Was It Perfect Set Up?
The Word: John 8:1-11
1But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.
3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,
4they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.
5“Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”
6They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.
7But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
8Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.
10Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”
11She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
In the wedding at Cana, when Jesus assumed the role of a wine maker, He made excellent wine. (John 2:9-10). Here, when Jesus assumes the role of a defense attorney He does some spectacular lawyering that helps Him to avoid a trap, and remove the matter from the legal realm. Jesus then acts as Lord and Savior to show mercy to a woman and call her to a new standard of holiness.
The scribes and pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus to attempt to trap Jesus. (v. 6) It’s a trap because the penalty for adultery under the Old Testament law was death, but if Jesus agreed to impose the death penalty, He would get crossways with the Romans, who alone reserved the right to impose the death penalty. If Jesus showed mercy and didn’t apply the Old Testament law, then the scribes and Pharisees would have grounds for accusing Jesus before the Jews of not following Old Testament law.
Jesus’s response to this conundrum demonstrates He knew the law much better than those who attempted to trap Him: ““He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (v. 7). It is easy to read this too quickly as Jesus abrogating or superseding the law with mercy, but I do not believe that is what is happening here. If that were the case one would have to conclude it was against God’s will that anyone ever impose punishment on another under the law unless they themselves were sinless. Also, if Jesus abrogated the law it would also have played into the trap the scribes and Pharisees had set and they could have rightly accused Jesus of ignoring the law of God.
To understand what Jesus means, one must understand Old Testament law. First, there had to be two eyewitnesses to a crime that carried the death penalty. (Deuteronomy 17:6). Second, those two witnesses had to be the persons who initiate the punishment against the accused (i.e. cast the first stone). (Deuteronomy 17:7). Jesus then was likely not speaking to the entire crowd of people but to the two (or more) eye-witnesses who were biblically authorized to initiate the punishment. Additionally, I believe Jesus was speaking not of all sin but of the sin of adultery. Otherwise, one runs into the problem mentioned above—who could ever enforce laws? So, when Jesus spoke to the two witnesses, who apparently had committed adultery and they were either shamed into not proceeding (or perhaps not lawfully able to do so), the crowd dispersed and there were left no eyewitnesses to condemn her and initiate punishment.
Jesus, knowing the law (and the hearts of the accusers) better than the scribes and Pharisees, effectively obtained a dismissal of the legal proceedings against the woman caught in adultery. Once the legal accusations against the woman had been dismissed (“Did no one condemn you?”), Jesus stepped back into the role as Lord and Savior and showed mercy to the woman (“I do not condemn you either.”). Jesus could have still condemned her because she was guilty, but He showed mercy. Thus, Jesus affirmed the law but also showed mercy.
It doesn’t end there though because Jesus does not just show love and mercy; He calls people to the state of holiness consistent with the image of God in them:“Go. From now on sin no more.” Jesus showed mercy to call the woman to something greater than her own sinful state.
When Jesus performed the job of a defense attorney, He was an excellent defense attorney. Christians are called to be conformed to Jesus’ image. That means Christians are called to be excellent in their work as well.
The mercy Jesus shows in forgiving the sins of those who repent and turn to faith in Him should result in changed lives. The response should not just be gratefulness but holiness.