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The Life of Jesus - Series 8: Episode 3

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

| Martin Charlesworth
John 7:53-8:11

A woman is brought to Jesus by those trying to trick him into making a false move. He challenges the person without sin to throw the first stone and they leave. He shows grace by forgiving the woman but does not condone the sin.

A woman is brought to Jesus by those trying to trick him into making a false move. He challenges the person without sin to throw the first stone and they leave. He shows grace by forgiving the woman but does not condone the sin.


Hello and welcome to Series 8 Episode 3, 'Jesus and the Woman caught in Adultery'. We'll be reading from John 7: 53 - 8: 11.

Introduction and Recap

Those of you who are following the series through, will know that we've made a big transition during the last few series in the story of Jesus. Series 6 brought to a conclusion a very long part of the gospel narrative, which told for the most part, the story of everything Jesus did working in and around Galilee, for many months and some years. We don't know the exact time but anywhere up to 3 years of working in and around Galilee. From Series 3 to Series 6, we've seen some remarkable, amazing stories - huge crowds, great miracles, a tremendous process of gathering disciples, appointing Apostles, sending them around Galilee in pairs and so the story has continued dramatically in Galilee. Then in Series 7, which we recently finished, we saw a major transition take place as Jesus prepared his disciples to move away from Galilee and to focus their attention on a journey to Jerusalem, which would ultimately culminate in Jesus suffering, dying and rising again from the dead, after a major confrontation with the religious authorities and the Roman rulers. Series 7 describes that transition, and Luke is very clear in explaining that Jesus set himself the task of travelling towards Jerusalem.

Then we turned to John's Gospel and we remembered that John tells the story from a slightly different angle. As far as we can tell, John is the last writer. He has before him the other gospels, and he quite deliberately doesn't repeat many things that they said. He adds in other material and eyewitness testimony, concerning different parts of Jesus' ministry. He is particularly interested in what happens in and around Jerusalem. Much of John's Gospel is taken up with episodes of events that happen in Jerusalem that aren't actually recorded in the other gospels; this makes for a fascinating addition to the wonderful story of the life of Jesus. We're in the middle of one of those major and significant visits to Jerusalem that Jesus made. If we look at it from the point of view of Luke, and Matthew and Mark following Luke, we see that Jesus is focusing much more on Jerusalem and will eventually end up dying there and rising again there. That's their main narrative framework. John adds in the fact that in the meantime as Jesus is travelling south, he makes occasional visits to Jerusalem, to different events, that are quite brief visits. These are all adding to the creative tension in the narrative between Jesus and the religious authorities, whose opposition to him is hardening, and becoming more determined as time goes on.

John has already described to us two early visits that Jesus made to Jerusalem, one in John 2, where Jesus cleansed the Temple for the first time, and I've made reference to that in the last couple of episodes, because that set the tone for the relationship between Jesus and the religious authorities in Jerusalem. It was a very confrontational moment, where he challenged the market traders in the Temple compound, saying that they were corrupt and selfish, and undermining the spiritual and religious functions of the Temple, in terms of helping the Jewish people to worship God. This created conflict at the very beginning and wasn't forgotten by the religious authorities there, by the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, who ruled over, and made ultimate decisions about, the conduct of the Jewish faith. Then in John 5, we have the second visit. This is characterised by a significant miracle whereby a man who'd been paralysed for 38 years is suddenly healed. He takes up his mat, walks around the city of Jerusalem and tells people about what has happened. He is healed on the Sabbath and it creates another controversy because the Pharisees and the religious leaders are accusing Jesus of breaking the rule of not working on the Sabbath.

We're into the third visit to Jerusalem and in the last two episodes, we've come to understand that Jesus came here for a feast called the Feast of the Tabernacles. He engaged very specifically with the feast. He brought some significant teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit, about his own identity and about events that were going to happen shortly in Jerusalem, during public discussions in the Temple. All this has just taken place before the event that we are going to look at today.

