Teaching series from John

The Woman Caught In Adultery

John 8:1-11

Teaching t05625


Last week, we looked at one of the most dramatic public statements Jesus ever made. Today, we will look at one of the most dramatic private encounters. It also contains one of Jesus' most well-known statements (vs 7b). But before we can appreciate this encounter or understand this statement, we need to understand the setting . . . 

The Trap (vs 1-6a)

Read vs 1-5. This sounds like an honest request for help in pursuing justice, but notice vs 6a. They weren't interested in justice--they were only interested in trapping Jesus! What kind of trap?

NOTE: The Old Testament listed adultery as a capital crime (Lev. 20:10). This is horrifying to the modern reader, when it merits no punishment in our society. Though we are no longer under Old Testament civil law, it is defensible--especially when compared to the other ancient Near Eastern law codes. The Mosaic law was very tough on crimes against people, relationships, and the family unit. The other law codes were very tough on property crimes (cut off hands). This difference highlights the different value-systems (things vs. people).

Anyway, the religious leaders hoped to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma:

If he agreed with the Old Testament law and called for her execution, they could accuse him of sedition before the Romans, because since 30 AD the Romans had taken away the Jews' right of capital punishment.

If he said she shouldn't be stoned, they could accuse him of false teaching and discredit him with the people, because of what the Old Testament law mandated. Common people usually prefer harsh punishment for proven criminals.

They thought they really had him! But Jesus had the whole scene covered . . . 

Jesus' Word to the Accusers (vs 6b-9a)

Read vs 6b. Why is Jesus doing this--stalling for time? No, he was tested many times like this and was never caught off guard. And here, he clearly smelled something rotten--not just that they were using her to get at Jesus--something even more immoral. Don't you smell something rotten?

Not surprisingly, Jewish civil law had very strict conditions under which this crime was punishable by execution.

It required that they be caught in the act (Num. 5:13). Rabbi Samuel said, "In the case of adulterers, they (the witnesses) must have seen them in the posture of adulterers." Another scholar of Talmudic law says, "(It is not just an issue) of their having seen the couple in a `compromising situation,' for example, coming from a room in which they were alone, or even lying together on the same bed. The actual physical movements of the couple must have been capable of no other explanation, and the witnesses must have seen exactly the same acts at exactly the same time, in the presence of each other, so that their depositions would be identical in every respect." [1] It sounds like they were OK here.

But the same law stated that both parties were to be produced and prosecuted (Deut. 22:22). The last time I checked, it took two people to commit adultery! If they caught the woman "in the very act," then where is the man? It is obvious that there is a conspiracy here! The whole story could have been fabricated, but the most plausible explanation is that these men have set the woman up to use her in their attempt to discredit Jesus. They probably sent an "undercover agent" to solicit her services (maybe one of them), then on a pre-arranged signal burst in, let him go and dragged her to Jesus. This makes them accessories to the crime and therefore guilty of adultery themselves! (This point is important in order to understand Jesus's response to them in vs 7b.)

What did Jesus write in the dirt? Nobody knows for certain because it doesn't say. Whatever he wrote (at least initially) didn't back them off because of what they say in vs 7a. Maybe he simply wrote the 6th commandment. What is important not what he wrote on the ground, but what he said to them (read vs 7b).

Just about everyone knows this verse, but most misapply it. It is usually cited either as a prohibition against making moral judgments (REFUTE: Jn. 7:24), or as a support for abolishing capital punishment (RATIONALE: only sinless people have this authority).

This is not the time to discuss capital punishment, but whatever your view on capital punishment, you shouldn't use this verse to support it. Why? Because Jesus could not have meant this without directly contradicting Old Testament law (which authorizes sinful people to carry it out) and playing right into the hands of his enemies. They certainly didn't understand them in this way; if they had, they would have jumped for joy, not walked out.

What Jesus means is "Whoever among you who is without equal guilt in this specific case be the one to initiate the execution." He had discerned the conspiracy, and was letting them know that if they initiated her execution, they were also initiating their own prosecution and condemnation!

Read vs 8 (maybe he wrote Ex. 23:1; Deut. 19:16-19) and vs 9a. The older ones caught on more quickly and did the only smart thing they did in the entire incident - they beat feet out of there! And with them went the case against her under Jewish law. . .

Jesus' Word to the Woman (vs 9b-11)

Read vs 9b. Now she is left looking at Jesus with the crowd still looking on. You think you've had bad days! She has been group-busted, publicly humiliated, in danger of losing her life. Now suddenly her accusers are dispatched. She has just witnessed Jesus's penetrating insight into their sin and his condemnation of their actions (for which she is relieved)--but how will he deal with her now? As is so often the case, the way Jesus responds is different than what she probably expected . . . read vs 10,11.

