Sermon / May 1, 2016 / John 5:1-18 / A Healing Word / Pastor Terry Defoe
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 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. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 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?” (N.I.V.)
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
At first glance, our text this morning describes a great blessing. It's a simple story of a healing graciously offered, by none other than Jesus Himself, to a man who had suffered grievously for a very long time. But what seems, on the surface, to be a simple and straightforward account, turns out to be anything but. That’s because the man who was healed was a very unusual character. His response to Jesus is not what we would have expected. And his healing caused greatly increased friction between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. Be advised as we begin that there are lots of moving parts to this Bible text today! I pray that God would send His Holy Spirit and bless our consideration of His Holy Word!
Jesus was in Jerusalem for a Jewish festival and happened to pass by the Pool of Bethesda. That pool, fed by an underground spring, was surrounded by porticoes that offered shelter to those who had gathered there. It was believed that, on occasion, an angel would stir up the water and the first person into the water would be healed. The pool was a shrine in a sense -- a popular gathering place for people in need, especially the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. Back then, there were no hospitals, and no medicine as we know it today.
The Pool of Bethesda is an interesting place. For centuries, scholars believed that there was no such pool. There was no sign of it in modern-day Jerusalem. It was assumed that the description in John’s gospel was written by someone unfamiliar with the city. Then, in the 19th century, an archaeologist by the name of Schick discovered a pool, which he claimed was the pool described in John chapter 5. Further excavations in 1964 revealed other features that confirmed that the Pool of Bethesda had indeed been found. Historians tell us that the pool was considered by some people to be an Asclepieion, in other words, a place where healing was supposed to take place by the power of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.
Can you imagine the pushing and shoving that would have taken place as people tried to be first into the water? And even then, if someone was healed, it most likely wouldn’t have been the one who needed it most, because the one with the fewest problems would be first to reach the pool. The rest would have to go back and wait for the next opportunity. The bottom line is this -- there was a very good chance that those who hoped for a miracle at the Pool of Bethesda were going to be disappointed.
Our text describes a man who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years of suffering, countless bouts of despair, and a great deal of hopelessness. But Jesus took pity on him. He asked the man an odd question, odd, considering the circumstances: “Do you want to get well?” (5:6). This question has more than one possible meaning in John's gospel. The first and most logical meaning relates to the man’s physical health. But there’s another meaning possible and it refers to the man’s spiritual situation. John wants us to consider both possibilities. This is a characteristic of John's gospel. Consider, if you will, John's account of the woman at the well recorded for us in chapter 4. Was it literal water or living water Jesus was referring to? Or what about Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Was Jesus talking about literal birth or spiritual birth? Or how about the account of the man born blind found in John chapter 9? Was this about being physically blind or spiritually blind? It's obvious that John loves double meanings!
The question: “Do you want to get well?” Jesus is directing this question to people today as well to the man 2000 years ago. Do people want their sins forgiven? Do they want an abundant life in the here and now and a place in heaven someday? A simple, yet profound, question. Another translation says: “Do you want to be healed?” (5:6). This is a question Jesus asks of everyone, in every generation. And, at the end of the day, it’s a question about salvation. “Would you like me to rescue you from the curse of sin? That's what I went to the cross to do for you.”
Notice the man’s odd answer. Instead of a simple and joyful “Yes!,” the man, unaware of who is standing before him, blamed the “system” for failing to provide him with healing. It’s not his fault, he said. It’s those others -- no one will help him into the pool -- someone else always beats him to it. The man seems to have no spiritual insight, no faith. He was looking in the wrong place for healing. But isn’t that what so many people today are doing as well?
Jesus didn’t ask the man if he had faith to be healed. The man wasn’t thinking in those terms anyway. His mind was locked on to just one kind of “miracle.” His options, in his opinion, were limited. If he wanted anything from Jesus, it would be for Jesus to help him down into the water when the time was just right. Jesus ignored the man’s comment. He said, firmly, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” (John 5:8). The man was healed immediately. Jesus didn’t say, “Chin up! Stay positive. You’ll get there. Your time will come!” As the man acted on Jesus’ command, the healing took place. He couldn’t give himself credit for Jesus' amazing grace. And neither can we.
Jesus didn’t get into a debate about the merits of this system of healing and the false hope it engendered. He immediately healed the man, without the use of water. It’s important to note that Jesus healed the man without being asked to do so. Jesus took the first step. He took the initiative. He started a conversation. We might wonder why Jesus chose this particular individual. We do see that Jesus' compassion and grace aren't reserved for those we would consider “deserving.” Jesus heals simply because that is the work his Father has called him to do.
Jesus didn’t need the waters of the pool to bring healing. He didn’t even need the faith of the disabled man. All that was required was His powerful, life-giving, life-affirming Word. He who is the Word, He who created the universe with his Word, is the One who heals with a Word as well. His words are Spirit and they are Life (John 6:63). The powerful Word of God is at work right before our eyes this morning. This is the same Word that was uttered at creation. This Word makes things happen.
