Caught Red-Handed! (John 7:53 - 8:11)

How many fairy tales, songs, books, and movies have the following story line? There is a beautiful girl who was born to be a princess. Her heart is pure. Her love is true. But, alas! She is in the clutches of some evil person or malevolent curse. She is trapped and unattainable. Her only hope is that a strong and handsome prince will come to set her free. But he will have to be both physically powerful and spiritually pure to enter her world, defeat her captor, and win her hand.

Just as she is beginning to despair of her prince, he appears. With daring and skill, he lays siege to the tower and the sinister force holding her. Much blood is shed. The knight on his powerful steed is beaten back once and again. But he rises and fights. Eventually the sorcerer is defeated, the dragon is slain, or the villain is destroyed. The object of such heroism and valor is rescued. Her heart is captured by him forever. And they ride off to his cottage in the woods - or castle on the hill - to live happily ever after.

After envisioning just such a scenario, John Eldredge writes:

Why is this story so deep in our psyche? Every little girl knows the fable without ever being told. She dreams one day her prince will come. Little boys rehearse their part with wooden swords and cardboard shields. And one day the boy, now a young man, realizes that he wants to be the one to win the beauty. Fairy tales, literature, music, and movies all borrow from this mythic theme. Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Arthur and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde. From ancient fables to the latest blockbuster, the theme of a strong man coming to rescue a beautiful woman is universal to human nature. It is written in our hearts, one of the core desires of every man and every woman.[1]
If there is any truth at all to this claim, how devastating it must be for a woman to receive the opposite message. She is not valued. She is not desired. There is no one who will fight for her. She is not the cherished treasure of anyone. She is ugly and undesirable, coarse and uncouth, unloved and abhorrent. Know what will happen to that woman? Practically every horrible thing you can imagine! And she will tell herself that she deserves them. If she is abused or abandoned as a child, she is likely to do most anything as an adult just to get attention that she will call "love." She will let men insult, harass, and assault her - emotionally, physically, and sexually - and it will never occur to her that she deserves anything else. At that point in her history, it is unlikely that her hero will appear. She has lost her innocent charm. Her beauty has been compromised long since. She no longer thinks she deserves a prince, for it has been forever and a day since she has been anyone's princess.

From Fiction to Fact

We meet such a woman today in the Gospel of John. She is compromised. She has committed an awful sin. The self-judgment that has led her to that situation has her facing a judgment from the biblical scholars before whom she has been exposed. Then the woman and her accusers met Jesus.

Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again" (7:53 - 8:11).
This story of the adulteress is almost certainly a late, non-Johannine addition to the Fourth Gospel. Most English translations since the King James Version indicate as much by breaking the text with space, brackets, or a different typeface. Some put it as a footnote. All explain that these twelve verses are absent from the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of John.

Critical commentaries are unanimous in observing that the vocabulary and style of these verses differ considerably from the remainder of the Gospel of John and are more like one of the Synoptics. As a matter of fact, one family of New Testament manuscripts has this story after Luke 21:38.

The fairest judgment is simply to say that we have come to a story that was not originally a part of this Gospel but whose traditional place has come to be John 7:53 - 8:11. It was preserved in extra-canonical writings as a piece of authentic tradition from the life of Jesus. Rescued from its independent wanderings, it finally found its way into the canonical text here. Bruce and other conservative scholars have conjectured that it was inserted here to illustrate Jesus' words recorded at 8:15: "I judge no one."

This Story Tells Me . . .

The sad plight of a woman caught in adultery turns into a beautiful story about compassion and the opportunity for a new beginning. It has critical, historical, and interpretive challenges worth pursuing in graduate school. But I am a preacher who meets people like this woman practically every day. People who have been hurt and made cynical by life. People who may have stopped caring. People who are guilty of things they are embarrassed to name. People who deserve to die, want to die, and may have tried to die. I love what this tells me to tell them.

This text tells me that I am not playing fast and loose with the Bible to tell someone who has committed sin that he can still be forgiven. I can even tell someone who has committed an embarrassing and known-to-everybody sexual sin that she can have a second chance and start over. I can feel confident in telling people that the real issue in their lives is not their past in sin but their future with God.

When I tell you that, some of you can't believe it. It's just too good to be true. It flies in the face of everything you've been told before. It is different from the message you had been given by some church somewhere. But the church doesn't always say the same thing Jesus says, and Jesus is the benchmark for truth. Jesus over tradition. Jesus over biblical interpretation. Jesus over church.

Marnie Ferree is a dear friend of mine. She and her husband, David, are beloved members of this church. And Marnie is a professional counselor who - with her husband's support and encouragement - ministers Christ's healing message to people with a past. Know what drew Marnie to her ministry? Know what taught her compassion for women like the one in this text? She has been there herself - and, by the healing grace of Jesus Christ, has come back to tell her story!

