I don’t want to speak for God. Ever! However, the Bible tells of many encounters Jesus had with sinners - and one included a number of religious leaders who were eager for His response. See how Jesus handled them, and what He may have to say to us Christians today as we encounter people living in sin.
Wednesday in the Word
Come with me as I walk through a passage of Scripture phrase by phrase, reviewing its context, interpreting, and offering an application. Some of us - including me - learn best by watching somebody else. That’s what I am inviting you to do today as I study through John 8:2-11:
“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, “Let any one of you who is without sin 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.”
This well-known story warrants another close look. How does Jesus address sin? Does He dismiss it? Does He condemn it loudly? Or does He speak the truth in love?
Do we respond to other people’s sin like Jesus would, or do we behave like the Pharisees? Ouch! No Christian wants to accused of that.
Prayerfully and humbly, let us examine the Word of God and our hearts.
“2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them.
Jesus was walking around the temple courts. It was another day of meeting with people and teaching them about God. A crowd was already gathering.
This was not unusual for Jesus, and He had thereby already made some enemies. The Pharisees were appalled at Jesus’ claim of being the Messiah as well as His teaching that got to the heart of the matter. The Pharisees, while legalistically sticking to rules, often completely missed their point.
We are about to see another example. The Pharisees are making their move, hoping to trap Jesus in a conundrum.
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?”
This is a tricky situation. I bet the Pharisees felt pretty good about their move. How was Jesus going to respond?
Here is the issue:
- On the one hand, Jesus should uphold the Law.
- On the other hand, Jesus had become known for His compassion.
A little background knowledge helps us understand this scenario, so let’s ask some good questions about the Pharisees’ argument.
What does the Old Testament say about adultery?
The Old Testament does call for the death of adulterous individuals. However, for married people, it does not specify the method of death to be as severe as stoning (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22).
An engaged woman caught in adultery was to be stoned (Dt. 22:23–24). We don’t know if this woman was engaged or married.
In any case, man and woman were equally punishable, but the Pharisees only dragged the woman into the courts in this scene.
Was this law commonly accepted and upheld?
These Old Testament laws were not commonly upheld in Jesus’ time, and were likely very unpopular with the people. From other literature, we gather that (Jewish) men were divorcing women for any reason.
Jesus taught the importance of marital faithfulness. It was so shockingly counter-cultural that even His disciples exclaimed, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)
Indeed, marriage is a serious commitment and matters to God. You can tell from the above mentioned verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that the goal behind killing the adulterous parties was to keep sin out of their midst.
Jesus’ audience had strayed far from that. While women were held to their commitment, men weren’t necessarily. (This may explain the injustice of bringing only the woman to the courts, rather than also the man she slept with.)
This was, of course, a part of the Pharisees’ entrapment. Jesus, claiming to be sent from God, should uphold the Law even more than they did. However, his decision to stone this woman or put her to death at all, would have been very unpopular with the people who had come to see adultery and divorce as common occurrences.
Was this Old Testament law legal?
It has also been determined that at Jesus' time, only the government was allowed to declare a death penalty. This shouldn’t seem foreign to us. A religious leader would not be allowed to make this judgement call in our country today either.
In that sense, Jesus would have actually gone against the law of His day by condemning this woman to death by stoning.
Jesus’ Response to the Pharisees
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, “Let any one of you who is without sin 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.
John clarifies for all of us, in order to leave no doubt, that the Pharisees brought up this scenario to trap Jesus. We commonly know this about them, but let’s pause a moment and consider this:
They were actually willing to put a woman, a human life, to death for no other reason than to stop Jesus from teaching and gaining more followers. How does that sit with God who takes human life very seriously? Not well.
Jesus is silent for a moment. He stoops down and writes on the ground. Over the last centuries, many have speculated what He was writing and why, but since the Bible does not give us a clear answer, I am going to emphasize something else: He paused.
He let the Pharisees keep talking for a moment, making their argument against the woman. Are you picturing this? Jesus faces this obvious opposition and trap with calm and peace.
