Early in His ministry, Jesus Christ highlighted a spiritual quality that would permeate the heart of those heeding His personal invitation of "Follow Me." He plainly stated, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matthew 5:7). He also stated at the same time that we should not be condemning of others (Matthew 7:1-2). It's easy to ponder such lofty ideals, but how do we maintain a merciful and uncondemning outlook?
Let's face the plain facts: We are far too often ready to point the finger at others for some wrongdoing, but not quick to judge ourselves first. An attitude of mercy toward others can flow from awareness of the mercy we ourselves need. Jesus was confronted by a situation where others were quick to condemn while not addressing their own sinful attitudes—and He justly turned the tables on them, literally saving the life of an otherwise condemned person in the process.
Let's consider what happened—and what our own attitude should be when faced with the sins of others.
Caught in the very act!
We start by joining Jesus early in the morning as He is teaching within the temple complex in Jerusalem (John 8:1). Just the day before, on the seventh and last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, He had stirred up the crowd by proclaiming: "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37-38). A springboard for this declaration was a ritual performed during the Feast—the water-pouring ceremony at the temple altar, which reached its height on the seventh day.
Many marveled at Jesus' words, in which He essentially proclaimed Himself to be the Messiah and the Lord God of Israel, the source of the living waters of God's Holy Spirit. Others, however, were offended and "wanted to take him, but no one laid hands on Him" (John 7:44).
Now on the next day, He is once again sharing words with an audience in the temple complex—this day being the sacred Eighth Day festival immediately following the Feast of Tabernacles.
It is here on a Holy Day, in a holy setting, that Jesus' enemies spring what they think is a foolproof trap to try to discredit and condemn Him before the multitude.
As Jesus is teaching, the scribes and Pharisees thrust a woman caught in adultery right in front of the gathered crowd (John 8:2-3). They proclaim before all that she had not merely been caught in adultery, but "in the very act" (John 8:4). This leaves little to the imagination and even less for any possible defense from the frightened woman.
They demanded of Jesus: "Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" (John 8:4). The poor woman was only a pawn in a greater game. Their actions weren't about punishing her, for John explains that "they were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him" (John 8:6, New International Version).
They had Him between a rock and a hard place. If He agreed that she should be stoned to death, He would be upholding their position and contradicting His reputation for forgiveness and compassion. But if He said she should not be punished, they would charge Him with contradicting the law.
Writing on the ground
While the scribes and Pharisees press their case, Jesus stoops down and writes on the ground with His finger as if He doesn't even hear them (John 8:6). Is it possible that Christ may have been sharing matters known but to Him, as the Son of God, about those with stones in their hands?
A further possibility is presented in our online Bible commentary notes on Jeremiah 17: "Those who depart from the Lord, 'the fountain of living waters,' shall be 'written in the earth' (Jeremiah 17:13). This apparently refers to being written in sand, which signifies no permanence at all—as opposed to being 'written in heaven' (Luke 10:20) in the 'book of life' (Revelation 13:8; Revelation 20:12, 15).
"Perhaps Jeremiah 17:13 explains why Jesus, after declaring Himself the source of living waters (John 7:37-38) and being rejected as such by the religious leaders of His day (John 7:45-53), 'wrote on the ground' when these religious leaders came to entrap Him the next morning (John 8:1-9)." Knowing the scriptural reference, these Bible scholars would have been very disturbed at Jesus' action here even if they didn't see what He was writing.
Christ then rises and utters one of the most memorable sayings ever spoken: "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first" (John 8:7). Jesus did not dismiss what the woman had done, but He focused attention on the accusers. Why?
Let's first understand that the One the Israelites knew as God in the Old Testament period was the same divine Being who came to earth as Jesus Christ (see John 1:1-14 and our free Bible study aid Jesus Christ: The Real Story). And He had given Israel a just legal system—that included executing adulterers. So what was the problem with the proceedings here?
One problem some have pointed out is that they did not fulfill the requirement found in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 that both the man and woman caught in adultery were to receive the same punishment. Where was the man? It's possible that he had escaped and was on the run. But since that wasn't mentioned, perhaps something deeper was going on. Perhaps those who stated such concern about the law had become a law unto themselves.
