Miracles and Unintended Consequences, John 5:1—15

Chapter 5 opens with a wonderful healing but it also opens a new phase in the life of Jesus, for this miracle unleashes the hate of the religious elite on our Lord.  Up till now the Pharisees and other religious leaders had many questions about Christ but generally their hatred was not manifested.  From this point on, however, the hounds of hate would be nipping at Jesus’ heals until His Crucifixion.

This chapter also contrasts the life-giving and life-changing power of Christ with the powerlessness of death and religious ordinances.

1.  A picture of the world, verses 1—5

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 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. 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.

The last time Jesus was in Jerusalem (2:13—22), He was met with stiff opposition and hostility from “the Jews,” John’s way of referring to the “religious types.”  With His second visit, this hostility is powered by volatile hatred, triggered by “the Sabbath controversy,” that is, Jesus’ seeming disregard for the Jewish laws concerning acceptable behavior on the Sabbath.  Lightfoot makes an interesting observation:

Throughout this gospel the greater His work for men, the greater the cost to Himself, and the greater the manifestation of His glory.

Our Lord’s earlier visit to Jerusalem was occasioned by observation of the Passover Feast.  This time Jesus was there to observe another Jewish feast which John does not mention.  In all likelihood, the feast was either the Feast of Tabernacles or another Passover.   Many scholars believe Jesus was back in Jerusalem for another Passover since this was the one feast all Israelites were required to attend.

Though John seems unconcerned with the exact date of this incident, he does give us a lot of details as to time, location, people involved, and tradition.  For centuries the location of this miracle was in doubt, but in 1888 archaeology once again proved the Bible.  The location of this pool near the Sheep Gate, was unearthed and is located near the present site of The Church of St. Anne.   During the time of Jesus, it must have been a beautiful area and it certainly had a beautiful name.  “Bethesda” means “house of mercy.”

Gathered around this pool were all manner of infirmed people, all hoping to be cured of whatever their infirmity may have been.

Did these people have faith that God would heal them?  Why did they gather there?  Had they heard about Jesus’ miracle working power?  The answer to all these questions is “no.”  What brought these poor people to the waters of Bethesda was nothing more than simple superstition.

The earliest and most reliable manuscripts add this bit of information which John almost certainly did not write:

[verse 3]—and they waited for the moving of the waters. [verse 4] 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 he had.

Bible scholars believe those sentences were added some time after John wrote his Gospel.  Tertullian (145—220 AD) was well familiar with why the infirmed gathered there.  He wrote—

An angel, by his intervention, was wont to stir the pool at Bethsaida.  They who were complaining of ill health used to watch out for him; for whoever was the first to descend into these waters, after washing ceased to complain.

Did people really get healed in this pool?  If Tertullian’s words are accurate, and if the copyist’s additions to the Gospel are accurate, then the reason these needy people gathered at this location was based solely on superstition.  God does not heal people if their faith is rooted in superstition.  No matter how sincere a person’s belief may be sincerity in and of itself is not enough.

This is a sad picture of how mankind must appear to God!  How sad and how pathetic must sin-sick human beings appear as we gather around our religions and our superstitions, putting our faith in things and people with no power?  Our idols may not be made of wood and stone, but when we put our faith and trust in anything or any person other than God, we are as bad off as the sick and lame who gathered around this pool.

One who was there that day was an invalid who had been that way for some 38 years.  That’s a long time to be confined to a bed; this man would have been so weak, he would have been unable to stand on his own, let alone walk.  His was a hopeless case.  We are not told how old this man was, but he must have been well on in years.  This poor fellow serves as a type of all human beings.  Though nameless, he is described physically as all people are spiritually:  completely unable to help themselves.

2.  Question and answer, verses 6—7

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?”  “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.”

Jesus’ question must have seemed rather naïve to the invalid.  Of course this man must have wanted to be cured!  Why else would he be there?  So, why would Jesus ask such a question?  Before we answer that question, there is another question that needs to be addressed.  John wrote that Jesus had “learned that he had been in this condition for a long time.”  From whom did Jesus learn this?  There are three possibilities:

  • Someone in the crowd may have told Jesus about the man;
  • God the Father may have revealed it to Jesus;
  • Christ’s divine nature may have imparted this information to His human nature in a way we cannot fathom.

