CONTEXT NOTE: There is a great deal of discussion amongst scholars as to whether or not the first 11 verses of John 8 are part of the Canon of Scripture. After consulting with our own pastor, and with commentators from every age of the church, I believe that it is part of the Canon, although it was not perhaps originally part of John’s gospel and may have been meant to go in Luke’s gospel, or may have been meant to be placed elsewhere.
Nevertheless, while men across church history seem to agree that this was not a passage in the original manuscripts, they almost all equally agree that the passage should be included in the canon. Here are a few thoughts from wiser men than myself on the matter, and why we ought to still consider this passage as inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore worthy of our consideration and reverence:
Calvin says this, “…it has always been received by the Latin Churches, and is found in many old Greek manuscripts, and contains nothing unworthy of an Apostolic Spirit, there is no reason why we should refuse to apply it to our advantage.”
Our own Pastor Gabbard said, “Even though this passage is not found in the earliest manuscripts, my recollection is that it is in enough later manuscripts to still give it some credibility. I have always taken the position that since God in his sovereignty allowed this passage to be in our Bibles for hundreds of years and it is a beautiful story which is consistent with the character and ministry of Christ, I teach it as the word of God.”
D.A. Carson says, “On the other hand, there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books. Similar stories are found in other sources. One of the best known, reported by Papias (and recorded by the historian Eusebius) is the account of a woman, accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins (unlike the woman here who is accused of but one). There narrative before us also has a number of parallels with stories in the Synoptic Gospels. The reason for its insertion here may have been to illustrate 7:24 and 8:15 or, conceivably, the Jews’ sinfulness over against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46).”
MacArthur, speaking to the external evidence says, “The external evidence also casts doubt on the authenticity of these verses. The earliest and most reliable manuscripts, from a variety of textual traditions, omit it.” But then goes on to say, “It contains no teaching that contradicts the rest of Scripture. The picture it paints of the wise, loving, forgiving Savior is consistent with the Bible’s portrait of Jesus Christ. Nor is it the kind of story the early church would have made up about Him.” Finally he comments, “The story was most likely history, a piece of oral tradition that circulated in parts of the Western church. (Most of the limited early support for its authenticity comes from Western manuscripts and versions, and from Western church fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine.)”
Leon Morris has this to say, “The textual evidence makes it impossible to hold that this section is an authentic part of the Gospel (of John)…In addition to the textual difficulty many find stylistic criteria against the story. While the spirit of the narrative is in accordance with that of this Gospel the language is not Johannine.” Morris continues, however, by stating, “Throughout the history of the church it has been held that, whoever wrote it, this little story is authentic. It rings true. It speaks to our condition. And it can scarcely have been composed in the early church with its sternness about sexual sin. It is thus worth our while to study it tough not as an authentic part of Jon’s writing.”
James Montgomery Boice says this, “The difficulty, simply put, is that the majority of the earliest manuscripts of John do not contain these verses and, moreover, that some of the best manuscripts are of this number…Interestingly enough, very few scholars (even man of the liberal ones) seem willing to do this (omit the passage), and the fact that a good case can be made out for the other side, should make one cautious in how he deals with it. I am willing to deal with the story as genuine – though perhaps not a part of the original Gospel as John wrote it (then he lists several reasons which I will not take time to list here).”
Finally, R.C. Sproul says this, “The overwhelming consensus of textual critics is that it was not part of the original Gospel of John, at least not this portion of John. At the same time, the overwhelming consensus is that this account is authentic, it’s apostolic, and it should be contained in any edition of the New Testament…I believe it is nothing less than the very word of God, so I will treat it as such in this chapter.”
I know that John Piper, John Calvin, Ambrose, and many other great pastors and theologians also lay out good and convincing cases for including this passage in Scripture. And so the task before us is no longer to question the veracity and authenticity of this text as apostolic, but to agree that it is the “very Word of God” as Sproul says, and submit ourselves to its teaching and authority.
7:53-8:1 They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
The first thing we note here is that Jesus went up on the Mount of Olives after everyone else went home. This is significant for a few reasons.
First, this is the only reference to the Mount of Olives in John – perhaps a reason to doubt the manuscript here should be included in John and not in Luke or one of the other synoptics.
Second, it reminds us that Jesus was homeless. In Matthew 8:20 we hear Christ say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” MacArthur notes that we cannot note for certain that He slept out under the stars or whether He went a short distance on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives at the home of Lazurus, Martha and Mary, however, I think it’s a good reminder of the humiliation of the incarnation. MacArthur also agrees and cites the famous passage from Phil. 2:7-8.
Third, Boice points out that what Jesus normally did on the Mount of Olives was commune with His Father in prayer. This is something to keep in mind as we head into the text ahead of us. While Jesus was communing in prayer with His Father, the Pharisees and Scribes were laying a sinful plot to trap Him. Boice says that from a practical standpoint, if we are to imitate Christ in His handling of the situation before us in all the difficulties we face in our own lives, we must also imitate Him in His devotion to prayer. “Where does this compassionate attitude toward other persons come from in practical experience? It comes only from communing with our heavenly Father. We are personal with others only when we know ourselves to be persons (as opposed to “things”). We know ourselves to be persons only when we see ourselves as persons before God.”
