Topical Scripture: John 5:1-9
Dr. David Fite went to be with the Lord last August. He was a former missionary to Cuba and a colleague of mine when I served on the faculty of Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth.
Dr. Fite and his father-in-law were both imprisoned in Cuba for preaching the gospel there. They spent forty-two months in prison, where 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!”
All that God has ever done, he can still do. As we continue our series on Jesus’ healing miracles, we come today to one of the most surprising stories in Scripture. And we will hear Jesus ask us the strange but penetrating question, “Do you want to be healed?”
Listen to his voice
Our story begins: “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews” (John 5:1). 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.
If this feast was Passover, Jesus attended it out of religious obligation. Every Jew within fifteen miles of Jerusalem was legally required to attend Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. 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. 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 centuries 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 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.
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. 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. I’ve seen it, as do most tourists to Jerusalem. The pool was called Bethesda in Aramaic, a term meaning “House of Mercy.” 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. They were “paralyzed,” withered, atrophied. 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. The popular belief was that the first person who entered the water after it was stirred would be healed.
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 biblical scholars are certain they should be omitted from the text. 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 modern translation of the Bible includes them in its text.
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). 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?” (v. 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?
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 late, well-known Christian columnist related 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” (v. 7). He wanted to be well but could not be on his own. He 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 we ask for all God can do, or merely what we need for the present moment? Do we limit God’s power in our lives by our lack of faith in his power?
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” (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 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” (v. 9a).
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.
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? Listen to his voice, and then trust his best. As the song says, when you can’t see his hand, trust his heart.
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.
I have seen God do things in Cuba that we seldom see him do in America. Why is this?
I was discussing this question with a longtime missionary friend. She pointed out the obvious but often overlooked answer: the Cubans know they need Jesus. They know they need his power, his presence, his encouragement and joy. So they pray with passion and expectation, and God answers.
Mother Teresa was right: “You’ll never know Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.”