Amazingly, the man who was healed showed no sign of faith in Jesus or even of gratitude for what Jesus had done. When he was asked who had healed him, he didn’t know (5:12-13). The man was unaware of Jesus' identity. He was more concerned about his standing with the Jewish leaders than he was with Jesus. Once he knew Jesus' name, he wasted no time in reporting Jesus to the authorities. The good Jesus did for him was met not with faith or gratitude on his part.
In the middle of John chapter 5, an interesting transition occurs. A story about healing becomes a story about persecution. And the persecution gives us a chance to see who Jesus really is. The man was confronted by the religious authorities after his healing. They wanted to know who had ordered him to carry his mat on the Sabbath. He deflected the blame to Jesus. Perhaps he thought that if the authorities went after Jesus, they would leave him alone. You'll notice that the religious authorities had created a religion of fear, not of trust. Their man-made laws kept people looking over their shoulder to see who was watching.
In John, chapter 5, verse 9, with the words, “Now that day was a Sabbath,” everything changes. John wants to remind us that Jesus’ miracles sparked faith in some people and opposition in others. The leaders’ concern that their Sabbath laws had been broken left them more convinced than ever that they really should be rid of this Jesus. John tells us in verse 18 that, from that point on, they “tried all the more to kill him.” At the end of verse 9 the suggested gospel reading for today ends, but that's not the end of the story. Jesus’ practise of healing on the Sabbath created problems between Him and the Jewish leadership. The religious authorities were convinced that Jesus was a sinner because he healed on the Sabbath. For John, however, unbelief is the fundamental sin; and unbelief means rejecting Jesus, the One sent by God. When Jesus met the man who was healed later on, he said, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:14, N.R.S.V.) The “sin” that Jesus refers to here is the sin of unbelief. In other words, if this man persists in his unbelief and in his indifference to Jesus, he will face the judgment of God.
The Jewish leaders' concern was focused on Jesus' command, "Take your mat...” To carry a mat on the Sabbath was forbidden in rabbinic law. It was this act, carried out on the Sabbath, that sparked the controversy. Jesus could have avoided the offense by waiting until after the Sabbath was over, that is, by waiting until sundown; or just not asking the man to carry his mat at all. It seems that Jesus was deliberately trying to provoke the Pharisees. You’ll notice that they're not the least bit concerned about the man’s healing. Their only concern is that Jesus has broken their Sabbath rules.
The healing of the man at the pool provided Jesus with an opportunity to state very clearly just who He is. In our modern world, people will sometimes challenge another by asking, “Just who do you think you are?” The same thing happened to Jesus. Jesus openly and courageously told the Jewish leaders who He was, and they didn’t like His answer. In our day, some people say that Jesus didn't claim to be God. They obviously haven’t read the Gospel of John! When Jesus told the Jewish leaders that he was doing the work of his Father (5:17), they sought all the more to kill Him, because
"... not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God." (5:18, N.I.V.)
Jesus’ miracle was intended to make it clear that God does His work of healing and making people whole even on the Sabbath day of rest. It may be a day of rest for God's people, but it’s just another day of work for Him! In Mark 2:27, Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. (N.I.V.) God’s original intention for the Sabbath was that it be a blessing for his people. A time to rest. A time to rejoice in His many blessings. A time to recharge their batteries -- both physical and spiritual. But, slowly, over a long period of time, this great Sabbath blessing evolved into a heavy burden for the people of Israel. Slowly, over a long period of time, God’s blessed commandment had been overlaid with layer upon layer of human tradition. Confronting these man-made Sabbath traditions was a priority for Jesus.
You may have noticed that those who are most in the wrong are those who are most assured of being right. Wanting to be right and thinking you are right are not the same as being right. There are few evils in this world more serious than doing great harm in the name of God. Our basic worldview, like that of the Jewish authorities, colors everything we see. It’s like the glasses through which we see the world. Our worldview determines what we can see and, to a large degree, also determines what we cannot see, even when it's staring us in the face. When Jesus suggests a radically different way of thinking to the Jewish religious leaders, he's battling a strong headwind.
People prefer, as Jesus Himself said, old wine rather than new -- in other words, they prefer the comfortable old ways, rather than that which is scary and new. As Jesus Himself said, new wine requires new wineskins. In Matthew chapter 9, verse 17, we read:
Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved. (N.I.V.)
Jesus the Messiah was offering a wonderful new wine to Israel and it’s leaders. That provision of wine, by the way, was the basis of Jesus' very first miracle, as John's gospel records it. Jesus' new wine -- His new way of thinking and doing and interpreting the Scriptures -- would require new containers - new wineskins to hold it. The old containers could no longer do the job -- they would split wide open and there would be quite a sticky mess!
I close with this. Jesus' healing Word sparked faith in the hearts of many, but also caused others to reject Him. His gifts are received with gratitude by some and with indifference by others. You and I are His people. He has reached out to us through His Word and the Sacraments. Our long wait for healing is over. Our healing from the curse of sin and death is now a reality. And the door to heaven stands wide open. For all these blessings, we thank God! Amen!
And now, may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in this same Christ Jesus. Amen!
Let's pray - DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER - We thank you for our blessings. We were disabled by sin, deserving only punishment and death. But, through Jesus' death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, you intervened to save us. We thank you for the new wine Jesus has brought us. Enable us to share it with the world. In Jesus' name. Amen.