“Do You Want to be Healed?”
(Author’s note: I am greatly indebted to the work and ministry of Norm Funk [previously of Westside Church, Vancouver], particularly in regard to this sermon. Norm’s exegetical insights and cultural observations have been invaluable and influential, and I use there here with permission.)
If I were to put a half of a popular phrase to you this morning, I wonder if you could complete the latter half: “if you want something done right…[do it yourself!]”. Right! That was a bit of a gamble, in the event that few of us had ever heard that phrase, but in many ways, I think it was a pretty safe bet. Why? Well, I think that the sentiment that success, true success is really up to us. That if we need results in something that matters we need to be the ones who oversee it or execute it ourselves. That the really important things can’t be left to other people, because they’ll maybe let us down. Or perhaps they’ll do a poor job. Now in some ways, this is a quite a helpful dictum in that if it encourages to take responsibility and do our best work then there is some truth there.
Where I wonder if we run into trouble with this idea is when we begin applying it to our spiritual health. Particularly if we find ourselves in a spot of trouble. I wonder if our tendency isn’t to try and fix ourselves—apply our hard work and our effort to a problem in the hopes that maybe we can be the ones to make it better, to do it right and to do it ourselves. When faced with spiritual difficulties, we design a program of hard work, and self-help, instead of going to where the real assistance might be found. And this process can really become quite isolating, until we find ourselves in need of real help, and maybe unsure of where to turn.
This morning we encounter a bit of a similar situation found in John 5:1-17, and our Lord asking a bold faced, even odd question: namely, “do you want to be healed?” So maybe this morning you find yourself in a spot of trouble and you’re tempted to sort it out yourself—or perhaps you can recall a time where this is the case. Wherever you may be at, let’s dig into John’s gospel and see if we can get at the core of Jesus’ question, and why it is he asks it, both of the character in the story, and us today.
Text: Introduction and Context
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’ ” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:1-17)
So let’s pick it up in our story, shall we? Take a look at v. 1 and following: “after this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.” So John’s phrase, “after this” or more formally in the Greek “after these things” only loosely connects Jesus to the preceding events. What we see instead is a sort of emphasis in John’s voice, as one commentator put it, it is as though he is saying, “the next thing I would like to tell you is this. John then proceeds to paint for us a vivid portrait: a pool called Bethesda that has five roofed colonnades.” Archeological evidence attests to this pool near the sheep gate, it was in doubt until about the 19th century, however reasonably recent discoveries have verified the existence. The basic construction here would have likely been two separate pools, demarcated by a long colonnade. John is pointing out that this is a space where large crowds would congregate, and John carries on to note what kind of crowds these are exactly, and we see that in verse 3, take a look: "In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.” So this pool, at Bethesda is a place where the blind the lame and paralyzed gather, where they congregate, and note, it is a multitude. Now this should naturally beg the question, why are they congregating? Well let’s follow along and take a look at verse 4 and see what John says.
What’s the problem? There’s no verse 4! What’s going on here? Did it fall out? Now before you hastily contact your publisher, just have a gander at the footnotes in your bibles and you’ll likely see the note of explanation. Here in mine, it notes, “Some manuscripts insert, wholly or in part, waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.”
Ok, so what’s going on? In sum, the earliest and best manuscripts for John just don’t have this passage. But some later, and still reliable manuscripts do. So our bibles (KJV exempted, among others) follow suit and alert you to the issue. What more than likely happened in the textual tradition is that verse 4 would have been a scribal insertion to make sense of the crippled man’s statement in v.7: “The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” So we wouldn’t necessarily know what was going on without the scribal gloss. John however, seems to have been unconcerned about the miraculous nature of the pool as we shall see in a moment.
But before we get there, what are we to make of the very phenomenon? A miraculous pool that an angel stirs up to heal the sick? To be frank, I think a healthy amount of critical distance is appropriate here, not to cast aspersions on the variant textual reading, but more as a reflection of John’s intent in this pericope. John just isn’t interested in it. What might have explained the healing property of the pool? There are a number of suggestions in the literature, some of which may even contain a glimmer of the truth, namely, that perhaps someone, at some point was indeed healed at this spring, and word got out that the Spring contained healing powers. We see this in the cult of Asclepius which was exceedingly popular in the 1st century. As D.A. Carson has noted, once a rumour got out about the healing powers of a particular spring, it would be almost impossible to quench and so these gatherings were, in effect, quite common. The pool at Bethesda itself was likely fed by a natural spring that would intermittently stir the waters, giving the impression of a kind of divine intervention. Now before we get too carried away and dismiss this notation in the text as being composed of whole cloth, I dare say that a lot of these springs still exist, even within our contemporary milieu, don’t they? Are there any places that the spiritually sick, the lame and the crippled gather, looking for something, anything to heal them of their malady? At the risk of drawing a parallel too early in the game, are we in danger of this too? We find ourselves in some trouble, maybe a besetting sin, or a capital “P” problem, and we hear of the great benefit that someone has received at something (some church? Some exercise regime? Some diet?) and have decided for ourselves to hang around the spring until it is stirred up?
