The story of the adulteress is ultimately a powerful story of grace and forgiveness, as well as an enduring testimony of a love that knows no bounds—the love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The title of this article is not meant to be scandalous.
Jesus loved women. Truly.
In a time and place where women were viewed as second-class citizens—who were excluded from offering testimonies in a court of law, banned from participating in religious and social gatherings when they menstruated, and forbidden to speak to men privately—Jesus treated women with the utmost dignity, respect, and love.
Among His best friends and followers were women (John 10:38-42). Most of the people who were brave enough to attend His crucifixion were women (John 19:25). And the very first people to testify of His glorious resurrection from the dead were, in fact, women (Mark 16:1-8)—a formerly demon-possessed woman foremost among them (Mark 16:9).
Notwithstanding first-century Jewish custom—and to the shock and awe of His male disciples—Jesus chatted with a Samaritan woman privately (a woman of a disreputable background no less) and revealed to her first His messianic secret—that He was the Savior for whom Israel had been long waiting (“I, the one speaking to you—I am he”). He lauded the faith of a hemorrhaging woman, a social and religious outcast who had broken Levitical law by touching Him, commending her faith as the reason she was cured of her twelve-year-long illness (“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering”). And He saved a woman caught in the act of adultery from death by stoning (a punishment prescribed in Mosaic law), going as far as publicly upbraiding her male would-be executors for their appalling hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness (“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”).
When everyone else refused to acknowledge the inherent dignity and value of women, Jesus shouted it from the rooftops, loud and proud. He was a champion of women—no matter their social status, reputation, or ethnicity—thousands of years before women’s rights and gender equality were even a concept.
Come along with me as I examine some key encounters Jesus had with women, comprehensively exploring their theological, biblical, and historical contexts. As you will come to see, Jesus loved women profoundly, bestowing them with high honor and a special place in His ministry and kingdom.
The Adulteress Meets Jesus
For as long as I can remember, I have loved this story. Told only in John 8:1-11, it tells of a woman caught in flagrante—that is, the act of adultery.
Just imagine for a moment the high drama of the scene.
A woman is abruptly awakened by someone yanking at her wrist, dragging her out of her bed and into a busy street. Confused and barely awake, she tries in vain to hide her nakedness with shaking hands, watching in horror as passers-by stare at her with contempt and disgust.
Then, after what feels like hours of being paraded through town, the woman is flung to the ground, her knees scraping against the desert sand. She winces as she feels the hot Middle Eastern sun beating against her bareback and the sting of judgmental male eyes glaring down at her naked body.
This is it, she thinks, her heart thumping against her chest. I’m going to die.
Deep, sinister voices deliberate around her. “Teacher,” she hears them say, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4-5).
The woman gulps. They’re right—she is guilty. She knows it…she’s ready to confess it. But she also knows that a confession would not be enough—no, not in this world dominated by cunning, merciless men.
Blinking away her tears, the woman feebly turns toward the object of the voices. Her eyes catch sight of a man crouching down a few feet away from her, tracing something in the sand with His finger. For a moment, she wonders in awe what He can possibly be writing with such focus and calm, and how He, a seemingly ordinary man, can command such attention and respect.
Why are they deferring to Him? she wonders.
Just then the man rises to His feet. The sinister voices immediately go silent. An eerie hush falls over the bloodthirsty crowd. The woman dares not look up.
“Let any one of you who is without sin,” she hears Him say calmly, “be the first to throw a stone at her.” The man then stoops down again, nonchalantly resuming His writing on the ground.
The woman gasps—it’s a gasp of shock and disbelief—and flinches when she hears the first rock thump to the ground. One by one, each of the men who’d conspired to kill her drops a rock from his white-knuckled grip—and then sheepishly slips away.
Standing up again, the man approaches the woman and, taking her trembling hand, brings her to her feet.
“Woman,” He says, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
The woman shakes her head incredulously. “No one, sir,” she replies, her heartbeat beginning to steady.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” the man declares gently. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
A Testimony of Grace
I often wonder what Jesus was writing on the ground that day. Many have made intriguing guesses—and I like this one the best:
There, on the desert ground—the very ground on which His forefathers had trod centuries before with the tablets of the Law—Jesus was inscribing the good news of grace: the spontaneous gift from God to people—generous, free, and completely unexpected and undeserved.
In His defense of the adulteress, Jesus demonstrates that God is willing to pardon all people of their sins, irrespective of race, gender, class, or reputation. Though the adulteress does nothing to earn or deserve this mercy, Jesus gives it to her anyway, emphasizing the unconditional love God has for humankind.
In fact, there was just one person who met the qualifications of Jesus’ challenge—who was entirely sinless and would therefore have been justified in hurling the first stone at the woman. But, instead, He stood up for her—and chose to forgive her.
A quote from John Newton, the writer of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” comes to mind: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” Elsewhere someone put it this way: “I may be a great sinner, but I have a greater Savior.”
The essence of these quotes perfectly sums up the message of grace. I love how Paul the Apostle explains it: “While we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [we] all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).
The Implications of Grace
Jesus’ treatment of the adulteress demonstrates a plethora of things about God’s view of women.
First, it shows that Jesus rejects hypocrisy and sexism. Here’s a little background:
According to Leviticus 20:10, the law the men were most likely citing, was “both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” However, only the woman is brought to Jesus to be judged. Jesus clearly recognizes this double standard and that the woman was being used as bait to trap Him in a dilemma (i.e. If Jesus approved the stoning of the woman, His message of grace would be contradicted; if He opposed it, He’d be seen as challenging the Law of Moses—a dangerous move for a rabbi).
Second, by defending the adulteress, Jesus demonstrates that women and men are equal in the sight of God. In fact, when He delivers His shocking judgment (“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”), He suggests that the woman’s sin is not greater or lesser than the sins of the men who have gathered to condemn her. He, therefore, humbles them all by suggesting that none are superior to even an adulteress—driving His point home when each of the men sheepishly departs from the scene, their own consciences having convicted them.
Lastly, not once does Jesus humiliate or demean the adulteress; in fact, He does the complete opposite, removing her shame and uplifting her. He neither condemns the woman nor approves of her sinful lifestyle, but instead forgives her sin, canceling its penalty and firmly yet gently telling her to abandon her former way of life.
Overall, in this incredible biblical episode, Jesus demonstrates that He is a God of second chances, who gives everyone—even people the Law deems worthy of death—the opportunity to start life anew, free from the sins of their past. The story of the adulteress is ultimately a powerful story of grace and forgiveness, as well as an enduring testimony of a love that knows no bounds—the love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Next in this series, I will explore Jesus’ touching encounter with the so-called “bleeding woman,” a woman who has been hemorrhaging for twelve long years and has become an outcast because of her infirmity. Come and see how Jesus’ poignant interaction with her emphasizes the deep love and respect that He had—and continues to have—for women, and how we can happily embrace our femininity in light of this great love.
Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Paul Campbell
Roma Maitlall fancies herself a bit of a logophile (from the Greek, meaning “lover of words”). Her lifelong passion for writing—combined with her love of Jesus—inspired her to study English and theology at St. John’s—a university located in Queens, New York, her hometown, where she always dreamed of becoming a writer. Now a full-time writer, Roma enjoys spending time with her wonderful sisters and family, learning everything there is to know about history, literature, art, and Christianity, and using her words to give glory to Jesus.