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Oct 10, 2010

In Flagrante Delicto

Passage: John 7:53-8:11

Preacher: Eric Stapleton

Series: Postcards from the Front: A Wartime Romance

Category: Redemption, New Testament

Keywords: gospel, woman caught in adultery, let he who is without sin, jesus, gospel, appreciation


What is it about The Woman Caught in Adultery in the gospel of John that so stirs our hearts and makes us long for Jesus Christ as an intimate friend and lover of our souls?


John 7:53–8:11 (NAS)

53 [Everyone went to his home.

Chapter 8

The Adulterous Woman

1 But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.  

2 Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.

3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court,

4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.

5 “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”

6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.

7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.

10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”]

Let’s pray…God please open up your word to us day…help us to see you for who you are…

Before we actually go into the text, let’s talk about the history of the text and then we’ll actually dive into it.

This is a very well known story from the gospels. Even non-Christians quote the text, “well, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” There actually is a Catholic version of the story where when Jesus says, “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” and then out of nowhere, I stone comes flying through the air and pegs the adulteress in the head and Jesus says, “Mom!, I said, ‘he’ who is without sin.” The joke being that many Catholics hold that Mary, mother of Jesus, was also without sin. Anyway, the story is so well-known but what not many people do know about this piece is that it’s very likely that it is misplaced in the narrative. What I mean is that in many of your Bibles, you’re going to see this statement:

[The earliest manuscripts do not include 7:53–8:11.]

Or they will say that [The earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain 7:53 – 8:11] That statement though contains an objective statement and a subjective statement. It’s true that in the earliest known manuscripts of the gospel of John, this passage isn’t there. But to turn around and say that these aren’t most reliable is automatically true. Well, for one they don’t have the most famousest of all Jesus stories, hello. So how can they be the most reliable?

So, what’s the story here? Well it’s like this, the New Testament we have today is a very reliable document. We know that because we have manuscripts going back to within as few as a hundred years of the original writings. That doesn’t seem so marvelous when compared to historical works today, but considering the time and the state of publishing back then, it is amazing. There was no printing press, it was all done by hand and less people were educated well enough to do the writing. Today, that would be cause for some serious questions.

When compared to other works of that era, Greek Histories, Roman histories, works of classic literature by Homer, etc. the Bible blows them all out of the water in terms of existing manuscript copies and time proximity of the original manuscript.

So, how is that supposed make me feel better about the reliability of my New Testament? So, we have thousands of manuscript copies, how do we know that a word, sentence or passage wasn’t added, deleted, changed and then copied in error, a thousand times over? But we do know.

You see, these thousands of manuscript copies weren’t all from one location, they were from different locations, Alexandria, Byzantium, etc. What scholars did, was compared the copies from the different areas to discern the actual text. They were able to find the errors. This is one of the ways we know that our Bible is reliable. And the actual differences in the texts amount to less than  5 percent and none of them affect the doctrines of the Christian faith.

So, I could ask you to copy this sentence: The Quick Brown Fox Jumped Over the Lazy Dogs. But let’s some in the back hear: The quick brown fox jumped on the lazy dogs and let’s say, some hear, the lazy fox jumped over the brown dog, and some hear the quick brown dogs, jumped over the lazy god.

You all could get together and compare manuscript copies and by applying context and comparison you probably could easily discern the original concept. Case in point—this passage has come to be called Pericope Adulterae, --the adultery snippet. The first instance of it appearing in a manuscript copy was that it was that it was stitched onto the manuscript by a scribe who thought its omission was an oversight. Five stitches fastened one piece of parchment onto another. They didn’t have a suitable fastener back then. Then later it appeared in the margin, then in between the lines and finally, a part of the actual text.

Up until 1948 scholars believed that this snippet didn’t appear in any manuscript prior to the 12th century AD. But at that time, further evidence was found going back to fourth and fifth centuries AD making reference to the story of Jesus forgiving the sinful woman.

Again, it seems backwards logic, but in reality, stories like this point to the reliability of the text not the unreliability of it. That’s why I bring it up.

