In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl argued that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect on man.” As a result of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl contended that when a man no longer possesses a motive for living, and has no future to look forward to, he curls up in a corner and dies.
In 1965, James B. Stockdale became one of the first American pilots to be shot down during the Vietnam War. He was captured by the Viet Cong, and spent seven years as a prisoner-of-war. During that period of time he was frequently tortured in an attempt to break him and get him to denounce the U.S. involvement in the war. He was chained for days at a time with his hands above his head so that he could not even swat the mosquitoes. Today, he still cannot bend his left knee and walks with a severe limp from having his leg broken by his captors and never reset. One of the worst things done to him was that he was held in isolation away from the other American P.O.W.s and allowed to see only his guards and interrogators.
How could anyone survive such treatment? As he looks back on that time, Stockdale says that it was his hope that kept him alive – the hope of one day going home; that each day could be the day of his release. Without hope, he knew that he would die in hopelessness, as others had done.
In this passage of Scripture, John 5:1-9, we will see the description of a man whose life seems hopeless. Then he has an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and everything changes.
I. THE SETTING (verses 1-2)
Verse 1 says, :After these things there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” We don’t know for sure what feast this was. The Jews living a day’s journey from Jerusalem were required to observe three feasts a year: Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost, so it was probably one of these three feasts. Notice also that Jesus is mentioned by name but His disciples are not mentioned in this verse, nor in this passage of Scripture we are studying. It appears that Jesus went to the feast alone. Once again, we do not know for sure. But we know from what follows that the Father had another appointment for the Lord Jesus to keep, and this appointment was near the Temple area in Jerusalem.
Verse 2 describes that location in some detail. “Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes.” From his description, the apostle John is telling us that the pool at Bethesda is going to be Jesus’ first stop in Jerusalem. As we shall see, this pool is not a place that healthy people would normally visit. Bethesda means “house of mercy”, but some manuscripts use the name Beth-Zatha which means “house of the olive”. This pool is located by the sheep gate. That gate is only mentioned four times in the Bible: here, and three times in the book of Nehemiah (3:1; 3:32; and 12:13). It is a gate near the temple area which is used to bring sheep and oxen to the temple as sacrifices during the temple services. Commentator William Barclay gives a helpful explanation for the pool of water at Bethesda. “The word for pool is kolumbethron, which comes from the verb kolumban, to dive. The pool was deep enough to swim in.” The five porticoes were porches that were probably covered, providing some protection from the sun or the rain. This is the only place in the Bible where the word Bethesda (Beth-Zatha) occurs.
II. THE ENCOUNTER (verse 3)
Verse 3 describes what Jesus sees as He enters the pool area and gets a panoramic view of the five porticoes: “In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered [waiting for the moving of the waters.].” The place was crowded with people, and they were people who were limited in their mobility and were probably not able to take care of themselves. Family and friends probably carried them to these porticoes or helped them to get there. You’ve probably heard the saying “Misery likes company”, and maybe you’ve used those words yourself in appropriate situations with various shades of meaning. The phrase has been around for many centuries. A translation of the words of 14th century historian Dominici de Gravina reads: “It is a comfort to the unfortunate to have had companions in woe.” Having other people to converse with, who understand what you are going through because they are going through something similar themselves, can be a real source of comfort and encouragement. Sometimes the greatest suffering can be emotional and social – the feeling that you are alone in your suffering; that no one else understands or cares. As John Stockdale said in my introduction, that one of the worst things that happened to him as a P.O.W. was being isolated from the other Americans.
The apostle John says that the sick people were “waiting for the moving of the waters”. What do those words mean? Historians have remarked about a spring underneath this pool, and excavations have verified John’s words. It was an “intermittent spring” that would occasionally force hot water up between the rocks at he bottom of the pool. When this happened, the surface of the water would become agitated and bubbles would appear. That’s what the disabled people lying on the porticoes were watching for and waiting to see.
III. THE POPULAR OPINION (verse 4)
The explanation of the moving of the waters is given in verse 4 as the popular opinion of the people. “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.]
It was not unusual for the Jewish people of that time to attribute such occurrences to the ministry of angels. In the Old Testament, angels are mentioned as protectors of the nation of Israel against oppressors, and as the ones God used to supply the physical needs of the prophets. When the nation of Israel turned away from the true God to worship false gods, many of those religions of the other nations believed that every body of water had its own spirit that protected it. So it became customary and popular for the people to attribute to angels or spirit beings any natural occurrences that they did not understand or could not explain. Many bibles show brackets from the second half of verse three and continuing to the end of verse four. This was done to indicate that the information within the brackets is missing from some of the oldest manuscripts.
IV. THE WORST CASE SCENARIO (verse 5)
In verse 5, the apostle John gives us the worst case-scenario. “And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness.” We don’t know when this illness began in his life; we are only told how long he has been afflicted with it. Thirty-eight years – that’s half a lifetime! If anyone there would be considered a “hopeless case”, it was he. We also don’t know the diagnosis, only that he had no strength in his body and was incapacitated. Little does he know that he is going to become the focus of Jesus’ attention. In the midst of that crowd of ailing people, Jesus is going to be talking to him personally.”
V. THE QUESTION (verse 6)
In verse 6, we see the situation from Jesus’ perspective. “When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, ‘Do you wish to get well?’ “ Does that sound like an odd question to you? It did to me at first. The Lord Jesus’ question reveals to us something about what Jesus knows and what He doesn’t know. While Jesus was here on this earth, He was not all-knowing. When He became a man, He became like us in all things except sin (Philippians 2:5-8; John 8:46, Hebrews 7:26). His knowledge consisted of what He learned from experience and study, plus what the Father revealed to Him. So in this case, He was not given an understanding of this person’s thoughts and emotions. He did not know whether this person wanted to be healed or not. The ailing person knows that what Jesus is asking by the question, “Do you want to be healed” is “Do you still believe that you can be healed, or have you given up all hope of ever being healed?” Does he have the faith needed to be healed or has he closed the door of his heart to such a possibility? If his answer reveals that his faith and hope are completely gone, there would be no reason to pursue the conversation any further.
