In John 5 we find an amazing incident in the ministry of Jesus that reveals the true and underlying condition of the nation and why some of the religious people rejected him. When we develop a distorted view of who God is, we have a difficult time receiving what God wants to do and bring into our lives. In John’s telling of a man paralyzed for 38 years, we discover someone who had given into despair and hopelessness. Yet, no one is beyond a miracle. The response by the religious leaders to this incredible healing was indifference toward the miracle and antagonism toward Jesus. Their focus was on a wrong understanding of God’s purpose for the Sabbath.
The law was ‘holy and righteous and good’ (Rom. 7:12), and its requirements of the observance of the Sabbath was intended to provide men with a pause in the week’s exhausting toil. When the regulation became a barrier to the performance of that which is inherently right, revision was necessary.[i]
One of the key reasons for the hostility that Jesus experienced by his opponents was their fixation on the ‘tradition of the elders,’ and their interpretation of the law.
The ‘tradition of the elders’ distinguished thirty-nine categories of work which might not be undertaken on the sabbath; the thirty ninth of these was the carrying of a load from one dwelling to another. By this standard the man’s action in carrying his pallet home was a violation of the sabbath law.[ii]
What Jesus embarked on was a challenge to the unhealthy religious patterns that had developed over time. The nature of the healthy spiritual life is one of continued renewal and growth in our relationship with God.
The pool of Bethesda is near the Temple by the sheep gate. Many people congregated there, especially the sick, hoping for healing in their bodies. Jesus showed concern about people as seen in his focus on a man who had suffered for nearly four decades. The healing and response that transpired reflected a nation that was paralyzed and needing God’s touch from a rigid institutionalism and externalized faith, which needed to be transformed to an inner and personalized intimacy with God.
How do we find healing and wholeness when we are experiencing despair and darkness in our souls? Often, we find ourselves trapped in an unhealthy context that we need to be delivered from. We can have a fixed view of how God should work. We need to have a new openness to allowing God to work outside of our personal expectations.
In John 5, we will discover that many Jewish people in Jesus’ day had a wrong understanding of what God required for their lives and were living in spiritual and physical bondage. There are two issues that need to be addressed in order to move forward to find real freedom, healing, and wholeness in our lives of despair.
THE FIRST ISSUE THAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED IS THE CURRENT PROBLEM THAT IS GENERATING DESPAIR
John gives us the background of why Jesus was in Jerusalem. Like all Jewish males, it was a requirement to be in Jerusalem to celebrate three significant feasts; the Passover, Pentecost, and the feast of Tabernacles. Which feast it was is not specified and does not seem important to the story that John is relating to us.
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals.[iii]
This incident is a microcosm of the struggles that the Jewish people were having in accepting Jesus as their Messiah. R. V. Tasker points this out in his comments on John’s gospel.
It was very natural therefore that John should have been at pains to record in greater detail than the earlier evangelists the reasons for this great rejection, as they had found expressions during the earthly life of Jesus. His Gospel has in consequence sometimes been called the ‘Gospel of the rejection.[iv]
Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.[v]
Archeologists have unearthed this particular site near the church of Saint Anne in Jerusalem. Rodney Whitacre describes the setting:
This pool was actually two large trapezoid-shaped pools with a twenty-one-foot-wide space between them. The whole structure was enclosed by porches on each side, with a fifth porch over the area dividing the two pools. The water was occasionally disturbed, perhaps from an underground source such as a spring with irregular flow or drainage from another pool.[vi]
Bethesda means house of mercy or compassion. It was a place where the afflicted came, hoping to get better; or at least be shown mercy through alms (charity shown to the poor and afflicted). John explains why they were at this place.
and they waited for the moving of the waters.
From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.[vii]
The water of the pool of Bethesda, like the ritual water in most of the preceding chapters, is ineffectual, leaving a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years until Jesus comes to heal him. While the water of such a pool would not be used in official Jewish ritual, its significance on a popular level must have been great.[viii]
A contrast may be seen between the precarious chance of healing in the pool and the efficacious [effective] word of Christ.[ix]
Jesus’ presence and word brought, and still brings, healing.
A. The Question that Jesus asked.
Of all the people that were lying around waiting for the waters to stir, Jesus approaches this one paralyzed man.
