MAN’S HELPLESSNESS AND CHRIST’S POWER John 5:1–9
After this there was a Feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, near the sheepgate, there is a bathingpool with five porches, which is called in Hebrew Bethzatha. In these porches there lay a crowd of people who were ill and blind and lame and whose limbs were withered (waiting expectantly for the moving of the water. For an angel of the Lord came down into the pool every now and then and disturbed the water; so the first person to go in after the disturbing of the water regained his health from any illness which had him in its grip). There was a man there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and since he knew that he had already been there for a long time, he said to him: “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered: “Sir, I have no one to hurry me into the pool when the water is disturbed; so, while I am on the way, someone gets down before me.” Jesus said to him: “Get up! Lift your bed! and walk!” And the man was made well, and he lifted up his bed and walked.
There were three Jewish feasts which were feasts of obligation—Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Every adult male Jew who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem was legally bound to attend them.
Bethesda, which means House of Mercy, or more likely, Bethzatha which means House of the Olive. The better manuscripts all have the second name, and we know from Josephus that there was a quarter of Jerusalem actually known as Bethzatha. The word for pool is kolumbēthron, which comes from the verb kolumban, to dive. The pool was deep enough to swim in. The passage we have put in brackets is not in any of the greatest and best manuscripts and was probably added later as an explanation of what people were doing at the pool. Beneath the pool was a subterranean stream which every now and again bubbled up and disturbed the waters. The belief was that the disturbance was caused by an angel, and that the first person to get into the pool after the troubling of the water would be healed from any illness from which he was suffering.
To us this is mere superstition. But it was the kind of belief which was spread all over the world in ancient days and which still exists in certain places. People believed in all kinds of spirits and demons. The air was thick with them; they had their abodes in certain places; every three, every river, every stream, every hill, every pool had its resident spirit.
It may be that as Jesus walked around, the man of this story was pointed out to him as a most pitiable case, because his disability made it very unlikely, even impossible, that he would ever be the first to get into the pool after it had been troubled. He had no one to help him in, and Jesus was always the friend of the friendless, and the helper of the man who has no earthly help. He did not trouble to read the man a lecture on the useless superstition of waiting for the water to be moved. His one desire was to help and so he healed the man who had waited so long.
In this story we see very clearly the conditions under which the power of Jesus operated. He gave his orders to men and, in proportion as they tried to obey, power came to them.
(i) Jesus began by asking the man if he wanted to be cured. It was not so foolish a question as it may sound. The man had waited for thirty-eight years and it might well have been that hope had died and left behind a passive and dull despair. In his heart of hearts the man might be well content to remain an invalid for, if he was cured, he would have to shoulder all the burden of making a living. There are invalids for whom invalidism is not unpleasant, because someone else does all the working and all the worrying. But this man’s response was immediate. He wanted to be healed, though he did not see how he ever could be since he had no one to help him.
The first essential towards receiving the power of Jesus is to have intense desire for it. Jesus says: “Do you really want to be changed?” If in our inmost hearts we are well content to stay as we are, there can be no change for us.
(ii) Jesus went on to tell the man to get up. It is as if he said to him: “Man, bend your will to it and you and I will do this thing together!” The power of God never dispenses with the effort of man. Nothing is truer than that we must realize our own helplessness; but in a very real sense it is true that miracles happen when our will and God’s power co-operate to make them possible.
(iii) In effect Jesus was commanding the man to attempt the impossible. “Get up!” he said. His bed would simply be a light stretcher-like frame—the Greek is krabbatos, a colloquial word which really means a pallet—and Jesus told him to pick it up and carry it away. The man might well have said with a kind of injured resentment that for thirty-eight years his bed had been carrying him and there was not much sense in telling him to carry it. But he made the effort along with Christ—and the thing was done.
(iv) Here is the road to achievement. There are so many things in this world which defeat us. When we have intensity of desire and determination to make the effort, hopeless though it may seem, the power of Christ gets its opportunity, and with him we can conquer what for long has conquered us.