Monday, October 22, 2012

Do You Wish to Get Well? (John 5:1-16)

Have you ever done something, and later looked back with regret to say, “If I had known how that was going to turn out, I would have done it differently”? Sure, we all have! That’s why we say things like, “Hindsight is 20/20.” But, has it ever occurred to you that Jesus never had this experience? By the time we get to the end of this section of Scripture, we will be tempted to think that Jesus blew it here. From our perspective, it looks like He picked the wrong guy, the wrong day of the week, and got the wrong outcome. But we have to begin from a foundation of faith in Christ as sovereign, all-knowing, all-powerful, and in ultimate authority over all things. He never makes a mistake, never second-guesses His words and actions, never gets taken by surprise, and never fails to accomplish His purpose in what He does.

After journeying through Samaria and Galilee, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem for the observance of a Jewish holy day. Though John records Jesus’ attendance at several festivals in Jerusalem, this is the only one that is not identified by name. We don’t know what the occasion was, and it seems unimportant to the meaning of the text. While in Jerusalem, Jesus came to an area known as Bethesda, located near the Sheep Gate, where there is a pool surrounded by five porticoes. Once upon a time, critics of the Bible questioned the authenticity of the Gospel of John because no one had ever been able to locate this pool. However, in the 1890s, archaeologists discovered two large pools in the northern portion of the city, surrounded by four porticoes, with a fifth one spanning between them. Its location and features match the description of the pool here in John 5 perfectly. So, today, there is no doubt about the authenticity of this place.

But what’s important for our purposes today is not the architecture or archaeology of the pool complex at Bethesda, but rather the confrontation that took place there between the Lord Jesus and a man who had been an invalid for most of his life. Unlike so many of the healing miracles we read about in the Gospels, in this one the man does not call out to Jesus for help. Rather, of all of the people surrounding the pool, Jesus chose this man, and He confronted him about his condition. This man had never given a thought to Jesus before that day; he seems to have even been unaware of who He was. But, as is always the case, the Lord Jesus makes the first move in mercy and grace to reach out to this man and He asks him, “Do you wish to get well?”

All across this room, there are people who have had this confrontational encounter with the Lord Jesus. Perhaps we were like this man, having lived a good many years ravaged by the sufferings of sin, with no knowledge and no interest in Him, when suddenly we were confronted with His gracious offer, “Do you want to get well?” Others grew up surrounded by the trappings of empty and impersonal religion, marking off the checklist and going through the motions of church attendance, prayers, Bible reading, and rule-keeping. But there came a day when a gentle Galilean whisper came rushing into our hearts graciously asking, “Do you want to get well?” Or maybe you have never had this experience at all. You have come here today in whatever condition, ravaged or religious, thinking that you have successfully avoided the uncomfortable confrontation of a personal encounter with Jesus. But perhaps the confrontation has already begun in you, though you do not recognize it. Perhaps it is what brought you here today. My prayer is that before this service ends today, you will recognize the One who stands before you with outstretched hands and an overwhelming offer: “Do you want to get well?” If we would be made well, then the confrontation must happen. As we look at just such a confrontation at the pool of Bethesda, let’s notice how Jesus addresses us at our point of deepest need with the gracious offer to make us well and whole in Him.

I. Jesus confronts our hopeless suffering.

Jesus made His followers a promise in John 16:33: “In the world you have tribulation.” You don’t need to waste any time trying to prove Him wrong. You just need to be alive to prove Him right. There is no individual and no realm of existence which is immune to suffering, not even Christians. Psalm 34:19 says that “many are the afflictions of the righteous.” And at the root of all suffering is sin. Romans 5:12 says, “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” That death that sin has brought into the world is at work within us, decaying and corrupting us physically from the moment of conception until our final breath. That is why we get sick, why we hurt, and ultimately why we die – sin is at work within every human being. This is not to say that every instance of suffering in our lives can be traced back to a specific sin we committed. But human suffering is a product of sin’s presence in the world and its power at work within us. This realization can make us pessimistic about our suffering and lead us to hopelessness. But we must remember the promises of God’s Word. Though Jesus says that we will have tribulation in this world, He says that He offers us peace, and that He has overcome the world. Though many are the afflictions of the righteous, it is the Lord who delivers us from them all. It is He alone who can truly make us well in the midst of the otherwise hopeless suffering of the world.