As Christians we shouldn’t shy away from the evidence. What we need not do is make subjective statements like, “it must not be God’s word then” or that snippet isn’t reliable and shouldn’t have been included.” Objective truth points to the fact that John might not have put this story in that part of the narrative when he penned his gospel. Why? I don’t know, maybe there were a lot Gnostics out there at time misusing the story to go soft on adultery and licentiousness. Very possible, even likely.

Jerome reports that the pericope adulterae was to be found in its canonical place in "many Greek and Latin manuscripts" in Rome and the Latin West in the late 4th Century. This is confirmed by the consensus of Latin Fathers of the 4th and 5th Centuries CE; including Ambrose, and Augustine. The latter claimed that the passage may have been improperly excluded from some manuscripts in order to avoid the impression that Christ had sanctioned adultery:

"Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord's act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin."[9]

Keep in mind that the church back then had some rather legalistic ideas. Many of them would not get baptized until they knew they were about to die because they believed that Christ’s blood didn’t cover those sins, only those before baptism…The Catholic Church, God bless, didn’t really know what to do with this either so they developed dispensations and purgatory and other abuse inviting concepts.

Some manuscripts have the story in the gospel of Luke after chapter 21…this makes a lot of sense, it fits because some of the Greek in this passage is peculiar to Luke,  it fits chronologically and that whole idea of Christ lifting up the station of women in general also makes it good fit.

As Christians, instead of doubting the story, we need to rather recognize the Christ in the story as being that same Christ who by the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts. As a minister of the gospel I would affirm that this story is God’s Word and a truthful event. I believe that God, in his sovereignty, allowed this text to be in the scripture.

Also, keep in mind that the apostle John, also wrote:

John 21:24–25 (NAS)

24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.

He admits that his story isn’t complete. Personally, I’m grateful to the scribe with the needle and thread who put the story, which was an oral apostolic tradition accepted by the early church fathers, back into the scriptures for us.

That said, let’s go into the text.

So, what we got here is Jesus teaching at the temple. The scribes, all of sudden bring a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery. In flagrante delicto, in Latin, transliterated, with hands flaming or caught red handed, if you will. We know the story, they tell Jesus what the law says, that such women should be stoned. They ask Jesus what he thinks. Why do they ask? It’s a trap. The Pharisees and scribes were always trying to trip Jesus up. Now, they were using a woman to do this. Why didn’t they just stone her? Why do they need Jesus’ permission or consent?

Well, first of all, it wasn’t Jesus permission they needed, nor the high priests—whose permission do they need? Right, Judah is not self-governing at this time. They can put goat to death, legally, but not a person. Keep in mind, this is in the city, inside the city limits of Jerusalem in a public place, not like the stoning of Stephen which took place outside the city.

Herein, lies the trap. If he tells him they should stone her, he is a lawbreaker in Rome’s eyes. If, on the other hand, speaks against the law of Moses, he’ll be seen as a blasphemer.

How does Jesus react? But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.[1]

What did he write? It doesn’t matter. No, seriously, it doesn’t matter and please don’t tell me that God revealed it you in a dream or grilled cheese sandwich. It’s the action that’s important. The question is ridiculous in his eyes. The Pharisees see it as either A or B. You’re for God or you’re against God. Jesus whole message is a third option, it’s the gospel option.

They keep on bugging him probably thinking they got him on the ropes. He straightens and delivers the famous line: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” [2]

You guys recite that as if it were God’s Word or something, awesome. I agree. Many commentators will say at this point, that the implication of what Jesus is saying here is “he who is without this sin, let him throw the first stone.” That is who of you hasn’t committed this sin? Because only the person not guilty of this sin can judge this sin. Otherwise, in essence, nobody could be judged or stoned under the law because everybody is guilty of some sin therefore He must have meant “this” sin as opposed to any sin. For a long time I would have agreed with this. I don’t anymore. First, that’s simply not what it says. Secondly, it’s inconsistent with James’ teaching on, if you break one part of the law, you break the whole law. It didn’t matter whether they were guilty of that sin or any other. Thirdly, it’s just not reasonable to believe the scribes and Pharisees who prided themselves for their piety, that all of them, anyway, were guilty of adultery in a way that they, in that context, understood adultery. In the church, we understand that even being guilty of lust makes us guilty of adultery in our heart. That wasn’t the case then, that was a new teaching by Jesus.

