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Gospel of John #24


“Go, and sin no more”

John 7:53-8:11


I don’t often take time to address some of the more technical issues regarding the trustworthiness and integrity of the Bible, but our text today is unique and calls for some additional comment.


In most of your Bibles you will see an explanation either in a footnote or in a sub-heading that precedes the passage. In my ESV there is a statement at the top of the paragraph that reads: “The Earliest Manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.” In addition, in my Bible the entire paragraph is set off in brackets, again pointing to the fact that this portion of John is probably not part of the original gospel account that he wrote.


I am persuaded that this incident probably occurred. Let us remember that John tells us in John 20:30-31 that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” Later in John 21:25 he says that “there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”


I strongly suspect that this story of the woman caught in the act of adultery is one of them. But it’s important that you understand why most scholars think that this narrative was not part of the Gospel of John when it was first written but was added centuries later.


This story is missing from all the Greek manuscripts of John before the fifth century. All the church fathers omit this passage when they comment on John’s gospel. They move directly from 7:52 to 8:12. In fact, the flow of the story moves seamlessly from John 7:52 to John 8:12. 


What we are dealing with here is known as the science of textual criticism. I’m not going to bore you with any additional details about the nature of this discipline. Let me simply say that we do not possess any of the actual original manuscripts of the NT. By “original manuscripts” I mean the actual papyrus document on which John and other biblical authors wrote. I think God did this for a good purpose. If we were actually in possession of the very document that John wrote we would be inclined to turn it into an idol and perhaps even charge money for people to see it, touch it, and even worship it.


So the books of the New Testament were preserved for us by faithful, hardworking copyists. You shouldn’t be bothered in the least by the fact that we don’t possess the original manuscripts of the books of Scripture. Consider this.


I’m sure you’ve heard of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (composed between 58 and 50 BC). There are only ten existing manuscripts of the Gallic Wars and all of them date from the tenth century a.d. or later. There are twenty manuscripts of Livy’s Roman History written roughly during the time when Jesus was alive. The famous historian Tacitus is known for his treatises called Histories and Annals. Yet only two manuscripts exist for each of them and one of them dates from the ninth century and the other from the eleventh! There are only eight manuscripts of the History of Thucydides who lived 460–400 BC.


Yet no one doubts the authenticity of these documents. No one rejects them because copies of the original are few in number and date from centuries after they were written. Now, compare that with the manuscripts and partial manuscripts for the New Testament. We have a total of 5,801 manuscripts of the NT documents. This enables textual critics to examine the variations and determine with a high, high degree of probability which stories are original and authentic and which are not. And the best judgment of most textual critics is that our story today was most likely not part of John’s original gospel record. The bottom line is this. We have good, solid reasons to have more confidence in the integrity and truthfulness of the Bible than we do for any other document from the ancient world. Here is how John Piper responds to this, and I am in total agreement with him:


“So when I agree with the vast majority of scholars that the story of the woman taken in adultery was not in the Gospel of John, you should not think: ‘Oh my, everything is up for grabs now.’ Or: ‘How can I count on any text?’ On the contrary, you can be thankful that God has, in his sovereign providence over the transmission process for 2,000 years, ordered things so that the few uncertainties that remain alter no doctrine of the Christian faith. That is really astonishing when you think about it, and we should worship God because of it.”


As I said, although this story was probably not part of John’s original gospel record, there is a strong likelihood that it actually occurred precisely as written here. Many preachers and teachers choose to skip over the text, but I will not. I believe there is much for us to learn from it. Furthermore, even though it is unlikely that this was a part of the original gospel account that John wrote, what if it really was? To ignore it, to not preach it, runs the risk of us losing out on the lessons it teaches. So let’s dive in.


Caught in the Act!


Let me recreate for you, as best I can, what must have been a remarkable scene in the city of Jerusalem. 


For seven days the holy city had been flooded with pilgrims from all over the ancient world, gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. For seven days they had all lived in makeshift huts or booths, while giving thanks to God for having blessed them with a bountiful harvest.


On this the eighth day, many of the people had either returned home or were making plans to leave Jerusalem (John 7:53). But Jesus, so we are told, went to the Mount of Olives, perhaps to pray, and then made his way to the Temple early in the morning. It was customary for scribes and teachers of the Law to sit down in the outer court and to gather around themselves their students.


So, there was Jesus, sitting in the Temple courtyard, teaching the people (John 8:2).


Suddenly, quite abruptly, and may I add quite rudely, the religious leaders interrupted Jesus, bullied their way through the crowd, and placed at the feet of Jesus a woman who they claimed had been caught in the very act of committing adultery.


