The passage today from God’s word, John 5:1–18, is amazing in what it shows us about Jesus and how we should think about the fact that, in spite of Jesus’s power to heal, our world continues to be shot through with sin, disease, calamity, and death. It is a very rich text, and I pray that God will open my mouth, and your mind and heart, and lead us into Christ-exalting truth.
First let’s cover the setting. John 5:1–5:
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, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.
A Pool of Invalids
Let’s begin with three observations.
First, Jesus is in Jerusalem again, and he makes a point to go to a pool where people with diseases and disabilities wait for the troubling of the waters, because healings happen in this pool. Jesus walks in among this crowd of people.
Second, we notice that there is no verse 4 in the ESV (or the NIV, or the NASB). But it’s there in the old Authorized King James version. Why is it missing? The answer is that it’s not there in the oldest and best manuscripts. There are thousands of Greek manuscripts or fragments of Greek manuscripts and the way we arrive at our amazingly reliable Greek and Hebrew and English versions is that these texts are compared with each other in painstaking and complex ways so that when some manuscripts have different wording, we can tell almost all the time which is original. And in the few places where we can’t, there is no significant historical or doctrinal issue at stake.
Here it seems that somewhere along the way, a copyist drew a marginal note of explanation into the actual text. Verse 7 begs for an explanation. It says, “The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’” It seems like only a few were healed (or maybe only one), when the water was “stirred up,” and if you were too slow, you missed out.
So verse 4 in the King James explains (you can see it in your footnote): it says that the invalids were “waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.” That helps make sense out of verse 7 where the man says he can’t get to the pool in time.
Of course, this explanation may be exactly right. But since it’s missing from the earliest manuscripts and has other marks of being added later, the more recent versions omit it so that we have a version that is as close to the original as possible. How the pool worked is not essential to the story. The fact that Jesus worked is essential to the story.
The third observation in these first verses is that there was a multitude of people in these five colonnades. Verse 3: “In these lay a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed.” That is going to be important when we get to verse 13 that says, “Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.” Jesus did not even stay around for the man to find out who it was who healed him. Why not? We will come to that in a few moments. It had something to do with the crowd.
Now, in verses 6–9, the focus is on the revelation of Jesus. What kind of person is he?
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
It seems to me that John is showing us something about Jesus’s knowledge, his compassion, and his power.
First, let’s look at his knowledge. Verse 6: “When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time.” Jesus knew this man’s situation without having to be told. Thirty-eight years he had been paralyzed and unable to walk, and perhaps all of that time he had been brought here to the pool to wait — ever hoping for some kind of miracle. Jesus knew his situation.
When you know Jesus, this is the kind of person you know. A person who knows you perfectly — knows everything about you, inside and out, and all you have ever felt or thought or done. “You discern my thoughts from afar. . . . Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (Psalms 139:2–4). The more you know about Jesus, the more precious this truth becomes.
Second, we look at the compassion of Jesus — this is one of the other things we know that makes his knowledge of us more precious. Jesus chooses to go to this pool. He did not have to. It didn’t sneak up on him. He didn’t stumble by. He knew what he was doing. He was going to this pool the same way he went to Samaria to find the woman at the well, and the same way he went to sign-seeking, prophet-dishonoring Galilee to find a kingly official who had a sick son. Jesus moves toward need, not comfort — toward brokenhearted sinners, not the self-righteous.
“Jesus moves toward need, not comfort — toward brokenhearted sinners, not the self-righteous.”
Notice that when he asks the sick man in verse 6, “Do you want to be healed?” what the man said was not, “Yes.” Instead, he explains his tragic situation. Verse 7: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus asks no more questions. In response to that description of his sorrows, Jesus acts. Verse 8: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”
So it looks like this healing is not a response to anything religious or faithful about the man. It looks like Jesus healed him simply because his situation was so miserable for so long. In other words, it looks like it came from Jesus’s compassion, not the man’s faith or righteousness.
I counted at least nine times in the gospels where it says Jesus was moved with compassion or pity. So not only does Jesus know you perfectly, but he is easily moved by the misery you feel. His therapies are not always what we want. But that’s not owing to his heartlessness. He is not heartless. He is compassionate to us in our misery. He is a sympathetic High Priest for those who will trust him.
So his knowledge of us is complete, and his compassion toward us is great. And now his power is immediate and sovereign. Verse 8–9: “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” The words “at once” signify the immediacy of Jesus’s power. When he speaks, diseased muscles and bones obey. And they obey “at once.” This is John exulting again in the sovereign power of Jesus the same way he did in John 4:52–53 where the official’s son was healed at exactly the seventh hour fifteen miles away when Jesus said the words.
So far then, John’s aim is that we see the complete knowledge, the heartfelt compassion, and the sovereign power of Jesus. This is how you get to know Jesus. This is how you build a relationship with Jesus. You meet him here in his word. And you speak to him. You tell him what you think and feel about his knowledge and compassion and power. You ask him to shape your thinking and your feeling around this sight of his glory. Then you walk out of this room, or out of your morning encounter with him, into the day and live in the fellowship of this Jesus. Not an imaginary one. Not a self-made one. But the real, living Jesus revealed with absolute authority in the words of his apostle.
