"Lesson by the Pool "
(Delivered Sunday, September 26, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, I ask you to join me in looking at one of the stories from the Gospel of John about Jesus' miraculous healing of a man in need. I hope you agree that it's always refreshing to enjoy a story about our wonderful Savior. But sometimes, it's a particular blessing to learn from a story of His mercy to someone in deep need.
All of us come to Jesus in need; and He is always sufficient for every need that any one of us may have. But there are times when the need of some people is so great, and their situation is so miserable, that - humanly speaking - it seems utterly hopeless. Many of those who are in such a condition have pretty much given up any hope of things being any different; and they keep on doing the same old things over and over that can never relieve them of their misery. That certainly describes the situation of the man in this morning's passage. And the lesson of this story to us is that, no matter how miserable our situation is, or how hopeless things may appear, Jesus has the power to not only transform our hopeless situation but also to transform us in the process.
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, "Do you want to be made well?" The sick man answered Him, "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." Jesus said to him, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, "It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed." He answered them, "He who made me well said to me, 'Take up your bed and walk.'" Then they asked him, "Who is the Man who said to you, 'Take up your bed and walk'?" But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, "See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you." The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well (John 5:1-15).
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The context of this story is Jesus' return to Jerusalem after having spent some time in the regions of Galilee. He had already begun to demonstrate to the world His identity as the Son of God in human flesh. In Cana, He performed the sign of turning the water into wine at the request of His mother (2:1-12). Then, He cast the money changers and dove-sellers out of the temple (2:13-21). While in Jerusalem, He revealed Himself to the Jewish teacher Nicodeums (3:1-21). Then, going up to Samaria, He revealed Himself to the sinful woman at the well - with the result that all her townspeople also believed on Him (4:1-42). Then, returning to Galilee, He went again to Cana, where He had turned the water into wine, and there healed the son of a nobleman (4:46-54). And in all this, I hope you can see something wonderful about the Lord Jesus: He was revealing Himself to people of all walks of life. He revealed Himself to friends, relatives and guests at a wedding, to religious leaders and authorities, to learned scholars, to sinful outcasts, and to the noble and powerful of society. He is the Savior of people from all walks of life.
And it was then that He came again to Jerusalem. We're told that the reason He returned was because of a feast of the Jews. The Old Testament law commanded that all men make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast; and here, most likely, Jesus was returning to celebrate the feast of Passover. And here's another wonderful thing about our wonderful Savior: He was always faithful to obey the commandments of His Father as given in the Scriptures. He was even able to tell His accusers, ". . . I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me" (John 6:38). It was during this return to Jerusalem on the Sabbath Day, as His identity was becoming increasingly revealed, that Jesus healed the poor man at the pool.
Now, I believe that the primary reason John is giving us this story is to show us what it was that caused Jesus to be in such controversy with the religious leaders of His day. He had healed the man on the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders and teachers had distorted the Sabbath into a day of strict inactivity; but the Savior did good on that day, saying, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working" (v. 17). And that's why the religious leaders were upset with Him. They weren't concerned one bit over the fact that the poor man had been miraculously healed. Rather, they were upset that, on the Sabbath, Jesus had dared to tell the man to carry the cot he had been laying on. They told him, "It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed." But the sick man couldn't argue with a Man who could heal him! He defended himself by saying, "He who made me well said to me, 'Take up your bed and walk.'"
Now, after all the time the man had been laying there, those Jewish leaders surely must have known who he was. And yet, did you notice that they didn't say, "Really? You were healed? We recognize you now! You're that poor fella' who was always laying beside the pool; aren't you? What a miracle! Who is this Man who made you well?" The man's healing wasn't even important to them! Instead, they asked, "Who is the Man who said to you, 'Take up your bed and walk?'" How dare someone tell someone else to carry a cot on the Sabbath! That was all they cared about. And by the way; if you follow the story along in John's Gospel, you'll see that Jesus' act of commanding the man to carry his cot was what put Him out of favor with the religious rulers and leaders from that point on (see John 7:21-23). In fact, His actions that day so infuriated them that they immediately began to plot His death. His command to carry the cot was an act of grace; but He did it knowing that it would set events into motion that would eventually cost Him His life and led to His being handed over for crucifixion.1
But even though this passage is primarily about that controversy, I don't want us to miss the story of Jesus' great mercy that began it all. It has so many lessons to teach us about how merciful Jesus is to rescue those who are hopeless in their misery.
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One lesson we learn about Jesus from this story is that . . .
