The Hypocrisy of Self-Righteousness

(If you would like to receive Pastor Harris’ weekly sermons via e-mail, Click here)

Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

April 2, 2000

The Hypocracy of Self-Righteousness

John 8:1-11

Hypocrisy is when you pretend to be what you don’t intend to be. The word "hypocrite" means "two-faced" and comes from the Greek theatre where the actors would use different face masks to play different characters. Even in ancient Rome the hypocrite was despised. Cicero wrote, "Of all villainy, there is none more base than that of the hypocrite, who, at the moment he is false, takes care to appear most virtuous." Hypocrisy comes in many varieties, but the worst kind is self-righteous hypocrisy. What is even more tragic about this kind of hypocrisy is that the practitioner is often not even aware of it.

Self-righteous can sometimes display itself in almost humorous ways – such as when a pastor and his assistant that were practicing for a service. In order to make his point dramatic, the preacher fell to his knees, beat his breast and said, "I am nothing. I am nothing!" The associate was so moved by this that he too fell to his knees and cried, "I am nothing. I am nothing!" The janitor heard and saw this and was so moved by it that he too fell to his knees and cried, "I am nothing. I am nothing!" When the minister heard the janitor, he turned to his associate and said, "So look who has the gall to think he is nothing."

The obviousness of this makes it humorous, but the reality is that such hypocrisy is, as John R. W. Stott described it (Sermon on the Mount), a cancerous killing agent. He went on to say, "Unfortunately, hypocrisy is also addictive. And even though Jesus reserved His most severe words of condemnation for the hypocrite, we still seem to prefer that lifestyle to truth and authenticity."

This morning we are going to see a clear example of the self-righteous hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders as they try to entrap Jesus. Jesus does not fall into their trap and instead exposes their hypocrisy, yet in a gentle manner. As we study John 8:1-11 this morning, I hope we will take warning not to fall into the hypocrisy of self-righteousness as well as learn how to deal in graciousness both with those who are hypocrites and those entrapped in sin.

Before we can begin our study of the text this morning, I will need to address a textual problem. Many you have Bibles that mark John 7:53- 8:11 in some way indicating that it may or may not belong here. As the NASB footnotes, this passage "is not found in most of the old manuscripts."

There is a lot of discussion in some of the commentaries about this issue while others ignore it and the text. I don’t care to get into a long technical discussion about this here, other than to say there is strong evidence both for and against including this text as part of John’s original gospel account. If you are interested in this question I would be happy to talk it over with you or lend you my books. What I found interesting is that even among those who argue that the text does not belong here in John, there is general agreement that this is a genuine story of an incident in the life of Christ. In addition, based on the testimony of John’s disciple, Papias, it appears to be a story told by John.

I am going to treat the passage as belonging here because I would rather error on the side of including it than excluding it. The passage fits in with the flow of John’s presentation and it teaches a valuable lesson on how to deal with people.

This incidence takes place at the conclusion of the Feast of Booths. Recall from our previous studies that Jesus had come down from Galilee to Jerusalem sometime during the middle of the feast. He came without drawing attention to Himself, but after He arrived He continued His normal practice of teaching the people. While He is teaching some of the Jews that are hostile to Him make some disparaging remarks which in turn lead to Jesus challenging them about their plot to kill Him. By the time the debate is over, there is a mixture of beliefs about Jesus among the people. Some think He is the promised prophet of Deut. 18 who would be like Moses. Some think He is the promised Messiah. Others claim Jesus cannot be the Messiah and is a deceiver of some kind, and most of the religious leaders have rejected Jesus and have joined in a plot to kill him.

As we concluded last week in John 7, the Pharisees were so upset that they were belittling everyone that disagreed with them and making false outrageous claims. They who claimed to be the keepers of the Mosaic Law and teacher of God’s word were breaking the Mosaic Law and were ignorant of what the Scriptures said.