Or, as some commentators point out, adultery by its very nature is a private act for which there are seldom witnesses. So either this was witnessed by accident—highly suspicious considering the context and timing—or those "witnesses" were present and complicit in the act specifically to entrap Jesus, making them partners in the deed and deserving of the same punishment themselves.
Regardless, it's evident that these same accusers were guilty of offenses deserving death under the same legal system, since they were actively conspiring to murder Jesus (John 7:19, John 7:25, John 7:30). Even this very event was part of a plot to discredit Him and portray Him as lawless and worthy of death. So it was outrageous and hypocritical of them to set themselves up as judge, jury and executioners and presume to mete out divine justice on others. Jesus would not be party to this mockery of the legal system He had established.
After telling the accusers to first examine themselves, Jesus stooped again and continued writing in the dust. Scripture states that the group of accusers began to slowly melt away, starting with the oldest, until all were gone (John 8:9). In this completely unexpected turn of events, rather than the woman being convicted and condemned, these outwardly self-righteous men found themselves convicted and condemned by their own consciences.
A stark contrast in mindset and approach
At this point an amazing portrait is etched in word. Jesus gently inquires: "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?" (John 8:10). She responds, "No one, Lord." He then replies, "Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more (John 8:11).
From a legal standpoint, with no witnesses the case was automatically dismissed. The woman was free to go. But Jesus still had an important message for the woman.
Jesus did not dodge the subject of sin, for He mentioned it twice. He was well aware that the woman was guilty, but He chose to grant her a future. This was in no way "cheap grace" or winking at breaking God's commandments. In granting mercy, He did not lower the bar but raised it even higher by telling her to stop sinning—to repent and turn her life around.
He was basically saying: You have a second opportunity. I have given you a new life! Cease from the way of sin. I'll be with you going forward, but don't look back and find yourself once again where I found you. The "rivers of living water" spoken of by Christ the day before were swirling all around her at that moment.
What a stark contrast here between the teachers of the law and the One who came to clarify its intent. Jesus was prepared to forgive and restore the woman while still upholding the integrity of the law. Those who brought the woman forward did so hostile to Christ and with a preset attitude of condemnation in their minds and hearts.
Furthermore, their preconceived outcomes for the woman and Christ justified any available means to accomplish their evil intentions. Worse, these people stood guilty before the law themselves yet were quick to condemn others. Their inability to extend mercy to others or to see their own need for God's mercy was striking.
The choice set before us
The lessons for us today should be clear. Forgiveness and mercy versus condemnation and judgment is a choice continually set before us. The religious leaders of Jesus' day had elected to condemn an individual on the very festival days that were designed to remind them of God's personal deliverance from bondage in Egypt (Leviticus 23:22-23) and His personal redemption towards them to give them a future.
Rather than accusing and condemning others, we should look at our own spiritual state and cry out for God's mercy. And in receiving it, we should cease from sin and extend mercy to others. This does not mean that we should excuse sin in others. But we need to get ourselves right with God before considering the standing of others, as Jesus also said earlier (Matthew 7:1-5).
Let's remember another handwriting of old on a wall in Babylon (Daniel 5:5) that shook the audience of that day in saying, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" (Daniel 5:25), part of which Daniel interpreted as meaning, "You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting" (Daniel 5:27).
That message is not simply directed to a pagan king of old but is an ageless statement that applied to us before God's calling made possible a new life in Christ through His sacrifice.
Mercy is an incredible gift. Have you ever considered the difference between justice and mercy? Justice is what we squarely deserve for what we've done, but mercy is what we don't deserve and yet is freely given.
The story of the woman brought before Christ that day is in many ways the story of each of us, too. Just as that woman stood guilty, condemned by her actions and decisions and yet unexpectedly and undeservedly offered a new lease on life, so do we now face the same choice. What, then, will we do?
If we turn our lives around and commit to Christ's inviting directive of "Follow Me," we can experience more incredible handwriting not etched on a wall or scratched in dirt. We can have God's law written in our hearts and have our names inscribed in the Book of Life forever!
Let's be ever grateful for the mercy we have been shown and "pass it on"—just like it was given to us. You won't have to wait long for the opportunity in the target-rich environment of the people you encounter every day.