“He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” [John 8:7]
All my life, I have heard many interpret this passage as meaning that Jesus was not going to hold to the technical requirements of the Law, but He was going to overlook some sin and be lenient to us as long as our hearts were in the right place and that we were putting forth a little effort. In turn, some have claimed that if the church or any individual Christian attempts to correct sin in someone else’s life, then that individual is oversteppering his bounds, is going further than Jesus went, and is simply legalistic.
Take just a moment and go read John 8:2-12. I’ll be honest, as a boy growing up, this passage was always confusing to me. If you read only those eleven verses by themselves, it does appear that Jesus is overlooking this woman’s sin and showing her leniency. If the scribes and Pharisees were telling the truth, then Jesus basically bypassed the Law of Moses (which was still in effect at the time). However, that interpretation flies in the face of so many other passages and teachings of Scripture (Romans 16:17; Galatians 6:1; II Thessalonians 3:14; II John 9-11).
So what exactly does this interaction with Jesus teach us? Does it mean that we should overlook sin? Absolutely not!
To get a better understanding of this passage, we must understand what the scribes and Pharisees were referring to when they said that the Law of Moses commanded that this particular woman should be stoned. Take a look at Deuteronomy 22:22:
“If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die – the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so you shall put away the evil from Israel.”
This is the passage that it appears they are referencing. Several other verses in Deuteronomy 22 indicate that the manner of death is stoning. However, do you notice something missing from the interaction with Jesus? This passage in Deuteronomy said that both the man and the woman were to be put to death. However, it appears that only the woman was brought to Jesus.
The next problem is that Deuteronomy 19:15 makes it clear that if someone is to be accused by witnesses, then it must be by at least two or three witnesses to establish the matter. Then, if you look at Deuteronomy 17:16-17, you find what I believe is the most interesting point, and one that Jesus was using in His interaction with the scribes and Pharisees.
“Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you.”
Isn’t that interesting. Under the Law of Moses, if someone was to be stoned for a sin that was committed, the witnesses to the sin were to cast the first stone. I personally believe this law was put into place to deter false witnesses. If you wanted to bring a false accusation against someone, his blood was going to be on your hands because you were going to be required to stone them before anyone else.
So what does this teach us about the interaction that Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees in John 8?
- The scribes and Pharisees did not follow the Law of Moses because they only brought the woman to Jesus. If she was caught in the act as they claim, then they should have had the man as well.
- Jesus never said that the woman should be let go. Quite the opposite. He told them to stone her, but he put a condition on it. He said specifically, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”
Was this statement by Jesus a claim that they should just go easy on her? Was He telling them that she sinned but so has everyone else? Was He trying to teach them that they should not judge her because they were not perfect?
I believe that Jesus was actually telling them to stone her, but He was telling them to do it by the letter of the law. That means the man and woman both should be present, that there had to be at least two or more witnesses, and that the witnesses should throw the first stone. So why exactly did the scribes and Pharisees walk away and not stone her? Because they had not followed the Law of Moses, and they knew they hadn’t. In other words, by bringing her to Jesus in the way they did, they had sinned. They had no legal right to stone her, and they knew it. So when Jesus said “He who is without sin among you…”, He was basically saying, “Whichever one of you who has properly accused this woman per the Law…”. Since the witnesses were the ones required to cast the first stones, they all walked away because there is a possibility that none of them were actually a witness to her adultry.
Notice that when Jesus looked up at the woman, He asked here where her accusers had gone. He asked her if no one was condemning her anymore. That was a legal question, not a spiritual question. Legally, there were no witnesses present to accuse her. When the woman answered that no one was there to condemn her, Jesus said that He also did not condemn her. Again, this is a legal statement and not a spiritual statement. Per the Law of Moses, He did not have the legal right to accuse or condemn her because He was not a witness to her adultery. Then Jesus changes from making a legal statement to now making a spiritual statement. He said, “Go and sin no more” [John 8:11]. It appears that He knew she had sinned, because He told her to stop.
Does Jesus overlook sin? No. Did He overlook the sin of this woman? No. Was He telling them to go easy on her because no one is perfect? No. The scribes and Pharisees were trying to use a legal issue under the Law of Moses to trap Jesus. Like always, He saw through their trap and proved their attempt futile by providing them the correct legal answer to the situation.