Does the famous “Woman Caught in Adultery” passage mean that not even Jesus will condemn sins like adultery or homosexuality?
If you can, take out your Bible and turn to John chapter 8 in the first verse. This is what is often referred to as the “Woman Caught in Adultery” passage. We’re going to read it.
Here’s what it says.
8 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came to the temple courts again. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The experts in the law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught committing adultery. They made her stand in front of them 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. 5 In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women. What then do you say?” 6 (Now they were asking this in an attempt to trap him, so that they could bring charges against him.) Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger. 7 When they persisted in asking him, he stood up straight and replied, “Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Then he bent over again and wrote on the ground.
9 Now when they heard this, they began to drift away one at a time, starting with the older ones, until Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus stood up straight and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She replied, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you either.Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
This passage is probably familiar to you if you’ve been around to church at all. Even in secular life, this passage gets tossed around. “You, who is without sin, toss the first stone.” That type of thing. This is actually one of the most mishandled and misappropriated and abused passages in the whole Bible. There are quite a few others but this one actually does a lot of damage due to misunderstanding it.
The Passage Isn’t In The Oldest Manuscripts
I have four points I want to make about this passage. The first is that this whole chunk of scripture from verse 7:53 through verse 11 in chapter 8 is not in the oldest and best manuscripts. It most likely was not in the originals that were written. If you haven’t heard this before, you’re probably thinking, “There’s something in my Bible that wasn’t in the originals?” Yes! In the long ending of Mark, if you look in your Bible, you probably have a note on that, too. That wasn’t in the oldest and best manuscripts. These passages are generally included today for their historical significance not because we’re confident that they’re the inspired Word of God, automatically knowing that we need to take this passage with a rather sizable grain of salt. I want to address the content of the passage, still keeping in mind it’s questionable authenticity.
The Required Number Of Witnesses Couldn’t Be Met
The first point to make is that there actually weren’t any witnesses left to condemn her. Let me explain what this means. They came to Jesus and said, “According to the Mosaic law, this woman’s been caught in adultery. We can stone her and we must stone her.” Here’s where they’re most likely quoting from in Deuteronomy 19:15. “If a man is caught having sexual relations with a married woman, both the man who has sexual relations with the woman and the woman herself must die. In this way, you will purge the evil from among you.” There is a prescription for death for adultery. However, at the end of this whole thing, when Jesus said, “Where are they to condemn you?” and she said, “There’s no one left”, and He says, “I don’t condemn you either”, He actually could not condemn her under the Mosaic law.
The reason for this is found in Deuteronomy 19:15. “A single witness may not testify against another person for any trespasser sin that he commits. A matter must be legally established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Those witnesses were gone. They had left slowly, starting with the oldest and going to the youngest. They had left. Even if Jesus had wanted to condemn her, which we’ll get to in a minute, He couldn’t have under the the Mosaic law. That’s the first point. There were not witnesses left to actually speak against her. They’d all turned and walked away.
Where Was The Man?
The next point we need to consider is where was the person that she was having sex with, that she was committing adultery with. The passage says that she was caught in the very act of adultery. That’s not something you do by yourself. Where was the man that she was with? He wasn’t there either. You’ll note that passage we just read said, “If a man is caught having sexual relations with a married woman, both of them must be put to death.” This is starting to seem a little fishy. The woman’s there but she and the man would’ve been discovered at the same time so where’s the man?
Possibly, he’s in the crowd condemning her. That’s just a guess but at the very least, he’s not there. It wouldn’t take being God to know that this is a set up and was starting to smell fishy. This is not His first encounter with the Pharisees trying to trap Him. Indeed, that’s what the author of this section says. They we’re trying to entrap Him. It wouldn’t take someone being God to know that, but Jesus is God and was God then and knows that they’re trying to entrap him. Since that’s the case, He’s in this difficult situation because, if He allows the woman to be stoned and supports it, then He’s actually supporting sin in a way. Let me explain that to you.
Their Condemnation of the Woman Was Rooted in Sin
The Pharisees were trying to arrange for this woman’s murder. That’s really what this is. They’re trying to test Jesus but they’re thinking He is going to have to affirm the Mosaic law and put her to death. They want this woman to die so they can have Jesus be the one killing her or at least being in favor of her death. That’s one act of sin. They’re wanting this woman to be killed but the other act is they’re trying to trick God. I don’t know where that falls on the spectrum of sins but that can’t be just a petty little one — trying to literally trick and pull the wool over God’s eyes. That’s what they’re doing. They’re trying to say they’re following the law, but what is their heart doing? It’s actually in the very process of lawbreaking. Their intent and their mindset and all of that is set on evil but their actions or at least how their actions are portrayed are seeming to be law-fulfilling.
