I’ve always been fascinated by the inner workings of a clock or watch. Back in the 1980’s I wanted a Swatch watch that had a clear face so that the gears were visible. (Yes, I know that statement dates me!) I am intrigued by how the separate gears fit together to cause other gears around it to also move.
Cogs or gears are wheels that have teeth and indentions along the edge and they are designed to connect with other gears that are next to them. Corporately, they work together to cause an action. Gears and cogs are used in a lot of everyday items such as bicycles, windup toys, computers, and automobiles. No matter the device, the idea of gears is the same. The cogs from different wheels will connect for a brief moment, then move away from each other to make a connection with a different wheel or gear. All of this is necessary in order for the device to do what it is designed to do. Take a watch for example. If one of the wheels doesn’t move, then the surrounding wheels will eventually stop. There’s nothing that propels them or causes them to move unless someone intervenes and causes the one non-functioning wheel to move. Even if the other wheels try to move, they wouldn’t be able to because the cogs of that one wheel would prevent them from doing so. It’s only when the cogs intersect, make a connection, and go their separate ways that the minute hand and the second hand move forward so that the watch does what it’s supposed to do which is to give the time of day.
I like to envision God looking down at the earth, watching us, as gears, wheels, and cogs, intersecting with one another to serve Him. Can you imagine looking down on 8 billion people that inhabit the earth and seeing all the connections, the intersections that take place that dramatically change people’s lives and send them in different directions? Whether we realize it or not, our actions or sometimes, our inactions affect those around us.
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” – Jane Goodall
Today’s story is a great example of an intersection that drastically changes the lives of not just two people, but billions of people.
The first thing that is worth mentioning here is that this takes place near the Sheep Gate. If you recall from our studies in Nehemiah,
“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 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. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?’” John 5:1 NIV
The first thing to note is that this takes place near the Sheep Gate. If you were here when we studied the book of Nehemiah (specifically the 3rd chapter), we discussed the building of the wall when Jerusalem was being rebuilt and reinhabited by the Israelites. Positioned in the wall were ten gates which all served a specific purpose. The first gate that is mentioned is the Sheep Gate and it was used as the entrance for people to bring in their sheep for sacrificial purposes. Its close location to the Temple made it quite convenient for this reason. I’m hoping that you remember that the ten gates around the wall were also symbolic of the spiritual birth in each of us. The Sheep Gate, is considered the starting point for every Believer. Everything in our spiritual life begins with the offering of the Lamb of God who is Jesus Christ. This is also the only gate out of the ten that is consecrated which signifies that it is holy.
The fact that today’s scene takes place near the Sheep Gate is significant because the One who made the ultimate sacrifice for each of us meets a man who needs a new beginning. The man who was helpless was meeting The Helper Himself.
The second thing to mention is the name of the pool – Bethesda. Bethesda means “house of mercy”. After suffering for thirty-eight years, this man was in need of compassion and kindness. He sought mercy in his struggle to obtain healing. There was a spring nearby that fed into the pool. The belief was, and even some Scripture suggests that ” an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease be had.” (John 5:4 NKJV)
The third thing I want to point out is that there are five colonnades or porches surrounding the pool. The number “5” in the Bible is symbolic of grace.[i]
This interaction takes place in the “house of mercy” located near the entrance for the sacrificial lambs and is surrounded by a number of porches that signifies grace. Mercy, grace, and sacrifice all rolled up in just the first few verses.
This gathering place was no hospital or clinic of any kind. No disinfectants, no medical professionals, only people will all sorts of afflictions gathering there day in and day out, longing for healing. Various scripture refers to the kinds of diseases that were represented there. Blind, lame, paralyzed, sick, invalid, ailing, impotent, withered, limping, disabled, crippled, cancerous, ill, and weak. A very sad and unfortunate scene, isn’t it?
We’ve all become more germ conscious since COVID, but even before 2020, most of us wouldn’t relish spending a lot of time in a waiting room at the doctor’s office or hospital because of the potential of catching something. So can you imagine the atmosphere that would have been in place at the pool of Bethesda? The moaning of discomfort. The cries of pain. The smells of disease. It couldn’t have been a pleasant environment. Everyone who is there is afflicted in some way. The desperation had to be overwhelming.
We are introduced to this man who remains nameless much like the woman at the well. This man we are told has been afflicted for 38 years. We don’t know precisely what his condition is, but we do know that he isn’t able to move on his own. Jesus approaches this man and His comment indicates that He knows that he has been in this condition for a long time. However, the first thing that Jesus says to the man is a question. And the question is “do you want to be made well?” That would seem like a redundant question, wouldn’t it?
That would be like taking your car to the service department and being asked if you wanted to have your car serviced. Or going to your hairdresser and being asked if you wanted to have something done with your hair. It would seem that the man certainly would want to be made well if he were spending his time at the pool known for its healing.
