John 7:53–8:12

March 11, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

John 7:53–8:12

On the last day of the seven day long Jewish Feast of Tabernacles Jesus had stood up in the temple and proclaimed, “if a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” (7:37) A conflict resulted. The people couldn’t decide who this man was. The temple guards had been sent by the chief priests and Pharisees to arrest Jesus on that day but they returned saying, “A man never spoke this way.” Clearly they had been captivated by Jesus. Soldiers are not supposed to have opinions. They are supposed to obey orders. We read at the end of John 7 the angry hostility of the Jewish religious leaders to Jesus as they try to sort all this out. Then to show what a long day and a long feast this had been, verse 53 says, “Then each went to his own home.” No doubt they all got a good night’s sleep.

All except Jesus. That night Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. That was the place He would go to pray during the Passover Festival where Judas came with a crowd of these same temple soldiers to arrest Him. We aren’t told in John 8 what he did on the Mount of Olives, but I believe He prayed there.

I suppose that every person in the public eye is viewed in a variety of ways. Jesus certainly was. His disciples - the ones who knew Him best - would die for Him. The people who had been healed by Him, followed Him. Others of the people believed He was the Messiah. Still others wanted to arrest Him for blasphemy.

So at dawn the next day, the first day after the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus appeared in the temple courts. Have you seen the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia at dawn when all the trucks are bringing produce and baked goods into the stalls in the market? The temple courts were something like that. No Starbucks coffee, but other things to eat and drink, and lots of bustle.

Even at dawn a crowd of people gathered around Jesus. He was a dynamic, controversial celebrity. In verse 2, He sits down to teach the people who crowded around Him early on the day after the Feast of Tabernacles. Now this was before television, before newspapers. To hear what a person like Jesus said, you had to hear Him personally, or hear the stories others told about Him and get it second hand. As Jesus taught this early morning crowd, the same group of Pharisees and teachers of the law who at the end of chapter 7 had been so hostile to Jesus, also appear early in the temple courts. You know they are looking for a fight.

These teachers of the law and Pharisees brought with them a woman. Slime she was to them because they had no regard for her feelings when they bring her into public view and say she had been caught in the very act of adultery. You might wonder where the man is.

Now everyone there knew very well what the law said about those who committed adultery. She was to be killed. So was the man involved which makes you wonder again where the man was. The Old Testament in Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22 says the punishment is death, though they don’t prescribe stoning. In strict Muslim societies today, the punishment for adultery is stoning. You might wonder if that sort of punishment gives people pause, but of course, no one thinks he, or she, will be caught.

Now the law that the Bible sets forth is not an arbitrary set of rules. The law is a revelation in human society of principles which reflect God’s own life. In God’s life when a person makes a commitment to another person in marriage, that is inviolable. Death for breaking such a covenant is consistent with what God is about.

Of course, you wonder, since the law is so clear, and the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were the people who enforced the law, why did they bring this woman to Jesus? Their question in verse 5 is, “You, what do you say?”

This is not some action scene from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where Jesus is going to leap up and kick box the Pharisees. This is a debate and to score points one has to see what the issues are and what distinctions one can make with them.

This was not the first time that the Jewish religious leaders had sought to get the better of Jesus with difficult questions. We have difficult questions from people we know about religious issues. But just because you have hard questions doesn’t make you any big deal. And because you don’t have a ready answer doesn’t mean you are a failure. Christianity has faced enormously more difficult questions than have people in other religions. Christianity is the religion of the scientific west and so we’ve had all the questions. But orthodox Christians have on the whole done well with questions because our world view is holistic. We live within the truth of the world God created and redeemed. We can find answers to hard questions.

Jesus was asked once (in Matthew 22:18) whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? His answer was a surprise, pay to Caesar what is owed to Caesar and to God what is owed God. He was asked once whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife, which cast him into the midst of a contemporary debate between two rabbinic schools. He was asked, what is the greatest commandment of the law, by an expert in Jewish law in Matthew 22:35.

Sometimes the test was religious, sometimes it had heavy political overtones.

In John 8 , with this woman caught in adultery standing among the crowd and the teachers of the law and the Pharisees intent on accusing him, they ask another of those hard questions. Let’s look at the distinctions Jesus makes. Jesus is not going to be caught by this sort of problem.

If Jesus seems at all lax toward the law, the Jews are going to say, ah ha, it’s just like His view of the Sabbath where He doesn’t strictly observe the law. This man is against our law, they would have said. If, on the other hand He advocates a strict interpretation of the law, He allows the Pharisees to win in the way they are treating the woman. She has been brought for judgment, but not the man. Jesus is known for His compassion for the poor and the downtrodden, so a strict interpretation of the law would change people’s idea of him. Not only that, Jesus would get Himself into trouble with the Romans for in the first century they did not allow subject nations to do capital punishment.