VI. THE RESPONSE (verse 7)
The man gives Jesus the answer He hopes to hear, but he does so in an indirect way. He’s saying, “I’m helpless, but I’m not hopeless.” He didn’t need hope; he needed help. I think this man is also giving Jesus a hint concerning his unspoken request: “Would you be willing to help me into the water the next time the ‘stirring’ occurs?” Since Jesus asked him the question, would He be willing to be part of the answer? Little does he know that he’s talking to the Son of God! The answer to his “long-suffered problem” is just a few words away!
VII. THE HEALING (verses 8-9)
To his surprise, a command is given to him by Jesus, and he responds by faith. A miracle happens! “Jesus said to him, ‘Arise, take up your pallet, and walk’. And immediately the man became well, and took up his pallet and began to walk.” There were actually three commands given by Jesus: “arise”, “take up your pallet”, and “walk”. All three of those commands were fulfilled when the man obeyed. It became obvious to him and everyone around him that this was no “adrenalin rush”, nor “power surge”, but a complete and total healing. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments were restored; joints lubricated, circulation restored, nerves reconnected to the brain, and the ability to walk while carrying his pallet – all done instantly without any physical therapy or re-learning. All the effects and side-effects of his long illness were removed at once. Amazing! And I’m sure I missed many other physiological and neurological events that happened at that moment in time. When the Lord Jesus gives commands, He also gives the enablement to carry out those commands. As the Son of God, Jesus has the power and authority to instantly heal body, soul, and spirit.
When the Lord Jesus gave the command, did this disabled man feel the strength in his body before he chose in his heart to obey and make the effort to get up? It doesn’t say. I prefer to believe that faith came first – faith that this Man had the power to fulfill His command. As the ailing man believed, made up his mind to obey, and began to act in obedience to Christ, the strength and healing came to him to enable him to fulfill Christ’s command. This man who had not been able to do anything for himself for thirty-eight years, was instantly able to everything that a healthy man could do!
Do you want to be healed? Do you wish to get well? Are you suffering from a spiritual illness that has no natural cure? Do you feel like you don’t have the strength to go on because your life is empty and meaningless? Have you become fatalistic or are you still desperately looking for answers?
Do you believe in miracles? It will take a miracle to change your spiritual condition, heal you, and make you a new person. Do you want to be healed? If not, there will be no miracle in your case. The only cure for your spiritual condition is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ is asking you to believe that He is the Son of God, the God-Man; to take that first step of obedience by repenting of your sin and turning your life over to His control and power to change your life. Only then will the miracle occur. As II Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” You will become a new person with a new spiritual life that will affect every other part of your life.
Do you wish to get well? Have you come to the conclusion that you are, at times, a weak, faltering Christian? What are you struggling with in your life? Could it be pride, anger, lust, dishonesty, foul language, smoking, drinking to excess, or something else? The temptations are always there. Are you often discouraged because of these temptations and sins?
The following is an imaginary story that illustrates our dilemma and struggle, as Christians:
The devil decided to have a garage sale. On the day of the sale, his tools were displayed for public inspection, each being marked with its sale price. There were a treacherous lot of implements: hatred, envy, jealousy, deceit, lust, lying, pride, and so on. Set apart from the rest was a harmless-looking tool. It was quite worn and yet priced very high.
“What is the name of this tool?” asked one of the customers, pointing to it.
“That is discouragement,” Satan replied.
“Why have you priced it so high?”
“Because it is more useful to me than the others. I can pry open and get inside a man’s heart with that, even when I cannot get near him with the other tools. It is badly worn because I use it on almost everyone, since so few people know that it belongs to me.”
It is still his favorite tool today, and he continues to use it on God’s people. But be encouraged! God’s miracles are much greater and more powerful than any of his tools! May you find in the Lord Jesus Christ the hope, the strength, and the encouragement that only He can give. May each day of your life be a miracle that others can observe as you joyfully walk by faith and in obedience to Him.
A friend recently sent me a true story taken from Joni Eareckson Tada’s book, Beyond Suffering:
Dorothy Williams was a British missionary who served in West Africa during the 1930’s. She was a nurse from Wales who spent her time on the mission field training African nurses. Dorothy was very frail, and her mission board back home didn’t expect her to last more than a year or two working in Africa. But with God’s help, she amazed the board by serving many years, refusing to be discouraged by her limitations. This inspired the young African nurses under her charge who were often disheartened by their own poverty and lack of resources.
One day a nurse was carrying a tray of surgical instruments, and Dorothy noticed a sad look in her student’s eyes. “Oh, Mum, I am feeling much afraid today,” the young woman shared. “Dearie, look at those shiny instruments on your tray,” Dorothy said, picking up the sharpest one. “The devil has a tray of instruments too, and the shiniest and sharpest is his tool of discouragement – it’s sharp because he uses it so often.” The student nurse smiled, blushed, and then went on her way with fresh resolve.
Ezra 4:4-5 describes the devil’s strategy against God’s people. It is “to discourage and frighten people , , , to work against them and to frustrate their plans.” Do not be fearful, for the Bible repeats the phrase, “Do not be afraid,” 112 times. And Dorothy would add, “Don’t be discouraged.” You have your own shiny, sharp tool: The Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). Keep it sharp and use it often against your adversary!
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