Caught in the Act

John 7:53-8:11

Just like the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, this story gives us one of those intimate glimpses into the heart of God. This is a picture of pure grace in action.

We need to start up front by noticing that your Bible may have this passage blocked off from the rest of the text with the note: [[The earliest and best Greek manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.]] And while that is true, almost all scholars agree that though it was probably not in the original manuscript from the hand of John, this story rings true as a story that undoubtedly occurred during the ministry of Jesus. It has the marks of eyewitness authenticity.

Having said that, the passage begins with a contextual note: “Then each went to his own home. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.” It puts us into the context of chapter seven in which Jesus is in conflict and confrontation with the Jewish leaders who have decided that he is too dangerous to be allowed to live. The rulers try to seize him, but are unable to lay a hand on him, “because his time had not yet come.” Though they are sent to arrest him, even the temple guards come back empty handed saying, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”

Our passage this morning will give us a perfect example of how powerfully his words affected even the most hardened of hearts.

Let’s begin by reading the passage together:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and 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?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 7:53-8:11)

This story, much like the parable of the prodigal son, is a picture of what God’s grace looks like in flesh and blood. It is not some abstract definition, but a real life demonstration of how it looks when Jesus imparts this gift of gracious forgiveness. And also, much like the story of the prodigal son, it shows the kind of reaction that comes from those who hate the idea that God will forgive just anyone.

This short story really has three movements: the setup, the sinner and the savior.

First, the setup. And the setup comes in two parts. First, we are introduced to this intricately planned setup of the woman. John calls her, “a woman caught in adultery.” But this isn’t a coincidental happening. A husband didn’t happen in on his wife with her lover and run to tell the Pharisees. I know this because they didn’t drag the man before Jesus as well. If they were truly concerned about a law being violated, Leviticus 20 declared that the woman and the man should both be put to death, but only the woman has been brought before Jesus.

One can only suppose that the man involved was one of their own who set up the context in which they would conveniently find this woman who would serve as the scapegoat. I’m sure they sprang their trap and seized the woman early in the morning and dragged her from the bed half naked to bring her on display before Jesus. They wanted to humiliate the woman, but even more they wanted to create a dilemma from which Jesus cannot escape.

I also know that it was a setup because the accusers tell Jesus, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women,” assuming that they were all standing there with stones in their hands ready to stone her to death. But in the Temple courtyards, there are no stones laying around for people to pick up and use – they had to bring them with them. This situation is contrived and premeditated. The woman is a pawn, Jesus is their target.

We don’t know much about this woman, but we can imagine her shame. A group of men storm into the bedroom where she lies with the man. They grab her and drag her from the bed, frightened and ashamed and confused as she watches the man cloth himself and walk away. They drag her through the crowd who are listening to Jesus teach and make her stand before the crowd as they proudly proclaim, “we caught this woman in the act of adultery.”

David Seamans, a Christian counselor, tells of a young woman he counseled who could never get on with her life – never could open up and love anyone unconditionally. She told him how, in growing up, she could never do anything that pleased her mother, couldn’t ever meet up to her mother’s expectations.

She took piano lessons and worked very hard for one recital and her turn came to play and she was flawless. Her teacher leaned over and whispered, “You were perfect.” She ran down the steps of the stage to go sit with her mother, who was silent for about ten minutes, and then leaned over and whispered loudly, “I was so embarrassed. Your slip was showing the whole time.”

That was the mindset of the Pharisees – you could never measure up to their standard of perfection (not that they themselves lived it, but they demanded it of everyone else). You heard it in the demeaning words of Caiaphas back in chapter 7: “But this crowd that knows nothing of the law – there is a curse on them.”

You hear the arrogant and self-righteous hypocrisy of the Pharisees who see people as unworthy of their attention or mercy. But this story sets their judgmentalism up against the loving compassion of Jesus, who not only saw each person’s inherent worth, but also the worthiness of each person to receive God’s love.

You hear it especially in their question to Jesus: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” And John explains, “They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.”

You see, they think Jesus has no way out of their trap. If Jesus refused to confirm the death penalty, he could be charged with contradicting the law of God and would himself be liable to condemnation. If, on the other hand, he confirmed the verdict of the Pharisees, he would lose his reputation for compassion; and possibly he could have been reported to the Romans as inciting the Sanhedrin to independently exercise the death penalty, which was against Roman law.

At this point, Jesus leans down and begins to draw with his finger in the sand. What he drew in the sand is one of the great mysteries we would love to know the answer to. What was he drawing or what was he writing? No one knows and any guess is mere speculation. But I suspect it was something along the lines of his words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Mt 7:1-2)

While he writes, John tells us they kept questioning him, demanding an answer. Jesus finally stands and says, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then he stooped down again and continued writing on the ground.

Their inescapable snare has come back on themselves. Jesus has put the responsibility for their action back on them. He has not dismissed her sin, but he has put their own fitness for judgment in their own hands. Jesus has taken the letter of the law and transformed it with the heart of the law.

Now, I’m a pretty good guy, but if I’m honest with myself, I know I have feet of clay. And you wouldn’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface to expose my sin and my failure. And if I’m standing there with a rock in my hand, my knees just got weak and my face started to flush with shame. I’m no longer thinking about the sin of this woman, but my own. And I know that I’m certainly not the one to throw the first stone, nor the second, nor the third, nor any stone it all, and that stone drops from my hand and I turn around with my head down and start for home. And I’m not the only one. John says, At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

Suddenly, Jesus looks up and he and the woman are alone in the courtyard. And he looks the woman in the eyes and asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”


Jesus didn’t come to condemn, he came to transform lives. And I’m pretty sure some hearts were changed that day, not just the woman’s, but also those who came with hatred and left with humility.

And in his words to the woman, we hear the true nature of repentance. Repentance comes not with sorrow and regret, but with a changed heart and a changed life. Jesus tells her to leave her life of sin. Yes, she was a sinner. He didn’t trivialize it by saying it didn’t matter. It didn’t minimize it by suggesting it was okay. He called it sin, and he told her to walk away from it. It’s the same thing Paul says to us, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom 6:2)

Jesus loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us there. He calls us to leave our life of sin and experience the forgiveness and joy that comes to those who have closed the door on Satan.

You remember that great movie “The Field of Dreams”? It had something for everyone – for men there’s baseball, for women there’s Kevin Costner.

There is a moment in the movie where Costner’s daughter falls out of the stands and is unconscious and not breathing – she’s dying.

Out on his field of dreams is the 1919 White Sox. And one of the guys on the field playing had missed his chance to make it in the big leagues and had gone on to be a physician. Now he is about to get to relive his dream and get his chance to make it. He stands there on the baseline, knowing that the moment he crosses the line, his chance is over … forever. Then he says, “I wanted an extra base hit, but I guess I’ll settle for a sacrifice.” And he steps across the line and saves her life.

Isn’t that the story of our Savior who came down from heaven, laid it all on the line and went to the cross so that we might live.

 It was for women like this one that Jesus died. He died for people like you and me.