I was reading John chapter eight recently, and looked up some of Matthew Henry’s commentary on the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. His thoughts on the subject highlighted some very good lessons, so I wanted to share some of it here. For the sake of readability, I have trimmed the content and underlined some phrases that particularly stood out to me. I hope you find it enriching.
III. His dealing with those that brought to him the woman taken in adultery, tempting him. The scribes and Pharisees would not only not hear Christ patiently themselves, but they disturbed him when the people were attending on him. Observe here,
1. The case proposed to him by the scribes and Pharisees, who herein contrived to pick a quarrel with him, and bring him into a snare, John 8:3-6.
(1.) They set the prisoner to the bar (John 8:3): they brought him a woman taken in adultery… Those that were taken in adultery were by the Jewish law to be put to death, which the Roman powers allowed them the execution of, and therefore she was brought before the ecclesiastical court. Observe, She was taken in her adultery. Though adultery is a work of darkness, which the criminals commonly take all the care they can to conceal, yet sometimes it is strangely brought to light. Those that promise themselves secrecy in sin deceive themselves. The scribes and Pharisees bring her to Christ, and set her in the midst of the assembly, as if they would leave her wholly to the judgment of Christ, he having sat down, as a judge upon the bench.
(2.) They prefer an indictment against her: Master, this woman was taken in adultery, John 8:4. Here they call him Master whom but the day before they had called a deceiver, in hopes with their flatteries to have ensnared him, as those, Luke 20:20. But, though men may be imposed upon with compliments, he that searches the heart cannot.
[1.] The crime for which the prisoner stands indicted is no less than adultery, which even in the patriarchal age, before the law of Moses, was looked upon as an iniquity to be punished by the judges, Job 31:9-11; Gen. 38:24. The Pharisees, by their vigorous prosecution of this offender, seemed to have a great zeal against the sin, when it appeared afterwards that they themselves were not free from it; nay, they were within full of all uncleanness, Matt. 23:27, 28. Note, It is common for those that are indulgent to their own sin to be severe against the sins of others.
[2.] The proof of the crime was from the notorious evidence of the fact, an incontestable proof; she was taken in the act, so that there was no room left to plead not guilty. Had she not been taken in this act, she might have gone on to another, till her heart had been perfectly hardened; but sometimes it proves a mercy to sinners to have their sin brought to light, that they may do no more presumptuously. Better our sin should shame us than damn us, and be set in order before us for our conviction than for our condemnation.
(3.) They produce the statute in this case made and provided, and upon which she was indicted, John 8:5. Moses in the law commanded that such should be stoned…
(4.) They pray his judgment in the case: “But what sayest thou, who pretendest to be a teacher come from God to repeal old laws and enact new ones? What hast thou to say in this case?” If they had asked this question in sincerity, with a humble desire to know his mind, it had been very commendable. Those that are entrusted with the administration of justice should look up to Christ for direction; but this they said tempting him, that they might have to accuse him, John 8:6. [1.] If he should confirm the sentence of the law, and let it take its course, they would censure him as inconsistent with himself (he having received publicans and harlots) and with the character of the Messiah, who should be meek, and have salvation, and proclaim a year of release; and perhaps they would accuse him to the Roman governor, for countenancing the Jews in the exercise of a judicial power. But, [2.] If he should acquit her, and give his opinion that the sentence should not be executed (as they expected he would), they would represent him, First, As an enemy to the law of Moses, and as one that usurped an authority to correct and control it, and would confirm that prejudice against him which his enemies were so industrious to propagate, that he came to destroy the law and the prophets. Secondly, As a friend to sinners, and, consequently, a favourer of sin; if he should seem to connive at such wickedness, and let it go unpunished, they would represent him as countenancing it, and being a patron of offences…
2. The method he took to resolve this case, and so to break this snare.
(1.) He seemed to slight it, and turned a deaf ear to it: He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing… Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so… Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once: The heart of the wise studies to answer… He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider? It is safe in many cases to be deaf to that which it is not safe to answer, Ps. 38:13… But, when Christ seemed as though he heard them not, he made it appear that he not only heard their words, but knew their thoughts.
(2.) When they importunately, or rather impertinently, pressed him for an answer, he turned the conviction of the prisoner upon the prosecutors, John 8:7.
[1.] They continued asking him, and his seeming not to take notice of them made them the more vehement; for now they thought sure enough that they had run him aground, and that he could not avoid the imputation of contradicting either the law of Moses, if he should acquit the prisoner, or his own doctrine of mercy and pardon, if he should condemn her; and therefore they pushed on their appeal to him with vigour; whereas they should have construed his disregard of them as a check to their design, and an intimation to them to desist, as they tendered their own reputation.