To help us get a feeling for the type of situation we're talking about, the Temple compound was really the heartbeat of the Jewish faith and the place of gathering for Jewish people at these great religious festivals, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, each lasting for approximately a week. They were long and significant events. Huge numbers of pilgrims came from all over the country, and indeed from foreign countries too; Jews who wanted to come back to their homeland to celebrate these festivals. Huge crowds were in Jerusalem. Many thousands of people, cramming into the narrow streets, trying to find accommodation, looking for food, seeking to fulfil their religious duties, going up to the Temple and sacrificing birds and animals in accordance with different traditions and Mosaic Laws. Therefore, the Temple area became very crowded. In the middle is the actual Temple itself with the area that the priests make sacrifices, and then the Holy of Holies is the most holy place, which is hidden away behind a curtain, and people didn't go there except the High Priest once a year. Outside that centre was a very large compound - a very large open area - where people could mix and congregate, could share socially, could eat food, could talk to one another, could talk about the religious ceremonies they had performed or were about to perform. It was a meeting area of great significance and in John 7, we find that Jesus goes into the Temple area and he starts to teach and gathers a crowd. That's his method of gaining attention. Crowds quickly gathered in the Temple compound and because Jesus was well-known, even though he hadn't been to Jerusalem very much, everybody had heard about Jesus because of the remarkable miracles he'd performed. A crowd gathered - and described by John, on the day before the incident that we're going to look at, as a large crowd. There had been lots of controversy about who Jesus was, whether he was doing the right thing. Was he the Messiah? Was he demon-possessed? Was he an impostor? All sorts of questions were being discussed. Some people want to make a citizen's arrest on him. The Pharisees and the religious leaders sent the Temple guards, who were a kind of a police force for the Temple area, to arrest him and they hesitated and didn't carry out the arrest for reasons that seem mysterious, unless we can see the hand of God operating in that process. All this has happened and a very tense situation has developed in the city. That's the immediate precursor to the events that we're going to describe here in John 8.

Those of you who are familiar with the Bible, and have a Bible in front of you, will see that in many Bibles the text of this passage is put in a different typescript or there's a comment about it or a footnote because it didn't appear in some of the earliest manuscripts. We don't have absolute certainty that this was in the original manuscript of John's Gospel. There's one other passage in the Gospels like that, and that is the second half of Mark 16. We'll discuss that when we get to the account of the resurrection. We can't be sure that this was in the original text of John. However, it fits very well with the narrative. We're going to study this passage as if it was in the original text. We're going to see what we can learn from it. The least that can be said of it, is that it authoritatively represents a strong tradition of something that Jesus did that was added in. It might have been in earlier manuscripts too.

A Trap Was Set

Let's read this passage which is the very end of John 7: 53 - John 8: 11.

‘Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn, he appeared again in the temple courts where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group, and said to Jesus,“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now, what do you say?” 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. 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.” Again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 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. Jesus straightened up, and asked her, “Woman, where are they> Has no-one condemned you?” “No-one sir”, she said. “Then neither do I condemn you.” Jesus declared. “Go now, and leave your life of sin.”

John 7:53-8:11, NIV

The crowd that had been gathering around Jesus the previous day, as described in chapter 7 of John's Gospel, had gone home and Jesus chose to stay on the Mount of Olives, which is a small hill right next to the city of Jerusalem within easy walking distance. You go out of the gate of the city, down a small valley and up the other side, and you get a lovely view just looking over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus had some place to stay there, and we will find Jesus using the Mount of Olives as a place to rest and stay during the final week of his life when he is in Jerusalem again. He's very close to the city, and  goes straight back at the very earliest opportunity into the Temple - at dawn, at the very beginning of the day. Bearing in mind that all throughout the day, the Temple was extremely busy during the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the time we're talking about - people coming in and out of the city; there were religious processions such as the one that I described in the last episode, with the carrying of water in big water containers; it was a busy time. Very quickly Jesus is teaching again. He's gathering a crowd but this time something completely different happens. The previous day, Jesus seems to be in control of events and he's initiating the conversations all the way through the day, as we saw in the last episode. But here it appears that something happens that was not anticipated by Jesus in the direct sense. A trap is being set for him. Something very dramatic happens. If you can imagine in your mind's eye that Jesus is there in the Temple compound.There are literally thousands of people going in and out of the Temple all the time, and probably hundreds of people gathered around him because he was such a fascinating character and everybody was talking about him in the city. People would have been talking during the evening about what happened the day before in the Temple. His presence there was known; the things he said were known; the opinion of the Sanhedrin was known; and the conflict surrounding him was known to most people. He was a person, at least a fascination - some people believing in him, some people sceptical, some people really hostile. A large crowd could easily gather within a few minutes around Jesus in the Temple. That's the situation that we need to envisage in order to see this drama unfolding as it does in this short but powerful account.