Which brings my fourth point on why Jesus couldn’t have meant “this” sin: that point of view violates the very fabric of the gospel. Jesus was to be the one put to death for sin, even for her sin. Jesus was introducing an idea incomprehensible to them: a God who is perfectly just AND perfectly merciful. In a sense, he was inciting them to carry out the task. Sin must be judged.

Jesus didn’t come at that time to judge or punish sin. He came to save from sin. That is what is illustrated here. That is what Jesus is inciting them to fulfill—sacrificing Him for the sin of the people.

Whether you place the story here in John or at Luke 21:37, you end up with same result. The argument quickly escalates into:

John 8:59 (NAS)

59 Therefore they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.

Luke 22:2 (NAS)

2 The chief priests and the scribes were seeking how they might put Him to death; for they were afraid of the people.

Either way this event helps to initiate the process by which sin will be judged.

Jesus does not fall into the trap. He neither contradicts the law of Moses nor does he contradict the law of Rome.

The accusers leave. Is it because they are cut to the quick and realize that they are sinners also? No. They realize their trap isn’t going to work. If they were conscious stricken they wouldn’t have kept up the attack later in the gospel. They were incapable of getting it. They’ll come back another day. 

In the movies you see of this scene, it’s always quite dramatic, with the woman running in, chased by her accusers. The accusers have rocks already in their hands. This is scene is not likely, but it makes for good cinematic storytelling. Even Jesus statement, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” doesn’t mean that they had the stones in their hands at that time. It’s not likely, under Roman rule, that wasn’t going to fly. This was a trap.

There is another obvious question that needs answering here. I’m surprised Jesus didn’t ask it. I’ll leave it to you. The scribes bring the woman in and accuse her of being caught in the act and that accordingly, by the law of Moses, she should be stoned. What’s missing here?

Where’s the dude she was doing it with? It was Jewish Law that the accuser or witness would be the one to cast the first stone. How did they know? How did they catch her?

Were they sitting around one day trying to figure out how to trap Jesus? I kind of picture it like this:

“Oy, what to do, what to do. This meshuganah from Nazareth. How are we going to get this guy? We must get him to contradict the law of Moses explicitly.”

And different guys chime in:

“That’s not going to work and I’ll tell you why. First of all, the people adore him. He’s a friend of the sinners and the publicans. You gotta make him look bad in front of those people. You gotta make him look like a hard case, like real  sonuva—“

“I got an idea!, naw, that won’t work”

“you gotta make him look like one of us—

“What to do. What to do. Maybe we could get someone else to get of him…a zealot, maybe.”

“Naw, that’s not going to work either, and I’ll tell ya why. The zealots think he’s their messiah, their conquering king gonna kick out the Romans”

“I got an idea….naw that’s not gonna work either.”

“The Romans?”

“I got an idea…no…wait…”

“What do we want to get in bed with the Romans for?”

“That’s it….in bed…I got it!”



“No, we get an adulteress, catch her in the sack with some guy, bring her before Jesus and ask him if we should stone her like the law says…”

“Ahh and if speaks against the law of Moses explicitly…”

“Or if he votes to put her to the curb then he looks bad in front of the crowd…”

“Not to mention the Romans....now to catch an adulteress in the act...where do we know an adulteress…”

“Oh, there’s that floozy, Sal, you know, she does that thing with the feathers and that little dance…


“what? Not that I uh, know from experience mind you…I just heard”

So, these scribes and Pharisees go and find an adulteress and they somehow catch her in the act. Who knows how this goes down? Because this was a trap. It could be that the lady’s husband caught her and brought her to the scribes and they just considered it a Godsend. That could have happened.

But the question remains, where’s the guy? Were they listening at window and they bust in and she was just too slow, “quick catch that guy, don’t let him get away! The guy with his robe around his ankles.”

I make this big production of all this to point out that it was a trap…probably had no intention of actually stoning her. Which begs the question, was she even really caught in the act of adultery? Yes, she was. That’s what the text actually says and gospel writers are known for pointing something out that was a sham…like, Judas only complained about the woman who used perfume on Jesus feet because he was really stealing from the money bag” or even in this passage, they were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him.”

