Whether you believe or not. Part 3 of 3

Back from a brief detour into the gospel according to Luke, we return to John’s gospel, chapter 5. After spending some time in Galilee, and being rejected in his native Nazareth, we find Jesus again in Jerusalem. In John’s gospel the passage we are about to read is thematically connected to the healing of the courtier’s son in Capernaum (part 1 of this series). That man came to Jesus looking for a miracle and, even though Jesus did not respond the way he wanted him to respond, he took Jesus at his word and received the miracle. We could argue that that courtier had some measure of faith to begin with; after all, he came looking for Jesus. But what about those who don’t even have a tiny bit of faith, who don’t even know there is a Jesus, are they out of luck?

John 5:2-4 Now there is in Jerusalem, at the sheepgate, a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a multitude of sick, blind, lame, withered, [awaiting the moving of the water. For an angel descended at a certain season in the pool and troubled the water. Whoever therefore first went in after the troubling of the water became well, whatever disease he laboured under.]

I have seen commentaries where the author says that the section above shown in brackets, not found in all manuscripts, is probably spurious; that is, it was added by someone later. Why bring it into question? Well, the scene it portrays sounds like something out of mythology. The Gentile nations certainly had their myths about sacred and healing waters.

But, why assume it wasn’t true? It explains why the crowd of people was there; but more than that, couldn’t God had commanded that angel to appear there periodically?

Or is it that we object to it because it sounds arbitrary? Yet, aren’t all the accidents of life, that make us unique individuals, in the end, arbitrary? Some of us are born into poverty, some into plenty; some born with special physical skills, some born with a genetic illness; some born into freedom, some born into oppression.

We live in a fallen world which is a very poor shadow of the reality which God had in mind for us in the beginning. It makes no sense to complain that this world is “unfair”… because that is its natural state. Even trying to force it to be “fair” (via force or politics) makes little sense because what I consider “fair”, you may not consider “fair”.  But there is a reality where we will all agree that it is Good and fair. The problem is that that reality can only be reached on the other side of life. The best we can do in this world is do all the good that we can, personally, to as many people as we can.  

So, let’s grant that there was a pool in Bethesda with these occasional miraculous powers. Every person on its edge, watching expectantly for the moving of the waters, had their own story. And Jesus focuses on one of them:

John 5:5-6 But there was a certain man there who had been suffering under his infirmity thirty and eight years. Jesus seeing this [man] lying [there], and knowing that he was [in that state] now a great length of time, says to him, Wouldest thou become well?

What would you have answered? I admit that one of the answers that comes to my mind is: “No, duh!” Or, “Naah, I am just here working on my tan.” I mean, what kind of question is that? “Of course I want to get well, why else am I here?”

But after 38 years of this sickness, this man is well past sarcasm. Instead, he has resigned himself to disappointment.

I don’t have anyone to help me

John 5:7 The infirm [man] answered him, Sir, I have not a man, in order, when the water has been troubled, to cast me into the pool; but while I am coming another descends before me.

I think this answer is interesting. He assumes Jesus is asking him, how come he is still there, sick and infirm, after 38 years. And he gives the answer: “It’s not my fault. I have done the best I can. Aren’t I here? But I can never make it into the water in time because I have no one to help me when it happens.”

It is interesting because it makes me wonder: Is this a proof of faith on his part? Or is it proof of stubbornness? It is interesting to me because it makes me wonder if I have been there more times than I care to admit.

Do I really trust in God and wait expectantly for His answer? Or, am I just going through the motions? There is a difference. Because if it is the latter, it means I don’t really expect Him to intervene. If I have resigned myself to disappointment, what do I really believe about Him? Do I believe He loves me? Do I believe He cares?

It comes down to this: In the silence of unanswered prayer, do I fell ignored; like I have been left somewhere back there in the prayer queue; like my prayers are at the end of this line, longer than the longest Disneyland line? Maybe my turn hasn’t come up yet…

Or, while I am stuck in this limbo between hope and despair,

do I believe that He mourns with me when I mourn?

There is another point we need to deal with, in this scenario. It goes to my introductory remarks: Why him? Why has Jesus singled this man out of that crowd. Maybe there is no answer. After all, we read last time in Jesus’ rebuke to the unbelieving crowd in Nazareth, that there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha and, yet, only Naaman the Styrian was healed by him; many widows in Israel in the time of the famine of Elijah but he was only sent to the widow of Zarephath.

We can speculate. Maybe he was the only one there who truly had no one to help him. Maybe he was the one who had been there the longest. Or maybe he was the one there in greatest danger of forever giving up hope.

We will never know. Just as we will never know if God reached out to every one of those other people in a different way, at a different time, and it has not been recorded for us in the gospels. Maybe He did and they didn’t notice.

And, we have to wonder that about ourselves. Could I have been so intent on having my prayer answered, gotten so used to the disappointment, that I was blind and deaf to the stirring of the waters? that I never noticed the shadow of the Son of God as he came by and stood next to me?

Or worse: that when He came and stood next to me and nudged me, and asked me, “Do you want this taken care of?” that all I could think to answer was, “I have no one to help me; I have been trying as hard as I can to solve this problem, don’t you see? What else do you expect me to do?”

Take Him at His word

John 5:8-9 Jesus says to him, Arise, take up thy couch and walk. And immediately the man became well, and took up his couch and walked: and on that day was sabbath.

And this man, who did not know Jesus, who didn’t ask Him for help, even when Jesus asked Him “Do you want to get well?”, gets healed. And he took Jesus at His word: He got up and he picked up his couch, as Jesus said; and he started walking with couch in tow, as Jesus said.

He kept on walking. What would you do?

