B. Hodge, Biblical Authority Ministries, April 29, 2020
In the past few years, I’ve heard expositions of the account of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11) from a multitude of speakers and pastors. Most presenters on this subject point out that Jesus deviated from the law to show mercy and grace to this lady and didn’t punish her as she should have been. Expositors tend to use this as a springboard to tell us that we should be like Jesus and be gracious toward sinners by essentially letting their sin go, albeit recognizing that adultery was still sin.
My teenage daughter heard about Jesus and the adulteress at youth group recently. Lo and behold, the same message trickled through. She left with more questions than answers. My daughter was taught that the adulterer that was with the adulterous woman was nowhere to be found in the narrative even though they were “caught in the act”—perhaps he ran away. The witnesses were missing too.
The main point she garnered from the devotion was that, Jesus showed extra grace and mercy and deviated from the Law. So she was disturbed that the God-man Jesus—the very Creator of the Law—didn’t follow the Law when it came down to it. And my daughter’s reaction is rightly warranted! My daughter asked me to explain this account seeing that what she heard was so convoluted it didn’t make sense.
Sin Is Serious
God takes a very serious view of sin. For proof, you only need to read three chapters into the Bible. One sin by Adam and Eve and God cursed the ground and sentenced man to die and return to dust (Genesis 3). In the New Testament, one lie to the Holy Spirit by Ananias and Sapphira meant immediate death (Acts 5:12).
The rest of the Bible after Adam’s sin until the last two chapters of Revelation is God solving the sin problem that we, as mankind, caused. For one sin, we deserve an everlasting and infinite punishment from an eternal and infinite God for betraying Him and committing high treason against Him. So sin is indeed a hot button issue with God and it should be as God is perfectly holy and perfectly just.
Jesus, God incarnate, fulfilled and followed the law perfectly being sinless (e.g., Matthew 5:17, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15). So to quickly jump to idea that Christ deviated from the Law to show mercy and grace would call into question that Jesus fulfilled the law. This suddenly becomes a greater problem; because if Jesus didn’t fulfill the Law, then He wasn’t the perfect sacrifice and we are still dead in our sins.
Furthermore, grace and mercy are offered by God but it is predicated on justice served. For instance, grace to sinners unto salvation was offered as a result of Jesus being sacrificed in our place and God’s justice was poured out on Christ in His death on the cross. Those believers prior to Christ looked forward to what Jesus did in the same way that we, who came after Christ, look back to His completed work though His death, burial, and resurrection. The point I’m making is that when people argue that Jesus simply decided to exercise grace in the instance with the adulteress instead of following the Law, it is misplaced.
Rarely do we take a close look at what the Law said regarding this situation and see if Jesus followed it before jumping to the conclusion that He went against the Law in an effort to give grace. Let’s evaluate this narrative with more detail.
Jesus Actually Followed The Law Perfectly
Here is the relevant passage in John 8:2-11,
Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. “Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?"
This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first."
And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?"
She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said to her, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." (NKJV)
First things first. When did this happen? It was early in the morning. So the woman was caught in adultery just before this, in the earlier morning hours. According to the scribes and Pharisees, she was caught in the very act of adultery. So the scribes and Pharisees were acting as the direct witnesses to the event. So missing witnesses we don’t have—they were there indeed.
It was true that the Law of Moses commanded that the adulteress be put to death, or “stoned”, as the scribes and Pharisees said. So what did Jesus do? He wrote on the ground with His finger. Did you ever wonder what He wrote? Did He write “Koalas like rainbows”? Probably not. What He wrote likely dealt with the situation at hand.
Think about this for a moment. They were in the Temple (John 8:2), but not in the inner area where a copy of the Scripture to scroll through was readily available—there was little dirt or dust on the ground in the inner portions of the Temple complex but well kept (i.e., clean) flooring as part of the priestly duties for upkeep.
Instead, Jesus was in the outer area of the Temple complex (the Court of the Gentiles—which was permissible for both Jews and gentiles which were both likely among the crowd listening to Him teach).
This courtyard is the larger exterior court of the Temple grounds that fit larger crowds that came to learn. This area was commonly trampled on with dusty and dirty feet making it possible to write on the ground for teaching. In the outer court, Jesus was using the ground the way we use a chalkboard or white board today.
This location makes sense since the scribes and Pharisees were bringing the lady caught in adultery to the Temple for judgment and had to pass by Jesus teaching this crowd upon entering the Temple’s outer gate—which allowed for this opportunity to occur.
