The Word: John 7:50—8:11
Our future is more important to Jesus than our past.
Think back to your childhood. Think about one of the earliest memories you have of knowing right from wrong…and choosing the wrong.
How did you feel when your sin was discovered?
How did the adults in your life respond?
Perhaps you were shamed and belittled. How did that response impact both your sense of self and your future behavior?
If, rather, forgiveness and mercy were extended to you, how did you experience your re-inclusion into your community?
In today’s infamous story, a woman is caught in the sin of adultery and the religious leaders are caught in their sin of merciless judgment and hypocrisy. Jesus offers a two-fold response to sin: forgiveness followed by an invitation to walk forward into new life.
To preface today’s lesson, read John 7:1-49. John 7 reports the controversy Jesus stirred up by visiting Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Tabernacles. He attended secretly because the authorities there were making plans to have Him executed. Ordinary Jews were quietly divided as to whether He was “a good man” (v. 12) or a deceiver. “Halfway through the festival” (v. 14), Jesus publicly entered the temple courts and began to teach.
Some were amazed by His teaching ability, despite His lack of rabbinic training. Some thought He was “demon-possessed” (v. 20). Some decided He might be “the Prophet” (v. 40) who would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, and others that He might be “the Messiah” himself (vv. 26, 31, 41). Still others dismissed this as unlikely, since they knew where He came from (v. 27). The Scriptures had predicted the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (see Mic. 5:2), not from Galilee (John 7:41-42). They did not know as much as they thought they did!
Jesus’ implicit claim that God had sent Him (vv. 28-29) prompted the Jewish religious authorities to try to seize Him. Yet, even the temple guards they sent to arrest Him were so impressed by His teaching that they returned to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed (v. 45).
A. Jesus’ Mixed Reception (Read John 7:50-52)
Nicodemus appears for a second time in the story of Jesus after his original nighttime visit reported in chapter 3. He reappears a third time in connection with Jesus’ burial (19:39).
Nicodemus posed a rhetorical question that suggested to his colleagues that he had sympathies for Jesus (19:38-39). His fellow Pharisees had expressed contempt for the Jewish crowds for their ignorance of the law (7:49). Nicodemus’s question indirectly challenged them to follow the law’s guidance (see Deut. 1:16; 17:4; 19:18) and give Jesus a fair hearing.
Their mocking reply to Nicodemus displayed their false logic. Ignoring his argument, they instead cast aspersions on his person. They maligned him for his alleged Galilean geographical origins and incompetence as a Bible scholar.
B. The Trap (Read John 7:53—8:6a)
The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53—8:11. Sometime during the fifth century AD, it found its familiar home in John 7:53—8:11. We can be grateful for the persistent scribes who refused to allow this compelling account to remain homeless. Although it seems certain that this was not an original part of John’s gospel, most scholars are convinced that it recounts a true incident in the life and ministry of Jesus.
When everyone else went home, . . . Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. During Jesus’ stays in Jerusalem, He and His disciples may have camped overnight under the olive trees in a garden there (18:1-2; Luke 21:37—22:6, 39).
That the teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought only the woman caught in adultery to Jesus illustrates the double standard regularly applied in male-dominated societies. The religious leaders made a spectacle of the woman, putting her alone on display in the middle of the crowd gathered around Jesus. By using her as merely an object for debate, they further dehumanized her.
Addressing Jesus as Teacher, they informed Him of the charges: This woman was caught in the act of adultery. The charge of adultery could not be raised by unfounded suspicions based on an alleged compromising situation. At least two witnesses (Deut. 17:6) supposedly saw this engaged or married woman having intercourse with a man other than her husband.
The woman’s accusers inaccurately reported the Law of Moses concerning such extramarital affairs. According to Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22-24, both the man and the woman were to be put to death. Stoning was the prescribed mode of execution only when an engaged woman had sex with a man other than her fiancé.
The scribes and Pharisees invited Jesus to serve as her judge. Their question, “Now what do you say?” urged Him to pronounce her sentence. They were clearly not seeking justice, but justification for a public lynching without a trial. However, neither the woman nor her sin was the issue. She was merely a convenient tool in their scheme to trap Jesus in order to have a basis for accusing him. Roman law did not allow the death penalty for adultery, whereas Jewish law required it.
C. Jesus’ Response to the Jewish Leaders (Read John 8:6b-8)
Jesus’ initial response to the question of the woman’s accusers was to ignore them.
Jesus’ silence has not prevented interpreters from speculating. Was He merely doodling? Was He drafting notes outlining relevant Scripture passages? Perhaps, “Do not help a guilty person by being a malicious witness” (Deut. 23:1). Or, “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death” (Exod. 23:7). Was He listing the hidden sins of the woman’s accusers? Did He write, “Where’s the guilty man?” No one knows why Jesus did what He did.
Since the religious authorities kept on questioning him, Jesus stood and addressed them directly, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” According to Deuteronomy 13:9 and 17:7, witnesses to a capital crime were to warn the wrongdoers before they carried out their sinful act. Only if they did were they to take the lead in carrying out the death penalty.
Jesus did not imply that those who administer justice must be able to claim sinless perfection. Rather, His question challenged the accusers’ use of the double standard to charge the woman, while excusing the man and themselves.
D. Jesus’ Response to the Woman (Read John 8:9-11)
The accusing mob gradually dispersed, the older ones first. Many manuscripts add the explanation why: They were “convicted by their own conscience” (KJV, emphasis added). Apparently, the huge crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus’ teaching (see v. 2) also left the scene. For, when the dust cleared, only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
Once again, Jesus stood to address the woman directly, exactly as He had done to address her accusers (see v. 7). So far in the narrative, people had only talked about her. Jesus, however, treated her as fully equal. He first asked her a question and then spoke as pointedly to her about her sin as He had to her accusers about theirs. He invited both them and her to leave their present lives and begin a new kind of life.
The NIV translation of Jesus’ parting command, “Go now and leave your life of sin,” implies that she was habitually sexually immoral. However, this implication is not in the original Greek. The NRSV translation is more accurate: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (see also NASB, ESV, KJV).
We easily find ourselves in this story. We have been the woman—our sin found out for others to see. But we have also likely been the religious leaders, incensed by the sins of others and unwilling to acknowledge our own hypocrisy. We are trapped by the events of the past, defined by our sin. Only Jesus can break into the bleakness of our sin and hardened hearts and offer us a path to freedom. It cannot come through by policing the behavior of others. Freedom comes when we honestly acknowledge our sin, reject our former way of life, and walk forward in humble, trusting obedience.
Nicodemus vacillates between speaking up and remaining silent. What does our silence in the face of injustice reveal about our hearts?
The religious leaders are so consumed by their need to silence Jesus that they disregard the law they claim to love. In what ways can we be blinded by our own agenda that we end up working against God’s redemptive purposes?
The woman was silenced by shame and fear for her future, until Jesus silenced her accusers and invited her to go a new way.
What would it look like to accept Jesus’ gift of the refusal to condemn us and walk freely into the future, committed to leaving the sins of the past behind?
How can we lead with love, rather than condemnation, when it comes to the sins of others?
Now may the Grace of God, the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit, and the Love of God be with you all! Amen.
Material for this lesson is found in:
Faith Connections Leaders Guide Spring 20
Illustrated Bible Life Spring 20
Holy Bible (various translations)