As we meet the man by the pool, we notice several things about him. He is there with many others who are sick, blind, lame, and withered (perhaps, paralyzed). His illness seems to be one that prevented him from being able to walk, as he was apparently lying on a straw mat or pallet. He had suffered from this illness for 38 years! This was longer than many people lived in that day, as the average life expectancy barely exceeded 40 years.[1] The Bible tells us that Jesus saw him lying there, and He knew that he had been a long time in that condition. How did He know? Did He ask him? Did He ask someone else? Well, you never have to wonder how Jesus knows anything. He knows everything about everyone. He doesn’t need information. He knows everything about you and me! He sees us, and He knows us, better than we know ourselves.

We observe here in the text how this man’s suffering seems to have made him very bitter. When Jesus asked him, “Do you wish to get well?” his response is, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming another steps down before me!” This is not a mere explanation of his circumstances. As D. A. Carson writes, his response sounds like “the crotchety grumblings of an old and not very perceptive man who thinks he is answering a stupid question.”[2] He’s allowed his sufferings to define him, and he’s just a bitter, cranky man. He hadn’t found help from any doctor; he hadn’t found help from any bystander. Even in the crowd, he was alone, bitter, and hopeless. But all of that was about to change, because on this day, he was confronted by Jesus. The question is a simple one: “Do you wish to get well?” The man seems put off by the question, and he never gives a straight answer. A simple yes or no would do, but the man is so embittered and hopeless that he seems to lash out at Jesus as if to say, “Well, why on earth do you think I am sitting here by this pool?” But the question is not a stupid one. The fact is that there were many who were in similar conditions who did not really wish to get well. Unable to work, the man had likely resorted to begging, and as J. A. Findlay reminds us, “an eastern beggar often loses a good living by being cured of his disease.”[3] We don’t know if that was the case with this man, but it is possible. Does he want to get well? He never answers. He only makes bitter excuses about his condition. But this does not stop Jesus from intervening in his life. Though the man has offered no faith to Jesus beforehand, and seemingly none afterward, Jesus nonetheless speaks a word of power into his otherwise hopeless suffering and says, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” And v9 tells us that immediately, the man did just that. He became well, picked up his pallet and began to walk.

John 1:3 tells us that Jesus, the divine and living Word of God created all that exists. And the creation accounts tell us that all that exists was brought into being by the creative and powerful Word of God. He spoke, and it happened. He upholds all things by the Word of His power (Hebrews 1:3). And His Word has the ability to give, preserve, and restore life. He speaks, and it is done! Jesus told this hopeless man to rise and walk, and immediately he rose and walked. And apparently he walked right away from the Lord Jesus who had healed him. He didn’t even catch His name. In his ignorance, he had no interest in Jesus before he was healed. In his bitterness, he had no interest in him after the fact either. Take note of this, because there are those who will come along side of you when you are suffering and they will say idiotic things like, “If you only had enough faith, you wouldn’t be suffering,” or “if your faith was strong enough, God would heal you.” Don’t believe that for a moment. Here’s a guy who didn’t have an ounce of faith, and Jesus healed him of his physical sufferings, yet many faithful people suffer severely and ultimately die in their pain. His lack of personal faith did not prevent Jesus from making Him physically well.

But Jesus wasn’t finished with him. Later on, in verse 14, Jesus confronts him again, this time at the Temple. He says to him, “Behold you have become well.” He’s probably heard that a lot from everyone he’s encountered. But then Jesus says something to him that no one else could. He says, “Do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” What Jesus is saying is that one’s physical health is not the ultimate need or concern in anyone’s life. Though in His divine and sovereign grace, He had chosen to heal this man, Jesus never promised to heal everyone’s physical ailments in this life. But He did promise to deliver all who come to Him by faith from the bondage of sin. What a tragedy it would be for this man to experience a physical healing after a lifetime of suffering, only to find at the end of his life that there was a greater suffering yet to endure! Therefore Jesus confronts him here at the temple and calls him to repentance from his sins and escape the horrors of eternal torment in hell. This serves as a stark warning to us all. Physical suffering in this life is not the worst thing that can happen to us. The suffering of hell is far more severe than this! Our physical suffering may be healed, or it may endure until life ends; it may even bring our life to an end. But there is a life beyond this one that will never end. For those who know Christ, there will be no more suffering as we spend eternity with Jesus in heaven. But for those who do not know Him as Lord and Savior, there will be no end to the suffering that is endured in hell. He came, not to deliver us from the hardships and inconveniences that we face, but from the horrors of sin and hell by becoming our sin-bearer in His death and resurrection. He conquered sin and death and hell for us. If we allow Him to be our sin-bearer, then no matter what suffering we experience in this life, we have the confident hope of a life beyond in which there will be no suffering. The believer in Jesus can say, with the Apostle Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18), for this life’s “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17). On the other hand, if we refuse to allow Him to bear our sins, we will bear them ourselves before His throne of judgment, and no matter how well we had it here in this life, the life to come will be one of unending suffering and torment.

