Question: Why would Jesus step in and say, “Yah—I know my dad made all these rules But I've fulfilled those so you don't have to follow those anymore?” He says he fulfilled the law, yet he did not follow it by not stoning the woman—and the Law Moses commanded them to stone such women.
Answer: It will be my pleasure to respond to your question today—and it is an important one. Was Jesus congruent when he did not follow the Law of Moses to the letter by refusing to stone the adulterous woman? After all, Jesus did say that he came to fulfill the Law, and people who say one thing and do another are known as hypocrites. Now, if Jesus was a hypocrite, then the word of God is useless… and we are all in trouble big!
This makes our answer particularly important… but it is also complex. So you will have to be patient with me while I unwind it, and I will touch on four issues in doing so: Jesus fulfilling the Law, Jesus breaking the Law, Christians not needing to obey the Law and a few issues concerning the documents that underpin this section of Scripture.
First, you are correct in your assertion Jesus came to fulfill the Law, and you are correct in your observation that Jesus did not stone the woman. However, you are incorrect in your assertions that fulfilling the Law is equivalent to obeying the Law, and that Jesus’ refusal to stone the woman meant that he broke the Law. But no matter what else we say today, the Scripture is clear that Jesus did indeed come to fulfill the Law.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17, NIV)
Okay—Jesus came to fulfill the Law. But what does Scripture mean by the phrase fulfill the Law? Does it mean that we are all free from following the Law, as your question infers? Not at all. For example, are you—a man who is saved by grace and can never go to hell no matter what—free to murder someone? No… and God forbid that anyone would think so! But, would it be appropriate for you to take a goat to church and offer it as an atonement? Also no—and of course not. Performing any such sacrifice today would insult Jesus Christ (Heb. 6:6).
What do we have then? You are obeying the Law by not murdering, yet you are dis-obeying the Law by not making animal sacrifices to atone for your sins. What is going on here? The Law is multifaceted, but we may break it down broadly into two categories: that which has to do with moral behavior (how we live life among our fellow humans and in the sight of God), and that which is symbolic of Jesus’ death on the cross (such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle [Temple], the Levitical and Aaronic priesthood, animal sacrifices, the holidays, etc.)
The latter was fulfilled by Jesus’ death on the cross. This was the final atonement for sin. Jesus attested to this with his words, “It is finished.” (John 19:30) But not everything was finished. The atonement was… that’s for sure! Jesus paid the price once and for all (1 Pet. 3:18). But the moral code did not end on the cross, as did the animal sacrifices. Hey—Christ is not done with the world yet! Therefore, he requires us, his people, to continue our testimony by working in the world—but in his name—and with ongoing godly behaviors.
Remember, the issues of godly or ungodly behavior existed well before the Law was instituted (c.f. Garden of Eden, the Flood), and they will continue after it is fulfilled (c.f. the final judgments). So, what exactly stopped at the cross? The things that were designed to stop at the cross; that includes anything that pointed to the atonement, but that does not include the need to behave morally. That is a need that transcends the Law of Moses.
Jesus fulfilled the “Law and the Prophets” by fulfilling prophecy, completing the atonement and satisfying a plethora of biblical symbols (known as types)—and yes, by being totally obedient to the Law. But we should look at his compliance with the Law more as a personal qualification for the job of a “fulfiller” than as the fulfillment itself. We will also see that a Righteous Judge (2 Tim. 4:8) can satisfy the Law without rigidly exacting the punishments listed therein.
To understand the dynamics at play with the woman taken in adultery, we must understand that the Gospels represent a transitional time. Jesus was working among a people who were still responsible to the Law of Moses, but since the kingdom of God was now “at hand” (Mark 1:15), Jesus presented the Law in a new way (c.f. The Sermon on the Mount). The religious establishment still insisted upon ridged adherence to the Law of Moses (although they interpreted it wrongly). But Jesus focused on the mercy and forgiveness that lay untapped in that Law—and that’s the aspect of the Law that Jesus applied to the woman. We cannot look upon this act as a failure to perform the Law; we should see it as an example of his acting under its rightful interpretation.
I am of the opinion that the woman’s accusers were not especially interested in her immoral behavior… but they were very interested in picking a fight with Jesus. Here was an opportunity, they thought, to trip-up Jesus by using the Law… even though they themselves ignored its most important aspects (Mat. 23:23).
They got more than they bargained for, though, with this man Jesus. He was always ready to condemn them, the religious establishment… but he was not so quick to condemn the common sinner. In fact, he forgave the woman! We know from other scriptures that Jesus saying that he forgives a sin infuriated the religious establishment, who say, “Only God can forgive sins—not this man Jesus.” So first, I think that Jesus was a plain old surprised them with his response. But then also, their reason to fight dissolved before their eyes, because legalists (then and now) tend not to focus on mercy… and I think that they did not quite know what to do with it when it appeared. Then, in a statement beloved by believers and non-believers alike, he famously challenged them to look within, and the accusers dispersed.
