In the story of the Woman Caught In Adultery, we see Jesus embody God’s perspective on how to balance judgment and mercy. We will first look at the context of the story, then at the person of Jesus, and finally why this story matters to us. Let’s start with some background information that begins to unfold in Chapter 7.
- This happened on the day after the eight day celebration of the Feast of the Tabernacle/ Feast of Booths. The Jews lived in huts during this time to commemorate how the Israelites lived in tents during the Exodus.
- Moses had commanded that during the days of this Feast the law be read, so this was an annual, purposeful focus on the Law of God.
- The main purpose was to thank God for his provision during the past in the wilderness wanderings (Lev 23:39-43) and in the present as seen in the harvest just completed (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).
- The people were reminded of their profound dependence upon God for provision. They would recite Psalm 118:25 every day: “O Lord, defend/rescue/deliver us, and prosper us.”
- They had a ceremony in which four different types of plants were brought to the altar. These four plants symbolized four different kinds of Jews. One plant had a good fragrance and a good taste, symbolizing knowledge of the Torah and good deeds. One only had fragrance (only good deeds); one only had taste (only knowledge of the Torah), and one had neither.
- There was a series of water offerings each morning in the temple, commemorating the provision of water in the wilderness. When Jesus tells them to come to him to drink (7:37-38), he is linking himself to God’s provision in the Exodus.
- Menorahs would be lit in the House of Water Drawing, which was in the Court of Women in the temple. People would dance and sing, “Blessed be he who hath not sinned; and he who sinned and repented, he is forgiven.”
- Jesus' proclamation that he is the light of the world (8:12) linked him to the feast's lamp-lighting ceremonies that commemorated the pillar of fire during the Exodus. The morning that Jesus is challenged is the morning that four festival lamps in the court in the Temple ("The light of the world") were put out.
- Jesus had been teaching from, among other things, the book of Isaiah, and he quoted a prophecy about the Messiah and used it to refer to himself.
So Jesus has been claiming to be the Water and the Light and quoting a revered Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, all to show that he is the Messiah for whom they have been longing. The good news was that the God whom they worshipped during this feast was with them. Many of the people were starting to believe.
The Pharisees want to kill him; they think he was blaspheming. But to kill him they need a formal trial and a Rome-sanctioned execution. So the next morning, on the Sabbath, they meet Jesus in the temple. The temple area was about 35 acres, and in the middle was a courtyard surrounded on three sides by a large, covered walkway that connected the temple court to Herod’s garrison. His soldiers patrolled the courtyard by walking on top of the covered walkways in case anything bad developed. Josephus noted that during feast days, an entire legion (over 4,000 men) would patrol the temple area.
Into this venue, the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery for judgment. They most likely bring her into the Court of Women. If all went well, they might be able to trick him into ordering capital punishment, and then Rome would take care of their problem. If that didn’t happen, they figured they could show how much more they knew about the law with the hope that this crowd of simpletons would finally reject him as Law Breaker and so reject him as the Messiah. Augustine puts it succinctly:
So the Jews said to themselves, “If he says, ‘Let her be stoned,’ we shall say to him, ‘What has become of your forgiving sins? Aren’t you the one who says, “Your sins are forgiven you?’” But if he says, ‘Let her go,’ we shall say, ‘What has become of your coming to fulfill the law and not to destroy it?’”
This seems like a win/win for the Pharisees. Jesus gets arrested or his lack of knowledge of the Law gets him rejected. Things do not go as planned.
- First, as has often been noted, they only brought the woman. That’s unusual to say the least. Even then, I took two to tango, and the Law demanded that both be brought to the trial.
- Second, a formal accusation required two eyewitnesses. There was no circumstantial evidence allowed in a case like this. The eyewitnesses would have warned couple ahead of time about the consequences of their action, the couple had to acknowledge this, and then the witnesses had to watch them do it. Odds are really good those standards were not met. I suspect Jesus (and perhaps the whole crowd) realized this.
