John 8:1-12 - The Light of the World
Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees had already decided that He deserved to be put to death (John 5:16–18). They sent a delegation of officers to arrest him following the Feast of the Tabernacles (John 7:45–53), but they were unable to. There was a division among them, and the people had already attempted to make Jesus a king. The rulers of the Jews had a real problem.
They reasoned: if we sin against God, God will punish us. We must be holy. There are sinners out there who care nothing for the law. If we allow this lawless behaviour to continue, then we are going to be in real trouble. Law and Order will go down the tubes; immorality will be rampant, and chaos will triumph. And so, they had a great zeal for the Law — or so they thought.
They reasoned further: but someone might accidentally break the Law. If a man touched a dead body he was unclean. But, if a man touched something that had touched a dead body, he also would be unclean. There would be no way to know if you were really clean or unclean so you must ceremonially wash yourself continually. Someone might accidentally break the Sabbath. So the Pharisees guarded the day. You may walk so far and no more. You may do this and no more. The Sabbath was the center of the rigorous life of a pious Jew. Did not God say that the reason He sent Israel into exile was because they did not keep the Sabbath?
The Pharisees looked forward to the coming of Messiah. He would take care of those ‘others’ who were sinners. He would take care of those oppressive Romans. Righteousness (and we, of course) will reign supreme.
Now Jesus comes into the world. The nation is buzzing with excitement. This is the Messiah! He will save us. But He associates with all kinds of sinners who care nothing about the Law (John 7:46). Doesn’t He know how serious this is? He eats and drinks with prostitutes and tax-collectors! If these people are not kept in line, all sorts of problems will result. Even more of a problem to the Pharisees was that He violated their Sabbath Day. He had performed a miracle and healed a man. According to the law this clearly called for the death penalty.
Now they had a problem. In order to execute the death sentence for breaking the Sabbath, they would have to prove in the court of law what He did on the Sabbath. If they did that, they would have proven that He was the Messiah — at least in the eyes of the people. The people were expecting that Messiah would open the eyes of the blind, cause the lame to leap for joy, and open the ears of the deaf. Jesus does all of those things. If the Pharisees proved that He violated the Sabbath they would at the same time have proved that He was Messiah and had fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 35:5-6:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.
This would never do. They must find a way to legally put him to death and alienate Him from the people at the same time. This is the context of the account in John 8:1-12.
Jesus is teaching in the temple. The Feast of Tabernacles had finished and the crowds have gone home. But He still continues to teach. There is a great crowd around him. Suddenly there is a commotion. The Pharisees interrupt, dragging into the temple a woman who was taken in adultery, “caught in the very act.”
Is there anyone more despised than an adulteress? This will surely turn the people against Him — a woman who violates her home and destroys her marriage. Anyone can see how destructive adultery is. David wrote in Psalm 50 that the covenant breaker under God’s wrath was one who was a “partaker with adulterers.” The Pharisees needed not only to find a reason for capital punishment that would stand up in court; they also needed all the people to see how subversive Jesus truly was.
It is interesting to note that most people, when they think of the controversy between Jesus and the Jews, assume that the problem was that the Jews were too strict about the law. Jesus wanted them to lighten up and not be so judgmental. This passage and “Judge not” seem to be the only things that the reprobate know about Jesus. Augustine even testified that the reason this passage was omitted from so many early manuscripts was that the church of that day thought that this passage gave license to adultery. This is also what the Pharisees thought. They thought that Jesus was too light on sin. To prove it, they attempt to pit Him against the Law of Moses. “Moses said she should be stoned; what do you say?”
In order to understand the answer that Jesus gives it is necessary to look at why Jesus came into the world. In the first place, Jesus was never angry with the Pharisees because they were too strict with the Law. In fact, He said that they were not strict enough. “For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus is the eternal Word of God; He is not in conflict with Moses. He is the “one who is and who was and who is to come” (Revelation 1:8). The conflict was that the Pharisees did not care about the Law of God at all.