“…Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, NIV)
Make no mistake: according to the Law, this woman should have been stoned. But it is important to understand that when a judge applies mercy to a guilty person, neither the crime nor the justice “goes away.” Only the penalty does. That is how the Law works; not every crime is supposed to be fixedly punished… or else, why bother with judges at all?
Note that Jesus understood that the woman was guilty as charged; he forgave her—he did not find her innocent. But applying the death penalty is not automatic. This is why religious rulers asked Jesus to judge the case. Well… judge he did! He caused self-judgment to fall upon the woman’s accusers, and they had to disperse without punishing the woman. The point is that setting an accused person free, either by mercy or by the absence of credible testimony, is a normative activity in the legal system. The fact that even guilty criminals are not punished rigidly and to the full extent of the law is not the affront to justice that your question implies.
We need to look at this narrative as a highly teachable moment: Jesus chose to apply mercy to this woman. How is that any different from God’s methodology for redeeming sinners today—or at any time in the history of the world? There is no difference. The Law says that we all deserve to be stoned. But God had mercy upon us (Titus 3:5). So he sent Jesus to save us (Gal. 4:4). That’s the process—and that’s the process that was applied to the adulterous woman. Jesus saved her! Just like us! Therefore, not only is there no issue of incongruency when Jesus Christ forgave rather than stoned the adulterous woman, we have a wonderful model of how God deals with sinners. The Law of Moses is this story’s background—but it is not its point. Jesus forgiving a sinner is the story’s foreground—and that is its point… that’s always the point—and that was the author’s intention.
To review, mercy is a necessary part of the Law. Therefore, when a judge forgives, we do not say that he has not fulfilled his duties as a judge—nor that he is acting against the Law or against his responsibilities. In fact, most of his job involves deciding how to administer the already written law. And whether he decides to punish or to apply mercy, the system of justice persists. Therefore, since mercy does not create a legal crisis, there is no incongruency in Jesus’ actions.
Now that we see that Jesus is no lawbreaker, let us move on to your idea that perhaps we Christians can be.
The New Testament does give us (what seems to be) the occasional “mixed signal” about Law and Grace, but the way we apply the relevant passages to our lives is revealing. On one hand, how we interpret certain verses can reveal our understanding of salvation’s nuts-n-bolts—that we are saved by God’s grace alone—and not by any good-deeds or sacraments that we perform. On the other hand, the book of James tells us that any Christian worthy of the name should be producing some good-works. So which is it: Are we free? Or are we still bound somehow? The answer is yes to both.
The book of James is one long encouragement for Christians to do good works. But (and this is a huge but) James teaches that such good-deeds are not a component of salvation; they are a proof of it. This is why James challenges us by asking, can faith without any evidence of faith be faith indeed? (James 2:14) And Christians should note that well. We are, therefore, “stuck” being good… in spite of the fact that sin can no longer condemn us (Rom. 8:1)—and in spite of the fact that a home in Heaven awaits us (Phil. 3:20). That’s heady stuff! And figuring out what to do about all that you can keep the Christian pretty busy.
But if we Christians spend our time focusing on heaven vs. hell, we are free to do whatever we want, because we can’t go to hell—no matter what! But hell is the wrong place to look. We’re supposed to look at the Christ (Heb. 12:2)… and we are supposed to look like the Christ (Eph. 5:1-2). That’s the point of our lives. So, although we are free to do whatever we want without fear of condemnation, we are not free at all if we are fulfilling our purposes in Christ. This is certainly the highest path, but it is also the primary path. Therefore, a congruent Christian is not free at all; he is a bondservant to Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 7:22). Therefore, I must refute your assertion and state plainly that a Christian cannot do whatever he wants—not and stay on point.
As a final note, let me comment on the ancient documents that underpin this section in John. God’s word is inerrant in its original manuscripts, and the Bible translations that are available to us today are extraordinarily reliable. But, since none of the original documents still exist, we build our Bible translations on the sets of ancient documents available to us—and I need to state this again and very plainly: these are extraordinarily plentiful and reliable. But the story of the woman taken in adultery in John’s Gospel, does not appear in the best manuscripts.
I see that you have quoted from the NIV. Most modern versions will have a note telling about the manuscript issues, and I am a person who supports removing that portion from the text, and placing it in the margin or a footnote. That being said, I still read and enjoy every word in God’s word… but the very few places that are in manuscript dispute are not the places I would go to develop a doctrine—and it just happens that you chose one of these spots as the basis of your distress. Therefore, read, enjoy, relax… take in the whole counsel of God. When you do, these small problems will tend to sort themselves out, and we get a better feel for just how insignificant the manuscript issues really are.
Feel free to examine the documentary dispute data at the following link:
I pray that our little discussion adds to clarity rather than to confusion.