There was a time before I turned out to be good at chemistry when I thought about becoming a lawyer. Not a solicitor but a barrister. Courtroom dramas have all the exciting ingredients, compelling characters, making arguments, battles of words, all the twists and turns leading up to the climax of the final verdict. Will justice be done?
There have been so many wonderful courtroom films from 12 Angry Men to A Few Good Men. And so many great TV series from Perry Mason to Rumpole of the Bailey, from L.A. Law to Ally McBeal to Boston Legal. But perhaps my favourite series which first got me interested in the law as a child featured Roy Dotrice as the eccentric old man Albert Haddock in J.P.Herbert’s fascinating “Misleading Cases”.
Here in John 8 we have a real-life courtroom drama as the Pharisees seek to draw Jesus into acting as judge. But this really is a misleading case. It appears to be about how the old Testament Jewish law on adultery should be applied. It seems to be about making the punishment fit the crime. But in fact the real question here is about authority – whether to obey man’s laws or God’s laws, the law of the Romans or the Law of Moses. But then the judgment Jesus gives completely ignores all those questions and points to something much more important and relevant to each of us here today. But let’s start at the beginning. And let’s look at the courtroom drama through the eyes of the principal players in turn: the woman caught in the act of adultery, the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, and Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Woman caught in the act of adultery
How might he have felt? Certainly she would have felt ashamed to be caught in such a compromising situation. But would she have felt guilty? Or even scared that she might face the ultimate penalty for her crime which Jewish law demanded which was death? She was probably in tears. But more than anything else, the woman was probably very, very surprised.
John 8:2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered round him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.
“We just happened to catch her committing adultery.” I think not, your honour! How would anybody catch a woman in the act? At dawn? And where was the man? This was clearly a set-up! The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law wanted to trap Jesus so they went out before dawn and just happened to find this woman committing a serious sin. I put it to you that the only plausible explanation is that this woman was actually a prostitute. This is not to excuse her sin. Simply declaring her previous record. The Pharisees knew that she was a woman of ill-repute and so they could catch her misbehaving at any time. This woman was certainly a notorious sinner – but she was also a human being with needs and hopes and fears and quite probably with children too. And she found herself standing before Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had taught that “The Father judges no-one, but entrusts all judgment to the Son.” And her accusers spell out the charge.
They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’
The two-faced flattery is obvious as they call Jesus “Teacher” when they weren’t asking the question because they wanted to learn anything from Jesus.
6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
Would Jesus uphold the Law of Moses and command the death penalty? Well let’s see, as we think about,
The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law
What a cold, cruel, insensitive bunch they must have been. To bring that woman to Jesus hoping he would condemn her to death, trying to use her to trap Jesus. Not a thought for the woman herself, even though she was indeed a sinner. It’s always a bad sign when abstract arguments about right and wrong or philosophy and religion lead people to treat other human beings as objects instead of as people. The real issue here of course was not whether the crime of adultery deserved the death penalty. This case was about the conflict between Jewish Law and Roman Law. In the Law of Moses the penalty for adultery was death. But from the point the Roman Army occupied Israel, Roman Law took priority and the Jews were forbidden from executing anybody for any reason. That is why the Jews needed to convince the Romans to crucify Jesus – the Jews themselves had no power to put anybody to death. So here was the trap. Would Jesus uphold the Roman Law and so be discredited in the eyes of the Jewish people? Or would Jesus insist on upholding the Jewish Law, and land himself in big trouble with the Roman authorities?
In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’
So what would Jesus say?
Jesus Christ, the Son of God
Jesus saw the question. He saw through the question to the sneaky trap within it. Jesus saw the issues. But he also saw the woman, and with Jesus people always come first. No matter how many of the 10 commandments the woman had broken, she was still a person who God loved. Jesus saw this woman, trapped in her guilt and sin. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law only cared about their own kind of people, “nice” respectable people. We must make sure that we do not fall into that trap. Jesus didn’t just love the “nice” people. Jesus loved the outcasts and the rejects, the prostitutes and the tax collectors and the “sinners.” The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost! Jesus loved everybody and so should we. Jesus saw this woman, trapped in her guilt and sin.
Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.
Roman judges always begin by writing down the charge. And I think that is what Jesus was doing there. He was saying, “you want to play judges and law courts, that’s fine by me, I will play along.” So Jesus bent down and wrote down in the sand, and I think what he wrote was something like this, “Charge – adultery.”
