John 8:1-11: Jesus and the adulteress

(These notes were prepared for a series of teachings on John’s gospel given in Pretoria in 2008 & 2009.)

Then each went to his own home.1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 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. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 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. 10 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.”

Lest the Israelites should think that they had arrived at their ultimate destination in the land of Canaan and in the city of Jerusalem, as these but typified the eternal city of God, the nation was required once a year through-out its generations to make temporary dwellings out of leaves and branches and live in these for seven days. The instruction is given in Deuteronomy 16:

41 Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. 42 Live in tents for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in tents 43 so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in tents when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.

Israel in the Land was still a ‘pilgrim’ as it was in the wilderness, even as Abraham continued after he had arrived in Canaan, to look forward to ‘the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God’ – i.e. the heavenly city – and to live as an alien and stranger on this earth:

‘By faith [Abraham] made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.’ (Hebrews 11:9)

In our previous study we considered Jesus’ teaching on the ‘last and greatest day’ of this Feast (John 7:37-39). We concluded at verse 52.

At the end of the seventh day, the people left their tents and ‘each went to his own home’ (verse 53). Jesus, by contrast, ‘went to the Mount of Olives’ (Jn 8:1). He would not, like so many other out-of-town visitors, receive hospitality in a friendly home, or obtain hired lodgings. ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests,’ but the Son of Man had no-where to lay his head. His kingdom was not of this world, and more than anyone who has ever walked this earth, Jesus’ life testified to the fact that he was merely passing through.

The events of Chapter 8 occurred on the subsequent day, the eight day, also known as the Octave, or in Hebrew ‘Atzereth’ which means conclusion or closure. The requirements for this day are stated in Leviticus 23:34-37:

Say to the Israelites: `On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD’s Feast of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. The first day is a sacred assembly; do no regular work. For seven days present offerings made to the LORD by fire, and on the eighth day hold a sacred assembly and present an offering made to the LORD by fire. It is the closing assembly; do no regular work. These are the LORD’s appointed feasts …’.

The eight day of Tabernacles concludes not only that particular festival, but also the festive and religious calendar for the year. We look at the significance of this day in our next study, in light of Jesus’ teaching in John 8:12-30.

In the meantime, Jesus’ lesson in the Temple on that morning is interrupted by the events we read of in today’s passage: the bringing before him of a woman caught in adultery.

Verse 6 tells us that the incident was contrived by those who sought to trap and condemn him. The basis for the trap is that the Law of Moses required the death of adulterers, while Jesus was known as a friend of publicans and sinners. Would Jesus uphold the Law and condemn the woman, or would he compromise the Law and justify the woman?

The Law requires: ‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbour – both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.’ (Leviticus 20:10).

‘If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.’ (Deuteronomy 22:22)

Jesus uses their trap to demonstrate one of the most critical principles of the Law, namely that only those who were kept in perfect righteousness could enforce it.

This principle applied to Israel in its dealings with the nations. Before Israel entered the Land, the LORD instructed her:

… in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the LORD your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.’ (Deut. 20:16-18)

This command must however be read in light of the following:

  • The reason the Land was not given to Abraham’s descendants immediately was clearly stated: namely, because the sinfulness of the people living there before them had not yet reached the point at which final condemnation was warranted. We find this at Genesis 15:13-16:

Then the LORD said to [Abraham], ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions … In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.

God would not displace the people of Canaan unjustly – out of favouritism – even for the sake of His promise. It was only once salvation became impossible for the Amorites that the children of Israel would be ordered to destroy them completely.

  • The second lesson that God taught Israel from the outset was that it could only judge the inhabitants of Canaan – and occupy the Land in their place – if Israel itself was sanctified through perfect obedience. If at any time the Israelites also became guilty of those sins for which the Amorites had been destroyed off the Land, they too would be defeated:

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. (Deut. 18:9-13)

Israel would be kept ‘blameless’ by firstly condeming the sinners among her own people. Only then could she act as God’s judge against the pagans. For this reason every sinner in Israel had to be cut off.

