Gospel of John (12) — Caught in the Act

This morning, we continue in our study of the gospel of John. In just a little bit, we’ll be in John chapter 8.

I heard recently about a man who was involved in an auto accident and his shoulder was slightly injured. But he decided to fake a much greater injury so that he could stick the insurance company for a good bit of money.

But, when the trial began, the insurance company’s attorney called the “injured” man to the stand and asked him, “Mr. Smith, can you please show us how much your shoulder was damaged in the accident by extending that arm upward as far as your shoulder will allow?”

Mr. Smith raised his arm to a horizontal position and stopped. He said, “That’s as far as it can go.” Then the lawyer said, “Thank you. Now, Mr. Smith, would you please show us how far you were able to raise that arm BEFORE the accident?”

And without thinking, Mr. Smith raised his arm so that it was pointing directly toward the ceiling. At that point, the judge pounded his gavel and said, “Case dismissed.”

Now, I would imagine this is a tactic that lawyers like to use in suspicious law suits like this. They set a trap, hoping to catch a person and find out the truth.

Well, Jesus was very familiar with this legal tactic because the first century version of lawyers — known as the scribes and Pharisees — these guys used this tactic on Jesus all the time. Now, of course since Jesus was the Son of God, their traps never worked. In fact, they always seemed to backfire on his critics. Let me give you a couple of examples.

In Matthew 22, the scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Which was a really good trap, because it looked like no matter how Jesus answered that question, he was either going to make the Roman authorities mad or make the Jewish people mad. But, of course, Jesus answered their question in a way that didn’t make anybody mad.

In John chapter 7, the scribes and Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law by healing a man. But Jesus said, in essence, “How is that any different than what you do on the Sabbath when you circumcise a baby boy?”

I could give a lot more examples because the scribes and Pharisees repeatedly used this “trap tactic” on Jesus — but it never worked! He was never caught offguard with their sneaky legal maneuvers. He always knew what to say to turn things around.

And maybe the best example of this is found in our text this morning. If you want to follow along in your Bibles during the video, we’ll begin in John chapter 8, verse 1.


Now, if your Bible is like mine, before verse 53 of chapter 7, it says something like this: “The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11.” That statement is there because these twelve verses are simply not found in the oldest manuscripts of John’s gospel we have available.

Augustine, who lived in the 4th century, had a theory that this story was omitted on purpose. He said that some Christians were afraid that the story might lead people to believe that Jesus was permissive of adultery. And that would certainly help to explain why it was in some texts and not in others.

The bottom line, though, is that whether or not this text was in the original manuscript, the overwhelming consensus – of both early church fathers and modern-day scholars — is that this account is absolutely authentic. It was something that actually happened during the lifetime of Jesus, recorded either by John or someone else.

So, with that behind us, let’s get back to the story. If you were here last week, you’ll recall that Jesus went to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles. And after the feast was over, Jesus continued to teach people in the temple. But Jesus was suddenly interrupted by a crowd of men dragging an embarrassed woman along with them.

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst…” (John 8:3)

We live in a world where sexual immorality is no big deal, but we need to understand that in the eyes of Jewish Law, adultery was a very serious crime. Back then, the rabbis had a saying — “Every Jew must die before he will commit idolatry, murder, or adultery.” So, in their minds, adultery was one of the big three when it came to sins.

And the Law of Moses was very clear on the subject of adultery. The penalty for adultery was death. Leviticus 20:10 says, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” So, from a strictly legal standpoint, the scribes and the Pharisees were correct. This woman was guilty and she deserved to die for her sin.

Keep in mind that it would have been very difficult to actually catch someone in the act of adultery. For someone to be charged with a capital offense under the Law of Moses, there had to be at least two witnesses. And it wasn’t enough for them to say, “I saw them going into the bedroom and then I saw them leave an hour later.” They had to actually witness the act. So, it would appear that this charge of adultery was a set-up.

Personally, I think the man involved was part of the set-up. Adultery by definition requires two people. So, where was the man? Why wasn’t he brought before Jesus for judgment? In the eyes of the law, he was just as guilty as the woman. Some have suggested that maybe the man was one of the Pharisees – who used himself to seduce the woman so they could catch her in the act.

Regardless of how it happened, though, there was no doubt – this woman was guilty. She was caught in the very act. Even if this was a set-up, this woman was still guilty of adultery. She didn’t deny it. Jesus didn’t deny it.

But, you have to wonder why these leaders exposed this woman publicly. There was no need for them to bring her in front of Jesus. If they wanted to punish her, they didn’t need Jesus’ permission. So, it’s evident there is something sinister going on here.

They said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:4-5)

Rabbis were often asked their interpretation of scripture. But these men had no intention of trying to learn anything from Jesus. We’re told in verse 6, “This they said, testing him that they might have something of which to accuse him.” (John 8:6).

And now we get to the heart of what this is really all about. These leaders weren’t really all that concerned with the sin of adultery. Scholars tell us that adultery was actually a rather common sin among the Jews in that day and very seldom was it actually punished. But these men were more con¬cerned with trapping Jesus. And they thought they had Jesus in a no-win situation.

