Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. (John 5:2)
So Jesus was back in Jerusalem. He had been there before, and had performed miracles, though John does not record for us what they were. He then went north through Samaria, where he met the woman at the well and saw a great spiritual harvest in the town of Sychar, where many people confessed him as the Savior of the world.
After two days in Sychar, our Lord went north to Cana in Galilee, and there he healed the son of a royal official, who was languishing at the point of death in Capernaum, twenty miles away. It was an awesome display of the authority of Jesus, who is able to command what he wills and he wills what he commands.
Now, Jesus was back in Jerusalem, and he came to this pool of Bethesda. So picture a pool. It is a natural pool of water, quite deep and outdoors. Beside this pool, there are five pillars supporting a roof that provides shade from the heat of the sun.
Around the pool, “lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame and paralyzed” (5:3). The reason they were there becomes clear in verse 7, where were learn that from time to time the water was “stirred up.” Most likely there was an underground stream that periodically bubbled up. When this happened, the pool would have looked like a Jacuzzi®.
We don’t know how often this happened, but it must have been often enough to keep the crowd coming. The waters may have been stirred up a few times each day, like going to Yellowstone National Park and seeing Old Faithful, which bubbles up every 20 minutes or so.
It must have been quite a scene when the Jacuzzi® got going, with scores of people piling in from all sides of the pool. Those who were able to do so, jumped in themselves, while others were being helped in by friends and relatives. And then when the bubbling stopped, everyone got out again.
I suspect that most of the people there viewed it as a kind of therapy pool: “Get in the bubbling water. It will be good for you.” Clearly, that would be true, especially for people with aching limbs and other difficulties.
But over the years, stories had circulated to the effect that the first person to get into the water when it bubbled would be healed. It was what we might call a “local myth,” well maintained by the community.
You know how these stories get around: “My friend at work told me that she knows someone whose mother’s cousin was healed at the pool of Bethesda. She was the first one in.” And so the myth was sustained, and the crowds kept coming
Where would Scottish tourism be without the Loch Ness monster? If you were to ask, “Pastor Colin, do you believe in the Loch Ness monster?” I can tell you today that I personally have a photograph of the Loch Ness monster.
I took the photo myself from a boat on Loch Ness that conveniently provides a window with a black sticker in the shape of the monster. If you take a picture of the water through the window, you can bring home your very own picture of the Loch Ness monster. Never ask a Scotsman to deny the Loch Ness monster. It’s bad for business.
Wherever there is a myth there will be a crowd, and where there is a crowd there are opportunities to make money. The pool of Bethesda would have been a great spot for vendors. “Come and see the bubbling waters! Rent a chair and shelter under our unique pillar-supported roof. Snacks, lunches and cold drinks are available throughout the day.”
Every day these vendors have a guaranteed crowd gathered by the pool, tourists hoping they would be lucky enough to see the waters bubble, working people who wanted to sit down and take a break from the heat of the sun, and a multitude of people suffering from all kinds of conditions who hoped that a dip in the bubbling water would do them some good.
A Depiction of the Human Condition
1. Without strength
One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. (John 5:5)
The attention of Jesus was drawn to one man. We read in other stories of the compassion of Jesus for huge crowds of people, but here the eyes and heart of the Son of God are drawn to one man. There was nothing to make him stand out from scores of others who would also have been lying on mats around the pool. He would have been lost in the crowd to us, but no one is ever lost in the crowd to Jesus.
We are not told the nature of his condition. “Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time” (5:6). Most likely he suffered from some form of lameness or partial paralysis, because Jesus says to him, “Take up your bed, and walk” (5:8). The man did have some movement because when he explains to Jesus why he was never the first in the pool, he says, “While I am going, another steps down before me” (5:7).
Try to take in what this man’s difficult and sad life was like. Every day he makes his way to the therapy pool, marks out his spot, and lies down on his mat. When the waters stir, he gets in. When he gets out, his condition is the same as it was before. His best hope in life is a myth – that something amazing might happen if he could be the first to get in, but that was beyond his ability.
