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 (Mt 5:17-19) Court is adjourned, not because God’s Law is obsolete, but because the community has opted out: there’s no one left to carry out the sentence.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.