The Gospel of John opens with a prologue that teases at what John is going to reveal about the ministry of Jesus. That prologue hints at some big surprises, one of which is the declaration in verse 17, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." This reveals a clear contrast between Moses and Christ--Moses was a law giver but Christ a grace giver. If you read the Gospel of John closely looking for commands by Jesus, you will notice that only a very few--maybe just three--sound like Moses giving law. But why those three if Jesus is no law giver at all as Martin Luther declared boldly in his commentary on Galatians 2:20? How could there be even one if Jesus is truly not a law giver? Two of those three bothered me for 30+ years as I sought vainly to understand what Jesus meant by His words. These two are Jesus' identical words to the man He had earlier healed by the pool of Siloam (John 5) and to the woman caught in adultery (John 8).
Those two people were marginalized by their society. The man had lain in his sickness unable to walk for 38 years. The woman had been caught in adultery. They likely hadn't participated much in religious life at the temple. They were clearly not part of the religious establishment which Jesus was in continuous conflict with as portrayed by John. Jesus often criticized that establishment for compromising the perfection of the law. Let's keep that in mind as we untangle the story about the man.
The Man at the Pool of Siloam
But later in that day, Jesus found the man in the temple area, commanded him to pay attention to his physical healing, and gave the Moses-like command, "sin no more, lest something worse happen to you." Why did Jesus command that? In the Greek there is no wiggle room, as I could find no textual variant to explain it away. Since the phrase is in the imperative form and singular tense, it implies that Jesus really did command this one man to sin no more; it wasn't just a suggestion and it wasn't stated to the onlookers. What do we do with that? Check a commentary. Don't be surprised to read that the man's illness was caused by a specific sin, and that Jesus was informing the man that God was very serious about the man stopping that one sin. If the man didn't stop that one sin then God would bring a worse circumstance into his life to get him to take that sin seriously. If the standard of not sinning is perfection in thought, word, and deed, then how could Jesus have really tied the man's freedom from judgment to his perfection on one point of stopping sin? In my Mormon culture such commands are freely and frequently given with the purpose to get the hearer to try harder to do what is right and not sin. Perfection is never the expectation. Trying, not doing, is the standard. Does God really judge by the standard of trying as my religious culture teaches? Also, Jesus and James seem to give little room for performance with God to be isolated into individual topics. "He who keeps the whole law and stumbles in one point is guilty of all." -James 2:10
Discovering My Biases
Some commentators indicate that Jesus was telling the man that there was something far worse than his serious physical illness had ever been, and that that worse thing was to be cast out by God on judgment day. Certainly it is true that hell is worse than any physical suffering. And certainly it is true that the healed man should attend to that matter. If this view is true how does it connect to the text? It is rather easy to read general truth into any text. It is also easy to look back in time and criticize others for not seeing what we see, not realizing that we all are at least somewhat a product of our culture. Sometimes such criticism is valid, but I suggest that sometimes it prideful. In the last several years I have been realizing more and more how faulty and biased my own reading of the Bible has been as a result of not noticing significant aspects of context or my cultural bias. My mind is riddled with faulty thinking and I wish to remedy that situation as much as possible with honesty, rapidity, and help from all others. I am now in an intense process of discovery seeking to notice and untangle my own false biases.
If Jesus knew exactly what He was talking about--and I suggest that He always knew exactly what He was talking about, was never confused, always chose His words carefully, and that the Spirit and apostles communicated them all clearly--then Jesus was communicating something for the man to understand. What in the context helps us discover Jesus' intended meaning? Probably all readers would agree that this is a true story of Jesus speaking to a real man. That man certainly neither spoke English nor was Chinese in culture. We all would agree with this, and so why do I mention such trivialities? Until recently I unwittingly had been reading this story, and likely many others, in a way that gave insufficient value to context and was in some fashion blaming God for not communicating clearly. The difference is that now I realize that my lack of clarity is all my fault and so am scouring context for clues to get past my confusion. In this story my lack of context is revealed by something that bothered me for years. I wondered that since it is undeniable that the man had already sinned in his life before meeting Jesus, and if he obeyed Jesus and never sinned again, he would still have to deal with his past sins. Jesus' words seemed to me to imply that the man's past sins would be overlooked if he stopped sinning. I had zero confidence the man could do what Jesus commanded, but if he had been able to succeed, how could his past sins be overlooked? Do you see my confusion? Do you see what I missed?