And this had been the man’s life for 38 years. So this was a man in his fifties or perhaps even older. His whole life has been one of frustration – a daily routine of getting to the pool, waiting for the waters to stir, getting into the Jacuzzi®, getting out, getting dried, getting home, and coming back again the next day.
2. Without hope
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6)
That is an interesting question. I wonder why you think he asked it. Anyone who has ever counseled another person knows how important it is to have the person engage in the therapeutic process. So you say, “I need you to work with me here. You need to look at where you are and where you want to be, and then decide if you want to move forward. I’m ready to walk with you, but I can’t help you if you don’t engage.”
We depend on something coming from within the person themselves in order for progress to be made. The counselor’s role may be to strengthen and support a person’s desire to get better. The counselor may give light, direction, and understanding in the process, but we do not have the power to change another person’s life.
And if a person does not want to get better, there is very little that those who love that person and seek to come alongside them can do. Many of us have discovered this in our own families. That is our reality, and so it is natural for us to think that this is how it is for God.
That is why people say, “God helps those who help themselves.” This makes sense to us because the only people we are able to help are the people who are ready to help themselves. And if that’s true for us, we assume that it must also be true of God.
This question of Jesus is often psychologized, as if Jesus was trying to elicit the cooperation of this man in his own healing. William Barclay writes in his commentary, “It is as if Jesus said to this man: ‘Make a supreme effort and you and I will do this thing together!’” 
How Barclay could have got that from this story is completely beyond me. Actually, I do know. As brilliant and insightful as he was as a Bible scholar, he did not believe in miracles. But far from making a supreme effort, the obvious point of the story is that this man was completely without strength and without hope.
This man is so overwhelmed by his own problem that he does not even answer Jesus question. When Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?” the man responds by telling Jesus why he can’t be, and why he doesn’t have any hope: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up” (5:7).
So what he does here is explain why there is no hope for him: “Here’s the problem. Here is the thing that I cannot get beyond. Here is why I have not been able to make progress and why I cannot move forward now. Life is never going to be different for me. I had hopes and dreams of what my life might be, but it isn’t going to happen.”
I wonder if you can hear an echo of your own voice here – your story of something that was done to you, your disappointment in someone who let you down, your journey that has led you to a place where you no longer have hope. So, if someone asked you, “Do you want to be well?” your response would be to explain why that is not possible for you.
3. Without faith
Notice, after the healing the man is asked, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’” (5:12). John tells us, “The man who had been healed did not know who it was!” (5:13), and that was after he had been healed!
Far from having great faith in Jesus, this man does not even know who Jesus is. It’s not until verse 14, where Jesus catches up with him in the temple that the man finds out who has healed him. This is in marked contrast to other stories in the Gospels, when faith, very clearly, has a participating role.
Last week we looked at the story of the royal official who walked 20 miles in order to ask Jesus to heal his son. There was genuine faith there, and Jesus healed the man’s son. There is also a story about a centurion, a man of great faith, who said: “Only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Mat. 8:8).
There are other stories where Jesus clearly acknowledges the role of faith in a person being healed. To the woman with the hemorrhage, he says, “Your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34, see also Mark 10:52). On another occasion our Lord said to two men who were blind, “According to your faith be it unto you” (Mat. 9:29).
But there is no way that Jesus could have said these things here. This man shows no evidence of faith whatsoever! He is overwhelmed by his own problem – without strength, without hope, and without faith. Even after he is healed, he does not know who Jesus is.
So when Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?” he makes it clear that this man has nothing to offer! There is surely no way that he is saying, “Make a supreme effort, and you and I will do this together.”
What hope can there be for a person without strength, hope, and faith? How does this cycle get broken? How does this story speak to us? Jesus comes to this person who is without strength, hope, or faith – a man who has been like this for years – and wonderfully heals him.
A Demonstration of Divine Power
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. (John 5:8-9)
What an amazing miracle this was! Everyone over the age of about 40 knows that when you have been in a car for hours your muscles are tight and your joints are stiff when you get out. Imagine the condition of this man’s muscles and joints after 38 years of restricted movement!