Of all the hopeless suffering that a person can endure, none is so hopeless as the enslavement to sin. There is no doctor, no medicine, no therapy that can bring healing to this terminal sickness of our souls. Apart from Jesus, all is hopeless! But He confronts us in our misery and offers us, not the temporal joy of a life lived without aches and pains and illness, but the eternal joy of a life delivered from the presence, the power and the penalty of sin. Though we may or may not ever experience a relief of physical suffering in this life, if we have Jesus, we can endure whatever we have to face, knowing that something better awaits us on the other side of this life. In order to know the fullness of this, there is more to this confrontation that must be experienced.

II. Jesus confronts our hollow religion.

In a sense, we all are religious people. There are no exceptions. Religion, rightly defined, refers to a person’s beliefs and opinions about the existence, nature and worship of a divine being or beings, and that being or beings’ involvement in the universe and in human life. And there is no one who has ever lived who has not had beliefs and opinions about those things. There has never been a civilization or culture discovered or unearthed that did not have religious opinions or beliefs. A survey of the world’s religious systems reveals many similarities and overlaps, and also many great differences. But Christianity stands alone in a unique category of belief systems in that it alone promises a personal relationship with the one true God, along with salvation from sin, eternal life, and supernatural empowerment to its adherents based solely on the sovereign grace of God, received and experienced not by works or rituals, but entirely by faith alone. Apart from the Christian faith revealed in the Bible, every belief system in the history of the world could be classified in terms of its regulations (the rules concerning what must be done and what must be avoided in order to appease God or some multitude of gods) and its superstitions (those beliefs or rituals by which humans seek to manipulate forces of nature and circumstances of human experience). There are, even within the broad circle of those who claim to be Christians, unbiblical expressions of the faith that are more accurately categorized as a “folk religion” that blends bits and pieces of Christianity with superstition and legalistic rule-keeping. That is not Christianity; that is not good news. These are two totally different belief systems! But there is good news in knowing that the Lord Jesus confronts us all in our hollow religion with the greatest news of His saving power and grace.

He confronts our superstitions with the truth of His power. We see that taking place with the man beside of the pool in the early verses of this text. Depending on which English version of the Bible you are using, you may notice heavy square brackets around the text from the middle of verse 3 to the end of verse 4, where we read that the infirm people around the pool were “waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.” In some versions, you may notice that half of verse 3 and all of verse 4 are missing entirely from your Bible. It is found in the footnotes of those versions. What is going on here? From the best examination we can make of the ancient New Testament manuscripts, it seems that these words were added later by a scribe who was attempting to explain the words spoken by the man in verse 7. There was apparently some kind of folk belief or superstition among people of that day that led them to believe that when they saw those waters stirring, only the first one would be healed. Maybe they believed it was a healing angel stirring the water. So, likely with misguided good intentions, some copyist of the ancient manuscripts decided to help us out by supplying the information found in the latter part of verse 3 and verse 4. For all we know, it could be an accurate explanation of the superstition surrounding the pool. But, as best we can tell from examining the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of John, it really doesn’t belong there. In addition to the manuscript evidence, there are some doctrinal concerns with the words as well. Nowhere else in the Bible do we God endorsing this kind of superstitious idolatry that affixes special powers to certain places or things. It really flies in the face of what the Bible teaches us about how God operates in the world. It was just a superstition, but still people really believed that when that pool bubbled or rippled, that the healing angel was there, ready to heal the first person to enter the water. It had no basis in the will and word of God whatsoever.

