Caught in the Act!
First, An Important Note: This section is not included in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of this Gospel, and thus is often not covered by commentators in their works. The reasons for this are several, and although we will not take the time to analyze them, the truth is that this probably doesn’t belong in John, or at least, not here in John. However, it does appear to be consistent with Jesus’ ministry with parallels in the Synoptics and thus it would seem to be “authentic Jesus”. It is certainly instructive for our purposes in wishing to know Him better and to understand His teachings. Clearly it was highly enough regarded to have been preserved by the early church as authentic Jesus.
One day, Jesus was in the vicinity of the Temple, prepared to teach. There was a crowd of people there who were ready to hear Him, so He sat down and prepared to speak, when suddenly a bunch of teachers of the law and Pharisees burst in dragging along a woman. “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (vv. 4-5)
A witness to this event who was sharp might quickly wonder about this surprising turn of events. Since these men mentioned the Law of Moses, and they are the authorities in such cases, why would they bring her to this “teacher” whom they despise to render sentence upon this woman? Hold on, the Law prescribes procedures for the determination for guilt: Who saw her commit this act? Were these high and mighty leaders of the people sneaking around and peering in through her windows? How do we know she’s married; who is her husband? Oh, and while we’re at it, who is the witness to her supposed acts? Oh yes, and one other thing, the Law requires that her partner in crime be executed too; who is he and why haven’t they brought him along for judgment as well?
Jesus, now the judge, didn’t ask these questions, instead He bent down and wrote something in the dirt; He doesn’t seem all that concerned, but to our sharp observer of these events, it seems that there might be more afoot than an adultery case… but what?
Then Jesus renders a sentence of sorts, when He stops writing, stands up and says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Silence fell upon the scene; Jesus bent down again and resumed writing in the dirt with his finger.
People began to leave, slowly at first, beginning with the older ones until Jesus was left alone with the woman. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (vv. 10-11).
Oh wait, I forget to mention something from the text:
They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him (v. 6).
Those men didn’t care about the woman; they were trying to attack Jesus.
By the standard He set, Jesus was the only one qualified to cast a stone, but He lets the woman go. He does not send her off to continue her sinful ways, but rather He admonishes her to sin no more. What we see here is Jesus forgiving the woman for what she had done and calling her to repentance, which is also what He has done for us.
People are frequently quick to condemn others, but who among us is without sin? Can we look around and condemn our brother when we too are sinners? Condemnation is God’s job; our job is to forgive and to encourage and correct with “patient endurance,” not to condemn. Second, as sinners, we too deserve to die but God has forgiven us through Christ. You and I are commanded to repent of our old ways and walk in newness of life with Christ… and yet we still stumble and need forgiveness again. With that being the case, we are hardly qualified to cast stones at others. Forgiveness and repentance are key qualities in Christ’s teaching for our behavior in life, and are key qualities that some seem to lack entirely.
If we moved directly from 7:52 to this point, leaving out the story of the adulterous woman, we would have a scene change for sure, but we would still be within the context of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles. In this passage, Jesus states that He is the light of the world, which is a reference to a portion of the Tabernacles festivities in which four great torches are erected in the court of women on the last night of the Feast. It was said that they could be seen all over the city. This makes sense when we recall that the Temple was built on top of a mountain. By doing this, Jesus had tied His claims to the two great ceremonies of the Feast, the water ceremony (7:37-38) and the light ceremony (8:12). It would also appear that Jesus was speaking either just before nightfall or after dark on the last day of the Feast.
In saying that He is “the light of the world” Jesus was making His second “I Am” statement in John’s Gospel. Light has already been used by John to signify the Word that is the true and living light in chapter 1, and again in chapter 3 as God’s truth that reveals human sinfulness and evil, things more conveniently done in darkness. Jesus here is telling the people that His followers will be freed from lives of sin with Him as the unquenchable source of God’s truth.
The scene change is complete here with the revealing that His public opponents are the Pharisees who have failed in having Him arrested and now move on to a public confrontation in which they attempt to marginalize His message by pointing out that He has no one to verify what He is teaching…
The Pharisees having made their move, Jesus now replies by going to a higher, spiritual level. His testimony is valid because He has come from the Father in Heaven. His judgments are made without human frailty because He stands with the Father who also testifies for Him. The Law allows truth to be determined by the testimony of two men. Jesus has His own testimony (1) and God’s also (2).
The exact identity of Jesus’ father will be the central point of the rest of the discussion. Jesus’ statement that they know neither He nor His Father in verse 19 is an interesting insight for it indicates that to know one of them is to know the other. Verse 20 is inserted into the dialogue to indicate that they were apparently near the Temple treasury where many guards would be stationed, yet no one moved to grab Him and silence what the Pharisees would consider blasphemy, for the time for His arrest had not yet come. John’s continual reference to His time coming or not yet having come is a reference to the fact that Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were an integral part of God’s plan of salvation and no accident.
The discussion resumes in verses 21-24 with Jesus pointing out the difference between He and His antagonists: Jesus is from above (God/Heaven) and they are from below (world). They cannot go where He is going because of their sin. To follow Jesus is to overcome the sin of unbelief and to remain in unbelief is to die in our sins. At the end of the passage, the “I am” focus emerges more clearly.
“Who are you?” they asked.
“Just what I have been telling you from the beginning,” Jesus replied. “I have much to say in judgment of you. But he who sent me is trustworthy, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.”
They did not understand that he was telling them about his Father. So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.” Even as he spoke, many believed in him.
Jesus’ answer to their question as to His identity is classic; He tells them that He hasn’t been hiding anything. As we have noted previously, they had no excuse for not knowing exactly who they were addressing. His identity would be entirely unavoidable upon His resurrection after they had Him “lifted up” and at that point John informs us that many who heard this exchange came to believe in Him. Note that the Pharisees had asked John the same question in 1:19 and that John’s answer was “I am not…” in stark contrast to the claim of Jesus in this passage “I am”.
Next time, we’ll continue this discussion of just who is Jesus’ Father.