I think, if I didn’t know anything about Jesus, but he had just done this miracle, that I would follow his instructions to the letter: I would walk and walk and walk; and keep on walking, carrying that mat… all day if necessary… because, who knows? If I stop, if I put the mat down, the magic may go away.

Think about it: Would you dare stop and risk losing the miracle? But he has to stop:

John 5:10-11 The Jews therefore said to the healed [man], It is sabbath, it is not permitted thee to take up thy couch. He answered them, He that made me well, *he* said to me, Take up thy couch and walk.

We could hope that these people at least would pause to consider this man’s good fortune; maybe even try to find out how this healing took place. But they are already focused on something else: their obsession with the rules.

This is the way they “believed”. It was a faith in the rules. Specifically, it was a faith in their ability to keep those rules, which guaranteed to them their right standing with God. And if you asked them about it, they would tell you, “Of course, that is the way things have to be. God made the rules, didn’t he?” But the clue that maybe they have focused on the wrong thing is standing right before them: This human being, a child of God, just like them, has been healed!

Shouldn’t such an event stand out as a signpost before their eyes? A signpost that says, “Heads up! Something is going on here that you did not expect.” But they do not see that signpost because it appears that the welfare of that man is less important to them than their own righteousness.

John 5:12-13 They asked him [therefore], Who is the man who said to thee, Take up thy couch and walk?  But he that had been healed knew not who it was, for Jesus had slidden away, there being a crowd in the place.

But the story is not over:

John 5:14 After these things Jesus finds him in the temple, and said to him, Behold, thou art become well: sin no more, that something worse do not happen to thee.

And maybe, just maybe, this is why Jesus singled him out. There is a lot to think about in this simple exchange. Remember, this man was infirm for 38 years. Now, he wasn’t paralyzed, because that is not the Greek word used to describe his ailment, but we know he had great difficulty in getting around. How much trouble, how much sin do you think he could get into?

This is a reminder to us that sin is not just the doing of that which is wrong: Because sin starts in the heart. Jesus talked about it in the Sermon on the Mount. Hating a brother is as bad as murder. Lusting after a woman is as bad as adultery. It is all in the heart; and the heart is precisely what God cares about. This body that I live in, in this world, is not going to make it into the next… but my heart, my soul, my spirit – that which makes me who I truly am – is what God made capable of inheriting eternal life.

Jesus knew the hearts of men. And, clearly, he knew this man had problems. Who knows how bad it could have gotten, how sick his heart would have gotten, if God had not made an appointment that day for him to meet Jesus. Maybe that man was at the edge of the point of no return. And God decided to have mercy on him.

And now, set free from physical sickness, by the word of Jesus, he is offered the chance to be set free from the sickness of his heart by the same Jesus. Think about it: How would you have responded to Jesus’ second intervention, to his words: “Stop sinning”?

Wouldn’t we at least have started to argue? “What do you mean sin? How do you know me? You don’t know the life I have had to deal with, all these years? How dare you judge what I am thinking? Who are you to tell me how to live?”

And then I would hope that by the time I got to that last question, that challenge, that I would have realized what I had just said, and owned up to the signpost standing right before my eyes:

“Who are you to tell me… get up and walk?”

But whether I like it or not, whether I believe or not, there the signpost is; and there I am at the crossroads: Do I accept that the One who had the power to heal my body with just his words, has the power to do more than that? Do I accept that if I was willing to accept His words of physical healing, I should likewise accept His words of spiritual healing? Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? Doesn’t gratitude demand that I at least listen to what He has to say?

And what about us today?

Haven’t you ever miraculously survived something in your life? Have you ever been in a situation that, when you think about it in hindsight, there was no human expectation that such survival was possible? No clue how it even happened that you made it to the other side?

It could have been a physical tragedy or even a tragedy of the heart; that thinking back now, it is hard to conceive how you could have gone on if you had not been spared…

It happens.

Maybe we have stumbled into a pool we did not even know was there, just as that angel happened to be coming through. Maybe the Son of God stood right next to us and spoke those words, “Do you want to be rescued?”, and they sounded so nonsensical, so obvious, so impossible, that all we did was say, “I have been trying, can’t you see?” and then we forgot all about them.  But somehow, one day, we found ourselves walking on and on and on…delivered, through no faith of our own.

And then, one day we are walking through our lives as if everything were alright; and there is a second intervention: He speaks again: “How are you doing, now? Do you understand what happened back then, what it was all about? Do you understand what really matters? Do you understand that I love you?”

That voice will come. It may even say, “Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” The question is, will I recognize it? Will I do the right thing?

I don’t think there is an easy answer because, remember, that man by the pool did not believe in Jesus to begin with. He didn’t knowingly ask God for help. Yet, God, in His mercy and grace, healed him. But is that the man’s fault?

I hope that sounds silly, that someone could say it was God’s fault that he was healed. But isn’t that the only reason we have to reject Jesus’ second intervention? If I want to tell him to mind his own business, how do I deal with the fact that he already intervened once in my life? All I can say is, “Hey, I didn’t ask you to…” And then I hope I would think about it and realize I don’t really wish for the alternative.

The only other way out is to deny it all. To call that miracle that happened back then in my life, serendipity. To claim it was an anomaly; that in a universe where everything tends toward decay, where the roll of the die, more often than not, is bad, I just happened to get lucky… And therefore, no one had mercy on me and no one has come back to try to rescue me from a worse fate.


The problem is, whether I want to admit it or not, that way out is never really available. Because all of us have within us the spirit the Father gave us. And that spirit can hear His voice. We cannot unhear it. All we can do is reject it:

John 5:15-16 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this the Jews persecuted Jesus [and sought to kill him], because he had done these things on sabbath.

Share this on:


Sign up to receive new stories in your email as they’re published.

Your privacy is important. We won’t send spam or share your email address. Privacy Policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *