READ : John 5:5-8
A HOPELESS CASE
Most people would have regarded this man as a hopeless case. Listen to his story. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 5, beginning at verse 2:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes [or porches]. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” [Do you want to get well?] The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.
Imagine it, friends, an invalid, a man crippled for 38 years! Apparently this affliction had come upon him some time during his adult life, so he must have been at least 60 years old. Some two-thirds of his life had been spent like this, lying with other paralyzed ones, the blind, the lame, near this pool in Jerusalem. It was apparently believed that the pool had curative powers. When the surface was agitated by a new influx of water, it was believed that the first person to get into the pool would experience healing. This man had been there through the decades, so near to what seemed like deliverance, yet never helped, never healed.
Wouldn’t you call him, at least in terms of physical restoration, a hopeless case? Long years of unfulfilled yearnings can wither hope. When was it, do you suppose, that the expectation of getting better began to slip away from him? How long had he resigned himself to his situation? He seemed certain to lie there in his present helplessness until he died. And that prospect might not have been far off.
NOTICED BY JESUS
Jesus, in Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals, happened to notice this man. As far as we know, the invalid had made no appeal for help. He was simply there when the Lord walked by. And he got Jesus’ attention.
Something about that is heartwarming for me. When I think of aged people confined to their beds, invalids in nursing homes, the mentally ill who are homeless, destitute and sometimes physically afflicted, of people dying on the streets in Calcutta or a score of other mega-cities, it’s good to remember that they are all noticed by the Lord. Others may be heedless of their plight, but the Lord sees them lying there. He knows about their infirmity, how long they’ve been like that, even what they’re feeling.
When I was a pastor in Chicago years ago, I used to take my wife and our four young sons to visit an invalid named Elizabeth. This dear lady was so crippled with arthritis that she could not turn upon her bed or even lift a hand to brush a fly from her face. Elizabeth’s favorite hymn was “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Our boys would often sing it for her. She couldn’t speak her appreciation or even smile. The only way we knew the singing had touched her heart was by the tear that formed in the corner of her eye and ran down her wrinkled face. It’s good to know that Jesus, the risen Lord, knows about the Elizabeths of this world and truly is their friend.
For the man at the pool, Jesus has a question. It’s not an inquiry about what his physical difficulty is or how long he’s been that way. The Lord apparently knows all that. The question is a strange one, really. “Do you want to get well?” On the surface, that doesn’t sound very sensitive or profound, does it? To a jaundiced view, it would seem even a mocking question. What do You mean, Jesus? This man has been ill for so long, has suffered so sorely. Of course he wants to be well! Who in his case wouldn’t?
Jesus could have healed the man by a touch or a word or even the bare putting forth of will. But He didn’t choose to do that, at least in that way. His question began a conversation. It opened the way for a relationship. Jesus never wanted to heal people physically without giving them something more as well. He wanted to impart not only His healing power but something of Himself.
The question probes a significant issue. People in sickness, infirmity, and affliction don’t always want to get well. Suppose that a man’s handicap has reduced him to begging but in the process has provided him with a very good living. He’s become used to that. Does he really want to lay aside his crutches, to be on his feet again, to receive no longer the largesse of others? Not always. Sometimes it’s easier to stay as he is.
Does the lady whose health has always been frail want a new infusion of strength? Would she like to be able to do for herself again? Not always. There’s something about being dependent that begins to feel comfortable. As it is, she gets a good deal of attention and sympathy. Loved ones hover around her, attentive to her slightest want. She would feel some loss if that changed. The prospect of recovering, when she’s honest with herself, is a bit frightening. Do you want to get well? She’s not sure.
When we suffer from some form of addiction, do we want release? Do we long to be free? At times perhaps we do. But then the old imperious craving comes back. We’ll think some time in the future about getting off this drug, but for now at least we’ve got to have it. Do we want to be well? Maybe not. Not at least until we’ve hit rock bottom.
What about your besetting sin? And mine? If the desire for it could be taken right out of our hearts, would we want that or is there still something inside us that doesn’t want to let the wretched thing go? We’re not ready to abandon that relationship that never should have started at all. Not willing to part just yet with that unsavory habit. For all our protestations and prayers, we’re sometimes like young Augustine, chained by lust, saying, “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!”
So it turns out that Jesus’ question has more to it than first appears. This man by the pool has been an invalid for most of his life. Would he like a new beginning? Does he want to move again into a world of work, of decision, of responsibility? Let him think about that carefully. Does he really want to get well?