- Third, the death penalty was virtually obsolete in Jewish culture by the time of Jesus (in fact, that sentence was highly unusual ever since the time of Moses). Over the centuries, the Sanhedrin had increasingly made the standards incredibly high because they believed the Law was meant to teach, not kill.
- Fourth, a kosher (?) trial had to happen in front of a duly constituted court, which included over twenty Sanhedrin leaders who sat in a semicircle so they could be sure they were all paying attention. If capital punishment happened outside of a court ruling, those who administered the punishment were considered murderers.
- Fifth, the Talmudic Sanhedrin trecate (treatise), written before the time of Christ, clarified Deuteronomy’s command that the eyewitnesses should start the stoning (thus the “cast the first stone”). There apparently aren't any eyewitnesses – or at least the text does not record their presence.
- Sixth, capital punishment could not be carried out on a day sacred to religion – and this was a Sabbath.
So, following a celebration in which the people prayed for God to save them, and in which they celebrated the combination of Law and Good Deeds, Jesus will show what it looks like when their longings are fulfilled. He begins by honoring the Law.
When an accusation was brought, a priest was required to write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused, somewhere where the marks were not permanent – which was usually the dust on the floor of the temple. Early Armenian translations of this passage claim that is the proper understanding of this passage - that Jesus wrote first the name and crime of the woman in the dust on the temple courtyard floor.
After Jesus writes, he says, “Let the sinless one cast the first stone.” It’s a brilliant response. First, I suspect it reminded the crowd of the song that had been sung in that very court - “Blessed be he who hath not sinned; and he who sinned and repented, he is forgiven”. If so, Jesus’ comment reminded them of their sin and chastised them for wanting to do something that is at odds with what they just celebrated. Second, it reveals what the heart of a Savior looks like. I like how St. Augustine puts it:
He did not say, “Do not stone her,” otherwise he would seem to speak contrary to the law. But God forbid that he should say, “Stone her,” for he came not to lose what he found, but to seek what was lost.”
After Jesus says this, He begins writing again; considering the Armenian texts as well as the fact that everyone will eventually leave, it seems reasonable to speculate that he wrote the names and crimes of the Pharisees who broke the law, which was all of them.
As if exposing their hypocrisy wasn’t bad enough, the very act of writing in the dirt likely made clear they had turned aside from the ways of the Lord. Every year on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the High Priest would immerse himself in a baptismal tank to be ceremonially cleansed. At the end of Yom Kippur, the people rejoiced that everyone’s sins had been rolled forward another year until Messiah comes. The High Priest would quote the following:
"'Oh YAHWEH, the Mikve (purifying bath) of Israel...' just as the mikveh cleansed me on this day, may the Holy One (Messiah), blessed be his name, cleanse all Israel when He comes."
The priest was referencing Jeremiah 17:13:
"Oh Lord, the Immerser (BAPTIZER ) of Israel, all those who leave your way shall be put to shame (publicly embarrassed), those who turn aside from my ways will have their names written in the dust and blotted out, for they have departed from YHVH, the fountain of the waters of life."
By writing, he points to himself as the Baptizer of Israel, and to the Pharisees as those whose name will be blotted out.
