“No one, Lord,” she answered.
“Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Many of us see this familiar account of the woman caught in adultery as simply one more instance where Jesus brilliantly turns the tables on His would-be trappers—the scribes and the Pharisees—trapping them instead.
There are many such scenes in the Gospels, and we feel a rather pleasurable satisfaction in watching our Hero outwit His opponents again and again and again. In some ways, however, this story turns the tables on us as well, because it’s filled not so much with things we know as it is with things we don’t.
We don’t know this woman’s story, what brokenness in her life drove her to break the Law as well as the bonds of her marriage. We don’t know anything about the man involved, nor do we know why he too wasn’t brought before Jesus. After all, Moses’ command was clear: “If a man commits adultery with a married woman...both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10).
We don’t know exactly what the scribes and Pharisees had in mind when they sought for “evidence to accuse” Jesus. If He had consented to their plan to stone the woman, would that have been considered a crime in a Roman court?
And then there’s that piece of the story we’ve got on our list of things to ask about when we get to heaven: whatever was Jesus writing on the ground? Why didn’t John sneak over after the confrontation ended and check it out for us—this one and only time we ever hear about Jesus writing down anything?
But there is yet a deeper mystery, one this scripture beckons us to delve into, and that is the mystery of grace itself.
The Law was clear: adultery is such a serious offense against God’s holy standard for marriage that death is its right and just reward. What’s more, in many cases a sinner’s death was to be initiated at the hands of those who actually witnessed the sin, with “all the people” then joining in the stoning process (see Deuteronomy 17:7). Such was the intent of the Law—to impress upon the entire community not only the horrific offensiveness of sin, but also the consequences that accompany a violation of God’s created order.
It seems the scribes and Pharisees had forgotten that purpose. On the contrary, they sought to use this woman’s offense for the exact opposite reason—they wanted to bring into question the very morality of God Himself. Would Jesus condone the severe punishment and presumably risk the censure of the government—and perhaps of the community itself, to whom He had spoken words of forgiveness and freedom—or would He dilute the requirements of the Law and allow her to live?
Remarkably, Jesus not only sidesteps their trap, He uses it to bring into focus a higher law: the eternal power that was generated through His own redemptive obedience.
Consider the pattern of Old Testament justice. A person such as this woman is determined to have broken the Law. Her punishment must be carried out, quite possibly by her husband, and maybe even by her own children if they were among the initial witnesses to her sin. They could stone her in anger, they could stone her with great remorse, but stone her they must or they themselves would be breaking the Law.
Our modern sensibilities recoil at all this. We would hire a professional executioner, someone who has no personal connection with the offender, for whom it’s just a job. But in so doing we lose touch with the great, dark horror of sin—and how deeply it is rooted in all of us. This was the heart of the insight Jesus forced on His would-be challengers. “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The older men figured it out first, but eventually His point got through to the younger ones as well. They were now the ones who were trapped. If they cast a stone, they would be lying. If they didn’t, they would be rejecting the Law. Their condemnation of the adulteress was instead turned back upon themselves.
But then we read Jesus’ astonishing words to the trembling woman: “Neither do I condemn you.” Why could He say that? Why, as we read in Matthew 9:6, does “the Son of Man have authority on earth to forgive sins”?
I believe the answer lies in the fact that Jesus had already laid His life down for us through His eternal obedience to the Father. Revelation 13:8 describes Him as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the earth.” At the time of this story He had not yet walked out that reality out in history, but the assurance of His pending sacrifice nevertheless echoed into eternity past and future.
And thus He could say to this broken woman—as He did to the paralyzed man in Matthew 9, and as He now says to us—“Your sins are forgiven because of My shed blood. Go, and sin no more.”
- When the woman was in the middle of her adulterous affair, she probably had no thought as to its potential consequences for her family—that they might soon be forced to be her executioners. Even though our present culture does not inflict this kind of punishment—or sometimes any punishment at all—our sins still deeply impact many people beyond ourselves. What are some examples of this kind of cost today?
- In this story and the story in Luke 20:20-26—where Jesus is challenged about whether He should pay taxes to Caesar—we find Him caught between the requirements of two different authorities. In both cases He raises the issue to the higher level of God’s authority. What situations in your life might be similar, and how does Jesus’ example help you to navigate them?
- Matthew Henry notes, “It is common for those that are indulgent to their own sin to be severe against the sins of others.” Have you ever encountered this? Have you been guilty of this? Why do you think this happens?