The Promise Embedded in The Context
My problem is sometimes a lack of seeing a single point clearly, but more commonly I would guess that now my problem is primarily that I have unwittingly connected the dots in an artificial way, different from the author's intent, and thus am hindered in my understanding. I need to erase my connections and look for the connections that the context makes. Here are some simple points (dots) of context. Notice your own connections. Jesus healed the sick man in Jerusalem. It seems safe to assume that the man was Jewish. This healing took place before the crucifixion and therefore this Jewish man was under the Old Covenant and not under the New Covenant. This means that the man was not living under the covenant of grace but rather under the covenant of law with its promises of blessing based on obedience to law and cursing based on disobedience to the law. How do you think the man was doing in his obedience so far in life? I suggest that one of my big errors was to read the words of Jesus as if they applied equally in all time and were not rooted in the context of Israel under law and in anticipation of the death of the Messiah that would soon free Israel from law by giving Israel a new covenant of grace at Pentecost. This all was still in the future at the time of this healing. Jesus hadn't died yet, and in the Gospel of John Jesus doesn't speak of His death until chapter six (See Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22). If Jesus hadn't yet mentioned his coming death, what was He expecting the man to trust as he sought to stop sinning?
A significant point in my lack of understanding context related to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. A shepherd's job is to watch over the sheep and lead them to fresh pastures. But what is that image meant to tell us about Jesus? Jesus was sent by God to be the Good Shepherd. He said that He was sent exclusively to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:24). He came to the lost sheep of Israel who were grazing in the field of the Old Covenant. They were well contented with that pasture and its religious system of obedience to law and religious duties as the way to be right with God. The temple worship was elaborate and was the center of that confidence. He came to His own to win their trust. His desire was that once He had won their trust, He would lead them from the old pasture to a fresh pasture of the New Covenant--leading them from law to grace. When He arrived the crowds thronged to Him as He healed their sick and cast out demons, and as He taught about the goodness of the law in its true honor in perfection. The leaders refused from the beginning to believe in Him, and murderous thoughts took root in their hearts. But the crowds grew and grew. And He even persuaded many of the leaders to join the crowd of His followers, at least secretly. Then one day He surprised everyone and began to speak about both His death at the hands of the leaders and of that death somehow being a source of life for those who followed Him. The beloved teacher suddenly lost His hearing. Peter rebuked Him. The crowds left Him. People still flocked to Him for healing and compassion, but they fell away from believing Him because his new message of His death for sinners was distasteful. Likely they wondered: "Why would He talk like that as the temple was the right way to deal with sin?" Jesus sought to break their confidence in their religious system of righteousness based on law keeping, but they resisted with all their might. So Jesus went alone to the new pasture--though He wasn't really alone for the Father was with Him (John 16:32), leading His lamb to the place of sacrifice.
After clearing my head a little in the Good Shepherd image and the related parable of the soils, I was vainly pondering one day the story of the man at the pool, when a question came to mind. Could these images help resolve the meaning of the command to sin no more? I turned to meditation on Jesus seeking to break the Jews' self-righteous pride so as to lead them from the law to grace, and wondered if a connection might be found in the Old Testament to Jesus' words. It wasn't long before the confusing words of Ezekiel 18 came to mind, as they were similar and familiar. That passage had not made sense to me because I thought it basically declared that any unrighteous person who stops sinning would be forgiven for all past sins. Again, this puzzled me. How can a person's past sins be forgiven just because that person stops sinning? Suddenly I realized that it said that an unrighteous Israelite who stopped sinning had the promise of complete forgiveness. This wasn't a promise to everyone, but rather only to Israelites under law. Suddenly it made sense. For six centuries the Israelites had pretended that they were lawkeepers and so when Ezekiel gave this new promise, the Israelites complained and declared that God's way was not right. I suggest that they were thinking like my Mormon culture which rejects the idea of perfect obedience and says that trying is what God should find acceptable. Read the chapter closely.
