John 8:1-11 is a commonly heard tale for obvious reasons; it appears to the unlearned reader to assert a kind of Christian ethos in which we are to be inactive, passive and unruly over the people of our land and nation. It reads:
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Firstly we must understand that the law of God demands these matters be settled dilligently by a panel of judges and elders; as written in Deuteronomy 19:15-21
One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.
If a false witness rise up against any man to testify against him that which is wrong;
Then both the men, between whom the controversy is, shall stand before the Lord, before the priests and the judges, which shall be in those days;
And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, if the witness be a false witness, and hath testified falsely against his brother;
Then shall ye do unto him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother: so shalt thou put the evil away from among you.
And those which remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you.
And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Following such; the law specifies more about the actual punishment in Deuteronomy 13:9 “But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people..”
The final summary of the law of execution is Deuteronomy 17:6-7 “At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.”
It seems absolutely clear in summary that these pharisees had broken the law for how judgement was to be exacted, they demanded Christ to act as a court of elders and judges: he rejected this notion saying “Ye judge after the flesh; I judge no man.” a very similar position to that of Luke 12:14 “And he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” – He then suggests that those men leave as they have no case and says “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” – they proceed to leave, having failed to deceive Christ into professing a sort of antinomian doctrine or doctrine of vigilante justice.
They who infer from this that adultery ought not to be punished with death, must, for the same reason, admit that inheritances ought not to be divided, because Christ refused to arbitrate in that matter between two brothers, (Luke 12:13.) Indeed, there will be no crime whatever that shall not be exempted from the penalties of the law, if adultery be not punished; for then the door will be thrown open for any kind of treachery, and for poisoning, and murder, and robbery. Besides, the adulteress, when she bears an unlawful child, not only robs the name of the family, but violently takes away the right of inheritance from the lawful offspring, and conveys it to strangers. But what is worst of all, the wife not only dishonors the husband to whom she had been united, but prostitutes herself to shameful wickedness, and likewise violates the sacred covenant of God, without which no holiness can continue to exist in the world.
Yet the Popish theology is, that in this passage Christ has brought to us the Law of grace, by which adulterers are freed from punishment. And though they endeavor, by every method, to efface from the minds of men the grace of God, such grace as is every where declared to us by the doctrine of the Gospel, yet in this passage alone they preach aloud the Law of grace. Why is this, but that they may pollute, with unbridled lust, almost every marriage-bed, and may escape unpunished? Truly, this is the fine fruit which we have reaped from the diabolical system of celibacy, that they who are not permitted to marry a lawful wife can commit fornication without restraint. But let us remember that, while Christ forgives the sins of men, he does not overturn political order, or reverse the sentences and punishments appointed by the laws.
Go, and sin no more. Hence we infer what is the design of the grace of Christ. It is, that the sinner, being reconciled to God, may honor the Author of his salvation by a good and holy life. In short, by the same word of God, when forgiveness is offered to us, we are likewise called to repentance. Besides, though this exhortation looks forward to the future, still it humbles sinners by recalling to remembrance their past life.
“Neither do I condemn thee” : Hence an Anabaptist will argue that adultery is not to be punished (as they did from that text, “whoremongers and adulterers God will judge,” therefore men ought not to meddle with them). But they may as well say that inheritances are not to be divided between brethren, because our Saviour refused to divide them, Luke 12:14, it being without the lists of his calling, no proper employment of his.
He that is without sin among you.—The word rendered “without sin” is frequent in the classical writers, but is found in this place only in the New Testament. It takes here a special meaning from the context, and is to be understood of the class of sins of which her sin was an instance. (Comp. the word “sinner” as used in Luke 7:37.) Of the immorality among the Jewish rulers, which gives force to these words, evidence is not wanting. Still the wider meaning is probably not excluded. They who ask this question about the Seventh Commandment were themselves breaking the Sixth and the Ninth. It is to be noted, in the application of this answer, that our Lord does not lay down sinlessness as the necessary condition of fitness for taking part in the punishment of guilt. This would be to nullify law, for there could be then no human executive power. He is not speaking in a case brought before the appointed tribunal, but in a case where men assume to themselves the position of judges of another’s guilt. In the judge, while he wears the robe of justice, the individual man ceases to exist, and he becomes the representative of God; but these can now speak only as men, and condemn her only by the contrast of a higher purity. (Comp. Notes on John 10:34 et seq.)
Let him first cast a stone at her.—The Received text and some MSS. (not including the Cambridge MS.) read “the stone,” the stone referred to in John 8:5. “Let him first” means “let him first of you”; not “let him cast the first stone.” This was the duty of the witnesses. ( Deuteronomy 17:7 & Deuteronomy 13:9 ) We must not take the words to express permission only; it is an imperative, expressing command.
The practical maxim involved in Christ’s words is that of Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 14:4. As to its application to them comp. Matthew 12:39; Mark 8:38. He is contending not against punishment being inflicted by human law, but against men taking the law into their own hands.