And that was that. The crowd melts away. Jesus asks, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one, Lord.” Jesus responds, “I don’t condemn you either [that is, I am not an eyewitness against you], but stop you sin.” Back to St. Augustine for some thoughts:
“Neither will I condemn you." What is this, 0 Lord? Do you therefore favor sins? Not so, evidently. Mark what follows: "Go and sin no more." Therefore the Lord did also condemn, but condemned sins, not the sinner. For if he was a patron of sin, he would say, ‘Neither will I condemn you; go, live as you will; be secure in my deliverance, however much you will to sin. I will deliver you from all punishment even of hell, and from the tormentors of the infernal world.’ He did not say this. Let them pay attention, then, who love his gentleness in the Lord, and let them fear his truth.... The Lord is gentle, the Lord is long suffering, the Lord is full of pity; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true.” Augustine, Tracates on the Gospel of John)
No one could say Jesus was a Lawbreaker, but He refused to use the Law as a tool of oppression and shame. Going back to the symbols of the previous week: He had the fragrance of the Law and the taste of good deeds. And then, just in case the crowd was missing all the ways Jesus was proclaiming himself to be the Messiah, the Savior they longed for, he immediately says, in a courtyard in which the menorahs and the “light of the world” festival lamps had been lit and then put out,
“I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
How do we balance judgment and mercy? How should we treat sin – and sinners – in our midst of our church community? This question ought to matter to all of us, because no one in this room is exempt. You will sin; you will have to deal with the sin of others. We are all going to be in the place of either the Pharisees or the woman who sinned at some point in our life. So what do we do? How do we learn from this story? We look to Jesus for our example.
We must exercise righteous judgment of sin and show mercy and grace to sinners. We must love the sinner even as we condemn the sin. This is not always easy. If we aren't careful we can get so caught up in condemning the sin that we forget to love the sinner. Religious Pharisees think mercy is a sign of moral weakness. They think people get what’s coming to them – especially people whose sins are so visibly public. They appoint themselves as moral watchdogs in the church trained not simply to be truthful and challenging but to tear the sinner to pieces. Their goal is not to point people who deserve judgment toward the mercy found only in Christ. They might never say that out loud, but they condemn the sinner as much as they condemn the sin. Their goal is punishment, not restoration.
When we look to Jesus, we see that our goal should be not to shame, humiliate, or drive to despair those around us who are caught in sin; our goal should be to bring to repentance and restoration those who have fallen. We may need to start by calling sin what it is in the lives of those who refuse to see it in themselves (as Jesus did with the Pharisees). But even if we do that so the self-righteous and proud are humbled – even if we are the self-righteous and proud who are humbled by our honest brothers and sisters in Christ - we must never lose sight of the goal of the Great Physician: to heal the sin-sick soul. The great commentator Matthew Henry wrote,
“In this matter Christ attended to the great work about which he came into the world, that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the accused to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors also, by showing them their sins; they thought to ensnare him, he sought to convince and convert them.”
If we are to learn from the example of Jesus, our goal must not be to destroy sinners, but to point them toward a Christ who saves. We must speak the truth about sin, and then show the kind of mercy that leads to a “godly sorrow that brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
If the first thing we have to be careful of is too much judgment of sin, the second thing is becoming so focused on extending mercy to the sinner that we forgot there is a righteous anger towards and a just judgment for sin. This story if often cited as an example of why we shouldn’t exercise judgment, That badly misses the point.
Jesus absolutely judges. When Jesus wrote in the dust, he (presumably) wrote that they were all lawbreakers. He didn't let the Pharisees off the hook. He didn’t say to the woman, “Hey, it’s no problem. Go do what you want.” He said, “No one hear can formally accuse you, but…Stop sinning.” He didn’t try to contextualize her situation. He didn’t say, “You’re perfect just the way you are.” In his mercy, he gave her the same kind of truth he gave the Pharisees: she had sinned, and she needed to repent.
Telling the truth about sin is not a bad thing. Offering sincere, honest, biblically sound judgment about sinful actions is not a sign that you are mean; it is a sign that you are wise. If we aren’t careful, we will think that in order to love sinners, we must overlook or minimize sin – and then in the process of loving the sinner we enable the sin. And that is neither loving nor merciful.
Love actually requires honest judgment. Why? Because sin destroys. It eats away at your peace with God, with others, and within ourselves. It corrodes relationships, it distorts love, it puts us squarely on the road to the judgment of God who will make sure that someone gives an answer for sin. If that’s what sin does, what kind of God would not hate sin and judge those who do it? A holy, loving God must use judgment in the service of justice so that evil does not have the last word. For all of us who have experienced the sin of others crush our lives, it is heaven’s promise that someone will answer for the evil done to us.
