Key Verse: 5:8
“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.’”
In this passage, Jesus meets an unusual man whose situation is extreme. Jesus
changes the situation and gives him a new life. But the man does not accept this gift with
gratitude. It’s not easy to get up from a life of weakness and sin. But Jesus gives us the
power to do so. Let’s see how Jesus helps this man and learn how he wants to help us.
Part 1: Welcome to Bethesda (1-4) Look at verses 2-3: “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. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind,
the lame, the paralyzed.” When I hear the word “Bethesda,” I think of Bethesda, Maryland,
a northwest suburb of Washington, DC. Bethesda is the headquarters of NIH—the National
Institutes of Health—which oversees and funds all kinds of medical research in America.
With funding from the NIH, scientists have made amazing progress in treating infections,
cancers and heart disease. We have been blessed with the ability and resources to help
people with all kinds of disease and infirmity. In the time of Jesus, there was no NIH.
Instead they had a pool called Bethesda on the east side of Jerusalem, just north of the
temple. All kinds of disabled people went there in the hope of being healed.
According to tradition, from time to time an angel of the Lord would come and stir up
the water, and when the water moved, the first one into the pool would be cured of
whatever disease he had (verse 4 footnote). Modernists like me will instinctively scoff at
this idea and call it a legend. It’s unscientific, therefore it cannot be true. Well, there are
many things that can’t be explained by science. Personally, I doubt that this pool had any
special power. If anyone was helped, it may be because he believed that he would. The
waters of the pool acted as a placebo, and placebo effects are real. The lucky person who
got to the water first would undoubtedly be one of the strongest and fittest. You could say
that being well caused him to get to the pool, rather than getting to the pool caused him to
Whether or not this pool had any healing powers, it certainly attracted a lot of attention.
A huge number of disabled people crowded around the pool, waiting for a chance to climb
into the water. Getting to the pool first was like winning the lottery. The chance that any one
of them could be healed was slim to none. But these people had nowhere else to go and
nothing else to put their hope in. Day after day they hung around the pool, commiserating
about their sufferings. They tried to be friendly and share one another’s concerns. But
soon arguments and fights would often break out. Lucky was the man who managed to sit
in the front row right at the water’s edge. But if he ever got up to go to the bathroom, he
would immediately lose his spot and have to move to the back. It became an endurance
contest to see who could go the longest without eating or sleeping or going to the
bathroom. And whenever the waters started to move, it became “every man for himself.”
There would be pushing, shoving and yelling. One lucky person would jump in first, leaving
everyone else behind in disappointment and despair.
The apostle John’s description of this tragic scene is a brilliant picture of our human
condition. Each of us has some kind of handicap that makes us unhappy. Life isn’t fair.
Some people are born into privilege and wealth, others are born into poverty. Some have
amazing natural talents, abilities or intelligence; they are able to do things easily, while the
rest of us struggle to keep up. Some are physically attractive, while others look weird or
funny. Some are naturally outgoing and confident, while others are full of anxiety and self
doubt. We may not be physically disabled like the people at the Bethesda pool. But at the
end of the day, each of us is a feeble human being, constrained by our frailty and
despairing in our weakness.
Like the people at the pool of Bethesda, we live in competition with one another. It’s a
dog-eat-dog world. Outwardly people try to be considerate and nice. But once those
waters start to move, watch out! Brothers and sisters will fight to the death over who gets
the last bowl of Captain Crunch. Shoppers at the mall will fight over who gets to buy the
last Nintendo Wii. Eminent scientists and researchers will fight over who gets to be first
author on a published paper. According to a recent study, 23 percent of single American
women regularly go to church, but only 15 percent of single men do. Some churches have
an abundance of unmarried women in their 30’s but a shortage of eligible bachelors. They
say that when an attractive single man walks in through the door, those waters start to
move, and the race begins.
And like the disabled people at the pool of Bethesda, so many of us are waiting for
something to make our lives better. We know that we have a problem. But instead of
getting up and doing something about it, we passively lie around, denying the problem or
hoping against hope that it will get better all by itself. Instead of putting our faith in God
and working to solve the problem, we start whining that it’s just too hard, and that no one is
helping us. We blame others. We blame our parents. We blame the politicians. We
blame “the system.” When we do this, we are ultimately blaming God. All of our human
ailments can be traced back to the original sin of our forefather Adam. When Adam sinned,
the first thing he did was to run and hide. The next thing he did was to blame the situation
on his wife and on God (Ge 3:8-12). Life has dealt each person a set of cards. No two
people have the same cards. But God is sovereign over all human life. No matter who we
are, no matter what the situation may be, he can bless us and work for our good (Ro 8:28).
