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“The Judge Who Forgives”

John 8:1-11
Bob DeGray
March 2, 2003

Key Sentence

The one person qualified to judge you is willing to forgive you.


I. The trap (John 8:1-6)
II. The judgment (John 8:7-9)
III. The sentence (John 8:10-11)


        Let me open with a brief account from the 17th century. After the English revolution a court siding with the king sentenced a soldier to be shot for his crimes. But Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, was arriving that day, and would likely be sympathetic to the condemned man. The execution was to take place at the ringing of the evening curfew bell. Cromwell had not arrived, but when the time came for the bell to be rung, the sexton pulled the rope and the bell made no sound. It was soon discovered that the soldier's fiancée had climbed to the belfry and wrapped herself around the clapper so the bell could not strike. As she was brought down, bruised and bleeding, Cromwell finally arrived. She explained what she had done, and as she had hoped, Cromwell's heart was touched. He said, "Your lover shall live because of your sacrifice. Curfew shall not ring tonight." In 1865 Rose Hartwick Thorpe read an account of this event and wrote a poem with the same title, which became famous. I tried to track down her source, and found online a church called St. Peter’s in Chertsey, Surrey, England, which still has the bell on which the young woman hung. I e-mail the rector and he confirmed that the incident is true, and mentioned that they still ring curfew on the bell half the church year.

        This story and the poem are memorable because they illustrate how, for the sake of love, mercy can win out over justice in the way people deal with each other. How much more memorable would be a story that shows the relationship between God’s mercy and his justice? It is just this kind of an account we find in John 8:1-11, an episode about Jesus as the judge who forgives. It shows that the one person qualified to judge you is willing to forgive you. Let’s set up the episode by reading John 8:1-6: But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

        Before jumping into the account let’s talk about it’s authenticity. This episode doesn’t appear in any of the earliest Greek copies of the New Testament. It’s also missing from the earliest Middle Eastern translations, and the early commentaries on John skip directly from 7:52 to 8:12 - of course they didn’t have verse numbers to tell them they’d skipped something. Manuscripts that do include the narrative often mark it off with asterisks or arrows, indicating hesitation about it’s authenticity. Finally in manuscripts where we do find it, it’s not in one place. Some have it at the end of John. Some put it after John 7:36. Some have it in Luke, in chapter 21.

        So is this an authentic account from the ministry of Jesus? Even critics admit that, though not originally part of John, it is probably authentic. C. S. Lewis observed that the detail of Jesus writing in the dust has the ring of an eyewitness. Other details in the narrative have direct parallels in other Gospel accounts. Even the setting and the type of confrontation depicted here can be found elsewhere. So the consensus among Biblical scholars is that this is a true Gospel account that got detached from the canonical Gospels and floated around for a while before landing in John.

        Who then was the author? Many would say there's no way to tell, but I think there is good evidence linking this story to Luke. First, it’s included in a few manuscripts of Luke. It replaces and adds to Luke 21, verses 37 and 38, which sound very much like John 8:1 and 2. Second, some of the vocabulary consists of words used only by Luke, in his Gospel or in Acts. This includes the words translated ‘early’, ‘all the people’, ‘appeared’, and ‘accusers’. Other phrases like ‘Mount of Olives’ and ‘scribes and Pharisees’ never appear in John, but are common in the other Gospels, including Luke’s. Finally, the story fits with Luke’s special emphasis on women.

        But if Luke wrote this account, why doesn’t it consistently appear in his Gospel? The most convincing argument I’ve heard, as one who creates text every week, is that it didn’t make the cut. Luke did his research and collected notes which he compiled into a full text, then he cut this episode out, because his account of the week before the crucifixion was already quite full. But this story was so compelling it survived as a separate account until finally landing at a suitable place in the Gospel of John.

        The episode, like chapter 7, is set at the Temple in Jerusalem, where the outer court served as the meeting place for many rabbis, a place to gather their students and explain the law. Because it was a public place, opponents as well as supporters of Jesus could easily come to hear him. One day, this group included scribes and Pharisees, a phrase common in Luke, but not used in John. The scribes were the recognized students and expositors of the law of Moses and acted as theologians, lawyers, and judges. The Pharisees were more narrowly focused on the practical attempt to live according to the law and their traditions. These religious authorities approach Jesus with a judicial problem wrapped in a personal situation.

