While reading the story of the paralytic healed by Jesus at the Bethesda Pool, I was struck by Jesus’ second encounter with the man. In John 5:14, after the man was healed and obeyed Jesus, he was scolded by others for carrying his mat in violation of the Sabbath. In the exchange he pointed out that he had been commanded, by an unknown person who had healed him, to carry the mat. Later, Jesus meets him again and warns him: “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (NIV). This short passage speaks volumes, but it doesn’t say what many claim to hear in it.
First, Jesus gives him a direct command, “Stop sinning.” He does not tell him “Try not to sin.” I don’t want to make Jesus sound like a first century Yoda saying, “Do or do not. There is no try.” However, it is important to note that Jesus does tie sin to the man’s will. While it is true that we are sinful by nature and naturally drawn to rebel and resist God by every fiber of our being, there is still a very real action of the will, an exercise of choice, in the sins we commit or the sins we resist. When we sin, it is not possible for us to say—as some wrongly believe Calvinism would claim—that we are unable to resist this sin because it is determined. Our natures tempt us and fit us for rebellion, yet when we sin it is not an instinctive, unmindful event—for such there would be no condemnation. When we sin, we have chosen to sin, we have exercised our will in opposition to God. In the same way, we can exercise our will not to sin in a particular instance. To say we can exercise our will to never sin is something very different—and quite impossible. Yet, in any given instance, facing any particular temptation we can choose to resist—choose not to commit that particular sin. Believers, like all persons, have this possibility; but we Christians are blessed with something more. We are blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit, giving us the power and desire to resist. We are no longer forced to white-knuckle our way through temptation, but are changed within so that what once tempted us no longer does. This does not happen overnight, but grows through the process of sanctification. While this is underway, we will still find ourselves tempted by the same old sins and the same old flesh. During these times the Holy Spirit is present with us—enabling us to resist what once would have seemed irresistible. The thing to remember about this is that it cuts both ways. The Holy Spirit’s empowering us to resist temptation makes us even more culpable when we give in to temptation. When a Christian sins, we have not simply given in to our fallen natures and failed to resist, we have chosen to act in a way contrary to the change worked within us and to not only give in to sin, but to resist the Spirit.
The second statement made by Jesus in John 5:14, after “Stop sinning,” is a warning. Many have interpreted this to mean the man’s prior condition was because of sin. However, Jesus says no such thing. Attempts to tie all sickness and injury to personal sin, is an attempt to answer the age old “Problem of Evil” with an even bigger problem. The Problem of Evil asks, “If an all-powerful, all-knowing, good God exists and created the world, then why do evil things happen?” To say that these things happen because the person or persons experiencing them sinned is to over-simplify reality and to overlook the fact that much of the “evil” we experience is simply the result of natural processes at work. Besides, Jesus did not say, “Stop sinning or your paralysis might return.” He said sin could lead to something worse. The results of sin can be far worse than what he had suffered. Jesus is saying, “Stop sinning, because sin can have results far worse that being paralyzed for thirty-eight years.”