In a sense, this superstition is similar to things that well-meaning Christians of our day often say, like “God helps those who help themselves.” Let’s consider that statement for a moment. Is it in the Bible? No. Are there occasions in the Bible when God helps those who help themselves? Yes. Are there other occasions in the Bible when God helps those who cannot or will not help themselves? Yes, we are studying one of those texts today! So what shall we say? In the final analysis, the only sure thing we can say is that God helps those whom He chooses to help, whether or not they can, will, or do help themselves. The idea of Him helping those who help themselves is nothing more than a superstition that is only true in some, but not all, instances. And when it comes to being saved from our sin, it is never true because there is nothing that a person can do to help themselves whatsoever in that regard. Well, this is just one of many that people have absorbed into their beliefs. Before we incorporate something into our belief system, we have to test it with the plain teachings of Scripture, lest we fall into a hollow religion filled with baseless superstitions.

Now, this man certainly believed that the superstition about the moving of the water and the race to the pool was true. But Jesus confronts that baseless superstition with His ultimate power. When He asks the man if he wants to be well, all the man can think of is this pool as his only hope. His superstition has made an idol out of this pool in his heart and mind. But notice that Jesus doesn’t help the man into the pool; He merely speaks the Word of His power and the man is healed, immediately and completely! The healing is not found in the pool, it is found in the power of Jesus! No longer will this man believe that the pool is necessary for healing; His superstition has been confronted by the power of Jesus! One of the prophecies about the Messiah had promised that when He comes, “the lame will leap like a deer” (Isa 35:6). This miracle adds further testimony to the identity of Jesus Christ. He confronted meaningless superstition with His power.

But notice also how He confronts our regulations with His grace. No sooner does this lame man arise and walk that the religious officials begin to castigate him for breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat. The Sabbath was prescribed in the Law of God’s Word as a day of rest when work shall cease. But what is “work”? The Jewish people had difficulty knowing what really was and was not acceptable to do on the Sabbath, so the scribes had determined 39 categories of work which were forbidden. For instance, it was agreed that one could not plow on the Sabbath. But, what if a person were to spit, and those droplets of spit made an impression in the dirt? Well, that was forbidden, because the person was making a furrow in the ground, thus they were plowing. But if one spit and it landed on a rock, and made no impression in the dirt, then that was permissible because no work was done. I visited a Jewish hospital in Baltimore one Saturday afternoon, and got on the elevator alone, and pushed the button for the fifth floor. But the elevator proceeded to stop on every floor, even though I hadn’t pushed the buttons. I learned that the elevator was set up to operate this way on the Sabbath; it automatically stops on every floor, so that no one violates the Sabbath by operating machinery. Well, one of the scribal regulations regarding the Sabbath prohibited the carrying of a load. This man had violated that regulation. Ironically, it was permissible to carry a pallet like this, as long as someone who was invalid was lying on it, but it was not permissible for a man who had been lying on that mat for 38 years and who had just been miraculously healed to carry the empty mat! The ridiculous nature of these regulations is obvious! All of those rules had nothing to do with God’s Word. They were man-made embellishments of the Law of God. The intention of the Sabbath was not to regulate every little thing that people could or could not do. It was intended to be a blessing to humanity, not a burden. It was established so that people could reserve one day of every week to focus their attention on the Lord in worship, and rest themselves from their regular labors. This man was not a professional mat-carrier, violating the Sabbath by continuing with business as usual! Here was a man made well by the power of God, who should be going on his way rejoicing! But, the religious officials could not rejoice at the power of God just revealed; they were too busy obsessing about the technicalities of their regulations!

