Jesus went to the sheep market in Jerusalem, which is right near the pool called Bethesda (Jn. 5:1-16). The word “Bethesda” means, the house of mercy, but to many it was a house of misery. In verse 1 John links this miracle with the healing of the nobleman’s son in the previous chapter. Having dealt there with human doubt, Jesus now prepares to deal with human disability.
1. A Sad Group Of People
A group of sick and sad people were around the pool. Perhaps, they were rejected by doctors and forsaken by the relatives and the society. The King James Version tells us that at a certain season an angel would trouble the water of the pool; at such times, the first person who stepped into the water would be healed of whatever disease he had. Apart from this indication in the gospel account, John also describes the activity of “the angel of the waters” accomplishing the divine purpose in the book of Revelation (Rev. 16:5). Throughout the Old Testament we see angels and ministering spirits going about their work. This may have been one such case.
“And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness.” (Jn. 5:5). The man had been waiting patiently beside the pool of Bethesda for several years, watching for an angel to appear, ruffle the waters, and to attend to his needs. During his lonely vigil he had been witness to several heavenly manifestations. Many had received healing in that place, but no one had helped him down into that healing pool. He had watched God answering other people’s prayers, but never his own. But God had heard his prayers. The waters did not move for him but God did move in his life, in his own time.
Imagine, what he would have missed if God had merely sent an angel instead of coming himself in the person of Christ to heal him! Oh, how we long to see a moving of the waters and our loved ones or ourselves made whole; but we have to realize that, it is all a matter of the timing of God and not a question of whether he hears or answers prayers. I am not saying that God will always heal when we ask him to, but I do believe that prayers for healing always get answered eventually, even if we have to wait until he takes us to heaven to enjoy it!
It is not a matter of “can God”, but “will God.” If he wills, ‘when’ he wills is his business and not ours. In other words, don’t lose faith in the ability of your awe-inspiring God just because the waters do not move the moment you tell him to move them! The waters may not move at all. But take courage, God will move in your life. Your situations may not change at all. But cheer up! Certainly, God will raise you up, above your situation.
2. A Miracle With A Message
There were many sick people there, but Jesus focused on this man because he had a purpose in mind and a lesson to teach. He was about to perform a miracle with a message for us.
It’s important to understand that Jesus was not merely in the healing business. A great multitude of sick people were there that day, but Jesus healed only this man and silently slipped away (Jn. 5:13). Had he stayed, the people would have clamored after him to be healed. The primary purpose of his coming into this world was not to heal the sick but to save the sinners (Lk. 19:10).
According to the purpose of this Gospel, John very vividly brings out the omniscience of the Son of God (Jn. 5:6). When Jesus saw this man he knew all about him. He did not ask his name or his disease or how long he had been there. He could discern that this man was sick for thirty-eight years. Jesus knows all things. In the Old Testament we find the words, “Thou God sees me.” Yes, God sees us in the blackness of the mid-night and in the brightness of the mid-day.
3. Omnipotence Meets Impotence
Now at the pool, omnipotence met impotence. Jesus speaks to this man. He took the initiative as He did with the Samaritan woman and with the two disciples. He always begins his work in a man’s heart before the man begins with him. The two disciples of John the Baptist followed Jesus. Probably they were too shy to approach him directly. They followed at a respectful distance. Then Jesus did something entirely characteristic of him. He turned and spoke to them. He opened a conversation with them. Here we have the symbol of the divine initiative. It is always God who takes the first step. When the human mind begins to seek and the human heart begins to long, God comes to meet us far more than half way.
Jesus said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The impotent man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” The mighty physician told the miserable patient, “Arise, take up your bed, and walk.” And immediately the man was made whole, he took up his bed and began to walk (Jn. 5:6-9).
Hence, the first step is to get up. Some effort on the part of the sick is called for. The old maxim, “You never know what you can do till you try,” still holds well. The ability and the will to try are made largely out of past efforts that have brought good results. Time and again we have surprised ourselves by completing tasks, which we first thought were beyond our capability.