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the aliens living among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. Everyone who does any of these detestable things – such persons must be cut off from their people. Keep my requirements and do not follow any of the detestable customs that were practiced before you came and do not defile yourselves with them. I am the LORD your God.’ (Lev. 18:24-30)

We have the application of this principle clearly demonstrated in the history of Israel’s entry into the Land at the time of Joshua. After crossing the Jordan River, as Joshua approached Jericho, he ‘looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand.’

Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?”‘ (Joshua 5:13-14)

Shortly after this the Israelites we led to a miraculous victory over the city of Jericho – its walls collapsed after they marched around it for seven days. But this being their first conquest, the LORD commanded them not to take any of the loot, but to consecrate all the riches of that city as a memorial to Him (Joshua 6:18-19).

Soon after the conquest of Jericho, the Israelites suffered a humiliating defeat at the town of Ai. It was then revealed that Achan of the tribe of Judah had taken some of the consecrated things. Because of this, God would not allow Israel to prevail over its enemies. After the stoning of Achan, Ai was delivered into their hands (Joshua 7:25 – 8:1).

This pattern continues through-out the time of the Judges. Every time Israel fell into disobedience, their enemies prevailed over them. (See for example Judges 2:10-15)

Only if the Jews were perfectly righteous could they stand as an agent of God in the judgment of sinful nations. So, for this reason: ‘Purge the evil from among you.’ Hence the reason for condemning adulterers!

Jesus in his response to the accusers of the woman, applies the same principle to the execution of judgment within Israel. When Jesus challenged the woman’s accusers, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,’ he was applying the Law to them: ‘purge the evil from among you,’ but let the process begin with yourself.

When Jesus called for any who could act as a righteous judge to come forward, those who had come as witnesses against the woman, turned away as witnesses against themselves – each one testifying by his departure that he was also a sinner under God’s judgment. Those who set the trap for Jesus – that He might either condemn the Law or condemn the woman, were now put in the same predicament – and ultimately forced to condemn themselves. As Solomon had taught in his wisdom: ‘whoever digs a pit will fall into it’ (Proverbs 26:27).

Earlier in his ministry, Jesus taught:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Paul taught the same:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Romans 2:1)

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring men under conviction of guilt, as Jesus later explains it:

When he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:8-11)

Whatever Jesus wrote with his finger in the dust – and we need not guess what it was – had this effect on the men in the crowd. For the word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17).

The last question to consider: why then did Jesus himself not uphold the Law?

‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’ – Jesus was without sin and he who taught that not a ‘jot or title’ would disappear from the Law until all was accomplished (Mat. 5:18), should surely be obligated to enforce it against this woman?

The answer is that he did uphold the Law, for this is what the Law says:

On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deut. 17: 6-7)

If the witnesses themselves refused to cast the first stone, the no-one else in the community could condemn her. And for this reason Jesus could say: ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Then neither do I condemn you … Go now and leave your life of sin.’

The message that Jesus had hoped for Israel to understand is contained in John 3:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God. (verses 17-19)

By the time of Jesus Israel had become thoroughly corrupt. It had largely abandoned the Word of God for the teachings of the Rabbis, and its obedience to the Law was highly compromised. Jesus accused the Pharisees with the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8-9)

For that nation to be restored to the level of purity and obedience that prevailed when Joshua entered the Land, every last person would probably have to be stoned. There was in fact a common saying among the Jews: ‘if all adulterers were punished with stoning, according to the Law, the stones would run out; but they [the adulterers] would not run out’.1

No reason is given why the woman alone is brough before Jesus: If she was caught in the act, the man must surely have been caught as well! The Sanhedrin had by that time suspended capital punishment for the crimes of murder and adultery, and the reason for the man’s absence, suggested by Kenneth Grayston in his commentary on The Gospel of John, is that he would be required to pay a significant sum of compensation to the groom of husband – and his safety was clearly required to secure that payment. In this way, the Pharisees and rulers of the people had meddled with that Law which required that nothing be added or subtracted, and that Israel do not depart from it to the right or to the left.



1. Apud Castell. Lex. Polyglott, col. 2180.