Resolving Moral Conflict

John 8:1-11

Topic: Conflict Resolution

On a cool morning in Jerusalem, Jesus taught a group of followers in the courtyard of the magnificent Temple. The solitude of the Lord’s classroom was abruptly broken, however, when a group of angry Pharisees and scribes made their way to the center of the assembly. Dragging behind them was a barely-covered woman that they had just removed from the bed of adultery. The humiliated woman was merely a pawn in the evil ploy of the religious zealots. Even though their motives were dishonest, they nevertheless presented a moral conflict for Christ to address. On the one hand, if he lived up to His reputation as “the friend of sinners” then He could be accused of violating the Mosaic Law. On the other hand, if He condemned her to death He would be no better than the self-righteous Pharisees.  All eyes fell on Jesus to see how He would handle such a moral dilemma. The whole sordid affair reminds me of:
The Scarlet Letter –
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century classic, The Scarlet Letter, an unwed mother received the same type of treatment from her peers as the woman in John chapter eight. When Hester Prynne went before the town council they sentenced her to wear a red “A” (for “Adulteress”) on her dress for all to see her shame. Hawthorne wrote: “On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.”[1]
It would seem that her accusers were more interested in public spectacle than in righteousness. So was the case with the poor sinner in John eight.
Why is there such a perverted longing on the part of the morally upright to publicly humiliate the fallen? Surely we are not to gawk at the immoral deeds of the guilty, but rather restore the penitent sinner as Christ has commanded.
Conspiracy of Silence –
In most every scholarly commentary John 8:1-11 is a source of genuine controversy. Conservative scholars agree that this incident is part of the original manuscript; but they can’t agree on where it belongs in the Gospel record. It seems that at the end of the first century or in the early part of the 2nd, some overly zealous Christians thought that this account made Jesus look soft on sin. As a result, there was a widespread conspiracy to expunge it from the record. “The reason probably is that in a day when the punishment for sexual sin was very severe among Christians this story was thought to be too easily misinterpreted as countenancing un-chastity.”[2] Inspiration preserved the text, but some feel that it originally belonged to Luke’s Gospel.
My point is that those who tried to remove the story were guilty of the same sin as those in the story! They attempted to hide God’s mercy causing sinners to live in public shame and prolonged humiliation.
I was once dealing with a fallen young woman, like Hester Prynne, who had repented of her sin. The church leaders were mostly Christ-like in their handling of the situation, but I will never forget the words of one old Pharisee, who said of forgiving her, “Preacher, I am worried about the message that this will send to others.” I suppose he would have pinned a red “A” on her dress. I suppose he would have been in favor of cutting John 8:1-11 out because it is soft on sin. But, what better message could you send than the message of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness?   That is a message that we all desperately need to hear!
I want to divide this conflict into three parts because Jesus had to deal with three distinct groups. The first group consists of the Lord’s classroom pupils. We will refer to them as:

I. Compassionate Believers – vs. 1-2

Not everyone in the story was an adulterer and not everyone in the story was a cold-hearted Pharisee. There were those assembled on that cool Middle Eastern morning to hear the words of the Master. Perhaps they represent most of us. They were not personally guilty of adultery nor were they out looking for people to condemn. However, when confronted with this conflict, how should they react? Should they ignore the woman or should they stone her? Wisely, they waited for Christ to settle the conflict. By Christ’s actions and through His Word believers learn how to deal with moral conflict.
A. Be Honest About the Sin
Everyone agrees that adultery is a bad thing. Jesus called it sin. Sin separates us from God. Sin must be addressed-even by compassionate people. Only when sin is honestly addressed can it be forgiven. The Bible says in 1 Jn. 1:
8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Jesus forgave the penitent woman and gave her a new lease on life. We can never resolve our own personal moral conflicts unless we are honest about what we have done. God wants us to own up to our failures and the turn from them. Repentance means changing our minds and changing our direction. Repentance cannot happen until we honestly assess our mess and turn to Christ for forgiveness.
Here we walk a dangerous tightrope. We must learn the delicate act of hating sin and loving sinners. We must convey to the lost that their sin is damning, without taking on the position of judge, jury, and executioner.
B. Be Willing To Lift Others Up
Pharisees look for excuses to put people down. Compassionate believers look for excuses to lift people up. Barnabas was called the Son of Encouragement because he was the type of person that lifted others up. The Bible says of Barnabas that “he encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of the heart (Acts 11:23 HCSB).
Lifting up fallen sinners is called restoration. God’s Word teaches:
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. (Gal. 6:1 NKJV).
It is so easy to tear down. No one needs a blueprint to tear down a building. However, building up is much more difficult and time consuming. You need a plan and patience to see the job completed. The Pharisees were masters at tearing down, but Jesus taught his classroom pupils to be builders. You who are spiritual are called upon to restore the fallen one and build them up to a place of fellowship with God.
There is a second group that we must address:

II. Uncompassionate Religionists – vs. 3-9

The focus of this entire episode is not the poor woman, but the self-righteous, unforgiving, self-appointed moral police officers. We know them as the Pharisees. I call them uncompassionate because they did not really care to see this woman straightened out. “Their main desire was to trap Jesus, not to purge Jerusalem of its moral evils.”[3]
A. Their Plan – v.6a
They had no real interest in righteousness; they had only used this poor woman as a pawn in their chess-match with Jesus. They wanted to use her to bring down the Savior. “The entire affair had the appearance of trickery, a trap specially prepared to catch Jesus. The Sanhedrin would probably not have arisen early in the morning unless there was a special reason for doing so.”[4] They knew that if Jesus said to stone her, He would no longer be “the friend of publicans and sinners,” and He would also be in trouble with Rome for an unlawful execution. And, if Jesus said NOT to stone her, then He would be placing Himself at odds with the Mosaic Law (even though this particular sentence had not been enforced for centuries).
Thank God for:
B. Their Exposure – v.6b
Concerning those cold-hearted, self-righteous Pharisees; two Scriptures come to mind:
  1. Be sure your sins will find you out – Num. 32:23
  2. …. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. – Lu 6:38b
Perhaps they thought that they had finally caught the merciful Messiah. Jesus did not answer them, but merely stooped to write something on the hardened, sandy floor of the Temple complex. It took them a moment to actually read what it was that Christ wrote.
For two thousand years we have wondered about the words Christ wrote:
Did Jesus write the Ten Commandments, again, with His finger?
And he gave unto Moses, . . . upon mount Sinai, two . . . , tables of stone, written with the finger of God. – Ex 31:18
Did He write out part of His Sermon on the Mount?
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hathcommitted adultery with her already in his heart. – Mt 5:28
Did He write out the details of their own personal indiscretions?
Whatever it was that Christ wrote on the ground that morning in the Temple complex, it shamed and intimidated those bullies into a full-scale retreat. They left from the eldest unto the least.
Uncompassionate religionists seem to forget that they too have a sin problem. Why can’t I remove the splinter out of your eye? Because I have a beam in my own! Small, petty people get sordid pleasure from the downfall of others. How did you feel when Jimmy Swaggart fell? What went through your mind when you heard the Ted Haggard had a crack pipe and a boyfriend? I must admit to my shame that I was a little entertained by the titillating details for a brief moment. May God forgive me for my arrogance and pride.
But there is a third party that I want to discuss, and that is:

III.The Guilty Sinner – vs. 10-11

The Pharisees pretended that they wanted the right thing done, but they were fooling no one. They were out for blood – not righteousness. The only person in our story who wasn’t looking for anything was the poor sinful woman. Yet, she is the one who seemed to receive the most that day!
The thing that initially grabs our attention is:
A. Her Harassment – 3b
Their whole attitude toward … the woman … was one of cruelty. She, disheveled and sullen, was catapulted into the center of a public assembly, and her sin was shouted aloud for all to hear. There was not one syllable spoken concerning salvaging her, guilty as she was. She was merely the bait for the trap by which they hoped to take Jesus. The utter heartlessness of her captors was as immoral as was the promiscuity of the woman.[5]
She is probably only wrapped with a sheet. Dirty and naked, she is thrown out like household garbage. She means nothing to the Religious leaders – yet she means so much to Christ that He will soon die for her.
Remember Hester Prynne? She was the guilty party in Hawthorne’s story. Well, as the story goes on a group of “female Pharisees” discuss what should be done with the promiscuous Prynne: “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead,”[6] One lady said.
But another woman was even less kind in her opinion:
What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead? . . . This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray![7]
I guess she, too, was worried about the message that forgiveness would send. That woman would likely be in favor of censoring John 8:1-11, as well.
Thankfully, the poor sinner was not without an advocate. Notice:
B. Her Defense Counsel – v.7
With a stroke of Divine genius Jesus affirms the Law of Moses in such rigid detail that it guarantees the woman’s safety. You see, the law required the accusers to begin the execution, but the accusers were too convicted by their own sin to throw any rocks! Thanks to the Lord’s Sermon in the Sand, her accusers turned tail and ran!   There was no one left to carry out the execution!
Therefore, Jesus now pronounces:
C. Her Sentence – v11b
Is Jesus soft on sin? Was her forgiveness cheap? “To be able to say ‘neither do I condemn you,’ cost Jesus the hell of Calvary.”[8] That is not cheap.
With such a bizarre turn of events, we are left wondering about:
D. Her Future –
It is commonly believed that she accepted the Lord as her Savior. Why else would God put this true account into His permanent record? “Certainly the experience of gracious forgiveness would motivate the penitent sinner to live a holy and obedient life to the glory of God.”[9] One thing is certain, Jesus Christ can settle our moral conflicts.


What are we to make of the way Christ settled this moral conflict? Certainly this episode could have turned into a fiasco if Jesus had not been who He claimed to be. Because He is the Son of God, His death on the cross means that all the Hester Prynnes and adulterous women (and men) can have their guilty stains cleansed.
  1. Christians, we have a responsibility to lift up the fallen. If ever a soul rejects the mercy and forgiveness of Christ – never let it be said it was not offered by His Church. Friend, if the only way that you can feel good about yourself is by pointing out the failure of others, then I beg you to seek the Lord today that you might find true righteousness.
  2. Guilty Sinners, the same Christ that dealt compassionately with the woman in John 8 can and will forgive your sins. He will not overlook your guilt, but He will wash it away with His own blood. Christ has suffered the wrath that God had reserved for you – won’t you turn from your sin and turn to Him in faith, believing that He can and will make you His son or daughter forever?

[1] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, (originally printed in 1850), 58.

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John revised, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 779.

[3] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 140.

[4] ______________, John, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 90.

[5] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 140.

[6] Hawthorne, 56

[7] Ibid, 57.

[8] Bruce Milne, The Message of John, TBST series, John R.W. Stott, NT editor (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 126.

[9] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, NT vol. 1 (Colorado Springs: Victor Books, 2001), 320.

Marcus Merritt
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