Jesus says, “Take up your bed and walk,” and John tells us that the man “took up his bed and walked.” No physical therapy! Christ infused strength into his body. Joints are instantly strengthened. Muscles are instantly formed. And a man who had been lying on a bed for 38 years gets up and walks! Only the Son of God himself could do such a thing!
Remember that these miracles are presented to us as signs. What we see in this sign is that when Jesus speaks a command, he gives what is lacking so that what he wills comes to pass.
Augustine said to God, “Command what you will; only give what you command.” What he was saying was something like this: “Lord, you can command what you want, but the problem is that I do not have the capacity to do what you command.”
- “You can say to me that I must love you with all my heart, but I don’t have that in me.”
- “You can tell me to love my neighbor as myself, but I love myself more.”
- “When you tell me to repent, but I find that I want to hold onto my sins.”
- “When you tell me to believe, I find that I am more inclined to trust myself, or my friends, or my money than to trust in you.”
Augustine was saying, “So, you can command what you will, but the only way anything good is ever going to happen in my life is if you give what you command!”
Can you see that this is exactly what Jesus does here? Our Lord gives a command that is absolutely impossible for this man: “Take up your bed and walk.” And with the command, he gave the man an ability that he did not have before. So, to his own great surprise, the man who was without strength, without hope, and even without faith, finds that he now has the capacity to respond to the word of Jesus.
“At once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (5:9). The point of this story is not that faith makes what Jesus does possible. The point is that what Jesus does makes faith possible.
The good news for the person who is without strength, without hope, or without faith today is that Jesus Christ can give these to you! And when he calls you to believe, he gives the capacity with the command.
This takes us back to the great theme announced at the beginning of John’s Gospel that we picked up on last week – “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
The fact that this man had been suffering for 38 years would surely have brought to mind for any thinking Jewish readers, and for anyone familiar with the Old Testament, another story about languishing in frustration for 38 years.
Moses led God’s people to the edge of the Promised Land. They sent out spies into the land, who came back with a report that the land was flowing with milk and honey. But there were also giants in the land, and the majority report was that God’s people were simply not strong enough to take possession of the land. Caleb and Joshua made the case that God was with his people, and that he would give them the ability to possess the land.
But the people turned back and wandered in the desert, without strength, without hope, and without faith. How long did that go on? “And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn to them” (Dt. 2:14).
The wandering and frustration lasted 38 years! And they never got in. Moses got a glimpse of the Promised Land, but even he died in the desert. The law gives you a view of the blessed life that God calls you to lead. But only Jesus can bring you into that life. That is what he came into the world to do.
Here is the difference between Jesus and the law: The law tells you what to do, but it can’t give you the power to do it. Jesus tells you what to do, and he gives you the power to do it. That is where strength, hope, and faith begin. It begins because the Son of God has come. It does not begin in us. It begins in him.
Listen to how the apostle Paul puts it: “God has done what the law… could not do” (Rom. 8:3). What could the law not do? The law could not forgive past sins and it could not empower future obedience.
So, how did God do what the law could not do? He did it “by sending his own Son…” What did the Son of God do, that would forgive past sins and empower future obedience?
- “He condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). By dying on the cross, where his flesh was torn and his blood was shed, Jesus Christ made provision for all of our past sins.
- But it does not end there. He rose from the dead, and as the living Lord and the ascended Savior, he works by his Holy Spirit to give strength, hope, and faith.
- He did all this “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3-4).
Good news for the person without strength, hope, or faith
I was reading this week about a woman who endured a long period of darkness and depression. When, by God’s grace, she finally got relief, this was her testimony: “I realized after all these years that I was looking to find in myself what I needed to find in him.”
The good news for the person without strength, without hope, and without faith today does not lie in you. It lies in Jesus. There is a Savior who can be trusted, and in him there is hope and there is strength for you.
“These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). There is a Savior whose Word brings strength to the powerless, hope to the hopeless, and faith to the faithless. May his Word bring new strength, new hope, and new faith to all of us today.
 William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Daily Study Bible, Vol. 1, p.175, Westminster John Knox, 2001.
© Colin S. Smith
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