If you missed John 7, also largely omitted, you can catch up with last week’s post, which also has links to the other events in that chapter during the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). The tension running through John 7 builds further in John 8, hitting a flashpoint at the end, which we will come to in a few weeks’ time.
1Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
2And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6This 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.
7So 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.
8And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9And 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.
10When 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?
11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
After the Feast of Tabernacles drew to a close, Jesus retreated to the Mount of Olives for rest and shelter (verse 1). He was nearly arrested during the feast, but the hand of God prevented the arresting officers fulfilling the demands of the Jewish hierarchy.
Was Jesus cowardly for retreating outside the city? No. His time had not yet come, and He was still about His Father’s work. If He had stayed in Jerusalem overnight, He might have compromised His personal safety before He had fulfilled His ministry. Matthew Henry writes:
It is prudent to go out of the way of danger whenever we can do it without going out of the way of duty. In the day-time, when he had work to do in the temple, he willingly exposed himself, and was under special protection, Isa. 49:2. But in the night, when he had not work to do, he withdrew into the country, and sheltered himself there.
The following morning, He rose early and returned to the temple in Jerusalem (verse 2). A number of Jews would still have been in the city following the week-long feast. Remember that, unlike today, it would have been inconvenient to leave at night. We have autos, streetlamps and other means to facilitate a return home in the dark. Back then, people would have waited until the next day to return home to their villages. Many would have stopped by the temple beforehand. So, Jesus was there to preach and to teach.
In verse 3, the scribes and Pharisees — legalists — bring in a woman whom they accused of adultery and announce her crime to Jesus and those assembled (verse 4). Note that they refer to Him now as ‘Master’ instead of intimating He is a deceiver as they did in the preceding days. Jesus sees through it all. He will bring their sin and hypocrisy subtly out into the open.
The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, think they are setting up a cunning trap for our Lord (verses 5 and 6). They ask for His perspective when they had wanted Him arrested only the day before. First, they use the appellation ‘Master’ then feign interest in His opinion of the adultery case which they put before Him. They mention ‘the law of Moses’ for a reason: should Jesus say to release the woman, the hierarchy can say that He went against Mosaic law. Should Jesus say to stone the woman, they can turn around and tell everyone that He is no friend to sinners.
Note Jesus’s immediate response: silence. He bends down to write something on the ground. Some scholars believe He wrote a wise saying about sin and judgment. Others believe He wrote nothing at all. However, it is the gesture and the silence which matter here. Recall that Jesus knows the sins of the scribes and Pharisees as well as their bending of Mosaic law when it comes to themselves.
First, let us look at selected passages from Matthew 5, wherein He addresses the hierarchy and adultery:
20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
21Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: …
27Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:
28But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart …
31It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:
32But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.
John MacArthur explains these verses from Matthew 5 and the situation before Jesus in John 8 with regard to the hierarchy. He also tells us how the man should have been with the woman, according to law (emphases mine):
They caught a woman in an act of adultery. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually got the man to do it to her just to create the trap, because the man doesn’t show up. We don’t know who he is. He may have been part of the trap. But they ripped this woman out of an adulterous relationship, and they shove her in front of Jesus right in the middle of the temple with all the people around Him …
They are acting furious about this sin against God. This woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Very serious. The law of God was very clear about that. Leviticus 20:10 says, “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, even who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and adulteress shall be put to death.” They didn’t keep all the law, by the way. The man wasn’t there. They just kept the part they wanted. They had a double standard, you see. They didn’t mind abusing a woman. They wouldn’t touch a man. So they weren’t really self-righteous. They were just trying to trap Jesus. But, nonetheless, the law says she should die. The Mishnah, which is the codification of Jewish law, even said this is such a serious sin that, when you catch the man, he is to be enclosed in manure up to his knees and a soft towel inside a rough towel tied around his neck and two people on each side pull until he strangles; and the soft towel on the inside was so the rough towel left no marks, so his execution would be symbolically accomplished by God Himself. There would be no human mark on him …
They weren’t concerned with the woman. You wanna know something? They were adulterers themselves …
And now they’re coming so sanctimonious, “We caught this woman in adultery, and Moses says she has to die.” If they really believed Moses, they’d have executed each other…They only wanted to trap Jesus.
As for silence and keeping one’s own counsel under pressure, Matthew Henry explains:
Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once: The heart of the wise studies to answer. Our translation from some Greek copies, which add, meµ prospoioumenos (though most copies have it not), give this account of the reason of his writing on the ground, as though he heard them not. He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider? It is safe in many cases to be deaf to that which it is not safe to answer, Ps. 38:13. Christ would not have his ministers to be entangled in secular affairs. Let them rather employ themselves in any lawful studies, and fill up their time in writing on the ground (which nobody will heed), than busy themselves in that which does not belong to them. But, when Christ seemed as though he heard them not, he made it appear that he not only heard their words, but knew their thoughts.
There is a double lesson for us here. One, in the immediate reading, Christ’s gestures shame the scribes and Pharisees with regard to their own sins. Guilty men who are accustomed to sinning try to prevent their sins coming out into the open (especially their names) and will do what they can to cover them up. Two, for us today, we hear in the workplace how we must ‘think on our feet’ and respond to every question immediately. Managers often chide each other or their subordinates by asking, ‘It took you some time to answer — are you sure you’re up to this job?’ or by saying, ‘You’re a bit slow’, as in stupid. Therefore, the impetuous answer desired these days may actually be a mistake. Better to think then give a wise answer rather than, as Henry says, ‘quickly shoot our bolt’.
