1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
1 Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 At dawn He appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around Him, and He sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 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. 7 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.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
The story of the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus’ wisdom in dealing with the trap set by the Pharisees is one of the most well-known in the New Testament. His words in verse 7, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” have been used and modified to varying degrees by believers and non-believers alike as a means of telling each other that we should not judge others. ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’ is just one example of how we’ve taken this incident and adapted it to teach some valuable life lessons.
Whether you are a Christian or not, you have to admire how brilliantly Jesus sidestepped the trap set by the Pharisees and threw the whole thing back at them.
Unfortunately, this is where many people stop, and they fail to see the two central characters in this story: the woman, and of course, Jesus.
Yes, we are given an insight into the wisdom of God in how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees, but this story is really a picture of God’s amazing grace.
A wealthy, but rather brash and stern woman went to a famous painter and commissioned him to paint a portrait of her.
She said to him, “And make sure that the painting does me justice.”
The painter took one look at her and said, “Madam, what you need is not justice, but mercy and grace!”
We all experience God’s grace in different ways, and it is impossible to perfectly define it in human terms, but a dictionary defines grace like this: “The unmerited love and favour of God toward mankind.”
A crucial word in that definition is unmerited.
Today we’re going to look at the famous story of a woman who was in desperate need of grace. She came face-to-face with her sin and with Jesus and was shown unmerited and supernatural grace.
It’s a story we all know very well – even people who are not Christians and don’t know the first thing about the Bible have heard about or understand this principle of not judging and casting the first stone.
There are three distinct stages in this account from John 8, and we’ll look at each of them this morning.
Let’s start with the confrontation in the first six verses.
It’s early in the morning, and the sun has just come up. A crowd of people gathered around Jesus because they wanted to hear Him teach. Jesus is seated, and although this might seem a minor detail, it’s actually quite important. The rabbis would sit down in the temple when teaching – it was a sign of authority – so from this detail we know that it wasn’t the early days of Jesus’ ministry.
He had already gained popularity and credibility as a wise teacher, but of course, this also meant that He’d already had a few run-ins with the Jewish authorities.
Then we have the religious leaders walking into the temple, and they interrupt Jesus by dragging a woman in front of Him. Verse 3 says that they made her stand in front of the group as they accused her in public.
Can you imagine how she must have felt?
John tells us in verse 6 that this was all a set-up. Leviticus 20:10 says, “If a man commits adultery with another man's wife - with the wife of his neighbour - both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”
So where was he? This whole episode had nothing to do with punishing adultery. It was a trap, but it was soon to backfire on them.
It’s actually quite a clever trap though. The Law of Moses specified death by stoning for adultery, but Roman law did not allow the Jews to carry out executions.
So in effect, Jesus was caught between a rock and a hard place.
If He doesn’t condemn the woman, He breaks the Jewish law. If He does condemn her, He breaks the Roman law.
The Pharisees couldn’t care less about the woman and the fact that she’d committed adultery. She was just a pawn in this game they were playing. Their purpose was to trap Jesus, and it looked like they’d succeeded.
For the woman though, there was nowhere to hide. She’d been caught in her sin, and was now confronted by it.
The next episode in this story is the conviction from the second half of verse 6 to verse 9.
Can you sense the tension here? Remember that there was a crowd of people there that morning. We tend to picture just the woman and the Pharisees standing there, but if you go back to verse 2, you’ll see that there were lots of people watching this.
The religious leaders have just put Jesus on the spot, and they’re all wondering what Jesus will say. They must have felt very proud of themselves.
You can sense their arrogance as they play their trump card in verse 5: “Now what do you say?”
But we see in verse 6 that Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, He bent down and started to write on the ground. What He wrote has been debated for centuries. There are different opinions as to what Jesus wrote, and here are some of the suggestions:
1. He made a list of their sins.
2. He wrote out the Ten Commandments, saying in effect, “Don’t tell me about the law. I wrote it, and I know each of you have broken it.”
3. He wrote down their names. Jeremiah 17:13 says, “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord.”
Whatever it was that Jesus wrote in the dust, it didn’t stop them. Verse 7 tells us that they kept on questioning Him.
As far as they were concerned, they had Jesus on the ropes, and they were determined to drive home the advantage. “Come on, you’re so clever. Now tell us what you think.”
Jesus then straightens up, which gives the picture of strength of force, and He says to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He tells them to go ahead and stone her, but with a crucial footnote.
