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People sometimes think that the story about the woman taken in adultery in John 8 teaches that Jesus is so forgiving that Christians should not tell people they are sinners or that they need to repent and change to please God. What is the correct understanding of this passage?
First, we must understand that the Bible clearly teaches that we do have a responsibility to speak out against sin. Please study our online article about hating sin but loving the sinner at /teaching/rebuking_sin.php.
Now please read John 8:1-11. Then consider these notes about this woman's case:
The context clearly states the motives of those who brought the woman to Jesus. They did it to trap Jesus and have something to accuse Him of. Their motives were hypocritical. They did not care about the woman or the law.
The teaching of the law is found in Lev. 20:10; Deut 22:22f. Note that these passages teach that both the adulterer and the adulteress should be put to death. If the woman was taken in the very act, then the man should have been caught too. Where was he? If the Jews were really so concerned about following Moses' law as they pretended to be, they would have brought the man too. What they really wanted to do was to trap Jesus.
Wherein was the trap? Probably their idea was based on their belief that Jesus came to be an earthly king. If so, He should judge such matters as this. If He judged to kill her, they could accuse Him to the Romans of having usurped their authority, since no one could be put to death without their authority (18:31). If he said not to kill her then they could accuse Him of breaking Moses' law.
They continued to press Him for an answer, so He said that whoever among them was sinless should be the first to throw a stone at her.
This turned the tables on them in more than one way. First, it gave them the duty to kill her, if it was to be done. This approach agreed with the Law of Moses, which they claimed to be following, for it said the witnesses must be the first ones to initiate the execution of the guilty (Deut. 17:6,7; cf. Deut. 13:9). They would have to execute her if it was to be done. In that case, they would be the ones to have to give answer to the Romans for having usurped their authority.
Second, this was an appeal to their own consciences. In the presence of all the people, He was forcing them to claim, if they stoned her, that they themselves were innocent of guilt. They had come to Him with hypocritical intentions, not to uphold the law, but to trap Him. His approach called attention to the evil they were committing in the very act of bringing the woman to Jesus.
Note that this does not say, as some claim, that we should never criticize the sins of others, and if we do we are hypocrites claiming we ourselves never sin. "Casting the first stone" refers to killing the woman, not just rebuking her sin. It is a gross perversion to teach that people are "casting stones" in the sense of John 8 when they simply rebuke people for sin! Jesus' disciples often pointed out people's errors, but the subject under discussion here is killing the woman for adultery. It has nothing to do with whether or not sin should be rebuked.
Third, after Jesus' statement, the accusers left. When Jesus then said that He did not "condemn" the woman in v11, He uses the word "condemn" as in v10 - to pass a death sentence and determine to stone her to death. Jesus was saying that her accusers had not been willing to do that, so neither would Jesus condemn her to be stoned. According to the law, her accusers had to be the ones to cast the first stone. The law required a person to be put to death only if there were two or more witnesses to condemn them. They could not be condemned when there were no witnesses nor even if there was just one witness (see Deut. 19:15; 17:6). When the accusers left, Jesus could not stone her according to the law.
Nevertheless, He knew she had sinned and needed to repent, so He still told her to sin no more. Note that, in saying this, Jesus was rebuking her sin in the very way people tell us we should not do today! He told her she was guilty of sin and needed to stop sinning. If we should not rebuke people for sin, why did Jesus say this? This is all we say to anyone when we tell them to repent. We are telling them they have sinned and need to stop it.
This passage teaches the very opposite of those who claim we are wrong to tell people to repent and stop committing sin. Rather, it shows us by the example of Jesus Himself that we ought to tell people to stop sinning.
(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 1/30/2006
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Scripture quotations are generally from the New King James Version (NKJV), copyright 1982, 1988 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. used by permission. All rights reserved.