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Christ and the Sinner

John 8:1-11

The story is one often told, for it shows the compassion of Christ. Most newer Bibles have an annotation that this story is not found in the oldest and best manuscripts. This is true. Ancient writers explain the discrepancy: the story would, in the early days of the church, be twisted into a justification of Christians committing adultery. This, at a time when the moral reputation of the church was the prime evangelistic tool. Most scholars consider it authentic, though there is some debate as to where in the Gospel of John it really belongs.


1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.

There are some quick points which should not be missed in these two verses:

  • Consider the prayer life of Christ. He spent the night on the Mount of Olives. There, we are told, he often went to pray. How much the prayer in the darkness strengthens us for the combat of the day!
  • Note too that Jesus arrives at dawn. He does not show up after a latté at Starbucks, but he’s on the job on time.
  • He sits down to teach the crowd. It is the mark of the teacher in these times that he sits. He is not a rabble rouser; rather, it is in deep instruction that he enlightens the crowd.

We might also learn some background of what is about to happen. Specifically, we might learn why adultery – which in our day is thought to be a good thing, or at worst a “victimless crime” – was taken with such seriousness.

  • In the Old Testament God often equates idolatry with adultery. This is the forerunner of things to come. It is interesting to note that the three capital crimes of the ancient Jews were murder, adultery and idolatry.
  • It is in the New Testament that we see the explanation. Marriage is not just a human relationship; it is the picture of Christ’s love for the church. If the bride (the church) commits adultery, does this not break the husband’s heart?
  • We must always remember that the Law is a schoolmaster to us.[1] We are taught the rules in the Law, and the principles in Christ. We are now full grown, or should be – and therefore all the more in danger when we disobey.

The trap

The Pharisees now bring out a set-piece trap. It is often noted that they bring the woman taken in adultery – but not the man. As it would seem to be a little difficult to do that, it is generally conceded that the object was to present to him a sinner whose appearance would summon up mercy rather than wrath. They succeeded – but not quite the way they wanted.

3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.

Begin with this: the trap was deliberately set in public. The intent is to discredit Jesus with the crowd. This should work; after all, this is the same Jesus who has extended adultery to include looking at another woman with intent. It’s also a mark of desperation. The Pharisees (in preceding passages) have assaulted Jesus on his truthfulness; they have assaulted him on the matter of his humility – and now they wish to assault his righteousness.[2] They have produced someone most likely to appeal to his mercy and gentle nature – at the expense of his righteousness.

As the Pharisees see it, Jesus has three options, all of which are deadly:

  1. He can condemn the woman to death. In so doing, he upholds the Law of Moses, but loses the support of the crowd of sinners who receive him so gladly. This would also get him in trouble with the Romans – who forbade capital punishment to the Jews.
  2. He can plead for her life – and thus destroy his reputation for righteousness.
  3. Or, in the most subtle of traps, he can cleverly rationalize the two options. For example, he might say that Roman rule is God’s punishment on Israel’s unfaithfulness, and this woman’s release shows the evil of the Romans. This would be the start of co-opting him into “the system” – where he would be just another brilliant rabbi.

Observe one thing: that last option would have made everybody happy. Everybody, that is, except God. But Jesus has come to do his Father’s will. What might that be? To seek and save the lost! Even, perhaps, the Pharisees.

They call him “teacher,” and you can almost hear the sarcasm. But it is a point to be seen: those who set such traps usually have their own heads caught in them.

Time to Think

It is a measure of Christ’s devotion to his Father’s will that he gives the Pharisees time to repent of this.

6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

Look at verse seven: they kept on questioning him. Was this done in a tone of triumph? Did they just not notice that he was writing? We cannot say. What we can say is this: only after continued questioning, unanswered by Jesus, does he finally rise with his reply. They asked for it.

There is one thing which is greatly comforting. The Jesus who bends down portrays God stooping to deal with our sin. The Christ who stands up portrays God who stops the mouth of our accuser.

What did he write?

It’s been a mystery for two thousand years. What was Jesus writing in the ground?

  • Some ancient manuscripts hint that he might have been writing out the sins of those who were standing there. Perhaps; but I think not. That’s a long list.
  • We might also consider this. There are two times in Scripture when God is portrayed as writing with his finger. Do you remember the other?[3]

They go away, one by one, starting with the oldest. That, at least, is polite. In our day the younger ones would push to the front . There is a wisdom with age, and wisdom knows wisdom when it meets such. But note one thing: it wasn’t just the Pharisees that went away – the crowd did also. All the sinners were convicted that day.

Dealing with the Sinner

10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

I wonder: did the woman expect to be stoned by Jesus? It’s perfectly plausible that she did. This, after all, is a righteous man from God; who better to cast the first stone? She has not escaped entirely without punishment, for she has been exposed to shame in front of the town. It is very likely she thinks she deserves it.

This explains her silence; she knows she’s guilty. She does not bring up the subject of “what about the man?” She doesn’t attempt to justify herself. She just stands there, hopeless.

But the hope of the world stands before her. In Him she will see the mercy of God.

  • “Woman, where are they?” How’s she supposed to know? Christ is simply pointing out the obvious. It’s just the sinner – and the sinner’s friend.
  • Christ now portrays for us both the mercy and righteousness of God. “Neither do I condemn you” – no charges filed, no prosecution, we’re dropping the case (despite the evidence). “Leave your life of sin” – labels it for what it is, and gives the cure: repentance.[4]

Christ condemns the sin, but not the sinner. In Him is the resolution of the divine dilemma – How can the righteous God have anything to do with sinners; how can the loving God not have everything to do with them. Only Christ can do this, for only he is both fully God and fully Man. Only Christ can do this, for only He can be the perfect atonement for our sins.

Lessons for Us

Though often used as a starting point for the depth and breadth of the forgiveness of God through Christ Jesus, this passage yields us some other lessons as well.

Our right to judge

It is a fact – judging by the content of sermons preached these days – that the church is quite fond of condemning those outside the church. It serves as an excellent substitute for passing judgment on those inside the church. After all, a scathing denunciation of abortion clinics need hardly trouble the woman who has had an abortion. “They” – always good to have around to take the blame.

We have it backwards. We should be judging ourselves and lifting each other from the pits of sin:

9I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.

12What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

How often we ignore this! But our Lord has made clear his view of this:

1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

The issue is relatively simple to state. We must judge ourselves, to see wherein we need to repent. We must judge others in the church, so that by sound church discipline we snatch them from a life of sin – always being careful of the snares which entrap them. We must judge no one outside the church.

The time will come when we too will be judged by God. On that Day, it will be blessed to hear, “Has no one condemned you?” Who is our accuser, but Satan? Who can defend us against him, except Christ?

But then – to take the practical example – are we not to condemn adultery? Certainly! The issue is, how? I submit that we condemn adultery by living the life of purity and chastity. As John puts it,

5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all£ sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

Walk in the light. In the presence of light, darkness flees. In the presence of Christ, Satan, the accuser, flees. We are the light of the world[5]; by our presence we condemn the darkness of this world – if we but walk in that Light.

[1] Galatians 5:21-25

[2] See Psalm 45:4, the basis for St. Augustine’s commentary on this passage.

[3] If you’ve forgotten, see Exodus 31:18

[4] See Ezekiel 33:10-20 for the Old Testament version of this.

[5] Matthew 5:14

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