So eager are the hierarchy to entrap Jesus that they keep badgering Him with the question about the adulteress’s status (verse 7). Jesus finally stands up and says those memorable words:
He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
That sentence recalls the verses in Matthew above and others in the Gospels where Jesus condemns the hypocritical legalism of the scribes and the Pharisees: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. As this column has said before, thanks to our two regular commentary writers Henry and MacArthur, the Jewish Law was no longer bringing God’s people to a knowledge and love of Him. The law’s enforcers were corrupt. This is why they could not love Jesus or accept Him as their Messiah. We have seen this throughout our study of John’s Gospel and will see more of it, particularly in this chapter.
After saying those words, however, Jesus again sits down and writes on the ground (verse 8): more silence. Meanwhile, the scribes and the Pharisees know He is talking about them and their sins. Anyone nearby would not know what these were, but the hierarchy felt suitably convicted. Yet, what do they do in response? Ask for His forgiveness? No. Perhaps out of pride — protecting their public personas — they flee like cowards (verse 9), the more senior among them being the first to leave. He and the woman are alone.
So, how do we square this in our minds? And what of Jesus coming for sinners? He is not only the ‘prisoner’s friend’ in this passage — one’s only advocate in times of desperate need. He also, without enumerating them, has pointed out the sins of the woman’s accusers. If he had indicated ours, we would no doubt stand humbly with the woman and ask for His forgiveness. But those men did not have the broken state of the woman to ask for His mercy. They had power and prestige. She had a ruined reputation.
John MacArthur analyses the situation:
You see, Jesus came to the people who couldn’t carry the load anymore, came to the people who were hurting, the people whose spiritual backs were broken. Couldn’t do a thing with the Pharisees. Couldn’t do a thing with the scribes. They didn’t think they were sinners. They didn’t think they had any need. Look at Luke 15 for a moment, verse 1. “Then drew near unto Him all the tax collectors and sinners to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribe murmured, ‘This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them.’” Beloved, that’s about the best compliment they ever paid Him…That’s exactly why He came; and He explained it in verse 3. “He spoke a parable, ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doesn’t leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying unto them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’ I say unto you that likewise joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
By the way, those ninety-nine aren’t true followers. The parable is this: I’m looking for the people who know they’re lost. I’m looking for the people who wanna repent, not for those who think they don’t need Me. God is interested in sinners …
Came to save sinners. That’s what Paul said; and the religious establishment refused His friendship, because they wouldn’t admit they were sinful.
There are many people in the world like this today. Some profess another world faith. Others profess no faith. The further away people are from the Good News and Christ, the more likely they are to pronounce themselves blameless. I’ve said this before in another post and in comments, but Metro (the free-of-charge newspaper in the UK) ran a poll in 2007 or 2008 asking people on the street how they ranked their own moral character. Nearly everyone said the same thing, ‘I’m a good person’. Wow. Unbelievable, yet, there it is — black on white. How egocentric. They couldn’t see the irony in what they were saying.
Back to the story. Jesus and the woman are alone now. He stands up to talk to her (verse 10), which seems a significant gesture. He could have remained where he was, seated, with the accused before Him, but no. He enquires as to the whereabouts of her accusers. He knows well that they are cowards. But, no accusers, no trial, no sentence, no stoning.
She responds that all of her accusers have left (verse 11). Note that she calls him Lord: she knows who He is. Jesus then forgives her and tells her to sin no more — to repent, to turn around her life.
Some Christians of an anarchistic bent believe that Jesus was turning down our justice system, largely based on the Old Testament. Yet, they would do well to remember that Jesus’s kingdom ‘is not of this world’. He did not come as a temporal Saviour but as a spiritual one.
On these closing verses, Matthew Henry writes:
Not that Christ came to disarm the magistrate of his sword of justice, nor that it is his will that capital punishments should not be inflicted on malefactors; so far from this, the administration of public justice is established by the gospel, and made subservient to Christ’s kingdom: By me kings reign. But Christ would not condemn this woman, (a.) Because it was none of his business; he was no judge nor divider, and therefore would not intermeddle in secular affairs. His kingdom was not of this world. Tractent fabrilia fabri-Let every one act in his own province. (b.) Because she was prosecuted by those that were more guilty than she and could not for shame insist upon their demand of justice against her. The law appointed the hands of the witnesses to be first upon the criminal, and afterwards the hands of all the people, so that if they fly off, and do not condemn her, the prosecution drops. The justice of God, in inflicting temporal judgments, sometimes takes notice of a comparative righteousness, and spares those who are otherwise obnoxious when the punishing of them would gratify those that are worse than they, Deu. 32:26, 27. But, when Christ dismissed her, it was with this caution, Go, and sin no more. Impunity emboldens malefactors, and therefore those who are guilty, and yet have found means to escape the edge of the law, need to double their watch, lest Satan get advantage; for the fairer the escape was, the fairer the warning was to go and sin no more. Those who help to save the life of a criminal should, as Christ here, help to save the soul with this caution.
Next week: John 8:12-20