[2.] At last he put them all to shame and silence with one word: He lifted up himself, awaking as one out of sleep (Ps. 78:65), and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
First, Here Christ avoided the snare which they had laid for him, and effectually saved his own reputation. He neither reflected upon the law nor excused the prisoner’s guilt, nor did he on the other hand encourage the prosecution or countenance their heat; see the good effect of consideration. When we cannot make our point by steering a direct course, it is good to fetch a compass.
Secondly, In the net which they spread is their own foot taken. They came with design to accuse him, but they were forced to accuse themselves. Christ owns it was fit the prisoner should be prosecuted, but appeals to their consciences whether they were fit to be the prosecutors.
a. He here refers to that rule which the law of Moses prescribed in the execution of criminals, that the hand of the witnesses must be first upon them (Deut. 17:7), as in the stoning of Stephen, Acts 7:58. The scribes and Pharisees were the witnesses against this woman. Now Christ puts it to them whether, according to their own law, they would dare to be the executioners. Durst they take away that life with their hands which they were now taking away with their tongues? would not their own consciences fly in their faces if they did.
b. …“If there be any of you who is without sin, without sin of this nature, that has not some time or other been guilty of fornication or adultery, let him cast the first stone at her.” Not that magistrates, who are conscious of guilt themselves, should therefore connive at others’ guilt. But therefore, (a.) Whenever we find fault with others, we ought to reflect upon ourselves, and to be more severe against sin in ourselves than in others. (b.) We ought to be favourable, though not to the sins, yet to the persons, of those that offend, and to restore them with a spirit of meekness, considering ourselves and our own corrupt nature… Let this restrain us from throwing stones at our brethren, and proclaiming their faults. Let him that is without sin begin such discourse as this, and then those that are truly humbled for their own sins will blush at it, and be glad to let it drop…
d. In this he attended to the great work which he came into the world about, and that was to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the prisoner to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors too, by showing them their sins. They sought to ensnare him; he sought to convince and convert them. Thus the blood-thirsty hate the upright, but the just seek his soul.
[3.] Having given them this startling word, he left them to consider of it, and again stooped down, and wrote on the ground, John 8:8. As when they made their address he seemed to slight their question, so now that he had given them an answer he slighted their resentment of it, not caring what they said to it; nay, they needed not to make any reply; the matter was lodged in their own breasts, let them make the best of it there. Or, he would not seem to wait for an answer, lest they should on a sudden justify themselves, and then think themselves bound in honour to persist in it; but gives them time to pause, and to commune with their own hearts. God saith, I hearkened and heard, Jer. 8:6… But he does not write men’s sins in the sand; no, they are written as with a pen of iron and the point of a diamond (Jer. 17:1), never to be forgotten till they are forgiven.
[4.] The scribes and Pharisees were so strangely thunderstruck with the words of Christ that they let fall their persecution of Christ, whom they durst no further tempt, and their prosecution of the woman, whom they durst no longer accuse (John 8:9): They went out one by one.
First, Perhaps his writing on the ground frightened them, as the hand-writing on the wall frightened Belshazzar [You have been weighed on the scales and found deficient]. They concluded he was writing bitter things against them, writing their doom. Happy they who have no reason to be afraid of Christ’s writing.
Secondly, What he said frightened them by sending them to their own consciences; he had shown them to themselves, and they were afraid if they should stay till he lifted up himself again his next word would show them to the world, and shame them before men, and therefore they thought it best to withdraw. They went out one by one, that they might go out softly, and not by a noisy flight disturb Christ; they went away by stealth, as people being ashamed steal away when they flee in battle, 2 Sam. 19:3. The order of their departure is taken notice of, beginning at the eldest, either because they were most guilty, or first aware of the danger they were in of being put to the blush; and if the eldest quit the field, and retreat ingloriously, no marvel if the younger follow them. Now see here, 1. The force of the word of Christ for the conviction of sinners: They who heard it were convicted by their own consciences… 2. The folly of sinners under these convictions, which appears in these scribes and Pharisees. (1.) It is folly for those that are under convictions to make it their principal care to avoid shame, as Judah (Gen. 38:23), lest we be shamed. Our care should be more to save our souls than to save our credit. Saul evidenced his hypocrisy when he said, I have sinned, yet now honour me, I pray thee. There is no way to get the honour and comfort of penitents, but by taking the shame of penitents. (2.) It is folly for those that are under convictions to contrive how to shift off their convictions, and to get rid of them. The scribes and Pharisees had the wound opened, and now they should have been desirous to have it searched, and then it might have been healed, but this was the thing they dreaded and declined. (3.) It is folly for those that are under convictions to get away from Jesus Christ, as these here did, for he is the only one that can heal the wounds of conscience, and speak peace to us. Those that are convicted by their consciences will be condemned by their Judge, if they be not justified by their Redeemer; and will they then go from him? To whom will they go.
