What Does John 5:14 Mean?

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In this week’s sermon titled “Jesus Goes to Work,” we came across John 5:14.  In this verse, Jesus says to the invalid he has just healed “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”

Yes, this is one of those verses that makes you go “whaaaaaat?” like the minion from Despicable Me.

Adorable.

Anyway, here are two questions raised by this verse that are worth addressing in further detail.

Q: Does the command to “sin no more” mean that the man’s physical ailment was the result of specific personal sin (as opposed to the general “effects of the fall”)?

Option #1) No.

Those who say “no” argue that Jesus denies any connection between personal sin and disease when he heals the man born blind in John 9:1-41.  In that passage, Jesus tells his disciples that the man’s affliction wasn’t the result of his or his parents’ sin – he was like this so that the works of God might be displayed in him (John 9:3).

Also, in Luke 13:1-5 Jesus makes this point – the Galileans who suffered under Pilate and the people who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not worse sinners than anyone else, and that anyone who does not repent will end up with the same fate as them.

Option #2) Yes.

This view is held by D.A. Carson, a respected reformed scholar at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  Carson argues the following:

a)      There is evidence in the Bible that physical tragedy can be the result of specific personal sin (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 Jn. 5:16). This doesn’t mean that everyone who commits a certain sin will immediately get sick or die, just that this sometimes happens.

b)      Luke 13 is making the point that one must not look on the tragedy of others and assume that they are morally inferior.  Jesus is not addressing the person who is suffering, just those who are on the outside looking in.  Therefore, Luke 13 does not eliminate the possibility of specific sin causing disease or tragedy.

c)      The language in John 9 only shows that physical ailments are not necessarily tied to a specific sin, but it does not exclude the possibility that some diseases/tragedies are linked to it.

Based on this line of reasoning, Carson suggests that Jesus may have chosen this invalid over all the others precisely because his ailment is tied to his sin.  The command to stop sinning is therefore an urgent plea by Jesus for the man to repent or face judgment.

Regardless of which stance you take, the point is that the man’s physical healing is linked to his need for spiritual healing.  The fact that he can now run a 10k around the pool of Bethesda matters little in the end if he is not spiritually restored by Jesus.

Q: Is Jesus teaching works based salvation here?

We now get to a deeper issue.  Jesus is essentially saying “Don’t sin any more or you’re going to hell.”

If Jesus is telling this guy he needs spiritual healing, then he seems to be teaching works based salvation.

Again, “Whaaaaaat?”

But here’s a possible solution to this dilemma:

The invalid never confesses that Jesus is the Christ after he is healed. Contrast him with the man born blind in John 9, who, when asked by Jesus if he believes in the Son of Man, tells him “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38).

Actually, the invalid first blames Jesus for healing him when the Jewish leaders catch him carrying his mat on the precious Sabbath, then rats him out to them after finding out his identity.  There seems to be no spiritual change in the invalid.  One commentator even concludes that the “blaming, self-centered, self-preservation pattern of [the invalid's] former life continued after the healing.”

So when Jesus “finds” the former invalid a second time, he reminds him of the healing and gives him a stern warning about the severity of judgment for those who don’t repent.

Recall the first question Jesus asks him: “Do you want to be healed?” The man, in essence, responds with “I can’t.”  So when Jesus later tells him “Sin no more…” the man’s response should have also been “I can’t.”

But there is silence.

When Jesus confronts the man a second time, his statement in 5:14 is not the prescription for eternal life but rather the requirement to avoid being sentenced to eternal punishment.

To avoid hell, one must never sin.

But everyone is an “invalid” when it comes to this.

However, Jesus offers salvation from a death sentence to anyone who believes in him (as John 3:16 makes crystal clear).

We can’t be certain what the fate of this invalid is, but Jesus’ statement in 5:14 is a reminder of how high the spiritual bar is set.

And how there’s only one person who has ever reached it.

And how that’s not you or me.

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