See, I think that when we find ourselves in times of spiritual difficulty or adversity we say to ourselves, right, if I want something done right, I’ve got to do it myself. If I want this fixed I am just going to roll up my sleeves and apply myself. But you know what? We find that our effort alone isn’t enough to conquer the issue at hand and so maybe we get a little frantic? Maybe the stakes get a little higher, and we start to look outside of our resources, but maybe we’re embarrassed to go to The Source and so our next impulse, brothers and sisters, is to find the next location of some magic spring where we can get ourselves to the water on time. Is that fair to say? Would it also be fair to say that this is largely built on the notion that “man, I got myself into this situation, but with enough work and enough sacrifice, I’ll get out, so I am going to hang around this magical pool”, whether it’s a new church, or more bible reading, or internet accountability software or AA, or whatever; you know where the pools are. You know who hangs out at them. And you know what, they’re people just like us. Take a look at v.5.
"One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, 'Do you want to be healed?' The sick man answered him, 'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me'" (John 5:5-7).
Now I don’t necessarily know what stands out to you about that portion of text, but I wonder if it might have to do with Jesus’ question. Now I want to be guarded in my language here, but I think John makes a point of highlighting Jesus’ exchange. I mean, isn’t it obvious what the man wants? John makes a point of saying that Jesus understood why the man was lying there, and that he had been there a long time, so why on earth would Jesus ask, “do you want to be healed”!? I had the privilege of working with kids with disabilities for years as I was working my way through grad school and even early into my marriage. I worked with kids with Autism in particular. And I don’t want to be insensitive, but it would absolutely be beyond the pale to ask one of the kids I worked with, “hey, would you rather be rid of this malady” or maybe think about asking a parent, “hey do you want your child healed? Do you want them fixed?” It strikes us as cold, or possibly uncaring and aloof.
And besides to relate it to the text, Jesus knows (v.6), he knows why it is that the man is there, and therefore, it doesn’t seem a stretch to say that Jesus knows that the man would indeed want to be healed. Indeed, that the man himself could have responded, “of course I want to be healed! That’s why I am here! I literally want nothing else than to be set free from this paralysis.”
There could be a variety of reasons that Jesus asks, and John doesn’t necessarily single out one. It could well be that there is a psychologizing element to Jesus’ question, truly asking the man if he does indeed want to be healed than why hasn’t he made greater effort (to, “do the work”) as it were, of being healed.
I think there is some merit there. After all, how many of us, when we when we desire to be healed of whatever particular ailment afflicts us, are less interested in going to the work of obtaining the healing [let alone asking God through prayer, as Jesus invites the cripple to do]. For those paralyzed by online pornography and resolve to be healed by it, how many are willing to do the work of confessing to spouse, pastor and community? For those paralyzed by family relationships, be it spouse, children, sister or brother and desirous of healing; how many are willing to see a counselor? To put in the long hours, the repentance, the swallowing of pride?
I think a possibly stronger reading of the question is actually to take it at face value. Jesus, in asking the man to voice his own desire asks him to confess the truth about his situation. That he can’t do right all by himself. And that he needs something greater than himself. To acknowledge the gravity and indeed, the very reality.
But here notice how the man responds. In a sense, he doesn’t even answer Jesus’ question: "The sick man answered him, 'Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me'" (v. 7). The crippled man’s response is one of, in a sense, excuse. Sir, I don’t have anyone to help me. But notice here too, John hasn’t said anything about anyone else having some help to get into the pool and so what seems likely here is that the man views Jesus as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal. “hey, the reason I’m not healed is because I don’t have any help” and what’s implied here is the Jesus is to be the one who is to help the man into the pool, essentially giving him an upper hand over and above the multitude that gathers around the pool.
