As Jesus is teaching in the temple early one morning, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Him that they’ve captured in the very act of adultery. (Jn 8:2-3a) They set her down before the crowd, and start asking Christ if He’ll honor the Mosaic Law (Jn 8:4-5), which requires her to be stoned to death. (De 22:22)
Their motive in doing so is to accuse Him (Jn 8:6a); they’re setting a trap: if He sides with the woman, then the people will recognize He can’t be their Messiah (Is 8:20); yet if He sides with Moses, He’ll be in trouble with Rome. (Jn 18:31) No matter what Christ does, they think they have Him.
But Christ doesn’t answer them; He stoops down, ignoring their question, and begins writing with His finger in the dust on the temple pavement. (Jn 8:6b) His enemies, evidently energized by the thought of finally stumping Him, begin pressing Him for an answer (Jn 8:7a)
But then Christ does something striking: He rises up, publicly invites anyone who is sinless to go ahead and throw the first stone, and then He returns to writing in the dust. (Jn 8:7b-8)
Christ honors the Law, but in a way that’s fitting for their circumstance: lawful subjects of a foreign civil power. God gave the Law to Israel to enforce as a sovereign community, not as individuals living under pagan rule. But a sinless person acting on God’s behalf should be able to call on God to rescue them when the Roman soldiers storm the place. So, Christ effectively says, “If you feel you’ve got God on your side enough to defy Roman law, be My guest: go for it.”
As the accusers begin contemplating what He’s just invited them to do, and also noticing what kinds of things He’s writing in the dust, they scatter, every last one of them, being convicted by their own conscience. (Jn 8:9)
Exactly what Christ writes on the ground is a mystery, but the narrative suggests that He’s exposing the sins of the accusers, how they’re all presumptuously breaking God’s Law, and are worthy of death. (Nu 15:30) After all, they aren’t even following this particular law that they’re asking Christ to honor: in their ploy, they hadn’t incriminated the adulterous man, as the Law requires. (De 22:22)
The fact that Christ doesn’t enforce Mosaic Law here tempts many to claim this as evidence that He came to abolish it and give us a better one. Nothing could be farther from the truth: He Himself says so, explicitly. (Mt 5:17-19) Court is adjourned, not because God’s Law is obsolete, but because the community has opted out: there’s no one left to carry out the sentence. (Jn 8:10-11a)
Christ’s wisdom here lies in the fact that lawful punishment must only be carried out by recognized civil authority. Christ Himself is not obligated, as a single individual under Roman civil law, to enforce it, and He chooses not to. (Jn 8:11b) It’s the prudent choice, a testament to His infinite wisdom and discernment.
One thought on “Jesus Stooped Down”
John 8 is often used to show that Jesus was not in favor of enforcing capital punishment and also that Torah is not the Law of Love. It’s a favorite of those who seek to disannul Torah in general.
The important point to note here is that it was not lawful for the Jewish people to execute anyone; the Pharisees pointed this out when Pilate told them to judge Christ on their own. (Jn 18:31) The Jews were not in civil authority in that culture, Rome was, so they did not have God’s authority to take a life.
What the Pharisees were doing in this temptation was pitting Christ against either Torah or Rome, in a way that they thought forced Him to choose between the two and be loyal to one or the other, but not both. If He decided against stoning then He would be abolishing Torah, and if He went ahead with it then He would be in trouble with Rome. It was a no-win predicament for Christ.
The fact that Christ did not choose either one explicitly, but sided with Torah under the condition that the person who began the execution was sinless, and therefore in a good place to lead the people in regaining their national independence and re-instituting a proper Torah-observing civil authority. This would be the ultimate risk and self-sacrifice to honor Torah, that a sinful, selfish person who did not fully submit to God and to Torah would be unwilling to undertake.
Further, the fact that they did not bring the man who was involved in the adulterous situation and charge them both as Torah requires (De 22:22) suggests the entire thing was staged, that the Pharisees had set this woman up and tempted her in a way that was deeply unreasonable, and significantly out of character for her, simply to bait their trap for Christ.
What then do we make of Christ’s refusal to condemn the woman? Christ was not positioning Himself at that time as judge; He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. (Jn 3:17) His mission was not to enforce Torah, but to fulfill it and its redemptive promises. In that particular circumstance and context it was fitting for Christ to decline to condemn her. In doing this, He did not say it would have been inappropriate to do so, however, it would indeed have positioned Him against Rome in a way that was contrary to His mission. Yet it is important to note that Christ never did say that Torah was inappropriate, that it is not God’s eternal, holy standard, or that it is not ideal in principle for all people and for all time.
In my opinion, the story itself, particularly Christ’s response, is absolutely brilliant, evidence the passage is not spurious, but divinely inspired.