So, given that Jesus knew all about this man, why did He ask what sounded like a silly question?  If Jesus knew this man so well, then He also knew that a life of misery and sadness can often exact a terrible toll on a person.  Such a person can become so hardened or used to such a life that they can lose even their will to believe.  Sickness and pain often become old friends to the lonely and depressed.

The poor fellow’s response shows that he had lost his determination.  He was beaten down physically and now he was feeling sorry for himself; he felt like other people were robbing him of the chance to get cured.  Imagine how silly that is:  one lame man jealous of another lame man.   What a sorry state to be in:  he was friendless, he was impotent, and he was struggling.  Even in his weakened state, this man was looking for help, but he was looking in the wrong place; his faith was in tradition, religion, and superstition.

3.  An strange miracle and a break with tradition, verses 8—13

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.  The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

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.

What makes this healing so remarkable is that it was not asked for!  The infirmed man did not ask anything of Jesus, and in fact we find out that he didn’t even know who Jesus was!  Furthermore, there is not even a hint that this man had even a trace of faith.  All Jesus did was to give three imperatives in a row:  get up, pick up, walk.  Every one of those things was impossible for this man to do.  Yet he did each one in turn.  How was he able to do them?

This man was the object Christ’s compassion and sovereignty.  And this man may have sensed a glimmer of hope and took Jesus at His word.   Perhaps what we see in this miracle is a combination of God’s sovereignty, Christ’s compassion, and the witness and the empowering of the of the Holy Spirit.  The man responded in the right way, and surely Christ had a hand in that.

The result of the miracle was immediate and two-fold.  First, the man was completely healed.  Second, a controversy ensued.  John mentions that the miracle took place on the Jewish Sabbath.  This actually marks the beginning of a long controversy that would dog Jesus for the rest of His time on earth:  His relationship to the Law and to the religious leaders.   Since this miracle took place on the Sabbath, it resulted in a conflict with the Jewish religious authorities.  Both the one who received the miracle and the One who performed the miracle were in direct violation of the teachings of the Rabbis and their interpretation of the fourth commandment.

The religious leaders confronted the former cripple and we learn something about this man:  he was not particularly grateful or appreciative to Jesus for his healing.  His answers were factual but mechanical.  He also took no responsibility for his actions; he shifted the blame onto Jesus!

John adds a minor detail:  Jesus had simply slipped away and lost Himself in the crowd after the healing. This begs the question:  why?  Some scholars say it was because the time had not yet come for Christ to be brought into full conflict between the Old and the New.  That would have hastened His crucifixion, but God’s timetable was fixed.  But there might have been another reason, demonstrated by what happened next.

3.  Faith revealed, verses 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 Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

Clearly Jesus had not forgotten this man.  Again, John gives us no idea of how long after the miracle this exchange took place.  One thing is encouraging though:  the man did not go back to the pool; he did not return to his old way of life.  In fact, he went to the best place he could go:  the house of God.

Two things jump off the page.  First, this man was in the Temple.  There was only one reason he would have gone there, and that was to seek God.  Second, Jesus was seeking the man.

At the Temple, Jesus reminded the man of that which he knew:  he was completely well and healthy.  Then He told the man to “stop sinning or something worse may happen to him.”  What did Jesus mean by that?  Was Jesus suggesting that the man’s original condition was the result of some kind sin committed 38 years ago?  Many commentators think this is the case.  The man’s crippled state may have been the result of something the man did, some sin and folly that harmed his body and resulted in his condition.

This may have been the case.  More likely, though, Jesus was referring to the man’s present state of being unreconciled to God.  It is true that his body had been healed, but what of his spirit and soul?  Jesus cautioned the man that physical healing was good, but the state of his soul was more important.  It was vital that this one time paralyzed man should commit his life to God.

It seems that the man did what Jesus had advised him to do.  He went and testified about what Jesus had done for him.  Only one who is deeply committed and devoted to God would do that.  To risk ridicule and persecution at the hands of jealous religious leaders is something only a consecrated follower of Christ would do.

This remarkable healing, then, served its purpose.  The man gave glory to God for the healing, other people were made aware of Christ’s power, and the crisis that would lead to the final confrontation between Christ and the religious leaders was now under way.

(c)  2010 Witzend

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