Sermon on John 7:53-8:11 – “The Pericope de Adultera”

November 24, 2019 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Sermon Text:

[Jhn 7:53 ESV] 53 [[They went each to his own house,
[Jhn 8:1-11 ESV] 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 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. 10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”]]


There is much controversy regarding this well-known passage. And the controversy occurs on two levels. First, there are questions regarding the authenticity of the passage. That is, some question whether this passage belongs in the Bible at all. Then, also controversial is what some perceive the meaning of the passage to be. It is mistakenly thought by some to be chauvinistic, and by others to be antinomian (that is, opposing the law of God). It is neither of these things, but rather it is an account that shows the justice of Biblical law, upholds that law, teaches against hypocrisy, and ultimately displays the grace of God.


Each week in preparation for my sermon I read 4 or 5 commentaries on the text and listen to 4 or 5 sermons. This week I listened to a few extra sermons as well; perhaps 7 or 8 in total. And I found that it is almost a standard thing for ministers to do to say at the beginning of preaching on this passage whether they believe it to be authentic or spurious as a later addition to the text by some scribe. As to my own conclusion on that matter, I would not be preaching on this passage if I did not believe it to be the Word of God. As I said in reading the passage, This IS the Word of God.

In the history of the Christian church the Biblical texts were copied and spread out to the churches and copied again and again as they were handed down through the generations. While no original copies of the New Testament writings exist, many ancient copies do. When these manuscripts are compared it is found that one scribe might have misspelled a word and another omitted a word entirely. But the true original text is usually quite easy to discern by comparing manuscripts are addressing the errors logically. However, in a very few select cases there is much greater difficulty in determining the original words. Today’s passage, from John 7:53-8:11 is probably the singularly most discussed passage regarding authenticity. The reason is that some of the ancient manuscripts leave this passage out of the Bible entirely!

Bible translations often contain a note about this passage. But the notes simply cannot tell the whole story, and often display the bias of the translators.

The RSV (Revised Standard Version of the Bible) has a terribly biased note which reads “The most ancient authorities omit 7.53-8.11.” While not quite so bad as the RSV, the NIV (New International Version) is still clearly biased in saying “The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.” Our pew Bible, the ESV (or English Standard Version) is an improved version of the RSV and reads more neutrally in saying “Some manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11.”

So the RSV cites supposed “authorities” against the genuineness of the passage, the NIV cites the existence of textual witnesses against the passage, and the ESV merely notes that some manuscripts lack this text.

But what these translations are not telling you, is that in fact the vast majority of all ancient Bible texts do include this passage. And they are not telling you that the passage was known from very ancient times. The Church has long accepted this passage as a genuine part of the Scriptures.

The passage itself is often known by its Latin name. Well, I know about eight or eighteen words of Latin. And three of them happen to be in the name of this passage – The Pericope de Adultera. This means “the passage about the adulteress.”

I’m reminded of a Garfield comic I read as a child where Garfield the cat said “I know Karate, Judo, and two other Japanese words.”

Well, now we know three Latin words. The Pericope de Adultera. It’s rather fun to pronounce.

And while it is true that the very earliest 5 or 6 extant copies of John’s Gospel do not contain this passage, Jerome, who translated the Bible from Greek to Latin in the 4th century referred to “many” copies then existing which did include the Pericope. He then chose to include it in his Latin Bible translation, the Vulgate. Probably the best copies of the Scripture were worn out over time and the inferior copies tend to remain because they were untouched, stored away.

Augustine, in the same era as Jerome, “stated definitely that certain individuals had removed from their codices the section regarding the adulteress, because they feared that women would appeal to this story as an excuse for their infidelity.” This helps to explain why the passage is omitted in some copies.

Ultimately, as the passage has been known and accepted from the very earliest times of the Apostolic Fathers, and has been accepted in the majority of manuscripts, and by the translators of the King James Bible, and by the Reformers of the 16th century, and evidences itself to be the Word of God, true to our understanding of Christ in the rest of the New Testament, we should accept the Pericope as authentic.