Jesus upheld the standards of God’s perfect holiness but He also made it very clear that there was only one person there qualified to judge the woman. Only one was sinless. And with those words, Jesus made the religious leaders as uncomfortable as they had made the woman who was still in the middle of the group.
The Pharisees were never short of opinions and things to say, but now they are stunned into silence. After verse 5 they say nothing, because their carefully laid out plan has backfired rather spectacularly.
They probably thought Jesus was going to let the woman go, but instead He upholds the Law of Moses. Adultery is sin. It violates marriage. It destroys homes and it damages children.
Jesus doesn’t say, “You had better not throw stones at her.”
Rather, what He said was more like a command, “Go ahead - throw stones…if you are sinless.”
When a person was stoned, he or she would be thrown into a pit.
Then the victim of the crime would pick up a rock and throw it first. The others would wait until he threw the first one, and then they would all join in.
So what Jesus was saying to them was that they were welcome to stone the woman, but He threw the whole thing back in their faces by asking who was going to have the honour of throwing the first stone. It was a standoff, and no-one had the guts to make the first move.
Jesus then stooped down and wrote in the dust again.
And there was an awkward silence as He did this.
I can almost picture the Pharisees standing there with their mouths opening and closing, and no sounds coming out, because of their embarrassment and shame, so it’s probably just as well that we don’t know what He wrote.
And during this eerie silence, conviction began to settle in their hearts.
Now, just like the woman, everyone else has been caught in the act. Verse 9 says that they began to go away one at a time – not just the Pharisees, but the entire crowd as well.
They were finally convicted of their own sins.
It is always easier to focus on another person’s sin than it is to confront our own. But as all these people walked out one at a time, they filed out with shame on their faces, because they knew they were just as guilty as this woman.
It’s interesting that the older ones left first.
Is this because they’d had more time to commit sins and were more guilty than the younger ones, or was it because they were wiser and understood Jesus’ wisdom quicker? I suppose your opinion on this depends on how old you are!
But a more interesting point is at the end of verse 9 – the woman was still standing there.
If we go back to the beginning of the story, it’s clear that she was guilty of adultery. Her guilt was never in doubt - the Pharisees had made sure of that.
They’d set up their plan so that she was caught red-handed.
The KJV says in verse 4, “Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.”
“In the very act” means they weren’t relying on rumours or hearsay. This was not a false or trumped up charge. They burst into the bedroom, dragged her out of bed and frog-marched her straight into the temple that morning. Some commentators feel that in order to add to her shame and to force the point home she was made to stand there naked.
So she was guilty. There was no question of that. She could have, and in fact should have, left with all the others, but she stayed.
Why is that?
This leads to our third point.
She was confronted, she was convicted, and now we will see that she was comforted.
Have you noticed how little we know about this woman?
How old was she?
What was her name?
Was she gentle and likeable, or was she harsh and obnoxious?
As she stood in the middle of her accusers, was she softly sobbing the tears of a person crushed by her shame, or were her fists clenched in rage as she defiantly glared at those who dared to drag her to the temple?
The point is this - all we know is that she had been caught in a sin and was publicly paraded through the temple grounds.
And what makes this story so remarkable, is not the woman, but the way Jesus responded to her. And it is here where we catch a glimpse of true grace.
The central character in this story is not the woman caught committing adultery – the central character is Jesus Christ, and the way He treated her.
Jesus treated with her with dignity.
Everyone else had treated her as an object, speaking about her in front of everyone. They were prepared to use her just to get at Jesus.
But Jesus saw her as a person, a creation of God who possessed incredible worth. If you feel worthless today, remember that in God’s eyes you are of infinite worth and value.
Jesus treated her with compassion.
And Jesus gave her the precious gift of compassion.
Jesus treated her with frankness.
She had already been confronted and convicted by her sin. Now, Jesus is talking straight with her.
Christ-followers are to leave sin – we are to move on by following Him with our whole hearts.
Jesus treated her with hope.
She needed hope for the future. The phrase, “Go now” literally means start over.
Jesus looks forward, not backwards. He was ready to give her a new life, a new identity, and the power to overcome her sin. Jesus is not only interested in what we’ve done but also in what we can become. He loves us too much to let us keep living the way we have been.
The Christian life is really a series of new beginnings.
So how does all of this apply to our lives?
How does God’s grace impact us today?
That’s not an easy question to answer, because God’s grace touches our lives in more ways than we’ll ever really understand, but let’s look at those three concepts again:
Sometimes we need to be confronted, and at other times we are to confront others. The Bible says that we all have this responsibility.
