From Cast of Characters
Afterward Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish holy days. Inside the city, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Crowds of sick people – blind, lame, or paralyzed – lay on the porches. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew he had been ill for a long time, he asked him, “Would you like to get well?”
“I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”
Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!”
Instantly, the man was healed! He rolled up his sleeping mat and began walking! (John 5:1-9)
For the longest time this story didn’t make any sense to me. I couldn’t figure it out. It’s about a man who has barely enough faith to stand on, but Jesus treats him as if he’d laid his son on the altar for God. Martyrs and apostles deserve such honor, but not some pauper who doesn’t know Jesus when he sees him. Or so I thought.
For the longest time I thought Jesus was too kind. I thought the story was too bizarre. I thought the story was too good to be true. Then I realized something. This story isn’t about an invalid in Jerusalem. This story is about you. It’s about me. The fellow isn’t nameless. He has a name – yours. He has a face – mine. He has a problem – just like ours.
Jesus encounters the man near a large pool north of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s 360 feet long, 130 feet wide, and 75 feet deep. A colonnade with five porches overlooks the body of water. It’s a monument of wealth and prosperity, but its residents are people of sickness and disease.
It’s called Bethesda. It could be called Central Park, Metropolitan Hospital, or even Joe’s Bar and Grill. It could be the homeless huddled beneath a downtown overpass. It could be Calvary Baptist. It could be any collection of hurting people.
An underwater spring caused the pool to bubble occasionally. The people believed the bubbles were caused by the dipping of angels’ wings. They also believed that the first person to touch the water after the angel did would be healed. Did healing occur? I don’t know. But I do know crowds of invalids came to give it a try.
Picture a battleground strewn with wounded bodies, and you see Bethesda. Imagine a nursing home overcrowded and understaffed, and you see the pool. Call to mind the orphans in Bangladesh or the abandoned in New Delhi, and you will see what people saw when they passed Bethesda. As they passed, what did they hear? An endless wave of groans. What did they witness? A field of faceless need. What did they do? Most walked past, ignoring the people.
But not Jesus. He is in Jerusalem for a feast. He is alone. He’s not there to teach the disciples or to draw a crowd. The people need him – so he’s there.
Can you picture it? Jesus walking among the suffering.
What is he thinking? When an infected hand touches his ankle, what does he do? When a blind child stumbles in Jesus’s path, does he reach down to catch the child? When a wrinkled hand extends for alms, how does Jesus respond?
Whether the watering hole is Bethesda or Bill’s Bar – how does God feel when people hurt?
It’s worth the telling of the story if all we do is watch him walk. It’s worth it just to know he even came. He didn’t have to, you know. Surely there are more sanitary crowds in Jerusalem. Surely there are more enjoyable activities. After all, this is the Passover feast. It’s an exciting time in the holy city. People have come from miles around to meet God in the temple.
Little do they know that God is with the sick.
Little do they know that God is walking slowly, stepping carefully between the beggars and the blind.
Little do they know that the strong young carpenter who surveys the ragged landscape of pain is God.
“When they suffered, he suffered also, Isaiah wrote. (Isaiah 63:9) On this day Jesus must have suffered much.
On this day Jesus must have sighed often as he walked along the poolside of Bethesda, and he sighs when he comes to you and me.
Remember, I told you this story was about us? Remember, I said I found our faces in the Bible? Well, here we are, filling the white space between the letters of verse 5: “A man was lying there who had been sick for thirty-eight years.”
Maybe you don’t like being described like that. Perhaps you’d rather find yourself in the courage of David or the devotion of Mary. We all would. But before you or I can be like them, we must admit we are like the paralytic. Invalids out of options. Can’t walk. Can’t work. Can’t care for ourselves. Can’t even roll down the bank to the pool to cash in on the angel water.
You may be holding this book with healthy hands and reading with strong eyes, and you can’t imagine what you and this four-decade invalid have in common. How could he be you? What do we have in common with him?
Simple. Our predicament and our hope. What predicament? It is described in Hebrews 12:14: “Anyone whose life is not holy will never see the Lord.”
That’s our predicament: Only the holy will see God. Holiness is a prerequisite to Heaven. Perfection is a requirement for eternity. We wish it weren’t so. We act like it isn’t so. We act like those who are “decent” will see God. We suggest that those who try hard will see God. We act as if we’re good if we never do anything too bad. And that goodness is enough to qualify us for Heaven.
Sounds right to us, but it doesn’t sound right to God. And he sets the standard. And the standard is high. “You must be perfect, just as your father in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
You see, in God’s plan, God is the standard for perfection. We don’t compare ourselves to others; they are just as fouled up as we are. The goal is to be like him; anything less is inadequate.
That’s why I say the invalid is you and me. We, like the invalid, are paralyzed. We, like the invalid, are trapped. We, like the invalid, are stuck; we have no solution for our predicament.
That’s you and me lying on the ground. That’s us wounded and weary. When it comes to healing our spiritual condition, we don’t have a chance. We might as well be told to pole-vault the moon. We don’t have what it takes to be healed. Our only hope is that God will do for us what he did for the man at Bethesda – that he will step out of the temple and step into our ward of hurt and helplessness.
Which is exactly what he has done.
Read slowly and carefully Paul’s description of what God has done for you: “When you were spiritually dead because of your sins and because you were not free from the power of your sinful self, God made you alive with Christ, and he forgave all our sins. He cancelled the debt, which listed all the rules we failed to follow. He took away that record with its rules and nailed it to the cross. God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless.” (Colossians 2:13-15)
As you look at the words above, answer these questions. Who is doing the work? You or God? Who is active? You or God? Who is doing the saving? You or God? Who is the one with strength? And who is the one paralyzed?
