The Saddest Sign (John 5:1–15)

Read John 5:1–15.

It’s hard to believe someone could be healed by Jesus and continue on in fear and grumbling, but John tells us that’s exactly what happened when Jesus healed a certain lame man at the pool of Bethesda, the so-called “house of mercy.”

It seems this man would park himself by the pool in hopes of being healed, though not by Yahweh, the God of Israel. This large pool, located outside of the city walls of Jerusalem, was a pagan shrine. Archaeologists who study the ruins tell us it was dedicated to the Greek god of healing, Asclepius, or perhaps to his Canaanite counterpart, Eshmun. Either way, the pool was a place for those who had turned away from Yahweh.

Every so often the waters of the pool would swish and swirl around. When this happened, whoever got into the pool first would be healed of their infirmities. But this man, being lame and without friends to help him, could never win the race into the water.

Jesus looks upon him with compassion. He asks him plainly, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). The man’s response is not one of faith. He doesn’t mention the power of God, nor does he seem to know who Jesus is. He simply complains that he can’t get into the water on his own when the opportunity for healing comes splish-splashing his way.

Still, despite the man’s lack of faith and devotion to God, Jesus heals him on the spot. He shows the man He is more powerful and more merciful than the dark god whose help he’s been seeking. Even so, we read of no gesture of gratitude, no spark of belief, no love for Jesus. The man just picks up his mat at Jesus’ command and walks away.

His heart doesn’t soften with time, either. Despite the kindness the man has received, despite the power of Yahweh that has given him back the use of his legs, he still lives in fear. He’ll do whatever seems advantageous in the moment. It doesn’t matter what he’s seen with his own two eyes.

When some Pharisees see him carrying his mat through the city, they confront him. It’s the Sabbath, and mat carrying is a violation of the accepted rules for the day.* To avoid any further hassle, the man simply shifts the blame to Jesus: “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’” (v. 11). To be clear, he’s not testifying to who Jesus is. John tells us plainly, “The man who was healed had no idea who it was” who healed him (v. 13). In effect he’s saying, “Forget my minor violation with this mat. It’s the healer who really broke the Sabbath.” The man is looking to save his own skin. We know this because of how he responds to Jesus later on.

When Jesus finds him in the temple courts sometime afterward, He warns the man about his sin and unbelief, telling him, “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” (v. 14). But the man doesn’t repent or cling to Jesus. He doesn’t see his need for God’s mercy. Instead, the once-lame man goes and finds the Pharisees and rats Jesus out for healing him on the Sabbath!

This is the third detailed miracle John has given us in his Gospel. As all of the signs do, this one points beyond itself to a deeper truth about Jesus and our need for Him. Although it might not seem like it at first, this whole episode is a living parable about the people of Israel. Why do I say this? It’s all in the details…

John tells us that the man Jesus healed had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. Why so specific? Why not just say he had been lame for decades or for a long time? It’s because the Israelites who were rescued from Egypt wandered in the wilderness for thirty-eight years. It was forty years total, but their punishment was thirty-eight years. They had already been traveling for two years when they sinned at Kadesh-Barnea and God decreed their extended stay in the desert (Numbers 13:26–14:35; Deuteronomy 2:14). With this detail, Jesus and John want us to identify this man at the pool with the nation of Israel.

Just as Israel turned to foreign gods, so had this man. Just as Israel received God’s blessings but continued in sin, so does this man. Just as Israel, time and time again, refused to trust the Lord, so does this man. And just as Israel will soon reject the Messiah, so does this man. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11).

This is one of the saddest stories in all the Gospels. To come so close to the Lord, to see a glimpse of His power and glory, and yet hunker down in disbelief—it’s enough to make me want to knock the mat out of the man’s hands and shake some sense into him! And yet, in the bigger story, it is the rejection of Jesus that brings salvation to the world. It is the ugliness of the cross that brings the beauty of forgiveness. It was the Son’s pain that purchased our peace.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (1:12).

* Though the Law of Moses contains no prohibition against carrying a mat on the Sabbath specifically, the book of Jeremiah records, “This is what the LORD says: Be careful not to carry a load on the Sabbath day or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem. Do not bring a load out of your houses or do any work on the Sabbath, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors” (17:21–22).

What’s this all about?

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