By Craig St. John
As humans, we are creatures who take great delight in finding fault in others. And we do this for several reasons. We love to see people screw up—we love a train wreck. They’re messy and disastrous, but they captivate our attention. We also love to gossip. When we see a flaw in someone else, we don’t keep it to ourselves. Where’s the fun in that? No, we expose these horrible people. We quickly text our friends. If we’re live on the scene, we set to Snapchat, or Instagram, or Facebook Live to broadcast the shame of these horrible sinners to the world. And if we’re not the ones doing the exposing, we still have a voracious appetite for getting caught up in the drama. We thrive off celebrity gossip, which is why the National Enquirer and Jeff Bezos are in the news right now. We pick sides in political fights and crave seeing the men and women we stand with own their opposition in rhetorical flame-throwing on Twitter as some scandal hits the airwaves.
As we hear about the mess going on with the top three state government officials in Virginia, the fact that they have wives and children never occurs to us. Or, when someone testifies before the US Senate amid confirmation hearings, we neglect the same reality. We forget that these people are fellow bearers of God’s image—sure, marred and broken…but so are we. Our desire for these dramas to entertain us or somehow substantiate whatever identities we’ve taken on gives us amnesia with respect to the fact that God loves, and Jesus died for, all creation. And we forsake the fact that, without being cloaked in the righteousness of Christ, we are as tainted as those we criticize, mock, expose, and hope to see ruined. For the record, my repeated use of the first-person plural, we, means I’m not off the hook here, whatsoever.
This phenomenon is our failure to do what Paul Miller, author of Love Walked Among Us, calls “beam research.” He’s referring to Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 7:3–5 (NRSV):
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the (beam) in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the (beam) is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the (beam) out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
Most of us are probably used to a translation that says “log,” as the NRSV actually does (also ESV), or “plank,” as the NIV does. But Miller prefers to insert the KJV’s choice of “beam” here. Whatever you want to call it—beam, log, plank, 2×4—you get the point. Jesus, in delivering his famous Sermon on the Mount, is telling us that we cannot justifiably judge someone for something small like a speck of sawdust, while we are blinded by something exponentially larger. We need to examine ourselves, conducting “beam research.” Are we perhaps equally or even more guilty of the same sin that we at least think we see in someone else?
Miller asks us a rather convicting series of questions as he explains this sort of research. “What bugs you about other people? Do you, in some way, do the same thing? For instance, does it bother you when you see someone insensitive to women? Have you ever been uncaring toward a woman?” And then, he hits us with a punch. “If you follow Jesus’ teaching, your attitude won’t be, ‘How can you be so stupid?’ but, ‘I know how hard it is. I do the same thing.’”
Specific to the poor treatment of women, we find ourselves this week in the passage known as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” from John 7:53–8:11, which Josh preached on yesterday. We’ll walk through and unpack the text briefly here, and then wrap up with some practical implications.
One preliminary thing to touch on is that most of your Bibles should have brackets around John 7:53–8:11 (which won’t be found in CEB, KJV, MSG, among a few other translations). If you have an ESV (or NRSV), you’ll see a footnote saying, “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text.” We don’t have the space to even summarize the centuries of discussion surrounding these various positions, but we’ll address a few items. While the ESV Study Bible takes the stance that this passage “should not be considered as part of Scripture,” it should be stressed that we would not be preaching on a passage across all nine Redemption Church congregations if we didn’t believe it to be Scripture. As with many matters, faithful Christians committed to the inspired Word of God can disagree on these less-than-clear matters. It is the position of this author that this text did not appear in the original manuscripts of John’s Gospel and that it was likely added by a later editor; however, neither of those claims negate the fact that the account actually occurred or that it is the inspired Word of God. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). The Holy Spirit can inspire both John as a disciple of Jesus and a later editor in the same way that several anonymous books of the Old Testament were inspired. Paul never wrote that all Scripture, or even a single book, came to be in a single breath. Nor must a text come from the hand of one author to make it Scripture. Whether something is written by John is not what makes it Scripture—it’s that it’s inspired by the Holy Spirit, breathed out to tell us something about Jesus, and for our own growth.
With that disclaimer out of the way, we can dig in. Many of you already know the story, and hopefully you have already read the passage, listened to Josh’s sermon, and also the podcast. Please take a couple minutes to read through the twelve verses if you haven’t done so already.
