Distorting the Gospel: The Meaning of John 8:1-11

Distorting the Gospel: The Meaning of John 8:1-11

I was reading the comments in a thread about two of the hot button social issues of the day. And as usual the two sides formed solidly against each other. On one side were those who argued that Jesus did not condemn sinners and that we should follow His example. On the other side were those who argued that we should not condone sin by being too accepting. And then it happened. Out of the latter group someone lobbed the grenade that is John 8:11. They reminded everyone who argued for not condemning sinners that Jesus warned the woman caught in adultery to, “go and sin no more.”

I’ve heard it used this way before. Once too often in fact. As I read the words I shuttered with exasperation. Though I sincerely believe many do not mean harm when using the passage in this way , I do believe they are causing it nonetheless. It comes from a general lack of understanding of how scripture works in context to convey meaning that’s the problem. I’m working hard here to give others the benefit of the doubt, knowing full well that too many have the scent of legalism to have had the riches of God’s grace lavished on them.

And even as I write this post, I can hear the legal mind saying, “but Jesus did say it.” So let me try to explain why using the passage this way is a distortion of the message John intended to convey. I pray all those who have ears to hear will read on.

The Passage Is Not About The Woman Caught in Adultery.

The significance of scripture is not in what it says, but how what it says contributes to what it means. Yes Jesus said it, but how does John intend for us to use it? It is a mistake to apply a single statement in scripture, particularly in this genre, unless the statement captures the passage’s meaning. A passage’s meaning is found in and limited by it’s context. The only way to get in the context is to find out what the author of the passage is talking about. You must find the author’s subject. An important note must also be given here. We are looking for the author’s subject and not the subject of the characters the author is writing about. In order to accomplish this we must listen closely to the author; in this case John. The Problem with Listening to Jesus.

The Passage Is About Jesus’ Test

John tells us that scribes and Pharisees interrupt Jesus’ teaching in the temple, bringing a woman caught in the very act of adultery. What is key, is John tells us their motive for bringing her is not to protect the holiness of the community, but to put Jesus to the test and find grounds to accuse Him. I don’t know if they knew enough about Jesus to know He would not participate in the ugly spectacle of a pubic stoning of a women half responsible for a full act of adultery (the law said both the man and the woman were to be stoned), or if they thought they could enter into a legal debate about the law to expose Him as a law breaker. Either way, the passage is not about the woman, but about the test. Will He pass or not? And that’s where the meaning will be found. This is not about whether Jesus will be hard or soft on sin, it’s about whether the legal experts will be able to trap Jesus on a question about sin.

Jesus Refuses to Play The Legal Game

I love this passage because John says that Jesus refuses to play their game. It should be a simple question. Yes or No? Stone or not? But according to John, Jesus stoops and begins to write on the ground, completely ignoring their question. It’s only after they persist in asking that Jesus straightens to address them. We all know by now what John reports. Jesus said the one who is without sin can begin the rock throwing. All it would have taken was one, and the rest of the sinners could join the stoning. The First Stone. But when they heard His answer, knowing they failed in their attempt to trap Him, they all went away, betrayed by their own sinfulness. The stoning of the woman was secondary in their motives anyway, according to John’s narration.

Here is where the meaning becomes significant for the reader. Jesus refused to publicly play the legal game of do we condemn or do we condone, when it really wasn’t about the woman’s adultery. But for the reader, the test that the scribes and Pharisees introduced is still on the table. Now that He is alone with the woman, will He condemn her? Will he stone her or will He condone her sin? The law did say that she should be stoned. Listen to what happened.

10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

Even Our Grenade Is Grace In His Hands

Only those with clean hands can throw stones.

Jesus could have condemned her. He was the only one there who could. Yet in an incredible act of grace, He chose not to. The woman had been caught in the very act of sin. And apart from the hypocritical legal experts who tried to use her, Jesus pardoned the guilty and sent her on her way to sin no more. In the ears of the guilty who deserve death for their sins, even the “go and sin no more,” must sound like a grand gesture of mercy. In fact, it was.

Being pardoned when we deserve death and being told to go and sin no more is not a warning, its an invitation to new life and transformation by grace.

I image you’ve guessed in these types of discussions I error on the side of grace. Does that make me soft on sin? I don’t believe so. I know very well the wages of sin is death, but I have experienced the gift of God; eternal in Christ Jesus. I deserved death but He pardoned me and sent me on my way with the loving command to sin no more. But His perfect love cast out all fear, for fear involves punishment. I don’t believe I condone sin, but I refuse to publicly play the legal game, privately I point people to the one who can pardon, and I know I’m not worthy to cast the first stone.