        The woman they bring was ‘caught in the act of adultery’ - which means of course, that there was a man involved, but these religious hypocrites choose to focus exclusively on the woman’s sin. Maybe the man got away, or maybe she was set up: either way she’s being ill used by these self-righteous leaders. Their real interest isn’t justice but snaring Jesus in a trap, impaling him on the horns of a dilemma. This is similar to what they do in Luke 20 when they question Jesus about taxes to Caesar - they want him to make himself unacceptable, either to the people or to the Romans.


        Here the religious leaders cite Moses as commanding death by stoning. In fact, all adultery carried the death penalty for the woman, though only a few cases required stoning. But in many periods of Jewish history, including the first century, the death penalty was rare for this offense. These judges had given Jesus a case they themselves would have been hesitant to rule on, yet they phrased it so if he came out in favor of the woman he would be disavowing the Law; he could be dismissed as a lawless person and charged in the Jewish courts. Given his reputation for compassion, forgiveness, and restoration, I’m sure that’s what they expected. On the other hand if he came out in favor of the law he would appear harsher in the sight of the people than they did, and might at the same time get himself in trouble with the Roman authorities who actually controlled the administration of the death penalty.

        But we’ve seen in John that Jesus has a genius for avoiding traps and getting to the heart of issues. Here he turns the trap around and springs it on his opponents. John 8:6-9, 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. 7When 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." 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9At 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.

The initial answer Jesus gives is no answer at all. He simply bends down and begins to write on the ground. There has, of course, been endless speculation as to what he wrote. There are those who say that he wrote nothing significant to the situation - that he doodled or delayed in order to give his opponents time to think and hopefully repent of their cruel misuse of this woman. Then there are those who think Jesus wrote a Scripture - certainly an idea that has merit, since God does use Scripture to convict people of their sin. A traditional suggestion is Jeremiah 17:13, which says “Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” That fits not only the action of writing in the dust, but also the context in John where Jesus has offered a spring of living water to the thirsty. The second time Jesus stooped he would have written the names of those who had condemned themselves by turning away from him.

        Another Scripture suggested has to do with the charges that were being brought against the woman. Some have said that the first time he stooped down Jesus wrote Exodus 23:1 “Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.” and the second time Exodus 23:7 “Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death.” The weakness of this theory is that from everything we can tell the woman was guilty of adultery, so the charge, while cruel and abusive in its circumstances, was not itself false. But if we theorize, because of the absence of the male offender, that this whole thing was a set-up, then the woman was a victim of the conspiracy, and maybe those verses really do apply.

        Finally, there are those who say that Jesus simply wrote out the kinds of sin his opponents practiced. He might have summarized the ten commandments: idolatry, profanity, adultery, murder, theft, covetousness and so forth. He might have listed specific sins from elsewhere in the law, something each accuser knew himself to be guilty of. Maybe he simply wrote the two greatest commandments, to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. Whatever it was, it would be something intended to convict the hearts of those standing around.

        Nonetheless, the first time he wrote he failed to make an impression. His opponents kept on questioning him and in the end, Jesus had to respond. By standing he probably made eye contact with the accusers, which would have caused them to drop their eyes, in the same way his words were intended to cause them to search their souls: “if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 17:7, a discussion of the death penalty in which Moses taught that “the hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people.” The witnesses of to a crime had to be the first to throw the stones. By implication they can not have been involved in the crime themselves. This requirement was at the heart of the Jewish legal system.

        Many have felt Jesus wasn’t talking about just any sin here, but he was accusing each of these men of adultery, or at least sexual sin, which would certainly disqualify them to rule in this case. That could be; certainly theirs was a society like many, where sexual sin by a woman was more likely to get her into legal and social trouble than the same sin committed by a man. Jesus, trying to reach the consciences of his opponents, is simply pointing out the double standard. But I honestly doubt that all the men in the group were guilty of sexual sins. I don’t think even the Pharisees were that hypocritical, though maybe some were. I think, rather, that Jesus is asking them to examine their consciences relative to any grievous sin, especially the ones that he has just been writing on the ground. For some this would be adultery, for others it might be something as awful as murder, while for others it might be their flirtation with the gods of the Romans. Still others were certainly guilty of extorting the poor and needy, as the money changers and sellers of animals may have done at the temple. For still others it could have been the lies they told about their conformity to the law that weighed on their consciences. In fact, I think it was whatever burdened their consciences that was brought out by Jesus’ simple ruling.