A woman who had been caught in the act of adultery is, in some way that we don't know, brought to the attention of the religious leaders. This was a common occurrence. People who committed obvious sinful actions were, in Jerusalem, often brought to the attention of the religious leaders. Rather than dealing with the situation themselves, they took the opportunity of setting a trap for Jesus. They bring this woman to him; tell him what's just happened; she's been caught in the act of adultery; and ask him what should be done and what is he going to do.

The Ten Commandments

In order to understand the significance of this, we need first of all to reflect quickly on the Law of Moses, which is the foundation for the thinking of what to do with people who commit adultery. The first thing to say is that in the Law of Moses, the central commands, the Ten Commandments - or the Decalogue - are the foundation of everything else. They appear first of all in Exodus 20. They're repeated in Deuteronomy 5. If we go to Exodus 20, we'll find in the second half of the commandments, a list of practical dos and don'ts that are foundational to the law of Israel. Exodus 20: 12, ‘Honour your father and mother’, that's the first one, then the next verse ‘You shall not murder’, then verse 14, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, verse 15, ‘You shall not steal’, verse 16, ‘You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour’, verse 17, ‘You shall not covet your neighbour's house’. That verse carries on with a few more details. These are the practical moral commands that were foundational to the life of Israel. Amongst them is the command that is relevant here, verse 14, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. However, the Law of Moses then goes on to explain what the Jews should do in the case that people are caught committing adultery because it was a very serious sin. This is a society that was founded on very strict sexual ethics and those strict sexual ethics were officially in force in the time of Jesus, many hundreds of years later. If you go back to the book of Leviticus 20: 10, you'll see the central command that relates to the issue we're talking about now:

‘If a man commits adultery with another man's wife, with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death’.

Leviticus 20:10, NIV

The Law of Moses had a very strict command and capital punishment was prescribed for adultery. The issue here is that in the context of Roman occupation, the punishments that the Law of Moses prescribe, whatever they were, in this case the death penalty, could not be administered by the Jewish authorities without the permission of the Romans. The Romans specifically refused to give the Jewish leaders the authority to impose the death penalty for any religious crime. They reserved the right to decide whether the death penalty was going to be imposed upon any member of that society. This death penalty theoretically could not be imposed by the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the accusers of this woman. Sometimes the death penalty did take place illegally, against the Roman rule, and there would be consequences for that.

Jesus' Response

There's a challenging question here. What is Jesus going to do? It's a trap that they are setting for him. Jesus's response to the question,

‘Now what do you say? In the law of Moses it commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?’

Jesus interestingly doesn't respond quickly. He bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. They kept on questioning him, but Jesus then invited those religious leaders to start the death penalty themselves by stoning this woman, which was a standard means in Jewish society. “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. Then he went and stooped to the ground again. Of course, nobody threw a stone. Rather, the religious leaders gradually left one by one. They lost their nerve when Jesus said that they needed to be without sin in order to throw the stone, and the sin particularly in his mind would be sexual sin. The woman is released from this threat and Jesus enters into a discussion with her.

There's a key question here. Where is the man? You see, the Mosaic Law specified that both guilty parties in an act of adultery were to be punished equally. The text I read to you from Leviticus 20: 10 is very clear about that, but there's only a woman. There must be a guilty man. Why is he not bought before Jesus? Is this because of gender prejudice in Jewish society? Could be. Is the man part of this plot? That could easily be the case. We don't know the answer to the question. It's an interesting angle on the story that we do need to think about.

