Recently on a Christian bulletin board the following question was raised:
"...can anyone state why the women taken in adultery would have, in Moses' day been stoned to death, yet having been brought to Jesus (the author of the Old Covenant) was pardoned? (John 8:3-11)"
The following is a short (two point) response. The original which was posted to the board has been edited for publication.
1. Christ and the Accusers - It takes two to commit the sin of adultery. She would not have been stoned to death "in Moses' day" ALONE! Any execution of this woman would have failed to fulfill the demands of the whole law to the letter. Their failure to fulfill the whole law was due to their only bringing the woman (Jn. 8:3), and not also the man.
Consider the following two passages from the Old Covenant:
And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. (Lev. 20:10)
Notice that it is not "the adulteress" alone. Unless two parties are to be executed no legal execution can take place under the Old Covenant. The absence of the adulterer is the hidden agenda here when the Pharisees "push" becomes Christ's "shove".
22) If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. 23) If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; 24) Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you." (Dt. 22:22-24)
Notice again that it is "...both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman..." who are condemned to death. We also read in this passage that it is "...both...the damsel...and the man..." who are subject to stoning.
If, as they claim, she was indeed caught "in the very act" (Jn. 8:4) there should have been no difficulty in producing the other guilty party, the male. It takes two to commit adultery. There is great drama here in the case of the absent adulterer. They, apparently, knew very well who this male was, but were unwilling to subject him to the judgment of Christ.
Apparently few students of this passage seem to notice this. For some reason the Pharisees apparently were unwilling to expose the adulterous male to the public scandal and shame which the woman experienced at their hands. Why they were protecting him is not revealed, but may be connected to their lack of innocence (Jn. 8:7-"He that is without sin among you...") in this case. Their guilt may be viewed as much more specifically related to the sin in question (adultery) than the general nature of sinners amongst sinners (i.e., without sin in any sense). If the intent of Christ's qualification in Jn. 8:7 was sinless perfection, then the stipulations of the law could never have been carried out, nor could church discipline today (if the application is made to the judgment of the church). The guilt which caused them to surrender their attempt to "ambush" Christ with the Law, and to vacate the field leaving Him the Righteous Victor, was apparently directly related to this case of adultery.
Christ does not make an issue out of this. He does not demand that they produce the man. He is more interested in shaming and exposing the self-righteous, proud and blind accusers of others, and abusers of God's Law. He would much rather engage in forgiving the humble penitent. He is not interested in playing their game and merely going them one better by seeing to it that two are stoned instead of just one. This Gospel account is not just a rendition of Christ's defeating their attempt through His superior ability to out-lawyer them with legal technicalities. All it would then have demonstrated is how He defused the situation and bent the pointing finger back on the pointers themselves. He is seen here to be far more than just a more thoroughly righteous and legally consistent accuser. Christ was not just in the reactive or defensive mode here in countering their trap. He was in control all the way. What is revealed about Christ in this passage goes beyond the letter of the Law to the forgiveness of its Author.
They, in their abuse of the Law, have actually been used by God to fulfill the function of the Law. The Law, as a Schoolmaster, has been used/abused in this case to bring this woman to Christ, the best place in the entire universe for her to be. In spite of their evil motives, the case now lies before Him. It is in His hands. Before Him, the Law becomes the means of their undoing, and the means of her salvation. They flee, self-condemned. She stays, Christ-forgiven.
2. Christ and the Accused - It takes two or more accusers for capital punishment to be enacted under the Law. Not ONE accuser is left standing on "center stage" at the end of this incident (Jn. 8:9-11). No one condemned her. No condemnation-thus, no execution. His dealing with the woman is the anticlimax of grace in "Act Two" of the account.
Under the law condemnation must come via 2 or 3 accusers who were eyewitnesses, were willing to publicly accuse the guilty parties, lay their hands on them, and cast the first stones (Num. 35:30; Dt. 17:5-8; 19:15; Acts 7:58; Heb. 10:28). At the end of this episode there was no one willing or able to fulfill this responsibility. Christ, strictly speaking, in this case was not an "eyewitness" to her sin. He was not one of her accusers qualified to lay hands on her testifying to her guilt and casting the first stone. It takes more than one under the law to stone someone to death. Therefore, Christ's pardon was not contrary to or in violation of the Law.
On the other hand, He, by His very statements ("...Go, and sin no more.") reveals that He does not shy away from the reality of her sin, nor hide His realization of it. Here, as elsewhere in the Gospels, we see Him asserting His divine and sovereign right to pardon, to forgive, to be gracious and to extend mercy. His pardon comes off more like, "I could condemn you despite the lack of witnesses merely because of who I am, but I choose not to. Furthermore, I know for a fact that you are indeed a sinner, yet I still choose not to condemn you. I do, however, because of who I am, command you to cease and desist from this sin, to put it away from you, to repent of it."
He sovereignly extends grace and mercy to her. He frees her by both His Word of forgiveness and by His Word of command. He cleanses her by His Word freeing her from His condemnation. The accusations of men would fade into insignificance for anyone hearing what she did. He also elicits her righteous obedience by His utterance and in so doing extends a powerful message of hope to her that such a change in her nature and behavior is not only possible, but mandatory. He has spoken. She has heard His Word. To her it is a message containing no trace of condemnation, but full of hopeful incentive for reformation. What began as the worst day of her life, has become the best day of her life.