Here is a mind map of the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel is divided into two sections: the first is chapters 1 to 12, and can be called ‘the book of signs’. The second is chapters 13 to 21, and can be called ‘the book of glory’. We are looking at chapter 5 in 'the book of signs'. In John’s Gospel, miracles are referred to as ‘signs’. The sign is intended to provoke trust in Jesus as the Son of God.
There are many kinds of signs in our world. There are non-word signs, like a set of traffic lights (or as they like to call them in South Africa, ‘robots’). Red means ‘stop’, green means ‘go’, and amber means ‘go very fast’! The purpose of a sign is to take you beyond the sign itself. You don’t want to confuse the sign for the thing itself.
There are seven signs in John’s Gospel, and the miracle we are looking at is one of those seven signs. The first is the turning of water into wine and the last is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Jesus probably did thousands of miracles, but it is interesting that only these seven signs are selected and recorded in John’s Gospel. They are seen as being enough evidence for you to put your trust in Jesus and have life. In fact, that is why John’s Gospel was written, John 20:30-31:
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. (NIV)
The location for this sign is the pool of Bethesda, John 5:1 2:
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 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. (NIV)
This is a real event that occurred in time and history. This miracle occurred in a place to which I have been. I have taken photos of this place. The Bible has no place for blind faith. Our faith is based on evidence, often eyewitness testimony. Sometimes when people talk of miracles today, it often is said to have taken place over the next hill, in another church, in the next town, in another country, and at another time. Those who saw the miracles always are thought to have more faith than us. You can’t quite pin down the where and when of the miracle: not so here. The location where it occurs is clear. And two thousand years later, you can book a flight, go to Tel Aviv, and catch a bus into the old city of Jerusalem, buy a map, and walk to the pool of Bethesda.
In this account, we meet desperate people trusting in superstitions. Jesus focuses in on one of them: a man lying with a group of other disabled people, waiting to be healed. It truly is a tragic scene, John 5:3,5:
Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. […] One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. (NIV)
There were so many disabled people there, but this was no ‘Invictus Games’ or ‘Paralympics’. Those gathered were disabled, desperate, and destitute. They were clinging to what they saw was their only hope, but it was a hope based on a superstition. The reference to the angel in verse 4 is a later addition, and that is why it is in a footnote. The tradition in which they hoped was that this pool had healing powers: when the water bubbled up, someone could get healed. The only problem was that it was ‘first come, first served’. There was no medal for second place.
The pool of Bethesda at the time of Jesus was like many places around the world today, which offer some kind of spiritual or therapeutic healing. Some are tied to religious traditions, like Lourdes. Some are tied to new age beliefs, such as wellness retreats in the Daintree. Most if not all of them over-promise and under-deliver. Take Banya, Moscow, for example. The Banya is a Slavic Eden. It is a steamy, womb-like place, where you can take off all your clothes and snack on caviar and stuffed herring. Russian babushkas, or grandmothers, swear that these steam baths can add years to your life … if you have the money. Here at the pool of Bethesda, one man waits with many others. He has been waiting 38 years for something to happen. But there is no one to take him into the water.
This account is so different to that of the paralyzed man in Mark chapter 2. In that account, four very determined men carry their disabled friend to Jesus. So committed were they, that they punched a hole through someone else’s roof and lowered their mate through it to the feet of Jesus. It was like the two men on 9/11 at the World Trade Center after the planes hit, who carried a woman in her wheelchair down the fire-stairs of the tower. When they got to level 18, she said to them, “Leave me and save yourselves!” But they kept on going, and carried her out of the building, just as it collapsed. What good friends! But that is not the situation here. This man has no friends, no-one to carry him, none to help him.
But there is more to this situation than meets the eye. Jesus singles out this man after he has stepped over one disabled person after another. He hones in on and heals this particular man. He says, “Get up, take up your mat, and walk”, and in an instant, he was upright and mobile.
Always remember that with Jesus, the one matters. We talk of making a thousand new disciples, but behind each number is a person, and each person has a story.
I don’t think this man was healed because of his faith. The first reason I think this is the question Jesus asks in John 5:6: “Do you want to get well?” You would think that this was a dumb question: after all, the guy has been waiting for 38 years. Yet Jesus knows something that we don’t yet know. The second reason is the lame mans answer in John 5:6: “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” (NIV).
This man takes no responsibility for his life. For a start, he blames others for the fact that he cannot get into the water. Then later, he blames Jesus for telling him to take up his mat on the Sabbath. I don’t think that this man had faith, either before or after he was healed. And this got me thinking about how a tragedy can end up defining you if you let it. I think that this man’s identity was in his disability. He was more comfortable in being disabled than being able.
We can all find some tragedy or difficulty we’ve experienced to define us. We might cling to a missed opportunity, poverty, sickness, some crisis, or our sexual identity—a real issue or problem for us that comes to own us. We tell ourselves and others a story that keeps us powerless, passive, and pessimistic.