Don’t you wonder at the superfluous question of Jesus, “Do you wish to get well?” The daily presence of the impotent man at the pool was sufficient evidence that it was his greatest desire to be made whole. Trench suggests that the question of Jesus had its purpose, since the man had been so often denied a cure and consequently hope became dead within him. In other words, Jesus was asking him, “What is your will in this matter?” He wanted the man to activate his will. Jesus wasn’t just asking him if he wanted to walk again. He used a word for ‘whole’ that means basically “fullness, or wholesomeness.”
Now it’s true that this man could never have said ‘yes’ to Jesus unless Jesus took the initiative. God does not force our will, but he does enable our will.
4. An Aggressive Attitude Of Blaming
When Jesus was offering him some help by asking him, “Do you wish to get well?” the sick man started complaining and blaming people who were not willing to help him. He said, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming another steps down before me.” (Jn. 5:7). This is an aggressive attitude, which reacts to circumstances with blame. Most of the time we blame others for our failures and problems. Sometimes we even tend to blame God.
Blaming is a system of avoiding responsibility. We have an impulse to blame because it promises an escape. This impulse started with Adam. His first instinct in reaction to his circumstance was three-fold blame: it is the woman, the snake and God who are responsible for the fault. Spiritual growth and maturity comes to a Christian only by owning responsibility and working at resolving it.
We should have no excuses for our failures, and no escapes for our mistakes. The first thing we must do is to admit that we are weak. The man readily admitted to Jesus that he was too weak to make it into the pool on his own (v.7). But he still blamed others. The primary source of this man’s sickness was his sin. Not everybody is sick because of sin, but evidently this man was. We are sinners by birth, sinners by nature, sinners by choice and sinners by practice.
Charles R. Swindoll says: Blame never affirms, it assaults. Blame never restores, it wounds. Blame never solves, it complicates. Blame never unites it separates. Blame never smiles it frowns. Blame never forgives, it rejects. Blame never forgets, it remembers. Blame never builds it destroys. Let us admit it, until we stop blaming others we will not start enjoying health and happiness again. Rather if we own up to the mess we are in, there is hope for us. We will receive help.
5. A Command To Obey
Jesus not only offered this man a choice, but he commanded him to do something. He did not help him to his feet and fold up his mat for him. The man had to initiate to get up. Jesus would then do the rest. Jesus did not say, “I will put you in the pool.” That was what the man expected someone to do for him. God works beyond our expectations and in different ways. In this command Jesus was expressing to him that he was above and beyond the healing pool. He has all the power in the world to heal, but there must be some faith on the part of the man. So he gave him an opportunity to exercise that faith. He told him to do three things, “Rise, take up and walk.”
Will Jesus save a man automatically without some response on the part of the man? No, but the moment a man sees himself as a lost sinner Jesus saves him. Jesus was not just asking him if he wanted to walk again. He used a word for whole that basically means, “fullness or wholesomeness.” Jesus was offering this man more than a strong pair of legs. He was offering him spiritual as well physical wholeness; he was offering the forgiveness of sin.
This man had a choice to make. Many people want the results of sin erased, but they do not want to give up their sin. They do not want to be made truly whole. They do not want the pardon that God offers them. This happens sometimes on the human level. Have you ever heard of any criminal who refuses an offer of clemency?
One of the strangest cases on record was that of George Wilson, who was sentenced to be hanged in 1829 by the state of Pennsylvania for mail robbery and murder. Before the sentence could be carried out, President Andrew Jackson pardoned George Wilson. The presidential pardon was sent to the governor of Pennsylvania and then to the warden of the penitentiary where George Wilson was incarcerated. There the message was given to the condemned man. Wilson stunned everyone by refusing the pardon even though he knew it meant that the death penalty would be carried out. The officials did not know what to do. They could not just take Wilson to the front door of the prison and push him outside. It was a real legal tangle. The case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. In rendering the court’s decision, Chief Justice John Marshall said, “A pardon is a piece of paper, the value of which depends upon its acceptance by the person implicated. If it is refused it is no pardon.” As a result, George Wilson was hanged even though a pardon had been offered. He had made his choice.
