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.”
JOHN 8:2-11 (ESV)
A while back I was leaving a coffee shop when someone I knew called for me from the parking lot. I went over to say hello and found that there was something pressing they needed to tell me. It turned out that a mutual acquaintance of ours, someone at that point that I had considered a good friend, had been accused of some very inappropriate and destructive behavior. For ninety-nine percent of the people I considered friends, this accusation would have been confronted with a quick “No way, not him, he’d never do that.” But in this case, when I was asked if the rumor seemed real, I found myself at a loss for words. The truth was that I didn’t know, and my speechlessness was enough for me to believe that there was fire to this smoke.
Identity is powerful. The person people know you to be will speak in the places you can’t and represent you to people you’ve never met. Your character and integrity will fight battles you don’t know exist. Reputation right now is walking ahead of you down roads on your horizon. We all want to define and defend ourselves, and identity always has the first word.
In this passage in John, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. Her sin was no rumor either, and as far as we can tell, the Pharisees’ claims were substantiated. In throwing her before a supposed teacher and keeper of the Law, the Pharisees were looking to trip Jesus up in a moment of inconsistent moral judgement.
You can easily picture the tension. Jesus has come to the temple at the Mount of Olives to teach, to bring good news, and the Pharisees interrupt his lesson with a desperate woman and a pile of stones. There is cynicism and skepticism in their hearts, and their interruption is meant to destroy teacher and message alike. They have come to Jesus not to challenge the woman’s identity, but to challenge his.
As is typical in these situations, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He sits calmly as a crowd gathers and does what nobody would expect. He starts to doodle.
Scripture doesn’t say what Jesus writes. Many have postulated and theorized what might have been captured in his scribbling. But to me, the content is less important here than the function. Jesus draws a line in the sand. He doesn’t let the Pharisees control the terms of debate, and with one question tosses the discussion out altogether. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”
With one small statement Jesus defines the identity of everyone there, and he does this in some subtle, but fascinating ways. For one, Jesus affirms the Pharisees approaching him with their question. Indeed, he is the only person capable of answering it because nobody else could ever fully keep the Law but Jesus. If anyone present could have tossed a stone, it would have been Jesus. But he does not. He continues to write, and as he does, the Pharisees begin to back away, Homer-in-the-bushes style.
Again, we can’t know what he was writing. But the line he draws is clear. When he lifts his finger, the accusers have departed. There is only Jesus and the adulterous woman. You can picture him looking around in a mock tone as he asks her where these scribes and Pharisees have all gone. “Woman, where are they?” A rhetorical question, of course. They have all gone. There is no one left to condemn because the fulfiller of the Law remains. And as if it couldn’t be any clearer to us reading this passage, Jesus concludes. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and form now on sin no more.”
In the final line, Jesus lays out the identity of the accusers and the identity of the desperate, repentant woman. There is a line in the sand, and Jesus is standing on one side of it. When the writing is done, when the work is finished, everyone on the other side will have vanished from his sight. This is both an assurance of faith now and a promise of the final judgement.
What Jesus offers this woman, what he offers us, is something only he can. It is the salvation of new identity. It is truth that sets us free, that breaks the lies we hear and the lies we tell ourselves. Jesus gives us himself because he speaks where we can’t. He fights the battles we don’t know exist and is even now going before us down roads we don’t know are coming. His identity always has the first word.
Sometimes it takes stumbling and falling, dropping to our knees from brokenness we perpetuate or brokenness we suffer, to see which side of the line we’re really on. As the dust settles we see the accusers have gone and the savior remains. We hear his words of life: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
God, teach me how to bow today. When I am the accused, thrown down by all my sin, teach me how to bow and see Your grace. When I am the accuser, set to fling all of my stones, teach me how to bow and kill my pride. God remind me that grace is a treasure for the weak and a warning to the arrogant. I want to be on Your side of the line. Draw me close to You. Let me hear Your word of truth. Send me out in Your identity. AMEN.
2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV) says, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” What lies threaten you today that knowing Jesus can cast away? Write these things down and then reread the John 8 passage above. Picture each of these curses fading away at the foot of the cross, and remember your new identity in Christ.