the traps that were set for him by the authorities. Today is one example. (John 8:6 tells us this is the point of the story.)
A woman was caught in the very act of adultery. There were witnesses who could testify against her. She could easily be convicted of adultery before a religious court, and the Law of Moses prescribed the death penalty. So the scribes and the Pharisees bring the case before Jesus and ask His opinion about what they should do. Jesus was teaching in the Temple when they brought the woman and the witnesses to Him, setting a trap for Him in the guise of seeking His expert opinion.
Now this is how it is a trap. Under the Law of Moses, their course of action is clear: truth is determined by the testimony of two or three witnesses, which they have in hand, so the woman is to be put to death. However, Judea is at the moment under the domination of the Roman Empire, which allows them full self-government but reserves the right of capital punishment to the Roman authorities. All capital cases have to be appealed to them who then decide the final verdict. This means that if Jesus encourages the scribes and Pharisees to put the woman to death as prescribed by the Law of Moses, he would be committing a seditious act as defined by Rome and would be subject to execution himself at the hands of pagans. On the other hand, if Jesus acknowledges Rome’s demands, he would be placing a foreign, secular, and pagan government above the Law of God and thus would discredit himself as a religious authority.
Jesus squats down and writes in the sand, giving the scribes and Pharisees an opportunity to relish their own cleverness. I can imagine them smirking to themselves at this point as they imagine that they have Him cornered in a no-win situation. There are two alternatives: He must recommend the death penalty or defer to the Romans. In the first case He places His own life jeopardy, in the second, He discredits Himself.
Then Jesus rises up and tells them that the one among them who is without sin may cast the first stone. Then He squatted again and continued writing in the sand.
Now the smiles turn to frowns, as the authorities realize that Jesus has thrown the dilemma back into their laps. He hasn’t really decided the case either way, on the face of it. One could interpret Him as approving of the legally prescribed penalty, but placing a condition on how it would be carried out. So they can’t accuse Him of abrogating the Law of Moses. Nor can they accuse Him of rebellion against Rome, because He didn’t give them a clear go-ahead either. Whoever throws the first stone would be the one guilty of sedition. In addition, in the context of what Jesus just said, whoever throws the first stone is also setting himself up for immediate scrutiny by all the other people present. Since none of the scribes or Pharisees wishes to be tried for sedition or to have his personal life put up for public scrutiny, no one wants to throw the first stone. However, by not throwing the stone, they are consenting to a breach in the Law of Moses, which requires them to put the adulteress to death.
So one by one they slip away; the only way out of the dilemma is to leave it.
Finally, there is no one left but Jesus and the woman. Jesus says,
Where are your accusers? And she answers,
There are none.
At this point the woman can no longer be convicted of adultery under the Law of Moses, because at least two witnesses are required, but none are willing to testify. Jesus, acting in accordance with the Law of Moses, in effect dismisses the charges because the prosecution is unable to make its case.
Go and sin no more, Jesus says. Look at all that Jesus has done in this incident: He escaped a no-win situation, He survived a wicked political trap, He carried out the Law of Moses in every detail, He accomplished the purpose of the Law, which is to show mercy as much as it is to show justice, and He demonstrated by His actions that God does not delight in the punishment of the wicked, but in the wicked turning to God in repentance.
I find great comfort in the fact that the woman was justly accused of adultery and was actually a sinner worthy of punishment. If she were innocent, and if Jesus had simply vindicated her innocence, this story would not reveal God’s attitude toward real sinners like me. Because the woman was a sinner and had committed a capital offense, it means that no matter how my sins may overwhelm me, they cannot overwhelm His mercy and His capacity to forgive me. Without this story, I might fall into bottomless despair about myself. As it stands, this story places a bottom limit on my self-assessment and pushes me upwards in hope and trust towards God.
The Textual Problem
This passage is almost certainly not originally part of John.
In the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, this passage floats around. It appears in Luke in some, in John in others, but it appears in this position more than any other, therefore it is generally placed as John 7:53-8:11.
If you are a Greek scholar, you will immediately notice that the vocabulary and style of this passage is quite different from the rest of John. If you are not a Greek scholar, you can see how the passage intrudes on John’s narrative by skipping over it in your reading: that is, go from John 7:52 directly to John 8:12, and you will see that the text reads more smoothly.
Various translations handle this passage differently. Some mark the passage off in brackets, others place it in italics, still others relegate it to a footnote so that the continuity between 7:52 and 8:12 is restored. The King James Version, which in modern printings has its critical apparatus removed, does not mention anything about this passage at all. I don’t know off hand if the KJV translators had access to enough Greek manuscripts to know about this problem, or if the underlying Greek text (Erasmus’ Textus Receptus ) revealed it to them.
In any event, there is no doubt that this passage is part of Holy Scripture or that it has been received as part of the New Testament canon. It’s just that we cannot reconstruct where it originally appeared.
The Last Judgment
This passage shows us how Jesus judges, and therefore gives us insight into how He will conduct the Last Judgment, when we all stand before the throne of God with all our secrets exposed.
Let us analyze the situation again, but from a different viewpoint. The woman was guilty of adultery, that much is clear, because there were witnesses to the act, the woman did not deny the charges, and Jesus said,
Go and sin no more, which only makes sense if He believed she was guilty.
We also know that the people who sought to stone her were guilty of sin, because when Jesus affirmed the sentence with the provision that whoever was sinless could begin the stoning, they all examined their conscience, convicted themselves, and left.
So in the end, the sinful woman remained in Jesus’ presence, while her equally sinful accusers separated themselves from Him. So we see how the Last Judgment works. Some sinners are able to face up to their sins, the admit them and repent of them, these are the ones who remain in fellowship with God in His glory. Others are unable to face up to the truth about themselves, they shun the light, they cannot admit to their faults, and they flee from God’s glory.
Then these scriptures come true:
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
—Luke 6:38, NIV (Jesus speaking)
Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son
—John 5:22, NIV (Jesus speaking)
You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.
—John 8:15, NIV (Jesus speaking)
As for the person who hears my words, but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day.
—John 12:47-48, NIV (Jesus speaking)
So we see that our God of love sends no one to hell. Hell contains only volunteer residents, and the gates to hell are locked on the inside. Perhaps in some way hell itself is a provision that God makes in love for sinners, so that their condition cannot get worse.