Our own confessional document, the Westminster Confession of Faith, which we believe to be an excellent summary of the teaching of Scripture, explains that not only has God inspired the words of the Scripture, but has preserved them throughout the history of the church.

“The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, BY HIS SINGULAR CARE AND PROVIDENCE, KEPT PURE IN ALL AGES, are therefore authentical;”

The Scriptures have been kept pure in all ages, and we can trust they remain the Word of God. Scripture cannot be broken. The word of the Lord remains forever.


There remains then the controversy regarding the meaning of the passage itself. Here we’ll see it is not chauvinistic and it is not antinomian.

We begin the passage seeing that the officers had failed to arrest Jesus and everyone dispersed back to their own houses. Jesus, however, not having a house of his own went to the Mount of Olives. Possibly, just over the hill he could have stayed in Bethany at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. But the text does not tell us.

The next day then, early in the morning he came again to the temple. This account is now the third recorded in John’s Gospel of the interaction between Jesus and the people and the authorities during (or just after) the Festival of Booths.

We are told of Jesus, who had the day before said “If ANYONE thirsts, let him come to me and drink” that now “all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.” Certainly this “all” was not every single person in Jerusalem but “all types” of people. From the high to the low, the rich to the poor, and the healthy to the unwell. All the people came to him.

This is getting to be too much for the authorities. So they devise a plan to get Jesus arrested. They decide to lay a trap for him.

The scribes and Pharisees find a woman who they contend has committed adultery. And they bring her to Jesus.

They say,

“”Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

This is the trap they have set. On the one hand, if Jesus says she should not be stoned, then he is seen to go against the Law of Moses. But, on the other hand, if Jesus says she SHOULD be stoned, then he’s going against the law of Rome. That is, the Romans are in charge now and they do not allow the Jews to carry out criminal sentences themselves.

This trap is much like time that the pharisees came to Jesus asking him about whether they should pay taxes to Caesar. On the one hand, if he said “Yes” they would argue that he recognizes Caesar’s claim to be a God. On the other hand, if he said “No” they would argue that he doesn’t comply with the law of the land. So Jesus said “Show me the coin for the tax.” And after they brought him the coin he asked “Whose likeness and inscription is this.” When they said it is Caesar’s he responded “Therefore, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We can’t now get into the full meaning of that passage, but we can note that Jesus escaped the trap. It says “When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.”

So we have a similar situation here with the adulteress. The authorities are trying to trap Jesus.

But in doing this, they are showing their own sinfulness. They do not care about justice. They care merely about trapping Jesus. Had they cared about justice they would have used the proper channels of procedure. Rather, they drag this woman out into the public, humiliating her. And they do not bring out the man with whom she is said to have committed adultery.

The Law of the Old Testament explains how cases adultery should be handled.

Leviticus 20:10 – “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, BOTH the adulteress and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”

But as for a trial, Deuteronomy 19:15 tells us,

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

So, where is the man with whom this woman is said to have committed adultery? And where are the witnesses?

When we look at the first of these two question, we find this important application: The Bible does not teach male chauvinism. [REPEAT: The Bible does not teach male chauvinism]


Male chauvinism is the false belief that men are superior to women. The Bible does not teach this.

In the law of God, no distinction of the sexes is made. A crime is a crime, no matter “who done it.”

So don’t let anyone tell you that God’s Law is chauvinistic or hostile to women. You see for yourself from the pages of the Bible that God was and is eminently fair in his dealings with men and women. It was the Pharisees and Scribes who corrupted the Law.

In the case of adultery, the law gives equal place to the man and the woman. They must be brought out together for trial. It is the authorities, not Jesus or the commands of Word of God, that have brought out the woman alone.


And where are the witnesses? The law required two or more witnesses in order for a trial. Jesus then, rather than discarding the law, uses its truth to diffuse the situation.