No one likes to be interrupted. It is disruptive. It breaks concentration. It makes others feel uncomfortable. But here they were and there she was. They looked at Jesus, pointed at the woman, and said:


“Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:4-5).


The scribes and Pharisees claimed to have caught her in the very act of adultery! It’s important to know that under Jewish law at the time it was very difficult to prove adultery. They insisted on far more rigorous standards of proof than most people. I remember several years ago when a prominent TV evangelist was seen walking out of a hotel in Europe holding hands with another prominent, female TV evangelist. The internet exploded with accusations of adultery, since both of them were married to someone else at the time. That would not have passed muster in the first century. It wasn’t enough back then to have seen two people leaving a room together or even to have seen them kissing. There had to be at least two eyewitnesses who could testify that they simultaneously observed the bodily movements of the people that allowed for no other interpretation than that they were engaged in sexual intercourse.


The motivation of these religious leaders is not left to speculation. John tells us exactly what they had in mind. Look at John 8:6 – 


“This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.”


Clearly, they were not there because of moral outrage over the sin.


They were not there because of their concern for the growing laxity of morals in the community.


They were not there because of their commitment to justice.


Their only motive was to trap Jesus! They wanted to find grounds on which to accuse him, not the woman. They couldn’t have cared less about the woman. It was Jesus they were after. He was on trial, not her.


One has to believe that Jesus knew this immediately. How, you ask? Because they only brought the woman to him. Where was the man? The possible answers are limited in number:


  • Perhaps he had escaped. When caught in the act, he jumped up and ran away before they could apprehend him.
  • Perhaps they deliberately let him go.
  • Maybe he bribed them to gain his freedom.
  • They may have intentionally set him up with the woman so they could use her against Jesus.
  • Or were they merely the worst form of male chauvinists, thinking that only women who committed adultery were morally accountable.

There are other unanswered questions. Was she single and the man was married? Was she betrothed or engaged to be married? If she was married, where is her husband in the story?


In any case, their intent was to entrap Jesus on the horns of a dilemma and thereby obtain grounds on which to accuse him of a crime or a sin. You may remember how they tried to do this before. In Matthew 22:15 we read that “the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words.” But how were they seeking to do it in this case?


We know from John 18:31 that Rome had forbidden the Jews from putting anyone to death. The Jewish people could pass sentence on a capital crime, but they did not have the right to execute someone. Rome reserved that right for herself. If Jesus were to insist that this woman be executed, this could be twisted into an illegality that might serve as the basis for an accusation against him in a Roman court. Combined with Jesus’ implicit claim to be a king, the Romans would feel justified in taking action against him.


On the other hand, if Jesus refused to demand that she be executed for adultery, the Pharisees could twist this so that Jesus would appear to be in defiance of the Law of Moses. His authority as a teacher would be destroyed and his reputation among the people would be undermined.


Still again, though, if he upheld the Law of Moses and insisted that she be stoned to death he would be supporting an unpopular position as far as the crowds go and would appear to them to be calloused and uncaring and unforgiving. 


What was he to do?


Strangely, Jesus “bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground” (John 8:6b).


The Pharisees interpreted this as a stalling tactic or perhaps an attempt by Jesus to evade the problem, so they persisted in asking (John 8:7).


So, why did Jesus write in the dirt and what did he write? There are several possibilities.


First, some believe it was to imitate the Roman magistrate who would first write down the sentence of the criminal and then read it aloud. But if that is the case, why does he write it again, as v. 8 indicates that he did?


Second, others say that he wrote Jeremiah 17:13 – “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.”


Third, there is also the possibility that what was important isn’t what Jesus wrote, but the mere fact that he wrote. We read this in Exodus 31:18,


“And he [God] gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18).


Thus, by writing with his finger Jesus is making an implicit claim to be God, the author of the law that was given to Moses. Some respond by asking, “What purpose would that serve? How would it address the question of whether or not the woman should be killed?” The answer is that it would be Jesus’ way of saying that he now is greater than the Law of Moses, that he is the ultimate standard for determining what is right and wrong in the age of the new covenant.


Fourth, there are a few who argue that Jesus was merely doodling, perhaps to calm his anger and to collect his thoughts. He was buying time to think. 


Fifth, it may be that Jesus was writing down the sins of his accusers.


Sixth, one scholar says that the first time he wrote it was the words of Exodus 23:1b – “You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.” When he wrote the second time it was the words of Exodus 23:7 – “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.”


The final answer is that we simply don’t know, and probably never will!


