Did you know that when Jesus offered grace and forgave the woman who had been caught in adultery that He wasn’t necessarily disagreeing with the ones condemning her? Let’s take a few minutes to look at this amazing event.
The story of Jesus and the unnamed woman who had been caught in the act of adultery is one of the most well-known and beloved of any events in the life of Christ. There is a reason that it resonates with us as we read this story found only in John’s Gospel. It is because we see the worst in humanity juxtaposed with the hope that can only be found in Christ. If you are unfamiliar with this event, let me recap it quickly for you.
This story is located in and finds Jesus in a very familiar place, the Mt. of Olives just east of Jerusalem. Seen as a solitary place throughout the millennia, that serenity is broken when a large and raucous crowd drags a woman to where Jesus was in order to stone her to death. Her crime? According to the Scripture she had been, “caught in adultery, caught in the very act” (). The fact she had been caught in the act is important to this story.
The Bible also tells us, however, that her death was not all they were seeking with their actions. John tells us the crowd initiated this course of events to test Jesus, “that they might have something of which to accuse Him” (). In other words, they were less interested in punishing the woman than they were trying to discredit Jesus.
That was the nature of the test. If Jesus had rejected the Law of Moses, He would have been discredited by the people. Had He upheld the stoning by following the Law of Moses, He would have been seen as practicing the exact opposite idea of the love and compassion He had been teaching. The woman, then, in part, was a pawn.
After they confronted Jesus with her undeniable guilt (remember she had been caught in the act…so this was not an accusation…it was a solid fact), they waited quietly for His response. The Scripture notes that Jesus is sitting on the ground and writing in the dirt with His finger when He responds to their query over whether the Law calls for the death of this adulteress. His response is arguably one of the most poignant and important sentences uttered in the history of the world. Jesus states, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” ().
John is quick to tell us that the crowd, having been “convicted by their conscience” (), one by one, began to file away. When Jesus asks the woman if there is anyone left that had condemned her, she states, “no one, Lord”. Jesus then finishes this amazing story by telling her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (). An extraordinary event with an extraordinary truth. A truth we might partially miss if we’re not paying attention.
Like so much of what Jesus said and did, too many times this event is grossly oversimplified for the sake of telling a compelling story. Because of the way the narrative is constructed, it is easy to sort of miss the forest for the trees theologically speaking. We are supposed to notice two attitudes represented by two entities. The crowd represents lack of compassion, lack of forgiveness, and a heart of vindictiveness. Jesus represents the exact opposite. These two entities are antithetical to each other.
However, if all that we get out of this event is that there are bad guys and a Good Guy and the Good Guy beats the bad guys…then we are missing the deeper truths here. Here is something that you may have never thought of before but is vital to seeing what God is trying to tell us via this event. Are you ready? The crowd was NOT wrong. If we dismiss everything they said as wrong because they are the bad guys, we will miss this part. What were they not wrong about?
After they dragged the woman into Jesus’ presence and provided proof of the guilt of her sin, they said, “Moses, in the Law, commanded us that such should be stoned” (). Now, methodology aside, what they were saying was that this woman was caught in a sin and because of her sin, she needed to be punished. In fact, the punishment for this sin was death. She deserved to die because of her sin. You know Who else agrees with that basic, foundational truth? Jesus.
Notice Jesus never says that the woman does not deserve to die for her sin. If He had done that, He would have contradicted His own teaching. The Book of Romans tells us that the wages of sin (all sin) is death (). Death is the penalty for all sin. Jesus is not amending that idea or changing that reality in this passage and that is the beauty of this narrative.
People think that in this story, Jesus is de-emphasizing sin. He’s not. He’s re-emphasizing grace. Jesus is agreeing with the crowd that sin causes death, He merely expanded that idea to include all sin, even the sin of the condemning crowd. Sin is the most destructive force on the planet. It corrupts and destroys everything it touches. The crowd had grown too comfortable with their sin and Jesus uses this event to say that we all deserve death for sin, but that Jesus extends the grace, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion that can only be found in Him. And that we will always be comforted by God’s Word that reminds us, “But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us ().” How cool is that?
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Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.