        Having said his piece, Jesus stoops again and continues to write, giving his pointed words time to work. Possibly he continued to write sins, possibly he wrote names, maybe he added another verse or two of Scripture, but whenever it was, as they watched, they began to be stricken by shame. The King James Version reflects later texts which explain that they were convicted by their own consciences, but even if the explanation is a later addition, the fact that they were ashamed is obvious. Starting with the eldest, they began to drop their stones and walk away.

        This kind of behavior, coming from self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, is pretty remarkable. The Holy Spirit was clearly at work, though as someone said at men’s study yesterday, it’s also hard to maintain your innocence when you are standing in the presence of a Holy God. On a thought level they must have recognized the truth that as sinners themselves, they were in no position to judge this sinful woman. They do not meet the requirements of a just judge - that he be free from the guilt of the crime he is judging. All of them are guilty in one way or another, and as they recognize it, they leave. Finally, the ring of accusers has melted away entirely, and the woman is left standing alone with Jesus.

        How do we apply what we’ve learned so far to our own lives? First, we recognize that no one is so sinless as to stand before Christ and demand anything. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If these self-righteous scribes and Pharisees could recognize they were not without sin, it should be clear we are not without sin either. If you or I had been there we would’ve dropped our stones. I don’t know what your conscience would have said, but I do know that there are many areas where I struggle with significant sin and often I don’t do what I know to be right simply because I’m selfish. Don’t you have the same struggles? No one is qualified to throw that first stone. Soren Kierkegard, a Danish theologian, wrote: "No man who is aware of God's presence can regard himself as in a strong position to make demands. Once strictness gets started, God can always over bid him. If we shout a demand for justice, a voice from heaven will reply like an echo: ‘I demand justice’. Who is bold enough to think that he can pass this test? But if we fall on our knees and cry out ‘grace’, then the answer echoes back from heaven–‘grace’."

        This doesn’t mean, by the way, that people must never judge each other. The Bible is clear that there are to be human judges who make human judgments. Romans 13 teaches that one reason God established governments is to uphold those who do right and punish those who do wrong. Though often flawed, these judgments are supposed to be righteous; God has made it so that judges can approach righteousness even acting only out of common conscience and common wisdom. But this doesn’t mean individuals can pass judgment from a state of sinless holiness. That never happens.

        My second point grows from the first. As we read this story we must first put ourselves in the place of the accusers around the circle: we too have sinned. But having seen that, we actually put ourselves in the place of the woman at the center of the circle, one who has been caught in sin and is liable to judgement. We are guilty, and therefore if justice is really just we will bear the punishment our guilt deserves. The punishment for this woman’s adultery was death: but the Bible teaches that the wages of all sin is death - any sin. The just penalty for our sins and the rebellion they represent is death, which leads to eternal separation from God - eternal misery, eternal punishment. Like this woman, we have been caught in the act, for God sees and knows our sin. Like her, our guilt is clear and our punishment just.

        When I say we’re all sinners, do I mean we’re all as bad as we can be, all Hitler, all bin Laden, all Clara Harris or David Harris for that matter, caught up in the worst sins? No, I don’t mean that. What I mean is that if you seriously examine your heart and life you will find two things - one is a heart leaning toward those sins. Anger is the precursor to murder, lust is the precursor to adultery. Jesus says in Matthew that the sins of the heart are just as sinful in God’s sight as sins expressed. You’ll find those things in your heart. You’ll also find selfishness. I can’t tell you the exact form, but you’ll find many ways you put yourself first, in relationships, in material comforts, in identifying what you deserve. This self-centeredness is rebellion. It directly violates the two great commands, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and to love your neighbors. So we are guilty.

