After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole. And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.
We are now to consider another of the signs and miracles, of which we have just eight in all, recorded in the gospel of John. The apostle, in choosing by the Spirit’s direction the various miracles which he brings before us, was evidently seeking to illustrate in various ways the wonderful grace of God, as revealed in Christ, to needy sinners.
The background here is most interesting. We are told that after our Lord’s ministry in Galilee there was a feast of the Jews. We do not know exactly what feast. It was probably the feast of the Passover, and the Lord Jesus, in accordance with the law, went down to participate in the feast. The Passover feast must have been of exceptional interest to Him, for He knew well that every paschal lamb that was sacrificed at that time pictured Himself, even as we are told in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8, “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The Lord Jesus then went to the feast, and as He moved in and out among the people He passed by the pool of Bethesda, which was near the sheep gate. We read, “Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches” (John 5:2). This was God’s special provision for His people during the legal dispensation.
Bethesda was a “house of mercy,” where God was extending loving-kindness to an afflicted people. We need to realize that even before grace and truth came in all their fullness in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the heart of God was toward every needy soul, and He made provision that all those who would turn to Him might do so. There were certain regulations or requirements. They came to God, bringing their offerings. But these offerings all spoke of the Lord Jesus Christ and were accepted, not because of any intrinsic value they possessed, but because of that which they prefigured, and because of the faith and confidence that prompted the people to bring them. So all through the legal dispensation, God was reaching and saving man in His own wonderful way. Of that this scene is a picture.
Here was the pool of Bethesda, and around it there “lay a multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered” (v. 3). These expressions speak of the results of sin. It blinds our eyes to the truth of God and to the glory of God. It makes us lame, so that we cannot walk in the ways of God. It withers up all our strength, so that we are helpless and unable to do anything to save ourselves. Naturally, we are all like these impotent folk gathered there by the pool. We may say that all sickness and pain and suffering and warfare that distress mankind have come into the world, not through God’s divine decision, but because of man’s waywardness. They are the fruits of the fall, and our Lord Jesus Christ has come that He might destroy the works of the Devil. Some day, thank God, He is going to undo completely all these effects of sin.
This motley, helpless throng were lying in the courts of Bethesda. What were they waiting for? Waiting for the moving of the water. Now I know there is a question among scholars as to the genuineness of verse 4, which tells of an angel troubling the water. In the most ancient manuscripts this verse is not found at all, and yet, as we read on in the story, there seems to be reference to it, so that one would think that it belongs to the original text. But many editors believe it was inserted in the margin by some copyist long years ago in order that we might understand why these people were gathered at the pool, and then some later scribes incorporated it into the text. At any rate, it explains the reason why the people were there. There was a spring. At times it was perfectly quiet, and intermittently it bubbled up. Some of us have seen springs like that. The people understood that an angel went down into this spring at a certain season and troubled the water, so whosoever stepped in at that time was made whole of whatever disease he had.
Here was the best that the law could do. The law had help for the one who needed it the least. The strong could get into the water first. But the worse he was, the more helpless and the more sinful, the more wretched his condition, the less likely he was to avail himself of the privileges that the law could offer him. Some of these people had lain there for not only weeks and months, but for years, and one man was there who had had an affliction thirty-eight years. He was paralyzed. He had lost the power to use his legs. How long he had lain at the pool of Bethesda we do not know, but his friends may have brought him there years before Jesus met him. He was a picture of a poor, helpless sinner. That is true of every one of us in our natural state.
Long years ago, out in San Francisco, a group of us were having a Sunday school outing down on the beach by the Cliff House. We used to go there on Washington’s birthday. That morning when we got out to the beach at nine o’clock, the fog was just beginning to lift, and in a little while we were amazed to see all kinds of wreckage on the beach. We did not understand where it all came from. A little later we learned that a great ship, the “Rio de Janeiro,” on its way home from China had attempted to make the San Francisco harbor in a dense fog and had run upon a rock and was broken to pieces. Hundreds of people were drowned; some had escaped.
The paper told this story: among the saved ones was a young American journalist. Both of his legs had been broken, and in that condition he was thrown into the water. The cold water probably brought him back to consciousness, and he began to float. Hours afterward that utterly helpless man was drawn out of the water by a rescue party. I thought as I read that, what a picture of God’s grace to needy sinners! There were others who swam for hours before they were picked up, strong and hearty men, and many others were drowned. But this man had no ability to swim. He was helpless, yet he was saved. What a picture of many of us! We read, “When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). We helpless sinners were saved and found life and peace.
Consider this helpless man at the pool. He did not seek the Savior. He did not ask Jesus to heal him. We often turn things around and plead with sinners to ask Jesus to save them, but nowhere in the Bible is man told to pray for salvation. Rather, we are told that God Himself is beseeching men to be reconciled to Himself. This man did not even know of Christ, but Jesus came seeking him. Oh, I like to tell, as I have often told, of the little boys answer when someone said, “My son, have you found Jesus?” He, looking up, said, “Why, sir, I didn’t know He was lost. But I was, and He found me.”
