Jesus’ Use of Signs: Healing the Infirm Man
“After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 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. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:1–14 ESV)
The purpose of John’s Gospel is to cause belief by recording the signs of Jesus (John 20:30-31). It is interesting, however, that John carefully selected only seven signs. In contrast, Mark recorded 22 miracles in the first eight chapters of his account. John used the word “sign” because he wanted his readers to see beyond the wonder of the miracle and recognize that these particular miracles have a message. John’s unveiling of signs in Revelation is more obvious. A sign of a dragon with seven heads and ten horns is intended to reveal a message about the nature of Satan. We get that. But we often miss the same intention when John records signs in his Gospel. John’s signs reveal Jesus as the God of the Old Testament who has come to fulfill his prophetic purposes. The healing of the infirm man is a good example of this.
Seeing the Key Facts in the Sign
First, John mentions the occasion: a feast of the Jews. The three yearly feasts were reminders of the great “exodus,” God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and provisional entrance into the Promised Land.
Next, we see a pool of water. It is healing water, though limited to the first person entering the water when the pool is stirred. Water also has an “exodus” picture. Moses was drawn out of water. Egypt is cursed when water is turned to blood. Israel is delivered through the water of the Red Sea, and God provided life-giving water in the wilderness. The prophets repeated these pictures, reminding Israel of past and future deliverance.
Then there is the Sabbath. Jesus did this sign on the Sabbath, which is also an “exodus” reminder. Deuteronomy 5:15 records that God commanded the Sabbath to remind Israel that he had delivered them with a mighty hand. By now, we are beginning to see the context of the sign. John intends for us to see an exodus picture as we examine the healing of the infirm man.
A Multitude of Invalids – Blind, Lame, and Paralyzed
Please take a mental journey to the pool of Bethesda. What do you see? There are not a few sick people here; there is a multitude. It is tragic, hopeless, depressing. The scene makes us want to turn our eyes away. We want to leave because it is painful to watch the agony and listen to the moans, and know there is nothing we or anyone else can do. Suddenly the water is stirred and there is a frantic scramble to be the first. But though there are a fortunate few, the multitude of invalids remains.
Jesus Comes to the Pool
There is something odd about how Jesus came to this place. It appears he does so quietly, even secretly. The apostles are not with him. No multitude is thronging him. The invalids do not recognize him. There is something else: Jesus does not heal the crowd of invalids. We are accustomed to seeing Jesus heal all who are in need. This time he healed only one. He choose one man, healed him, and disappeared. Not even the man knew who he was.
What is so special about this one man? Why did Jesus choose him? John only records two explanations. The man had been an invalid for 38 years and Jesus chose him because he knew he had already been there a long time. On the surface, that does not seem to be much of an explanation. But think for a moment about 38 years. Think about the sign. Where in scripture have you read about 38 years? There is only one place: Deuteronomy 2:14-15:
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. For indeed the hand of the LORD was against them, to destroy them from the camp, until they had perished.
Thirty-eight years is another “exodus” picture, and not a pretty one. For 38 years, Israel watched 603,548 men of war die, an average of 44 funerals every day. Thirty-eight years of sickness, dying, death, and mourning. That’s what we see at the pool of Bethesda. That’s why the references to the feast, the water, and the Sabbath have encouraging overtones.
The Reaction of the Jews
Rather than rejoicing with this man who has been disabled for 38 long years, the Jews want to know who told him to carry his bed! They do not see the sign that the Redeemer of death has come. They do not see that God, the source of healing waters, is among them. They only see their traditions being broken. This is what happens when service to God is turned into a ritual. The rituals are carefully and meticulously observed, but the greater purpose and meaning has been missed. In this case, they “observe” the Sabbath, but have no understanding of its hopeful message.
“See, You Are Well!”
“Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Physical ailments, the general deterioration of the body, and the associated pain, should always remind us of our sin. It is not that we necessarily suffer directly for a sin committed. But suffering is associated with sin. That is the message we see when Adam and Eve sinned. It is not only death that was the punishment, it is also the dying. That is our reality. It is ever before us. But Jesus’ words remind us that there is something worse than dying and death. Physically dying is only the outward picture of the ultimate agony of being separated from God. I am afraid that most of the time we are far more concerned with our physical deterioration and death than we are of that death that is far worse.
Please think of 38 years of suffering this man endured. Unimaginable. He has no one. He is barely surviving from one day to the next. He counts on the scraps that people might throw his way. It is hopeless. It is beyond hopeless. I wonder how many times he prayed for death. The mental anguish of the condition would soon outweigh the physical agony. It is a spiritual picture of life without God. And then one day, out of nowhere, Jesus. And with just a word, everything changed. Hopelessness is turned to hope; agony is turned to joy; being unloved has turned to being loved. Now what do you do with that? You live differently. You live for and are immersed in the one who saved you. That is the only reasonable response. How sad that even some who have become Christians do not have the same response.
Do You See the Sign?
Notice what John has done so far with water. Jesus has replaced water with an abundance of wine, symbolizing the riches of the new kingdom. Jesus brought rebirth by sprinkling our hearts with clean water and giving us life through his Spirit. Jesus superseded the water of Jacob’s well with living water so that no one would ever thirst again. And Jesus replaced the inadequate healing water of the pool of Bethesda, giving life to all who are waiting to die from the curse of 38 years. Thank you Father for leading us out of bondage into a new Exodus!