We can see this in a couple of ways. One, they’re trying to have her put to death without her partner there. That just screams of impropriety and not fair treatment under the law. Like I said, they’re also trying to trick Jesus. He’s in an interesting situation. You’ll note He doesn’t ever condone her sin. In fact, by telling her to, “Go and sin no more”, He is saying that this was sin and you need to turn from that. What we need to understand is that just because Jesus didn’t come straight out and condemn her sin, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sin. Jesus spoke against adultery before.
In fact, He upped the ante on the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “You’ve heard that to commit adultery is sin but I say if you look at a woman to lust after her, you’ve committed adultery with her in your heart.” We can’t say that Jesus just goes easy on sin. Not at all. In fact, that is the largest problem with this passage. When people come to it, they say, “Look. Jesus didn’t condemn sin so we shouldn’t either.” You automatically have a large issue because now, how do you reconcile all of the passages in the New Testament, especially the ones with Jesus, where He’s condemning sin? You can’t. You have created a chasm in the middle of scripture.
What we have to say is there is a way to harmonize these passages because you’re left with a problem not just in Jesus writings. You have Galatians 6:1, “If someone’s discovered in sin, you who are spiritual help restore the person.” You have Matthew 18 where Jesus says, “If you’re brother sins, go and show him his fault.” That requires judging. Matthew 7, Jesus says, “Don’t judge hypocritically.” It doesn’t just start with two words “don’t judge”. It says, “By the standard you judge others, you will be judged also.” Don’t be sinning in your very act of judging. I think that’s actually what’s happening here in John chapter 8. These Pharisees, by their purported and seeming righteousness in judging, are actually sinning in what they’re trying to accomplish: this woman’s death and the tricking of God. That is an inappropriate type of judging.
Bad applications from this passage would be something like … We can’t say that sexual sin is sin because Jesus didn’t say it there. We have other examples of Jesus saying it. We have other places in the Bible where these things are said to be sin. Also, if we’re only going to look at the words of Jesus as being authoritative, then we have a very low view of scripture. The Bible itself says that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training and righteousness, that we can be equipped for every good work. It’s not just the words of Jesus that are important. The words of Jesus are just as important as the words of Paul because ultimately, it is God speaking through Paul. When we take this John 8 passage and elevate it above others, we have a large problem. One, it wasn’t in the originals. Two, it creates numerous problems with harmonizing the New Testament. Three, it just blatantly shows a low view of scripture.
I hope you’re now a little more equipped to talk about John 8 and be a little more careful when you hear someone else talking or speaking out of this passage. It doesn’t mean that God is not going to condemn sin by any means. It doesn’t mean that we are not to call sin “sin” when we see it. When you look at what’s currently happening in America with Planned Parenthood and babies are being killed and mutilated and sold for parts, it is a righteous thing to call that evil. The day we lose “evil” from our vocabulary will be one of the largest setbacks we could ever experience as a people. We must call sin “sin”. Sometimes, that requires telling the people doing the sin that it is sin. The most loving thing you could ever do for your brother in Christ is to tell him, “You are sinning here. I don’t say that out of judgment. I say that out of loving concern.” Ultimately as Christians, we should want people to point out the sin in our life so we can fix it.
The last example of this I will leave you with is Paul writing in Galatians. He writes publicly to the Galatians about how he publicly called out Peter for his hypocrisy. Peter was acting in a way that did not represent the gospel well. I think after looking at this passage and studying it, that after Paul confronted Peter, Peter would’ve been the first one to want this to be a public thing. He would want to correct his problem publicly. He would want to teach something about the gospel that is correct, publicly.
When we hold onto our sin and we keep it close to us, it holds power over us because we were afraid of what other people will think. When we live openly and transparently, sin holds no power over us like it shouldn’t anyway, because Christ ultimately paid for all of that sin on the cross. Because of that, we can live victorious lives as Christians who have power over sin not because of ourselves but because of what Christ did for us. That doesn’t mean that there is isn’t a war with sin. The longer you’re a Christian – the more mature in Christ you become – It’s not that you struggle less with sin. It’s that you struggle more with it. The mature Christian’s life is marked by a greater struggle with sin than the immature Christian. We become more sensitized to what sin is. We care more about defeating it in our life through the power of the Spirit. All of that would make no sense if we took John 8, a passage of questionable authenticity, to say that we can’t point out sin.
Paul tells us in First Corinthians 5 and 6 that God will judge those outside of the Church. That is true. The Christian’s job is not to judge the non-Christian but Paul also says in First Corinthians 5 and 6 that the Christian’s job is to judge those in the Church. The Church takes care of itself. The Church puts the purity of the Church above personal pride. It is a sign of personal maturity to be able to make refined distinctions, to judge well and not judge hypocritically, to check ourselves and our spirit before we point out the wrong doing of others. Not because we’re better than them but we care about them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
I hope this podcast and some of the others on these types of topics have prepared you to do just that. I hope to see you next week for Unapologetic.