8:2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.
In classic Rabbinic style, Jesus sits down to teach. Note also that all the people were coming to Him on their own. Truth draws people in who have a desire to learn about God – something many modern day pastors would do well to remember as they lay out their church “marketing campaigns.”
8:3-4 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst  they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.
Several scholars take time to note how the author puts together “the scribes and the Pharisees” here. This isn’t a very Johannine phrase – but is one used a lot in the synoptic gospels.
Scribes were also called lawyers and they were experts at reading and writing opinions about the law of Moses. We ought not to be confused here into thinking that the scribes and Pharisees were one in the same, for they were not. Scribes were simply lawyers – that was their training and trade. It is how they made their living. Pharisees were a political type of party (at least that’s the best way I can describe it). Not all Pharisees were scribes, and conversely, not all scribes were Pharisees. In fact, my scribes had strong alliances with the ruling class of the Sadducees.
Now, we note here that this group of people says that this woman has been “caught” in the act of adultery. What they are inferring is that she has been caught in the very act – not in simply a compromising situation. Jewish scholars (note Morris, Boice, and Sproul) are clear that in order to be seized on this matter, it would require at least 2-3 witnesses, and all the details of the witnesses had to match exactly. Thus it was very hard to get into this situation. For one had to be caught in the very act, and there had to be several witnesses, and their testimony had to agree in every part down to each detail.
8:5-6 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”  This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
The Evil Trap for a Young Woman
The text that these guys are referring to is found in a few places. First, the most notable text for this would have been in Deuteronomy 22:22, which says:
“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.
The first thing we note here is that someone is missing from the scene. Who? Why the man who committed the act along with the woman! Perhaps the man got away, though this is unlikely if he was caught in the very act (a requirement of the law as mentioned above) of adultery. It is also possible that the man was an important person – perhaps on the Sanhedrin council – and the Pharisees didn’t want to arrest him. There is also the very dark and nefarious possibility that James Boice is right on this and that the man (whoever he was) was involved in the plot to setup this young woman by the Pharisees, and therefore have something with which to trap Jesus.
I can’t think of a more dark and sinister thing than this. But as we read on here, it becomes apparent, at least to me, that this is probably what these evil men had done.
Now, looking at the language that the Pharisees’ use here, we note that they have a specific intent in mind, a specific form of execution that they believe that Moses commands them to follow – namely stoning. If we read further on in Deuteronomy 22 we read this:
“If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her,  then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
So we see that this method of execution was reserved only for those who were betrothed and fell into immorality – most of whom were young women and men, probably 13-15 years old. Therefore, it’s very likely that this young woman was not a prostitute, but a teenage girl that was lured into a terrible trap by these evil men. They were using her for their own evil purposes.
The Legal Trap for Jesus
Now that we see what this group of evil men had been working on with regard to this poor young woman, we turn our attention to the legal trap that they had concocted for Jesus.
R.C. Sproul explains, “The Romans permitted significant self-rule in the nations they conquered, but they did not allow vassal nations to exercise the death penalty in capital cases…If Jesus were to say, ‘Stone the woman,’ they would run to the Roman headquarters and say, ‘This teacher is advocating that we exercise capital punishment without going through the Roman system.’ That way they would get Jesus in trouble with the Romans. But if He were to say, ‘Don’t stone her,’ they would run back to the Sanhedrin and say, ‘This Jesus is a heretic because He denies the law of Moses.’ No matter how Jesus answered the question, He would be in serious trouble.”
In addition to the issue with Him getting into trouble with the Romans if He were to pronounce the guilty verdict, some Scholars (MacArthur, Boice, Morris among others) think that Jesus would also undermine His ministry which was marked by compassion – and would perhaps even contradict what He said in John 3:17, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Though this might be the case, I don’t think it is necessarily what the scribes and Pharisees had in their minds. I don’t think their mission at this stage was to simply undermine His ministry, but to find a reason to put Him to death.
Jesus Write in the Sand
The reaction of Jesus to their question is odd – very odd indeed! There are so many theories on what it is that Jesus wrote that I can’t even begin to list them all here. Most scholars that I respect say that we simply cannot know what He wrote, and that, as Sproul says, “We have to be careful about speculation. As John Calvin said in his commentary on Romans, when God closes His holy mouth, we should desist from inquiry.”
So I will not spend time on what He might or might not have said. Needless to say, it further provoked His enemies, who continued to pester Him for an answer.
8:7-8 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”  And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.
Jesus’ words are masterful. He doesn’t vacillate between Moses and Roman law (as Sproul notes), but sides with Moses, and upholds the law of the Old Testament without directly engaging in the judgment Himself, and therefore not incurring any legal issues with Rome.