It was a devious trap, because it looked like no matter what Jesus said — no matter how he answered – he was going to be in trouble. If, on the one hand, Jesus said, “Yes, this woman is guilty, stone her”, then Jesus would lose the reputation he had gained for being someone filled with love and mercy. He would no longer be considered a “friend of sinners”.

But if, on the other hand, Jesus said this woman should be pardoned and let go, then it could be said that he was teaching men to break the Law of Moses, and that he was condoning and even encouraging people to commit adultery.

So, from the perspective of the scribes and Pharisees, this was a really good trap. No matter what Jesus said, he was going to be in serious trouble and lose his popularity with the people. They were certain that they had Jesus in a trap he couldn’t get out of.

So, how is Jesus going to get out of this one? John tells us that, for starters, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” (John 8:6).

Everybody wants to know what Jesus wrote. And I think it’s interesting to hear all the different suggestions that have been offered. One commentator says, “He didn’t write anything. He just marked in the dust, acting like he didn’t hear.”

Another says, “Perhaps Jesus wished to gain time, and not be rushed into a decision. In that brief moment, he may have been both thinking the thing through and taking it to his Father in prayer.”

Another says he did write something: “It was the practice of judges in those days to first write their verdicts and then speak them. So what Jesus wrote was, ‘He that is without sin among you…”

Another says, “He wrote down Deuteronomy 22:22. He then noted that ‘they shall both of them die, both the man and the woman’ and asked ‘Where’s the man?'”

Another says, “He would have written a scripture about loving people.”

Another says, “Perhaps Jesus wrote on the ground as a way to deliberately force the Pharisees to repeat their charges so that maybe they might realize what they doing and come to their senses.”

More than one writer has suggested that Jesus wrote in the dust a list of the particular sins that the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of. In his movie about Jesus’ life, Cecil B. DeMille followed this line of thinking because in this scene he depicts Jesus spelling out the names of various sins: Murder, Pride, Greed, Lust. And every time Jesus wrote a word, a few more Pharisees filed away.

I think it’s obvious that we don’t really have any idea what Jesus wrote in the ground and it doesn’t really matter.

But, whatever he wrote, Jesus managed to focus all of the attention on himself. You see, when they brought the woman, I’m sure everybody around was looking at her, pointing at her, whispering about her. It was very embarrassing, very humiliating. But as Jesus began to write in the dust, their attention was transferred to him which relieved her embarrassment a bit.

Whatever he wrote and for whatever reason, the scribes and Pharisees continued to insist on an answer. Verse 7 says, “They continued to ask him” or “They kept on questioning him” (NIV). They thought they had Jesus on the ropes, so they weren’t about to let him ignore the question. They asked and asked and asked. And then they got their answer.

Jesus stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7).

Jesus said, in effect, “All right, you want me to be the judge. Here’s my judgment: Go ahead and carry out the penalty the law prescribes. Stone her. But the Law of Moses prescribes punishment for many people for many different sins. If you’re truly interested in keeping the law, then keep all of it, not just some of it. We can start with this woman, then we can proceed to punish everybody else here for their sins. So, let the one who has no sin be the one to cast the first stone.”

Notice what happened — these men wanted to talk about the woman; Jesus wanted to talk about them. They were more interested in her behavior; Jesus was more concerned about their hearts. The truth is, there was more hope for this sinful woman than there was for those conniving Pharisees. Having been caught in the act of adultery, she was closer to the kingdom than they were. Because she didn’t deny her sin, while they refused to admit they had any.

“And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.” (John 8:8). Again, I don’t know what he wrote. But I do know the practical result of it. It allowed Jesus’ words to act on the hardened hearts of those religious leaders. All of a sudden, instead of being the accusers, they were the accused. Instead of having Jesus on the spot, they were on the spot. And instead of having the eyes of the crowd focused on the adulterous woman, all eyes were focused on them.

And you can imagine the thoughts that must have been going through their minds. “This man seems to know everything. What if he begins to ask details about how this woman was taken in the very act of adultery? What if he asks us where the witnesses are? What if he asks us who the adulterous man is? What if he challenges our right to cast the first stone? What if he exposes us to the people?”

“But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones.” (John 8:9). You could hear the sound of rocks hitting the ground one at a time as they started to leave. I don’t know why the oldest left first. Maybe the youngest waited for their older leaders to make the first move. Or maybe the older were more aware of their failures and shortcom¬ings. At any rate, it’s an amazing scene as one by one they all drifted away, until only Jesus and the woman remained.

The last part of verse 9 says, “And Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.” (John 8:9b). The accusers left, but the woman didn’t. She stood there, waiting for Jesus’ judgment. You might get the impression that everybody had left but Jesus and the woman. But the disciples were still there; the crowd was still there.

But, for all practical purposes, it was just Jesus and the woman — the woman looking at Jesus and Jesus looking at her. And in the end, that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about you and the crowd. Not about you and the fol¬lowers of Jesus. Not even about you and your accusers. It’s just you and Jesus.

And if you’re going to get what you should from this lesson, the one with whom you must identify in this story is the sinful woman. Now I realize that when we come together as a group like this, we tend to be like the crowd surrounding Jesus: So, like the crowd, we might be tempted to look on from the outside, amazed at how Jesus was able to foil his enemies.

