We are in the midst of our worship series, Face to Face: Divine Encounters. This week our narrative includes a bit more than a little controversy. First off, most Bibles will indicate that these verses were likely not part of John’s original Gospel. Therefore, some people choose to ignore them. However, most theologians from the earliest times to the present think that the account actually did occur. That is probably why it remains a part of the Bible, and that makes it worth our consideration. Moreover, to bypass this story only marginalizes the woman at the center of it even more.
The other difficulties or controversies stem from the topic of adultery, hypocrisy, and judgment. If you want to keep everyone calm and pleasant, you stay far away from those topics. Not to mention the call to self-examination. I mean, who likes that, right? Unless it’s one of those online quizzes that tells me which movie star should play me in the story of my life.
The funny part is that even though this story is rarely preached on or studied in depth, it is a favorite New Testament passage to quote, even among people outside the church. Some of it has to do with it not being original to this Gospel. The other having to do with the subject matter. However, people who don’t know the Bible, or even people who do, feel very comfortable throwing verses out from this story to support what they want. Often we remember the talk and the clichés, but let’s look at this divine encounter in the narrative itself.
John 8:2-11 NIV
2 At dawn [Jesus] 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.”
We definitely have a divine encounter here with at least three groups. What? Three? Really? Yes, really. 1. The accusers; 2. The accused; 3. The crowd. When we got to the end, how many of you remembered the crowd was there? Whenever I have pictured the scene in my head, it’s Jesus standing in the Temple waiting around, when suddenly this group of pious looking men drag this woman before Jesus to be judged. Maybe, that’s just me. Imagine my surprise when I realized that Jesus is sitting on the floor of the Temple court throughout the whole episode. As was common at the time the teacher would sit, and the students would sit around and listen. The students, “all the people gathered around [Jesus]” were the audience of the whole thing.
That was, of course, the whole point of the accusers bringing the woman to Jesus at this time and place. Their premise is bringing a case before Jesus to judge, but really they want the crowd to judge the righteousness of Jesus. On the surface it’s complicated because we have two things in tension here. The religious Law of Moses, the Mosaic Law, and the civil law of the Romans. Mosaic Law said that someone guilty of adultery deserved death, but under the Romans the Jewish leaders did not have the authority to execute anyone. That was the reason that Jesus was turned over to Pontius Pilate for crucifixion. In the case today, no matter what Jesus answered, he could be arrested, but what was more important to the religious authorities was the crowd that came to listen to him teach. He must be discredited in their eyes. They were the jury, the crowd, and they must see that he is not what or who they think he is. He cannot be a reliable teacher, and he most certainly cannot be the Messiah. The religious leaders here mean to put Jesus on trial. As we go through the narrative, remember the crowd that is there watching the whole thing
So, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees bring this woman that they say was “caught in adultery.” That in itself is not a pretty picture, but the Greek word translated as “caught” here means that this is a long term pattern of behavior. This wasn’t some one time mistake or error in judgment where passions got away from themselves. This is something that she would have been known for in her community. Apparently, nothing in the legal sense has happened to her before, but today’s the day. She gets dragged into the Temple and presented to Jesus with the Scarlet A across her chest. There is a challenge, “Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?” In other words, You, Jesus, who are known for your mercy and forgiving people who don’t deserve it, like you had the authority to do so, “What do you say?” (cf v. 5)
Do you want to hear the funny part? Adultery was very common at that time. Roman culture was invading the people as much as their soldiers. Adultery was even more rarely prosecuted because if an accusing husband was also guilty of the same offense, he would also suffer the same punishment, death. (Lightfoot, pg 327, and Preacher’s Homiletical for John 7:53-8:11)
In this case notice that the woman is not even treated as a person. She is just a thing, a prop, bait to snare Jesus into saying something to get him arrested. Of course, the problem is not just one of selective prosecution and public humiliation of this woman. As they say, it takes two to tango, and if she was caught in the very act, her partner must have also been available. Maybe, he was just quicker and got away. It could also be that while this woman was known for this behavior, in this case on this day they did not catch her in the act.
