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 Matthew 5:7Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
American King James Version×). He also stated at the same time that we should not be condemning of others (Matthew 7:1-2 Matthew 7:1-2 1 Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.
American King James Version×). 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 John 8:1Jesus went to the mount of Olives.
American King James Version×). 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 John 7:37-38 37 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. 38 He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
American King James Version×). 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 John 7:44And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him.
American King James Version×).
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 John 8:2-3 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the middle,
American King James Version×). They proclaim before all that she had not merely been caught in adultery, but “in the very act” (John 8:4 John 8:4They say to him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
American King James Version×). 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 John 8:4They say to him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
American King James Version×). 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 John 8:6This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
American King James Version×, 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 John 8:6This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
American King James Version×). 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 Jeremiah 17:13O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake you shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.
American King James Version×). This apparently refers to being written in sand, which signifies no permanence at all—as opposed to being ‘written in heaven’ (Luke 10:20 Luke 10:20Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject to you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.
American King James Version×) in the ‘book of life’ (Revelation 13:8 Revelation 13:8And all that dwell on the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
American King James Version×; Revelation 20:12 Revelation 20:12And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
American King James Version×, 15).
“Perhaps Jeremiah 17:13 Jeremiah 17:13O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake you shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters.
American King James Version×explains why Jesus, after declaring Himself the source of living waters (John 7:37-38 John 7:37-38 37 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink. 38 He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
American King James Version×) and being rejected as such by the religious leaders of His day (John 7:45-53 John 7:45-53 45 Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said to them, Why have you not brought him? 46 The officers answered, Never man spoke like this man. 47 Then answered them the Pharisees, Are you also deceived? 48 Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? 49 But this people who knows not the law are cursed. 50 Nicodemus said to them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) 51 Does our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he does? 52 They answered and said to him, Are you also of Galilee? Search, and look: for out of Galilee rises no prophet. 53 And every man went to his own house.
American King James Version×), ‘wrote on the ground’ when these religious leaders came to entrap Him the next morning (John 8:1-9 John 8:1-9 1 Jesus went to the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him; and he sat down, and taught them. 3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the middle, 4 They say to him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what say you? 6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the oldest, even to the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the middle.
American King James Version×).” 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 John 8:7So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
American King James Version×). 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 John 1:1-14 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shines in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
9 That was the true Light, which lights every man that comes into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11 He came to his own, and his own received him not.
12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
American King James Version×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 Leviticus 20:10And the man that commits adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.
American King James Version×and Deuteronomy 22:22 Deuteronomy 22:22If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shall you put away evil from Israel.
American King James Version×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 7:19Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keeps the law? Why go you about to kill me?
American King James Version×, John 7:25 John 7:25Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this he, whom they seek to kill?
American King James Version×, John 7:30 John 7:30Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come.
American King James Version×). 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 John 8:9And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the oldest, even to the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the middle.
American King James Version×). 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 John 8:10When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said to her, Woman, where are those your accusers? has no man condemned you?
American King James Version×). She responds, “No one, Lord.” He then replies, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more (John 8:11 John 8:11She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.
American King James Version×).
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 Leviticus 23:22-23 22 And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not make clean riddance of the corners of your field when you reap, neither shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest: you shall leave them to the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God.
23 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
American King James Version×) 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 Matthew 7:1-5 1 Judge not, that you be not judged.
2 For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why behold you the mote that is in your brother’s eye, but consider not the beam that is in your own eye?
4 Or how will you say to your brother, Let me pull out the mote out of your eye; and, behold, a beam is in your own eye?
5 You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the mote out of your brother’s eye.
American King James Version×).
Let’s remember another handwriting of old on a wall in Babylon (Daniel 5:5 Daniel 5:5In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote.
American King James Version×) that shook the audience of that day in saying, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” (Daniel 5:25 Daniel 5:25And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
American King James Version×), part of which Daniel interpreted as meaning, “You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27 Daniel 5:27TEKEL; You are weighed in the balances, and are found wanting.
American King James Version×).
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.