1. HE SEES AND KNOWS ABOUT THOSE WHO ARE HOPELESS IN MISERY (vv. 1-6a).
Consider where the man was found. John tells us, "Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches" (v. 2). The King James Version says that it was found by "the sheep market"; but neither the word "market" or "gate" is in the original language. The word in Greek simply indicates a place pertaining to sheep; and most scholars believe that it's speaking of that portion of the old city wall known as 'the sheep gate' (see Neh. 3:1, 32; 12:39), through which the sheep were brought to the temple for sacrifice.
Somewhere near this 'Sheep Gate' was a large pool of water, surrounded by five covered colonnades or porches. And on these porches had been laid a great multitude of people with terrible illnesses or disabilities. John mentions such people as those who were blind, or those who were lame or crippled in some way, or those who were literally "withered" - perhaps with palsy, or some other withering disease. The fact that many of these people were said to 'lay' there suggests something of the physical helplessness of this massive crowd of suffering people.
And all of them were there in hopes of perhaps being the recipient of a miracle of healing. As I read this passage to you a little earlier, perhaps some of you noticed that your particular edition of the Bible's didn't contain everything I read. I was reading from the New King James version; and if you have that one, or the old King James translation, you would have seen these words; that the people were . . .
waiting for the moving of the water. For an angle went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had (vv. 3b-4).
Most scholars of the original Greek text of John's Gospel recognize these words as having been added to the text at some later time in history. That's why many of your Bibles only feature them in a footnote. Many of the oldest and best Greek copies of John do not contain them. And some manuscripts that do have these words also feature a mark or indication that they are of questionable origin. Most likely, they were originally written down alongside the original text - sort of in 'footnote' form - by an ancient copiest. It was most likely included on the side of the text in order to give necessary background information to the story. But somehow, this "footnote" wound up getting copied into the text itself.
My opinion is that it doesn't describe something that actually happened - that is, that an angel from heaven, sent from God and with His approval, actually came down to earth occasionally to unexpectedly stir the waters of this pool so that people frantically scrambled over one another in a desperate effort to be the one fortunate person who got healed. Rather, I believe that it was describing something that traps and ensnares so many hopeless people who are desperate for some glimmer of hope - just a plain old superstitious belief. Some of these pools were fed by underground pipes that intermittently filled the pool from the bottom; and the sight of otherwise calm water bubbling upon its surface fed their superstitious idea that an angle was stirring the water and giving it healing power. I find it hard to blame such people for believing in such a thing. Hopeless misery makes you reach out for anything that might help.
This poor man was sitting by the pool, waiting with all the others for the slightest movement in the water. But his misery was particularly remarkable. Whatever his illness was, it didn't permit him to go into the water - even if he saw it stir. His only hope was for someone to have mercy upon him and put him into the water before anyone else could get in. But while he made whatever motion he could to the water, someone else inevitably got in before him - spoiling his chance (so he thought) of being healed. And so, there he lay by the pool of Bethesda, waiting and watching for his chance, struggling and failing each time, for a total of thirty-eight years! And do you realize that this means he had been doing this since several years before Jesus Himself had been born into the world?
Now, I believe that it was a special mercy on the part of our Lord that He came that crowd of suffering humanity. My guess is that few people did so - except those who were in misery and were hoping for a miracle. But Jesus came. He doesn't distance Himself from the suffering of people. And His coming was a deliberate, very specific act of mercy directed toward that poor man.
Please notice what it says about Jesus in verse 6; that He "saw" the man lying there - that is that, out of all those poor people, our Lord's attention was drawn to that particular man. But notice also that Jesus "knew" that he had already been at that place, seeking a miracle, for nearly a generation's time! How did Jesus know that? Did someone tell Him? No. It's because He is the very same God - in human flesh - who stores up our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He's the One who taught us, "Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7).
And what was true for that man is also true for you and me in our times of suffering. Don't ever think for a moment that you are going through something that our merciful Lord Jesus doesn't know about thoroughly and perfectly. He sees you, and He knows all about everything that concerns you. As the Bible tells us, we don't have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses; but rather, we have One who was "in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). You can never, ever go through anything that He doesn't know about perfectly, doesn't understand the pain of completely, or doesn't care about infinitely. You can confidently, as Peter says, cast all your care upon Him, "for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7).
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To my mind, one of the most fascinating aspects of this passage is what happens next. Another lesson we can learn about our Lord from this passage - one of the most crucial things we must come to terms with if we would be delivered by Him in times of helpless misery - is that . . .