As John 7 concludes we find that the discussion had ended for the day and the people went to their homes. In John 8:1 we find that Jesus had gone to the Mount of Olives. We will find in the future that this becomes a favorite place for Jesus to go. It is also a logical place for pilgrims to be staying. The restrictions placed on travel during a Sabbath made the Mount of Olives, which was just opposite the Kidron Valley from the temple, a good place to camp.

Verse 2 tells us, "And early in the morning He came again into the Temple." The word here actually indicates the dawning or "daybreak." If the previous day, which was the "great day of the feast" (7:37), was the 7th day of the feast, this would be the 8th day which was a prescribed Sabbath day that followed the Feast of Booths (Num. 29:35). There are a large number of pilgrims still in Jerusalem as well as the native inhabitants. Verse 2 continues "and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them."

Jesus continued His ministry of teaching people about God and the Scriptures. This was the ministry He began several years earlier and had been practicing since (Mt. 4:23f). As the morning progresses more and more people are coming to the temple and are joining in the crowd listening to Jesus teach.

Just as on previous occasions, the religious leaders are not happy when someone else is getting the attention they want. They are a jealous lot and they do not like Jesus. However, they have a problem that is developing. As Jesus gains popularity, or at least respect, by His teaching, they will have a harder time arresting Him without arousing the anger of the people. They have to find a way to discredit Him. They have already tried the direct approach by disparaging Jesus and mocking Him for not having the right credentials to teach (7:15). They had tried arresting Jesus the day before (7:32), but that did not work. Instead, the officers they sent were impressed by Jesus’ teaching, commenting, "Never did a man spake the way this man speaks" (7:46). They will now attempt to discredit Jesus through a test case designed to trap him so that they could accuse Him.

John 8:3 And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" 6 And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him

It is interesting to note here that the scribes have joined in with the Pharisees in this plot. The scribes were the religious lawyers, and since Judea was a religious society, they were very powerful. Theologically, the scribes tended to be Sadducees. The Sadducees were the liberals of the day who denied the miraculous along with Angels and Demons. They approached life from a rationalistic perspective. Usually the Scribes and Pharisees were in opposition to one another, but in this case they have joined forces because Jesus has become a common enemy to both.

Judea was under Roman rule with Roman law as the final authority in the nation and the Roman governor (or procurator) present to enforce it. Yet, the Roman government gave the nations and local governments under them quite a bit of control over the daily affairs of society. The Sanhedrin was the ruling council of the nation. It was made up of 70 elders, but most of these were either Scribes or Pharisees. This test case needed the cooperation of both because it was a case that should have been brought to the Sanhedrin. They had counseled together to set the case before Jesus first as a means to entrap Him.

The Scribes and Pharisees bring a woman before Jesus and then take on the role of prosecutors. This places Jesus in the role of judge, which is a bit dangerous on their part, for it acknowledges Jesus’ importance in front of a crowd. Their design is to discredit Jesus in front of the people, but there is the risk this could backfire and result in giving some tacit recognition to Jesus as an important teacher. The fact that they are risking this shows how self-confident they were they could find a ground of accusation against Jesus so they could bring Him to trial, or at least severely damage His reputation.

The case appeared to be straight forward. They accuse the woman of adultery claiming to have caught her in the very act, and they then cite the relevant part of the Mosaic law. Leviticus 20:10 states, "If [there is] a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." It does not matter whether this woman was married or not, though the crime she was accused of indicates she was married, for the sin and penalty were the same. The usual method of execution for adultery was stoning which was the prescribed method for fornication (Deut. 21:21).

Their purpose in bringing this matter before Jesus is clearly stated in verse 6. They were testing Jesus so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. They were looking for a way to bring an official charge against Jesus so that He could be condemned by the Sanhedrin. They were familiar enough with Jesus’ teaching to know both His compassion and how He would forgive people their sins (Luke 5:20; 7:48). They expected that Jesus would end up being in opposition to the very clear and direct command of Moses. This would be their charge against Him. It has been pointed out by some that the common people were not very favorable to stoning for adultery, but what sinner is in favor of a punishment they may suffer? Perhaps that thought was in the back of their minds as sort of a "win – win" situation – if Jesus advised she not be stoned they would charge Him with opposing the law of Moses, and if He advised stoning her then he would lose some popularity with the crowds. However, the text is clear that their effort was to find grounds for accusing Him.

