Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones…
– John 8:5-9a
Imagine it is Easter Sunday, the biggest day of the year at your church, and just as the pastor takes the stage to preach God’s Word a group of male church leaders burst into your church with a woman wearing next to nothing and drag her down the aisle and onto the stage demanding that the pastor deal with the adultery they watched her commit! That is pretty much what happens in John 8 at the Temple on during the Feast of Booths.
The religious leaders tragically take a private sin and make it public for shock value and to catch Jesus in a trap. Troubled by Jesus’ burgeoning popularity, the religious leaders sought to trick Him by placing Him in a losing dilemma. So, they caught a woman in the act of adultery and brought her before Jesus to render a verdict as to her guilt and ensuing punishment. The violation of the 7th Commandment (Exodus 20:14) demanded that the guilty woman be put to death by stoning (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:20-27). Jewish law (Mishnah) in Jesus’ day demanded that the man caught in such an act was to be put to death by strangulation by a towel around his neck with one man pulling in one direction and another man pulling in the opposite as the guilty man was standing up to his knees in dung.
In Jesus’ day, enforcing these laws became tremendously complicated because they were ruled by the Roman government that reserved for itself the sole right to inflict capital punishment (John 18:31). Therefore, they had Jesus between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If he let the woman go, He would violate Mosaic Law and show that He was a false prophet (Deut. 18:14-22). If he judged the woman guilty and imposed the biblical penalty, he would violate Roman law and thereby be arrested and punished by the Roman government. Brilliantly, Jesus paused to write on the ground with His finger just as God the Father had written the 10 Commandments (Deut. 9:10). While no one is certain of exactly what He wrote, it seems plausible that Jesus wrote the first line of the 10th Commandment “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…” since they had watched this woman. Perhaps he wrote, “You shall not bear false witness” as they were guilty of doing? Or, perhaps he wrote, “You shall not commit adultery” along with the names of their mistresses. Perhaps we will find out what Jesus’ wrote in heaven, but whatever He wrote it worked.
In asking the witnesses to throw the first stone Jesus was consistent with the teaching of Scripture which demanded that they stone her, and that if their witness was false they were to receive the same penalty they had sought to inflict upon her (Deut. 17:7, 19:18-19). It seems likely that not only was this woman in sin, but her hypocritical accusers were also. Not only had they caused adultery to happen, they also likely peeped through a window as voyeurs who themselves were guilty of adultery of the heart. Therefore, it logically follows that Jesus would agree that she was in sin, but also demand the biblical response that the accuser not guilty of the exact same sin in his heart step forward to cast the first stone. Each of her accusers walked away as Jesus ignored them, beginning with the oldest who likely knew the Scripture best and had the most sin from their many years.
Amazingly, the only person without sin who could cast the first stone was Jesus. And, rather than killer her He would go to the cross to forgive her.