For thirty-eight years, the man whom Jesus healed at Bethesda had suffered from a condition that made him unable to walk (John 5:1–9a). Given that he had suffered for so long, it would not be surprising if we were to learn that the man thought his greatest need was physical restoration. As we see in today’s passage, however, the fundamental problem the man faced was spiritual. Later, when Jesus ran into the man again, He warned him to stop sinning lest something worse than lameness afflict him (v. 14).
Many commentators believe that our Lord’s warning means that the man’s original affliction was somehow the result of his personal sin. Of course, Jesus Himself, in John’s gospel, tells us that illness is not always associated directly with one’s sinful choices (9:3). Thus, we would be wrong to believe that every sickness results from an individual’s sin. Yet, that does not mean that no sicknesses are caused by evil choices, for we know that some sinful behaviors can spread disease. In any case, whether the man’s lameness was due to personal sin or not, the imperative for him to stop sinning indicates that as good as it was to walk again, that healing would be ultimately insignificant if he continued to violate the law of God. If he were to continue in sin impenitently, he would suffer a fate far worse than paralysis, namely, eternal judgment in hell. The formerly lame man’s greatest need was to turn from his sin and to rest in Christ alone for salvation. That is our greatest need as well.
John’s gospel does not tell us if the man ever came to saving faith. But in this account, he certainly cannot be called a man of great piety. When the Jewish leaders accused him of breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat, the man immediately shifted blame to Jesus (5:11, 15). Now, their accusation was ill founded. Generally speaking, the biblical Sabbath laws forbid doing what is part of one’s normal employment, with exceptions for those who perform life-critical duties, and the man certainly could not have had as his job the carrying of mats when he was lame. Yet though the authorities were wrong to accuse him of breaking the Sabbath, the man erred in trying to blame Jesus. As one commentator says, the healed man was no hero of the faith. And that brings Jesus’ charge for him to stop sinning into sharper relief. Having experienced physical healing, he still needed the spiritual healing that is evidenced by faith and repentance.