The Healing of the Helpless Man

The Healing of the
Helpless Man

By S. Lewis Johnson Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.

This is the third in his series of studies on the seven signs of the Lord Jesus Christ in John’s Gospel (see John 20:30-31).

Scripture Reading: John 5:1-18


In the healing of the impotent man the Apostle John gives his readers a miracle, or sign, that is a kind of parable of impotence and omnipotence. It is a story of the impotence of a man, and it is also a story of the omnipotence of the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

And the incident is one that provides a basis of hope for all. It tells us plainly that what we are now is not the only thing possible for us. It tells us that our cases are not closed, and that “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith” makes all things possible. One is reminded of the great text of the Apostle Paul in Phillippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengtheneth me.”

The outline of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John corresponds roughly to these things: We have the account of the sign in verses one through 9a. And after that there follows a sequel, which concludes with verse eighteen. Finally, the chapter concludes with a sermon, which begins in verse nineteen and concludes in verse forty-seven.

In this study we shall emphasize the three remarks of the Lord, the first of which is a word of preparation. In the sixth verse He asks, “Wilt thou be made whole?” And, then, in verse eight there is a word of restoration, for He says, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” And then comes the final remark, a word of admonition, in verse fourteen, “Behold thou art made well; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.”

We turn now to the account.

The Word of Preparation

The characters (John 5:1, 5). It will be noticed that the exposition will not take into account verse 3b-4 as found in the Authorized Version. The textual evidence for the genuineness of the words is not strong, and we, therefore, will not consider them in the exposition.

On the location of the pool Hendriksen has written, “After much guess-work with respect to the identity of this pool, its site has finally been established to the satisfaction of most scholars. The pool (or, in reality, the reservoir which formed it) was laid bare in the year 1888 in connection with the repair of the church of St. Anne, in n.e. Jerusalem. A faded fresco on the wall pictures an angel ‘troubling’ the water. It appears, therefore, that by the early church this pool was viewed as Bethzatha. In the time of our Lord it had five porticos or covered colonnades where the sick could rest, protected from inclement weather.”1

There are two important characters in the incident, the impotent man, and the Lord Jesus Christ, the omnipotent Master. It is stated of the man in the fifth verse, “And a certain man was there, who had an infirmity thirty and eight years.” As one commentator says, “He lived in a prison without bars.” There is some reason to believe that, naturally speaking, he was not a very lovely character. In the first place, Jesus finds it necessary to rebuke him for his sin in His final word to him (cf. v. 14). And, in the second place, it seems that no one was willing to help him into the water. That seems to reflect the fact that he was not the kind of person who drew to himself the sympathy of others. And it is particularly revealing that he had had the infirmity for thirty-eight years, and still no one had been willing to aid him. Finally, it even seems that he was not completely grateful to the Lord for what had happened to him, at least in the beginning, for, when he was asked, “What man is that who said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?,” he was unable to answer. He did not even know the name of the Lord, who had made him whole!

The second of the characters in the incident is the omnipotent Master, “Jesus,” who had gone up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews (cf. 5: 1) .

The account describes the pool of Bethzatha, which had five porticos, or covered colonnades for the sick in the opening verses of the chapter. In these porticos lay a large number of sick and impotent people. The impotent man was one of them.

If verses 3b-4 are not genuine, then the idea that the first man to step into the pool after the troubling of the water would be healed is not necessarily the belief of the author of the Fourth Gospel, nor the teaching of the Holy Spirit. It is, rather, the implied opinion of the impotent man, as verse seven suggests. As Hendriksen points out, “In fact when the Lord heals this man he does not even make any use of the pool (contrast 9:7; 2 Kings 5:10, 14). And it is on this miracle that we should place all the emphasis; not on the question whether or not miracles were constantly taking place at this pool.”2

How our Lord knew of the condition of the impotent man is not stated in the text. It is possible that He knew of his condition supernaturally through the revelation of it by the Father. And it is possible that he acquired the knowledge by hearsay. At any rate He knew of his condition.

The question (John 5:6). When our Lord saw the impotent man lying beside the pool, He spoke to him, asking, “Wilt thou be made well?” The question itself might seem to be a foolish one. Surely, since the man has been there for thirty-eight years hoping that someone would put him in the water, he must want to be made well. Our Lord’s words look a bit like the world’s tantalizing gospel: walk that you may be healed (cf. Luke 10:27-28).

