Topical Scripture: John 5:1–9
The coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, continues to dominate the news. The death toll stands at fifty-six this morning, with confirmed cases now in Washington State, California, and Chicago. Sixty-three Americans are being monitored for the illness. Chinese officials have enacted travel restrictions affecting nearly sixty million people, roughly the population of California and Texas, combined.
You may not be worried about the Wuhan virus, but there is something in your life that you wish God would change, or heal, or remove. I have prayed for years for God to heal my back, for instance, but so far, he has not done so.
How do we trust God when his timing is not ours?
As we continue watching Jesus change lives through his unique power and love, today we’ll meet someone who was sick for thirty-eight years before he was healed by our Lord. We’ll learn from him to trust the timing of God even when his timing makes no sense to us.
It’s been well said: God is seldom on time, but he is never late.
Seek his help
Our story begins: “After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 5:1). What follows is a miracle story found nowhere else in Scripture.
Jesus 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.
Verse 2 continues the narrative: “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed 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. 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 than four hundred 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). It was surrounded by “five roofed 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.
The Crusaders built a church near this pool, with a crypt framed like the five porches and an opening in the floor which descended to the water. This structure is known as the Church of St. Anne; it stands today on the northwest corner of Jerusalem near the gate by the sheep market. I’ve visited it many times over the years. The pool was called Bethesda in Aramaic, a term meaning “House of Mercy.” Jesus fulfilled its name this day.
Beside this pool “lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed” (v. 3). Why were they there?
Verse 7 supplies the answer: “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” There is a subterranean spring beneath the pool which bubbles up occasionally, stirring its waters. The popular belief was that the first person who entered the water after it was stirred would be healed.
We meet the suffering man Jesus came to heal in verse 5: “One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” 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 knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’” (v. 6). 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 be healed?” What crippled person wouldn’t want to be healed?
However, this man had been in this condition for “a long time.” He 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.
Scripture says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). To feel the touch of Jesus, seek his help.
Trust his heart
The invalid replied to Jesus’ question, “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” (v. 7). He wanted to be well but could not accomplish this on his own.
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 come to worship to hear a “good sermon” and music, or to meet the Lord of the universe? Am I speaking 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, take up your bed, and walk” (v. 8). He called the man to do something he had not done for thirty-eight 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 thirty-eight 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. 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 healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (v. 9).
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 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.
Many years ago, 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? Seek his help, then trust his heart.
Wait for his best
Let’s consider one last fact. This man had been an invalid for thirty-eight years, likely lying beside this pool for all this time. Jesus had been coming to Jerusalem since he was twelve and was now in his early thirties. Thus, there had been two decades when the Son of God probably passed by this man in his infirmity.
Why did Jesus wait so long to heal this man? Why now?
Here we learn that God’s timing is seldom our own. He tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). We see the parade through a hole in the fence; he sees it from the grandstand. He has a plan we cannot fathom which is relevant to the entire universe for all of eternity. And he works this plan in ways that are best, though we seldom understand that fact at the time.
When Joseph was languishing in Potiphar’s prison, he could not know that God was orchestrating events that would bring him into Pharaoh’s palace. When Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, he could not know that God would send an earthquake that would lead to the jailer’s conversion. When John was exiled on Patmos, he could not know that the risen Christ would meet him there and give him the Revelation.
Where does it seem to you that Jesus is passing you by? That he knows your need but has not met it? That his timing is not yours?
The simple fact of Scripture and providence is that God does what we ask or whatever is best. And when his timing is not ours, there are reasons we cannot understand but can trust.
What infirmity has found you? Would you seek Jesus’ help, trust his heart, and wait on his timing?
Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of his generation, but he was no stranger to pain. He battled a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease as well as rheumatism and neuritis. And he suffered from depression for many years.
Here was his response: “All our infirmities, whatever they are, are just opportunities for God to display his gracious work in us.”
It’s been stated, “The sun never quits shining. Sometimes, clouds just get in the way.”
What clouds would you trust to the Son today?