[5.] When the self-conceited prosecutors quitted the field, and fled for the same, the self-condemned prisoner stood her ground, with a resolution to abide by the judgment of our Lord Jesus: Jesus was left alone … and the woman standing in the midst of the assembly that were attending on Christ’s preaching, where they set her, John 8:3. She did not seek to make her escape, though she had opportunity for it; but her prosecutors had appealed unto Jesus, and to him she would go, on him she would wait for her doom. Note, Those whose cause is brought before our Lord Jesus will never have occasion to remove it into any other court, for he is the refuge of penitents. The law which accuses us, and calls for judgment against us, is by the gospel of Christ made to withdraw; its demands are answered, and its clamours silenced, by the blood of Jesus. Our cause is lodged in the gospel court; we are left with Jesus alone, it is with him only that we have now to deal, for to him all judgment is committed; let us therefore secure our interest in him, and we are made for ever. Let his gospel rule us, and it will infallibly save us.
[6.] Here is the conclusion of the trial, and the issue it was brought to: Jesus lifted up himself, and he saw none but the woman, John 8:10, 11. Though Christ may seem to take no notice of what is said and done, but leave it to the contending sons of men to deal it out among themselves, yet, when the hour of his judgment is come, he will no longer keep silence. When David had appealed to God, he prayed, Lift up thyself, Ps. 7:6; 94:2. The woman, it is likely, stood trembling at the bar, as one doubtful of the issue. Christ was without sin, and might cast the first stone; but though none more severe than he against sin, for he is infinitely just and holy, none more compassionate than he to sinners, for he is infinitely gracious and merciful, and this poor malefactor finds him so, now that she stands upon her deliverance. Here is the method of courts of judicature observed.
First, The prosecutors are called: Where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? Not but that Christ knew where they were; but he asked, that he might shame them, who declined his judgment, and encourage her who resolved to abide by it. St. Paul’s challenge is like this, Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? Where are those their accusers? The accuser of the brethren shall be fairly cast out, and all indictments legally and regularly quashed.
Secondly, They do not appear when the question is asked: Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. She speaks respectfully to Christ, calls him Lord, but is silent concerning her prosecutors, says nothing in answer to that question which concerned them, Where are those thine accusers? She does not triumph in their retreat nor insult over them as witnesses against themselves, not against her. If we hope to be forgiven by our Judge, we must forgive our accusers; and if their accusations, how invidious soever, were the happy occasion of awakening our consciences, we may easily forgive them this wrong. But she answered the question which concerned herself, Has no man condemned thee? True penitents find it enough to give an account of themselves to God, and will not undertake to give an account of other people.
Thirdly, The prisoner is therefore discharged: Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more. Consider this,
(a.) As her discharge from the temporal punishment: “If they do not condemn thee to be stoned to death, neither do I.” Not that Christ came to disarm the magistrate of his sword of justice, nor that it is his will that capital punishments should not be inflicted on malefactors; so far from this, the administration of public justice is established by the gospel, and made subservient to Christ’s kingdom: By me kings reign. But Christ would not condemn this woman, (a.) Because it was none of his business; he was no judge nor divider, and therefore would not intermeddle in secular affairs. His kingdom was not of this world... But, when Christ dismissed her, it was with this caution, Go, and sin no more. Impunity emboldens malefactors, and therefore those who are guilty, and yet have found means to escape the edge of the law, need to double their watch, lest Satan get advantage; for the fairer the escape was, the fairer the warning was to go and sin no more. Those who help to save the life of a criminal should, as Christ here, help to save the soul with this caution.
(b.) As her discharge from the eternal punishment. For Christ to say, I do not condemn thee is, in effect, to say, I do forgive thee; and the Son of man had power on earth to forgive sins, and could upon good grounds give this absolution; for as he knew the hardness and impenitent hearts of the prosecutors, and therefore said that which would confound them, so he knew the tenderness and sincere repentance of the prisoner, and therefore said that which would comfort her, as he did to that woman who was a sinner, such a sinner as this, who was likewise looked upon with disdain by a Pharisee (Luke 7:48, 50):
Thy sins are forgiven thee, go in peace. So here, Neither do I condemn thee. Note, (a.) Those are truly happy whom Christ doth not condemn, for his discharge is a sufficient answer to all other challenges… (b.) Christ will not condemn those who, though they have sinned, will go and sin no more, Ps. 85:8; Isa. 55:7. He will not take the advantage he has against us for our former rebellions, if we will but lay down our arms and return to our allegiance. (c.) Christ’s favour to us in the remission of the sins that are past should be a prevailing argument with us to go and sin no more, Rom. 6:1, 2. Will not Christ condemn thee? Go then and sin no more.