By Jennifer Slattery, Crosswalk.com
Regardless of what we have or haven’t done, the unnamed adulterous woman reminds us of the most hidden parts of ourselves. It reveals our desperate need for absolution and the unshakable reality of grace. Though evidence suggests this narrative wasn’t included in the original Scriptures, the truths presented reveal core aspects of God’s heart, His longings for us, and how we can be reconciled in Him.
Tucked securely within these eleven verses, one finds the core components of the gospel and the freedom available in Christ.
1. We all sin.
This story began with Jesus sitting in the temple courts. Others soon gathered around Him, and He used the opportunity to teach them. But soon, the religious elite of His day interrupt Him and shove a woman, perhaps partially dressed with hair in disarray, in front of Him and the crowd.
She’d been caught in adultery, an act, according to Old Testament law, that deserved death. Everyone wanted to know how Jesus, the merciful One who touched lepers, healed the blind, and ate with sinners, would respond.
He surprised them all by turning their accusations back on them, saying, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Scholars say this statement points back to Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22, which requires the one acting as a witness against another to throw the first stone. Perhaps this reminded the woman’s accusers how, in bringing her, a “lawbreaker”, to Jesus for stoning, they were themselves breaking the law.
But there’s a broader message for us all, conveyed in Romans 3:23 and James 2:10, which say, respectively, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (NIV), and “whoever keeps the whole law but stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
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2. Our sin will be uncovered.
Considering the consequences of adultery, the woman dragged in front of Jesus probably thought no one would find out she’d been sleeping with someone other than her husband. Throughout history, countless others have made similar assumptions. The “black” civil rights activist found to be white, the United States Olympic Committee President who cited a doctorate degree she’d never earned, and the Ocean City man who embezzled $6.5 million from the company he worked for all likely thought they could keep their transgressions hidden.
But Scripture promises our sins will find us out (Num. 32:23). As Moses said in Psalm 90:8, speaking to God, “You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your presence” (NIV). Though we may be able to hide our offense from others, at least for a time, Christ knows every ungodly thought we entertain, lie we tell, and manipulative behavior we engage in. He sees and knows all. Nothing we do is hidden from Him.
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3. We can’t trick God.
John 8:6 says the religious elite brought the adulterous woman to Jesus in order to “trick” Him. Obviously, they didn’t know (or refused to believe) that Jesus was God-incarnate and therefore immune to their schemes. They thought they could trap the Son of God but their plan backfired. Not only did Jesus’ calm response frustrate their intentions, but He used the situation to expose something scribes and Pharisees spent their lifetimes denying—that they were sinners, just like everyone else.
We may never have tried to trap God, as the religious leaders routinely did with Jesus, but many of us have attempted to deceive Him by downplaying our sin or trying to assign honorable or harmless motives to it. God won’t be fooled by pious prayers or showy yet superficial behaviors. He sees—and wants—our hearts, open, honest, and laid bare before Him.
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4. Self-deception comes easily.
When we read this account, it’s obvious the scribes and Pharisees conspired together against Jesus. I wish Scripture allowed us to catch their conversation prior to entering the temple courts—back when one of them first hatched this seemingly brilliant idea. No doubt they felt completely justified in their actions and convinced of their righteousness.
After all, they were the religious leaders, those who studied and knew the law and explained it to others. They were nothing like the scandalous and sinful woman in their clutches—one whom, according to the Old Testament, deserved stoning.
Yet, with one statement, Jesus exposed the religious leaders’ self-deception: “Let any of you who is without sin …” (v. 7). Notice, He didn’t say, “Let any of you who haven’t sinned in this manner,” as if to elevate adultery above all the other offenses one commits against God. No, He said let the one who is without sin, as Jesus and Jesus alone was, be the one to condemn.
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5. Sin requires justice.
In today’s culture, we might be tempted to excuse sin. We want to know the reasons behind it, reasons that somehow justify the behavior. Was the woman married to a callused jerk and in desperate need of affection? Had the man she slept with seduced her? Had she perhaps been lonely or sad or in some other way emotionally compromised and therefore not responsible for her actions, or at the very least, not deserving of such a harsh punishment?
But Jesus never refuted the law of Moses nor the penalty of stoning. Instead, He widens its scope, implying that they and this woman were equally guilty. As He challenged the sinless to throw the first stone, did any of them remember His statement, recorded in Matthew 5, where He equated lustful thoughts with adulterous actions?
Romans 6:23 silences all whitewashing attempts when it says, “For the wages” or payment “of sin is death.”
