THE CASE OF THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN: A Study In The Misunderstanding And Misuse Of Scripture

The Adulterous Woman

Over the years, I have repeatedly heard brethren using the case of the adulterous woman in John 8:1-11 as:

(1) a prooftext for God’s mercy triumphing over His law, and

(2) an argument that the NT outlawed capital punishment.

Although number one is true in an indirect way (viz., God’s mercy triumphs over God’s law), folks who use it as a direct proof do so by making an argument that is, within the context, totally inane. In his defense of mercy triumphing over law, one such fellow recently said, “I was thinking of the woman caught in adultery (by upholding the law, Jesus should have had her stoned to death).” In making such a statement, this fellow seemed oblivious to the fact he was, by viewing this passage this way, engaged in gross hermeneutical error. For the truth is, in His upholding the law, Jesus was, in point of fact, PROHIBITED from having the woman stoned to death. In what follows we will demonstrate not only why this is true concerning mercy triumphing of law, but also why it is a mistake to think this text is the proof that capital punishment has been outlawed by the NT.

Under the Law of Moses, adultery was a capital offense (cf. Deut 22:22). Those Scribes and Pharisees who, in John 8:5, brought the adulterous woman to Jesus that day in the Jerusalem Temple understood this teaching, for they said, “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” Nevertheless, and this has some bearing on the case, the evidence indicates they were not the least bit interested in seeing justice done that day. If they were, where was the man with whom she had been involved? Under the Law of Moses, both the adulterer and the adulteress were to be stoned, and it must be remembered that this adulteress had been caught “in the very act,” according to verse 4. No, we can be sure that these men were not concerned with justice. Instead, they were, as verse 6 makes clear, hoping for some reason to accuse Jesus. The woman was simply their prop or means for doing so.

When He finally answered, Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” It ought to be obvious that when He made this statement He was not saying that the only way capital punishment could be meted out would be by those who had never sinned. Otherwise, how could anyone have ever carried out the commandment to execute murderers under the Law of Moses? It has been said, “That which proves too much, proves nothing,” and this is the case here. Staying within the context, then, it is apparent that Jesus was addressing Himself to the evil motives of these men, who were actually much more perverse than the woman they were accusing, in that they were actively willing to SUPPRESS THE TRUTH of who Jesus was by their own UNRIGHTEOUSNESS (cf. Rom 1:18; Matt 23:27-28). Remember, this was mob action, and if Jesus would have given His consent to that mob, they were ready to stone the woman to death, which would have been contrary to Roman law, and then lay the whole blame at His feet. If, on the other hand, He said “No” to their malicious intent, then they stood ready to accuse Him before the people as one who taught against the Law of Moses. These were vile men, indeed, and it was surely not the doing of JUSTICE and RIGHTEOUSNESS that motivated them.

Moreover, and much more importantly, it must not be forgotten that this whole episode was actually taking place CONTRARY to the Law of Moses. Under the Law of Moses, the accused had the right to a fair trial. But as pointed out, the men, in this case, were not motivated by justice and righteousness. Even so, in spite of all their political machinations and theological chicanery, Jesus conducted Himself wonderfully. Under the weight of their own sins, these Scribes and Pharisees withdrew themselves and their charges against the accused. As a result, SOME HAVE MISTAKENLY THOUGHT THAT THE LORD THEN HAD THE RIGHT TO STONE HER HIMSELF, and because He did not do so proves that capital punishment, under the Law of Christ, is no longer right for adultery, as well as murder, rape, or any other offense. Or, that Jesus’ refusal to have the woman stoned to death is proof that mercy triumphs over law. Both of these conclusion are wrong.

Furthermore, one mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this whole scenario occurred under the Law of Moses, and as such, it took two or more witnesses before one could be sentenced to death (cf. Deut 17:5-7). Jesus, who was, in fact, God in the flesh, was under obligation to keep the Law of Moses perfectly. THEREFORE, HE COULD NOT HAVE STONED THE WOMAN HIMSELF, OR INSTRUCTED ANYONE ELSE TO DO SO, WITHOUT AT LEAST THE TWO WITNESSES THE LAW REQUIRED. And I say “at least,” because there was specific judicial procedures that were necessary for a trial to be conducted consistent with justice and righteousness. Consequently, the woman in this case did not die because capital punishment was not justified for the offense of which she had been accused, as some are teaching, or because mercy triumphs over law, but because there was no one to accuse her in a properly conducted judicial procedure. (Additionally, if the prima facie case presented to Jesus had ever been officially heard before the Sanhedrin, she most assuredly would have been acquitted.) Thus, to read into this passage an anti-capital punishment position on the part of Jesus is to do violence to God’s Word, and leads one to miss the whole point of th passage: IT WAS THE ACCUSERS, NOT THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN, ON TRIAL THAT DAY. In other words, the lesson the Lord taught that day in the Temple concerned itself with the perversity of a religious people who had become worse than those they condemned. This, of course, is a lesson for all of us to take to heart.

This means that the account of the adulterous woman was not recorded in order to prove that, under Christ, God’s mercy triumphs over His law (although it most certainly does in connection with the sacrifice of the Father’s only begotten Son), but that Jesus, despite the most devious schemes Satan could come up with, kept the law of Moses perfectly and thus demonstrated Himself qualified for His ultimate test—namely, the perfect lamb of God who would endure the cross for the sins of a lost and dying world. This, of course, included the adulterous woman to whom He said that day: “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” When she replied, “No one, Lord,” He said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” For without the blood He would shed on the cruel cross of Calvary, the adulterous woman, like the rest of us, could not have been forgiven. It was in this way, and this way only, that God’s mercy triumphed over His law. PRAISE GOD.

Let us all be careful how we handle the Word of God.

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