Let's think now about the trap that is being set for Jesus. If he ruled against punishment, then he would be accused of breaking the Law of Moses, which specified punishment for adulterers. He would then be arrested potentially, and taken to the Sanhedrin and shown to be a lawbreaker. If he ruled for the punishment of this woman, then he would be going against Roman regulations, which said the Jews couldn't punish her. He could be reported to the Romans and accused of plotting against the state. Can you see the trap that's been set up? It's a very clever question. Jesus' way of dealing with it was even cleverer. He went to the issue of motive. That completely overturned the challenge that came against him. He avoids confrontation with the Romans. He's avoiding direct confrontation with the Jewish authorities in the Sanhedrin, and he's doing that deliberately. The time for such direct confrontation hasn't yet happened. It will happen when he comes into Jerusalem for the last time. He does challenge the religious leaders about their own inner cleanliness from sin.

‘Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’.

John 8:7, NIV

By the fact they didn't throw a stone, they are implying that they too are sinners, probably implying that that applies in a sexual sense as well as in a general sense. At the end of the story, comes the remarkable grace with which Jesus deals with this woman, which is a wonderful conclusion to this event.


Let's now make some concluding reflections. What can we learn from this unusual, highly charged and emotive story? Concerning Jesus himself, it's a question about timing. This is not the time for him to have a major confrontation with the religious authorities or with the Romans. As John says in John 8: 20, ‘His hour had not yet come’. That is a characteristic way in which John expresses the question of Jesus' destiny and the timing of the process of different events happening. God's timing is the key. This was not the moment to fall into a trap or to provoke the Jewish rulers.

The second observation I would make here is that the issue of sexual sin, and hypocrisy related to it, is one of the biggest tests of authentic Christian faith. That remains true today as much as it was then. Jesus has already accused the Pharisees of hypocrisy. Let me read you something from Luke 12:

“Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Luke 12:1-3, NIV

He describes the Pharisees as being hypocritical, saying one thing and doing another. There is an application of this made in the Gospels towards money - apparently giving a lot of money away but being very greedy to get as much money for themselves as they can. There's an implication here that this could also be applied to sexual conduct, sexual ethics and sexual attitudes because it's in the area of sexuality that Jesus challenges them. If you are without sin, why don't you cast the first stone? A constant challenge for the integrity of the Church in every age is sexual integrity. This has never changed throughout the centuries. It's an issue that is implied by this particular passage and one in which Jesus is categorically clear in his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, where he describes lustful attitudes as being powerful realities of sin that have a similar reality to the actual sin of physical sex outside of marriage.

Let's think, In conclusion, about this woman. There are two messages that Jesus gives to her. First of all, he says, “Neither do I condemn you” and secondly, he says, “Go, and leave your life of sin”. These two statements beautifully capture the heart of the Christian Gospel. When people are found out to have failed in a life of sin, to have got things wrong, we're not here as Christians to condemn people absolutely. Far from it. We know that we've been on the same journey as those people. We want to follow the attitude of Jesus, where grace is shown to the people who have made mistakes and fallen into sin like this woman. On the other hand, Jesus is quite clear about the future. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” He doesn't condone or tolerate sin but he gives people an opportunity. This is a beautiful example of what we call the grace of God. Grace reaches down to us and forgives us, does not condemn us permanently but provides a way out for us. If we are sinning against God - if we are living independently of him, which is the heart of sin and then our conduct follows that independence - we're not condemned, we can be forgiven through Jesus's sacrificial, substitutionary death on the cross. We are called to live a different kind of a life and he called this woman to live a different kind of a life. He said ‘don't go back and do what you've done just recently, live a different life and start again’. That is a beautiful example of the offer of the Christian gospel - a way out from the terrible failures of our life and a call to live differently by the power of the Holy Spirit living within us as we become believers. This amazing passage has a lot of things to teach us. It's a moving and a powerful story that shows the incredible wisdom of Jesus. It also shows the incredible grace of God towards us who have failed and made a mess of our lives and are given a chance to start life again in the power of the Spirit as disciples of Jesus.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How does Jesus' treatment of the crowd and the woman encourage and help you towards a fresh start?
  • Discipleship
    1. Why is sexual integrity so important?
    2. How do people try to trick you into saying or doing something so that they can accuse you?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Why did the religious leaders leave the scene?
    2. In what way were the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law trying to trick Jesus?
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