We should remember, however, that weakness often gains pity, other forms of aid, and the occasion for the making of excuses, and conceivably the man may have come to actually enjoy his plight. And so the question comes from our Lord, so that he might think through his real desires.

Spiritually speaking, it is the basic question that must be answered by all who are faced with the claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with its message that we are sinners and that Christ has died for sinners, making it possible for sinners to receive forgiveness through His saving work. We all have to answer the question, “Wilt thou be made well?” Some in fact, the vast majority of the human race would answer, “no.” The world enjoys its relationship of separation from the God of the Bible, who punishes sin and offers forgiveness only through His Son, Jesus Christ. How have we answered this basic question?

The response (John 5:7). The response of the impotent man is given in verse seven. “Sir,” he replied to Jesus, “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.” It is clear that at this point he has more faith in the means of healing through the water than in the Master.

It seems that the rule for this pool was the same as one of ours, “Everyone for himself.” The cause of the water’s disturbance may have been supernatural or natural, Hendriksen says. “If natural,” he writes, “then it would seem that the sudden bubbling up was caused by an intermittent spring by which the pool was fed. In general it may be stated that it is never uncommon for people, afflicted with various illnesses, to gather around mineral springs.”3

His trust in means reminds one of the trust of our modern world, which has more faith in religion, in the preacher, in the church, in culture and education, in moral resolutions, and in good works than in the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving cross. That is the reason why the minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ today, just as in Paul’s day, must concentrate on preaching Jesus Christ and Him crucified (cf. 1 Cor. 2:2).

The Word of Restoration

The content of the word (John 5:8). The restoring word is given in verse eight, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” The three imperatives are interesting and important: The first of them is an aoristic present, and the rising is presented as an event in itself, a definite and decisive act. It reminds one of the imperatives given us by our parents in our childhood days when, desiring prompt action, we were told to obey them so quickly that the act would be done, “Before you can say ‘Jack Robinson.’”

The second imperative, “take up,” is an aorist imperative, and the act is clearly understood to be a decisive one. It suggests that the healing that is to come is to be a perfect one. One of the older German commentators, J. A. Bengel, said that up to now the bed had been carrying the man, but now the man is to carry his bed.

The final imperative, “walk,” is a present imperative, expressing durative, or continuous, action. The healing will be a permanent healing. Prompt, perfect, and permanent are adjectives that express the nature of the healing ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, as well as that of the men of the New Testament who had the biblical gift of healing. I would agree with Hendriksen’s comment, “This recovery is neither gradual nor partial; now, we may well add, was the sickness faked (as some, nevertheless, have supposed). All so-called ‘faith-healers’ should make a close study of this wonderful account.”4

The consequence of the word (John 5:9a). We read, “And immediately the man was made well, and took up his bed, and walked; and the same day was the sabbath.” Leon Morris contends that there is no room for faith in the incident, for no mention is made of faith and, in fact, the impotent man did not even know the name of the Lord Jesus.5 That, of course, is largely true, although I would question whether the man did not exercise faith in healing. It would seem to me that in the nature of his response to the word of the Lord, faith was required for him to take up his bed and walk. It is true, however, that faith is not stressed in the account. Perhaps it would be a bit out of place to lay any emphasis on the fact that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (cf. Rom. 10:17). That may be, all the same, what transpired in essence in this sign.

The kind of faith that responds to the Word of God is the kind that brings salvation of a spiritual nature (cf. Acts 16:31).

The Word of Admonition

The Jews and the impotent man (John 5:9b-13). John makes the point that the action took place on the sabbath day (cf. 5:9b), and that is the reason for the discussion that follows. Evidently seeing the man carrying his pallet, the Jews said to him “It is the sabbath day; it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed” (cf. v. 10). The sabbath day for the them was no day to move one’s furniture! In fact, their prescriptions concerning the day were so minute and careful that they debated whether a man with a wooden leg could walk at all on the sabbath!

The impotent man answered, “He that made me well, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk” (cf. v. 11). Implicit in his reply is the reasoning that the man who heals in this supernatural way has the right to command him to do anything within the moral teaching of God.

Because He had demonstrated His saving qualities in the healing, he is willing to give Him the office of the King of his life. The man is no great hero, and he does not go out of his way to defend Jesus, but his reasoning is really sound theologically.

