(7:53) “They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” (8:1-11) “Early in the morning He came again to the temple. All the people came to Him, and He sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 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?” This they said to test Him, that they might have some charge to bring against Him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask Him, He stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more He bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him. 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 7:53–8:11, ESV) (Caps added to pronouns in ESV referring to God the Father, Son, and Spirit)
One of the things that I really appreciate about the integrity of our Bible translators is their attention to the accuracy of getting the words right in all ways. This includes even taking the extra steps to consider whether or not certain words even belong. One of tools used to assess this last task is to compare early manuscripts and to analyze when others outside of the Bible commented on the content of those manuscripts. If something appeared in the earliest manuscripts and then remained over time then there was greater assurance that the content was accurate. But if something appears later and is not included in the earliest manuscripts then there is reason to stop and question whether or not a particular passage actually belongs there or not.
John 7:53 through 8:11 are among the very small list of verses which were not included in the earliest known manuscripts. We don’t know with any certainty the reason for this, and because of that these verses are generally indicated with some form of citation to indicate their questionable inclusion. The New American Standard (NAS) and the English Standard Version (ESV) use a consistent usage of […] to mark such content. In the ESV we even have included a note prior to the passage indicating the reason for the brackets. In the New International Version there is generally a bold line between the verses indication a separation. Some older translations such as the King James and the New King James provide no indication other than added column- or foot-notes. Realizing this I am personally reassured as a student of the Bible by the integrity with which most of our modern translations were handled.
Having said this, it is possible that these are intended passages that may have been included from a fragment or such, which was not necessarily a fluid part of a greater manuscript. This is indicated by the fact that different manuscripts have placed this text in various locations. As such the text has not been discarded in total but considered in the greater context of Scripture for its consistency of teaching while being careful to not place any great importance on what might be a singular passage of questionable origin.
So, in the greater light of Scripture we will consider the words of these verses and seek to gain understanding on how we are to walk with them. It is important that we do this in particular with a passage such as this as it is one of those passages that some have twisted to support or overlook aberrant activities. It seems that it has become a license to say that everything is okay because Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery. But it is interesting even in the words of Christ recorded here that He does not say go and do as you please, but rather to “go, and from now on sin no more.” There is a clear recognition in His words of the sinful nature of the woman’s actions and an instruction that she move forward and not continue in those actions. He called her to live differently.
In the context of what had just happened Jesus was ordered arrested but the guards did not do what they were sent to do. Things must have been pretty intense at the meeting when they came back and reported such. Verse 53 records that everyone went home after this, and chapter eight begins with the people gathering again in the morning at the temple where Jesus again began to teach. In the midst of His teaching, the scribes and Pharisees came into the temple dragging along a woman who was caught in adultery. They had devised another plan to trap Jesus in saying something that stood in opposition to the law. They presented the Mosaic judgment for women caught in adultery which was stoning, looking to see if Jesus would affirm the words of Moses. They figured they had Him either way He might respond thinking probably of only two options.
But Jesus turned the table. Our passage indicates that He bent over and wrote something in the ground with His finger. Whether this passage really is to be included or not, we don’t know, but I am impressed with the consistency with which it represents Jesus. Rarely did He directly answer an accusation, but moved the conversation to another place. Whatever He wrote caught the Jewish leadership off guard. In the midst of His writing we read that He stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, ESV) This was not what they were expecting. Rather than catching Jesus in a trap and proving Him as a violator of the law of Moses, He turned the table back on them. If this truly is the law and if they were truly adherents to the law (regardless of any outside Roman rule or restraint) then do what the law demands. Oh, but do this only if you can honestly say that you have never violated any portion of the law yourself. In response to this they left one at a time beginning from older to younger until Jesus was left alone with the woman.
In the same way that the guards were amazed by the words of Jesus, perceiving Him as having spoken as no man has ever spoken, so were they Jewish leadership. They had no response and could follow through with no action. As a result, Jesus was left alone with the woman and asked her where her accusers were. Did any of them throw a stone in condemnation? And the woman responded that no one had. Her response was more than just a simple “No.” We read that she called Him “Lord.” She recognized His authority and responded to Him in regard to that authority. In response Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11, ESV) Telling the woman to leave her life of sin, Jesus sent her on her way.
In the greater context of history and even the book of John we consistently see our Lord standing against those who put themselves in the place of God as harsh judges of His people. Ultimately Scripture declares that judgment belongs to God, and clearly Jesus had already told men like these that they did not have the word or love of God in them even though they scoured the Scriptures (John 5:38-40). “…and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life.” (John 5:38–40, ESV)
We also see in the words of Christ that every man is guilty of sin. The scribes and Pharisees knew this, and in response they did not lift a hand themselves against the woman. Sure there might have been some other intimidation that we don’t know of, but seeing that the older and seemingly more knowledgeable and prudent ones were the ones who left first over those who might be younger and more impulsive gives us cause to wonder. Not knowing what might have been written in the dirt whether it just be some doodling or maybe even a listing of sins these men had committed from the hand of our Lord who knows all men’s hearts, these men were moved such that they could not lift a hand against the woman and as such could not lift a hand against Jesus either.
The list of things could continue, but let’s end with one more. Recognizing how lost all of us are in sin, Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost. He came to offer forgiveness of sin to all who believe, and quite possibly this woman was saved because of her encounter with the gracious mercy of our Lord. In response she was instructed to leave and return to her life changed with the instruction to live changed. Scripture declares how we are to live, but living that way will never save anyone because none of us has or can do it perfectly. Our ability to live victoriously over sin is a result of Christ having made us spiritually alive and the Spirit doing a daily work in our lives to grow us more and more into His image. For all of us who are saved, Scripture declares that we have passed (done deal) from judgment into life.
The bottom line, whether this passage belongs or not, we know that our God stands against those who are proud and who boast in their own works and that He favors those who humbly submit themselves to Him in recognition of how lost they are and how much they need His forgiveness.