Let’s isolate some phrases and see. First, look at your condition. “When you were spiritually dead and you were not free.”
The invalid was better off than we are. At least he was alive. Paul says that if you and I are outside of Christ, then we are dead. Spiritually dead. Corpses. Lifeless. Cadavers. Dead. What can a dead person do? Not much.
But look what God can do with the dead.
“God made you alive.”
“He cancelled the debt.”
“He took away that record.”
“God stripped the spiritual rulers.”
“He won the victory.”
“[He] showed the world.”
Again, the question. Who is active? You and I – or God? Who is trapped and who comes to the rescue?
God has thrown life jackets to every generation.
Look at Jonah in the fish belly – surrounded by gastric juices and sucked-in seaweed. For three days God has left him there. For three days Jonah has pondered his choices. And for three days he has come to the same conclusion: He ain’t got one. From where he sits (or floats) there are two exits – and neither are very appealing. But then again, neither is Jonah. He blew it as a preacher. He was a flop as a fugitive. At best he’s a coward, at worst a traitor. And what he’s lacked all along he now has in abundance – guts.
So Jonah does the only thing he can do: He prays. He says nothing about how good he is – but a lot about how good God is. He doesn’t even ask for help, but help is what he gets. Before he can say amen, the belly convulses, the fish belches, and Jonah lands face first on the beach.
Look at Daniel in the lions’ den; his prospects aren’t much better than Jonah’s. Jonah had been swallowed, and Daniel is about to be. Flat on his back with the lions’ faces so close he can smell their breath. The biggest one puts a paw on Daniel’s chest and leans down to take the first bite and – nothing happens. Instead of a chomp, there is a bump. Daniel looks down and sees the nose of another lion rubbing against his belly. The lion’s lips are snarling, but his mouth isn’t opening.
That’s when Daniel hears the snickering in the corner. He doesn’t know who the fellow is, but he sure is bright and he sure is having fun. In his hands is a roll of bailing wire and on his face is one of those gotcha-while-you-weren’t-watching expressions.
Or look at Joseph in the pit, a chalky hole in a hot desert. The lid has been pulled over the top and the wool has been pulled over his eyes. Those are his brothers up there, laughing and eating as if they did nothing more than tell him to get lost (which is what they’d done for most of his life). Those are his brothers, the ones who have every intention of leaving him to spend his days with the spiders and the snakes and then to die in the pit.
Like Jonah and Daniel, Joseph is trapped. He is out of options. There is no exit. There is no hope. But because Jacob’s boys are as greedy as they were mean, Joseph is sold to some southbound gypsies and he changes history. Though the road to the palace takes a detour through a prison, it eventually ends up at the throne. And Joseph eventually stands before his brothers – this time with their asking for his help. And he is wise enough to give them what they ask and not what they deserve.
Or look at Barabbas on death row. The final appeal has been heard. The execution has been scheduled. Barabbas passes the time playing solitaire in his cell. He’s resigned to the fact that the end is near. Doesn’t appeal. Doesn’t implore. Doesn’t demand. The decision has been made, and Barabbas is going to die.
Like Jonah, Daniel, and Joseph, it’s all over but the crying. And like Jonah, Daniel, and Joseph, the time to cry never comes. The steps of the warden echo in the chamber. Barabbas thinks he’s bringing handcuffs and a final cigarette. Wrong. The warden brings street clothes. And Barabbas leaves the prison a free man because someone he’d probably never even seen took his place.
Such are the stories in the Bible. One near-death experience after another. Just when the neck is on the chopping block, just when the noose is around the neck, Calvary comes.
Angels pound on Lot’s door – Genesis 19.
The whirlwind speaks to Job’s hurt – Job 38-42.
The Jordan purges Naaman’s plague – 2 Kings 5.
An angel appears in Peter’s cell – Acts 12.
God’s efforts are strongest when our efforts are useless.
Go back to Bethesda for a moment. I want you to look at the brief but revealing dialogue between the paralytic and the savior. Before Jesus heals him, he asks him a question: “Do you want to be well?”
“Sir, there is no one to help me get into the pool when the water starts moving. While I am coming to the water, someone else always gets in before me.” (v. 7)
Is the fellow complaining? Is he feeling sorry for himself? Or is he just stating the facts? Who knows? But before we think about it too much, look what happens next.
“Stand up. Pick up your mat and walk.”
“And immediately the man was well; he picked up his mat and began to walk.”
I wish we would do that; I wish we would take Jesus at his word. I wish, like Heaven, that we would learn that when he says something, it happens. What is this peculiar paralysis that confines us? What is this stubborn unwillingness to be healed? When Jesus tells us to stand, let’s stand.
When he says we’re forgiven, let’s unload the guilt.
When he says we’re valuable, let’s believe him.
When he says we’re eternal, let’s bury our fear.
When he says we’re provided for, let’s stop worrying.
When he says, “Stand up,” let’s do it.
I love the story of the private who ran after and caught the runaway horse of Napoleon, When he brought the animal back to the emperor, Napoleon thanked him by saying, “Thank you, Captain.”
With one word the private was promoted. When the emperor said it, the private believed it. He went to the quartermaster, selected a new uniform, and put it on. He went to the officers’ quarters and selected a bunk. He went to the officers’ mess and had a meal.
Because the emperor said it, he believed it. Would that we would do the same.
Is this your story? It can be. All the elements are the same. A gentle stranger has stepped into your hurting world and offered you a hand.
Now it’s up to you to take it.