But, she was probably a known adulteress guilty of many sins and they were exploiting it. So, there she stands in front of Jesus. Scared, but more devastatingly than that, humiliated. It was obvious to everyone around what this was about. See, it may have been known what she was but maybe not talked about. Now it’s out in the open. She was used again. She was again made into an object for the satisfaction of men. She didn’t matter to them, they didn’t even really care about her sin. She was a tool to them. Useless, they discard her and walk away. It may have even been better in her eyes if they had stoned her. May have been except for what happens next.

Jesus, this rabbi, respected in the community, called master by both those who love him and those who despise him—Remember, He is The Most Interesting Man in the World—this man, says he doesn’t condemn her. This respected man who shouldn’t give her the time of day, because she is guilty, first drives away her accusers and then says, he doesn’t condemn her. “I don’t blame you or judge you, it is as if to me you have not done anything wrong. You’re free to go and don’t sin anymore.”

He says to go, but I wonder if she does. Text doesn’t say. Where would she go? Would she go back to her life, vulnerable to further humiliation by those scribes and Pharisees? Now, not only does everybody know what she has done, but they know that she knows that they know what she has done. She’s open to further ridicule. So, what is she going to do?

Indeed, the question is put to you? What are you going to do? This woman worthy of condemnation, dead in her transgressions, has nothing more to look forward to but death—pain, suffering, torment, further humiliation if she goes back.

What have you been caught red handed in? What threatens to humiliate you if brought out into the open?

We’ve been in this series, Postcards from the Front—A Wartime Romance, a lover’s perspective on Ephesians. We have a groom, Christ and the bride whom he lavishes his love on the church. But the back story is that she was not worthy of his love, this bride that he is writing the letters of Ephesians to through the hand of the apostle Paul.

There is scandal, so bad we would consider cutting, excising it out of our past as if it didn’t happen. These things, our scandalous life before Christ should not be mentioned again, maybe those who would come to Christ would be so offended that the Christ who would accept us.

Not so, that’s what makes Christ all the more lovely, that in spite of our sins, our scandal, Christ accepts us as if we had done nothing wrong.

Ephesians 2:1–5 (NAS)

Made Alive in Christ

1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins,

2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.

3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,

5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

What did this woman caught in adultery do? We don’t know, the text is silent. Some have suggested that this is Mary Magdalene or that this is the woman who later washes Jesus feet at Simon’s house. No, probably not. It probably would have been pointed out by the gospel writers.

So, we’re faced with the truth of the gospel: we are unworthy, but someone who is worthy shows us mercy and washes away our sin through his death and resurrection on cross. What do we do? Do we go back to the old ways or do we go on further with him?

Where has God shown you mercy and what are you going to do about it? What is Christ calling you to in your walk with him? Is it a call to serve in ministry and with that—training that might be necessary? Is it a calling to dig deeper in the Word of God? Christian missions? A deeper investment in Christian fellowship? Service to the community? Ask him. Spend some time this week recognizing where God has shown you mercy and asking him what he would he have you do to show appreciation for it. Not to earn what’s been done because you can’t, the price has already been paid and it’s a done deal.

However, there is this scene in Saving Private Ryan, at the end of the movie. The premise of the film is that this guy, Private Ryan is given a free pass out of the war because his four brothers before him have already have died. Ultimately it is for the sake of his mother that a special military is sent in to rescue him out of the war. The special military unit is shot to pieces one by one but in the end they are successful in Saving Private Ryan and as Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks is dying from a fatal wound, he says to Private Ryan, “Earn this.” Now, as I said earlier it is impossible to earn what has already been done. Captain Miller can’t take back the price paid for Private Ryan’s deliverance, neither does God take away the salvation if we fail to live up to it merits. The Salvation He offers is not given on those terms. But I say to you anyway—live as though you recognize the price paid because like the woman in the story, you’ve been caught red handed, in flagrante delicto, been caught in the act and shown mercy, justified as if you hadn’t done a thing wrong.




[1] New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995). Jn 8:6.

[2] New American Standard Bible : 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995). Jn 8:7.