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.
Beside this pool “a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (John 5:3). This was likely not a winter scene, given their exposure to the weather (Brown 207). They were “paralyzed,” withered, atrophied (Rienecker 279). Why were they there?
Verse 7 supplies the answer: “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.” There is a subterranean spring beneath the pool which bubbles up occasionally, stirring its waters (Barclay 178). The popular belief was that the first person who entered the water after it was stirred would be healed (Robertson 80).
And so later copies of the Greek New Testament supplied this explanation, continuing verse 3: “and they waited for the moving of the waters.” Then a fourth verse: “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.” The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of the New Testament do not contain these words, so that they “must, beyond question, be omitted from the text” (Hovey 130). Greek scholar A. T. Robertson explains that these words were added to make clearer the statement of verse 7 (Robertson 79). They appeared in the manuscripts used by the translators of the King James Version, which is why these words were included in that version. But no translation of the Bible includes them in its text today.
Now we meet the suffering man Jesus came to heal: “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5). Medieval commentators tried to link this man’s 38 years of illness to the Jews’ 38 years in the wilderness, a suggestion Bruce labels “an imbecility” (736). But the length of his incapacity proves the fact that it was medically incurable. Jesus did not provide him a medical solution but a miraculous healing.
So, “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?” (John 5:6). Unlike the healing of the nobleman’s son, this miracle was initiated by Jesus himself. The crippled man could not come to Jesus physically, and did not know to ask Jesus to come to him. So Jesus met him at the point of his great need.
But first he asked what seems to us a strange question: “Do you want to get well?” What crippled person wouldn’t want to be healed? Christopher Reeve is spending his life and fortune seeking a cure for his paralysis. Millions of others in his circumstances join him in pursuit of health. However, Jesus “learned that he had been in this condition for a long time.” This man has spent his adult life and perhaps longer in this condition. He may have become accustomed to living on the donations of others. He may not want to return to the responsibility of an earned income and work to perform. Jesus will only work in our lives with our permission. He always limits himself to our free will.
Where do you need his healing, helping touch today? Jesus knows your pain. In fact, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Jesus is calling to us in our suffering, for he shares it with us. Even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us (Psalm 23:4). He promised that he would never leave or forsake us (Matthew 28:20). He hurts as we hurt, and calls to us in the pain of our lives.
But some of us feel that we are beyond his help, that our sins have exempted us from his grace. The world would have said the same of this invalid. In Jesus’ day, popular theology taught that physical illness was proof of spiritual judgment. A person with a physical birth defect, as may have been the case with this man, was under the justice and judgment of God (cf. the disciples’ question of Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2). And those who experienced suffering for other reasons were judged to be sinners as well.
No self-respecting rabbi would have stopped for this man, but Jesus did. Perhaps you think no one cares about you or your pain today. If we knew your secrets we would reject you; if the world knew your problems it would turn on you. But not Jesus. He initiated this miracle, as he will yours. He went to this man, as he will come to you. He stands ready to meet us where we need him most.
But we must listen. The Psalmist invites us to “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We must set aside our own furious activity, the crush of the calendar and the press of the day’s demands, and listen to his voice.
One of the most life-transforming essays I have ever read is Mike Yaconelli’s Lost and Found: My Soul. This well-known Christian columnist tells of a time years ago when he retreated to be alone with God, with this result:
“It only took a few hours of silence before I began to hear my soul speaking. It only took being alone for a short period of time for me to discover that I wasn’t alone. God had been trying to shout over the noisiness of my life, and I couldn’t hear Him. But in the stillness and solitude, His whispers shouted from my soul, ‘Michael, I am here. I have been calling you. I have been loving you, but you haven’t been listening. Can you hear me, Michael? I love you. I have always loved you. And I have been waiting for you to hear Me say that to you. But you have been so busy trying to prove to yourself that you are loved that you have not heard Me.”
Yaconelli then testifies: “I heard Him, and my slumbering soul was filled with the joy of the prodigal son. My soul was awakened by a loving Father who had been looking and waiting for me.” As he waits for us.
To feel the touch of Jesus, first listen to his voice.
Trust his heart
The invalid replied to Jesus’ question, “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.” He wanted to be well, but needed help, and sought it from our Lord.
Notice how little he asked of Jesus. He believed that he would be healed if he could be the first one into the pool after the spring stirred its waters. And so he wanted the Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, simply to carry him a few feet into the water. Jesus stood ready to heal his body, and the man instead asked him to help him get wet.
Are we so different? Do you want Jesus to help you with words, or to speak himself by his Spirit working through you? Is it your goal to lead others to a life-transforming encounter with God? Do you come to worship to hear a “good sermon” and music service, or to meet the Lord of the universe? Am I writing these words to give you my wisdom or God’s? To explain the text or lead you to the One who inspired it and wants to repeat its miraculous power in our lives today?
We might object that the crippled man didn’t know who Jesus really was. True, and this ignorance is his defense. But we have no such argument. When we give our need to Jesus, we must trust his heart and expect his best. For that is what he waits to give to us.