        The third thing to notice here is that there is one person qualified to pass sentence. Jesus, the Bible teaches us, was like us in every way, yet without sin. Therefore, when everybody else left, he didn’t. He never had a stone in his hand, but if he had there would have been no reason for him to drop it. He met his own qualification - “let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.” No one else who ever lived met that standard except Jesus. He is the one person worthy to pronounce sentence. In verses 10 and 11 Jesus does just that, but it in a way that is wonderfully comforting to all of us who have recognized our sin: 10Jesus 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."

        Alone with the woman, Jesus addresses her for the first time. His form of address, is not disrespectful. In fact it is the same greeting that Jesus uses in the Gospel of John toward his mother and several others. Notice he doesn’t ask her if she’s guilty, only if any of the others has condemned her. Her guilt is presupposed by the passage and confirmed in the final verse. But seeing that no one has condemned her, Jesus says “I don’t condemn you either.” This is as close as he comes to answering the original question of how to apply the law of Moses. In this circumstance, at least, no judgment is given by this judge, but by implication, forgiveness is offered.

        John’s gospel has already told us that Jesus did not come to condemn but to save. Luke, in which this passage may rightly belong, shows repeatedly that Jesus had the power while on earth to forgive sins, as in the case of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. Stop for a moment and think of how incredible this is. The one person qualified to judge this woman for her sin chooses to forgive instead. He had every right to stone or punish her in any way. Her sin was real, and her rebellion against God up to this point just as real. But in his mercy God through Jesus chooses to forgive. This is a tremendous source of hope for you and me. We deserve his judgement as well - we’ve already seen that. Far from being righteous enough to cast the first stone at sinners, we are the sinners. We deserve judgment. But we receive mercy. We receive forgiveness.

        We have this woman as an example for our hope. Jesus does recognize her sin, he does call her to turn away from it, but he doesn’t judge or condemn. And we can assume that her life is transformed by this gracious forgiveness. Anyone who has read the novel ‘Les Miserables’ or seen the movie can picture this transformation. Chuck Colson wrote about it once, saying “Imagine the police knocking on your door, escorting a scruffy ex_convict, whom you befriended only yesterday. As thanks for your generosity, the ex_con has stolen most of your silver. What do you do? This is the opening question of "Les Miserables," the magnificent Victor Hugo classic. The convict's name is Jean Valjean and the man he has stolen from is a bishop. But no ordinary bishop; he's a radical believer who takes the words of Jesus seriously. So when Valjean is dragged before him with the stolen silver, the bishop informs the startled police the silver was a gift. He turns the other cheek by giving Valjean a pair of silver candlesticks as well, then sets him free. Later we learn that Valjean had spent nineteen years in prison merely for stealing a loaf of bread, an injustice that left him deeply embittered. The bishop's act of generosity breaks the cycle of anger and sin. This is Valjean's first taste of grace, and it transforms him.” This was the woman’s first taste of grace and I’m confident she too was transformed.

        Forgiveness, which you and I can receive from Jesus, is an incredible, transforming event. It calls us from a life of sin to a life of purity. But the last question we need to answer this morning is ‘how can he do this?’ How can Jesus, as a righteous judge, choose to forgive? Doesn’t he throw the definition of justice right out the window if he allows sin to go unpunished? Should someone like a murderer who has snuffed out a life, or an adulterer who has ruined life for others be arbitrarily forgiven and let go free? How can Jesus be righteous and yet forgive? Most of you know the answer. It takes the rest of John to tell the rest of the story. You see, Jesus doesn’t just forgive, but as the lamb of God he bears the sins of those he forgives. He pays the penalty. He substitutes himself. He bore the shame of every sin we ever did and he took the punishment, the death we deserved.

        If the only sinner in the world had been this woman, Jesus would’ve gently led her outside the circle of accusers and gone in himself to receive her stoning. In the same way he took your punishment personally as he hung on the cross. He took mine. He suffered and died that we might escape death and suffering. There is no lack of righteousness here, for the same person who has the authority to judge and who chooses to forgive does so by offering himself to be punished. This is the wonder of this woman’s story - not that he doesn’t condemn her, but that he allows himself to be condemned in her place; in yours; in mine. Thus he makes himself qualified to be the judge who forgives. For her and for you and for me, because of him, ‘curfew shall not ring tonight.’