But we know that Jesus does not ask redundant or meaningless questions so why would He have posed this question? Because if this man were to be made well, his entire life will change. Not only will he be able to move on his own and not rely on others, but what will he do with his time now that he no longer needs healing? An able-bodied man would have been expected to go to work, and provide for himself, and his family. He would be required to contribute to society in new ways. He would not have been able to ride the victim train, so to speak, any longer. Being healed would have created drastic changes in his everyday life. So, the question, “do you want to be made well” was valid.
We often pray for healing or relief from some affliction or crippling and not recognizing or fully comprehend the changes that must take place should that healing occur. For example, we may and ask God to help us forgive someone who has done us wrong, but we’re not willing to let go of any bitterness or anger we feel toward that person. For those of us who worry, we may ask God to release us from that bondage, but we don’t want to lose our tight grip on the control over situations we think we have by worrying about them. I have to think that praying for healing may sometimes just be a superficial way of admitting that there is a part of us that we know isn’t right, but we are not always willing or desiring to be healed because that would mean giving up something we aren’t willing to give up. Our affliction or illness or disease or however you choose to look at it may involve gossip, lying, food, alcohol, material things, smoking, pornography, laziness, pride, prejudices, anger, the need to always be right, and any other vice that is displeasing to God. If we ask God to “heal us” then we must be prepared for changes in our life.
“Do you want to be made well?“
When Jesus asks this man if he wants to be made well, it’s a genuine question. This man has been living with this affliction for so long that he most likely doesn’t know what it’s like to be without it. Jesus seems to be attempting to show the man how impossible his current situation is and to prompt the man to decide if he’s truly willing to experience a change in his situation.
Perhaps I’m being unjustly cynical here, but when I read the man’s response in verse 7, I think this is why Jesus point-blank asked him if he wanted to be made well.
John 5:7 CEB “The sick man answered him, “Sir, I don’t have anyone who can put me in the water when it is stirred up. When I’m trying to get to it, someone else has gotten in ahead of me.”
Perhaps it’s just me, but I detect an excuse in his response. I may be completely wrong in my theory because, after all, I wasn’t there. But the logically thinking person would assume that anyone who was earnestly seeking the healing would, at some point in their many, many hours by this healing pool, poise themselves so that they would have a better chance. His response is that he doesn’t have anyone to put him in the water. But he also indicates that he is able to move himself to some degree, albeit slowly, because he attempts to get in the pool of his own accord.
I don’t want to sound accusatory toward this man. After all, we’ll see that his interaction with Jesus is a major cog that causes major change. There is no doubt in my mind that this man was right where he was supposed to be, in the condition he was in, at the time he was there, so that he connected with Jesus, even if just briefly.
For our own personal growth, let’s assume, for just a moment, that the disabled man was making excuses for his lack of healing up to this point. Before we criticize him for that, let’s do some self-examination. Whatever affliction you may have, do you make excuses for not allowing God to heal you of it? Let me give you some examples.
You know that God could help you in forgiving a certain person and you may have felt the Holy Spirit nudging you to do so, but that person doesn’t deserve your forgiveness. Not after what they did.
You recognize that Scripture tells us we aren’t to worry, but you can’t help it. You were born this way.
Time and time again, you find yourself not only listening to but also repeating rumors about people. You’ve done it so often and for so long, you don’t even see it as sinful. After all, you’re only sharing the information so that others can be “praying” for the person(s) involved.
It’s as if we go near the pool of healing for whatever affliction we have, but we don’t make too much of an effort to actually get in the water. We plant ourselves right there on the edge. Close enough to get splashed, but not close enough to be healed. But it’s hard to let go of bad habits. Even when we admit to ourselves that what we’re doing is wrong and is displeasing to God. We position ourselves right by the edge hoping that it’s close enough. There’s an internal struggle going on, though, because while we desire to be swimming in the healing waters, we also want to maintain our grasp on that habit. We teeter-totter on the edge, making excuses because the truth is, we’re just not entirely sure we’re ready to be healed. It may appear to others that we’re doing our best to immerse ourselves in His living waters, but God knows our hesitancy. God knows that we can easily become attached to or addicted to our afflictions and sinfulness.
John 8:34 GNT “Jesus said to them, “I am telling you the truth: everyone who sins is a slave of sin.”
This man by the pool was a slave to his condition. He knew his diagnosis. He knew his limitations. He’s confronted by Jesus and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” His answer to Jesus is essentially this. “It’s too hard.”
That’s the bottom line for us, as well, isn’t it? It’s too hard to change bad habits. Research suggests that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to break a habit.[ii] It’s especially hard when we’ve had a bad habit or affliction for a long period of time. That bad habit becomes as natural to us as whatever disability this man by the pool had. But we know that the Bible tells us, “God helps those who help themselves”, right? Well, the Bible doesn’t say that. That phrase has long been assumed to be based on Scripture, but it’s nowhere in God’s Word. Its origin is disputed, but it’s been found in Aesop’s Fables and is also accredited to Benjamin Franklin. God didn’t authorize it as Scripture because, well, it’s not completely true. It wasn’t true for this man by the pool, and it isn’t true for us.