We know that there is a spiritual problem with this man. Jesus confronts him with a warning in John 5:14-15:
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.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well. (NIV)
The man did this after being healed instantly and completely, John 5:8-9:
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. (NIV)
So what makes a miracle a miracle? Here are three criteria. First, it happens with a word or touch. Second, it happens immediately. Third, it happens completely: there is no partial healing. Let’s look elsewhere in the Gospels. So, about the man who could not speak, we read in Luke 1:64, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God”. To the leper we read about in Luke 5:13, Jesus reached out his hand, touched the man, and said to him, “I am willing. Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. Of the paraplegic, we read in Luke 5:25: “Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on, and went home praising God. About the woman who had been subject to bleeding for 12 years, we read in Luke 8:44, “She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped”. With Jesus, no one slowly gets better. It doesn’t take days, weeks, or months. It is always immediate, at once, and with a word. With Jesus, no-one get partially better. They don’t limp out. They walk out. Notice the word ‘completely’ to the man with the shriveled hand in Mark 3:5, where Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand”, and he stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. To the raging storm Jesus in Mark 4:39 got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” and then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
Don’t misunderstand me: a slow or partial recovery is no less reason to praise to God. God is no less worthy of our gratitude when our healing is not total. When there is any healing or alleviation of suffering, with or without medicine, we are thankful. But a miracle is an act of supernatural power, able to be verified, done in an instant, complete, and performed with just a word or a touch. We should guard the word ‘miracle’ or lose our integrity.
The healing of the man crippled for 38 years truly was a miracle. As such, it was a sign for all to see. The sign was clear: Jesus truly is the Son of God, so trust him! What is stopping you?
But now the story turns to recount the growing opposition to Jesus. The healed man missed the importance of the sign and so betrayed Jesus. And the religious leaders also missed the meaning of the sign and so accused Jesus. Notice the reaction of the religious leaders in John 5:10:
And so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (NIV)
The grace of God is swamped by heartless tradition. I remember when my son was two or three years old. It was his birthday, and he got a great present. By the end of his birthday party, the toy he received was in one corner, and he was playing with the wrapping paper in other corner. The Jewish leaders had missed the point. They had turned the saviour into a sinner. Instead of praising Jesus they want to punch him out.
Let’s rewind the conversation. The once crippled man says to the Jewish leaders, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” They say, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” Notice that the religious leaders did not say, “Wow, you are healed now! Fantastic! Who did this for you?” But they say, “Who told you pick up your mat on the Sabbath and break our law!”
It is like being given a lottery ticket as a gift from your non-Christian sister, and you just found out that you won five million dollars, and your Christian friend replies, “But isn’t the lottery gambling?” Did you miss the bit about the five million bucks? The wonder of this sign is choked out by a grievance over breaking a man-made law.
Who started all this trouble? Jesus did. He is to blame. He purposely healed this man on the Sabbath. He wanted to provoke one of the greatest conversations, about how he is the Son of God the Father. And if the Jewish leaders think that breaking their Sabbath was bad, Jesus is about to tell them that he and his dad pulled off this miracle as a team effort. As Jesus makes himself equal with God the Father, the Jewish leaders get ready to pick up stones and kill him.
But that is for next week. For now, let’s consider one issue, that this story reeks of trampled grace. The lame man had a story that he told himself and others. He was disabled. He had no one to help for 38 long years. He was the victim. Jesus came offering him a new story. Jesus singled him out and in an instant completely healed him. He is no longer the lame man: he is the healed man who now has a new story to tell. He is no longer a victim. His story is now one of grace and wholeness, which should be marked by praise and joy. But this was not the story he wanted to tell himself and others. It was not the story he wanted to define him. He would prefer to betray Jesus rather than be loyal to him. He would prefer to sabotage what Jesus has done and to trample over his mercy. He turns free grace into cheap grace.
After such grace, the man tells another version of the same story, in which he is still a victim. It certainly was Jesus who made him take his mat. Yet the man was still blaming: this time blaming Jesus. And so Jesus warns him that this day of grace will come to an end if you keep trampling over it: “See, you are healed. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”
There is an ominous warning to all of us who are in Christ. Many of us have received free grace … only to trample all over it. We were given a new story of salvation, only to allow ourselves to still be defined by our past, our disabilities, our liabilities, our wounds, and our sins and the sins of other. I know of one woman who would daily bring up her ex-husbands betrayal forty years after it occurred. She would do so with a rage like it had just happened yesterday, it had so defined her. She almost found pleasure in the pain. Jesus came to set her free, but she did not want her freedom.
It is not a bad thing to ask you, “Do you really want to be healed?” Have you asked God? Do you really want to overcome recurring sin? Do you really want to be saved? Are you prepared to start telling a different story, where Jesus is the hero and you are no longer the victim? Let this miraculous sign take you to Jesus, and let him set you free.
Let’s pause and wait upon the Lord. Let his Spirit take his word and apply it to each of our hearts. Let’s silently pray for ourselves, as we consider telling ourselves a different story, where Jesus is the hero, and we are no longer victims.