The Lord can turn our darkness into light (2Sa 22:29). Yet in practice this can be so
difficult to believe. Instead of applying our faith in God, how easy it is to just lie down at the
pool and despair. Welcome to Bethesda.
Part 2: “Do you want to get well?” (5-6) Ever since the original sin of Adam, this pool of
Bethesda has been our universal human condition. But everything was changed by the
arrival of Jesus. Look at verses 5-6: “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight
years. 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?’” As Jesus walked around the pool, he
must have been overwhelmed by the stench of disease and filth. He must have been
overwhelmed by the depths of despair and human sorrow. During this year’s presidential
campaign, some people have been saying, “Jesus was a community organizer.” If Jesus
were a community organizer, he would have gathered up the disabled people, convinced
them that their misery was caused by bad government, and marched with them to the
governor to demand more funding for health care.
Jesus is not a community organizer. Jesus is the Savior of the world. As the Savior of
the world, what did he do in response to this tragedy? He quietly found one person and
helped him very personally. The man that Jesus found had been an invalid for thirty-eight
years. Thirty-eight years is practically a lifetime. In thirty-eight years, the world changes
many times over. Thirty-eight years ago, Richard Nixon was in the White House; the
Beatles disbanded; young people were protesting the Vietnam War; and the most popular
TV show was Marcus Welby, M.D. This poor invalid man had been lying on his mat year
after year, watching all his life opportunities slip away. He was too old to get a job. He was
too old to get married. He was completely washed up. Yet he remained by the poolside,
still waiting for something to happen, even though his rational mind told him it was useless.
Look again at verse 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?’” The question
that Jesus asked was simple. The man could have said, “Duh! Why do you think I’m here?”
But this question of Jesus is truly profound. This question penetrates to the depths of the
soul. On one level, of course this man wanted to get well. But on a deeper level, did he
really want to get well? Did he really think that he could get well? Did he have even a
spark of hope?
Hope is the food of the human spirit. If we have hope, we live; without hope, we die.
The disabled people in this passage were desperate. Society did not help them and
medical science could not cure them. But they were not ready to despair. They were
human beings with an instinct to live. They looked for something, anything, to put their
hope in. They desperately wanted their lives to change. By going to the pool each day,
they could escape into a convenient fantasy. Each one imagined how wonderful it would
be if he were the lucky one.
After 38 years, this man had grown accustomed to his misery. He was becoming a
man without hope. When Jesus asked him, "Do you want to get well?", Jesus was working
to reawaken his hope. Jesus wanted to ignite in his heart a new passion and a burning
desire to be healed. Jesus wanted to give him a vision that he could really be changed and
experience a new and joyful life. Jesus, the Son of God, could easily heal his broken body.
But Jesus wanted to repair his broken soul by giving him hope. If a man has a smidgeon
of hope, then he can thrive even if his body is sick and dying. But if a man has no hope
left, not even Jesus can help him.
Jesus' question, "Do you want to get well?" is not just for the invalid man. Each of us
has problems that rob us of happiness. We struggle for a while with these problems. But
after much struggling and little success, we give up and resigne ourselves to a life of
failure. One man we know is obese. He did not always weigh 400 pounds. Not so long
ago, he was an undergraduate in his final year at Penn State, just a few credits away from
a degree in architecture. But something happened in his senior year. Perhaps he became
discouraged by one or more small failures. He decided to take time off from his studies
and work at the bookstore. In his depression, he also began to overeat. He believed that
he would go back and finish his college degree, but it didn’t happen. As the years went by,
the field of architecture and design changed rapidly and most of his credits no longer
counted. He imagined that one day he would go on a diet and lose his extra pounds. But
that didn’t happen either. As his weight increased, he lost one job, then another, and then
lost his apartment. He considered himself a victim and wanted to sue his former employer.
He applied for benefits from the state and was classified as “permanently disabled.”
Doctors recommended surgery to reduce the size of his stomach. But he didn’t want to lose
the joy of eating. Now he stays in his basement and can walk only a few steps at a time. I
believe that he still struggles against despair. But he has also given in to his debilitating
condition. This story is sad. But in many ways we are not much different from him. Each of
us has a tendency to say, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” lose hope and remain as we are.
When we have no more hope for ourselves, Jesus has hope for us. The desire to
better ourselves does not come from vanity and sinful pride. It comes from the voice of
Jesus, the God of Hope. Jesus is asking us, “Do you want to get well?”
