What would it be like to be suffering from an illness for thirty-eight years? Would you have a yearning to be made whole, to be made well? And what if, in the midst of the misery of your illness, the Lord Jesus Himself, God in human flesh, came to you and offered to make you well? How would you respond? And then, if Jesus miraculously healed your physical illness, what would be your reaction? This article is a study from the gospel of John in the New Testament of the Bible. In John 5:1-16, we meet a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years, lying day after day beside a pool in Jerusalem. We will consider what we can learn from this man’s encounter with Jesus and what it may say about our own response to Jesus.
After His encounter with the woman at the well (John 4), Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for one of the feasts of the Jews (John 5:1). There in Jerusalem, Jesus sees a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years lying by the pool called Bethesda. Jesus asks this man a simple question: “Do you want to be healed?”
One would think that this question would get an immediate and predictable answer. “Of course, I want to be healed! I have been an invalid for thirty-eight years and I long to be well.” But it is interesting that the invalid does not give that answer. In fact, the man does not answer Jesus’ question at all, but instead blames his sickness on his inability to get into the waters of the pool when they are stirred up. There seems to be some sort of legend about the pool’s healing powers, and this man claims that his hope is that he will eventually be the one that gets healed by the stirred waters.
That remedy seems like a longshot. To me, it really sounds like the man may not want to get healed. He has been an invalid thirty-eight years and he long ago accepted this as normal. And being an invalid is not such a bad life. You get to lie by the pool all day long asking people to give you money and trying to look pitiful. If anyone tries to make you work, you can just plead that you are a helpless invalid. Getting well would make you liable to work and to make something out of your life. Maybe he just prefers to stay where he is.
Despite the man’s lame (pun intended) answer, Jesus heals the man of his sickness and tells him to take up his bed and walk. The man does what Jesus asks and runs right into “the Jews.” These religious leaders remind him that he should not carry his bed on the Sabbath (10). They ask him, “Who told you to take up your bed and walk?” The man replies that he does not know. Later Jesus finds him again and tells him to sin no more (14). The man takes that opportunity to tell the Jews that Jesus is the one who made him break the Sabbath (15).
The purpose of Jesus’ healing miracles was not primarily to provide physical healing to people. The primary purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to provide evidence for who He was. He was the promised Messiah and His miracles and “signs” confirmed His identity.
Another spiritual benefit of reading these attesting miracles of Jesus is to see how the people who were healed responded to the Lord. These responses are examples to us to show us either how to respond or how not to respond to Jesus in our lives.
In this encounter, we see how not to respond to Jesus. This man was physically healed by Jesus, but his life was basically unchanged, and his heart remained as cold and dead as a stone. Notice the evidence of his spiritual condition. The man has been thirty-eight years by the pool but is still trusting in a legend or a myth, so there is no evidence of faith, either before or after his healing. He has two face-to-face encounters with Jesus the Son of God, and yet the man still does not even know Jesus’ name. The man is healed of his affliction, yet he does not even give Jesus thanks (Luke 17:15). Instead of giving Jesus thanks and praise, the man turns Jesus in to those who oppose Him. In this sense, the man seems almost like Judas, in that he betrays Jesus. Though physically healed, the man is unchanged. This man gives no evidence that Jesus has made a difference in his life.
Compare this to other healings in the gospels and you will see a dramatic difference. Consider, for example, the man born blind in John 9. After being healed by Jesus, he declares to the crowd that he is the one who was born blind and now sees (9:9). He knows Jesus’ name right away and testifies that it was Jesus who gave him sight (9:11). He identifies Jesus as a prophet (9:17) and, before a band of hostile religious leaders (“the Jews”), he boldly states that he was blind, but now he sees (9:25), and Jesus was the one that made that happen. He does not back down when these men threaten him and then is willing to get thrown out of the synagogue rather than deny Jesus (32-24). To cap it all off, when the man encounters Jesus again, he confesses Jesus as “Lord,” testifies to his faith in Jesus, and then worships Jesus (38). Now, that’s evidence! This man’s life and eternity were evidently changed by his encounter with Jesus.
Or think about the demoniac in Luke 8. His story begins as Jesus and His disciples cross the lake to go to the other (Gentile) side of the Sea of Galilee (8:26). When they meet the man, he is naked and running around in the tombs screaming in the night because he is possessed by a Legion of demons. In his free time, he hangs around with herds of pigs and breaks chains and shackles. He is as lost as could be imagined. Following a brief conversation, Jesus casts out the demons from the man by commanding them to go into the herd of pigs, which promptly runs into the lake and is drowned. We next see the man “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind (Luke 8:35).” He is a changed man! When Jesus was getting into the boat to return, the man “begged that he might be with Him (8:38),” but Jesus gives him a different assignment. “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you (39). And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.” In an afternoon, the man was changed from a demoniac to an evangelist, begging Jesus to let him accompany Him. Now that’s evidence!
There are many other examples of people who encountered Jesus and were dramatically changed. Consider Bartimaeus in Luke 18:35-43 or Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. There is the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 or the healed leper in Luke 17:11-16. Often when people encountered Jesus, their lives were forever changed and there was evidence that testified to that fact.
Often that is the case, but not always. Tragically, what we see in the gospel records is that some people encountered the incarnate Son of God and even received healing from Him, and yet went away fundamentally unchanged. This invalid by the pool of Bethesda is one of the tragic cases. Twice he is face-to-face with the Savior and yet goes away not knowing or caring about Jesus’ name. There is no evidence.
How does this reality that all who encounter Jesus are not changed bear upon our lives? There are two applications that occur to me, one in relation to my own testimony and my personal walk with the Lord Jesus, and another one that touches on my evangelism.
First, I want to be sure that I do not appear to others to be a man who is indifferent to Jesus. That is, I want to learn from the healed invalid that a person who has encountered Jesus should be changed and should give evidence of that change. I want to be a man who is known for having met and been changed by Jesus. After his encounter with Jesus, the invalid disappeared into the crowd and had no influence on anyone, but I want to be a person who “proclaims the excellencies of Him who called me out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).” I want “to know Him (Jesus), and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10).” I want to never be accused of being lukewarm (Revelation 3:16) and thus being vomited out of Jesus’ mouth. So, one application is to be sure that the volume on my testimony about Jesus is on “high.”
But second, I think there is an application here regarding our expectations in evangelism. What I mean is that even the most faithful witness for the Lord Jesus will encounter many people like the invalid by the pool. In my experience, the vast majority of people are content to go through life on the path of least resistance. Having never tasted true life or true joy, they are satisfied with what life and joy they have. Thinking about your own sin and about a holy God who rules the universe and about eternal judgment is hard work, especially in our culture. Why not just lie by the pool and sip a latte and scroll through Twitter feeds on your cell phone? My point is that we cannot let the unbeliever’s indolence and indifference diminish our zeal for the gospel. We must continue to hold out the good news to all who will listen, while expecting that most will disappear into the crowd. Jesus is the most fascinating and captivating Person in all of human history. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and He is coming back soon to judge the living and the dead. Let’s sow the seed whenever we can and pray that the Lord of the harvest will gather many souls through us.
SDG rmb 5/8/2020