This may be the reason they did not bring the man with them. Note again in verse 4 that the woman was caught in the very act of adultery. That means the man was also present. Some have suggested that he ran away and they were only able to catch the woman. I find that idea to be a bit of a stretch since there is an emphasis that they were caught in the very act of adultery. The hypocrisy of these Scribes and Pharisees is demonstrated in the fact that the man is not present, yet they are prosecuting the woman. Even if the man had run away, what was to prevent them from finding him and then charging him too? But this is in keeping with their hypocritical character. They are not interested in carrying out the Mosaic Law themselves. Their interest is only in trying to entrap Jesus and they do not need the man to do that. In addition, perhaps they thought that Jesus would have more compassion on a woman than a man and thus more likely to end up opposing the Mosaic law. Simon the Pharisee was present when Jesus had on a former occasion forgiven a prostitute (Luke 7:39-50).

Jesus response is not one they could have anticipated. Vs. 6b, But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. There is no indication as to what Jesus was writing, who He was writing to or why He was writing. Basically, Jesus ignores them and there demand for a judgement. His silence toward them was probably deafening. Imagine being in a court room after the case is presented and the judge suddenly becomes silent and seems preoccupied in writing something. It is possible, if not probable, that Jesus was writing something directed to them, but verse 7 indicates that they were not paying attention to it if He was. They wanted an answer to their question.

7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him [be the] first to throw a stone at her." 8 And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground."

Jesus is busy writing something on the ground with His finger and you can almost hear the desperation rising in their voices as they persist in asking what should be done to the woman. It would have been a demand for attention from someone who was seemingly ignoring them. Keep in mind that it is the superior that can ignore the inferior and not the other way around. Jesus will answer in His own timing and not theirs.

When Jesus does answer, it is in a way that again demonstrates His superiority to them. In courtesy and majesty He stands up from being stooped over and writing on the ground and addresses them, and then goes back to writing on the ground. He gives His decision and then returns to what He had been doing before. Jesus’ charge to them was shocking. "He who is without sin among you, let him [be the] first to throw a stone at her."

They never expected such an answer from Jesus. It gave them nothing with which to accuse Jesus as being against the Mosaic Law and put the responsibility right back on the shoulders with a condition that none of them could meet. That Jesus told them to carry out the requirement of the law should not have been surprising. Deut. 17:6,7 states, "On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 "The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst."

Executions under the Mosaic Law were not affairs removed from the public to some hidden place and carried out by a government official using some quick means of death. Executions were carried out in public by the public starting with those who witnessed the crime, and stoning was a dreadful way to die. Since these Scribes and Pharisees were accusing the woman and claimed to have caught her in the act. They were both the prosecutors and witnesses, so it was their responsibility to start the execution process. Her blood would be on their hands. I don’t know that that in itself would have bothered them so much. They certainly had the blood of many others on their hands and were at that time trying to find a way to kill Jesus. What bothered them was the condition Jesus placed on them. The execution was to begin by whoever was without sin among the accusers casting the first stone. They could not meet that condition and they knew it.

Jesus returned to writing in the dirt with His finger. Again, there is no indication what He was writing. Perhaps it was a list of various sins they had done. Perhaps it was aspect of the Mosaic Law they had broken. Perhaps it was doodling or figures of some sort. We do not know what Jesus wrote, but we do know that the Scribes and Pharisees were affected this time.

John 8:9 And when they heard it, they [began] to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst.

