Monday, November 28, 2022

Anonymous Asks (225)

“If perfection is impossible in this life, why did Jesus tell people to go and sin no more?”

Jesus actually did this twice, and both accounts were preserved for us by John, one in chapter 5 of his gospel, and the other in chapter 8. In my Bible, the latter narrative comes with a disclaimer to the effect that the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel do not include it, which, frankly, doesn’t bother me a whole lot. I have always loved the story of the woman “taken” in adultery. It portrays the Lord in a way that seems to me wholly consistent with his revealed character. I believe John wrote it and that it is God-breathed just like the rest of his gospel.

Still, opinions vary about that passage. If you discount it, then you only have to answer this question once.

The Pool at Bethesda

You may recall that in John 5, Jesus meets a paralytic lying by a pool in Jerusalem on a Sabbath day. This pool had a reputation for being able to heal what ailed you. John doesn’t comment about whether or not this was actually the case, or whether angels really did indicate their presence by stirring up the waters of the pool, but evidently the man in question and others around him believed it to be true. Being paralyzed, the man has been unable to beat the other invalids into the pool, and therefore Jesus observes that he has been there a long time. He asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” and then instructs him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” The man obeys and is healed instantly. A furor ensues, with the usual suspects huffing and puffing about Jesus breaking the Sabbath.

In the aftermath, John writes that Jesus found the man he had healed in the temple. He says to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”

The Woman Taken in Adultery

In John 8, Jesus is teaching in the temple when a group of scribes and Pharisees interrupts him. They have with them a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they want the Lord’s verdict about whether or not they should stone her. It is notable that they have not brought the man caught with her, who under the Law of Moses ought to receive the same penalty. Commentators speculate that he may have been one of their number. In any case, there was nothing even-handed about this group.

John later reveals that Roman law did not permit Jews to stage their own executions. If Jesus said the woman deserved to die, he would be recommending an act of rebellion against Rome, possibly putting his nation at risk. If he said the woman should live, he would be effectively denying the authority of the Law of Moses. Either way, his answer would give the Jews something with which to charge him.

Jesus neatly evades their trap by responding, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the woman’s accusers depart, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. John finishes with this: “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ ”

Sin No More? Really?

John, who preserved these accounts, was a theologian as well as a historian. Later, he would write to his fellow believers, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Paul also writes about the Christian experience. He says, “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Jesus himself acknowledged, “It is necessary that temptations come.”

Everybody sins, including Christians. While we are no longer enslaved to sin, and victory over any particular sin is always possible by the grace of God, the abundance of opportunity for sin in fallen world and our extremely limited comprehension of the holiness of God make complete sinlessness a wholly unrealistic aspiration. We often sin unknowingly and find out later the full impact and meaning of what we have done. The greatest of God’s servants acknowledges his utter sinfulness in the presence of a holy God.

“Sin no more” is a total impossibility. Our gracious Lord did not command the impossible. So what was he telling this man and this woman?

Sins of the Flesh

Obviously, I can’t answer that with complete certainty. We can say with some confidence what the Lord didn’t mean; we can’t say for sure what he did. One thing we can say: the woman knew exactly what he meant. So permit me a little reverent speculation as we try to catch up to her.

The woman taken in adultery had just gotten the most unanticipated reprieve of her life. We know the Romans did not permit Jews to stage their own executions. We also know the religious authorities were more than a little bit inconsistent in their commitment to the rule of Roman law. Acts 7 is one example of this. Stephen’s words made the high priest and his fellow religious authorities so angry that they temporarily lost their minds, pelting him with rocks until he died. On several occasions, the Lord himself provoked Jews to such risky behavior, as did the apostle Paul. Perhaps the Romans overlooked the occasional bit of Jewish religious excess for the sake of keeping the peace, or perhaps they punished the offenders when they caught them. We wouldn’t know; the writers of the New Testament were tasked with showing us Christ, not indulging our curiosity about historical trivia.

In any case, a woman accused of adultery would never feel safe in the hands of a mob, regardless of what Roman law said. Even if she had managed to escape the situation without getting stoned to death, she would have been subject to public shame. Given her circumstances, this was the very best outcome the woman could ever have hoped for. She had been “tried” and was about to walk away completely uncondemned. Even the Lord himself did not condemn her.

You know, some sins are accidental. Some are one-offs and slips. Adultery is not like that. It’s not usually a one-time thing. It’s a pattern of behavior that persists once it starts, either because of out-of-control desire or, in some cases, because that’s just the way you make your living. You choose to do the same wrong thing over and over again.

Suppose that after walking away uncondemned, this woman had gone right back to her adulterous lifestyle. What ingratitude that would show. What a complete failure to learn the lesson the Lord was teaching her. What disrespect for Almighty God. I think that’s what the Lord was telling her. He was saying, “I know you did it. By the grace of God, you have escaped the rightful penalty for your actions. So don’t do it again.” The sin he had in mind was a specific one. Total sinlessness in this life may be impossible, and it would not bring you eternal salvation even if you were able to accomplish it. But giving up one persistent sinful habit is not remotely impossible, especially when you have just met Christ.

Sins of the Mouth and Mind

The case of the former paralytic is a little more interesting. Again, we can’t say with complete certainty what the Lord had in mind when he told him to sin no more. After all, a paralytic can’t commit adultery or much of anything else that might get him accused of violating the Law of Moses. The poor man couldn’t even get into the pool by himself.

We know this man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. We do not know how he got this way. We do know that the Lord said to him, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” That might lead us to conclude that his paralysis had come about as a by-product of some rebellious or foolish youthful act that had provoked a beating or injury, such as an attempted robbery or a drunken brawl. The Lord may have been saying, “Don’t repeat that behavior.”

But that need not be the case, and we don’t know that it was. Regardless, the Sermon on the Mount reminds us that sins are not limited to the things we do with our hands and feet. Our lips can utter profanities, curses and even blasphemies. Our minds can become playgrounds for all kinds of wickedness. Even a paralyzed man may have a thought life and conversational habits that greatly displease God and will ultimately bring judgment upon him. Jesus sought this man out specifically to give him the message that whatever these private or public sins may have been, they needed to stop.

You may notice the man made no reply to Jesus. He knew very well what the Lord was talking about.

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