Jesus was not an antinomian. He was not opposed to the law. He not only upheld the Old Testament’s condemnation of adultery, but he made the prohibition stronger, saying not only that the physical act is sinful but that lust itself is a sin.


So then, in response the test (or trap) of the scribes and pharisees, what does Jesus do? He bends down and writes with his finger on the ground.

And there is no indication of what he wrote! Any speculation is merely that – speculation.

Most likely, Jesus shows by his writing on the ground that the arguments of the Pharisees do not concern him. It is as if he yawns when they present their trap. His silence speaks louder than words.

But they press him for an answer.

So he stands up, and says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [REPEAT: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”]

Now, here is where we have to be very careful in our understanding of what Jesus says. The reference is to Deuteronomy 17:7 which says “The hand of the witnesses shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.” And the law made it very serious to be a witness. If you were a witness, and throw the first stone after the trial found the person (or persons) guilty, and THEN it was later found out that you “bore false witness” the punishment would come upon you! This is a great disincentive against bearing false witness. You must use great caution in bearing testimony.

We must be very careful in our understanding of what Jesus says, for he DOES NOT mean that punishment can only be carried out by people who have never sinned! If he meant this, then the entire system of law would be overthrown. For there are no sinless people!

Rather, Jesus meant this: “Let him who is without sin among you IN THIS CASE be the first to throw a stone at her.” [REPEAT: “Let him who is without sin among you IN THIS CASE be the first to throw a stone at her.”]

This is why everyone walks away. They were not witnesses of the crime. If anyone were to stay and bear witness they would be a FALSE witness and risk the punishment themselves. Jesus’ words are a call to the eye witnesses to come forward and identify themselves. But there are none.

The scribes and Pharisees are shown to have made a hasty judgment, declaring the woman to be guilty without witnesses. It proves that they were NOT out to seek justice, but were out to GET Jesus. He again has diffused the situation.

With no one left, there was no one to accuse her, and legally she could not be tried.

Was she guilty?


When Jesus departs, he said “sin no more.” He knew she had sinned.

Jesus knew she was a sinner. But he was not an eyewitness in the normal sense. And a case, anyways, required two or three witnesses.

Jesus, John’s Gospel tells us also, “did not come into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.”

He says to the woman, what he says to each of us. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

She deserved nothing but scorn, derision, and according to the law, death. But what she was given was grace, mercy, and forgiveness. And what a marvelous picture that is of the salvation of God. What a perfect example of how the guilty sinner stands before God, worthy of death and condemnation. And yet for some inexplicable reason, he receives grace.

We all are sinners. Our sins condemn us. But Jesus Christ forgives our sins with his death on the cross in our place.

But Jesus’s forgiveness of us, does not mean that we have liberty to go sin at will. Rather, he immediately say “sin no more.”

Calvin says, this is such that “The sinner, being reconciled to God, may honor the Author of his salvation by a good and holy life”

But before we conclude, I want to note one final application from this passage:


There is much sexual sin in this world. It is a difficult topic to discuss. And it is such a horrendous thing because it often breaks up marriages, spreads disease, and goes against God’s commands for our holiness. And if you have not committed such acts outwardly, you certainly have committed the sin of lust. And you stand as guilty as the adulteress before God.

We hear of the forgiveness of sins whenever we open our Bibles or listen to a sermon. But what I want to press on your minds this morning is that, through Jesus, God forgives even sexual sins. Don’t let the sins define you. You are forgiven. This is the grace of God for all who believe. And what a relief it is to know God’s love. Whatever you have done, you are forgiven in the Lord. Go, and sin no more.


Other than that application then, what I want you to take away from this sermon and from this text is the understanding that Jesus’ command “not to throw stones” refers to the case then at hand. It does not mean that you can’t be a witness in a court case. It does not mean that you cannot ever rightly accuse someone else of sin. But it does mean that you must do so rightly. Never should you bear false witness.

Let us praise the Lord for the forgiveness he has given us in Jesus Christ.

Your sins are forgiven. Jesus Paid it All. Amen.