We are living in a time in which everything is being recorded. There are cameras wherever we go. When drivers run a red light, it is documented on camera and a ticket is mailed to them. When we go to an ATM machine, we are being filmed during the transaction. There are approximately 30 million surveillance cameras throughout the U. S. to ensure that if someone commits a crime, they will be filmed. There is no escaping it; they will be caught in the act.
The Bible tells the story about a woman who was caught in the act of doing something wrong: the actual act of adultery. She was an unwitting pawn in a plot to bring Jesus’ ministry to an end, and according to the law, she could have been put to death by stoning.
Jesus’ enemies wanted to destroy him, and they were trying to devise some kind of trap they could set, because he never did or said anything wrong. His adoring crowds were only growing. So they devised what they thought would be a foolproof plan: They would catch a woman in adultery, bring her before Jesus, and he would have to say she should be stoned, which would cause him to lose favor with the people. If, on the other hand, he said the woman should not be stoned, he would not be obeying the law.
So they went and found a woman and entrapped her. I don’t believe they randomly found a woman who was committing adultery. I believe they set a trap. Perhaps even one of the men who brought the woman before Jesus was the other guilty party.
In the Mosaic Law, if two people had committed adultery, they could be put to death by stoning. But both parties had to be present, and they had to be caught in the actual act. There also had to be witnesses. There could be no doubt whatsoever. As a result, this law was rarely enacted. According to the historian Josephus, it was a rather rare occurrence to see this kind of stoning take place. So Jesus’ enemies weren’t even meeting the criteria of the law. All they had was the woman.
As they brought her before Jesus, much to their surprise, he turned the tables on them. He turned the white heat of his wrath on their sin instead of hers. They thought they looked so holy as they spouted Scripture. But this should serve as a reminder that not everyone who quotes the Bible – especially those who quote it to condemn others – are always believers. It is possible they might be guilty of worse sin.
That is why Jesus said, “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Matthew 7:3 NLT) The statement was meant to illicit a chuckle, because it is an absurd illustration to show how ridiculous it is for some people to always be nitpicking the sins of other people when they are sometimes guilty of far worse. And that is what was happening here.
The sin that stands out in this story is not the sin of a woman who was unrighteous and knew it. That is not to say the issue of sexual sin and adultery isn’t a serious matter. It is. Think of how many lives have been destroyed by it. Adultery goes beyond the mere sexual act; it almost always includes deception and betrayal. Some years ago, a USA Today article, “Business Scandals Prompt Look into Personal Lives,” pointed out that among those who had committed corporate fraud, in many of the cases there also was infidelity. The point was that if executives are lying in one area of their lives, they most likely will lie in other areas as well.
What stands out in this story is the sin of self-righteous people who were sinful and did not know it. So Jesus confronted them. I love the way he turned the tables on them. He stooped down and simply wrote on the ground. Then Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 NIV), and he started writing again.
We don’t know what Jesus was writing, but here is what I think happened. I think maybe Jesus wrote down the words, “You shall not commit adultery.” Maybe he just wrote the number of the commandment. And then I think he started writing down the names of the men who were present. They knew they were busted .They thought they had caught this woman in the act, but I think Jesus was basically saying, “I know you guys. I know what you have been doing.” So the men left, one by one, starting with the oldest. (The older ones had more to confess than the younger ones, I am sure.)
The woman didn’t know what to think. She had never seen anything like that before. She probably thought it was the last day of her life, yet there was Jesus, driving these people away. Then he said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:10–11 NIV). The word Jesus used here for “woman” is a very important word in the original Greek. It is a word that is respectful, a word that someone would use when speaking to his wife or his mother or a lady.
Yes, this woman had been caught in an immoral act. Yet Jesus used a term of respect to address her. He saw her for what she could become. And that is how God looks at us. We just see a mess of a life. We see mistakes and things we have done that are wrong. But God says, “Yes, I see that. I am not oblivious. But I also see potential. I see what you can turn into.”
God can look at a scheming, devious Jacob, whose name meant “heel-catcher,” and potentially see a man with the name Israel, meaning “one that rules with God.” He can see an impetuous, hot-headed man named Simon transformed into a man with a new name, Peter, which means “rock.” He can see a cowardly man named Gideon, hiding from his enemies, transformed into a mighty man of valor. He can also see us for what we can become. But we have to wait until God is done, because we are all works in progress.
As for the woman who was guilty of adultery, it could have been the worst day of her life. But fortunately for her, it turned into the best day of her life, because she was brought before Jesus who extended mercy and grace toward her.
Her story is a reminder that our sins can be forgiven and forgotten. I am not suggesting that God is somehow oblivious to our sins. God is omniscient, after all. He knows all things. But if God has forgiven our sins and has chosen to forget them, then we should not keep dredging them up again. We should not choose to remember what God has chosen to forget.