We understand the concept of justice when considering our modern courts of law, but do we draw that same connection to the ultimate lawgiver—God? When it applies to others, like the murderer and thief, perhaps, but what about when we, like the scribes and Pharisees, are the ones being called out?
It is then that we long for mercy, and God gives us that through Christ, but to receive His gift of grace, we must first recognize the depth of our sin and the consequences we deserve. Christ’s death on the cross only makes sense in light of Hebrews 9:22 which says there’s no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.
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6. Jesus came to save, not condemn.
Directly following perhaps the most oft quoted verse in Scripture, Jesus said, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (John 3:17). In this, we see our Father’s heart in sending His Son to earth and Jesus’ heart in taking our punishment upon Himself.
From the beginning of time, God consistently and persistently communicates a driving desire—to reconcile us, a bunch of stubborn and rebellious humans, to Himself. We see this in the animal sacrificed to pay for Adam and Eve’s sin after they rebelled and ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:21). We see it in God’s liberation of the emerging Hebrew nation from Egypt and in the cycle of man’s sin followed by God’s mercy revealed throughout Judges. Perhaps most beautifully, we see it in Jesus’ response to the adulterous woman in John chapter 8. Confronted with a choice to condemn or redeem, Jesus said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (NIV).
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7. Because of Jesus, we can receive mercy.
When Jesus conversed with the adulterous woman, mankind still lived under “the law”—a set of commands and requirements laid out by God. Though this law might seem harsh to our modern ways of thinking, it served three necessary purposes: It revealed God’s holiness, man’s sin, and our inability to follow God’s commands.
In other words, as Paul points out throughout the book of Romans, the law provided the backstory for the gospel. Apart from Christ, we’re hopeless and helpless, enslaved to our sin and spiritually dead. No amount of prayers or sacrifices could ever make up for all we’ve done and make us right with God.
We need a redeemer—someone able to pay the penalty we deserve, a ransom, if you will, to free us from our enslaved state. God provided that Person in Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, He paid for all sins past and present, and by His blood offered us the same precious gift He did to this woman—mercy. To receive a life we don’t deserve because of the One Christ offered in our place.
We receive that mercy the moment we trust in Jesus for salvation.
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8. Jesus offers new life.
Pardon is only sweet when accompanied by freedom—the freedom not just from sin’s consequences, but from its destructive pull on our hearts as well. Life reveals the truth in Jesus’ words, spoken shortly after His encounter with the adulterous woman: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”
Paul expands on this idea further in Romans 7:15-18 when he says, “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. … As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. … For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Though scholars debate whether he’s referring to his life before or after Christ, the message is clear—sin enslaves.
Only Jesus can set us free, and that’s precisely what He does. When we turn to Him for salvation, He breaks sin’s hold on us and gives us the power to live lives not marked by anger, hatred, and death but instead love, joy, righteousness, righteousness, and life (Gal. 5:22-23).
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9. God’s grace demands life change.
Not only does Christ enable us to live transformed, His grace demands this. Whereas previously self-love, characterized by rebellion, drove us, once under grace, His love motivates us to live in a way that pleases Him.
My husband and I were blessed with a responsible and obedient daughter, and though we punished her on occasion, those consequences weren’t what ultimately motivated her behavior. In numerous conversations she told us again and again, “I don’t want to disappoint you,” or, “I want you both to be proud of me.”
In other words, her love for us and ours for her prompted her behavior. The same should be true of us with God. Jesus put it this way, “If you love Me, you will obey Me” (John 14:14, ESV). Our actions reveal the depth of our love for God and gratitude for the grace given.
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10. When Jesus speaks, our accusers flee.
Imagine having your worst sin paraded in front of a packed congregation. Imagine standing, condemned, by the supreme religious authority of your day. The morning when the scribes and Pharisees thrust the adulterous woman in front of Jesus and what one can reasonably presume was a sizeable crowd, she experienced both.
But one even greater than the scribes and Pharisees stood in her midst—Jesus. Nothing the religious leaders said could override His authority, and when He spoke, her accusers fled. When He speaks mercy over us, by His blood, our accuser, Satan, flees as well.
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Jennifer Slattery is a writer, editor, and speaker who’s addressed women’s groups, church groups, Bible studies, and writers across the nation. She’s the author of six contemporary novels and maintains a devotional blog found at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com. She has a passion for helping women discover, embrace, and live out who they are in Christ. As the founder of Wholly Loved Ministries, she and her team partner with churches to facilitate events designed to help women rest in their true worth and live with maximum impact. Visit her online to find out more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event, and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE to stay up to date with her future appearances, projects, and releases. When not writing, reading, or editing, Jennifer loves going on mall dates with her adult daughter and coffee dates with her hilariously fun husband.