Life of Christ 101
Two days ago, at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus engaged in a vigorous give and take with the Jews in the Temple. Their emotional response was an attempt on His life. Yesterday, Jesus interpreted the great closing ceremony of the feast as being about Himself, and loudly called in the middle of it for the Jews to believe on Him. Their emotional response, again, was an attempt on His life. Today, He shows back up in the Temple, and, as you can imagine, He quickly draws a crowd, and so He begins to teach them (John 8.1-11).
Jesus, by now, has a long history of differing with the Pharisees in reference to the Law. The classic example of this is the 'ye have heard that it hath been said' and the 'but I say unto you' found in the Sermon on the Mount. His main point, repeated again and again, was that the Pharisees' extra-biblical adherence to tradition instead of the actual Law was wrong (Matthew 15.3). He had mentioned it again, just two days ago, when He whacked them in reference to circumcision, the Sabbath, and His miracles.
The first option Jesus had was to side with the Pharisees, and everybody else, in their relaxed non-strict interpretation of the Law, excusing her from being stoned. This, of course, would make Jesus look like a fair-weather hypocrite, changing His tune to suit the occasion, and, in turn, justifying the Pharisees' extra-biblical traditional interpretations of the Law in a host of areas. Alternatively, He could call for an actual stoning, which would make Him look completely out of step and incredibly harsh to every other Jew in the crowd.
In response, Jesus ignores the Pharisees altogether. He doesn't say anything. He just starts writing on the ground. Scripture does not tell us what He wrote. I suspect, because of the reaction, that He began to write the names and the private sins of the accusing Pharisees, though I certainly do not hold this dogmatically.
As the Pharisees continued to pester Him, finally, He lifted His head, and said, 'He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her' (John 8.7). In other words, He proposes that they exercise the necessary judgment themselves based on their own level of personal righteousness. What we have here, in essence, is unrighteousness condemning unrighteousness in the presence of perfect righteousness. No human could long stand up to that kind of scrutiny and conviction, and so the Pharisees retreat from the field of battle.
Jesus then turns to the woman, and seeing her repentance, sends her away with mercy.
Careless and vain people have used this story to justify all sorts of wrong-headed things so I want to make sure to carefully establish what Jesus is not saying here before I establish what He is saying.
First, Jesus is not saying here that we aren't supposed to identify sin as sin.
There are two aspects found in the Bible in relation to judging others. The first aspect is that of making a judgment call that what someone has done is wrong. The second is actually dispensing judgment upon them, or giving them the just punishment necessary as a result of their wrong.
All of God's people are called to the do the former. Of course, it should be done deliberately, using Scripture as our guide. Along the way we must be mindful that we should seek to examine ourselves first, primarily, and that we will be judged by others the same way we ourselves are found to be exercising judgment. All of these principles are found by studying the subject of judgment, as a whole, in the Scripture. On the other hand, very few of God's people are called to issue punishment, or to dispense judgment in that sense. The temporary exceptions to this are legally constituted governmental authorities (Genesis 9.6), and the permanent exception to this is God Himself, 'the Judge of all the earth' (Genesis 18.25).
The Pharisees had done the first aspect, judging her to be in adultery, and they wanted Jesus to call for the doing of the second aspect, which was to stone her. Jesus tells them that, since they are not the legally constituted governmental authority, they cannot do the second aspect of judging unless they are perfectly innocent. In other words, Jesus tells them that they don't have the right to dispense judgment since they aren't God.
It is tremendously important to note here that Jesus is not saying that people shouldn't make a judgment call that others around them who are obviously sinning are wrong. This, though, is precisely what the ungodly want us to take from this passage. 'Judge not!', they shout, while they merrily go on their wicked way. 'He that is without sin let him first cast a stone at me!' as if this implies their evil ways are above being questioned. Not only is such a position illogical, in that they are making a judgment call which says I cannot make judgment calls, but they are also completely unscriptural. I can and should make judgment calls that publicly and clearly identify sin as sin. If, in this specific illustration, I know of someone living in adultery, I'm supposed to assert that they are wrong, and it is not pharisaically inappropriate for me to do this.
Secondly, Jesus is obviously not saying here that adultery is acceptable. Such a position would violate the Law, and the Word Made Flesh wouldn't violate the written Word this way. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, in no way weakened the general understanding of the Law's condemnation of adultery. He actually strengthened it, and this is expanded on elsewhere in the New Testament with two specific instances of local churches being called upon to actively and publicly deal with unrepentant sexual sin.
Having established what Jesus is not saying in this story what is He saying? First, Jesus is saying that hypocrisy is wrong. Jesus didn't attack the Pharisees here for wanting to uphold the Law and punish and prevent adultery. No, He attacked them for hypocrisy. They had attacked this woman taken in adultery while at the same time being just as guilty, either of that same sin, or something else equally bad. The proof of this is that they felt 'convicted'. Interestingly and revealingly, this is the only Bible usage of this most familiar term, and the context reveals it to mean being found out. The other proof of their individual guilt was that no one lifted a stone, or answered Christ back. In fact, all of the Pharisees ended up abandoning the field of battle entirely. Their hypocrisy had been publicly revealed and they couldn't handle it.
Secondly, and most preciously, Jesus is showing us that He is rich in mercy toward repentant sinners.
From one end of the Bible to the other God calls consistently and loudly for obedience. When that obedience isn't forthcoming He then promises judgment. He always delivers on that promise of judgment with one notable exception – when repentance comes, within His timeframe, He extends mercy instead of judgment.
Think of Jonah at Ninevah, for instance. When he finally showed up to preach, his message was one denouncing her for her sin, and promising judgment, unless she repented in the space of 40 days (Jonah 3.4). She did, and mercy came in place of judgment. It is this very fact that makes salvation possible for you and I. We have disobeyed the Lord, and the just judgment of hell is thus promised. But so long as we repent of our sins and come humbly to Christ before we die we find rich mercy.
This story isn't teaching us to ignore sin. This story isn't teaching us that God ignores sin. This story is teaching us that we shouldn't be hypocrites, and this story is teaching us that God is rich in mercy toward repentant sinners.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is James 2.13. 'For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.' God would rather have mercy on sinners than pour out judgment upon them, but if we won't come, in repentance, for that mercy then judgment we shall have instead.
The question before us today is not whether we are the Pharisees or the woman. The question is not whether we should judge or not judge. The question is not whether adultery is acceptable or not acceptable. The question is: are we genuine and real, or are we hypocrites? And the question is: are we repentant?
…and only you, in the stillness of your own heart, can answer.