Text: John 5:1-18
John’s Gospel has been likened to ‘a pool in which a child may paddle and an elephant can swim.’ It can be appreciated at different levels, from the relatively simple to utterly profound. This is certainly the case with this passage. At one level, we have a fairly straightforward account of the healing of a man who had been disabled for 38 years. At another level, we have an issue about Jesus performing this miracle on the Sabbath, thus antagonising the Jewish authorities. At a deeper level still, we have Jesus’ explanation of his actions, an explanation that takes us to the heart of his relationship with his heavenly Father.
I would like, accordingly, to pose three questions relating to this healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda:
Why this one man?
Why this particular day?
Why this particular explanation?
1. Why this one man?
I don’t have much to offer about why Jesus chose to heal this particular man, except to say that the man was particularly hopeless case and the Saviour specialises in hopeless cases. But I would like to explore the question of why Jesus healed this one man on this occasion.
After all, v3 informs us that ‘a great number of disabled people’ used to lie by the pool of Bethesda. Now picture Jesus picking his way through that crowd, walking round, perhaps even stepping over, all the other needy people in order to get to this one man.
And I can’t help wondering, why this one man? Let me try to answer this question by posing another one: why did Jesus do healing miracles at all? The Gospels give us several reasons. Sometimes, he healed because people asked him to and they believed that he could.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”
“Go, your faith has healed you.” (Mk 10:47)
But this man didn’t ask Jesus to heal him. He didn’t even know who Jesus was, so can’t have believed that Jesus could heal him.
At other times, it is made clear that Jesus healed people because of his great compassion.
‘A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”‘
‘Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”‘ (Mk 1:40f)
But if compassion was the main reason for Jesus’ healing, why on this occasion did he heal only this one man, and not any of the others?
I think we’re getting close to an answer when we recall what word John uses for Jesus’ miracles: he calls them ‘signs’. They point away from themselves towards realities about God, and about the kingdom of God. It is clear from 4:48 that Jesus didn’t want to be seen primarily as a miracle-worker – “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders, you will never believe,” he complains. And we see from 5:14 that Jesus considered that there was something more important than even recovery from 38 years of disability: “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” And Jesus presses home the point by healing just one person that day by the pool of Bethesda. And this brings me to my second question…
2. Why this particular day?
V8ff – Jesus said, “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.” Then again, v16, ‘because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him.’
Now it is clear that the Fourth Commandment forbids work on the Sabbath, but at the level of a general principle. The principle was: ‘on this one day of the week, put rest before work, and put the things of God before your own things.’
But the Jewish rabbis were not content with general principles. They turned the commandment into a list of 39 things that you were not allowed to do on the Sabbath. You’re not allowed to sow, reap, thresh, winnow, grind, knead, bake, spin, weave two threads, separate two threads, write two letters, erase in order to write two letters, put out a fire, light a fire, and carry things. The letter of the law had come to dominate its spirit. Outward conformity replaced heart commitment. And such legalism has a paralysing effect on the human spirit. It is remarkable that when in v10 the Jewish leaders confront the man, they show no interest in his recovery from 38 years of disability; nor are they in the least open to the significance of his healing as a pointer to who Jesus is.
And I strongly suspect that that Jesus healed this one man on this particular day, in order to provoke controversy not about the Sabbath, but also about himself. Which brings me to my third and last question:
3. Why this particular explanation?
Jesus might well have debated about the Sabbath laws with the Jewish leaders. He certainly did so on other occasions. He used a variety of arguments to explain and defend his attitude to the Sabbath. In Mt 12 he uses the example of David eating the consecrated bread on the Sabbath, and the example of the priests who have to do their work of offering sacrifices on the Sabbath. In Luke 14 he points out that the Jewish leaders themselves wouldn’t hesitate to help an ox out of a pit on the Sabbath. And they had no answer to that. But today he takes still higher ground in order to defend and explain his actions.
17f “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” In other words, “I work on the Sabbath because that’s what my Father does.”
And their reaction? ‘For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.’ The Jewish leaders recognise immediately that Jesus was claiming a special relationship with the heavenly Father. It’s not, of course, about biological fatherhood – the kind of thing that could be settled by a paternity suit. Nor is it only about father/son intimacy and resemblance. It’s about occupation. Let me ask you a question: how many of you are in the same occupation as your father or mother? Well, in most ancient societies, including Jewish society, it would have been the norm. The overwhelming majority of sons ended up doing what their fathers did. Even from the human point of view, Jesus followed in his father’s footsteps: he was a carpenter, and the son of a carpenter. But now, referring to his heavenly Father, he says, “My Father is always at his work, and as his Son I do just the same.”
Does the Father work on the Sabbath? Well, God’s work of creation was completed long ago. But his work of providence continues 24/7. The great machine of the universe does not stand still on the Sabbath: the sun rises and sets, the grass grows, the river keeps on rolling, the heart beats, on the Sabbath, as well as on the other days of the week. The Jews would have readily agreed that God was exempted from the law which prohibited work on the Sabbath, and Jesus claims that this exemption also applies to him, because he is God’s Son.
What do we make of this claim of Jesus to be the Son of God?
That high priest of atheism, Richard Dawkins, has written as follows in his latest book. ‘A common argument…states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar: “Mad, Bad, or God”. Or, with artless alliteration, “Lunatic, Liar or Lord”.’ Dawkins ventures the opinion that ‘the historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal.’ Now the learned professor may know something about evolutionary biology, but he knows next to nothing about the Bible. For here, in one of Christianity’s primary sources, is a spectacular claim to divine status, which Jesus’ enemies immediately recognise as such, and which he makes no effort to retract. Of course, that wouldn’t impress Dawkins. He goes on to say that even if one does accept that Jesus claimed divine status, ‘the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken.’
OK, let’s accept that there are four choices on offer. Was Jesus insane? Or was he uttering what he knew was a lie? Or was he innocently mistaken? Or was he right?
The stakes are high, and Jesus will, as this chapter progresses, raise the stakes even higher. He will assert that the Father will achieve his entire goal for humanity in the person and work of his Son. The Son will give life to the dead, and the Son will judge all people. The Son participates with the Father in a second great work of creation, the work of redemption, from which there will be no resting until it is completed. The Son will put an end to human rebellion and to the reign of death, and will then usher in an eternal Sabbath rest.
How vital it is, then, to decide: was Jesus insane; was he lying; was he honestly mistaken; or was he speaking the truth.
On that Sabbath day, there by the pool of Bethesda, Jesus said to just one man who was lying there, “Get up.” And he got up. But the day is coming when Jesus will speak those same words to every soul who has ever lived: “Get up.” And we will all rise. Those who have listened to the word of the Son of God and have believed the Father who sent him will rise to live. Indeed, those who have heard and believed have already crossed over from death to life. But those who have refused to listen and believe will rise to be condemned.
May God grant to each one of us to believe that truth, and to enter into that life, for the sake of Jesus, his own dear Son.