Now at this point in verse 9, John says something that feels abrupt. He says, “Now that day was the Sabbath.” We are all thinking about how magnificent Jesus is, and how happy the healed man must be. And then John says: “It happened on the Sabbath.” And we pause and say, “Uh-oh. Now what?” The question this raises is, Is that what this story is really going to be about? Is this going to turn into a conflict over what you are allowed to do on the Sabbath? Is John going to shift from the glory of Jesus to the ground rules of the Sabbath?
The answer is no. The Sabbath issue is raised, but it’s raised in a way that amazingly keeps the focus on the glory of Jesus. Watch what John does.
“In the fires of conflict, Jesus’s glory is made to shine.”
Jesus knows what he has done. He healed a man on the Sabbath and told him to carry his bed as a sign and celebration that he is whole. He knows this will create conflict. Conflict in the ministry of Jesus is the furnace where the steel of his identity is forged. In the fires of conflict, his glory is made to shine. So here it comes. We will see part of it today and part of it next time we take up this text.
So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.
Now notice what is most remarkable here. Jesus healed and disappeared before the man could find out who he was. He didn’t even know who healed him. Does this mean Jesus had no intention of dealing with this man’s soul? Was he content just to do a random miracle and leave the man in ignorance as to where it came from? No.
And we know this because in verse 14 it was Jesus who found the man, not the man who found Jesus: “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” Jesus had no intention of walking away from this man and leaving him with nothing more than a healed body.
Healed for Holiness
Notice two things. At the end of verse 13, the reason Jesus walked away from the man was that there was a crowd there: “Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.” The place was filled with sick people and, no doubt, those who cared for them. Had he stayed there after healing one man, there would have been a tumult of miracle-seeking. This is not the main thing Jesus is after.
So notice secondly how this is confirmed in verse 14. Jesus seeks out the man in the temple and tells him the real issue in his healing. “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.’” What’s the issue? The issue is holiness mainly, not health. “I have healed you to make you holy.”
Do you see this? “Sin no more. Stop sinning. My aim in healing your body is the healing of your soul. I have given you a gift. It’s free. It came first, before my command. You didn’t earn it. You weren’t good enough for it. I chose you freely. And I healed you. Now, live in this power. Let the gift of healing, the gift of my free grace, be a means to your holiness.”
And yes, he warns him that, if he turns away, and mocks this gift, or makes an idol out of his health, and embraces sin as his way of life, he will perish. I take that — final judgment — to be the “worse thing” (in verse 14) that will happen because there aren’t many natural things worse than the thirty-eight years this man endured, and because in verses 28–29, Jesus says, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
In other words: “I have healed you that you may be holy, that you may stop doing evil, and that you may not rise to the resurrection of judgment, but to the resurrection of life. I have pointed you to myself as a life-giver. I heal in more ways than one. Don’t turn from me to a life of sin.”
Foretastes of Resurrection Power
The implications of this are huge for the diseases and disabilities that we deal with today. Jesus walked into a huge “multitude of invalids” according to verse 3. And he heals one man — just one. And disappears before even that man can know who he was. He leaves hundreds of invalids behind unhealed. Then he finds the man in a less conspicuous place and puts all the focus on holiness. “Sin no more.”
The point is this: In the first coming of the Son of God into the world, we receive foretastes of his healing power. The full healing of all his people and all their diseases and disabilities awaits the second coming of Christ. And the aim of these foretastes, which we receive now, is to call us to faith and holiness.
Most people who suffer from disabilities in this life will have them to the day they die. And all of us, until Jesus comes again, will die of something. Here and there, some are healed. We believe in miracles. But even though Jesus had all the power to heal, he did not usher in the final day of perfect wholeness. His ministry points to that day. But while this age of groaning lasts (Romans 8:23), healing is the exception, not the rule. And that is not because we are weak in faith. To be sure, we might see more miracles if we expected more and believed more.
“While this age of groaning lasts, healing is the exception, not the rule.”
But Jesus left hundreds unhealed at the pool of Bethesda. And he told the one man he did heal, who had not even believed on him, to wake up. I am pursuing your holiness. The main issue in this age till Jesus comes back is that we meet him — meet him — in our brokenness, and receive the power of his forgiveness to pursue holiness. In this calling to faith and holiness, the disabled often run faster and farther than many of us who have our legs and arms.
And in the mentally disabled, we simply don’t know how far they are running. Perhaps farther than we think. Jesus knows. Jesus knows everything. And he is compassionate. And he is sovereign.
We will come back to this text, God willing. To whet your appetite, what we are going to see is that God works on the Sabbath. He takes no days off. And the reason is so that we might be whole and have rest. And when Jesus says that he works on the Sabbath because his Father works on the Sabbath, he sealed his doom. Now he is both a Sabbath-breaker and blasphemer — making himself equal with God. So as it turns out, Jesus does this on a Sabbath, not to discuss what’s right to do on the Sabbath, but what it means to be the Creator and Ruler of the universe. That’s where we are going the next time we look at this text, Lord willing.
But for now, may the Lord open your eyes to know Jesus personally, as one who knows you, and has compassion on you, and is sovereign over your body and your soul, and the one who has come with saving and healing power first for the sake of your holiness, and then finally for the sake of your everlasting health.