A person can die and go to hell even though Jesus stretches out his arms to that person and asks, “Would you like to be made whole?” Pardon that is refused is no pardon. We must activate our will and receive what Jesus offers. Do you really want victory? You need not persuade our Lord to give it to you but must certainly permit him to do so.
6. Obedience Before Receiving The Blessings
The command of Jesus to rise was seemingly impossible since the man was not in a position to rise on his own initiative. But he obeyed the command and attempted to get up. This was the command of omnipotence along with which comes the strength to obey it. “Faithful is he who calls you, and he also will bring to pass.” (1 Thess. 5:24). As to the cure, it was instantaneous, immediate, perfect and free. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
Now getting up and walking did not cause the man to be healed. He was healed by the power of Christ. But walking demonstrated that he was made whole. The spiritual principles at work here are as given by Paul in Ephesians 2: 8-10, built around three key prepositions: (i) by (ii) through, and (iii) unto.
How was this man made whole? By grace. There was nothing he could do. Salvation is by the sheer grace of God. Salvation is also through faith. The crippled man exercised his faith when he obeyed Jesus’ command to get up, take up his bed and walk away. So faith and obedience go together. Was this man healed because he walked or did he walk because he was healed? He walked because he was healed. Doing good works does not save us, but we are saved unto (to do) good works.
7. Obedience After Receiving The Blessings
After being healed, this man could have walked away or could have told Jesus, “Sir, please don’t ask me to carry this old, torn, stinking bed in which I have been for 38 years.” But he continued to obey the Lord even after receiving the blessing. This is what is called conserving our blessings. Sometimes after receiving a blessing from the Lord, we don’t take time to think as to why the Lord has blessed us with that blessing; what is the purpose behind it and how we can bring glory and honour to the Lord through it.
The rich young ruler who came to Jesus was not guilty of violating any of God’s commandments, but he lacked one thing- he lacked the realisation that God had entrusted him with his wealth that he might use it for God’s glory and to the blessing of humankind (Mk. 10:17-25).
8. Trial After Triumph
Yonder goes that man, walking for the first time in thirty-eight years, carrying his bed on his back. All these years the bed was carrying him but now he was carrying the bed. When some of the Jewish religious leaders saw him, they pounced upon him and said, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry you pallet.” The man answered, “The One who made well was the one who said to me, ‘Take up my bed and walk.’ ” (Jn. 10:10,11). He didn’t argue a point of law, but he made it clear to them that if that man had the power to heal and make him walk, he surely had the right to tell him to take up his bed and walk and he would obey.
The Jews asked, “What was the man who said to you, ‘Take up your mat, and walk’?” The man did not know who it was who healed him, because Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. But he knew one thing for sure. The moment Jesus came into his life, he was totally transformed.
9. Jesus Follows After Us
After commanding him to take up his bed and walk, Jesus did not just leave the place. He followed him to check whether he was obeying his command. He is sure to find us, wherever we are. Soon after his healing this man not only obeyed Jesus in carrying the bed, but also went to the temple to give thanks to God. Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” (Jn. 5:14). In another incident where Jesus heals a blind man, Jesus takes the initiative and finds the man in the temple (Jn. 9:35).
Jesus’ words to the man are in two parts: firstly, Jesus confirms the reality of the healing, “You have been made well.” Secondly, Jesus speaks to the man about sin. Jesus is now warning him that if he went back into sin, something worse would happen (Jn. 5:14). What can be worse than thirty-eight years of sickness? It can only be the eternal torment of the hell fire.
What actually happened was simply this, the Lord healed him physically at the pool of Bethesda, but He healed his soul there in the temple. Sin had caused the man trouble. First, he got a sound body and then he got a sound soul.
Jesus did something that the people could see so that they might understand and believe that which they could not see. The important thing for Jesus that day was not healing the man’s body, but healing his soul. The physical healing did not last forever. Like all others, this man eventually died also. But the spiritual healing of his soul will last for eternity. That is why physical healing without spiritual healing is of no use.
The man left the temple and told the Jews, “Jesus is the one who made me well.” (v. 15). After giving thanks in the temple, he went out and started witnessing. This man responded with obedience to the command of Jesus, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.” (v. 8).
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