I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your principles.
This chapter begins with the mention of another Jewish festival giving reason for Jesus to be in Jerusalem. The city full of visitors is becoming a familiar scene. John doesn’t indicate what the occasion was as it merely serves as a backdrop. Instead our attention is drawn to the weekly festival of the Sabbath that dominates this chapter, because a healing took place.
Heat, sweat, dust and poverty were everywhere. Next to the sheep gate is a pool – with hundreds of people around it who were miserable and needy: “…sick people were lying in the porches – the blind, the lame and the paralysed.” (v.3) No doctors, no nurses, no hope. Bethesda, as it’s known in Hebrew, was excavated at the end of the 19th century. Archaeologists unearthed a small rectangular spring-fed pool and the remains of five porches. Modern day pilgrims can now stand where Jesus stood at Bethesda, which literally means “house of mercy”.
Once again we have the presence of water in the gospel (think back to the woman at the well, the new birth of water and spirit, water into wine) – now it’s used as a source of healing.
It’s not surprising that the pool attracted those with physical disabilities. Local tradition believed the water had special healing powers. An underground thermal spring made it bubble. Like many famous spas today – think of Lourdes that gives hope of healing for many sick and crippled people. In fact patients at Bath Royal Hospital suffering from rheumatic diseases still use the ancient Roman mineral baths of that city for restoration of health
Here at the “house of mercy” there was a legend that healings took place when an angel stirred the waters and only the first person into the pool after the water was troubled was supernaturally healed. The place was packed – so you had to be pretty quick to get there before the rippling stopped, moving between the pillars and the crowds.
So tragic really! The blind couldn’t see when the waters were stirred. The lame couldn’t move. Everyone was shouting, pushing and shoving. One man had been there longer than Jesus had lived on earth. Just lying there, thoroughly helpless, unable to move himself into the pool, and nobody would help him. The fact that he’d been there for 38 years meant that he was pretty notorious. Perhaps mocked by the more fortunate and preyed upon by others.
But Jesus, coming to these poor people, saw they were helpless but not hopeless. He focused in on the paralysed man among the masses, and asks him: “Do you want to get well?” – knowing of course he’d been like that for nearly 40 years (v.6).
What a surprisingly strange question! Or is it as naive as it sounds? This was the man’s first glimmer of hope in nearly four decades. Having been ill for such a long period of time he was probably in a routine and had developed a pattern of daily living that enabled him to cope. But once he was healed everything would change. He had to think about it.
Maybe it’s like a prisoner being released back into society after serving their sentence. After years inside, going straight can be a scary prospect. Some people, sadly, even use illnesses to get attention. Others simply don’t want to hear such a direct question from God – they have no desire and miss the opportunity for transformation – of healing and wholeness.
The man in the text doesn’t say “Yes!” straight away but avoids the question and begins to tell his own sad story instead: “Sir, I have no one here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets their first.” (v.7).
What’s he doing? He’s blaming other people. He blames his circumstances. Life’s not fair. I’m not quick enough to get into the water. He hasn’t got any faith to say he wants to be healed. He’s not ready to face up to the demands and lifestyle changes that healing will inevitably bring. His real problem is not his legs, but that his will is paralysed.
That’s why it takes so long for some people to become Christians. Coupled with pride their inner desire is crippled by the lures and attractions of the world, or maybe they’ve been through an absolutely awful experience that’s made them bitter and angry towards God.
Whatever it is, and especially if it’s someone you love, pray and pray some more for God in Jesus to come to them, saying, “You are precious in my sight. I will give you peace, love, joy, self-respect, and above all salvation.”
Life is hard for many people; emotional problems, fears, complexes, inhibitions. We’re crippled by ignorance and shame, wasting our years and our talents. But we can have the will to not let ourselves become victims to circumstance.
Like this teenage cancer fundraiser Steven Sutton who died last week aged 19. He was a real inspiration. He raised millions for charity. Rather than dwell on the terminal diagnosis, he drew up a “bucket list” of things he wanted to achieve before he died. He went skydiving, played drums in front of 90,000 people at Wembley, met the PM and other celebrities. He never stopped smiling despite the awful illness. “Caner sucks but life is great”, he said.
In modern medicine any doctor will tell you that often its mind over matter that can be a critical factor towards prolonging life or healing. I think of a 84 year golfer I know who fell and broke his hip, but was golfing again in six weeks because he had the desire. There is hope if the determination is there to get better.
That’s why Jesus says, “Do you want to get well?” or better still “Are you ready, are you willing for me to change your life?”
Mary Slessor answered God’s call to be a missionary to Africa. When she lived as a girl in Glasgow she was so frightened of people and things that she dare not cross the road. In her teenage years she still needed her mother’s hand. In her early twenties she became a Christian and was fascinated by the famous explorer David Livingstone. She wanted to follow in his footsteps. She prayed for God to take away her phobias – “I want to get well change my life” – and years later she was sailing alone in a canoe in dangerous territory down West Africa, converting people who believed in witchcraft and other superstitions.
When you can’t make it on your own, God reaches in, because He may have special work for you to do in spite of any condition. But He never chooses to help people against their will. Love demands freedom and we are free to resist and reject God’s ways for us. Only if we have the desire for His help can healing come. As we see in these verses, it’s not just about physical healing, but rather spiritual rejuvenation, forgiveness of sin and eternal life.
Life hurts but Jesus isn’t a crutch for the weak. Have you the will to accept and respond to His challenge: “Pick up your mat, and walk.” God heals and can minister to our deepest spiritual needs – but it’s a matter of choice. He gives the man three commands and in not one of them did Jesus offer help: “Get up. Pick up your mat and walk away.” (5:8).
It sounds harsh but it was really a glorious offer because Jesus was really saying, “I will help you if you will help yourself. I’ll enable you to walk if you will walk.” Do you really want to be forgiven? Are you prepared for the changes that conversion will bring?
The challenge confronts us today just as much as it does people in the Gospel. The lame man, in a split second, made a decision that changed his life and he was cured, having no idea who Jesus was. It was a great miracle. However, the greater miracle is to have God’s forgiveness.
Don’t neglect it. Remember the man had gone to the temple to thank God (it was the first time in 38 years he’d been allowed in to do this!) and later Jesus found him there, reminding him he was well but He also said: “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (v.14) warning him he’d been given a second chance and he should make better choices in the future.
It’s not a demand for sinless perfection. It’s a demand for holiness and reverence. Don’t take salvation for granted for when Jesus makes you well, you need to face up to the demands and responsibilities of faith. Persevering, working out your salvation in fear and trembling. It’s living to please God (Gal.2:20).
This man’s healing should have been a mighty testimony to the Jewish leaders of Christ’s Messiahship, but instead they complained because He did it on the Sabbath. Carrying a mat on that day was unlawful and they were more concerned about their petty rules than the life and health of a human being.