Read John 7:53–8:11.
This section of John’s Gospel doesn’t quite belong here. In fact, in most modern Bible translations the text is set off in italics or bracketed to clue the reader into the fact that the earliest manuscripts of John don’t include these verses at all. They seem to have been inserted sometime later. That doesn’t mean the account didn’t really happen. Everything about it smells like Jesus, and it appears to have all the marks of an authentic Gospel story, although admittedly the language and style seem more at home in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
While we may never know for certain how these twelve verses came to reside here in the middle of the Fourth Gospel, this story has been carefully preserved for us down through history and has come to be recognized by most Christians as a faithful and true account of a certain moment in Jesus’ ministry.
I, for one (and I’m not the only one), believe that the Holy Spirit’s work of breathing out the Scriptures includes more than their initial inspiration. He was also active in editing, shaping, and preserving the Scriptures down through the centuries. It’s difficult for me to believe that an account like this one would remain if God did not intend for His people to read it and be edified by it. Brackets or no brackets, Roman type or italics, it’s here for us to read, to study, and to meditate upon—and like I said, it smells an awful lot like Jesus.
It’s almost fitting that this passage sticks out like a handwritten note taped in the middle or our Bibles, for just as this passage doesn’t quite belong in the account John originally crafted, the mercy it puts on display is also foreign. This kind of grace is not native to this broken and twisted world. It is itself an invader from heaven.
In the light of early morning, Jesus is sitting in the temple courts teaching the people. Some of the teachers of the law and some Pharisees interrupt Him with a sinister test they have concocted. But the test is not some riddle in the law or some problem needing an impossible miracle. It’s a person, a woman made in the image of God, who was found and detained by the religious leaders in one of her life’s lowest moments. The men who lead her before Jesus say they found her in the act of adultery. Since they know the Messiah will judge the world with wisdom and righteousness, they want to know how Jesus will handle her case.
But this is more than a moral litmus test to see if Jesus is anti-adultery. It is, in their minds, a way to trap Jesus. If He were to follow the law’s prescription for adultery, it would mean admitting the young woman should be stoned, and that would put Him at odds with the Romans, who do not allow the Jewish people to execute capital punishment. Jesus’ enemies would have everything they need to bring charges against Him with the governor of Judea.
But Jesus sees through their test to the guilty woman standing before Him. He sees that she is alone, though if she were truly “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4), there ought to be a man by her side, equally guilty. He sees that she has likely been held in custody all night, kept as a pawn to be used in the religious leaders’ games. And He sees her humiliation and shame, as she’s made to stand there in the temple courts for all to see.
As the scribes and Pharisees press Jesus, He simply stoops down and begins to write something in the dirt with His finger. The religious leaders keep questioning Him, and Jesus responds, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). Then He returns to His dirt writing.
What Jesus wrote in the earth that had accumulated on the stone floor of the temple’s outer court has become one of the greatest mysteries of Bible study. Some have speculated that Jesus jotted down the Ten Commandments in shorthand, that the men might be reminded of their own sins. Others have speculated that Jesus scrawled out the names of these religious leaders so that they would see the Man they are testing knows all about them. Either of these may be true, but there’s another option—one that fits the context of the passage and might explain why someone later inserted this story at this particular spot in John’s Gospel.
If you were to survey the Old Testament for instances of God writing in the dirt, you’d find Jeremiah 17:13, which reads, “LORD, you are the hope of Israel; all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.”
It is one thing to be found guilty of adultery; it is quite another to be found guilty of turning away from the Lord, the only source of forgiveness for sins. For God to write someone’s name in the dust is to write it down where it will be washed away, forgotten forever. It is the opposite of writing that name in the Book of Life.
It may be that Jesus etches out these words from the prophet Jeremiah with His finger to remind the scribes and Pharisees that all people stand guilty before the Lord. No one will be saved by avoiding certain sins. Their only hope—and ours—is to turn to the Lord and put their trust in Him. But they have, up until this point, done the very thing God warned against in Jeremiah: They have “forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water.”
If you recall, a few verses earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus had stood up and declared loudly, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37–38). Jesus is the source of living water, and He has come to earth not to condemn but to save (3:17). Now is the time to turn to Him. Today is the day of salvation.
The scribes and Pharisees walk away, one by one, starting with the oldest among them. It may be that the older folks are more aware of their own sinfulness, or it could simply be that none of the younger members of the group dare make a move without permission from their elders. Either way, Jesus has passed their test in a way they did not expect.
In a certain sense, the religious leaders were right to bring the woman to Jesus. As the passage from Jeremiah shows, God is the ultimate Judge. And so, when these men leave, Jesus lifts His eyes to the poor, adulterous woman. But His heart is not to condemn her. “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11), He tells her. The message is clear, and it’s one we all need to hear: “There is still time. Remember what happened here today and choose the path of life. Do not forsake the One who offers you living water.”
The laws of this world are given to restrain sin and protect the innocent from a constant onslaught of evil—but God’s desire is to see sinners rescued rather than condemned. We all stand guilty before God and our peers, but we have a Savior who willingly took our sins to the cross. In doing so, He created a space for mercy, a time where a new path is possible. “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). As I said, it’s a mercy foreign to the ways of this world.