In order to better understand what’s going on in this passage, we need to step back a bit to see how it fits within what is called its canonical placement, or why, assuming this text was later added to John’s Gospel, it appears where it does. If you stop reading at John 7:52, skip the bracketed section, and then resume reading at 8:12, you will see that it still flows well—perhaps better than it does without the bracketed twelve verses. So, it’s important to look at all of chapter 7 as well as 8 to get a decent grasp on what was considered regarding the placement of this particular story and what we can learn from the whole of the two chapters.
Beginning in John 7:1, we see that Jesus was in Galilee, and his brothers (and probably sisters, too—the other children of Mary and Joseph) were headed to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths (something we’ll discuss in greater depth next week). Jesus eventually joined them, and midway through the seven-day feast, he began teaching in the temple. Verses 16–24 really set the stage for our present passage. Jesus told his audience that his teaching came from above, he spoke with authority, and he did not do so for his own glory. He then pointed out that none of them keep the Mosaic law. And then, verse 24 forms a good thesis statement for our present passage: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (NRSV). Jesus saw the woman caught in adultery, which unfortunately is how she’s been known since, with compassion and mercy—as his own creation, whom he loved dearly.
Skipping ahead to verse 37, we see that on the seventh day of the feast, known as “the great day” (NRSV), Jesus spoke about what is truly to flow out of the believer—not improper judgment or sin, but “rivers of living water” (NRSV), referring to the Holy Spirit. Life, nourishment, love for neighbor, and worship and honor of God are what should flow. But on this point, his audience was divided over what to think of him and his message, and those in unbelief wanted to arrest him, something the temple police could not bring themselves to do because of the magnitude of his words, which clearly upset the Pharisees, who had made up their minds without due process (contrary to Deut. 1:16)—something they also failed to do in our present passage.
Our passsge for this week, John 7:53–8:11, finds itself in the midst of this conflict over who Jesus is and what authority he has, despite what he told them as he spoke in the temple, and it’s also in the midst of the plot to arrest him. It begins with everyone going home and Jesus going to the Mount of Olives, one of his favorite spots, just east of Jerusalem proper, and then continues early the next morning, back in the temple.
In the middle of Jesus’ teaching, the scribes and Pharisees brought in a woman allegedly caught in the act of adultery, that is, a sexual encounter outside marriage in which at least one of the parties is married to someone else. Picture the scene here. Jesus was delivering what, undoubtedly, was an epic sermon, which was then interrupted by several men who brought the woman up to him, in front of everyone present in the temple—the NIV says, “They made her stand before the group.” I hazard to guess there was some force involved bringing her in and making her stand. The scribes and Pharisees addressed Jesus as “teacher,” which can also be translated as “master.” While on the surface, this seems to imply some level of deference, it is ironic, given that their entire motive was to question his authority and to substantiate an accusation against him (see v. 6). They told him that the woman “was caught” in the act of adultery. So, presumably, if this act even happened, someone, maybe her husband or the other man’s wife, walked in on them. However, they only brought the woman with them, and not any witnesses (see Deut. 17:6, 19:15), so they certainly didn’t follow any due process, as mentioned by Nicodemus (see John 7:50–51). Thus, she could not have legally been put to death, making their question to Jesus in 8:5—which was meant to accuse him—moot.
Another major point of concern here, perhaps an even greater one, is the fact that the death penalty for adultery under Mosaic law pertained to both the woman and the man (see Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22), but the scribes and Pharisees certainly did not drag him into the temple in shame and humiliation, with the intent to have him face capital punishment. To be sure, their primary intent was the entrapment of Jesus, but even so, they only sought to bring disgrace to the woman in their plot, which brings us back to Miller’s questions regarding being insensitive toward and uncaring of women. They saw her as merely an object, a pawn, for their agenda, with zero regard for the shame they made her experience as a result.
