2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
The oldest and most respected and reliable manuscripts do not include this story in the Gospel of John. However, most authorities through the ages believe it is beyond doubt an authentic fragment of apostolic tradition that describes an actual event from Christ’s life. Nothing about it contradicts the rest of Scripture.
Jesus and his disciples often went to the Mount of Olives for overnight rest.
Now, in the midst of this these scribes and Pharisees bring a woman into their midst.
Scribes were Jewish theologians; they were often referred to as “lawyers” because they were the experts in interpreting the OT law. Pharisees were a group of about 6000 men who committed themselves to passionately pursue obedience to the law. They were called the “separated ones” or Pharisees. Not all Pharisees were scribes and not all scribes were Pharisees.
The law was clear about adultery:
Exodus 20:14: You shall not commit adultery.
Deuteronomy 22:22-23: If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Jesus upheld the Old Testament condemnation of adultery:
Matthew 5:27-28: You have heard that it was said, “you shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
So, these scribes and Pharisees bring this woman “who had been caught in the act of adultery” right into Jesus’ teaching scene, and they think they have him trapped now.
Consider their motivation to bring this woman in. First, where was the man?
Romans 3:20: For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Romans 8:3-4: For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
In Jesus divine justice and mercy harmonize. Because Jesus took the penalty for our sins, God is able to be just—remain totally holy—and at the same time be the justifier of those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:26)
Put yourself in the shoes of this woman. She was caught in the act; she probably was scantily clothed; maybe just wrapped in a blanket or something. Where was she caught? How was she caught?
So they put it to Jesus: “What do you say?” Do you say we should stone her? Jesus then bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground, seemingly oblivious to their question.
What did he write? This is a question many have tried to answer. The truth is, we don’t know. But we get a clue from what Jesus said:
“Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
According to the law, the person or persons who accused someone of a crime deserving death had to cast the first stones:
Deuteronomy 17:6-7: On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
Perhaps Jesus listed the sins of those who were accusing this woman. Whatever he wrote, it caused an immediate and interesting reaction.
Romans 2:1: Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
How often those who are condemning and judging others are guilty of the same thing.
Whatever Jesus wrote frightened these accusers enough or revealed their hypocrisy in such a way that they just wanted to get out of there and forget the whole thing. Jesus had outwitted them again.
Why do we have this little detail that the older ones left first?
Those who came to condemn left condemned, but they did not repent or confess. They were no doubt convicted but it did not lead them to repentance.
The way Jesus handled this neither minimized the woman’ guilt nor denied the Law’s authority and sanctity.
Jesus asks her where her accusers are. “Has no one condemned you?” he asks. Her only words in this whole affair are “No one, Lord.”
Jesus then tells her the great news: “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus is not into condemnation; he is not into “gotchas.” He is into forgiveness and redeeming stories and changed lives.
“Go and from now on sin no more,” he tells her.
Romans 6:1-2: What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
“This story paints a marvelous picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose gracious humility, infinite wisdom, convicting speech, and tender forgiveness are its central themes. All Christians should be grateful to God for sovereignly preserving it.” (MacArthur)