Some aspects of the Bible are a mystery. Exactly how did Noah feed all those animals? What was Manna? What did Jesus write on the ground when the Pharisees accused the woman caught in adultery? That last one is today’s exploration of John’s Gospel.
Before we begin, your Bible may contain a footnote about John 7:53 – 8:11. These verses are not found in the earliest manuscripts. That often means they were added later for some reason. Yet, of all the verses that fall in that category, most scholars believe it is consistent with Jesus and with John’s writing.
“Everyone went to his home. But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 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. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 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. 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.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 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. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”” (John 7:53–8:11, NASB95)
Much has been written and said about these verses. Some have noted the Pharisee’s failure to observe all the law, which would have also condemned the man and not just the woman. Others have speculated about what Jesus wrote on the ground. A mystery that will not be solved until we can ask about it in heaven. Some have over-stressed the “I do not condemn you,” while others have overstressed Jesus’ command to “go and sin no more.” Speculation abounds about the woman, who was she? Is this Mary Magdalene? What happened to her after this? Again, we don’t know those answers.
What we do know is this. The woman was guilty. The Pharisees were partially right; according to the Law of Moses, she did deserve death. Jesus challenged their condemnation without saying a word, although we do not know what he wrote. We also know that Jesus fit the standard of “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus could have thrown the first stone, but didn’t. We must also recognize that while Jesus didn’t condemn the woman, He did not ignore her sin and called her to repent, to turn from it. Jesus did not let her off the hook.
In my thoughts, the best way to digest this portion of John’s Gospel is to put ourselves in the place of the woman. We have all been condemned at some point in our lives. Often there is a nugget of truth in those judgments. Just like the woman, she was caught in the act. But there is often a fundamental unfairness in the condemnation from the world, family, and friends. Just like the woman who was singled out and the man ignored. In Christ, we encounter a force greater than our sin, His love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Again, just like the woman. She didn’t deserve mercy, neither do we. And like the woman, Jesus commands us to walk away from sin.
The greatest mystery isn’t what Jesus wrote in the dirt. It is the activation of His love and mercy towards those who don’t deserve it. (Which is everyone in case you missed it.) God’s willingness to forgive is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.