“The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). So He came to find this poor helpless man who did not know anything about Him, not even His name. His need appealed to the tender, gracious heart of the Son of God. Oh, if I am speaking to anyone today who is lost and miserable be assured your very wretchedness and helplessness appeal to the heart of the Son of God. He wants to deliver you and save you.
See what it says in verse 6: “When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?” Jesus “knew that he had been now a long time in that case.” Yes, eight years longer than Christ Himself had been on earth that man had been in this illness. Why did He wait so long? That the man might come to the end of himself. You and I would not have come to Christ if we had not been brought to see our insufficiency. You have heard of the poor man who fell into the water. Unable to swim, he went down once and came up again, and went down again. A strong swimmer stood on the pier, looking on, and the people cried, “Why don’t you leap in and save that man?” He said nothing, but let the man go down again, and then he threw off his coat and plunged in and brought him safely to shore. They said, “Why did you wait so long before you went in to save him?” He answered, “He was too strong before. I had to wait until his strength was gone. I had to wait until he could do nothing himself, until he was helpless.”
I think Jesus was waiting for that. When the man was brought to the pool first he had high hopes. “It won’t be long until I can get in,” he thinks, and then someone else got in before him. Over and over again he had gone through this disappointing experience, and now he is ready to give up in despair. It is the despairing soul that Jesus loves to meet in grace. He saves the one who admits, “I cannot do anything to deliver myself.”
See how the Lord dealt with this man. “When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he said unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?” A very simple question. He puts it to everyone. Is my reader unsaved? The blessed Lord is saying, “Would you be made whole?” Do you want to find God’s salvation? “Wilt thou be made whole?” Do you want to know the delivering grace of God? What is your answer? Do you want to be made whole?
The impotent man answered Him, saying, “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me” (v. 7). Oh, how many there are like that. “There is only one thing I lack. If I could only get a man to help me.” How many people feel like that. Some say, “Oh, if I could only find out the right church.” My friend, if you joined every church in Christendom, that would not save you. “Well, if I could only get instruction as to what principles I should live up to.” It is not doing that saves the soul. The quicker we learn that lesson, the better. “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:4-5).
The paralytic said, “I have no man to help me.” Seeing the deep need in which he was, Jesus said unto him, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk” (John 5:8). What a strange command to give a helpless man! Oh, but there is power in the words of Jesus. We read, “Immediately the man was made whole” (v. 9a). There was something about the word of Jesus that wrought faith in that man’s heart. Somebody says, “Well, I would like to be saved and it takes faith, but I do not have faith.” But “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The man says, “I would like to be made whole, but there is no way.” Then he hears the word of Jesus, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk,” and he looks up and faith springs up in his soul. I would like to have seen him leap to his feet for the first time. He would say, “Dear me, I can hardly believe it.” Then he looked down on that load of bedding and at the command of Jesus took it under his arm, just a pallet, and off he went rejoicing in his newfound strength.
“Immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the Sabbath.” Now a sinister note comes in: “The same day was the sabbath” (John 5:9). Nothing wrong with it, but there were critics sitting there. “Doesn’t He know this is the Sabbath day?” It meant more to them than the healing of a poor fellow-creature. They were far more concerned about ceremony and ritual, so they were ready at once to find fault. To the healed man the Jews said, “It is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed” (v. 10). Instead of rejoicing and saying, “Why, friend, we have seen you lying there for years, and we are so thankful you are now well!” these legalists, like the elder son in the story of the prodigal son who would not go in when his brother had come home and was forgiven, said, “You have no business carrying this burden on the Sabbath.” The man might have said, “Burden! Why, this is no burden! It is a joy to carry it.” “It is not lawful for thee,” they cried, but the healed man said, “He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk” (v. 11). As much as to say, “Go fight with Him now if you have any complaint.” “Well,” they asked, “who was it? What man was that?” “And he that was healed wist not who it was” (v. 13). He was so utterly ignorant that he did not even know the name of his deliverer. He only acted on what he was told.
This poor man did not know the name of the one who had healed him. We read, “Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole” (v. 14a). He had not been in the temple for thirty-eight years and wanted to make up for lost time. People always do this when Jesus saves them. “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (v. 14b). This man’s illness was evidently a result of sin. Jesus warned him against falling into sin in the future. It was a timely admonition. Oh, young convert, do not trifle with sin. We may become cleared of the guilt of sin, but there are dire temporal consequences of certain sins that follow one all through life, though one may be forgiven.
Now the man found out who his Deliverer was. “The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole” (v. 15). Oh, you would have thought that they would all have gone to Him and thanked Him for this deed of power, but instead of that, their cold legal hearts led them to act in the opposite way. We read, “Therefore did the Jews… [seek] to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day” (v. 16). Instead of recognizing the fact that that day, of all days, they should have expected God to work, they found fault with Jesus. They had no heart for the grace that could meet a poor sinner’s need. Let us beware lest we too fall under the power of the same spirit of legality.