This situation is a lot like Israel in the wilderness putting God to the test. God, what are you going to do about feeding us? What are you going to do about this golden calf that just came out of the fire? What are you going to do about people who kept some of the possessions of the Canaanites you ordered destroyed?

Here’s what Jesus did. He did no judo throws. He gave no clever repartee, but His response is interesting. Verse 6, “Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.” This is an interesting response, but what on earth does it mean?

Some images that people of another age would understand are lost to us. Biblical images, for instance, would be real in the eyes of Jews. There is, for example, a picture in Jeremiah 17:13, “O Lord... all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.”

Just last night Jesus had invited thirsty people to come to Him and drink and He had spoken of how springs of water would well up in them. Then this day, Jesus writes in the dust. That’s what Jeremiah 17 says.

It is also true that the word used here for “to write” is used only here in the New Testament. But in a papyrus from the 3rd century BC the word is used and it has the meaning “to write out an accusation.” This would be like a judge first writing out what he will later say as his judgment on a case. But when in verse 8 Jesus writes on the ground again, there is the normal word for that. It’s always a little hard to piece together what is happening when we aren’t specifically told.

Whatever Jesus is writing on the ground, His delay in speaking aggravates the teachers of the law and the Pharisees. They thought this would be over quickly. Maybe they hadn’t eaten breakfast yet and were anxious to leave. So in verse 7 they repeat their question wondering why Jesus isn’t responding. It is then that Jesus speaks. He speaks one of those insightful sentences that captures everything in this debate: “whoever of you is innocent of sin, let him throw first a stone on her.”

And having delivered that speech, Jesus returned to writing on the ground.

He could have been the first to throw, but He did not. I saw a cartoon once where after Jesus says those words of verse 7, there is a stone flung from the crowd and Jesus says, “now, mother.” But that isn’t our theology about Mary. Further, this is not a don’t ask, don’t tell moment. At least about this the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are fair, they reflect on their own sinfulness. That’s the only way to understand what happens next. It is a dramatic scene, one by one, beginning with the elder ones as was proper in that society, they leave. Those who came to condemn, condemn themselves.

I have wondered what the crowd around Jesus thought at that moment. Perhaps they too left. You can visualize people departing one by one, as verse 9 says. Slowly the number decreases until, verse 9 concludes, there remain only Jesus and the woman. It seems like one of those moments when God’s Spirit is present and people feel the weight of their sin.

Then Jesus then asks the woman for a report of what has happened, as if He had not been there and then He asks where her accusers are. At that moment, with Jesus facing the woman we have a striking example of the meaning of what He said in John 3:17, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

No one has condemned her, though she was guilty of adultery. You might wonder what she was thinking at that moment when she was face to face with God’s Son. G. K. Chesterton once said that there is nothing that clears a man’s mind so well as knowing you are going to be hanged in the morning. Perhaps the woman saw her sin crystal clearly as she stood there. The New International Version gives the wrong impression when it starts the next sentence with “Then”. “Then neither do I condemn you.” Jesus’ reaction of not condemning the woman is not caused by the response of the Pharisees and the crowd. And further the New International Version further gives the impression in the last part of verse 11 that the woman was a regular whore by saying, “leave your life of sin.” A better translation is, “from now on, stop sinning.” We can’t conclude from what we know that adultery was her life style.

Now let us examine this scene. The Gospel Jesus preached offers not only forgiveness but a new quality of life that allows a person to live in such a way that she may overcome sin. Jesus believes the law is true. It reflects his Father’s character. Adultery is wrong. But the law is not an impersonal set of rules. The law is a revelation of God’s own life adapted for human society. If I have learned anything over the 36 years I’ve been in ministry it is that everyone struggles with sin in his/her life, even Wesleyans; and when one deals with the things going on in people’s lives, compassion and caring about them is what they need. But so is the call to obey God important. You don’t give up that point. Jesus didn’t.

I’ve noticed that people often see their sin in one of two ways: one is that since God is merciful I can do what I like, or at least have an assurance that God will erase my sins whatever I do; and, on the other hand, there is the view that there can be no forgiveness for the particular sin I have committed. But the only sin that is unforgiven is the one that you don’t repent of. What Jesus does is cleanse us from all sin as we day by day repent.

Jesus does not condemn the woman, just as John 3:17 says, but he calls the woman to obey God by stopping from sin. It was Karl Barth who once said, “sin scorches us when it comes under the light of forgiveness, not before.” Sin must be confessed. Jesus upholds the law. But he also upholds his Father’s character. God is merciful beyond belief for those who repent of their sin. Do you believe that? Or, to put the question in another way, had you been the one brought by religious leaders to Jesus for a sin you do that they had caught you in by electronic eavesdropping or some other means, what would you do when confronted by Jesus knowing you were in the wrong? Jesus has always been a street lawyer for the poor and for sinners. So the writer to the Hebrews says, “approach the throne of grace with confidence so that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need. Hebrews 4:16. Our curse is that we sin. God’s grace is that he loves and helps sinners.