Now, we might wonder if Jesus should have waited a day, or come a day earlier to heal this man. But, Jesus does not make mistakes! This man, this miracle, and this moment had been sovereignly determined by the Lord Jesus for this confrontation. He chose to heal this man on the Sabbath to demonstrate that rule keeping does not bring us into relationship with God. He chose this day, this man, and this miracle to demonstrate that it is not by the doing and not doing of things, but by the sheer grace of Jesus that we are made right with God. Consider the words of Ephesians 2:8-9: “By grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Get that, “so that no one may boast!” No one will stand before God and boast of what they have done and not done. Our salvation rests completely on what Christ, in His grace, has DONE for us; not what we, in our flesh, claim to DO for Him! But oh, how we love our rules! They give us grounds for boasting among others. Do this, don’t do that! We are blinded to the power and grace of God by our focus on regulations! I am not saying that Christians do not have moral obligations. We do! We are called to live in holiness, and that holiness is empowered by the Holy Spirit who indwells us! If we are not progressing in holiness, then we are right to wonder if we’ve truly been saved! But, that moral transformation that God produces within His people is a result of, not a requirement for, salvation! Gospel imperatives (what we are commanded to do as Christians), flow out of Gospel indicatives (what God has declared us to be in Jesus, by grace through faith). He does not command us to be good in order for Him to love us. He calls us to rest in His love and grace by faith, as we trust in Him, He transforms us into the image of Jesus. But the problem with legalistic regulations that have no basis in Scripture is that the Holy Spirit will neither convict or empower us to overcome those things that are not sin! God does not lead us into a life of keeping man-made regulations, but a life that is being transformed to reflect His holiness demonstrated in the glory of Jesus!

There are many who are committed to their lists of “dos and don’ts,” and they cannot know the blessing of life in Christ because they are pressed down under the burden of rule keeping! They are good moral people, just like the scribes and Pharisees of old; but they are lost! They are not saved because they have never been set free by the grace of Christ. All of their doings are just human efforts to impress God with their own deeds. Know this for certain: no one is able to impress God with their own efforts. God is impressed with Jesus; and we are saved as we are found in Him by grace through faith!

As we draw to a close, I want to focus on what is transpiring here between the religious leaders and the healed man. They have indicted him on breaking their man-made regulations, and the penalty for Sabbath violations was death. But rather than reasoning with them about what had happened, rather than following Christ in faith even unto death, what does he do? Remember, that he is a bitter little man, who has allowed his suffering to harden his heart over the years. And notice that he throws Jesus right under the bus! Just like he was accustomed to doing, he resorts to the blame game. “It’s not my fault, it is that man who healed me! He’s the bad guy. He’s the one you want.” But he didn’t even know His name, and Jesus had disappeared from the scene. So the death penalty is hanging over this guy’s head unless he can find the scapegoat. But after the second confrontation, when he found out who Jesus was, rather than repenting of his sin as Jesus had warned him to do, he voluntarily went back to the religious leaders, and turned state’s evidence against the Lord to save his own neck! He disclosed Jesus to the very crowd that would then set their focus on putting Jesus to death. The human plot to kill Jesus begins right here. The innocent Jesus will be pursued to death, and eventually He would die in the place of this stubborn, hard-hearted, bitter little man, who never paid more than a passing notice to Jesus. That seems at first glance like a horrible tragedy, but in fact, it plays right into the eternal purpose of God. This was the very reason that God took human flesh upon Himself in the person of Jesus – so that He might die, the just for the unjust. He became the scapegoat, the substitute, to bear the sin of bitter, hard-hearted unbelievers just like this man. In unbelief, he lets Jesus die for him, but he will never experience the benefits of that glorious exchange. If he would only believe, Jesus would die for him anyway, and he would be made well, not only physically but spiritually; not only temporarily, but eternally. And the same is true for all of us. Christ is our sin-bearing substitute who embraces the suffering and shame of the cross out of His grace and love for you and for me. He bears our sin for us in His death, that He may grant righteousness and life to us by His grace.

The offer stands, for this man, for you, and for me. Jesus asks, “Do you wish to be made well?” Each man has to answer that question for Himself. We don’t know what happened to this man after this day. For all we know, he died in his bitterness and unbelief. Ultimately, it is not really important for us to know what happened to Him. What matters most is what you and I will do in response to that offer. Will we turn to the one who offers to heal us from the sickness of sin and set us free from its bondage, fall on our faces before Him in repentance and faith as we call out to Him as Lord and Savior? Or will we despise His gracious kindness and His glorious power and turn our hard and bitter hearts away from Him in unbelief? He confronts us, in our hopeless suffering and in our hollow religion, and He asks us, “Do you wish to get well?” What is your answer?

[1] Kostenberger, 179.
[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 243.
[3] Quoted in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 303 fn.19. 

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