Real Life is For Sinners
Background Passage: John 8:1-59
Focal Teaching Passages: John 8:1-11; 30-47
A Trap for Jesus (8:1-11)
The story begins with Jesus making an early morning visit to the “temple courts” in Jerusalem near the “Mount of Olives.” This episode followed closely on the heels of the events recorded on 7:40-53 where a large multitude had gathered to debate His identity. There was still a very large crowd of people following Jesus when He came to Herod’s Temple. John records that “all the people gathered around Him.”
Verse 2 also records that when Jesus arrived at the temple “he sat down to teach them.” That is, He assumed the traditional posture of a rabbi and instructed them in the Word of God and in the truths of His kingdom. Note how this scene is contrasted with His earlier address to the crowd in 7:37 where He “stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If any one is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.’”
In verse 3, however, we see that this wonderful scene of Jesus teaching the multitudes was rudely interrupted by sounds of a “woman” being literally dragged to Him by the “teachers of the law and the Pharisees.” These were the religious leaders and officials in Israel who “copied, interpreted, and taught the law” [Hendriksen, 36]. They were zealous for the outward observance of every detail of the Law of Moses and then some. They were, in fact, the archenemies of our Lord Jesus whose message of grace and mercy toward sinners was a hideous offense to their self-righteousness and external holiness. That they are here linked together in this diabolical scheme is “undoubtedly related to a common mentality” [Ridderbos, 287]. Interestingly, the outer courts of the temple where this scene is located was the normal “venue for many scribes to gather their students around them and expound the law to them” [Carson, 334].
The woman they set before the Lord had been “caught in adultery.” That is, this woman had been discovered in an unlawful and immoral relationship with another man. She, then, was in violation of the seventh commandment in the Decalogue, “You shall not commit adultery” (Ex. 20:14). Note that these religious leaders “made her stand before the group” of people who had gathered before Jesus. Every eye could see her and every ear was attuned to what was being said. Ridderbos is certainly correct in his assumption that Christ was being tested by the scribes and Pharisees in regard to this particular sin due to His “deviant attitude toward people like this woman and because of their own annoyance that such people listened to Jesus” .
In verse 4, the scribes and Pharisees make the claim that the woman had actually been caught “in the act” of violating her marriage vows, and therefore, sinning against God. They argued in verse 5 that the Law of Moses was clear in such cases as this: such a woman was to be stoned as commanded by the Lord. They apparently based this statement upon Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 which command the death penalty for both parties involved in the sinful relationship. According to these passages, stoning would be the prescribed punishment for a woman who had violated the sanctity of her betrothal or marriage. Note, however, that the man involved with this woman is conspicuously absent from these proceedings.
Yet, John makes note of the fact that their main concern was not to uphold the Law of Moses but to lay a trap for Jesus in order that they might have “a basis for accusing him” (v.6). Their question to Jesus in verse 5, “Now what do you say?” was, therefore, intended to make Christ appear to be an enemy of Moses. As John describes it, they were testing Him with this question, hoping to lead Him into sin. If they could prove His disloyalty to Moses He could have been ordered to appear before the Sanhedrin to face formal charges, thus effectively ending or seriously damaging His ministry. On the other hand, if He called for her execution He would have been in violation of Roman law that made it illegal for the Jews to carry out the sentence of capital punishment.
At this point in the confrontation, John observes that the Lord Jesus did a most unusual thing: He “bent down and started to write on the ground with His finger.” Thus, rather than answering their deceitful question, Jesus apparently ignored them by writing or drawing in the sand. Some have suggested that Jesus wrote down the names and sins of the woman’s accusers, or that He wrote down the Ten Commandments. Perhaps it is best, however, to see this as an action on the part of the Lord that completely disregarded the urgency of the situation. Jesus simply stooped down and scribbled in the sand “as one does when he is daydreaming, showing that he simply was not interested in questions such as these, for His purpose in coming to the world was not to judge but to save” [Hendriksen, 37).
Verse 7 tells us that the scribes and Pharisees “kept on questioning him,” refusing to be satisfied with His deafening silence. With this “he straightened up” and broke His silence with these famous and striking words: “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” This reply was based upon the words of the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:7 which stipulates, “the witnesses of a capital crime were to be first to turn their hand against the guilty person” [Ridderbos, 290]. But with the addition of the words “If any one of you” Jesus confronted the woman’s self-righteous accusers with the full magnitude of God’s Law. Only a sinless person could execute such judgment.
John tells us in verse 8 that the Lord once again returned to His kingly silence as He “stooped down, and wrote on the ground.” This strange action served to reveal to the accusers the unmistakable fact that they “were not fit to execute the very law which ostensibly they were so eager to carry out” [Hendriksen, 38]. The reality is that they brought this woman to Jesus while plotting His murder in their hearts, all the while acting as if they were shocked by her sin. Indeed, they were hypocrites of the highest magnitude for “the sin of the accused was as nothing in comparison with their perverseness” [Hendriksen, 39].
