He asks too much

Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. {John 5:8-9a, ESV}

Is it unreasonable to command a man to an action which he has no ability to perform? To be specific, is it unreasonable to command a 38-yr invalid to walk as Jesus does in John 5? [John doesn’t tell us what the sickness was but the inability to walk was at least a major symptom if not the defining characteristic] A few preliminary observations will further sharpen the question.

First, the invalid didn’t know Jesus (Jn 5:11-13). Perhaps the man had heard of Jesus from reports of previous miracles (Jn 2:23). If so, it seems strange that the man doesn’t put two and two together when he’s been healed—only through a second encounter does the former cripple discover his benefactor’s identity. Regardless, the text is clear that the man doesn’t know Jesus before or after the healing.

Second, since the invalid didn’t know Jesus he could neither possess nor exercise faith for the healing. In fact, nothing in their cursory exchange would lead this man to even imagine that a miracle was in the making (Jn 5:6-7). How much more bizarre is the sick man’s obedience to Jesus’ command when seen in this light! On what basis did he act out the command—his trust in Jesus? submission to a stranger? positive thinking?

Now to the original question: is it unreasonable to command a man to an action which he has no ability to perform? To be more specific, would God require of us that which we are incapable of giving? Some would conclude that one doesn’t command what one cannot reasonably (or rationally) expect. But the inadequacy of this line of thinking is exposed when we’re compelled to soften divine directives. “Love your enemies” sounds like hyperbole until you “discover” that you can love someone without liking them. “Love your wife as Christ loved the church” is unreasonable—even in the best of marriages—unless love is a choice or a commitment with the option of affection.

The alternative is to acknowledge that God does command the impossible and that with the command He grants the ability to obey. A cripple man walked not because of unrealized potential but because the command “Arise and walk” created the requisite ability for the command to be obeyed. Scripture is replete with impossible commands. Will we neuter them or do them?

Give what you command and command what you will. -Augustine

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

1 thought on “He asks too much”

  1. God’s commands are definitely “unreasonable” and unattainable…on our own; driving us to our knees daily. Warren Weirsbe once said, “If you can explain it, God probably had nothing to do with it.” The Psalmist said, “You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples” (Psalm 77:14). It’s unreasonable and unattainable so we know He does it! Amen Jonathan!

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