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Life of Christ (2007-2009)

Taken In Adultery

John 8:1-11

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The story is usually annotated as being absent from the earliest manuscripts. This is true; the early church writers explain that this is a valid part of John’s Gospel, but left out to avoid giving the impression that Christ favored adultery. There is some doubt as to where it belongs in John’s Gospel, but the present location seems as good as any. It comes after a series of arguments with the Pharisees during the Feast of the Tabernacles – and it is followed by another series of arguments. We’re in the right church, if not the right pew.

Joh 8:1-11 NIV But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. (2) At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. (3) The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group (4) and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. (5) In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" (6) They 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. (7) When 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." (8) Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. (9) At 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. (10) Jesus 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."

Modern and ancient views

Our view of moral behavior – even our view of whether or not it can exist – has greatly changed in my lifetime. It is therefore useful to review how the ancients viewed the sin of adultery:

  • There were three things most noted for the death penalty in the Law of Moses: idolatry, murder, and adultery. Murder still seems arguable; idolatry in the old sense seems non-existent – but our view of adultery is very far from being worth the death penalty. Why, then, did they see it that way?
  • We may submit two reasons. The first is that the family was the foundation of civilization, and faithful marriage was the only reliable way to produce strong families (including extended families). The modern man sees the individual as the basis of civilization.[1]
  • The second is that God intrinsically tied faithful marriage to faithful worship. Israel is described as God’s bride; the church is the bride of Christ. To condone adultery is to condone idolatry.

Perhaps easiest to see is this: it is one of the Ten Commandments. It therefore must be important, and indeed it is clearly so.

Closely linked to this is the concept of divorce. At this time, a woman could divorce her husband only under the rarest of circumstances. The husband, however, had a greater array of choices, depending upon which rabbinical school of thought was being followed.

  • The school of Hillel held that the only ground for a man divorcing his wife was adultery. Jesus agrees.
  • The school of Akiva held that practically any “uncleanness” in the wife (including losing her face and figure) was sufficient grounds.

You can guess which school was more popular. But you can also see the adulterous woman’s position a little more clearly. Her husband can get rid of her in favor of some younger woman just by writing out her divorce papers. She’s stuck with him for life. This may explain her temptation, but it would still be wrong in the view of those crowded around.

Jesus actually is more strict about adultery, extending it to even so much as a leering look at a woman.[2]

The situation is quite different in our time. Adultery is seen as “an affair.” It is considered to enhance a marriage.[3] If things don’t work out, you can always get a divorce, right?

Indeed, the change in our views of marriage has another result: adultery is an expression of the woman’s equality with the man. Since the church began teaching egalitarian marriage we have seen the divorce rate soar to the point where there is actually more divorce among Christians than among non-Christians. Adultery is now just a step in the divorce process; anyone who feels shocked, offended or betrayed by adultery is now counseled to “get over it.” We are a great distance from the attitudes of these people.

It does bring up a question: what would Christ say today to someone who was “caught in the act of adultery?” If he said the same things, would she feel repentant, or justified?

Traps and Options

The Pharisees think they have Jesus in an unbreakable trap – that’s why they sprang it on him. Here’s how they might see it:

  • If he stones her, he’s a rebel against the Roman Empire (the Jews are not allowed the death penalty). Then let Rome deal with him. If he says no, he is disobedient to the Law of Moses.
  • If he stones her, he loses popularity with the people – who can at least empathize with the woman. There’s a reason she’s not there with her lover.
  • If he temporizes, he is co-opting himself into “the system.”

So how does someone defend himself against such a trap? I submit two things are shown here:

  • First, the defense of purity and innocence. If you see something evil as your option, don’t do it. (Mom: “Don’t do dumb things.”)
  • Second, remember what your mission is. Christ came to seek and save the lost. The woman falls in that category; Christ’s actions show that the Pharisees and the crowd do too.

The Woman

We may first note the preparation that Christ has made. He spent the night before on the Mount of Olives; we know that his habit was to pray most, if not all, the night. That’s an example to us.

We may also note that he arrived at dawn. The virtues of promptness and making maximum use of your time are hereby proclaimed.

Finally, he began his teaching by proclaiming his authority – in the act of sitting down (customary in those days). He is in charge of the classroom.

Writing on the ground

Those of little patience might note that writing on the ground takes a little time. Christ wants the crowd to think, and the Pharisees to repent. He gives them a space to do so.

The Pharisees, at least, show no signs of repentance. Note that they “continued to question him.” Patience, even in the din of criticism, is still a virtue.

Of course, the question always comes up, “What, exactly, did he write?” Many have speculated that he wrote down the sins of those standing around – starting with the oldest first, judging by who left first. But politeness of this time would have had the oldest leave first anyway. It is just possible that the finger of God wrote in the dust what it had written long before.[4]

Dealing with the sinner

May we point out the obvious?

  • The woman knows that she is the sinner. She knows what she did, but presents no defense of the “how come I’m the only one you drag off like this?” Nor do we hear, “why didn’t you bring the man?”
  • She also has sense enough not to try to run away. Perhaps she sensed where this was going; but however she thought it out, she wound up trusting the Christ.
  • Christ, as is his desire, is merciful. No longer dealing with condemnation by others, he seeks her repentance rather than her death.
  • “Sin no more” seems to imply that he had her repentance.


We may take a moment here to comment on Judgmentalism, so well pictured here in the persons of the Pharisees. There are two instances in which we are counseled to judge:

  • First, we are to judge ourselves. Take stock, repent and reform, and draw closer to Christ.
  • Second, in the form of church discipline, we are to judge those who are in the church – but only within the steps of church discipline. In this process we are to be very certain that those who approach the wayward do so with clean hands,

But what we usually mean by Judgmentalism is that we are looking down on someone else, outside the church or outside the process of church discipline. This has several disadvantages:

  • Whatever you use to measure others, God will use to measure you. If you can’t stand hot-headed people, and you yourself blow your cork regularly, what is God to do?
  • Judging others usually carries with it a failure to forgive. If you will not forgive, you will not be forgiven.
  • Often enough, judgment is made so as to have a rationalization of our own poor conduct. “Well, at least I’m not as bad as …”
  • Finally, done long enough, it hardens into a solid hypocrisy. Even you don’t like that result.

We are told to hate the sin and love the sinner. We do this every day with the sinner named “myself.” God simply wants you to be fair – apply the same standard to everyone.

[1] I leave to the reader the exercise of determining if this change is based in fact or fancy.

[2] Matthew 5:27-28

[3] In thirty years of teaching the Bible to adults, I have yet to see anything other than misery to come from adultery. I merely report the common idea.

[4] Exodus 31:18

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