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Did Jesus break the Law?

Weekly Q&A

Did Jesus break the Law?
Posted on June 9, 2020  - By Rufus Simon Varghese

I know that the authority of the story of Jesus and the adulteress is not well established, but I’ve read it is the view of New Testament scholars that the event probably happened. I always have a hard time reading this passage though, because, although Jesus was sent to proclaim grace, didn’t He break the OT law when He failed to stone the woman? Or was the Mosaic already made obsolete by then, so that Jesus could remain sinless while breaking the Mosaic Law?

The passage in view has a few observations that need to be understood within its immediate context and the overall context of the gospel of John.

  1. The characters include the scribes and the Pharisees who were the religious leaders and theologians of that time. As teachers of the Law and people who presided over the weekly meetings in the synagogue, they were very familiar with the law of Moses and its requirements (Matthew 23:2).
  2. They knew what the Law demanded as a punishment for those who violated the seventh commandment of the Decalogue.
  3. These religious leaders were presented as bringing a woman who had been caught in adultery. We know that adultery is not an act that can be done alone. The act, by definition, requires the involvement of two parties. If so, the Pharisees and scribes left the man without punishment and brought only the woman to face judgement. 
  4. In letting the man go without punishment, the Pharisees and the scribes are equally involved in the man’s guilt, even though they didn’t commit adultery physically. To let go of a sinner without punishment is to be in silent yet complete agreement with the offender.
  5. The aim of bringing this woman to Jesus was to test Jesus and bring a charge against him. Jesus was often involved in confrontations with these religious leaders in the previous chapters (see John 5-7),  and they wanted to condemn Jesus’s stance on the Mosaic Law and its implications. They kept pestering Him to give them an answer.

A faulty view of holiness

In view of these observations, Jesus’ reply in verse 7 accomplished several things:

  1. Jesus affirmed the Mosaic Law by agreeing with the fact that the woman must die by stoning. He affirmed that adultery is a sin punishable by death under the Law. So, He isn’t negating the Mosaic Law.
  2. He affirmed that those who volunteered to stone her must be people who hadn’t participated in her sin. Jesus was encouraging the Pharisees and scribes to cast a stone at her, provided they hadn’t also sinned. 
  3. In saying this, Jesus made the accusers stand alongside the adulterous woman in judgment. He exposed their faulty view of holiness and justice. Their action of letting the man go was seen by God as participatory in the act of adultery here. So, in truth, the Pharisees, scribes, the man and the woman were all deserving of death by stoning.
  4. With their consciences pricking them, all of the accusers left the scene, with the older people taking the lead.
  5. This left the woman alone with Jesus — which, in truth, should’ve been a very dangerous position. For though she had escaped her fellow accusers, she was now alone with Jesus.

Righteousness fulfilled

In the context of the gospel of John, we understand that Jesus is the very same YHWH God who gave the Old Testament Law to the people of Israel and that this immortal, eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among men (John 1:14). He came to reveal the grace and truth that was present in the Law of Moses in a complete way to man.

The Mosaic Law (in this context, we refer to the 10 commandments) was never and will never be obsolete, as it will always serve to reveal the holiness of God and His unwavering standards. In other words, if there was anyone in this passage who could’ve stoned the woman, it would have been Jesus. 

With all this in view, if Jesus had stoned only the woman, He would have been guilty of breaking the Law, because everyone else there was equally culpable in the eyes of God who gave the Law. He would have had to kill everyone there for perfect justice to happen. But we see Jesus who came to fulfil all righteousness so that sinners could be justified before God. Thus, there is no question of Jesus breaking the Law.

Lessons of grace

There are two questions we can find answers for in the teaching of this passage.

The first is: how could Jesus let go of the woman, the man and every other character in the passage?

He could do so without giving them all a death penalty because, in a few chapters from then, He would give His life as a ransom for many and bear their sins as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world because He fulfilled their righteousness. Jesus being God would not leave sin unaddressed. He condemned sin, but He chose to take the punishment on Himself by dying for us. He took our punishment so that we could receive grace upon grace. Jesus’s demonstration of grace was not at the expense of justice.

The other question is: how do we explain the grace shown to the woman in the story? The woman received forgiveness instead of condemnation. She went on in life, urged by the Lord to repent and run away from her lifestyle of sin and embrace a walk with God. Grace teaches us to renounce all ungodliness and filth and please God.

Rufus Simon Varghese

About Rufus Simon Varghese

Born and raised in Dubai, UAE, Rufus completed his Masters in Theology at Asian Christian Academy in Hosur, India. He has since been involved in personal outreach ministries and teaching youngsters Scripture. Currently based in Ernakulam, India, he is teaching at a Bible school as well as ministering to the Hindi-speaking immigrant working population in Kerala.



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