When the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman before Jesus and accused her of committing adultery, there were no eyewitnesses to act, evident by Jesus’ response: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” This was not Jesus’ effort to dismiss or lower the standard of the Law, but to maintain it. The very next verse in Deuteronomy 17 stipulates that the first stone to be hurled is to come from the hand of those who testified as witnesses to the act.
What is the relationship between Christians and the Law of Moses? It is a question that dates back to the formation of the early church (Acts 15:24-29), but to this day, many believers still aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do with the first five books of the Bible. Often, they’re entirely avoided. Sometimes they’re treated like off milk that passed its expiration date with the coming of Jesus. Other times, they’re presented as cruel, harsh, and unforgiving rules, reflective of the barbaric and uncivilised era from which they emerged.
Whatever the case may be, portraying the Law as anything short of “holy, righteous, just, and good” is to present the Law in a way that is contrary to the New Testament (Rom. 7:12). Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and James all summed up the Law in a word: Love (Mk. 12:31; Rom. 13:9; Jam. 2:8; cf. Lev. 19:18). In other words, in the New Testament, “love” was not some arbitrary sense of affirmation or positive vibes. Love was a summary of God’s Law.
To love God “with all your heart, soul, and strength,” was to love him in accordance with the commandments he had given (Deut. 6:4-5; 10:12-13). To love your neighbour as yourself, was to treat your neighbour the way in which God prescribed in his statutes, and to do so from the heart (Lev. 19:18-19). To relax even one of the least of the commandments was to love God and man less than God required (Matt. 5:19). It was to act presumptuously by elevating yourself to the level of the Law Giver. In fact, the preservation of love was so important in Israel that violations were regarded as a crime punishable by death (Deut. 17:12-13).
It is at this point that many modern Christians recoil. The Law required capital punishment for sins that our culture does not. And sometimes, it demanded death for sins that our culture celebrates. To affirm the Law as “love” is perhaps the most counter-cultural thing you can do. It could cost you your family and friends, your career, and in some instances, your freedom. Wouldn’t it be easier, for the self-preserving Christian, to pretend God’s Law was no longer relevant? To opt rather for a definition of “love” that’s defined more so by current social sentiments than by Scripture? After all, didn’t Jesus dismiss the harsh demands of the Law for the higher road of compassion and forgiveness? That is what we’re told.
It’s rare that the subject of God’s Law and it’s relevance today is discussed without someone making an appeal to John 8:3-11. The incident of the woman caught in adultery is often raised as evidence that Jesus disobeyed the Law demanding death to establish a new “Law of Love” that operates, at times, contrary to the Law. Arguments regarding the account’s placement in Scripture aside — let’s just assume it belongs here — a question worth considering is whether the incident demonstrates an example of Jesus, at best, lowering the standard of the Law, and at worst, directly violating it.
It’s an important question to consider, as our understanding of this will determine whether we believe Jesus transgressed God’s Law, thereby sinning, and consequently rendering himself an unfit sacrificial substitute for our sins (1 Jn. 3:4; Heb. 9:14). Of course, this would be at odds with the witness of the New Testament which tells us that Jesus, who was born under the Law (Gal. 4:4-5), never transgressed the Law, nor could he be found guilty of any sin (Jn. 8:46). This is a claim that the Apostles also reaffirm in the epistles (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). So, if Jesus did not sin, then he did not transgress the Law. How then do we make sense of his interaction with the woman caught in adultery?
The fact that Jesus never sinned by transgressing the Law is highlighted by the scribes and the Pharisees who were “searching for a charge that they could bring against him.” In John 8:6, we’re told that Jesus’ opponents wanted to put him to the test. So, they brought before him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. The scribes and Pharisees then said to Jesus, according to the Law, “Moses commanded us to stone such women. So, what do you say?” The scribes and Pharisees were appealing to Leviticus 20:10, which states: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.”
The scribes and Pharisees were setting a trap for Jesus. Under Roman rule, the Jews were not at liberty to put anyone to death (Jn. 18:31; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 1.1; 7.2; Palestinian Talmud, Sanhedrin 41a). If Jesus upheld the Law of Moses, he would be violating the law of Rome.