The Woman Caught In Adultery – Part 1

(John 8:1-11)

Legalism and the Rule of Law
Photo sourced from stock.xchng taken by Jason Morrison

This is one of the classic stories and discussion of the New Testament. The story of the woman caught in adultery has been spoken about by so many people, analysed and written about it seems there could be nothing new to take from it.

However there is much I believe still to be learned from the unfolding of these events for it shows the stark contrasts between the ways of man versus the ways of God. It is a powerful teaching worthy of review even if only for reminding us of the great gift of mercy, grace and love that the Lord has given us.

Legalism of the Old Covenant

Here we see a woman who had broken the Law of Moses and been caught in the act of adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought her to Jesus to test him seeking to find fault in him so they could denounce and arrest him. So this was their test, “Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” (Verse 5)

Under the Law of Moses a person caught and found to be an adulterer was to be stoned to death. There were no ifs, buts or maybes in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees. She had done wrong, been caught and should be put to death under the law. They approached the law from a black and white standpoint. There were no shades of grey, no mitigating circumstances and no reasons why it should not be carried out as stated.

But they also failed to see any compassion or mercy either, which was part of the law. Jesus pointed out this failing in Matthew 23:23 saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”

They failed in the law because they were only interested in the letter of the law. They were following legalism rather than the truth and faith of the law. They would argue the most minute parts of the law but ignore the spirit of the law, which was to provide a better standard of life for man as he followed God.

Adultery, the Worst Kind of Sin

There is nothing wrong with the law, but there is a problem. The law is perfect, but man is not. Man is not able to keep the law of God because man’s passions and desires drive him to break the law.

This was the issue with the woman caught in adultery, and presumably the man who was with her too. Their passions were strong and they sinned. Either she or the man she was with (or both) were married and they had defiled the law and bond of marriage by having a sexual relationship outside of their marriage.

The problem with adultery is that it destroys marriages. And not just marriages but all of the other relationships around that marriage. Friends are compromised (do they tell or not), children are harmed as the marriage breaks apart, families are destroyed and so on. As the ramifications unfold it is like the waves of a rock thrown in a still pool, reaching out further and further destroying the peace and the serenity of the pool as the waves wash outwards.

Nothing is more destructive and evil than the betrayal that destroys a relationship, especially a marriage. Trust is gone, faithlessness abounds, passions rise and turn to bitterness, sorrow, depression, anger and often seeking wrathful vengeance.

The Reminder of Sin

So is there anything wrong with the Old Covenant law? Absolutely nothing. The law is holy, just and good as Paul stated in Romans 7:12. If the law is used properly, guided by faith in God rather than legalism, then it is a wonder of insight, wisdom and provides many blessings.

The problem is that in the law we are being constantly reminded of sin. Look again at the scribes and Pharisees in this account who continued to press him concerning the fate of this woman in verses 7-9.

7 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.”
8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

Jesus asked them a simple question. And as they considered his question, each one of these men realised that they were imperfect and had also sinned. They recognised their own failings, and in guilt they walked away knowing they would be hypocrites to condemn the woman when they too were failures.

We do not know what Jesus wrote in the dust of the ground. Some think he wrote the Ten Commandments, some think he wrote the sins of the men, but who knows what he wrote. Whatever took place, it triggered guilt in each of the men present and they left. And to have triggered their guilt they must have remembered a law that they had broken which they recognised as sin.

This is the problem of the law. In it there is a constant reminder of sin. Paul states this in Romans 7 saying:

7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”


12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.
13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.

It is the law that condemns mankind and shows sin to be sin. It is the law that reminds us daily of our failings and weaknesses. Under the law there was forgiveness attainable through the sacrificial offerings, but even those reminded people constantly that they were sinners. The writer in Hebrews 10:1-4 shows us that the sacrifices were imperfect too for they only reminded people of sin but could not take away sins and could not perfect a person’s conscience.

1 For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near.
2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin.
3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year.
4 For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.

And this is where the problem in the law exists. It cannot take away sin but instead shows man to be sinful by nature.

The woman caught in adultery succumbed to her human passions and weaknesses and committed sin. The nature of her sin was such that under the law she was to have been stoned to death. But the best thing that ever happened to her was the scribes and Pharisees decided to use her as a test case to trick Jesus and He would offer her something she would not have got from her captors.

We shall discuss that in the next post.

(Photo sourced from stock.xchng taken by Jason Morrison)

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