Next, we see Jesus’ responses, the first of which is nonverbal, followed by a verbal one. Pay attention to the verbs the author used in verses 6–10. “Jesus bent down and wrote” and then “he straightened up and said” (NRSV). The nonverbal response indicates Jesus’ unwillingness to engage in their charade in verses 4–5. We have no idea what Jesus wrote, though many have tried to speculate—an utterly fruitless endeavor that misses the point. In the first century Mediterranean world, an act of writing such as his would have been understood to be an act of refusal and disengagement. This refusal was recognized by the scribes and Pharisees, which is why they continued to press him in verse 7—“they kept on questioning him” (NRSV). Jesus again adjusted his posture to get back to their level. Jesus saw their self-righteousness and chose to hold them accountable for their own actions rather than dealing with whatever sin the woman may or may not have committed. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (NRSV). That was his only verbal response. He then returned to his previous posture and nonverbal response: “again, he bent down and wrote on the ground.” He was back to disengagement, stepping down from their level of fake superiority—and this second instance indicates that he was entirely done with them. One by one, they felt their own shame and conviction and left the scene, leaving the woman alone with Jesus. They knew their actions were equal to or worse than the alleged act of the woman, and, knowing the law, they knew they could face the death penalty. And perhaps shockingly, the elders of the community were the first to humble themselves.
Alone with the woman, “Jesus straightened up”—this time to draw more closely to the woman and engage with her—“and said to her…” (NRSV). He asked her to acknowledge whether anyone was left to condemn her. Her response is intriguing. She said, “No one, sir” (NRSV), but she could have said, “yes,” assuming Jesus might have done so. The text gives no indication as to whether she knew who Jesus was, though she certainly saw him come to her defense. She must have seen the warmth and compassion in his face. She must have seen a difference in the man Jesus from that of the toxic masculinity to which she had become accustomed. So perhaps she anticipated his response, “Neither do I condemn you” (NRSV).
Jesus acquitted the woman of her sin, whether what she was accused of or any other sins she knew she had committed, but he didn’t stop there. While he didn’t suggest any requirement for his acquittal, such as a “sinners’ prayer” (which is found nowhere in the Scriptures), he didn’t simply look beyond her past and present without focusing on the future. His ultimate desire for her is new life. “(F)rom now on do not sin again” (NRSV). Jesus freely gave her his forgiveness for whatever she may have done, but he also actually wanted her to undergo a lifestyle change.
Jesus takes sin seriously. Sin cost him everything, so he certainly doesn’t just approach it with a “no worries,” “you be you” attitude. He is hardly flippant toward sin. Jesus takes the law seriously. He did not “come to abolish the law and the prophets…but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17, NRSV). He does not have a laxed or progressive view toward human sexuality, but he is incredibly liberal with his forgiveness. He came to give us life—the life he intended from before time began—and that is the way he wants us to walk.
Moving on to what follows the canonical placement of this addition to John’s original manuscript, we see Jesus again engaging with the Pharisees. He told them how he judges people (see 8:15–16). His judgment, if he enacts it, is valid because of who he is. He again spoke of his authority, which was being questioned. Skipping ahead to verses 31–38, we see Jesus telling them who his true disciples are. “(I)f the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (v. 36, NRSV). This freedom is not only freedom from the penalty of sin (the women’s acquittal), but also from the freedom of the present power, and the future presence of all sin. But from the standpoint of the Pharisees, the discussion didn’t get any better. In verse 58, Jesus declared himself to be God (“I am,” cf. Ex 3:14). They were ready to kill him for what they, for one, perceived as blasphemy, but also because he had condemned them, and spoken of them as not being true members of the faith (see. 8:39–40).
Nonetheless, in our present text, Jesus was also hoping for and seeking renewal in them. He first had to show them the hardness of their hearts, asking them to examine themselves, urging them to perform “beam research.” This is something we all need to undergo, constantly. And the reason is twofold. For one, we need to examine ourselves to ensure that we are right before God (see 2 Cor. 13:5). Secondly, we need to ensure that we are doing right by one another. This is a both a vertical and horizontal examination. Jesus cares deeply about our new life with him, and he cares just as much so for how we treat one another. Our attitudes of superiority simply won’t cut it. We need to humble ourselves, perform “beam research” as an hourly ritual, and seek to love and forgive one another as Christ loves and forgives each of us.
1. ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).
Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in vol. IX, Luke—John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015).
2. Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., “The Gospel According to John,” in The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introduction and Commentary for Each Book including the Apocrypha, ed. Charles M. Laymon (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1971).
3. Normal P. Madsen, “John,” vol. 20, Basic Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994).
4. Paul E. Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014.
5. R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John, ed. Charles B. Cousar (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998).