Vs 11b is a very important statement. In fact, it is a distillation of the distinctive message of the New Testament. It is not an exaggeration to say that the rest of the New Testament is an elaboration of this statement. It speaks to two of the most important issues in our dealings with God.

The basis of our forgiveness

Jesus does not say "Sin no more, and then I won't condemn you." This is the way LAW/RELIGION answers the question (EXAMPLES). By the way, Old Testament LAW doesn't accept this formula; it says "Don't sin at all, and then I won't condemn you." According to God's LAW, the first time we break it we become deserving of God's condemnation (Jas. 2:10).

Instead, Jesus/GRACE says "I do not condemn you--now go and sin no more." He isn't saying merely that he won't prosecute her (he can't). Neither is he saying that she isn't responsible for her actions ("go and sin no more"). Neither is he saying that he accepts her apology to him (she didn't apologize or do anything to him). He is forgiving what she did to others, and to God. In other words, he is issuing a declaration of divine forgiveness (as in Mk. 2), even though she is guilty!! How can he do this without making a complete mockery of God's justice? He can do this for two reasons:

Because he is willing to pay the penalty for her sins himself (read 1 Jn. 2:1,2). This is why it is "fair"--because the penalty will be paid (Rom. 3:26).

Because he was willing to pay this penalty, God the Father has given him the authority to forgive all those who believe in him (read Jn. 5:22-24). Evidently, Jesus saw an attitude of faith in him ("Lord" in vs 7?).

GOSPEL: In a real sense, this woman is an illustration of all of us. We have sinned, we have been caught by God's justice, we deserve death--but Jesus is willing and able to completely deliver us from God's condemnation. And this is the way all of us are to get forgiveness: not by trying to pay our sins off (impossible), not by denying responsibility--but by coming to Jesus and asking him for the full forgiveness that he offers you. When we do this, we are completely and permanently accepted by God (Rom. 8:1). Have you done this?

This message is scandalous to some, because they say it will lead to license. This may be why this passage was excised from John by many copyists.

Notice that it is unclear whether or not this passage belongs here (NASB margin). Many early manuscripts omit it, and there is some confusion about where it belongs. But it is authentic. Many of the early manuscripts and papyri have it, the earliest church fathers quote it as scripture, and it is Johannine in style. Why then was it excised by some copyists? Probably because the early church got away from the radical message of grace very quickly. [2] For example, the "Shepherd of Hermas," writing in the early second century, held that Christians who committed serious sins could be forgiven once--after public confession and penance. The amazing thing is that he was roundly criticized by his contemporaries--for being too lax! [3] Tertullian called him "the shepherd of adulterers." It's easy to see why legalistic people--especially men--wouldn't like this passage!

This verse speaks also to the motivation for a changed life.

Note the last phrase: " . . . go and sin no more." God does want us to become free from sin; he does want us to "leave our life of sin." Can you imagine Jesus saying "Go and sin some more" or "Go and sin whenever you want?"

But notice the order: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." First God assures us of his forgiveness; then he calls on us to cooperate with him as he liberates us from a life of sin. Why is this order so important? Because of the way God motivates us to live for him.

RELIGION SAYS: "Change, or I will condemn you." The fear and threat of God's condemnation is always potentially hanging over our heads in order to "keep us in line." This does not promote deep and lasting change. People who live under this tend to have a superficial and self-righteous kind of holiness.

GRACE SAYS: "I have forgiven and accepted you. Now respond to my love by allowing me to change your life." Loving gratitude is the most powerful motivator in the universe. We don't change in order to be accepted, but because we have been accepted. Real righteousness is practicing love toward God and others. Nothing motivates this kind of lifestyle like forgiveness received. This is why grace, properly understood and appropriated, produces a superior righteousness in the lifestyle of its recipient.

This is why, while we teach emphasize biblical ethics without compromise, we emphasize the grace God. We believe Paul when he says that a focus on the law will only increase our sin problems (Rom. 5:20; 7:8; 1 Cor. 15:56), but that a mind set on God's love and acceptance will motivate us to follow him and unleash the Holy Spirit to gradually transform our lives (Rom. 8:4ff.).


[1] J. Duncan Derrett, New Testament Studies, Vol. 10 (1963-1964), pp. 4,5.

[2] Augustine, Ambrose, and Calvin all suggest this.

[3] M. A. Smith, From Christ To Constantine (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1971), p. 40.