Why did Ezekiel give this promise? In Deuteronomy 5:22-29 is the record of the Israelites at Mount Sinai begging Moses to go to up to God and bring down a list of God's demands. They told Moses to give God their promise that they would hear and do all He required. They wanted this arrangement of law so as to not be destroyed by God's judgment. They sought to flee into merited favor to protect themselves from God's judgment. Bad move. Read the history of Israel before Mount Sinai and notice that it seems that Israel had a relationship with God free from law, where their repeated complaints against God and Moses never resulted in criticism, anger, or judgment from God. Only after they begged for law did judgment fall when they complained or disobeyed. Check it out. I was skeptical when I first heard this and checked it out to disprove it, but couldn't. The Old Testament is the record of 1) Israel pretending that they were keeping the law and 2) God sending the prophets to tell them that they weren't. They hated the prophets' message and killed them. They did admit their ancestors were lawbreakers but wouldn't admit their own lawbreaking. Pride blinded them. God had compassion on them and wanted them to realize that only perfect love is good and that they should honor that standard. Ezekiel's promise clarified Moses' words in Deuteronomy 8:1-3 that life could come by law--clarifying that perfect obedience was the key. This revealed that Israel hated perfect love.
For many centuries the leaders of Israel--the false shepherds--had adulterated the law teaching it in various manageable forms. Jesus was born under law and grew up to be the all-time master teacher of the Mosaic Law. He came not to deny the law but to establish the full honor of it as a reflection of God's character. He did this not only by dying the death all sinners deserve, but also by speaking about it in an honorable way--in its wholeness and perfection. The law was designed to drive every Israelite to a vision of ruin and helplessness before God, exemplified in Isaiah's experience in Isaiah 6. The leaders of Israel--the false shepherds--had stolen God's honor from the people. They became optimistic about their lawkeeping rather than pessimistic with a sense of spiritual ruin. It was Jesus' delight to restore God's honor, to let the perfection of the law do its work in the heart, that He might welcome them into the celebration of God's delight in goodness, truth, righteousness, and perfect love. God called Ezekiel the son of man 91 times and restrained Ezekiel from speaking anything but His words to the people. But the true Son of Man needed no restraint as His heart was full of the pleasure of the Father. He overflowed with compassion toward the lost sheep of Israel with healing and feeding.
But His real passion was to win the hearts of the people back to the Father, back to perfect love as a true reflection of God, as perfect love as the only good way to see and live life. And so He spoke to the healed man the promise of Ezekiel that to be righteous before God and not accountable for past sins, an Israelite must stop all sins.
What did Jesus expect the man's response to be? If the man took Jesus at His word, he would have had to change his mind, to resist the cultural pressure to manageable standards of law, and embrace that only perfect obedience would please God. Such a thought would have brought him to his knees seeing himself as a spiritual beggar--spiritually ruined--and would have prepared him for Isaiah's experience. I suggest that Jesus spoke with a smile His words--the command of the law--to the healed man, "Go and sin no more lest something worse happen to you." I commonly say similar things with a smile to Mormons. When they catch that I really mean that God requires flawless perfection, they stop smiling and cry out something like, "If you really have to be perfect then you might as well give up." I then smile big and tell them that that is the point--that the door into a right relationship with God is perfect love--either you do it all or Jesus does it all for you and you rest in His finished work.
This is the message that I suggest Jesus meant for the healed Israelite man to get--the surprise of spiritual ruin through the mindset that only perfect obedience counts with God and that God Himself will provide a lamb. Glad welcome with God results from such a realization.
There is application in this beautiful story, but we need to read it as if we are looking in a window into a world before Jesus' first mention of His coming death--into the world of Israel under law.