2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (John 8:2-11)
This is an interesting story with so many factors to think about.
Clearly Jesus had acquired a reputation for overturning traditions about the law and this case was a test to see how He’d decide concerning serious sin. He was known for being a friend of sinners. “What sayest thou?” shows us that authority is at issue here, authority to pass judgment and condemn. It might sound like they are submitting to His judgment, but they just want to draw Him out so they can find fault with His judgment.
It appeared to be an open-and-shut case. She was caught in the act. The penalty for it in the Law of Moses was known.
And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Lev. 20:10)
Technically the punishment couldn’t be carried out, since the Romans had taken away from the Jews the legal power to condemn malefactors to death. If Jesus upheld the Law of Moses, He could be accused of breaking Roman law. If He said she shouldn’t be stoned, He could be accused of not keeping the Law of Moses. The scribes and Pharisees were trying to use the case as a means of entrapping Jesus.
It is rather odd that the accusers only brought to Jesus the woman when adultery is a sin that takes two to commit. Where is the man?
Why did Jesus write on the ground in such a peculiar manner? They have asked him to give His opinion and He doesn’t answer; He just stoops down and draws in the dust as if ignoring them, as if He hopes the question will go away by itself. But with His ready answer when they keep asking Him, we know He is not ignoring them. Rather, He must be trying to teach them without them realizing it. In other questions asked with the intent to trap Him, Jesus answers right away, yet in this incident, He doesn’t.
Imagine going into a courtroom to watch a trial and imagine that once the charges have been stated and all the arguments made, the judge bends over and starts drawing things on the carpet at the moment when they are expected to pronounce the verdict. What kind of message does it send? It’s not that He doesn’t care or is bored.. it is something else. It’s a stall tactic. I think that’s one thing Jesus was trying to teach—that He gives time before judgment.
Eventually Jesus turns the question back on the accusers with a pronouncement that dictates the requirements for executing judgment. “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He invites them to carry out the punishment IF they have a clear conscience on the matter at hand.
Some commentators think Jesus was referring to any sin, and others think He was talking about the specific sin of adultery. I think that He was referring to the Law of Moses requirements for righteous witnesses. If it was any sin, how could anyone bring anyone else to justice?
Here are some of laws about witnesses which they would know and which will help us understand better what was behind Jesus’ words.
2 ¶If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the Lord thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the Lord thy God, in transgressing his covenant,
3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;
4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and inquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel:
5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.
6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.
7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you. (Deut. 17:2-7)
Jesus’ words about casting the first stone were directed at the witnesses first, it was their responsibility. There had to be at least two of them.
15 ¶One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
16 ¶If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong;
17 Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days;
18 And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother;
19 Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you. (Deut. 19:15-19)
They were all also aware that if the witnesses were found to be false witnesses or unrighteous witnesses in any way, they would be given the same penalty of stoning.
1 Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness.
2 ¶Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment:
3 ¶Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause. (Exodus 23:1-3)
(Exodus 23:1-3 basically says that witnesses were not supposed to start false reports, were not to join with the wicked and be a witness for them, were not to go along with the crowd to do evil or to subvert justice, and were not to favor the poor man and thereby blindly root for the underdog.)
These verses give us a picture of the standard to which witnesses were expected to be held, and everyone knew it. After all, this was no ordinary penalty. This was depriving someone of life and time to repent. It is not done lightly or without soul-searching.
The main problem with the witnesses (and perhaps too the accusers) was their demand for the punishment to be applied to the woman with the man absent. If she was taken in the very act, the party of accusers were not being totally above board because they had already improperly let the man go and were seeking to lay all their severity on the woman in an unequal application of justice. This glaring injustice indicated their sympathy was all with the man, as it would be if they had committed adultery themselves before. They wanted to be lenient to male sin themselves and then force Jesus to be severe.
The principle I get from Jesus’ words to the woman’s witnesses and accusers is that you have to really search your own soul and be sure you are untainted yourself from the sin you are about to condemn someone for. Finding fault and seeking occasion to entrap disqualifies you as a judge (and witness) because malice will hardly allow someone to be proven innocent. Other disqualifying factors are having a double standard (letting some go but prosecuting others to the farthest extent), and certainly so does committing the same sins oneself.
Jesus’ words to the woman, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” are thought by many to convey forgiveness, but I do not see forgiveness here….yet. It is too early for it. She was caught in the act, so she would have plenty of shame and humiliation and regret for being caught, but genuine repentance can’t be forced by these circumstances, even with a merciful verdict. Some space is needed to realize the seriousness of the sin, to feel and demonstrate contrition, and so on. Jesus’ words only speak of no condemnation, which is not the same as “thy sins are forgiven thee.” Condemnation can only come at the last day when men are brought to be judged of their works, and until that day, there is hope for all. At best, Jesus granted a stay of execution, giving her time for repentance and a chance to build up a store of days with no sin. This is consistent with His mortal mission to save rather than condemn. Later in the chapter, He also highlights this principle:
15 Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.
16 And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. (John 8:15-16)
Jesus could judge and condemn with eternal consequences, but He refrains for a season in order to save as many as He can first.
The JST shows us the woman recognized the probationary period she’d been given because it says, “And the woman glorified God from that hour, and believed on his name.”