One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’[x]
That seems like a shocking question? Yet, for some, the idea of leaving their condition would mean that they would have to find another means of living.
For the paralytic man, Jesus’ query had economic significance. J. A. Findlay tells us that in the Middle East, in Jesus’ time and now, a man who was healed would lose a good living from begging.[xi]
What about us? It may not be a physical healing we need, but an emotional, relational, or a spiritual one. We may have been wounded by someone and rather than forgiving and moving forward, we have walked in our pain and unforgiveness. It is easier to blame than to forgive. The problem is that we no longer live with joy and have not experienced God’s grace and power in our own life for a long time.
We don’t feel authentic. We don’t have inner peace. The unresolved sin or hurt in our lives is submerged into our unconsciousness.[xii]
If we want to be restored, we need to open our hearts to Jesus to bring cleansing and renewed hope back into our lives.
B. The recognition of our need.
‘Sir,’ the invalid replied, ‘I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.’[xiii]
What he was saying was that he wanted to be healed but was incapable. ‘I have no one to help me.’ The fact that Jesus took time to single him out and ask about his situation, the man was possibly thinking that maybe Jesus would help him to the water. Notice the man thought that this was the only means to wholeness, but Jesus brought about his healing in a totally unexpected way. Like the nation of Israel, this man had framed God’s ways and means into a preconceived pattern.
C. Jesus is the answer to our inability to save and heal ourselves.
Jesus has only to speak the word, and when we act upon it, there is a power released to save, to heal, and to deliver us from sin, sickness, and demonic torment.
Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’
At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.[xiv]
Obedience to Christ’s word brought about this immediate healing to the man. Jesus could have told the man he was healed, but by having the man pick up and carry his mat, Jesus was initiating a challenge to the religious authorities’ wrong understanding of the nature of the Sabbath.
THE SECOND ISSUE THAT NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED IS THE SIGNIFICANT UNDERLYING ISSUES
What was really happening here? Why did Jesus heal on the Sabbath? One of the problems of legalism or following a form, rather than to cultivate a personal relationship with God and others, is that we violate the greater law of love. In his epistle, John will define what love is like.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.[xv]
What does that look like? Love is practical. We need to do what we can with what we have to demonstrate that love to others. Love is an action.
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?[xvi]
A. The response to the miracle.
How did the Jewish religious establishment handle what transpired? What was even more important was the man who experienced the healing. What was his response to the miracle in his life?
the day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.’[xvii]
The law did not forbid this action, but it was their interpretation of the law that forbid it. It was the ‘Tradition of the elders’ that specified that this was wrong. This is the nature of legalism which makes religion a burden rather than the freedom that comes from knowing God. What point is Jesus trying to make?
From Jesus’ perspective he is not undermining the Sabbath, but challenging ‘the Jews’ interpretation of it.[xviii]
In Jesus’ eyes, the sabbath was given to be a blessing and not a burden to human beings, and it was most worthily kept when the purpose for which God gave it was most actively promoted. He therefore regarded acts of healing and relief not as permitted exceptions to the prohibition of work on the sabbath, but as deeds which should be done by preference on that day, because they so signally fulfilled the divine purpose in its institution.[xix]
Doing good and showing mercy is what the Sabbath is about. It is releasing people from their pain and hurt. That is the true meaning of finding rest, which is the idea behind the Sabbath.
These leaders were so focused on their incorrect understanding and application of the Sabbath principle that they missed the more significant aspect. Here was an invalid, who had been unable to walk for thirty-eight years, walking. If they were mindful of the biblical promises that the prophets had declared of the coming of the Lord, surely this was a powerful demonstration of Isaiah’s prophecy and promise.
They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God.
Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy,[xx]
The miracles were signs pointing the people to their Messiah, but they were blind to that reality because of their traditions.
B. Facing opposition in life.
So, having experienced the miracle, how would this man move forward? How do we move forward when God has done something amazing in our lives, but spiritual opposition comes against us?
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.[xxi]
Here the man defends himself by stating that he was just obeying the words of the one who had healed him. Picking up the mat was one of the conditions by which he was healed. He is unlike the blind man in chapter nine who responds to Jesus positively and ultimately is ex-communicated by the religious leaders. After the blind man’s healing, Jesus finds him and he becomes a follower. When the paralyzed man discovered that it was Jesus that healed him, he tells the religious leaders so that he can find favor in their eyes. Basically, he was throwing Jesus ‘under the bus’ in order to deflect blame in their criticism of his behavior. He was basically saying, ‘Jesus made me do it.’