Of course, more important than his writing was his speaking. These have become perhaps the most well-known words in the Bible. Non-Christians especially like to quote them! What did Jesus mean when he said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b)?


We know he was not requiring absolute sinlessness before one can rightfully participate in a criminal proceeding. If he were, there could never be any civil justice or ecclesiastical discipline. All of us are sinners. If absolute sinlessness is required, there could never be a court of law or witnesses, no juries, no attorneys. If Jesus is here demanding that you be sinless before you can testify against a person in a courtroom, you have a wonderful way to justify your refusal to serve on a jury. “I’m sorry Your Honor, but I’m not without sin, so I am not permitted by Jesus to speak concerning the alleged criminal acts of the accused.”


Others have taken this to mean that if you are a sinner you should refrain from ever judging or criticizing others. But Jesus gives explicit instructions on how to respond to those who have sinned against us, and he doesn’t require that we remain silent. Furthermore, the statement in Matthew 7, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is not ruling out all judgment. It is ruling out hypocritical judgment. In fact, Jesus proceeds in the verses that follow to call defiant unbelievers “dogs” and “pigs”. Those are rather stringent and straightforward judgments! He goes on in Matthew 7:15 to tell us to be alert to the presence of false prophets, something that would be impossible if because of our own sin we are prohibited from making such moral evaluations.


This leaves us with only two possible explanations.


First, Jesus may be saying, “He who is without the sin of adultery, let him cast the first stone.” In other words, before you condemn someone for a particular sin, be sure you haven’t committed it yourself. Or perhaps he means that an adulteress cannot be condemned and executed by other adulterers. However, is it likely that all her accusers were guilty of adultery? I don’t think so.


Second, the most likely explanation is that Jesus is questioning their competence to serve as legal witnesses against her. He is saying, “He who has not failed to meet all the qualifications of a witness, let him be the first to cast a stone.” Or again, “He who has fully complied with the Law of Moses, let him cast the first stone.” Thus, he would be challenging them to demonstrate that they were qualified as witnesses to bring charges against her.


Consider what the Law of Moses required. We read this:


“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 22:22-24).


The point Jesus is making is that none of those present who were charging her with adultery were legally competent witnesses because both the man and the woman had to be executed. And the man in this case is absent.


We also read this in the Law of Moses:


“On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:6-7).


Thus, Jesus is challenging the integrity of the alleged eyewitnesses against her. If they had actually seen both the man and woman engaged in sexual relations, they needed to step up and say so. The fact that they “went away one by one, beginning with the older ones” isn’t proof that she had not committed adultery. But it is proof that none of them was a legally qualified witness against her.


The Mercy of the Master


So, Jesus stands up and says to her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”


Why did Jesus decline to condemn her? For one thing, he was not an eyewitness either. But neither does he condone her sin. He is not making light of adultery by setting her free. He commands her: “Don’t do it again!”


Although the words, “I forgive you” are not present, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus extended forgiveness to her. 


Jesus doesn’t say, “Neither do I condemn you, so it doesn’t matter if you commit adultery.” Instead, he appeals to her to pursue righteousness. “Don’t commit adultery anymore,” he says, not because if you do, they will try once again to bring you into public and have you stoned. No, “Don’t commit adultery because you have met God, me, and you have been rescued by his grace!”


We are also reminded here that any attempt to be holy on any basis other than the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins he has provided will produce hypocrisy and arrogance. Legalism is not the answer. It is because God has provided grace in and through Jesus that we are to pursue holiness of life.


Up until now we’ve concerned ourselves with the role, motives, thoughts, and actions of Jesus and the Pharisees. But what about this woman? What was she feeling as they dragged her into the crowd, accusing her publicly of immorality, placing her life on the line, treating her like a dog, without regard for personal dignity? They showed her no respect. They had no concern for her reputation or her feelings. They were hardened toward her, and cared nothing at all for the shame they were heaping upon her.


Someone once defined shame as “a hemorrhage of the soul.” It is a dreaded, deep-seated sense of personal worthlessness. It is the fear that what we have tried so hard to conceal is now out in the open for everyone to see. We’ve been found out. Whatever dark secrets we thought were hidden from sight are now exposed for all to see and for all to mock. All of our efforts to keep it from the public eye have failed. To feel shame is to be caught naked, metaphorically speaking, and defenseless.


This woman must surely have been crushed with shame. Even if she was innocent of the charge, her reputation was completely destroyed. She was emotionally vulnerable, helpless, and exposed to public rebuke. But Jesus did not exploit her condition. He did not cry out, “Shame on you for this moral indiscretion!” No, he sought to cover her. He gave her hope.