2. HE CHALLENGES THE HOPELESS TO A GENUINE WILLINGNESS TO BE MADE WELL (vv. 6b-7).
Jesus healed lots of people that had been sick for a long time. He healed a woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years (Mark 5:25). He healed a young man who had been going into demon-inspired fits from the time he was a small boy (Mark 9:21). He healed a man blind from birth (John 9:1). He healed a woman who had a spirit of infirmity that had been preventing her from rising herself up for eighteen years (Luke 13:11). And through His apostles, He even healed a man in his mid-forties who had been lame from birth (Acts 4:22). To have simply walked up and healed this man, who had been suffering for thirty-eight years, would have presented no problem to our Lord. And what's more, Jesus could have even healed the man from a distance. Jesus would not have even had to have the man in His presence. He could have simply commanded it, and it would have been done - just as He had done on another occasion for the servant of a centurion (Matthew 8:5-13).
But there was something unique about this man's situation. There was something particular that was going on in his heart. Look at what Jesus does in this particular case. He walked up and asks the man a surprising question: "Do you want to be made well?"
At first glance, that would seem like the most ridiculous question anyone could have asked! Obviously, the whole reason the poor man had been at the pool for those thirty-eight years was so that he could go into the water and, perhaps, receive a miraculous healing! But to appreciate this, you need to understand what Jesus was intending in His question. The Lord wasn't simply asking the man if he was interested in being healed. Nor was He asking if He may have permission to heal him. He wasn't asking the man if anything could be done for Him at all. Rather, He was probing the man's heart and making him search within himself. He was making the man come to terms with whether or not he really, truly had the will to be healed. He was basically asking him, "Do you genuinely have the will to be well? After thirty-eight years of being an invalid, do you really want to stop being one, and to be made well?"
I want to say very carefully what I'm about to suggest to you; and I hope you won't misunderstand me. It would be easy to see this next point as very cruel and insensitive; but I want to stress that there is really some very profound psychology involved in Jesus' question. You see; not everyone who wants to be relieved of their misery necessarily wants to be relieved of all the other things that their misery might bring them. I have been involved in pastoral work long enough now to know that this is very often the case. Someone can suffer from something so long that, when faced with having that suffering alleviated, they are scared to death that they won't know what they'll do without it. Sometimes, people can almost build a whole identity around their suffering. Their suffering is how other people have come to relate to them. Frankly, it's very often the thing that lets them off the hook in other areas of life. And if you were to really press them on the matter, they would say that they want to be freed from their suffering - but, at the same time, they don't want to be entirely freed from it.
I believe we can see this in the man's answer to Jesus. We might be inclined to ask, "Why would Jesus ask the man something so obvious as, 'Do you want to be made well?'" But at the same time, I also ask, "Why didn't the man simply say, 'Yes'?" He didn't say anything even close to "Yes"! Instead, 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." It's hard not to detect just a hint of personal pride in the man's complaint over the injustice of it all; and perhaps even the expectation of the sympathy it would evoke from others. I can't really cast too much blame on him for this, though; because I believe I've done the same sort of thing at certain times. I'm afraid I'm as human as he was. One commentator has said that "the paralysis of the body was accompanied by a paralysis of the will"2.
This reminds me of something from C.S. Lewis' classic book, The Great Divorce. It's a dream-like story of a group of people who were offered a trip to heaven. In one part of the story, a man from earth stands face-to-face with an angel. On this man's shoulder is a horrible, disgusting lizard-like creature that keeps whispering things to him. In Professor Lewis' parable, the lizard is representative of "lust"; and it keeps chattering into the man's ear, while the man snarls at it and tells it to be quiet.
The angel asks the man, "Would you like me to make him quiet?"; and the man says, "Of course I would." "Then I will kill him," the angel says. But as the angel moves his hands toward the lizard's neck, the man backs off in horror. He didn't want anything as drastic as that! The angel tried to explain that it was the only way to deal with it; and so, he kept asking the man, "May I kill it?" The man offered all kinds of alternatives. "Let's do it later." "Don't bother! Look! It's gone to sleep." "I don't think killing it is necessary; I think a gradual process would be better." "I'd let you kill it; but I'm not really feeling very well today." "I'd really like to get a second opinion." Clearly, there was a sense in which the man loved having this lizard that he hated. But still the angel kept patiently asking for permission: "May I kill it?"
Finally, the man bursts out, "How can I tell you to kill it? You'd kill me if you did." The angel convinced the man that killing the lizard wouldn't kill the man; and so, with great fear and trembling, the man finally gave the angel permission.
The angel strangled the lizard and threw it off the man and onto the ground. And then, a wonderful thing happened. Freed from the thing that held him in misery, the man was transformed into a being almost as glorious as the angel himself. And what's more, the lizard itself didn't die; but was instead transformed into a glorious, white, shining stallion for the man to ride upon. And away he and the stallion rode in thankfulness and joy.