But His words are masterful in other ways as well. He is actually shedding light on a problem – namely that we are all guilty of sin, we have all fallen short of God’s glory and high standard (Rom. 3:23), and that there is only one righteous judge of the universe who is fit to issue the verdict. But at the same time, if we are all guilty, and we all deserve to die, how can the law of Moses be upheld while still believing in a God that is good and merciful?
This is the problem that Paul addressed in Romans 3:26 – As Boice points out, “Ho can God be both just and the justifier of the ungodly? From a human point of view the problem is unsolvable.”
But because with God “all things are possible” there is a solution. Namely that Jesus bore our punishment in His body on the cross. So that God would be just and not wink at sin (as Sproul is commonly saying) and still punish sin and therefore remain just, while providing mercy for those whom He has predestined to salvation (the elect). Our punishment has not been excused and forgotten. That sentence has been carried out – Jesus bore our sentence for us on the cross.
8:9 But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
These men thought they had trapped Jesus, but now they were so utterly undone by the overpowering nature and truth of His words (and perhaps even His presence) that their hearts melted within them. One minute they had stones in their hands ready to physically kill someone, the next they were so struck in mind and heart that they had to flee the scene.
James Boice comments “Think of the efforts they had gone through! Think of the plotting! Yet there were destroyed in a moment when they were confronted by the God who masters circumstances.”
8:10-11 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
How can we explain the reaction of Jesus here? Boice says that His response was characterized by understanding, compassion, forgiveness, and a challenge. I think he is right on the money with this breakdown (MacArthur offers a similar, though less compelling outline as well). I will use his outline here but add my own thoughts under each section:
He is Understanding: Jesus knows all circumstances, all hearts, all minds. There is nothing about this situation that Jesus doesn’t fully comprehend or understand. He sees the hearts of the scribes and Pharisees, and He sees the heart of the young woman here.
He is Compassionate and Loving: The best way to think about the love and compassion Jesus had for this young lady is to think about how you love your own children. It’s an unconditional kind of love. You don’t love them because they are good, or because they are yours (they could have been adopted), or because they are talented or handsome or pretty. There is an almost divine and unexplainable love you have for them. Your heart is knitted to theirs in an almost supernatural way. That is the way Christ sees people. That’s how He saw this young lady, and that’s how He sees you and me.
Furthermore, that’s how we are called to see others. We aren’t to use people like these Pharisees did. What they did was so evil and so dark that we think we never act this way. But as Boice points out, we are all guilty of using people from time to time. We treat others as less than human, and we forget how God loves them, and how He loves us despite our deep sinfulness.
Boice says this, “Love is unexplainable. The best you can say is that love is divine and that you love him (others/your children) because God himself has loved us.”
Christ is Forgiving:
I think it may well be said here that Jesus forgave this young lady – for he says that He does not condemn her. However, we aren’t told specifically if she sought repentance. I do think, though, that He would not have issued these words if He had not already looked into her heart and seen her repentance. I don’t want to get too far down the road of speculation here though, for no one can know what is in a man’s (or woman’s) heart.
The most important principle here is that of Christ’s forgiveness not merely for the specific sin in view, but for sin of any kind.
Now matter how disgusting, evil, or hateful, our sin can still be forgiven by the Lord of lords. Interestingly enough none of the commentators talk about Christ’s view of the Pharisees and scribes at this juncture. Surely if there was ever a group that could have been called Christ’s “enemy” it was this group of men. But what does Christ tell us about our enemies? He tells us to love them (Matt. 5:44). And so none of His enemies receives a stinging rebuke by Jesus in this instance – though they deserved it. Rather He goes right to the heart of the matter, piercing their souls and pricking their consciences with truth that could not be warded off even by the stony defenses of a hardened heart. What is amazing to me is the thought that not only did Christ love this woman, but He probably had a love for those who were accusing Him (Luke 23:34) – perhaps even some in that group would later repent of their sins and follow Him (Acts 6:7).
Christ Issues a Challenge:
He says, “go, and from now on sin no more.” Forgiveness is followed by a challenge, and we receive the same admonition as well from Paul who says:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:1-7)
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have had our sins atoned for and we are no longer slaves to sin. This is an important final point. In the garden Adam could choose to sin, or choose not to sin. We know which way he went. But he was not a slave to sin as most of the human race is today. When Adam fell into sin, all men born afterwards were born into slavery. We couldn’t not choose to sin. We were sinners by our very nature. Such was our state prior to Christ! Now we, like Adam originally, can choose either to sin or not to sin. Often we follow the flesh, but as we become more and more conformed into the image of Christ, we choose to sin less and less.
The challenge we face is to crucify our desires of the flesh, and put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14). This challenge is one we can meet with gusto because we have motivation that most people don’t have – we have hope for a wonderful eternity in heaven, and we have the enjoyment and communion with God right now. In short, we are motivated by the gospel and by His love for us.