But we have to be careful. If we don’t confront sin in love, we will be abrasive and mean (see 1 Corinthians 13). And if we don’t do this with an eye on the sin in our own lives, we will do this with a kind of pride that God despises.
Here’s the reality: all of us have hurt others with our words, our attitudes, our choices, our violence. A holy, loving God must judge the evil we do too. We long for judgment when it’ meant for people who have done us wrong, but if God’s judgment were to rain down on us all and give us the justice we deserve right now, we would all beg for mercy. There is no one righteous (Romans 3:10). There is no sin that can be hidden from God, even if you can hide it from your neighbor. If Jesus were here, and we all demanded that judgment for sin be rendered, we would all walk away as our names and our sins were written in the dust on the floor of this church.
We must embrace this tension between justice and mercy. We should love God’s justice (as we see the devastation of sin and the need for someone to hold people to account) but we should also crave God’s mercy (as we see our own sin, condemnation and need for a Savior).
The Law reveals the condition and drives us to grace. No one in the Law was saved by keeping the Law because no one could satisfy the requirements of the Law. Instead, the Law drove them to grace. That is why David, in his marvelously repentant Psalm 51, says of his sin: “Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your loving kindness. According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.” The superscription of the Psalm says, “For the choir director. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone to Bathsheba.” (https://bible.org/seriespage/john-chapter-8)
When justice and mercy work together, just judgment drives us to our knees at the foot of the Cross; mercy reaches down from that cross and pulls us to our feet. This is where we look back to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the embodiment of God’s justice and mercy.
It is on the cross that God’s holy justice was perfectly satisfied while His holy mercy was perfectly displayed. Someone has to pay the price for sin, and God in his mercy said, “Let it be me.” There would be a day when Jesus would take upon himself the sins of the world – and that included the woman and her accusers. And all of us. The Israelite prayer, “O Lord, rescue us, deliver us, save us,” has come true because Jesus has come so that the world through him might be saved.
 Your Bible may note, “Many early manuscripts omit 7:53–8:11.” Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, claimed to have learned the story from Papias, who lived from about 60 AD to about 130 AD. The picture is from the earliest known manuscript of John, an Egyptian copy from around 180. Augustine thought the early church removed the story out of fear that adultery would be encouraged by Jesus’ display of mercy. Whatever the reasons, the event is alluded to very early, it appears to have been widely known and accepted in the early church, and it soon appears in the canon.
 (Mishnah Makkot 1:10): “A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel.” Read a good article here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-death-penalty-in-jewish-tradition/2/
 “With reference to two offenders subject to this penalty, the Pentateuch says, "Thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people" (Deut. xiii. 10 [A. V. 9]), and again (ib. xvii. 7), "The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people." (Sanh. vi. 4; 45a et seq.; Sifra, Emor, xix.; Sifre, Num. 114; ib. Deut. 89, 90, 149, 151). “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_and_corporal_punishment_in_Judaism#In_Rabbinic_Law
 The Bible does not connect those dots, but considering the audience and the context, it seems like a reasonable connection.
 I realize the ‘church’ had not started yet, but the religious Jewish community is probably the closest comparison we have before the NT church community began.
 So is there any place for judgment and justice when God extends mercy? First, the Bible clearly teaches that there will be practical consequences to our actions. Forgiveness does not necessarily negate the fact that we will reap what we sow. The woman’s adultery may still have ruined her marriage even thought the forgiveness of Christ was available to her. Second, there are consequences to our actions within God ordained systems of government. Those harmed by rape may extend forgiveness, but the rapist will still go to jail – and rightly so. Finally, there is an ultimate day of judgment when we will all give an answer to God for what we have done. It’s possible to the first two forms of judgment can be avoided depending on the nature of the sin, but no one will escape the final accounting.
 Read “The Only Thing That Counts” for a better understanding of why Jesus needed to die in order for God’s justice to be satisfied. http://clgonline.org/the-only-thing-that-counts-galatians-51-8/