I believe that the Lord wants to set us free from the miseries that bind us. He is even able to turn the hopelessness of our misery into something glorious and good if we will let Him. But He first challenges us to truly want to be made whole and well by Him. He challenges us to become completely willing to be made free from all the shackles - and even the subtile, secret benefits - of the misery that binds us. He first makes us probe our hearts; and asks us, "Do you want to be made well?"
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Another lesson we learn about the Lord Jesus from this story is that . . .
3. HE IS ABLE TO SET THE HOPELESS FREE FROM MISERY IMMEDIATELY IF THEY WILL OBEY HIM (vv. 8-9).
Isn't it interesting that Jesus didn't send an angel to stir up the water for the man, and then offer to throw him into the pool? Instead, Jesus simply says to him, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." Jesus was telling the man three bold things. First, He said, "Rise"; which was as if to say, "Don't lay down on the ground like an invalid any longer. Cease from being in the place that you were before I came into your life" Second, He said, "Take up your bed" - that 'token' that he always had with him of his misery; which was as if to say, "No longer make any provision for yourself to go back to where you were." And third, He said, "Walk"; which was as if to say, "I have healed you. Don't expect to be carried anymore."
And then, the Bible says, "And immediately the man was made well . . ." There was no waiting period between Jesus speaking and the man becoming well. There was no gradual, progressive improvement over time. There wasn't even any need to 'just add water'! The man was instantaneously, immediately made well. But here's the thing to notice: you wouldn't have known the man was well if he had argued with the Lord and said, "Why are You telling me to do that? Can't you see what a miserable situation I'm in? It's easy for You to tell me to do all that!!" In fact, I don't even see in this that Jesus told the man that he was healed! He simply obeyed. He rose up, picked up his bed, and walked.
When Jesus frees us from our place of misery, it's not for us to continue in that place until we're convinced. It's time for us to rise up, pick up our bed and move on! I believe that the apostle Paul illustrates this for us. He spoke of all that Jesus had saved Him from; and then added,
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind (vv. 12-16).
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And finally, this leads me to make this final observation about the Lord; that . . .
4. HE SETS THE HOPELESS FREE TO A WHOLE-LIFE TRANSFORMATION (vv. 10-15).
The man had been laying along the pool a hopeless, suffering invalid. But now, he apparently so walked around with his bed in his arms - in obedience to Jesus' command - that he got into trouble from the religious leaders because of it. What a transformation!
Now after healing the man, Jesus withdrew into the crowd and disappeared from the man's sight. Apparently, all of this happened rather quickly. But later on, Jesus sought the man out - which, again, is a great act of kindness and love on the part of our Savior. And where do we read that Jesus found the man? Why, in the temple of course! After his healing, the man demonstrated the transformation that had been brought about in his life by the fact that he went to the temple - perhaps for the first time in thirty-eight years - to worship and offer his thanks to the God who so graciously healed him.
The transformed life that Jesus called him to is further shown in His words to the man. He sought him out specifically to say to him, "See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you." And that raises an interesting question: was the man's sin the cause of his illness? Some have thought so. And of course, we'd have to say that the sin of our father Adam is the ultimate cause of all the sickness and suffering that we experience in this world. And the only thing worse that could come upon any of us after that is eternal separation from God. But I can't help but note that Jesus told the man, "Sin no more . . ."; which suggest to me that he had already taken stock of his life before God - perhaps in response to Jesus' probing question - and repented of his sins. Personally, I believe we will meet this healed man in heaven one day.
And a final thing I note about the man's transformed life is what is said in verse 15. It says, "The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well." Their interest in the Lord was, of course, different than his. They were seeking Him because - in their minds - He had given the man permission to violate the Sabbath; but I don't believe that the man was seeking to betraying Jesus into their hands. I believe their motives were evil; but his motives for pointing to Jesus were good. I believe that, whatever the circumstance, the man was becoming a witness for the Lord Jesus Christ.
So then; in hardly any time at all, this poor man went from being a nearly life-long, hopelessly miserable invalid to being a bed-carrying, temple-worshiping, sin-repenting witness for Jesus! What a transformation! Jesus doesn't just simply heal our miseries and then leave us as we were; but He sets us free unto a whole transformation of every area of life!
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I don't know why it is that Jesus doesn't heal all sick people and relieve all suffering hopeless folks from their physical misery. I know He can; but I also know that He doesn't do so. He is wise and good; and one day, we'll understand His reason.
But I do know this: misery is never hopeless! I know that anyone who suffers the miserable effects of sin on the soul, and who cries out to Him, will find Him faithful. He knows our misery, can free us from it immediately, and will set us free into a complete transformation of our whole lives before Him.
The question that He asked that man, however, is one that He would also ask of us: "Do you want to be made well?"
1G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel of John (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co,, n.d.), p. 87.
2Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 105.
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