“the net which they hid is their own foot taken” –Psalm 9:15
In my last post, I addressed the question of whether it would be right for Jesus to stone the woman. The address was to a very specific question, and not the passage as a whole. Here I want to address the passage as a whole.
Caught in the Act
Interestingly, the passage starts out by having the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman caught in the act of adultery. “3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, 4 they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act” (John 8). Matthew Henry takes note: “during the time of the feast of tabernacles, when, it may be, their dwelling in booths, and their feasting and joy, might, by wicked minds, which corrupt the best things, be made occasions of sin.”1 Other than this, we do not have anything in the text to say how they caught her or where. Were they looking for someone to bring Christ? Or was this a common occurrence?
The Law of Moses
Next, when they bring the woman to Jesus, they tell Him that the woman is to be stoned. “5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou” (John 8). Now, even though I will be quoting Matthew Henry, it should be noted that Matthew Poole says the same thing. “They produce the statute in this case made and provided, and upon which she was indicted, v. 5. Moses in the law commanded that such should be stoned. Moses commanded that they should be put to death (Lev. xx. 10; Deut. xxii. 22), but not that they should be stoned, unless the adulteress was espoused, not married, or was a priest’s daughter, Deut. xxii. 21. Note, Adultery is an exceedingly sinful sin, for it is the rebellion of a vile lust, not only against the command, but against the covenant, of our God. It is the violation of a divine institution in innocency, by the indulgence of one of the basest lusts of man in his degeneracy.”2
Interestingly, Matthew Henry talks about the same issue that was brought up in my previous post. There must be a judge (magistrate) in order to declare a sentence of the guilty party. “The crime for which the prisoner stands indicted is no less than adultery, which even in the patriarchal age, before the law of Moses, was looked upon as an iniquity to be punished by the judges, Job xxxi. 9-11; Gen. xxxviii. 24.”3
One thing you can see in this interaction is the test they were trying to put on him. “This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him” (John 8:6). There are multiple things that the Pharisees could accuse Him. “They pray his judgment in the case: ‘But what sayest thou, who pretendest to be a teacher come from God to repeal old laws and enact new ones? What hast thou to say in this case?’ If they had asked this question in sincerity, with a humble desire to know his mind, it had been very commendable. Those that are entrusted with the administration of justice should look up to Christ for direction; but this they said tempting him, that they might have to accuse him, v. 6. [1.] If he should confirm the sentence of the law, and let it take its course, they would censure him as inconsistent with himself (he having received publicans and harlots) and with the character of the Messiah, who should be meek, and have salvation, and proclaim a year of release; and perhaps they would accuse him to the Roman governor, for countenancing the Jews in the exercise of a judicial power. But, [2.] If he should acquit her, and give his opinion that the sentence should not be executed (as they expected he would), they would represent him, First, As an enemy to the law of Moses, and as one that usurped an authority to correct and control it, and would confirm that prejudice against him which his enemies were so industrious to propagate, that he came to destroy the law and the prophets. Secondly, As a friend to sinners, and, consequently, a favourer of sin; if he should seem to connive at such wickedness, and let it go unpunished, they would represent him as countenancing it, and being a patron of offences, if he was a protector of offenders, than which no reflection could be more invidious upon one that professed the strictness, purity, and business of a prophet.”4
Jesus’ answer is breath taking. He answers their trap by giving them an answer pertaining to their own hearts. “When they importunately, or rather impertinently, pressed him for an answer, he turned the conviction of the prisoner upon the prosecutors, v. 7.
[1.] They continued asking him, and his seeming not to take notice of them made them the more vehement; for now they thought sure enough that they had run him aground, and that he could not avoid the imputation of contradicting either the law of Moses, if he should acquit the prisoner, or his own doctrine of mercy and pardon, if he should condemn her; and therefore they pushed on their appeal to him with vigour; whereas they should have construed his disregard of them as a check to their design, and an intimation to them to desist, as they tendered their own reputation.
[2.] At last he put them all to shame and silence with one word: He lifted up himself, awaking as one out of sleep (Ps. lxxviii. 65), and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
First, Here Christ avoided the snare which they had laid for him, and effectually saved his own reputation. He neither reflected upon the law nor excused the prisoner’s guilt, nor did he on the other hand encourage the prosecution or countenance their heat; see the good effect of consideration. When we cannot make our point by steering a direct course, it is good to fetch a compass.
Secondly, In the net which they spread is their own foot taken. They came with design to accuse him, but they were forced to accuse themselves. Christ owns it was fit the prisoner should be prosecuted, but appeals to their consciences whether they were fit to be the prosecutors.
- He here refers to that rule which the law of Moses prescribed in the execution of criminals, that the hand of the witnesses must be first upon them (Deut. xvii. 7), as in the stoning of Stephen, Acts vii. 58. The scribes and Pharisees were the witnesses against this woman. Now Christ puts it to them whether, according to their own law, they would dare to be the executioners. Durst they take away that life with their hands which they were now taking away with their tongues? would not their own consciences fly in their faces if they did?
- He builds upon an uncontested maxim in morality, that it is very absurd for men to be zealous in punishing the offences of others, while they are every whit as guilty themselves, and they are not better than self-condemned who judge others, and yet themselves do the same thing: “If there be any of you who is without sin, without sin of this nature, that has not some time or other been guilty of fornication or adultery, let him cast the first stone at her.” Not that magistrates, who are conscious of guilt themselves, should therefore connive at others’ guilt. But therefore, (a.) Whenever we find fault with others, we ought to reflect upon ourselves, and to be more severe against sin in ourselves than in others. (b.) We ought to be favourable, though not to the sins, yet to the persons, of those that offend, and to restore them with a spirit of meekness, considering ourselves and our own corrupt nature. Aut sumus, aut fuimus, vel possumus esse quod hic est—We either are, or have been, or may be, what he is. Let this restrain us from throwing stones at our brethren, and proclaiming their faults. Let him that is without sin begin such discourse as this, and then those that are truly humbled for their own sins will blush at it, and be glad to let it drop. (c.) Those that are any way obliged to animadvert upon the faults of others are concerned to look well to themselves, and keep themselves pure (Matt. vii. 5), Qui alterum incusat probri, ipsum se intueri oportet. The snuffers of the tabernacle were of pure gold.
- Perhaps he refers to the trial of the suspected wife by the jealous husband with the waters of jealousy. The man was to bring her to the priest (Num. v. 15), as the scribes and Pharisees brought this woman to Christ. Now it was a received opinion among the Jews, and confirmed by experience, that if the husband who brought his wife to that trial had himself been at any time guilty of adultery, Aquæ non explorant ejus uxorem—The bitter water had no effect upon the wife. “Come then,” saith Christ, “according to your own tradition will I judge you; if you are without sin, stand to the charge, and let the adulteress be executed; but if not, though she be guilty, while you that present her are equally so, according to your own rule she shall be free.”
- In this he attended to the great work which he came into the world about, and that was to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the prisoner to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors too, by showing them their sins. They sought to ensnare him; he sought to convince and convert them. Thus the blood-thirsty hate the upright, but the just seek his soul.”5
When the Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus, we see that they are trying to entrap Him. There issues in this passage are multifaceted. We see that they were not doing things according to the Law nor were they being sincere. Jesus answers them by showing the wickedness of their heart. It seems to me that “the net which they hid is their own foot taken”.
- Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible: Genesis to Revelation. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web. 7 May 2016. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc5.John.ix.html>. Par., 6.
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