Note: this section of Scripture, sometimes referred to as the pericope adulterae, is of questionable authenticity. Whether or not the story is original to John’s Gospel, its message fits the character and wisdom of the Lord Jesus.
Self-righteousness is a sin all people are guilty of but often oblivious to in their own selves. Along with other important lessons, Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery exposes this pharisaical, hypocritical tendency in us all.
John 7:53—8:11 records the touching story of a woman caught in adultery. One day while Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts, some teachers of the law and Pharisees brought in a woman who they said had been caught in the act of adultery. Making her stand before the crowd, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4–5).
The scribes and Pharisees were hoping to catch Jesus in a trap. In cases of adultery, Jewish law called for stoning (Deuteronomy 22:22). If Jesus recommended that the woman be released, He could be accused of breaking the law or of treating the Law of Moses nonchalantly. On the other hand, if Jesus recommended stoning the woman, He would be breaking Roman law, bringing on the wrath of the government and giving the Jewish leaders occasion to accuse Him. The Jewish leaders cared nothing for true justice, evidenced by the fact they only brought the adulterous woman; justice would naturally demand that the adulterous man face the same treatment.
Instead of stepping into their legalistic snare, Jesus silently stooped down and began tracing His finger in the sand. The Pharisees and teachers kept on questioning Him until He finally stood and said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Jesus’ response flawlessly preserved both Roman and Jewish law while uncovering the evil intentions in the hearts of the woman’s accusers.
Bending down again, Jesus returned to writing on the ground. One by one, the accusers walked away until Jesus and the woman were left alone. Unlike the Pharisees who had no regard for the woman’s life or well-being, Jesus now cared for her most pressing needs. He did not condemn the woman but extended grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Jesus asked the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t any of them condemn you?”
“No, Lord,” the woman answered.
Jesus reassured her with words of grace and truth: “Then neither do I condemn you. . . . Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). With her guilt and shame addressed, Jesus now offered her a new life. Forgiveness (“Go now”) should lead to holiness and newness of life (“Leave your life of sin”).
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the story of the woman caught in adultery is how skillfully it illustrates the harmony of justice and mercy in Christ’s salvation. God pronounces judgment on sin but provides a way to escape condemnation (Romans 3:23; 8:1). Jesus does not encourage the sin, but He loves the sinner. The Lord silences the critics of this world while healing hearts that are burdened with guilt and shame. God never treats sin casually but calls sinners to turn away from their old, corrupt way of life (Ephesians 4:17–24).
The incident of the woman caught in adultery shines light into each of our own hearts and exposes the widespread existence of sin. After Jesus prompted the accusers to consider their own lives, all of them dropped their stones and walked away, knowing they, too, deserved the same punishment.
This episode provides an excellent example for us to follow when we find ourselves reacting judgmentally or with an attitude of self-righteousness toward someone else’s sin. We must remember how much God has forgiven us and that none of us has the right to throw stones (Matthew 6:14–16; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:37). God wishes to reconcile the world to Himself, and Christians are called to be ministers of that reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).
God sent His Son into the world to save us from the condemnation we rightly deserve (John 3:17). This truth is perfectly illustrated in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery.