The Point: We deserve punishment, but God forgives.
Jesus and the Adulterous Woman: John 8:2-11.
 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.  The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst  they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?"  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.  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."  And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.  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.  Jesus stood up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"  She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." [ESV]
“There are two worlds, the impersonal world and the world of persons; not so much a world of things and a world of people, as a personal and an impersonal view of both people and things. Between these two worlds there is an invisible frontier which is within ourselves, and it is very difficult to cross. These words by the noted Swiss physician and author, Paul Tournier, speak to a great problem of our time, the problem of treating persons as things and vice versa. And they suggest, quite rightly, that the source of the problem, as with nearly all problems confronting us, is in ourselves. People are not things, or course. They were not created as things by God. God Himself does not regard them as things. Yet we often treat other people as things – whenever we try to use them for some end of our own, fail to listen to them, or refuse to see them as those for whom Christ died. We are all guilty of that which Tournier is describing. And the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ toward people, which we find so brilliantly illuminated in the story of the woman taken in adultery, speaks to this self-centered attitude that looks at other people as objects for us to use for our own advancement.
The Attitude of the Rulers. The first point we need to notice is the attitude of the religious leaders toward the woman, for it was the opposite of Jesus’ attitude. In brief, the rulers tried to use the woman. We see this in the fact that the situation itself was a setup. Under rabbinic law it was next to impossible to secure a death penalty in a case of adultery. There had to be witnesses – two or three of them – and these had to observe, not merely a compromising situation but the very act of adultery. Moreover, in their testimony they had also to agree in every particular. Under such circumstances it is almost self-evident that the rulers must have arranged the liaison, having stationed the witnesses in the room or at the window. It was a situation quite similar to the use of private investigators and photographers in order to prove adultery today. Moreover, the horror of this insensitive use of the woman is heightened by the probability that the woman was young. This is impossible to prove, of course, but it is suggested rather forcibly by the significance of the particular penalty called for by the woman’s accusers. These men were calling for death by stoning, and the importance of this is that stoning was the penalty specified in the case of adultery by a betrothed bride, who usually would be young. The general text prescribing death in the case of adultery is Leviticus 20:10, which says, If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. Here the penalty is death, but the means of inflicting death are not specified. In Jewish practice at the time of Jesus the penalty was death by strangulation. On the other hand, in Deuteronomy 22:23-24 the penalty is death by stoning; but in this case the punishment applies only to a case involving an engaged girl who has proved unfaithful to the engagement by having relations with another man. Since engagement almost invariably involved young people, perhaps as young as thirteen or fourteen years old, we are justified in thinking that this was probably the case of the woman brought before Jesus. So we have a young girl, caught in what may have been her first offense, perhaps seduced and betrayed, if indeed this is what was required to secure her conviction. All this makes the situation more horrible. Furthermore, we need to notice that, as the rulers used this woman, they were even found quoting Scripture, for they referred to the law and its punishments. It is sad and ironic, but so it was; and so it is for many who use the Word of God as they use people – for their own ends and apart from the grace and mercy of God that the Word communicates. It is too bad that the rulers did not give even more attention to the Old Testament, rather than less. For if they had understood the full teaching of the Scriptures, they would have understood that in the sight of God each person is an individual, created by Him for a specific purpose, and that the Word of God is not supposed to be used as merely one more tool to manipulate people. To the religious leaders the woman was just a case. She had no feelings, no future, no need for saving. It was only in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ that she found mercy and regained her identity.