Part 3: “Get up!” (7-9a). How did the man respond? Look at verse 7. "Sir, I have no one
to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else
goes down ahead of me." This man deflected the question. Instead, he complained about
heartless people who did nothing to help him. He blamed the other disabled people who
got in ahead of him. He spoke words of bitterness and defeat. Failures in life are truly
painful and bitter. After failure, many of us give in to mediocrity. But we must never allow a
defeated spirit to remain in us. We must never look at our past failures and conclude that
victory is impossible.
How did Jesus help the man who was overwhelmed by a spirit of defeat? Look at verse
8: "Then Jesus said to him, 'Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.'" “Get up!” It sounds like a
rebuke. That’s exactly what it was. Jesus was rebuking the physical disability. Jesus was
also rebuking his hopelessness and lack of faith. Jesus was rebuking his dim view of God,
for thinking that God could not or would not help him. Jesus spoke this command with the
full authority of the Creator. Jesus' word overpowered this man and gave his decrepit will
the power to get up. It was as though this man borrowed Jesus' will for a moment.
Philippians 2:13 says, "...for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his
good purpose." Jesus can restore our weak wills and make us strong in our decisions to do
well. Jesus says to us, "Get up!" to restore our willpower by the power of his word.
Jesus also told this man to pick up his mat. Jesus made it very clear that he should not
be a burden to others any longer. Jesus commanded him to begin a new life as a
responsible man and a blessing to others. Jesus wanted him to clean up his room and
make his bed. Jesus wanted him to get a proper job to support himself and his family, give
generously to the work of God and pay his taxes. Jesus wanted him to live for the glory of
God ad display the work of God in his life. When this man heard Jesus' words, the
paralysis was drive from his body. His withered muscles became thick and powerful. His
chicken-leg bones become like steel. By the strength of the word of Jesus, he got up,
picked up his mat and walked.
In a famous book called Poor Richard’s Almanac (1757), Benjamin Franklin wrote: “God
helps those who help themselves.” This expresses the wonderful spirit of independence
and self reliance that Americans are known for. It also reminds us of a deep spiritual truth:
God really does help us when we depend on him. In these times of economic uncertainty,
we cannot look to the government to help us, because the government has no money. We
should not fantasize about winning the lottery, because in the end money is just worthless
paper. We must entrust our lives to God. We must listen to the voice of Jesus. Obeying
Jesus is never easy. But Jesus will give us all the strength we need to get up.
Part 4: “Stop sinning” (9b-15). When the man obeyed the voice of Jesus, he
experienced a great victory. But in verses 9b-15, this story takes a tragic turn. Legalistic
religious leaders criticized the man: "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your
mat." They did not recognize the work of God. Instead they criticized the man for breaking
one of their unbiblical customs. The former invalid was intimidated by them. He reverted to
his old habit of avoiding responsibility and blaming others. This time he blamed Jesus who
told him to pick up his mat on the Sabbath. The religious leaders asked the man who
healed him. But the man had no idea who it was. How could he not know who Jesus was?
He received a wonderful gift of healing from Jesus. But he didn’t stop to say, “Thank you.”
He didn’t bother to find out Jesus’ name. He made no relationship with Jesus at all.
Although the man’s body had been healed, his soul was still very sick with sin. It was not
his sick body that had made him a wretched man. It was the sin in his soul. Sin had taken
away his hope. Sin had made him thankless. Sin took away the holy desire from his heart
and filled him with selfish and dirty desires. This reminds us of Romans 1:21: "For although
they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking
became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened."
Look at verse 14. "Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, 'See, you are
well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.'" It is amazing that Jesus
found this man. Jesus came to him again to give him another command that could heal his
soul and change his life. Jesus really wanted him to acknowledge that he had been healed
and to become thankful and happy and normal. But Jesus also gave him a stern warning: If
he did not repent, something worse would happen to him. What could be worse than living
as a paralytic for thirty-eight years? There is something much worse. It is to be cut off
from the love of God and be condemned and spend eternity in condemnation and
punishment. Did the man take Jesus' warning? Verse 15 says: "The man went away and
told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well." Tragically, the man rejected
Jesus’ warning and went to the authorities. Because of the sin that was still in his heart, he
betrayed the one who healed him and gave him a new life. Outwardly he had been healed,
but inwardly he became more wretched than before because he refused to listen to Jesus
and stop sinning.
From this passage, let’s remember the life-giving words of Jesus: “Do you want to get
well?” “Get up!” “Stop sinning.” Let’s not give in to the despair of repeated failure. May
God help us to hear the voice of Jesus. May God reawaken your hope and give us the
strength to get up from our sins and live a new life in him.