People say that we have no right to judge others, but that’s not Biblical – as the Body of Christ, if you see me doing something that is not right, come and talk to me. If I notice that you’re involved in something that God does not permit, I’ll come to you.
As the Church of Christ, we are mandated and duty bound to deal with sin in the Church.
We’re not only allowed to judge, but we are called to, or even commanded to judge.
However, when we do it, we’re to do it with gentleness, with humility, and with the aim of restoring each other. That’s the hard part.
We’re not supposed to come with stones in our hands, but with grace in our hearts. But, we’re to do it.
Sin has a way of coming into the light.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can hide your sin you can’t. God knows about it already and others will eventually. So we need to be more severe with sin in our own lives, than with the sin we seen in others.
Conviction is good, not bad.
What we must understand is that satan condemns us because of our sin, while the Holy spirit convicts us of our sin – there is a vast difference between the two.
Conviction is God’s way of letting us know how much He cares for us.
Without conviction, we can’t change.
But it takes courage to face up to your sin.
We don’t like it when the Spirit prompts us to deal with sin.
But be courageous, not a coward.
The Pharisees that day had their wounds and their needs opened by Christ, but instead of sticking around to be forgiven and cleansed, they went away.
Don’t run away from God. Be like that woman, alone with Jesus. Do you feel like your sins have begun to control your life? Then face them - don’t run away from them. Cleansing and forgiveness starts with repentance – agreeing with God that He was right, and you were wrong.
Grace leads us to repentance. Romans 2:4 says “God’s kindness leads you to repentance.”
Aren’t you tired of living with your guilt and shame? Haven’t you had enough of trying to hide? Come to Christ and let His grace heal you.
Grace demands a fresh start. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or where you’ve been. You can have a fresh start. You can start over.
If you’ve made mistakes, don’t let them dictate your future. Make a commitment today, right now, to start over. With Jesus’ help, you can. It’s never too late.
It wasn’t too late for David. He wrote Psalm 51 after committing the same sin as the woman we meet in John 8. He’d been in an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. He’d even gone so far as to have her husband killed in a vain attempt to cover up his sin. But when God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David, he didn’t walk away. He was confronted by his sin, his heart was convicted, and he turned to the Lord for forgiveness. Psalm 51 is his prayer of confession.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus let the woman go?
After all, she was guilty of adultery, and because He wrote the law and was without sin, Jesus was qualified to throw the first stone.
She should have been stoned, and Jesus had every right to throw the first rock at her.
If Jesus cared so much about God’s law, why didn’t He insist that payment be made for her sin? This is the most important question for today.
Why didn’t Jesus condemn her?
He didn’t condemn her because He came to be condemned for her.
He didn’t just sweep her sin under the carpet, because He was anticipating shedding His blood for them on the Cross. That’s Grace.
That’s God’s solution for sin - not ignoring or minimising it, but taking it upon Himself. Jesus’ forgiveness of her was free, but it was not cheap. It cost Him everything, and that high cost should make us shudder at the seriousness of our sin.
In reality that woman was the one who was blessed that day.
Her partner wasn’t even accused of adultery - he got off scot-free.
The Pharisees left in a hurry so they didn’t have to face Jesus.
But at least she did not walk away.
Everyone else was a coward, but she was courageous.
When you think about it, she could have left, too.
While Jesus was stooped down, writing in the dirt, she could have slipped away, and He probably wouldn’t have stopped her.
But something kept her there.
Grace kept her there.
And you will find in your own life that when you swallow your pride, look Jesus in the eye and allow Him to look you in the eye, He’ll treat you with the same grace He showed to that woman – “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Homegroup Study Notes
Read John 8:1-11
The way in which Jesus takes the plot of the Pharisees and turns the tables on them is truly remarkable. The wisdom of God in this story is quite rightly one of the highlights of this event, but for many people it is the main point, rather than God’s grace.
Why do you think so many focus on God’s wisdom here, rather than His grace?
On Sunday we looked at this event in 3 different stages: Confrontation, Conviction and Comfort.
Discuss how each of these are seen in this story.
How do understand the difference between being condemned for your sin and being convicted of your sin?
How have you experienced God’s confrontation and conviction?
Despite the shame and embarrassment the woman in John 8 must have felt, she did not slip away with the rest of the crowd when she had the opportunity. Instead, she remained where she was until it was just her and Jesus left. This is a critical detail which is easy to miss.
Why is this so important, and in which ways are you able to identify with her?
How have you experienced God’s amazing grace?
Close by praying for each other.
Ask that God would reveal to you the things in your life you need to take to Him in repentance.