The Attitude of Jesus. This brings us to the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ toward the woman, and we find ourselves asking: What characterized His attitude? There are a number of answers. First, the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ was characterized by understanding. This is the point at which everything else begins, for Jesus clearly knew what was going on both in the attitude and actions of the men and in the life of the woman. He was not fooled by circumstances nor by appearances. He was not deceived by the religious talk of the leaders, nor by the unrighteous actions of the victim. The expectations of the crowd did not move Him. In short, He saw both the good and the evil and moved accordingly. We need to grow in such understanding if we are to become like Jesus. Apart from this understanding there are two errors into which we fall in dealing with men and women. The first is naiveté. This is the error of believing that people are better than they are; it comes about by overlooking sin and evil. A person who is guilty of this error may be excessively optimistic. He may be loving and think well of all people and, as a result, be taken for a ride in many of his personal relationships. He will be used by the less scrupulous or more realistic. If such a person becomes disillusioned, however, he then runs the risk of falling into the other error, which is cynicism. This results in suspecting low motives in the best of actions and, in extreme cases, in refusing to enter into meaningful relationships with others at all. In avoiding these errors Jesus becomes our pattern. For He was able to look the worst of life in the face without being astonished or embittered and at the same time retain the purity out of which He was enabled to move in love toward the sinner. Earlier John tells us that Jesus knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man [John 2:24-25]. Naturally, we will never be able to understand other people completely, for our knowledge is limited by sin and by our human perspectives. Still, it is true that we can know people much better than we do and can be a help to them because of our understanding. Where does such understanding come from? It comes from the Word of God, for it is only in the Word that we can gain accurate insight into human nature and human problems. The Scriptures will show both the depravity of man, with all its complications in individual and corporate life, and the destiny of the redeemed as the result of God’s perfect remedy for sin in Jesus Christ. Second, the attitude of the Lord Jesus was characterized by compassion. This was linked to His understanding. Jesus knew the woman intuitively. He knew her sin and shame. He knew her potential. Because He knew her, He loved her. It was always thus with Jesus. He saw people as sheep without a shepherd, as sinners without a Savior; from that understanding came compassion. It is impossible to explain such compassion. We may point to its link with understanding, but that does not explain its real origins. It does not explain it in ideal situations, let alone in this one, or in any situation that involves the love of the righteous God for a sinner. What can explain Christ’s love for this woman? It is beyond reason, for every argument from reason would suggest that Christ should condemn her. She had broken the law. She had debased her own person. She even had violated that great illustration of Christ’s love for the church and of the church’s love for Christ: marriage. For marriage was given by God to illustrate that greatest of all relationships. And yet, Christ loved her. He wanted to spare her, to save her. There was no love in the attitude of her accusers. Third, the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ was characterized by forgiveness. This was His desire from the beginning – from the moment at which He stooped and wrote on the ground to the final moment in which He said to the woman, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more . But it was not an easy forgiveness. It was not what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has aptly termed “cheap grace.” It was costly, for it meant that Jesus would Himself have to bear the justified wrath of God against the sinner. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death [Rom. 6:23], and it was precisely this that the Lord Jesus Christ bore for those whom He desired to forgive. Death means separation. In the physical sense death means the separation of the soul and the spirit from the body. In the spiritual sense it means the separation of the soul and the spirit from God. This, Jesus bore in our place. We probably will never understand in its fullness what this meant to the Savior, but we gain a sense of what it meant in that awful cry of dereliction wrung from His lips on the cross – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me [Matt. 27:46]. In that moment God the Father turned His back on God the Son so that Jesus knew the reality of spiritual death and separation. At the time of His talking to the woman this was before Him, but it was on the basis of what was coming that forgiveness was given. Today we look back on Christ’s sacrifice, and the horror of what He bore for us compels us to come to Him. Someone has said, “No other god has wounds.” It is true. No other god ever was able to give himself in death for the sinner. Fourth, the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ was characterized by a challenge. He said, go, and from now on sin no more . This was not the same thing as merely allowing the woman to go her way, forgiven but free to do as she might choose. She was forgiven, but she was told to do better. It was, in short, the challenge of the sinless life. In the same way, Jesus confronts us. He understands us, loves us, forgives us; but He does this in order that we might not sin. Moreover, the element of challenge is also to characterize the Christian’s relationships with other people. The conclusion of this is that our attitude toward others should be that of the Lord Jesus Christ toward us and not that of the rulers who had accused the woman. They had used the woman. Jesus had saved her. What made the difference? We can say that the men were only sinful human beings while Christ was divine, of course. That is correct. But it is not very helpful. What is helpful is to notice that before this incident Jesus had spent the night upon the Mount of Olives, where we know from other sources He was accustomed to spend the time praying, while the leaders for their part had spent the night scheming with one another. Where does this compassionate attitude toward other persons come from in practical experience? It comes only from communing with our heavenly Father. We are personal with others only when we know ourselves to be persons. We know ourselves to be persons only when we see ourselves as persons before God.” [Boice, pp. 607-612].
Questions for Discussion:
1. Describe the attitude of the rulers concerning the adulterous woman.
2. Describe the attitude of Jesus. What four characteristics does Boice find in Jesus’ attitude?
3. What do we learn from this passage about how to treat other people: both the self-righteous and the sinner?
John, vol. 2, James Boice, Baker.
The Gospel According to John, D. A. Carson, Eerdmans.
John, Andreas Kostenberger, BENT, Baker.
The Gospel According to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.
The Gospel of John, Herman Ridderbos, Eerdmans.