Expect the Best From God
Dr. Jim Denison
Thesis: Jesus always gives us what we ask, or something better
Dr. David Fite is a former missionary to Cuba and was a colleague of mine when I served on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth. Dr. Fite and his father-in-law were both imprisoned in Cuba for preaching the gospel. They were often put in solitary confinement or made to stand at attention all day. Dr. Fite’s father-in-law, advanced in years, often fell when standing in the hot Cuban sun. The guards would then hit him.
One day was especially hot. Dr. Fite and his father-in-law stood at attention all through the day; the elderly man never flinched, but stood with amazing strength. That night, David asked him how he had done so. His answer: “David, I’m surprised at you. You forgot that my birthday is today! Southern Baptists all over the world were praying for our missionaries. God’s grace was my strength!”
The New Testament specifically describes thirty-five such miracles of the Lord Jesus. They fall into four categories. Nine times Jesus changed the natural world, such as turning the water into wine (John 2:1-11), calming the storm (Matthew 8:23-27) and feeding the multitude (Mathew 14:13-21). Six of his recorded miracles were exorcisms (cf. Mark 1:21-28; Matthew 12:22; Luke 8:26-39). Three times he raised the dead (Matthew 9:18-26; Luke 7:11-15; John 11:1-44). But the majority of his recorded miracles were devoted to the suffering. Seventeen times he healed. Our Lord was indeed the Great Physician.
We will study another such miracle in this study. But this one comes with a twist: here Jesus initiates the action. The man doesn’t ask him for help; Jesus offers it. Just as he offers it to you today. Let’s learn how to hear his invitation to hope.
Listen to his voice
Our story begins: “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews” (John 5:1). “Some time later” translates a vague phrase by which John supplemented the accounts given in the Synoptic Gospels (Robertson 78).
Here is what John assumes we have already read from the other Gospels: between last week’s miracle and today’s text, Jesus preached in Nazareth and was rejected by the people (Luke 4:16-30); he made Capernaum his residence and called Andrew and Peter, James and John to permanent discipleship (Matthew 4:18-22); he healed a demoniac in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28) and Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17); he preached throughout Galilee, healing many including a leper (Mark 1:35-45); he healed a paralytic in Capernaum (Mark 2:1-12); he called Matthew, and attended a feast in his house (Mark 2:13-17); and he gave instructions with regard to fasting (Mark 2:16-20) (Hovey 128).
Now John supplements the Synoptics with his own material, giving us a miracle story found nowhere else in Scripture. (Herschel Hobbs, who wrote his dissertation on the subject, believed that John added such unique stories as part of his intentional strategy to give the Church the full story of Jesus’ life and work; Invitation 42).
So Jesus has been busy. Now he “went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.” He had to go “up,” because Jerusalem sits atop a plateau whose sides must be scaled by pilgrims coming to the Holy City. He came for a “feast of the Jews,” but which one? The options are Purim in March, Passover in April, Pentecost in May, Tabernacles in October, and Dedication in December. This episode likely occurred during the springtime, as the lame were lying outside in the weather and Jesus referred to the time of harvest earlier (John 4:35). Thus Purim and Passover are the best guesses (Bruce 735); Lenski settles on Passover (358-60), and Hobbs agrees (Study Guide 27).
If this feast was Passover, Jesus attended it out of religious obligation. Every Jew within 15 miles of Jerusalem was legally required to attend Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles (Barclay 177). Our Lord knew the controversy which awaited him, but he came anyway. The healing of a paralyzed man was worth all the trouble it cost him.
Verse 2 continues the narrative: “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.” John used the present tense, “there is in Jerusalem,” even though he wrote these words long after the Roman destruction of the city in AD 70 (Robertson 78). He wanted us to experience the reality of this miracle as if it occurred in our time, for it still can.
The Sheep Gate was one of the entrances through the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It had been rebuilt by Eliashib the High Priest and his fellow priests during the time of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 3:1), more 400 years earlier. It was likely the entrance through which sheep and lambs were brought from the neighboring fields to the Temple for sacrifice. Through this gate the Lamb of God came to heal a crippled man, as one day he would die for the spiritual healing of our crippled world.
Here lay a “pool” (this word is found only here in the New Testament; Robertson 78). It was surrounded by “five covered colonnades.” These colonnades were covered porches called stoa where people gathered (the “Stoics” are named for the fact that they began by meeting on porches like these). The pool in question was trapezoidal in form, 165-220 feet wide by 315 feet long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades on four sides of this partition, and one on it. Stairways in the corners permitted descent into the pools (Brown 207).
The Crusaders built a church over this pool, with a crypt framed like the five porches and an opening in the floor which descended to the water (Bruce 736). This structure is known as the Church of St. Anne; its remains stand today on the northwest corner of Jerusalem near the gate by the sheep market (Tenney 62). I’ve seen it, as do all tourists in the city. The pool was called Bethesda in Aramaic, a term meaning “House of Mercy” (Robertson 78). Jesus fulfilled its name this day.