Jesus said, All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.Mark 7:9
The Pharisees kept all sorts of rules, but inwardly they were murderous, adulterous, covetous thieves. They were evil men. This is clearly seen even in this event with the adulteress. They were pretending a great zeal for the law; in reality, they were looking for an excuse to murder. They were looking for opportunity; they were not looking for justice. If they were concerned with justice, where was the man? She was caught in the very act, which would be hard to do if there were no man present. If they were so concerned about the law, then why this charade in the temple? There were courts of law; there were procedures.
No, they were not looking for justice. They were looking for an opportunity to murder and slander. They were worse than the adulteress. At least she knew that she was an adulteress. The Pharisees were not only evil, they were arrogant liars, hiding their bloodlust under a cloak of righteousness.
In the second place, central to Jesus’ teaching was that He did not come into the world to condemn the world. Not because the world did not need condemning, but because the world was condemned already (John 3:18). Paul wrote that we were all “children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:3). Jesus did not take a light, “just tolerate everybody” attitude towards sin. He saw sin for what it really is. Everyone is affected; everyone is condemned; there is nothing that man can do about it. He did not teach that the adulteress was just as good as everybody else. He taught that everybody else was just as bad as the adulteress. We all stand condemned, not just the adulteress, but also the Pharisees, the Jews, the Romans, Paul, Herod, Peter, and Judas, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Jesus did not come to condemn the world, for the world was already justly condemned and under the wrath of God. Jesus came to save that which was lost. To miss this is to miss everything.
And so the question that the Pharisees ask is despicable. They came with their holy exterior and great outward zeal for the law; inwardly they were plotting to murder. If Jesus said, “Stone her,” they were ready to condemn Him before the Romans as a usurper. Only Pilate had the authority to issue a death penalty. He would not have looked kindly on an upstart teacher usurping his authority. On the other hand, if He said, “Be merciful,” they would have accused Him before the people as going against Moses.
Now we have Jesus’ answer to their question. The first thing that He does is nothing. He stoops and writes on the ground as if He doesn’t even hear what they are saying. What He writes is the subject of much speculation, but the simple fact is that the Bible doesn’t tell us. It isn’t important. What is important is that He ignores them, “as though He heard them not” (v. 6). He shows almost a disbelief at the hardness and blindness of these men. How can men be so desperately blind? They are so puffed up with their own pride that they don’t even see what should be so obvious. They are at this moment conspiring to murder and are at the same time pretending a love for the law! Jesus is following Proverbs 26:4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.” The only thing that can soften the heart is the Holy Spirit.
In keeping silent, Jesus is also giving an opportunity for repentance. If God answered every call for justice immediately, who could stand? The Pharisees think that they can call God to account. By His silence, Jesus is giving them the opportunity to think through their question and repent.
But they do not. They are insistent. They keep hounding Him for an answer. They think that they have Him now. But the truth is that they are the ones on trial. If they accuse him of being unmerciful, are not they the ones who are truly unmerciful? They are not interested in the Law; they are not interested in this woman. She is merely a pawn in their game. If they accuse Him of going against Moses, are not they the ones who have really gone against Moses? Moses said, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But he also forbade murder, pride, false witness, and slander.
So Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin first cast a stone at her.” He stoops down again and continues to write on the ground. He is not answering a question about criminal procedure. Moses had already answered that question. If you think that Jesus is saying that adultery should not be punished in the courts of law, you must also say that inheritances must not be divided by courts of law (Luke 12:13-14). He is not making a statement about tolerance, as if adultery is OK now. That also was not the real question. He will never tolerate adultery. He will deal with that later. But He also will never tolerate murder and deceit. That is what He is dealing with first.