Now look at the answer he gives, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going, another steps down before me.” He isn’t really answering the Lord’s question, not saying right out whether or not he wants to be healed. Instead he gives an explanation as to why he has remained for so long in this lamentable condition. To put it plainly, no one has helped him. When the water in the pool was stirred, beckoning with new possibilities, he had no one to put him in the water. So someone else always got there first, someone who was more mobile, perhaps, or who had more watchful friends.
What do you hear in those words? I hear a man who sees himself as a victim. No one cares about me, he seems to say, no one gives me a hand. No one lets me seize life’s big opportunities. It’s as though he had said, Don’t expect anything of me. I can’t possibly do anything about my situation.
The man’s response is a yes, but, isn’t it? Yes, I want to be healed. Yes, I want to get better. Yes, I’d like to be completely whole, but all these circumstances are against me and no one does anything about them. So, even though I may want to get well, this is why it hasn’t happened yet.
But here’s a marvelous thing. Jesus healed him anyway. The man hadn’t asked for help. He hadn’t exercised faith. He hadn’t even answered the Lord’s question. But Jesus heard this wistful reply as a heartfelt plea. It told Him what He wanted to know. Deep down within this man’s life, almost hidden and covered over, was a longing to be on his feet again. So Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk.”
I’m always impressed at commands of Jesus like this one. He tells the afflicted man to do three things he can’t possibly do. He tells him to get up, which simply can’t be done because the man is a cripple. He’s to pick up his bed (which he obviously lacked the strength to do). And then he’s supposed to walk. How can invalids do that? It all tells us something about the word of Jesus, how creative, how full of power it is. Remember how it was said of God in His Word, “He spoke and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth” (Ps. 33:9). He’s the God of the impossible, who calls the things that be not as though they were. And yes, Jesus is the mighty Lord who calls people to do things humanly impossible for them. At His word, they somehow do them. The man rose, picked up his bed and walked away.
This same Jesus calls people to repent, to do a 180-degree turn in their lives. He calls them to believe in Him and to have a radical change of heart. Those are things that none of us can do by any power within us. But when Jesus calls us through the gospel, we find ourselves able to do the impossible. We turn to Him with all our hearts. We are born again. We become new people in Christ. And it’s His all-powerful word that makes it happen.
ON STAYING HEALTHY
But there’s more to the record, something here about staying healthy once we’ve been restored. Listen to these words from John 5, beginning at verse 13: “Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, `See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.'”
Can you imagine being healed after 38 years of infirmity and not even knowing who it was that did this to you? The man, I suppose, was so thrilled at what had happened to him that he never thought of asking who was responsible. He didn’t ask Jesus His name. He didn’t even say thanks.
Jesus was not willing for it to end that way. He went looking for the man and found him in the temple. He reminded him of what had happened. “See, you’re well. You’re a walking miracle.” So here was a present reminder to the man of what had happened and of who had given the gift. Jesus had a way of following up in this way, staying with people.
Next came something the man wasn’t looking for. Jesus said, “Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” Is there a connection then between sin and sickness? It’s definitely not always a causal connection such as the disciples imagined when they said, “Rabbi, who sinned, this blind man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Jesus made it plain then that it wasn’t the sin of this man in some pre-existent state or of his parents, but that the works of God might be manifested in him. We can’t look at people who suffer, who are sick and afflicted, and say that they were guilty of such and such an evil and that’s why they’re suffering so. That’s not the way. The righteous, the faithful, the godly often have to suffer terribly.
And sometimes the wicked prosper. But frequently there is a definite connection here. Promiscuity over a period of time almost always leads to some kind of sexually transmitted disease. Abuse alcohol long enough and your liver will wear out; overindulge cigarette smoking and your lungs will pay the price. Sometimes, as Peter Marshall once observed, stomach ulcers can be “the badge of our lack of faith.”
In this man’s case, something like that had apparently happened. His affliction was directly related to the course of his early life. Since that was true, physical healing wasn’t the full extent of what he needed. The old problems could come back, or something worse. We aren’t necessarily whole people just because our physical ailments go away. That obviously doesn’t always make us believing or grateful. Healed people may be a grief to God’s heart. They may end up worse than they were before. Nothing keeps us healthy, nothing keeps us well, without a wholehearted turning to the Lord, without hating the evil in our lives and being willing to let it go.
So, friends, if you have received, as this man did, some great blessing from the Lord, if He has healed you, helped you, delivered you in some way, make the most of that. Don’t receive the grace of God in vain. Let it lead you to repentance. Let it make of you a person truly committed to Jesus Christ.
Prayer: Father, we want to be whole people, not just physically but in our hearts as well. May we find in Jesus Christ what we most deeply need. In His name. Amen.