The response of the Jews is with a tone of derision. “What man is that who said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?” (cf. v. 12). The Greek would allow the rendering, who is the fellow who said, pick up your bed and walk? They do not ask, “Who healed you?” In fact, they are not at all interested in his healing, or in the mighty power of God manifest in the act. They are only interested in the fact that their theology is being violated, and that there is no place in their thought for such a miracle as this done by someone outside their company.

The section closes with the admission that the man did not even know the name of the one who had healed him. In the meantime Jesus had removed Himself from the immediate vicinity. The size of the crowd also aided in the concealing of Him from attention.

Jesus and the impotent man (John 5:14). Following the encounter Jesus was in the temple, and He found the man there also. When He saw him, He said to him, “Behold, thou art made well; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (cf. v. 14). The admonition follows naturally upon the healing, and it illustrates the fact that those saved by Him are to demonstrate their new life by a conformity to His will. Putting it in simple theological terms, justification is always to be followed by sanctification. As someone has said, “What is the value of being sound on the atonement, if the atonement does not make one sound?” Or, as a popular Bible teacher of a generation or so ago used to say, “It is either the Bible or a libel,” meaning that our lives are to conform to the Word of God or they shall bring reproach to the saving God.

The exhortation, “sin no more,” is in a construction that appears to say that his life was characterized by sinning up to this point (the tense of the imperative is present). Jesus does not refer to some sin that the man committed a long time ago, that brought him into his recent condition.

When He says, “lest a worse thing come unto thee,” he refers, it seems, to the final condition of the lost. The words refute the claim that one’s life here is the only hell that unsaved men shall experience. Here is a man who has spent thirty-eight years of torture, but Jesus says that a “worse” thing may come to him. Hell is infinitely worse than anything a man may experience here (cf. Rev. 20:11-15).

The Jews and Jesus (John 5:15-18). The man, who was, as I said, no hero, immediately went and tattled on the Lord, but he does make the point that he had been healed by Him (cf. v. 15).

The response of the Jews was to renew their attacks on the Lord Jesus. And they “sought to slay him, because He had done these things on the sabbath day” (cf. v. 16).

Jesus, however, answered them, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (cf. v. 17). The tenses of the verbs in this verse express the constant activity of the two persons. And they stress the fact that the Father is constantly working, for He neither slumbers nor sleeps.

The words of our Lord provoke further negative activity on the part of the Jews. John writes, “Therefore, the Jews sought the more to kill him, because He not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (cf. v. 18).

They understood fully that claim that Jesus was making when He spoke of God as His “Father.” That was a claim for deity, something many of our modern theologians find difficult to believe. They cannot believe that Jesus really claimed to be God. That would mean that we must believe Him regarding the plan of salvation, that is, that a man can only receive eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus, and that not to believe is to remain in one’s sins (cf. 14:6).


We may conclude by making some simple points regarding the relationship of the incident to the plan of salvation through Christ.

In the first place, the people around the pool are a picture of men as sinners. They are described by the physical ailments as impotent, which is defined more specifically as blind (cf. Eph. 4:18; 5:8), lame (2:2), paralyzed (4:30; 5:3-6); they are unable to see, to walk, and to work, and they vividly illustrate the spiritual condition of the lost before God. And it is encouraging to see that the Lord helps such people.

If our condition is as we have pictured it, then the most important endeavor of life is to come to Christ for deliverance. But men are careless, and they take their bodies to the health resorts and to the springs, but they leave their souls by the sewer. When we were without strength and in need of the forgiveness of sins, it is He who died for the ungodly and redeemed them from the guilt and condemnation of sin (cf. Rom. 5:6)

And, finally, in the healing of the impotent man we have a lovely illustration of spiritual salvation. He rose in the power of a new life, took up his bed with his new power, and walked off in a walk given to him by the gracious activity of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the spiritual sense that is what happens to the saints of God.

Our Lord is still seeking the impotent and, if there are any such who read this paper, there is no need to wait thirty-eight years for deliverance. Today, if you will hear His voice, not hardening your hearts, you may have the life that Jesus has brought. Respond to His invitation, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

1 Hendriksen, I, 190.

2 Ibid., 1, 191.

3 Ibid., I, 192.

4 Ibid., I, 193.

5 Morris, p. 304.