The ministry of Jesus revolutionized the manner in which women are treated. Although He worked within the cultural traditions of His day, He ignored the limitations placed on women by allowing them to follow Him publicly and participate in His ministry. His personal attitude toward them demonstrated that He expected women to work as partners with male disciples in the administration of the gospel.
In the Gospel of John women are portrayed as active, innovative ministers of the kingdom. For instance, Jesus sent the message of His resurrection to His disciples through women. He had a theological discussion with Martha about the doctrine of resurrection and the Samaritan woman about salvation. His method of dealing with the social evil of gender prejudice was, in principle, the same as with sin-not merely of prohibition and punishment, but of compassion and cure. He championed the rights of women in a variety of proactive yet subtle and lasting ways.
An impressive incident of His attitude toward women is the familiar story of the adulterous woman in John 8:1-11. This event unfolded very early one morning as Jesus returned from His private prayer time on the Mount of Olives, just eight days after the Feast of Tabernacles. Jerusalem was still abuzz with celebrants from near and far as the Man from Galilee entered the Temple court of women, where all-male and female, Jew and Gentile-could gather to hear Him.
As soon as the news of His presence was broadcast, a crowd came to hear Jesus, who was at the peak of His popularity with the masses, even though strongly denounced by the religious leaders. He taught the multitude, shattering age-old shackles and traditions as He moved their minds from the shadows and types of the Old Testament to the reality of a personal relationship with God. He helped them recover the power of the gospel long buried under the "do's and don'ts" of legalism.
While He was teaching, some scribes and Pharisees pushed their way through the crowds and rudely interrupted Jesus to bring a woman they charged with committing adultery, or breaking the seventh commandment. Since adultery could be proved only when two parties-who were either engaged to be married or married to other persons-were caught in the very act of sexual intimacy, they should have also brought her male companion. But they didn't-perhaps because, as is often suggested, he was an accomplice of her accusers. He may have been a powerful rabbi whose underlings were engaged in a massive cover-up.
Whatever the reason, he was protected by the accusers, who pretended to be faithful observers of the Ten Commandments as they shoved the poor woman into the center of the crowd and flung her on the ground before Jesus. This was an especially unusual act, since they had the authority of the ecclesiastical court of the Sanhedrin to prosecute such cases. It revealed their intent to entrap Jesus.
The woman was nameless. Perhaps it was the author's gracious attempt to protect her identity after she became a popular leader in the early Christian church. However, it was more likely that her name was omitted because her self-righteous accusers couldn't bring themselves to utter the name of that untouchable outcast for fear of polluting their pious personas.
Yet the scribes and Pharisees didn't bring her to Jesus because they were shocked by her sin or grieved by her conduct. They cared little that her punishment would be death by public stoning. One can almost see Satan orchestrating this move to take advantage of a sinner and undermine the Savior as they challenged Him, saying, "Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" (John 8:5, NASB).*
Imagine the scene as the multitude stood aghast, wondering how Jesus would handle such a sticky situation. If He agreed that the woman must die by stoning, they would report Him to Pilate as a self-appointed king taking the law of life and death into His own hands. If He said she should be freed, they would accuse Him before the crowd as rejecting the Law of Moses and undermining their religious culture.
Jesus seemed stuck between a rock and a hard place as His opponents gloated and the woman writhed in shame at their feet. Those pompous religionists argued theology with a war of words catapulting from their mouths into the face of Jesus, but He was composed, knowing He had already won the war of words (Revelation 12:7, 8).
Their faces were masks of pride and arrogance, their smirks exposing their vindictive eagerness to condemn. They insisted that she was caught "in the very act" of adultery, meaning they must have watched and waited for the moment of consummation to burst in on the guilty pair.
To their surprise, Jesus didn't answer them. He just turned away, stooped down, and wrote with His finger on the ground. He turned from their scowling faces to look with compassion into the eyes of the woman cast down in shame. But He said nothing!
The scribes and Pharisees assumed that His silence meant He didn't know what to say. But there's no question that He knew exactly how and what to say. His oratorical skills were legendary. People were always amazed at the authority with which He spoke, some saying, "Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks" (John 7:46, NASB). So His silence was a pregnant pause before the lasting lessons that still comfort sinners and confuse so-called saints.
Jesus stooped down to be where the woman was so He could ultimately lift her to where He stood. While religious rulers stood up to judge, the Lord of Creation humbled Himself, became lower than angels, and stooped down to write on the ground to show a nameless woman who had fallen and couldn't get up on her own that God really cares for sinners (1 Peter 5:6, 7). He didn't bend over or drop to one knee as one speaking to an underling. He graciously descended from His place of dignity to the level of the guilty and abased woman so that she could see that He was on her side.
Then He wrote with His finger in the dust, showing her that He created her in His own image and would re-create her no matter how marred, distorted, or degenerated by sin.
He wrote on the ground with bold strokes that declared to her accusers, "This one is for you!" And when they persisted in asking Him for an answer, Jesus stood up and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7, NASB).
He stooped down a second time and wrote on the ground again. Whatever He added to the first inscription was so powerful that the accusers not only saw it, but also "heard it" ringing in their ears. "One by one, beginning with the older ones" (verse 9, NASB), who should have known better, the men began to go away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman, where she was on the ground in the center of the court of women. Then straightening up-and it appears that He tenderly lifted her with Him-Jesus addressed her as gune (woman), a term of endearment He also used for His mother (John 2:4).
When the woman was brought in shame, her accusers called her (John 8:4) a gunaika-a weak, silly woman weighted down with sin and led by ungodly impulses (2 Timothy 3:6), and so she was. But when Jesus raised her up, He transformed her into a gune-a woman with promise and purpose whom He commanded to "go" and "sin no more!" (verse 6, NASB).
In summary, Jesus paid no attention to, or confirmed by attitude and action, the common views toward women in His time. Instead, He affirmed, healed, and valued them as cherished daughters of God. He related to women as close friends whom He chose to be His public witnesses. While He didn't leave explicit teachings on how to treat women, Jesus' words and actions point out several principles that governed His relationship with them.
First, He loved and treated women as humans made in the image of God. He disregarded sexual or gender distinctions and neither avoided women as tempters (as did the religious rulers of His day) nor catered to them as objects of sexual gratification (as is the norm today). He created no exceptional categories of acceptance or rules of engagement for women, but approached them as responsible and capable individuals who, like their male counterparts, are sinners saved by His grace.
Second, Jesus allowed-even encouraged-women to transcend their culturally defined roles as wives and mothers. He openly defied cultural prohibitions when relating to women, and assessed their value based not on outward appearances, but on their heart and a willingness to be in a relationship with Him.
Third, He encouraged women to follow and serve Him to the best of their abilities. He deliberately did not specify certain areas of ministry for women and others for men. He generously affirmed both genders as they responded to His call and took initiative in the exercise of their gifts.
Fourth, Jesus demonstrated that He was willing to challenge cultural norms and religious traditions in order to preserve women's rights and remain true to the higher vision of equality that should be the norm in the kingdom of God.
* Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Hyveth Williams is senior pastor of the Campus Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, California. She is also a popular speaker, professor, and author of the books Secrets of a Happy Heart: A Fresh Look at the Sermon on the Mount, Anticipation: Waiting on Tiptoes for the Lord, and Will I Ever Learn? One Woman's Life of Miracles and Ministry.