Psalm 146:5-6 BSB “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. He remains faithful forever.”
God will often help those who can’t help themselves, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to do anything. John 5:8 NIV “Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.”
This is Rev. Joseph Benson’s commentary on that verse. “A strange command to be given to an impotent man, that had been long disabled; but this divine word was to be the vehicle of a divine power; it was a command to the disease to be gone, to nature to be strong. But it is expressed as a command to him to exert himself. He must rise and walk, that is, attempt to do so, and, in the essay, he shall receive strength.”[iii]
When Jesus tells you to do something, He also gives you the strength to carry it out. If you sense that He’s telling you to let someone know they’re forgiven, He empowers you to do just that. If you feel as if He’s telling you to stop a rumor from spreading, even if it’s the juiciest bit of gossip you’ve heard in a long time, guess what? He enables you to silence it. If you’ve been doing great on eating healthier and exercising more, and yet, you can’t help but notice the glowing red neon sign at Krispy Kreme, Jesus says in Matthew 19:26 ESV “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
I think it’s important to outline the sequence of events between this man and Jesus.
- Jesus approaches him.
- Jesus asks if he wants to be well.
- The man indicates he’s tried but hasn’t been successful.
- Jesus tells the man to get up.
- Jesus tells the man to pick up his mat and walk.
- The man is cured.
- Then the man picks up his mat and walks.
The healing took place after Jesus gave the command, but before the man did anything. The man didn’t say, “I can’t!” and Jesus didn’t have to prove that He had any authority or ability to heal this man. At this moment, this brief moment, just like two cogs fitting together to cause something to take place, the man’s response to this connection with Jesus prompts him to obey. Despite thirty-eight years of being an invalid, all it took was Jesus’ words to make this man determined to do what he had never been able to do. Jesus moved and it caused this man to move as well.
This connection between Jesus and this man set in motion major changes for both of them. John 5:9b NKJV “And that day was the Sabbath. 10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”
Working on the Sabbath was a violation of the law and was punishable by death. (Numbers 15:32-36) But step back for a minute and see what’s really happening. This man, who for thirty-eight years had been disabled is not only standing, he’s walking! And he’s walking without assistance! And he’s walking without assistance and able to carry his mat! But all that the legalistic Jews see is his violation of the law. They are so rigid they can’t rejoice.
And those people still exist! They’re in nearly every church. The music’s too loud or too contemporary so they don’t notice the section of youth deep in worship, with their hands raised because loud and contemporary music is what stirs them. The pastor doesn’t wear a tie and the choir doesn’t wear robes and the legalistic ones are so distracted by those things they don’t pay attention to the lives being touched and changed during the service.
Mark 7:5 GNT “So the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law asked Jesus, “Why is it that your disciples do not follow the teaching handed down by our ancestors, but instead eat with ritually unclean hands?”
6 Jesus answered them, “How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! You are hypocrites, just as he wrote:
‘These people, says God, honor me with their words,
but their heart is really far away from me.
7 It is no use for them to worship me,
because they teach human rules
as though they were my laws!’
8 “You put aside God’s command and obey human teachings.”
And then in verse 13, “In this way the teaching you pass on to others cancels out the word of God. And there are many other things like this that you do.” (Mark 7:13 GNT)
This interaction between Jesus and this man, and then the man and the Pharisees is a major turning point for, well, everyone. When the man is approached and condemned for violating the law, he responds by telling them that he’s been healed and was told to do so. When they demand to know who told him that, he’s unable to identify Jesus because he doesn’t know who Jesus is and Jesus had disappeared in the crowd.
But just like the cogs on a gear that meet up again, the man encounters Jesus once again. The man goes to the Temple. We aren’t told why, but I would like to think that he went to offer his worship and express his thankfulness. While he’s there, he reconnects with Jesus. He then tells the Pharisees that it was Jesus and nothing was ever the same. John 5:16 ESV “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
We know part of the rest of the story. They didn’t give up until Jesus, the Healer, the Helper, was nailed to that cross. He was pursued, persecuted, and punished. But that was all part of God’s plan. And He used a disabled man who had nothing to offer but an ailment, a disability, and obedience to Jesus’ command.
As God watched that day at the pool of Bethesda, He saw the brief connection between Jesus and this man that forever changed their lives as well as ours. Jesus died for our sins and we have the opportunity for a new life because of that. We don’t know what happened to the man, but we do know this his life was never the same.
I imagine that after thirty-eight years, it wasn’t painless for that man to stand and walk, but he did it. Sometimes, we don’t want to obey Jesus’ command to get up because it’s going to hurt, we think we can’t or maybe we just find ourselves a little too comfortable to change. How disappointing it must be for God to see us not moving because of comfort, fearfulness, or stubbornness. To watch us waste our time at the edge of the healing water, afraid and unwilling to get in. Knowing that the change He intends for us will not only change us but others as well.
“There is no growth without change, no change without fear or loss, and no loss without pain.”