But, I want to ask you this morning to not identify with the crowd. Rather see your¬self standing in the place of this woman — standing there in shame, embar¬rassed, humiliated, every eye on you, not knowing whether you’ll live or die in the next hour.

Maybe you’ve committed adultery, or maybe you haven’t. The point is that you have committed sin, you’re a sinner in need of grace and mercy. And the law has spoken: The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). And so there you stand in the midst, feeling very exposed. And your eyes are on Jesus, waiting for his judgment.

I’m hoping that somewhere here this morning, there’s at least one person who recognizes his or her sinfulness, who, in spite of being surrounded by this crowd of people, believes, “It’s just Jesus and me.”

“Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” (John 8:10-11).

It’s interesting that Jesus was the only one present that day who met the qualification he had set forth — he was without sin — but he said, in effect, “I will not cast the first stone. I do not condemn you to death. You’re free to go.” He treated her with compassion. He was honest about her sin, but he extended grace and mercy. He forgave her sin and sent her out to start a brand-new life.

So, what are the lessons that we should take away from this story?

1. Christ views us with dignity and cares about us

It’s important that you understand that Jesus values you as a person. The woman taken in adultery was not a person to the scribes and the Pharisees. That was evident from the way they treated her. There was no need to drag her before the crowd. She could have been retained in custody while they put the question to Jesus. She was a thing to be used, a trap to be sprung, a tool to destroy Jesus, but not a person.

I doubt they even knew her name, or cared why she had done what she had done. But Jesus cared. He treated her with respect. He didn’t browbeat her or embarrass her further. She was able to leave with a dignity she didn’t have before she met Jesus.

The basic difference between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees was that they wanted to condemn; he wanted to forgive. And if we can read between the lines of this story, it seems to me that these scribes and Phari¬sees wanted to stone this woman to death, and they were going to take pleas¬ure in doing so. They found pleasure in condemning; Jesus found pleasure in forgiving. Jesus regarded the sinner with compassion because of his love; the scribes and Pharisees regarded the sinner with disgust because of their self-righteousness.

The scribes and Pharisees saw it as their job to stand over others like watchmen, looking for every mistake and every deviation from the law, and to descend on every sin with savage and unforgiving punishment. They felt it was their responsibility to destroy the sinner. They never considered they might have a responsibility to help heal the sinner.

But Jesus was concerned for the woman. He was especially concerned about her sin. And there is no encouragement to sin in this passage. Jesus’ last words to this woman were, “Go and sin no more.” He didn’t say, “Don’t worry, I forgive you, just go on home.” No, he said, “What you’ve done is wrong. You know it, I know it. So I want you to quit that habitual sin that has plagued your life, turn things around, change your life from top to bottom. Go, and sin no more.”

There’s no cheap grace here, no easy forgiveness. Rather, this was a challenge that pointed this sinner to live a godly life.

I want you to know that Jesus is concerned about you, and especially about the sin that pulls you down. Sin is degrading. It makes you less than you can be. Sin is a terrible taskmaster. Sin will keep you from having fellowship with your Father who made you. And Jesus cares enough to forgive you and point you in the right direction.

2. Jesus gives us a second chance.

Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you.” This woman left with hope. She came expecting to be sentenced to death; she left a free woman.

It’s as if Jesus said to the woman, “I know you’ve made a mess of things, but life isn’t finished yet. I’m giving you another chance, a chance to redeem yourself.”

In Jesus, there is the gospel of the second chance. No matter what you’ve done, no matter what mistakes you’ve made, no matter what sins you’ve committed, Jesus offers you the chance to start over, to receive forgiveness and begin life anew.

3. Jesus expresses his confidence in us.

Have you ever thought about how much confidence Jesus had in this woman? There she was, a sinner. Jesus’ words seem to indicate that this was not a one-time thing, that she had continually engaged in sexual sin. But apparently, Jesus thought the possibility existed that she could change, that she could turn her life around. The scribes and Pharisees saw only the woman’s past; Jesus saw her future.

Jesus was always interested, not only what a person had been, but also in what a person could be. He didn’t say that what they had done doesn’t matter, but Jesus knew that a person’s past is not what defines them.

So he says to her, “You have committed adultery. But you can be much more than what you have been to this point. You can turn from this sin once and for all. You can have a new life.” It’s what Jesus still says to us. It’s amazing, but it’s so encouraging.

Here in this beautiful story in John 8, Jesus shows us that he treats us with dignity, he cares about us, he offers us a second chance, and he expresses his confidence in us.

I wish I knew the sequel to this story. I don’t know to what extent the woman’s heart was touched by all this. I don’t know whether the woman took advantage of this opportunity for a new life that Jesus had offered to her. I’d like to think that she did.

But, this morning, of much greater concern to me, is how you will respond to the new life that Jesus offers to you. Perhaps your conscience has been stirred this morning, and if so, you have a choice. You can be like the scribes and Pharisees and to avoid embarrassment, slip out quietly this morning as soon as you can — or you can come and receive the forgiveness that’s offered by your Savior.


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