The man went away and told the religious leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.[xxii]
C. A Warning from Jesus.
After Jesus had slipped away and the man had been summoned and chastised by the religious leaders, Jesus finds him and leaves him with this warning.
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.[xxiii]
What would be worse than being paralyzed for 38 years? The first thought that comes to my mind is that he would spend an eternity separated from God. That is what sin does to us, it alienates us from love. It destroys relationships. It causes us to become isolated, broken and alone. Sin will always bring despair in our lives. So, what happens when we come to Jesus? Often well-meaning people can give us a bunch of dos and don’ts. The reality is that there are only two things we need to consider when we surrender our lives to Jesus. First, we need to continue to follow Jesus, and secondly, we need to stop sinning. Once Jesus comes into our lives, God enables the Holy Spirit to live within us and give us the power to say no to sin. We must remember that it is sin that divides us from God. It is sin that caused Jesus to be crucified and take our place on that cross. It was sin that led our lives into bondage and despair. It is Jesus who sets us free from sin. It is not freedom to sin.
This story is also a contrast to the man born blind that Jesus heals in chapter nine. The question there was, who sinned, himself or his parents? Jesus answers neither, but ‘that the works of God might be displayed in him’ (cf. John 9:2-3).
Sin is the general condition of our world and is the underlying reason for sickness. However, not all sickness is a direct result of personal sin. Yet, in this case, sin may have been the factor in his paralysis. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he points out that one of the reason that people are sick and some have died prematurely is because they were partaking of the bread and cup in an unworthy manner.
For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.
That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.[xxiv]
What then is the meaning of eating and drinking in ‘an unworthy manner’? It is to do so without self-examination while discriminated against others. How are we treating our brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we valuing the sacrifice that Jesus paid for each of us?
What is our response to Jesus breaking into our lives and healing us from our sin? To continue in our sin when we have experienced the forgiveness of God is to open the door to an even greater evil to invade our lives. Yet, when we respond in a healthy manner and start living the life that Jesus promised, we should not be surprised by the opposition from others because of our faith. We see in this miracle of Jesus that it brought him into a greater conflict with the religious leaders, which culminated in his death.
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him.[xxv]
The man might have acted in ignorance of the technicalities of the law, but Jesus, as the authorities very well knew, had acted with full appreciation of the issues involved when he bade him carry his pallet on the Sabbath. Inciting others to break the law (as they understood it) was worse than breaking it oneself. Therefore they launched a campaign against Jesus which was not relaxed until his death some eighteen months later.[xxvi]
John is taking us on a journey to reveal the response of people to Jesus. Either they embraced him or rejected him. John’s purpose in writing his gospel is clear.
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.[xxvii]
What will our response be to Jesus? A formal, rigid tradition and a life perpetuating sin? Or will we turn to Jesus and develop a real, personal and growing relationship with him? Jesus wants to heal us, forgive us and turn despair into joy. Will we embrace him and experience that wonderful life that He is promising us? Will we receive healing and wholeness from despair?
[i] Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 106.
[ii] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 125.
[iii] John 5:1, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iv] R. V. G. Tasker, John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 84.
[v] John 5:2.
[vi] Rodney Whitacre, John, IVP New Testament Commentary Series Vol. 4, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 118–119.
[vii] John 5:3b-4.
[viii] Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1., (Grand Rapids, Mi: Baker Academic, 2003), 634.
[ix] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, 123.
[x] John 5:5-6.
[xi] R. Kent Hughes, Behold The Lamb, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1984), 95.
[xii] Ibid, 96.
[xiii] John 5:7.
[xiv] John 5:8-9a.
[xv] 1 John 3:16.
[xvi] 1 John 3:17.
[xvii] John 5:9b-10.
[xviii] Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, 636.
[xix] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, 125.
[xx] Isaiah 35:2c, 4-6a.
[xxi] John 5:11-13.
[xxii] John 5:15.
[xxiii] John 5:14.
[xxiv] 1 Corinthians 11:29-30.
[xxv] John 5:16.
[xxvi] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, 126.
[xxvii] John 20:30-31.