It reminds me of those crime shows where the police know that their suspect is guilty of a murder, but they can’t prove it in a court of law, so they frame him for another crime that he did not commit.
Of course, Jesus knows exactly what these accusers are trying to do, and Jesus’ response is perfect. He ignores them. He doesn’t stand up. He doesn’t address them. He doesn’t even acknowledge their presence. He remains sitting down and bends over. He effectively turns his back on them. They are not worthy of his notice. They are trying to trap him, and he exerts his authority over them by refusing to allow them to have any control over the situation. It is the exact position that the woman finds herself in.
Eventually, at his convenience he looks up at them and pronounces the famous line. “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (vs. 7). It’s a verse that is very popular both inside and outside the church. It is a favorite to pull out of context for people to justify their own questionable behavior. What Jesus is really saying here to the accusers is “How far are you willing to go in this charade?” He is calling out their hypocrisy. They are talking about enforcing the Mosaic Law, but they aren’t even following it by the way that they bring the accusation. And you know, when you talk about the justice and mercy of the Mosaic Law, there was an interesting twist. If someone was found to bring a false accusation, they were to receive the punishment of the crime accused. In this case, that would have meant their death. Jesus looked them in the eye and said, “Okay, if you’re sure she’s guilty, go ahead, but are you very very sure you want to do that?”
It turns out that answer to that question was, no, they were not very very sure. As Jesus once again dismisses them from his sight, they drift away one by one leaving the woman. It is interesting to me that she remains. If I’d been placed in that situation, I imagine that I would have tried to get away and hide the millisecond that I stopped being prevented from doing so, like if someone had a grip on my arm. But, perhaps there in front of Jesus and the crowd (never forget the crowd), she feels the safest she has all day. Perhaps after being pushed around all morning, in the chaos of the event she was sure would end in her death, she is able to just be still for a moment in a place of safety.
Then, Jesus addresses her directly and restores her person hood. All this time people talked about her. Now, Jesus talks to 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.” (vs 10-11)
This is where I picture that it is just the two of them. In a movie it would be the close-up shot, but remember that the crowd that Jesus had been teaching is still there. There’s nothing in the text to indicate that Jesus has even stood up. In the beginning of the narrative, his posture expresses contempt for the religious leaders. Now, he is non-threatening to this woman who has escaped with her life.
Jesus does not condemn her. He does not consider her eternally separated from God, which is how her accusers regarded her. As he says in John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world [in other words, to make a final judgment upon the world and subject it to wrath and eternal separation from God], but to save the world through him.”
In this passage Jesus displays his character and his authority with the three C’s. The first is no condemnation. There is no regarding this woman as being eternally separated from God, which is how the religious authorities regarded her and not just her. When they complained that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, that’s how they regarded these people, eternally lost. However, Jesus knew that they were incorrect. Now, Jesus taught a lot about morality and ethics. He wanted people to live honestly with each other to have good relationships with their family and their community. He wanted them to take care of the poor and for them to know that God loved them despite the way that the religious authorities regarded and treated them.
You know when you think about it, it makes sense. If I know that I am eternally lost because of the things I have done, what is the point of doing the so called “right thing?” This is what I’m used to. I get by. But if someone shows faith in me. You are not lost. There is still hope for you. God loves you and wants better things for you. God wants you to live a full life in the light rather than a shadow life. I believe in you.
Now, Jesus doesn’t condemn, and later through him we don’t have to worry about condemnation. As Paul teaches in Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” However, Jesus does want us to live in a holy way. And if you doubt that and want to see what it means to live in a holy way, take a look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, 6, and 7.
That brings us to our second “C.” Jesus does not compromise. He sets down the marker in places like the Sermon on the Mount where he tells us how to live in very practical ways. Don’t just refrain from adultery. Don’t look at someone with lustful intent. (Mt 5:27-28) Love your enemies, and pray for those who curse you. (Mt 5:44) Do not worry (Mt 6:25-27), and so much more. And while he did not condemn the woman in today’s narrative, he did not say, “Okay then, be on your way.” No, he said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Does he think that she can just like that change everything about her life? No, that’s why no condemnation is so important. But stumbling and missing the mark is very different than leading a life of sin. It’s like those tax collectors and sinners that I was talking about earlier. Jesus ate with them. He encouraged them, but he wanted them to go in a different direction in life, a way that would ultimately be more life-giving that anything that they were doing now.
