Jesus heads to Jerusalem, the capital city—Head Honcho headquarters of all things Jewish. In the book of John, it’s also a symbol of Jesus’ conflict: Jerusalem is the lair of the “wolves” who want to devour him.
He went to a healing shrine there: the pool of Bethesda. You can already smell the confrontation coming: the Great Healer, Jesus, heading to the Healing Pool in Jerusalem (this pool has been found by archaeologists, by the way). It was mobbed with people—the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. If you ask me, it already shows the place to be a bit of a sham, because if it really did have healing power, all of these people could have been back home already. Regardless, the place looked more like an emergency room than a recovery room. Medicine was not well advanced in those days, and these people didn’t have much hope of recovery or healing.
The story focuses on one man: an invalid for 38 years. Well, that clearly shows that the pool wasn’t helping much, nor that doctors could do anything for the man. Thirty-eight years tells us that recovery by any ordinary means was out of the question. Talk about helpless and hopeless.
This is the man Jesus approaches, but I notice he is more interested in the man’s spiritual condition than his physical health, even though he cared about the man’s health, too. “Do you want to get well?” What is your heart thinking? Jesus had taken the initiative, but he can’t act against a person’s free will. After 38 years, and who knows how much disappointment and maybe bitterness and cynicism have built up. It was a question that would definitely demand a faith response.
The man didn’t answer the question, but blamed others: “Nobody helps me.” See, there was a popular belief at this pool that when the water stirred (probably when the natural springs bubbled in), the first person in the pool got healed. He didn’t seem to know who Jesus was. He didn’t think he was any kind of healer, apparently. He didn’t even directly ask Jesus to help him. The guy blamed his illness on his circumstances.
Jesus has heard enough. A healing pool that’s a sham, with a man next to it who is totally hopeless and helpless. It’s so sad what people believe in, and the pain they experience. Then Jesus says to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” What??? Did I just hear what I thought I heard? 38 years an invalid, and the guy just says “Hey, get up. time to walk!”
See it, believe it. “At once the man was cured. He picked up his mat and walked”—in front of dozens, or hundreds, of witnesses. The cure was both instantaneous and complete. What a day of rejoicing!! Oops (cue sinister music)—we find out it’s the Sabbath day, and there are RULES about not carrying things like mats. Oops. Don’t think that Jesus has made a mistake, though. Instead, he’s making a point.
The Jews in the vicinity were quick on the draw. “Hey, you with the mat! That’s against the LAW!” Well, I guess that’s debatable. Neh. 13.19 and Jer. 17.21, 22 forbid carrying a “burden” on the Sabbath. In this particular case they were straining a point, for a man carrying merchandise on the Sabbath was quite different from a sick man carrying his bed after being miraculously delivered. To object to this guy carrying his mat on the Sabbath was nothing less than a downright cruelty and was altogether contrary to the spirit of the Law. They were more concerned with their rules than with the glory that a man had been miraculously healed.
The man had a simple answer: The guy with the power of God in his words is the one who told me. Take it up with him.” With a sneer on their faces, they ask, “Show us which one he is.” The man couldn’t find Jesus, and didn’t even know who he was. Jesus wasn’t in this for the show and for the adulation of the crowd. He wasn’t trying to draw a crowd as a big-shot miracle worker.
Later, in the temple, Jesus came across the man again and said, “See, you are well. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Certainly not every accident or illness is the result of personal sin, but this is one evidence that at least some are. The “or something worse may happen to you” shows us that, as bad as 38 years of lameness are, there are worse things, and sin is certainly one of them. And judgment for sin will make the 38 years of lameness look like a picnic.
The Great Healer has shown the healing myths to be a sham, even in the mighty Jerusalem, by bringing true healing to a hopeless man. He has also shown their religious rules to be a sham, even in the mighty Jerusalem, advancing compassion and glory over religion. With Jesus, it’s never about religion.