Some have suggested that the reason that they left one by one starting with the oldest was that the oldest was the most aware of their own sins. Perhaps that is possible, but I don’t think that is what is happening because I have found that older people who continue in sin become more hardened in it. These men demonstrated both before and after this event that they were very hardened in their own sin. I am not even sure that these men are leaving because they are convicted of their own sin, but more that they realize that Jesus has escaped their trap and that if they push any farther on this it is going to go from bad to worse for them. Jesus had already publically accused them of plotting to kill Him and many of the Jerusalemites were aware of this plot (7:19, 25). They did not personally meet the criteria and if they stayed around any longer they risked this accusation being brought up again by a man they had just given tacit approval to as someone whose judgement was worth seeking. The charge of adultery is serious, but not nearly so as a charge of plotting a murder.

I think their manner of departure has more to do with older recognizing the defeat first and the decorum of the younger showing respect for those who are older. In fact, the term "older" here is "elder" and may even refer to those who were part of the Sanhedrin. The younger let their superiors leave first as a sign of respect.

A point generally overlooked in this is Jesus’ manner of dealing with these opponents in a gracious manner. While Jesus does not give any deference to the Scribes and Pharisees, He is still generally courteous to them. Jesus quickly took the superior position in this incident, yet He did not use it to strike out against His opponents. Jesus’ statement is confrontational, but He could have been very direct in exposing their hypocrisy by bringing specific charges against them for the various aspects of the Mosaic law they were breaking, chief among them the plot to kill Him. Yet, Jesus is gracious and gives them room to retreat.

Our human desire for vengeance would have driven us to make the most of this situation in humiliating our opponents. Jesus gives grace. If it had been any of us, we would have enjoyed the opportunity of damaging our adversaries. Jesus gives grace. It is a point for us to consider and follow the example.

Psalm 145:8 tells us, The Lord is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. This is the character of Jesus. It is also to be a character we emulate. Consider the following Proverbs: Prov. 16:32 He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. Prov. 14:29, He who is slow to anger has great understanding, But he who is quick-tempered exalts folly. Prov. 15:1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger. Consider as well what Paul told Timothy, (2 Tim. 2:24-26) 24 And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses [and escape] from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.

We do not win people to the Lord by debate and backing our opponents into a corner. We win them through being examples of Jesus Christ. If we are having a discussion with someone we do not back away from the truth – Jesus did not – yet, at the same time we do not seek to destroy our opponents either. Give them some room to retreat with some dignity. They may not take it, (we will see that in the future), but we can at least offer. This works with our children too. Certainly we are to be clear and direct in teaching them right from wrong, but when they have done something wrong there is no benefit in berating them. Give them some room to retreat with some dignity still left. If Jesus could do that with these hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees, then we can do it with our opponents.

The Scribes and Pharisees retreated leaving Jesus alone with the woman in the midst. The indication here is that these religious rulers had left, but the crowd Jesus had been teaching remaining. The woman is in the midst of this crowd, but alone with Jesus in the sense that Jesus is left alone to deal with her. Again we find Him to be most merciful and gracious.

10 And straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" 11 And she said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more."

After the Scribes and Pharisees left, Jesus stood up again and addressed the woman directly. Jesus’ question to her was not whether anyone had accused her, but whether anyone had condemned her. Jesus had heard the accusation, but none of those who accused were willing to condemn with the conditions Jesus had placed on them. As I pointed out earlier from Dt. 17:6, condemnation required two or three witnesses. One witness was insufficient. And in this case there were no witnesses left.

What an example of grace given to a sinner. All who would doubt that God could forgiven them can have those doubts removed here. God is gracious to the humble. It really does not matter what sins you have committed, there is forgiveness found in Jesus Christ. Adultery, fornication, lying, coveting, stealing, envy, hatred, murder, adultery, fornication, idolatry, blasphemy – whatever you have done or failed to do. Jesus Christ can forgive you leaving none left to condemn you. What a beautiful truth this is as expressed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:1 – "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

Salvation from sin is a gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Eph. 2:8,9 states it this way, 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, [it is] the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast. You don’t deserve it and you cannot earn it. It comes simply by placing your faith in Jesus Christ which we have pointed out before means to believe Jesus’ claims about Himself and what He has done. He is the eternal creator God in human flesh who lived a sinless life and then died a sin sacrifice as your substitute and then rose from the dead the third day. He ascended to heaven and is preparing a place for us, and He will return to receive us to Himself.