Why? Why does Jesus want this for her? Why did he want it for the sinners and tax collectors he ate with? The ones he taught, the ones he fed? Because of the third C, his great compassion. His compassion is on full display in Mark 6 at the feeding of the 5000:
31 …So many people were coming and going that [Jesus and the disciples] did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
“He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” They were lost. They were wandering. They were desperate for what Jesus was teaching them about how to live and how God loved them. Then, when they had been learning all day, Jesus fed them, over 10,000 people. He had compassion on them by not condemning them, showing them that they were worth his time and effort, not to remain adrift, but by being claimed. Then, he showed compassion again by teaching them. He is our Good Shepherd. He guides us. He has expectations of us. If we miss the mark, he forgives us, and we can begin again. He doesn’t accept that they are perpetually lost. Unlike the religious leaders of the time, he did not take away their humanity. He gave it back to them. He does it for us, even when we have given up on ourselves. He did the same for the woman in our narrative today.
What great compassion he showed this woman! Can you imagine the traumatizing day that she’s had? Ripped out of whatever circumstance her male accusers found her, basically threatening her with death, and this is not a hollow threat. Dragging her through the Temple Court and putting her on display. Shocked? Stunned? Terrified? Humiliated? Her accusers are inviting everyone to visually examine her. In this moment, Jesus does what I would classify as one of the most compassionate things possible. He doesn’t look at her at all.
Have any of you had to endure public humiliation? I have. I have been exposed and held up for scrutiny by the crowd. The kindest thing would have been for the crowd to refuse to participate. That is what Jesus does. He bends over and does not listen to the accusers nor looks at the woman. The next compassionate thing to do is to stop the proceedings, which Jesus does next. Sadly, that did not happen in my case. I had to endure it until the ordeal was over. On the other hand, my situation was not a matter of life and death as hers was.
Then, Jesus in his compassion invites her to something different. In essence, the accusers came to Jesus as a judge in this legal case. As judge, he acquits her of her crime. It is given freely. The woman leaves her divine encounter with an opportunity for her to begin a new life.
This is the same offer that Jesus gives all of us, and it is the three C’s. No condemnation. What’s past is past, even if it was five minutes ago, five seconds ago, or five years ago or more. As Paul says in Romans 8:1, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Why? He goes on to say that because sin was condemned in Jesus’ flesh, we are set free from sin and death. (Romans 8:2-3) Therefore, we can begin our life anew.
How are we to live that life? That is where the second C comes in with No Compromise. Oh, we don’t like that. God does have expectations of how we are to live and interact with each other. How do we learn about what that is? We have the word of God, our Bibles. We have the fellowship and examples of other Jesus followers around us. And once in a while, your pastor might have some helpful information for you. You know we’re going to miss the mark sometimes. We’re going to stumble sometimes. We’re going to learn that there’s something we’ve been doing our whole lives that seemed perfectly okay until we realize how much it’s hurting the people around us or hurting ourselves. “Wow! I didn’t even realize that was bad.” That’s when remembering the first C, no condemnation is really important. We repent. We turn away from it, realizing that we will probably do it a couple of dozen times more without even realizing it until it’s too late. Finally, with the help of the Holy Spirit we reach a new mountaintop.
It’s there we see the third C, compassion. God really loves us with a passion unrivaled. To lay down his life for us could give us a clue, but we talk about it all the time. It seems to make less of an impact, and we are talking about literally billions of people who are affected by this. It can make it seem less personal, but it’s very personal. God wants to shepherd you, wants to guide you on the paths of righteousness, goodness, the ability to have a relationship with you. He wants you to succeed. He wants you to experience new life, abundant life, life with joy.
And that is the Good News my friends! God wants to have a Divine Encounter with you every day of your life. What an incredible gift. It’s almost unbelievable, but through Jesus it becomes possible. Praise God!