The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: C

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Casting the first stone (John 8)

Many critics do not regard these verses as authentic, but despite all the official doubts there are voices to be heard in their favor. Strong arguments have been advanced on both internal and external grounds, which are summarized elsewhere (CJo 100,101; CCW, "The Woman Taken in Adultery", Xd 70:405,406). The words of Jesus reported therein ring true and consistent both with the immediate context and the more general teachings of his ministry.

Jesus was teaching in the temple precincts one morning when a band of scribes and Pharisees thrust themselves through the crowd, dragging with them a terrified woman, whom they flung at the Master's feet. They reminded him of the law of Moses, requiring stoning for the offence of adultery, and also that this woman was apprehended in the very act. What does this new Rabbi have to say? Will he agree with Moses or, as rumored by those who have heard his teaching, will he throw over the revered traditions and laws of the fathers? It is Jesus, not the woman, who is on trial this day; how will he respond?

The first reaction of Jesus was to stoop down and write on the ground, apparently indifferent to their demands. But his crafty enemies were not to be ignored or put off; they pressed him again and again for an answer. But the answer they finally received came as a bombshell or, more precisely, as a searchlight from the "Light of the World" (Joh 8:12) to reveal their innermost thoughts, their consciences stained indelibly with sin.

"He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone" (Joh 8:7).
The burden of decision, with its consequent dangers, which these men had sought to thrust upon Jesus, was now placed squarely on their own shoulders. The law specified that the witnesses be the first to lift up the hand in punishment of a convicted sinner. Not only was this so but, by implication from the Law at least, such hands must be innocent of the same offence. It is reported that the first-century Jews, even those most devout for the Law, were notorious in their disregard for the sanctity of marriage, and divorces were granted for the most trivial of reasons. The Mosaic law in this regard had long fallen into disuse, and such punishments as they argued for here were no longer meted out. In fact, they would have been prohibited by the Romans at any rate.

Jesus put a sword with two edges in the hands of the woman's accusers; should they lift it up against the adulteress they would also cut down themselves. That "first stone" is not in the world yet, if Christ's condition be required. Only one man could have cast that stone, but he chose not to do so. The Light of the World had come, and his light shone in the darkness. Assuredly that penetrating light would reveal many works of darkness, no less the Pharisee's subtlety and hatred than the woman's immorality. But Jesus had come to offer life; the pronouncement of death for those who reject his offer was yet in the future.

He stood up and searched the faces of these rulers of Israel who had stooped so low. His eyes burned into them and they felt the disapproval of this man's perfect holiness. Then he bowed again to write upon the ground. He had not accused them, but had left them to decide. They watched him as he wrote, conscious that at any moment he could stand up again to challenge any one of them, and they would have no defense. Silently, each man in turn confessed his own guilt by departing, "beginning at the eldest, even unto the last" (Joh 8:9).

"That last phrase is an interesting one....The older we get the more experienced we become, and the more conscious we are of the scope and content of sin. Often when we read and hear of the sins of others we are conscious that our guilt is as great as theirs. For us, circumstance has not provided the occasion for the 'very act', or in the case of some has even provided a cloak for sin. So, with the scribes and Pharisees, it was the older and more experienced, the Gamaliels, who first turned away, and it was the young Zealots, the Sauls amongst them, who finally bowed their heads and left" (A. Ashton, "Neither Do I Condemn Thee", Xd 105:247).
Now, finally, Jesus stood again. The crowd, transfixed by the spectacle, remained awaiting an outcome. The poor bedraggled woman, her shame revealed to all, was still there where her accusers had cast her. But they were gone. Jesus now fixes his stare upon her. "Is there no man here to condemn thee?" They had all faded away as mists at the rising of the sun. "No man, Lord." No witnesses remained to the crime, none willing to cast "the first stone". "Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more" (Joh 8:11).

The word for "condemn" here is katakrino, which signifies a formal passing of judgment. It was at this time the sole province of the Sanhedrin, supported and often restricted by the Roman rulers, to pass such judgment. Jesus had recently spoken of the Father committing all judgment to the Son (Joh 5:22), and it was so. The power was there, both moral and physical, to punish sinners; but the authority had not yet been assumed. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world (easy though it would have been!), but that the world through him might be saved (Joh 3:17). This was the great message of light and comfort and hope; it is the message we must share with one another and take to the world today. Christ does not condone sin -- that lesson is plain from the incident too -- but today, this age, is the "day of salvation", not the "day of condemnation". Those who persist in sin, with disregard to the holiness of Christ, will meet their fates soon enough without the intervention of their own imperfect brethren.

"This incident has proved invaluable in Christian history. It is a graphic exposition of the Master's words on the mount, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged' (Mat 7:1-5). However damning the evidence may be against our brother, if we pause and look into our own hearts, we shall go quietly away and leave him with his Lord. There are times when it becomes necessary to take action, but that action must not be taken because we have condemned our brother. It will be taken in the painful consciousness of our own unworthiness, and with a love which will plead intercession before the Throne of Grace. We shall wait with eagerness for the first signs of penitence so that we can joyfully restore the erring one to the fellowship of the saints" (MP 235).

"The greatest abhorrence of sin is not necessarily found in the one who is most severe on the sinner. Sinful men wanted to stone the sinful woman. It was the perfect man who saved her. In these days many of the brethren seem to think that if it is admitted that any members have sinned, the only logical course is to withdraw from them, while anyone who has reservations as to the correctness of such severity must be regarded as a partaker of the evil deeds and should be treated in like manner. There is no justification for such ideas in the Bible" (IC, An Appeal to Christadelphians, p 5).

An appealing final thought arises in relation to this incident. The adversaries of Christ were insidious, and it is almost certain that secret inquiries had been made into his early life and that the peculiar circumstances of his begettal had been uncovered. This would naturally suggest to the minds of his foes the possibility of illegitimacy. This "secret", as they saw it, might be exploited to discredit the dangerous teachings of the man. It is possible, then, to see this whole incident as contrived by the Lord's enemies. The woman was caught in the very act, but where was the man? Perhaps he was even one of the conspirators, who enticed and compromised a betrothed woman (Deu 22:23,24) only as a pretense for his friends to confront Jesus.

So if Jesus had said, "Yes, let her be stoned", the retort would have immediately come back: "Then what should be done with your mother?" -- for Mary had been a betrothed virgin at the time of his conception (Mat 1:18,19).

Other such base insinuations, in this very chapter, may be seen in the same light: "Where is thy father?" (Joh 8:19), and "WE be not born of fornication" [as some are!] (Joh 8:41).

Let us leave this account then with this final point for meditation. When we are hasty in seeking out "stones" to cast at our brethren, let us remember that many men have been unjustly accused, and that appearances are often deceiving! (Christ himself died as a "criminal"!) How childishly wrong we can be in our blusterings against the "sins" of others, when we cannot possibly know all the attendant facts. Better to leave such matters to the One who is without sin, the One who can and will judge perfectly when the time comes, and from whose eyes no sin whether open or secret can be hid.

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