The following is from (another) unpublished work of mine called: Demystifying the Gospel. Apologies for its length! Please feel free to comment.
Did Jesus authoritatively proscribe the prescribed punishment for adultery in the Woman Caught in Adultery passage and thus effectively declare adultery to be no longer a sin and crime? Let us consider the passage that we may properly evaluate if this is indeed the case.
At the time of Jesus Israel was under Roman rule. Rome permitted Israel much freedom to practice her religion. However, there was a great deal of corruption among the different religious factions such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Both these two factions, with the help of the Herodians, were out to destroy Jesus. Their method was to try to destroy Jesus by getting Him offside either with the Romans or the Israelites, or preferably both! One such incident where they tried to trick Jesus is usually referred to as The Woman Caught in Adultery.
If one keeps in mind what Jesus has already said to the people in His Sermon of the Mount, one will have a great deal of insight into what these men were up to. Jesus has already stated in His Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfil. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20.
John 8:2f. records the following about the woman caught in adultery: “Now early in the morning He came to the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery.”
The question was this: What would Jesus teach them about adultery? Would He teach in accordance with God’s own Law-Word and get the Romans offside (perhaps by becoming an opposing authority to Caesar)? Or would He teach against His own Law-Word and thus contradict His Sermon on the Mount teaching about not coming to destroy the Law and the Prophets (i.e., Old Testament teaching)? His enemies thought that one way or the other He was sure to get either the Romans or the people, or both offside!
The scribes and Pharisees said to Him: “‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?’ This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.” John 8:4-6. Here John Calvin comments thus: “For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard.”
Now, much has been suggested as to what Jesus wrote on the ground, but we do not know because we are not told. However, one does not need to speculate. It is a fact that the One writing on the ground is the same One who delivered His Law-Word on Mount Sinai some 1500 years earlier: “And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” The allusion of Jehovah-Jesus writing on the ground must not be overlooked. (Remember that Jesus cast out demons with the finger of God, (Luke 10:11).
The 7th Commandment is: “You shall not commit adultery.” Exodus 20:14. Leviticus deals also with sins related to this commandment. It should be noted that sexual sins are there referred to as sins of “uncovering”. E.g., “Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity. Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbour’s wife, to defile yourself with her.” Leviticus 18:19&20. Adultery is a sin against God’s institution of marriage and therefore destroys the fundamental order of society. Therefore, adultery is a criminal act. It is a sin that is also a crime.
In Old Testament times the wife was “covered” by her husband’s covenantal circumcision. She was in covenant with God through her husband. Hence adulterers, and adulteresses, because of the nature of the act, were left in no doubt whatsoever that they were breaking God’s covenantal Law. Therefore there is a sense in which adultery is an “uncovering” of the grace of God’s covenant, and needs to be properly repented of.
The death penalty for adultery is specified in Leviticus 20:10: “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.” The penalty of stoning to death for sexual sins such as adultery is found in Deuteronomy 22:13ff. The death penalty was not to be inflicted if there was only one witness (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6). “The hands of the witnesses [plural] shall be the first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall put away the evil from among you.” Deuteronomy 17:7.
Why did the scribes and the Pharisees bring only the woman to Jesus and not the man too? For Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die – the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so shall you put away the evil from Israel.” Clearly the Pharisees were guilty of breaking their own law on this point. Thus they were not fit or competent witnesses. Jesus had them on this – they did not have Jesus!
“So they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’ And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.” John 8:7&8. Jesus refused to involve Himself in their evil.
Notice what happened next, keeping in mind what the Holy Spirit would soon thereafter be coming to do in the world, i.e., He was coming to convict the world of “sin,” “righteousness,” and “judgment” John 16:8-11. “Then those who heard it, being convicted in their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.” John 8:9. Christ had summoned these accusers to the judgment-seat of God, just as His Spirit, even the Holy Spirit was coming to do in the world at large.
Remember what has been said about the scribes and the Pharisees in verse six: “This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.” To them, the woman caught in adultery was only the means towards an end. It was Jesus they wanted put to death, not the woman! Hypocrites! Indeed at the end of this same chapter it says, “Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the Temple, going through the midst of them.” John 8:59.
On John 8:9f, Calvin comments:
"Christ only reproves hypocrites... Those who deduce... that adultery should not be punished by death, must on the same reasoning admit that inheritances should not be divided – since Christ refused to arbitrate between two brothers. (Luke 12:13) Indeed, every crime would be exempt from the penalties of the Law if the punishment of adultery is remitted – for the door will then be thrown open to any kind of treachery and to... murder and robbery... Moreover, when an adulteress brings an illegitimate child into a family she not only steals the family name but robs the legitimate issue of the right of inheritance and transfers it to strangers.... Yet the popish theology is that in this passage Christ has brought in the law of grace by which adulterers may be freed from punishment.... This is the result of that diabolical celibacy, so that those [priests] who are not allowed to have a lawful wife may fornicate indiscriminately. But let us hold that, although Christ remits men’s sins, He does not subvert the social order or abolish legal sentences and punishments!"
At the conclusion of the Woman Caught in Adultery incident Jesus said to the woman, “‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’” John 8:10b&11. Not even one accuser remained. Yes, we see grace here. Of course we do! But there already was grace even in the Old Testament when David was not stoned for his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. Therefore, keep in mind that, though the death penalty is the maximum penalty on the books, there may at times be mitigating circumstances as to why the full penalty of the law ought not be administered. Again, keep in mind that the death penalty was not to be inflicted if there was only one witness (Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6).
What can we learn from the Woman Caught in Adultery passage?
1. That Jesus in this passage did not change one jot or tittle of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17&18). There was no charge made against the adulterous woman in Civil or Judicial Law for which she need defend herself. There was no one accusing her of any crime (i.e., criminal act). Therefore she was free from any civil judgment or condemnation. Neither did Jesus condemn her: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:17.
2. That Jesus left open the door for God’s forgiveness upon condition of the woman’s repentance when He said to her, “…go and sin no more.” Therefore even those deserving of the death penalty (such as murderers and adulterers) shall receive forgiveness upon repentance from their sins. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband by a fiendish plan, but truly repented.
3. That by His Spirit God judges the heart. “Marriage is honourable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.” Hebrews 14:4. The consciences of the accusers of the woman caught in adultery were convicted. Therefore whether written on tablets of stone or written on a man’s heart, God’s Moral Law is the rule and therefore the authority to judge.
4. That the Judicial or Civil Law of God actually saved this woman’s life! Jesus exposed the sin of the woman’s accusers by reminding them of the proper procedure for prosecution. “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” John 8:11b.
5. That there could be no Judicial Law if everyone had to be sinless by nature. Therefore, criminal accusers must not be guilty of the same crime as the accused or guilty of falsifying or giving misleading evidence anywhere along the judicial process. (Guilty thieves are not permitted to accuse thieves, or liars liars etc.)
6. That accusers are to be involved in the accused’s execution (“…let him throw a stone at her first.”) Therefore accusers themselves must not be guilty of murdering the innocent through false and/or malevolent accusation, lest they themselves face the death-penalty.
7. That ulterior motives (i.e., sins of the heart) are judged by God.
It cannot be demonstrated from The Woman Caught in Adultery passage that Jesus forbids the death-penalty for those lawfully convicted of adultery. However it does demonstrate that due process and natural justice must prevail.
It is interesting to note what the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 24:5 says on Marriage and Divorce, though not directly stating it, it does leave the death-penalty for adultery intact:
Adultery and fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead.