The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”
But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.'”
So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
John 5:9-15 (NIV)
There are two main issues in this aftermath of the healing at the Pool of Bethesda.
The first issue is the fact that Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath. From a traditional Jewish standpoint, this was an absolute no-no. Healing someone fell under one of the so-called “fathers of work,” broad categories of activities that were considered work, and were therefore banned under the fourth commandment. Traditionalists in Jesus’ day took this rule so far that they taught that if you cut your hand on the Sabbath, you could put a bandage on the cut in order to keep blood from getting everywhere, but you weren’t allowed to put any kind of salve or cream on the wound, because it might start the healing process, and that was work.
Needless to say, Jesus took a much different view of the Sabbath than the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. It wasn’t that He disregarded the requirements of the Law; instead, He understood very clearly what God’s parameters for the Law were, and He stayed within those parameters. He understood that miraculously healing someone was actually freeing them from bondage, and freeing someone from bondage was a good thing to do on the Sabbath in God’s sight (cf. Luke 6:6-11, 13:15-16). He understood that God’s commandment to avoid work such as harvesting and grinding grain on the Sabbath was designed to actually keep someone from working on the Sabbath, not to go so far as to exclude picking a handful of grain as you walked along and eating it (cf. Luke 6:1-5). In short, He understood that the Sabbath was actually designed to be a blessing of rest given to mankind, not a massive, regulation-loaded burden.
The religious leaders had two bones to pick with Jesus in this particular instance. First of all, He had healed this man on the Sabbath. Secondly, He told the man to carry his sleeping mat, which they also considered forbidden work. So, in their opinion, Jesus had sinned, and He had also encouraged sin in someone else! (Even though they asked the man who had healed him and told him to carry his mat, they probably had a pretty good idea who it was. There just weren’t that many people running around Jerusalem in those days healing people and flaunting the Sabbath regulations.)
It’s amazing to me how we as human beings have always been able to totally miss the point. Here was a man who had been held prisoner by illness for 38 years, and who had now been miraculously healed. That should have been a cause for rejoicing! But the healing hadn’t been done the way that the religious leaders thought it should, so they were unwilling to rejoice about it. This is also a little ironic, because it was understood that only God had power to do this kind of a healing (even miracle workers had to rely on God’s power); so they were actually criticizing God Himself for healing this man on the Sabbath!
We see the second issue when Jesus later caught up with the man at the Temple, where he had very likely gone to give thanks to God for his healing. Jesus statement to him strikes us as a little strange: “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Theologians have batted this Scripture around over the centuries, trying to figure out if Jesus was actually saying that the man’s illness had been caused by sin in his life. That idea would seem to contradict such statements as John 9:1-3. But it really doesn’t have to be a contradiction. Jesus did indicate that all illness not is caused by sin. But that doesn’t mean that SOME illnesses aren’t caused by sin. And, apparently, in this man’s case, his was.
But Jesus’ urging is not just to avoid a future illness; it is to avoid something even “worse,” something which a diseased soul will inevitably bring upon us – the sufferings of hell itself. Jesus had healed the man physically; now He was offering him the key to spiritual wholeness as well: Stop sinning. I know that a lot of people don’t believe that it is possible to actually stop sinning, but Jesus didn’t tell His followers to do anything that wasn’t even possible with His help. If Jesus says that we need to stop sinning, that means that it is possible to do exactly that. They key, of course, is that we will only be able to do that with the help of the Lord.