Jesus, the Law, and the Woman Caught in Adultery

The woman caught in adultery is one of the most known and beloved records we have of the life of our Lord. (John 7:53-8-11) I have heard this story used as an example of (1) Jesus changing the law of Moses and hence, proving theonomy is an error, and (2) overturning the morality of the civil death penalty. But does it do either?

We all know the story. The Pharisees bring a woman to Jesus, who is teaching in the temple, and tell him that she was caught in the very act of adultery. They challenge him saying, “The Law commanded us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?” They do this so that they can catch him contradicting the law, so they can bring a charge against him. Jesus’ famous words end the conflict, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Epic. But before Jesus says this, he does something strange. Verse 6 says “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 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.” What was he writing? Remember, this happened in the temple; so he was writing in the dust on top of the stone of the temple. So what is the significance of this?

Read Numbers 5 starting at verse 11. This scripture describes a test to be performed by a priest when a man suspects that his wife has committed adultery but did not catch her in the act. Of particular interest is verse 16:

And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.

And verse 23,

Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness.

The test for adultery is involves dust from the temple grounds, and the writing of curses against accused parties. Dust and writing. Sound familiar?

Now the Pharisees had brought the woman before Jesus in the temple. They did not bring the man, nor does the scripture say that her husband was involved in this in any way. But Jesus could not have been preparing to administer this test to the woman, since she was “caught in the act” allegedly. It seems to fit the text that Jesus was preparing to administer the test of adultery to the Pharisees who were bringing the charges against this woman. Notice that in between writing in the dust, Jesus provocatively challenges them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” then he goes right back to writing. The conscience of the Pharisees gets the better of them, and they realize that if they go ahead with the execution of this woman, they too will be executed on the same charge. They were all adulterers. They left one by one because our Lord was ready to apply the law to the letter, and they could not have survived that. The text does not say this explicitly but it does makes sense of this strange episode.

The woman was guilty. But there was no one left to charge her. And the law says in Deuteronomy 19:15 that no one can be convicted without at least two witnesses. So she was exonerated according to the law. However, there was still a religious moral charge left. Jesus commands her to “Go and from now on sin no more.” There is good evidence to think that she had a regenerate heart, since she calls Jesus, “Lord.” So there is every reason to believe she took Jesus’ advice seriously and that she had been forgiven eternally.

Jesus never bent the law. Jesus never broke the law. Jesus did the law perfectly because Jesus himself revealed the law to Moses and it is based on his own nature. Jesus upholds the law and Christians should as well. In contrast the Pharisees were completely lawless and this story is one of the many that expose that. They were only willing to apply the law in a hypocrtical way.

We are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Nothing will ever change that. Praise God for that. But that fact is never an excuse for lawlessness.