In verse 9, John states that the woman’s accusers “began to go away one at a time” with the “older ones” leading the way. Ultimately, only Jesus and the woman remained “still standing there.” With this, Jesus posed a question to her: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? (v.10). Her simple and contrite response, “No one, sir” (v.11), revealed her humility before God as a sinner worthy of judgment. Yet, Christ’s words—“neither do I condemn you. . . Go now and leave your life of sin”—reflect His full authority as the Son of God to forgive sin. That His divine condemnation did not fall on her in no way meant that He did not disapprove of her evil choices, but that He offered her a measure of mercy and grace that would transcend even her deepest sins. However, the offer of grace from the lips of our Lord was accompanied by the authoritative call to a lifestyle of holiness characteristic of those who are on the road of new life in Him [Ridderbos, 292]. Therefore, we learn that the only appropriate response to the extension of mercy for past sins is a commitment to “purity in the future” [Carson, 337].
The Test of True Discipleship (8:30-47)
Following Christ’s words to the crowd in verses 12-29, John observes that “many put their faith in him” (v. 30). At that point, the Lord turned and directly addressed this group of Jewish believers regarding the terms of true discipleship and service to His kingdom. Given the explicit charge laid at Christ’s feet by these same individuals in verse 48—“you are a Samaritan and demon possessed”—it would seem that we should regard this passage as a pointed discourse on the differences between saving faith and spurious, or false, faith. Carson notes that John has already surfaced this subject in 2:23 (also see 6:60) where “the many people who believed in his name when they saw the miraculous signs Jesus was doing turn out to have untrustworthy faith (2:24-25)” .
Christ announces to the Jewish believers that authentic discipleship is evidenced by perseverance or continuation in His word—“If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.” To “hold” on to the Word of Christ means to obediently order one’s entire life after it, while manifesting a humble submission to His every demand. It represents, therefore, a lifestyle of obedience in conformity to Christ’s revealed will. Here, then, Jesus is saying that saving faith is much more than a mere profession. It actually does something. The truth proclaimed and embraced becomes operative in the life of the believer in many observable ways. Furthermore, once the “truth,” or Christ’s teaching, is known and fully accepted, the result is the total liberation of the soul—“the truth will set you free.”
At this juncture we should recognize that Jesus is laying out the nature of Christian discipleship in such demanding terms because He is
never interested in multiplying numbers of converts if they are not genuine believers, and therefore he insists on forcing would-be disciples to count the cost . . . . The Evangelist includes all of this material not because he is trying to nurture the faith of fledgling believers, but because he is trying to evangelize Jews and proselytes who must carefully understand what faith in Jesus Christ entails. They, too, must count the cost, and John, like Jesus, must present the gospel in such a way that spurious professions of faith are soon unmasked before they flood the ranks of the messianic community with people who have never been born again. [Carson, 348].
In verse 33, the Jews “answered” Christ’s statement with a bold declaration of their own—“We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.” Rather than submitting to the teachings of the Lord, these shallow disciples can only appeal to their ethnic heritage as the ground of their salvation. However, to be a descendant of Abraham is no guarantee of salvation or authentic discipleship.
The reply of Christ, verses 34-38, is strategically designed to expose the paucity and inconsistency of their faith. Especially striking is the Lord’s statement in verse 37. While Jesus fully recognized that they were “Abraham’s descendents,” He also recognized that the Jews were poised to “kill” Him “because you have no room for my word.” The attitudes and actions of these Jews—they are not doing the works of Abraham—betrayed their identity as false children of the covenant (v. 39). In verse 40, Jesus pointedly states that these men have a father all right, but he is not Abraham and neither is he God Himself! Unlike the patriarch, they have “no real heart for God, no sensitivity to his voice” and, consequently, their true father must be another [Carson, 352]. Their deeds betray their profession.
In this section, Jesus spoke even more plainly to His accusers, and identified their true father—“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire” (v. 44). Since they are children of the devil himself, they are “unable to hear,” or rightly understand, the truth Christ proclaimed (v. 43). Jesus also declared that since their father is “a liar and the father of lies” (v. 44), they are naturally opposed to His declarations of truth—“Yet because I tell you the truth, you do not believe me!” (v.45). To the contrary, however, the one who is the real child of God “hears what God says” and believes in Jesus for salvation (v. 47). The fact that the Jews in this episode do not believe in Jesus indicates that they “do not belong to God” (v. 47). In other words, the true child of God is identified by belief. Those who do believe in Him are God’s children.
One: Justifying Grace—Carefully examine John 3:17-21 and Romans 8:1-4 in light of this story of the adulterous woman. What conclusions can you draw about the scribes and Pharisees? About the woman?
Two: Judging Others—Do the words of Christ in verse 7 mean that there is no legitimate context in which men may judge the actions of each other? How does this passage relate to the New Testament’s call to practice church discipline?
Three: Saving Faith—Both focal passages touch on the subject of authentic, saving faith. Carefully contrast the attitudes and actions of the scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish “believers,” and the adulterous woman. What can you confidently assert about the nature of authentic faith in Christ? What would you say is the test of true faith?
Four: Belief and Regeneration—Typically, people assume that one must believe in order to be regenerated. That is, that belief causes a person to be born again. Yet, Jesus seems to imply in verse 47 that the opposite is true—regeneration causes faith. Look again at Christ’s words in 6:37-40, 64-65 and 10:26 and formulate your own conclusions.