Our Lord said to the invalid, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (Jn 5:8). He called the man to do something he had not done for 38 years. He did not carry the man to the water—he healed him so he could walk there himself. He did not offer him a temporary cure or help for the symptoms of his disease—he worked a miracle which would banish this disease from his life forever. He told him to pick up his “mat,” the light pallet on which he had begged for so long.
And he told the invalid to “walk.” He has not moved the muscles of his legs for 38 years. Even if a physician were to cure the cause of his paralysis, perhaps a rupture in the spine or nerves, his muscles would be so atrophied that years of physical rehabilitation would be required by him. But not by Jesus. He did for the man far more than the man asked of him.
Now the divine-human partnership emerges again. Jesus healed the man, but the invalid had to get up with the power given him by God. Jesus restored his body, but told him to carry his own mat. Jesus cured his limbs, but required the man to use them himself. And when he did, “At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked” (Jn 5:9a). The word translated “at once” is found only three times in John, while it is common in Matthew and Mark. John used it here to give even greater emphasis and urgency to the moment (Morris 303).
When we trust our problem into Jesus’ hands, we must always expect the best from him. He will always do as we ask, or something better. We often misunderstand his ways or timing, and feel that he will not hear or help us. But he is giving us what is best for us, whether we know it at the moment or not.
I was using a razor blade to scrape paint from a window one Saturday morning when one of our small boys happened by. Attracted by the shiny “toy” in my hand, he wanted to play with it and was not happy that I wouldn’t give him what he asked. But of course no amount of begging or anger would have persuaded me to give him what he wanted.
When we stand with our Father in glory, we’ll see how many times he met our needs and answered our prayers with what we asked. And how often he gave us even more.
Where do you need his touch? Listen to his voice, and then trust his best. As the song says, when you can’t see his hand, trust his heart.
Seek spiritual health
Now the crisis appears: “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” (John 5:9b-10). Four things were central to the Jews: the temple, the law, their traditions, and the Sabbath. Other religions had the first three; only Judaism had the Sabbath. And so it was especially important for their faith and culture (Hobbs, Study Guide 28).
The Law was clear: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work” (Exodus 23.12). So, “When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over” (Nehemiah 13.19). The prophet quoted God: “This is what the Lord says: Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem. Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your forefathers” (Jeremiah 17.21-22).
Some of the Sabbath regulations were astounding. A man could borrow jars of wine or oil, provided that he did not ask that they be lent, because this would imply a transaction, and the transaction might involve writing. If a man put out a lamp so that someone sick could sleep, he is not culpable, but if he did so to spare the oil or wick, he violated the law. A man could not put vinegar on his tooth to alleviate toothache, but could put it on his food (cited in Morris 305).
The Jews identified 39 different kinds of labor which were prohibited by the Sabbath. Carrying a mat was among them. A man could be carried on a pallet, but he could not carry one himself (Howard 542; Hovey 132). When a man broke the Sabbath in this or other ways, stoning was his usual punishment (Exodus 31:14; 35:2; Numbers 15:36; Leviticus 24:16).
Jewish leaders spoke to “the man who had been healed”—the Greek tense stressed the permanence of his cure (Rienecker 229). But they had no interest in his life-transforming miracle. Their only concern was for the law he was breaking in experiencing it. No matter that he was not walking for the first time in 38 years—he must stop, or discard his pallet. He must not continue with the simple mat rolled up under his arm, under pain of execution.
Unfortunately, the man’s physical healing had not become spiritual: “But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk'” (John 2:11). He quickly shifted blame from himself to the One who had healed him. The authorities then asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” (John 5:12). “This fellow” translates a contemptuous figure of speech (Robertson 81), delivered by the Jewish officials with obvious scorn. But “the man who was healed had no idea who it was” (John 5:13a). He had not returned to the One who transformed his life even to ask his name, reminding us of the nine lepers who were similarly ungrateful (Luke 17:17).
And neither the former invalid nor the authorities could locate Jesus, for he “had slipped away into the crowd that was there” (v. 13b). He did this on three other occasions in John’s Gospel (8:59, 10:39, 12:36), each time to avoid a confrontation with the authorities until it was time for his death (Tenney 63).
But our Lord did not persist long in such avoidance: “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'” (v. 14). Jesus was not satisfied with healing this man’s body—now he returned for his soul (Bruce 738). He “found” him, a Greek word which indicates a significant search (Hobbs, Study Guide 29). The man was in the temple, just south-southwest of the pool of Bethesda (Brown 208), a dangerous place for Jesus to be at this moment.
Jesus found him anyway, even knowing that the man would betray him to the authorities. He went this far for a man who didn’t even know his name. And for all of us who do.
And he told him, “no longer go on sinning” (Robertson 82). While some connect this phrase to the man’s former physical infirmity (cf. Robertson 82), I find nothing in the text to suggest such a relationship. Jesus did not mention sin in the man’s life when he healed him earlier, and mentioned it here only because the man was in fact sinning by betraying Jesus to the authorities. If he did not repent of his ingratitude and betrayal of the Lord, “something worse may happen” to him. Before this moment he sinned in ignorance; now he has met the Lord and would be sinning intentionally. The justice of God would follow, in his life and especially at the final judgment (Carson 246).