But I must point out lest there be any misunderstanding of what such a belief requires. It means forgiveness. It comes when you are in the midst of your sin. You cannot clean up your life enough to be worthy of it. But it will change the way you live from that point on.

Notice in verse 11 that while Jesus does not condemn the woman, neither does He ignore her sin. His charge to her, "from now on sin no more," is a very direct recognition that she has sinned and that she needs to stop. But that is what salvation is about. It is not fire insurance, though escaping hell is a wonderful benefit. Salvation is from sin. It is about a change of masters from sin, self and Satan to the Lord Jesus Christ (see Romans 6).

Do not trample on the precious blood of Jesus which was shed for you by thinking that you can merrily continue in your sin after salvation. Yes, you will struggle against sin after salvation, but it is no longer master. If your life has not changed and you are not fighting against sin, then there is good reason to question what you really believe. Examine yourself to see if you are in the faith, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless you fail the test (2 Cor. 13:5). If you have doubts, that is what the church is for – to help you walk with Christ. Talk to one of the leaders or someone you know and let us help.

There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Are you in Him? He who has the Son has the life, he who does not have the Son does not have the life (1 John 5:12). Do you have the Son? Those who have the Son have changed masters (Rom. 6:22). What master does your life indicate you are serving. (Rom. 6:16).

An unknown author wrote the following thought provoking poem

You call Me Master and obey Me not,

You call Me Light and see Me not,

You call Me Way and walk Me not,

You call Me wise and follow Me not,

You call Me fair and love Me not,

You call Me rich and ask Me not,

You call Me eternal and seek Me not,

You call Me noble and serve Me not,

You call Me mighty and honor Me not,

You call Me just and fear Me not,

Don’t not let yourself become a hypocrite like the Scribes and Pharisees described in our text today.

Sermon Study Sheets


Parents, you are responsible to apply God’s Word to your children’s lives. Here is some help. Young Children – draw a picture about something you hear during the sermon. Explain your picture(s) to your parents at lunch. Older Children – Do one or more of the following: 1) Count how many times the word "hypocrite/hypocrisy" is said. 2) Discuss with your parents what hypocrisy is and how to avoid practicing it.


Questions to consider in discussing the sermon with others. Define "hypocrite." What is the danger of hypocrisy in the church? When does the incident in John 8:1-11 take place? What had happened the few days previous? How had the people been responding to Jesus? Why were the Scribes and Pharisees participate in brining the accused woman to Jesus? What did they want Jesus to do? What were they hoping to gain? Why would they think Jesus would fall into their trap? What were the facts of the case? What did the Mosaic law require for such a case? Who was missing? What was Jesus’ initial response? How would you have reacted if you had been a Pharisee? What was Jesus’ declaration? How was that in keeping with the Mosaic law? How was it different? What was Jesus’ action after the declaration? How did the Scribes and Pharisees respond? Why? How did Jesus respond to the woman? What warning did He give her? How have you responded to Jesus’ grace? How have you heeded His warnings? What is the purpose of salvation in Christ? How do you protect yourself from becoming hypocritical like them?

Sermon Notes – 4/2/2000 a.m.

The Hypocrisy of Self-Righteousness – John 8:1-11


The Text

The Context (Chapter 7 & 8:1-2)

The Test (8:3-6)

A Joint Effort

The Case

Lev. 20:10; Deut. 21:21

Their Hope

Luke 5:20; Luke 7:39-50

The Solution (6-11)

Inattention (6)

The Charge (7)

Deut. 17:6,7

The Retreat (9)

Grace & Mercy (10,11)


Psalm 145:8; Prov. 16:32; 14:29; 15:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26

For comments, please e-mail  Church office