I remember a time in church life where whenever someone taught on the women caught in adultery from John 8:1-11, they focused on Jesus writing in the sand. I know some people think he was writing the ten commandments, while others believe he was jotting down all the accusers’ personal sins, with arrows pointing at each individual, but does it matter? Eventually, it’s not what he wrote that convicted them and sent them away, it’s what he said. And what he said was a verbal stone thrown by the only one who could have legitimately thrown it:
“Let he who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
In this one simple statement, Jesus is revealing to each person their true standing before God based on their own performance. By casting that “boulder” of a statement at the woman’s accusers, he is proving that he is the only one who could throw a stone at anyone. Even now, when I hear those words, they still hit me. It doesn’t just hit me like a stone, but a ton of bricks. Even as a Christian for all these years, it still has the same effect on me. It humbles me, and it reminds me that I have no true right to condemn anyone. The fact remains that if I were to rely on my ability alone to be considered righteous before God, I’d be more deserving of being pelted than anyone else. Does it mean I can’t talk about sin? Even someone else’s sin? Of course not. But it does mean that when someone is in sin, I can put my stone down and give them the open arms of grace and mercy.
Oftentimes, the person who is dragged out before the masses knows their sins. The one who has every finger pointing at them is fully aware of their guilt and shame. The one who sees an ocean of angry faces holding rocks ready to let fly knows they deserve to have every pitch hit its mark. Those most aware of these things don’t need more law. They already know they’ve broken it. They know they’ve fallen short. What they need instead is to hear that forgiveness is available. They know they deserve punishment, but right now, they need to know, “how do I live with myself in the aftermath?”
Those called out for their sins, who find themselves knee deep in their transgressions, always need grace.
I remember my wife’s concern over a purity class being taught in our church’s youth group years ago. While it may have been a good and helpful class, my wife’s concern was for those who had already given up their purity. What will you say to those who have gone past that point already? The ones who will hear “remain pure” and feel condemned and called out by it. They, like the woman exposed, need grace and forgiveness to come in once they feel crushed under the law by how they have failed. They need to know they are loved and will always be loved and forgiven no matter how much sin and shame gnaw at them. If we’re honest, we know old sins still gnaw at us at times, even if it’s just a nibble.
Now, the ones doing the calling out needed something else. The angry crowd testing Jesus needed a stone thrown at them, and they got it. It was a stone of law, a stone of condemnation, a stone of judgment. It’s interesting to note that even at that moment, Jesus was slow to speak. He bent down, his finger tracing across dirt, all the while being asked for his input. I don’t ever imagine God eagerly wanting to punish or condemn anyone, and I think this is a similar picture of that. When he finally speaks, the crowd, according to Scripture, reacts to what he says and not anything scribbled in the sand:
“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” (John 8:9).
The crowd that violently ushered this woman before Jesus walked away. I would even say that they walked away bloody from this one stone Jesus threw. This stone seems to miraculously ricochet off the heads of the oldest in the group, right down to the youngest.
Believe it or not, I think there is hope here for the accusers as well as the accused. These were learned men, scribes, and Pharisees, confronted with their own wicked hearts. They were legalists who thought they kept the law of God. These are the kinds of people who are never quick to admit to fault or error. It must have been an extremely powerful image to see these “great men of God” walking away. Each step leaving a heavy footprint of guilt and shame in its wake. They came to Jesus standing on pedestals, and yet maybe they left feeling the same accusation they cast on this woman. It’s not until we are humbled that we find ourselves in a position to receive grace and mercy.
Maybe that condemning stone of the law was the beginning of something for some of these men. The beginning of God transferring some – or all – of them from death to life, from law to grace. I find hope in their reaction to those words that Christ spoke. And I see myself in them.
While working as a clerk in family court, I’ve had the opportunity to witness young teenagers and some pre-teens being brought in on any number of delinquencies. One memory always stands out for me. Four teens being led through the hall of the courthouse handcuffed together. Three of the teens cluelessly laughed about it and seemed to mock their predicament. The last one was somber. You could see the dried tears that streaked his face while fresh tears formed new tracks over them. I could see it in his expression that he was afraid. Whether it was dread of the forthcoming sentencing or fear of his parents (or perhaps some combination of the two), this child knew the gravity of his situation. He was in trouble. I can only hope that the judge recognized the difference in posture apart from the other three and gave him some measure of grace. I could see that he needed it and that he probably would have responded to it.
Perhaps the accusers in John 8 walked away with a sense of gravity after Jesus’ measured response. If so, I can picture the men walking away, puffed out chests now deflated, chins once held high but now hidden by heads bowed low. This posture is a place for hope to operate in, for grace to begin to work. In such a realization, brought on by the law, these men could begin to walk in the previously accused woman’s footsteps.
The woman, rightly judged for her knowingly sinful behavior, received mercy from the only one who could have righteously and sinlessly thrown a punishing stone. She was encouraged to go forward in grace by the only one who is truly able to give it. The accusing men were hit with a stone, and rightly so. It hit every mark perfectly. Just as the woman needed grace in her condemnation, these men needed law in light of their alleged righteousness so they might see the need to receive grace.
It doesn’t surprise me that Jesus used both law and gospel. He used what was needed for the ones that needed to hear it. When Jesus throws a stone, it always hits its target.