The most logical thing Jesus would write is what the Law says for this situation. Jesus was known for quoting Scripture to the scribes and Pharisees when they challenged Him, so it makes sense, that Christ was quoting Scripture in this instance as well. Consider that the discussion was on the subject of adultery in the Law of Moses. Did Jesus write the exact Law pertaining to the adulteress that the scribes and Pharisees were charging this woman with? Why not?
What Jesus wrote on the ground clearly had an impact on the scribes and Pharisees and convicted them one by one—from the most senior of them to the least senior of them. Bear in mind that the senior scribe or Pharisee would be the one with the honor of being the first to step forward to see what was written. So what does the Law of Moses say about this adultery situation?
The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10, NKJV)
Why is this Law so important? Just as the scribes and Pharisees stated, the woman is to be put to death, but it also reveals something else that is extremely important. He who committed adultery with this woman is also to be put to death.
How did these Pharisees know that the woman was caught in the direct act of adultery so early in the morning? Do they just get up and go looking for adulterous persons at the wee hours every morning? Think more deeply here. The scribes and Pharisees were the ones who were claiming to be the witnesses. How did all these men know that she was an adulteress. The answer is directly in the text. Jesus said,
"He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." (John 8:7, NKJV, emphasis added)
What sin is Jesus referring to? The sin in context is adultery. Jesus affirmed that her punishment was death but He also asked which of them was not committing adultery with her.
The one who hadn’t committed adultery with her was allowed to cast the first stone. This is how they knew she was committing adultery—they were the ones doing it with her! That is how they caught her in the act. Whether the act of adultery was all at once (i.e., an orgy) or she had been sneaking around with all of the scribes and Pharisees in attendance one by one (i.e., fornication) and just now got caught which put them in a jealous rage to put her to death, we simply don’t know.
Each scribe or Pharisee who committed adultery with her should also be put to death in accordance with the Law of Moses. What we know is that they were ALL committing adultery with her because they all left one by one. They were each, “convicted by their conscience”. They knew they were guilty of adultery too and would die if they remained. That means that all of them were “with sin” with this adulteress. Again, that is how they knew she was committing adultery!
But these scribes and Pharisees were also adulterers and thus, they should all be put to death if convicted. Instead, they left forfeiting their position as a witnesses.
Suddenly, this now became a strange situation especially for an on-looking crowd. The witnesses had fled and were no longer there to testify. Jesus had again written on the ground. What did He write the second time? When your witnesses disappear the Bible speaks to that too—especially regarding a death sentence. The Law says,
"Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. (Deuteronomy 17:6, NKJV)
You need two witnesses to convict. Yet all her witnesses had disappeared. So there were none left. Of course, Jesus knew she was a sinner. He even said for her to, “sin no more”. But even if you count Jesus as the sole witness, the Law needed to be followed and one witness was not enough to convict. According to the Law, she should be set free.
Thus, Jesus did exactly as the Law stated so He didn’t condemn her either and let her go in keeping with the Law.
Jesus actually followed the Law perfectly and to the letter by doing exactly what it said. This is the conclusion of the passage. Jesus indeed fulfilled the Law in this instance and adhered to it as the authority in this situation with the adulterous woman.
So it frustrates me when people say Jesus didn’t follow the Law in this situation but instead exercised mercy and grace. As we’ve seen, Jesus followed the Law. And the Law of Moses, which Jesus wrote in the first place and was given through Moses by the Holy Spirit, when followed, allowed for a gracious and merciful outcome to the woman caught in adultery.
But note Christ’s words to her in front of a crowd—“sin no more”. He affirmed to the onlookers that she was indeed a sinner caught in adultery and now everyone knew it. It was like He announced it over the PA system when He said that.
We are in a church culture where some, sadly, despise the Law and want to neglect it and distance themselves from it. Some use this passage for justification that Jesus set the Law aside as a model for us to follow. But as we’ve read, Jesus didn’t ignore the Law. He followed it and fulfilled it.
We need to recognize the purpose of the Law. The Law is a tutor and a shadow to help us understand the seriousness of sin and the good freedom we have in Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:21-27, Hebrews 10:1). The Law is good when used lawfully and this a reminder to Christians who are now under grace’s righteousness. The Holy Spirit reveals through Paul in 1 Timothy 1,
But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust. (1 Timothy 1:8-11, NKJV)