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The Woman Caught in Adultery

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: John 8:1–11

Those who see sinners simply as people to be condemned and used are as guilty as those they condemn. Like Jesus, we should not excuse sin, but we should act with love and compassion toward those who need His forgiveness. An incident in John 8 highlights this perspective. 


Jesus is making an appearance in Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles. To say that His appearance here is contentious and chaotic would be an understatement. The religious leaders have carefully devised a trap for Him that they undoubtedly consider so clever that there is no way Jesus can get out of it.

The Lord has just spent the night outside the city walls on the Mount of Olives. In the morning He goes back into the city to teach in the temple, where a large crowd has gathered. It is here that the Pharisees and scribes spring their trap.

They bring before Him a woman they have caught committing adultery. And they say to Jesus, “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5).

This is shocking. They have hauled this woman into the temple precinct, having caught her in the act. In fact, the word John uses for “caught” suggests the men literally pulled the adulterous couple away from each other. And the tense of the verb suggests those who pulled her away are the same ones who are still holding on to her when they come to Jesus.

Now if you are like me, you are wondering where the man is. He must have been caught too, right? Well, he is not anywhere in sight. That leads me to believe he is a part of this plan to entrap Jesus. In fact, John writes in verse 6, “This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.”

If Jesus orders her to be stoned to death, He is going to be arrested by the Roman authorities for insurrection because Jewish people could not legally put someone to death without Rome’s approval. And if Jesus says, “Let her go,” He is violating the law of Moses and is not qualified to be teaching or to be claiming to be the Messiah. This is a perfect setup!

Before we jump ahead to the conclusion, just imagine for a moment this woman’s situation. She is being used by religious leaders who do not care anything about her; she is being publicly shamed as those in the crowd stand gaping and whispering and pointing.

Jesus does not say anything to her or anyone else. Verse 6 says, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” He just kneels down and scribbles something in the dirt. He then stands back up and announces, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7).

There is a deathly quiet in that courtyard now. They were not expecting such a response. Jesus is not dismissing the law of Moses, but by demanding that only an innocent person cast the first stone, He is putting the spotlight on the woman’s accusers and their evil motives. Then, “once more he bent down and wrote on the ground” (verse 8).

This is the only time in the New Testament Jesus is shown writing anything down. In fact, the normal verb for “writing,” graphō, isn’t used here; instead, a compound word that means “to record” is used. This same word is used in the Greek translation of Job 13:26, where it refers to “bitter things” recorded against Job.

So, what is Jesus writing? We cannot be certain, but I believe He is recording the sins these religious leaders were guilty of in their own private lives. They wanted to trick Him and expose this woman; now Jesus is exposing them.

They did not realize they were standing in front of God the Son, who knew every sin they had ever committed. He knows their violations of the law of Moses, and now He is effectively calling them out to give an account of their own sin.

Back in elementary school, I had a teacher in fifth grade named Miss Longnecker. And I remember getting into trouble in her class—more than once. Miss Longnecker had the practice of writing down my misbehavior and sending the note home with me. I was supposed to deliver it to my parents and have them sign it, as proof they had been told of my mischief. Of course, I knew I was in deep trouble when I got home. I only had two options—defect to the Soviet Union or take my punishment.

But then, I thought of a third option. I decided to forge my father’s signature. So, I got a pen and tried to write like my father, with a straight line for the letter K and curly swoops on the letter D in “Keith Davey.” I applied every ounce of skill I had at cursive writing. When I finished, it did not look anything like my father’s signature. So, I got a wet paper towel and smudged the ink so that it was barely readable. I planned to tell Miss Longnecker that it had fallen into the sink. I never was a smart sinner! I was caught, of course, and the punishment was worse than ever.

This reminds me of another middle school boy who wanted to skip school; so he called the school office that morning, and the principal happened to answer the phone. In his lowest voice, the boy said, “Tommy won’t be in school today.”

The principal was suspicious, and said, “May I ask who is speaking?” After a long pause, the voice replied, “This is my father speaking.” Tommy and I had the same IQ when it came to sin and rebellion.

Let me tell you, there’s something quite ridiculous about these religious leaders standing before the omniscient, all-knowing Son of God and thinking they can get away with their own sin.

What happens next is both humbling and encouraging:

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?” (verses 9-10)

Imagine this scene. The temple is silenced by the disappearance of her accusers; they have slipped away one by one. In the quietness of this moment stands a somewhat disheveled woman, shoulders stooped in shame, her eyes perhaps still filled with fear. Jesus looks at her, and she looks up at Him and whispers an answer in verse 11: “No one, Lord.”

Did you notice that? She calls Him “Lord.” She has seen what He scribbled in the dirt and no doubt is struck by His omniscience. She knows for herself now that He is the Lord. Jesus says to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (verse 11).

Don’t misunderstand; Jesus does not ignore her sin. He has actually come to die for her sin. And because of her faith in Him now, He forgives her.

But Jesus not only forgives her past; He also challenges her future. This is no easy forgiveness. He does not say, “It’s all right. Don’t you worry about adultery; just try to be more careful next time.” Oh no! He effectively says to her, “If I am indeed your Lord, stop living a life of adultery!”

Jesus gives her a choice this day: go back to that man and her old life, or begin living a new life as a forgiven woman. We have every reason to believe her life was changed forever.

Beloved, the same is true for you today if you have placed your faith in Christ. No matter what you’ve done, the Lord has forgiven your past sin, your present sin, and even your future sin. The Bible says that Jesus canceled the record of debt that stood against you—that record of sin He could just as easily scribble in the dirt at your feet and mine. Jesus died on the cross to erase that record of sin forever (Colossians 2:14).

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