I knew how the world dealt with women like me. I'd heard the jokes about loose women. I'd experienced the revolving door of exploitation on the one hand and condemnation on the other. I knew the world saw me as a loser, but I didn't really care about the people of the world.

It was the religious folk I was afraid of. The Christians - the church people - those were the ones I wanted to avoid. I knew how the church dealt with sinners like me. They still threw stones. Maybe not literal ones, but sharp ones nonetheless.

Stones of gossip. I'd heard the whispers and the rumors.

Stones of withdrawal. I'd seen the averted eyes, the retreating backs. People avoided me. Who wants to associate with a woman caught in adultery?

Stones of judgment. The condemnation overwhelmed me. I try not to blame the religious folk. Most thought judging me was the right thing to do. Good Christians are supposed to take a strong stand against sin.

All I knew was that those stones didn't help. The threat of punishment sure wasn't turning my life around. Yes, I was afraid of hell, but I was already living in it, and I didn't know a way out. I knew everything about rules. I had no clue about relationship.

Until I encountered Jesus. His approach was totally different and surprising. He was kind with me and gentle. He looked tenderly into my soul and saw my pain. He saw my past and how desperately I wanted a different future. He knew I couldn't do it on my own, and He didn't expect me to. He offered forgiveness. He showered me with grace. He caught me with His love and threw His power against my pain.

Jesus gave me hope for the future and grace for the journey. Instead of beating me up with stones, He challenged me with His love. He called me to a different life. He led me to the resources that made it possible. He coaxed me into relationship.

And one day at a time, by the grace of my Savior, this sinful, sexually addicted woman has been walking with Him in a newness of life.

It's not stones that help the sinner. It's only a relationship with a Savior.
When You Are Caught Red-Handed

For people caught red-handed in any sin, there is only one hope. It isn't law. It isn't judgment. It is brokenness, pardon, and a new beginning with Jesus.

This whole scene smacks of malice. Since lovers are discreet and cautious in their clandestine affairs, how could this woman have been "caught in the very act of committing adultery" with some man? She appears to have been used twice here - once by her sexual partner and again by the larger group that entrapped her. It is clear that she had been set up as a test case for Jesus. The professional teachers were going to check out his orthodoxy with this engaged or married woman who had broken her covenant of fidelity to her husband.

But wait just a minute. Where was the man? If she was caught "in the very act of committing adultery," there was a man present. Was the male paramour party to the entrapment? The Law of Moses would have required that both parties be put to death, but the scholars only brought the woman. Women have been subject to a double standard in sexual mores and behavior in every culture in history. Things that worldly men do and brag about are scandalous for women. Multiple sex partners make him an s-t-u-d; the same things make her an s-l-u-t.

So what about the Law's requirement about stoning somebody here? The Law of Moses actually doesn't begin with stoning. It begins with the obligation to warn a sinner and offer encouragement for her to repent. Otherwise, the individual who knows of a person's sin shares in its guilt. "You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself" (Lev. 19:17). Had these accusers rebuked the woman and her lover? Or had they hidden, allowed the sin to occur without challenge, and come to Jesus rather than the woman herself with their accusation?

When Jesus told those people "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (8:7b), he hung them out to dry - and they knew it. Our modern practice of "turning state's evidence" against a co-conspirator in a capital case is just that - a modern practice. The Law of Moses required not that one be "without sin" in the absolute sense (i.e., perfect in all matters) before giving testimony in a capital case but that the witness be "without sin" in the matter at hand (i.e., not a party to the act). Against the background of Exodus 23:1, a "malicious witness" was held to be not only the person who lied but a person who testified to the truth incompetently, from vengeful motives, or in collusion with someone bringing charges from a false motive. In view of this situation, anyone who gave testimony or participated in this woman's stoning would thereby become subject to being stoned himself! Jesus snared them in their own net - for the sake of giving the woman a second chance.


Her dashing, heroic prince did come! No fairy tale here. No cross-cultural myth preserving a little girl's need to be cherished and fought for. This is the real thing! This is the Prince of Light rescuing a hopeless, helpless woman from the Prince of Darkness - and giving her the opportunity to experience eternal life. This was not a rescue to romance; it was the ultimate rescue from lostness to life.

As the little pile of stones built up from being dropped to the ground while Jesus looked away - perhaps an act of face-saving mercy even for them - those same rocks became a monument to grace over law, life over death. And the memory of those rocks on the ground is the hope the rest of us have for being treated the same way. To paraphrase Marnie: Rocks don't help us sinners, but Jesus does!

[1] John Eldredge, Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man's Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), pp. 180-181.
[2] Marnie Ferree graciously wrote this testimony and presented it in person and by video at all three assemblies on January 13, 2002. Information about her ministry may be found at

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