Nonetheless, “The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well” (v. 15). He did so to clear himself and escape a possible stoning (Robertson 82). He willingly betrayed Jesus, transferring his guilt to his benefactor. He would have Jesus die in his place. As our Savior did.
We will watch Jesus deal with the authorities. But first let’s pause to consider the fact that Jesus would risk his own life to offer health to the soul of a single sinner. Jesus’ physical miracles were always performed for spiritual reasons. They taught his disciples to trust more fully in him (our first miracle), or led unbelievers to join him in faith. Jesus’ ultimate interest was not the body which perishes but the soul which lives forever.
So it is with his work in our lives. Jesus wants to meet our physical needs, but ultimately for the sake of our spiritual health. You can give him your temporal problems, but also your spiritual burdens. He is as ready to forgive your sins and wash away your guilt as he is to remove your pain and ease your suffering. Both are miracles only Jesus can perform.
There is no sin he cannot forgive, no sinner he cannot transform. No person is beyond the reach of his grace. He is still looking for souls to heal, seeking those who will confess their sins and give to him their shame. How long has it been since you gave him yours?
Join God at work
The invalid’s transference worked: “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him” (v. 16). The religious authorities were aligned against Jesus from the first: after he cleansed the temple of their moneychangers “the Jews demanded of him, ‘What miraculous signs can you show us to prove your authority to do these things?'” (John 2:18). They were suspicious of his popularity: “The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:1). Now they have cause for an “open breach” (Robertson 82).
This was not an isolated act in Jesus’ ministry, but part of an ongoing pattern. “Doing these things” is the imperfect active, showing a repetitive pattern (Robertson 82). Later Jesus would heal a blind man’s eyes on the Sabbath (John 9:14), with resulting criticism from the Pharisees: “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath” (v. 16). Such conflict later spread to Galilee, where Jesus allowed his disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath, then healed a man’s withered hand on another Sabbath” (Luke 6:1-11). With this result: the authorities “were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (v. 11).
Why would the Son of God have refused to obey the Sabbath instituted by his Father? The answer is that he did. He kept always the Sabbath as it was intended. But he refused to recognize the man-made laws and traditions which purported to protect the Sabbath but actually enslaved those who would observe it. On this point Jesus was blunt: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
Here Jesus gave a similar answer: “he said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working'” (John 5:17). “Said” in this tense indicates a legal defense, a formal reply to their legal charge. He called God “My Father,” claiming a personal relationship which put him on a par with God. His work on the Sabbath would thus be justified, since God works on the Sabbath (Robertson 83).
A significant theology could be built from the material found in this single verse. God is personal, a “Father.” He can be known personally, “my Father.” He “works,” not the deists’ passive creator but an active participant in his creation. He works today, so that these miracles we are studying in Scripture are still possible in our lives. Jesus is God in the flesh, God “working” on earth in and through our lives. When we join his work, we join hands with the Lord of the universe.
The authorities understood exactly what the Nazarene carpenter was claiming: “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” (John 5:18). And not for the last time. For the next two years the authorities would seek ways to have Jesus killed (cf. John 7:1, 19; 8:37, 40; 10:33; 19:7; Robertson 83).
They had opportunity to join their work with that of the Lord on earth, but they refused. Convinced that they understood the ways of God better than Jesus, and that their institutions and authority were essential to his plans, they could not see the Lord in their midst until it was too late. Because human nature does not change, we must beware the same self-sufficiency in our own souls.
Henry Blackaby is right: The key to Christian joy and significance lies in finding where God is at work and joining him there. What is God blessing in your service? In our church? Where do you see his Spirit at work? Will you rejoice in his blessings and join your hands to his? Will you focus your attention on his clear call on your life, and set everything else to the side? Good is always the enemy of great. If Satan cannot defeat us, he will seek to distract us. The Jewish authorities were distracted by their religious traditions and rituals. What is Satan using today to keep you from focusing on your best service to our Lord?
Oswald Chambers’ life motto is worthy of adoption by us all: “My utmost for his highest.” Join your utmost commitment and service to God’s highest work in your life and church. Join God at work. Other paralytics are waiting for his touch, through you.
When we pray, God gives us what we ask or something better. Where do you need his touch? Where is a paralytic lying on a mat in your life? Get alone and still with the Father, so that you can hear him call to you by grace. Trust his heart, believing that he will give you what you are praying for unless he can give you even greater blessing. Seek spiritual health, not just temporal happiness. And join God at work, adding your hands to his, touching the spiritual, emotional, and physical paralytics who lie at your side. Believe that he can use you for great Kingdom work, and he will.
Charles Spurgeon was arguably the greatest preacher Baptists have ever known, and one of our most evangelistic. A young pastor once asked Spurgeon why more people didn’t respond to his preaching. Spurgeon replied, “You don’t expect people to come to Christ every time you preach, do you?” The young preacher assured him that he didn’t. Spurgeon said, “That’s why they don’t.”