Then Jesus makes a profound statement: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7)
Then He waited for them to leave one by one. The Bible is clear that nobody is without sin. Even the Pharisees would not make that claim.
It’s significant to note here that Jesus did not get into a lengthy argument with the Pharisees, even though He could have and would have won it. He noticed their hearts were not open to hearing His teaching, so He by-stepped a lengthy discussion. We should learn from His example.
Jesus’ Response to the Woman
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.”
Oh, the woman must have been scared. She knew she had done wrong, but we can assume from what we learned about their culture that she fully expected to get away with it. Then these religious leaders come along and decide to make an example of her.
She may have heard of Jesus, His power and His teachings about God. We don’t know if she heard of His compassion. Surely, anyone watching - and definitely she - was wondering anxiously how Jesus would respond.
Jesus addresses the woman directly, having her look around for her accusers. They had all left. Compassionately, Jesus offers mercy and forgiveness instead of judgment.
However, He doesn’t let the woman walk away without one important charge: “Leave your life of sin.”
It’s not that Jesus thinks sin is no big deal, but rather that He approaches sin with the offer of forgiveness and a changed life.
Hallelujah! Are you in tears? I am getting teary writing this. God sees our sin, forgives us, and grants us new life.
Indeed, if you are living in sin even now, Jesus is looking right at you and offering you forgiveness and a second chance. Take it! It’s free. It’s wonderful.
Modern Day Pharisees
One modern-day example of Pharisee-like behavior are Christians who make it their mission to publicly humiliate and hurt homosexuals and trans-gender individuals. Yes, I am going there.
Jesus came to earth to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and “set the sinners free” (Acts 13:39). Clearly, Jesus addresses sin - but, again, He does so with an offer of forgiveness and new life.
Christians who hold up signs and yell horrible things at funerals and weddings or act in violence towards people, do not act in the spirit of forgiveness and offering a new chance. They come with anger and division.
What may Jesus say to people holding up signs at gay weddings?
“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
We often hear that all sin is equal. While it’s true that any sin - even a “white lie” - condemns us before God and results in our falling short of His glorious standards, the Bible doesn’t describe all sins as equally shameful.
Some sins are called “abominations” or listed as things God truly hates. Let’s look at a few of those lists:
“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” Proverbs 6:16-19
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 21:8
“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Are there no liars among us? They are named in all three of these passages and many others that list sins that God hates. I bet it’s safe to say that none of us are free of this sin. Well, only for one reason, we might be…
Let’s continue reading in that last passage. 1 Corinthians 6:11 says, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
It’s because of Jesus that we are washed of our sin and stand before God without condemnation. It’s because Jesus approached our sin by offering us forgiveness and new life.
Let’s approach others that same way. When we see someone stuck in sin, our heart should ache for them to accept the forgiveness and new life only Jesus offers. We should not concern ourselves with winning an argument or making other look foolish.
Let’s be motivated by love and thankfulness for what God has done for us in Christ. I feel the need to pause here and pray:
“God, we thank you for your forgiveness and for the chance to live a life free from the slavery of sin. Continue to renew areas in our lives to honor You. Establish in us a heart that desires to see others forgiven just as we are, not because of anything we have done but because of what Christ did for us on the cross. Lead us daily to approach others in truth and love, with grace, just as You modeled for us. Grow Your Church in this, God. We need Your help, forgiveness, and renewal. Amen.”
More of this…
Let’s continue to study how Jesus ministered. We don’t want to mistakenly think we are upholding His law to His delight, when instead we are condemning those to whom He offers forgiveness.
Here are some resources that can be of help:
My FREE ebook
Request your copy of my free ebook, “10 Steps to Approaching the Bible with Confidence.” It will teach you how to slowly but surely learn to study the Bible similarly to what I have done above. Learn how to read passages in context, use commentaries for additional help, and apply verses to your life. Get started for free below.
Check out these two commentaries (and others) that helped me in today’s study by supplying cultural context and additional Bible references.
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