We are very good at pointing the finger at the ‘others’. We have become experts in discussing the flaws of “sinners.” But do we ever examine our own hearts? Jesus always points the finger right where it belongs. Paul wrote that if we would judge ourselves we would not be judged. Jesus said to first get the beam out of your own eye, then help your neighbor with their speck. He did not mean to pull the beam out of your eye just long enough to use as a weapon. He does not answer the fool according to his folly; instead, He turns the light on the folly of the fool. “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5).
“Let him who is without sin…” This statement goes far beyond human wisdom. Even if Solomon himself had said these words there would have been a line of people out the door with rocks in their hands. Only God can convict the hardened heart. Only God can awaken a dead conscience. We have become quite adept at lying to ourselves. “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked,” Jeremiah wrote. But when the light of the world shines into our darkness, we are exposed. We either hate the light and try to escape, or we say, with Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am undone” and come to our Saviour for mercy.
Calvin wrote, There is nothing better for us than that we be brought, as guilty, to his tribunal, provided that we surrender ourselves mildly and submissively to his government.
The Pharisees run. They will not come that they might have life, as Jesus said (John 5:40). Jesus continues to write on the ground. His Word does its work. They all go away. How often do we let the conviction of our consciences drive us from the only One who can cleanse us and make us whole!
Now Jesus turns to the woman. “Go, and sin no more.” The question is not whether she did it or not. That was never the question. John does say that she was caught in the very act (8:3). Jesus is not giving us an example of tolerance and love. How many times have I wished that I could say to my kids, “Don’t do that anymore,” and have them actually listen! But the Word of God is powerful. The Word of God cuts right to the hearts of men. The same Word said, “Let there be light” and there was light. The same Word upholds all things. This same Word became flesh and dwelt among us. When He speaks, all nature listens. When He says, “Peace, be still,” the winds and the waves obey.
When He commanded the lame man to walk, the lame man walked. When He speaks, the blind are no longer blind; the deaf are no longer deaf; the dead are no longer dead; and the adulteress is no longer an adulteress (1 Corinthians 6:11). When he said, “Go, and sin no more,” she was no longer a child of wrath, under the curse of God. She was no longer a sinner; she was a daughter of God, righteous in Christ. Yes, she still carried the remnants of Adam with her; she still needed the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit — but this isn’t about that. This is the call of the shepherd to the lost sheep. This is the Word that the Pharisees would not hear. They weren’t “sinners.” But because they lived in darkness and would not come to the light, their sins remained, as Jesus would tell them in the next chapter (John 9:41).
Jesus then tells the multitude (remember, all the people were hearing Him teach; they did not go out, only the Pharisees did),
I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.John 8:12
He is explaining what just happened. The whole world stands condemned before God. The whole world is in darkness — Pharisee, adulteress, and scribe. We pretend that we are really OK. The problem is with those ‘others’; the sinners out there — they are the real problem. Our wisdom is fine; we just need better teachers. Our affections are fine; we just need better husbands and wives. Our morality is fine; sure, we do bad things sometimes, but we are not as bad as those adulteresses! We still think that God grades us on a curve. As long as we are not as bad as Hitler, God will be happy to see us.
But when the Holy Spirit calls us to the light, we see ourselves as we are — hopeless, sinful, weak, and ignorant. God never has and never will grade us on a curve. The standard is His Holy Law, which leaves all of us condemned. We are under the wrath of God and in desperate need of a Savior. Before His tribunal we are all guilty.
But here is the wonder of the gospel: the curse of the law that lay upon this woman, yes, and on each one of us, Jesus took upon Himself. The light has shined into the world. He calls us to repent and believe the gospel. The Pharisees ran and hid themselves like Adam and Eve did a long time ago. Things haven’t changed much. People still commit adultery; people still plot murder. People still hide from the light. But He calls us to repent. The Pharisees hid; the woman stood submissively before His tribunal, awaiting His judgment and humbling herself under His hand.
He took the curse upon himself, so that He might say to all who repent and believe, “Go, and sin no more.”