There is a growing Rejection and Misunderstanding of Christ starting here in Chapter 5 of John and going through chapter 7.
Excited by His astonishing miracles and powerful preaching, people flocked to Jesus. Matthew 4:25 reports that “large crowds followed Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.” After the Sermon on the Mount, “when Jesus came down from the mountain, large crowds followed Him” (Matt. 8:1). On another occasion, “large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach” listening to His preaching (Matt. 13:2). Across the Jordan in the predominantly Gentile region of Perea, “large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there” (Matt. 19:2; cf. 20:29; John 6:2, 5). Luke records a time when “so many thousands of people had gathered together [to hear Jesus] that they were stepping on one another” (Luke 12:1).
But the overwhelming popularity that Jesus experienced was not as beneficial as it appeared. The crowds who flocked to Him primarily consisted of curiosity seekers. They were not devoted to Him as Lord and Messiah, but followed Him for the excitement, healings, and free food He provided (cf. 6:26). At one point, they were so enthusiastic about what they perceived as Jesus’ supernatural social welfare program that they tried to make Him king (6:15). But because they were not generally committed to Him or His gospel of the kingdom, Jesus did not commit Himself to them (2:24; 6:26, 64).
Ultimately, the fickle crowds rejected Jesus (6:66), following the example of their religious leaders. Those leaders, especially the Pharisees (the most influential religious sect of Judaism), mounted an unrelenting campaign of lies against Jesus, falsely accusing Him of being a demon-possessed Samaritan (8:48) of illegitimate birth (8:41). As noted earlier, they even attributed His miraculous signs to the power of Satan (Matt. 9:34; 10:25; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). The nation’s ultimate rejection came at Jesus’ trial before Pilate when, urged on by the religious leaders, the crowd screamed, “Crucify Him!… His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:23, 25). At His death, Jesus had only a handful of identifiable true disciples—120 in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15) and another 500, probably in Galilee (1 Cor. 15:6; cf. Matt. 28:7, 16).
Some refer to these chapters as John’s “festival cycle.” Once this pattern is recognized, new insight is possible on otherwise difficult paragraphs. In my outline (see Introduction) I have suggested that one effective way to organize the section is to group the four major festivals together, leaving the Lazarus story to one side (as foreshadowing of death and resurrection). An outline of the festivals makes John’s structure clear.
• The Sabbath Festival in Jerusalem (ch. 5)
• The Passover Festival in Galilee (ch. 6)
• The Tabernacles Festival in Jerusalem (chs. 7–8)
• Case Study: A Blind Man and “Light” (ch. 9)
• The Hanukkah Festival in Jerusalem (ch. 10)
One cannot overestimate the importance of such festivals in first-century Judaism. Leviticus 23 offers a list of these festivals and stresses their importance. The cycle of festivals was old (Purim and Hanukkah were the newest, but centuries-old in Jesus’ day) and the liturgies of the temple and the responsibilities of Jewish families well established. Three times each year Jewish families were expected to travel to Jerusalem for worship (Passover in spring, Pentecost seven weeks later, Tabernacles in autumn), thanking God for the harvest of crop and herd and remembering great episodes from Israel’s history.
Festivals were made by God to bring good gifts to his people, not to legislate and control behavior.
Chapter 5 not only opens the festival cycle, but it also introduces a theme that will weave its way throughout the Gospel. John’s Gospel places Jesus on trial not simply at the end of his life (as in the Synoptics), but rather continually. Jesus’ arrival in the world forces men and women to take stock of his coming, to examine and decide the truth of his mission and word. In this sense, Jesus is “in the dock” or on trial in every episode. In fact, one of the ways John introduces the miracles of Jesus is to offer them as “evidence,” as if Jesus were on trial.
But there is an ironic twist here because in the end, it is not Jesus who is on trial; the world is on trial. Even though Jesus is clear that he is not judging the world (8:15; 12:47), still, the entry of the light into the world exposes the darkness and judges it for what it is. “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (3:19).
Even in the church age, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “For this reason [because of your sin] many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep [are dead]” (1 Cor. 11:30).
The most natural understanding of the Lord’s warning, then, is that the man’s illness was the result of specific personal sin on his part. If the man persisted in unrepentant sin, Jesus warned, he would suffer a fate infinitely worse than thirty-eight years of a debilitating disease—namely, eternal punishment in hell.