Some Greek texts and English translations banish this passage to a footnote or omit it altogether, for its style and language clearly differ from John’s. Likewise the content lacks John’s usual emphases – for example, there is no mention of Jesus’ gift of life, even eternal life to those who believe in him as the one sent by the Father. It also rather interrupts the development of John’s Gospel at this stage of its teaching. But there is some evidence that this story stems from very early memories of Jesus and it has the ring of truth about it. Jesus’ wise and clever avoidance of the Jewish leaders’ attempt to trap him reminds us of other such occasions. And the very dramatic scene of misery and mercy meeting together moves our hearts.
The story of the woman caught in adultery appears already in the Latin Vulgate translation in the early 380s A.D. and is accepted in all the Reformation translations, including the English King James version. And with its ring of genuine authenticity as a true story of Jesus, it definitely merits our attention.
The tables are turned! The scribes and Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus into illegally advocating death for the adulterous woman or seeming to reject the revealed Law of Moses. Instead, Jesus corners them into facing their own sinfulness (8.7). These leaders were only thinking of the woman’s sin (they appear to have ignored the sin of the man involved), but Jesus’ words force them to see the moat in their own eye. They may have thought of themselves as righteous before the Law, and the common people may have looked up to them as their spiritual leaders. But actually, like other people too, sin dogged their footsteps. Self-righteous pride is a constant threat to religious leaders. And, as Amy Carmichael pointed out, “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”. We all need to realise that even the best of our leaders have clay feet, so we should not be stumbled when they some times fail to live up to our expectations.
The old King James Version adds the explanation “convicted by their own conscience” (8.9) which may not be in the Greek text, but aptly describes how the woman’s accusers one by one slink away, knowing that they are not without sin themselves and therefore dare not cast the first stone. And the first to realise their sinfulness were the ‘elders’. Who were they? Was it a question of age, as in KJV, because perhaps the old are more aware of sin than younger people? The Greek word used here is very occasionally used with reference to age – e.g. ‘young people will see visions and old people will dream dreams’ (Acts 2.17). But normally this word signifies the Elders/Presbyters of Israel and of the Church. Was this emphasis on the sinfulness of Elders one reason why this story was not accepted as an integral part of the Bible?!
Interestingly, John never uses the word presbuteros. It is found more commonly in Matthew than in Mark or Luke’s Gospel, although commentators feel that the language of this passage is more akin to that of Luke.
Some commentators have the less tongue-in-cheek suggestion that this story was not accepted as part of the New Testament because the strict character of the early church did not like Jesus’ apparently lax attitude to the woman’s sin – “Nor do I condemn you” (8.11). But these words parallel his statement that He did not come to this world in order to judge/condemn, but rather to save (John 12.47).
In the Christian life we are called to have a sensitive conscience and deep awareness of our sinful inadequacy, but at the same time we rejoice in the Lord’s amazing grace and undeserved love. Heartfelt repentance should go hand in hand with the joyful confidence that Jesus does not condemn us, for he has come with the fixed purpose of bringing salvation and eternal life to us. In spite of our sin he does not condemn us. Grace lies at the very heart of our Christian faith and life.
Sin no more (8.11)
In his approach to the woman caught in adultery Jesus should not be accused of an easy-going tolerance of sin. In his final words to her he exhorts her to “sin no more”. Jesus’ grace and salvation must lead to a renewed life of holiness and righteousness. A casual attitude towards sin should never follow from Jesus’ saving grace and his non-condemnatory love for us. The Bible calls us to become like God himself in his holiness (e.g. Leviticus 11.44 and 19.2). And we are working towards that great day when we shall see him face to face and “we shall be like him” (1 John 3.2).
Later in John’s Gospel Jesus declares that he sends us in the same way as the Father had sent Jesus into the world (John 20.21). He fitted perfectly into first century Jewish culture and historical context with all their Genesis 3 fallenness, but nevertheless he remained perfectly holy without sin. Although we live in a society which very largely rejects the moral holiness of God, Jesus requires us to follow him and his model of sinless righteousness for our lives. Both as men and women we all require repentance and a renewed determination to cut all ungodliness and sin out of our daily lives, words and thoughts.
“Go and sin no more”!