They kept on pressing Jesus for an answer. Roman Law or Law of Moses? But the answer Jesus gave was a blockbuster as he turned the question back on the accusers. “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”
, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
In Jewish Law it would be the accusers who would lead the community in enforcing the punishment of death by stoning. So which of those people who were accusing the woman were actually ready themselves to disobey the Roman law and cast the first stone? Jesus wasn’t answering their questions at all. Instead he got down to basics. Enough of the legal technicalities. Morality isn’t just about laws. It’s about people. So she is guilty, She is a sinner. But so are you. All of you are guilty. All of you are sinners. Don’t try to take the speck of sawdust out of somebody else’s eye until you have taken the plank out of your own eye! This woman is guilty of adultery – but you are guilty of trying to use her situation to trap me. What are you going to do about that then?
8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
The Roman judge would write down the charge and then he would write down the verdict. And my educated guess is that what Jesus wrote down this time was simply “guilty”. Given the evidence and the testimony of witnesses, that is the only possible verdict. The woman was indeed guilty.
8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.
All the accusers melted away into the crowd. And it’s interesting how it was the older people who went first. Perhaps they were more conscious of the judgment which was coming up on them. And soon only Jesus and the woman were left. Everybody else realised that they could not pick up the first stone. Though their sins were mostly different, they were as guilty as she was. And now we hear Jesus speak some of the most wonderful words in the whole Bible.
10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’
11 ‘No one, sir,’ she said.
‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’
“Neither do I condemn you”
These five words tell us at least two things. The first is the very clear implication that whilst everybody else there could not throw the first stone because they knew they were sinners, Jesus was different. Jesus was without sin. None of those other people could condemn the woman because they also were sinners. But Jesus could have condemned her, because he was sinless. That is why Jesus can be judge of all and will be judge of all. Jesus faced all the same temptations we face but never sinned. Not even once. Neither do I condemn you. “I could condemn you – but I don’t!”
“Neither do I condemn you.” Here is the second wonderful truth – the complete, unconditional forgiveness that Jesus brought. The woman was completely guilty – caught in the act! But Jesus the Son of God forgives her sin just as completely. God forgives her BEFORE the woman had opportunity to change her ways.
Paul explains God’s unconditional forgiveness in his letter to the Romans like this.
Romans 6 6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
The book Chasing The Dragon is about the work which missionary Jackie Pullinger did among the Triad drug gangs of Hong Kong. Jackie explains God’s grace like this. “Jesus didn’t wait for me to make good before he died for me.” The death of Jesus is not like the leader of a gang dying for a member of his own gang, to save the life of one of his own followers. The death of Jesus is like the leader of a gang dying in the place of a member of a rival gang – dying to save the life of an enemy. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us! That is how much God loves us! Our Christian life begins when we accept that amazing free gift of forgiveness which Jesus offers us all. But it doesn’t end there.
‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’
You are forgiven. Now go and leave your life of sin. Jesus did not condemn the woman for her life of adultery and prostitution. But He did not condone that lifestyle either. Instead he offered the woman a fresh start. A new beginning which was indeed like being born again! God loves us so much that he accepts us just as we are. But God loves us too much to leave us just as we are. He calls us to change. To repent.
Go and leave your life of sin. That was not a condition the woman had to meet before Jesus would forgive her. The forgiveness came first. But that would be the appropriate response to the new life Jesus gave her. To turn her back on the sins of the past and truly live a new life. That was not some way for the woman to earn her forgiveness. She never could earn or deserve forgiveness. But the inevitable grateful response would be to change her ways. To turn her back on the sin which was destroying her life. “Go and leave your life of sin.”
What amazing forgiveness. Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin!
There may be some people here today who stand before Jesus just as that woman did. Their sin may not be adultery. It may be just lust. It may be greed or selfishness or pride. It may be simple self-centredness – living their own life their own way and deliberately leaving God out and ignoring Him. Some people have a closet full of skeletons – things in the past or the present of which they are deeply ashamed. Things they desperately hope that family and friends never find out about. That woman had not only broken the seventh commandment. She had fallen foul of the 11th unwritten commandment, “Thou shalt not get caught.” There are some people whose consciences are not troubled by their sins because they just haven’t been caught yet. But let us not forget. God knows everything and God sees everything. All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory,
But here is the Good News for anybody who is sitting here this morning burdened with guilt, scared of being found out, or caught in the act. If you realise that you have failed to live up to God’s perfect standards and you have been keeping God on the outside of your life instead of on the inside then these wonderful words of Jesus are for you!
“Neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Here is an offer of unconditional forgiveness and a brand new start in life. But that new life does not come to us automatically. We each have to accept God’s offer for ourselves. Don’t ignore what God is saying. Don’t leave the decision for another day. You can receive for yourself this free gift God offers, right here, right now.
“Neither do I condemn you,’ ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.”