Now if it sounds like I am being harsh to the crippled man in the story, I want to draw your attention to the fact that John doesn’t seem to take too high a view of the man either, noting that not only does he not even get the name of the man who healed him after 38 years of paralysis, but who, later in the story, informs on Jesus to the authorities so that they might pursue, convict and eventually execute Christ.
And further to this, and I think the point of John’s portrayal of the crippled man is that Jesus’ predominant concern is not of the man’s physical paralysis, but rather, his spiritual paralysis. If you drop down to v.14 we see the following:
"Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.'"
That should catch us off guard, shouldn’t it? I mean, Jesus doesn’t even mention the man’s sin in the previous verses related to the healing. So what is the sin that this man needs to repent of? And Further, what greater harm could befall him? Right? I mean shouldn’t we have some sympathy? This man has been crippled for 38 years of his life! And friends, this is where I think John really dials it in for us, and that is, for St John, Sin, is fundamentally a failure to believe that Jesus is who he says he is
John 3:16-18 : "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God."
So what is Jesus’ concern here? Jesus concern here, for this man, and most importantly, for us today, is that we not expose ourselves to something far greater than temporal paralysis. Eternal paralysis and eternal deadness in our sins. Our endless self-improvement projects, and our desire to do it right all by ourselves, if we aren’t careful, can distract us from putting our trust in the one who can actually save us!
One of the dangers of believing that it can be all up to us to fix our situations, can be the temptation to believe that it is the effort invested in these resolutions, or the outcomes, that saves us. That somehow, we are going to fix the issue, solve the problem, and better ourselves through effort alone. If we were to add a reformation doctrine here it’s this idea of Sola Boot Strapia, right? Pick yourself up by your bootstraps and solve the problem yourself. If you want something done right, do it yourself!
Jesus isn’t just our accomplice to our ideas for self-improvement, Jesus isn’t the thing or the person we use to get what we really think we need or desire, Jesus is what we really need, Jesus is what we really desire. And just like the paralytic at the pool, Jesus isn’t the one who helps us get to what we think we need, not the one who throws us in the pool, whatever we think that is; Jesus is the one we need. And I think John is keen to point this out…
It’s Not the Water that Saves You, It’s Jesus
…If we take a close look at what is going on here in the text, we can see a vested interest from John that seeks to guard against our understanding that it is by our efforts, or something we can control that is going to save us. Now why would I think that? The reason can been seen through theme, developed in John, particularly with his use of water imagery that points us in this direction. 1(Please note, this section follows the work of Craig Keener. You can find him discussing this theme here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdcwx18dIWw). Let me show you what I mean, hang a quick left in your Bibles in John chapter 1.
In John 1 beginning around the 19th verse we have John the Baptist proclaiming the necessity of baptism, but we see in verse 33 that there is an even greater baptism that is to come:
"I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God" (John 1:33-34).
Do you see that? So Baptism is important, yea, even necessary, but it’s not the water that saves you in this case, and indeed, Jesus is shown to be the one who baptizes with the superior element, even person, namely the Holy Spirit.
In John 2:6 we have record of Jesus’ first miracle, and we are told about 6 pots of water that are set aside for a ceremony of purification. Indeed, this water is consecrated for that purpose, but here we have Jesus, transforming the water, changing it from something set aside for ceremonial washing and instead a concrete symbol of celebration and a marking of the entrance of the inaugurator of the new covenant. So again, water imagery that is superseded by Jesus’ presence. The water at the wedding is good, but you need something better, something greater.
In John 3:5, in Jesus encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” So again, Nicodemus, the water is Good, but you need something greater, something more, it’s not the water that saves you, good as that might be. Do you see a theme developing, John is returning to this water imagery to constantly demonstrate that with the presence of Christ, something greater than the old has come, and it behooves his audience to pay attention to that.
But it doesn’t stop there! John 4 recounts Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and you can no doubt recall the details of the story, but what does Jesus say to her? "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John 4:13-14). Jesus, is, in effect saying, yes, this well is important to you Samaritans, and indeed, water itself is important as it can sustain life, but in me and through me there is something more precious than water, living water! And see this ties into our earlier theme that there is something even more serious than temporal, physical paralysis, namely, eternal spiritual paralysis. And Jesus says, I am the well where you draw that deeper, better “water.”
It’s no wonder then that John continues on through his gospel with these images of water coursing and surging through them, finding their climax in John 19:34 when, only John of the gospel writers notes that “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water." Do you see that, the water, the living water comes from the Christ, mingled with his blood, the superior element, the water washes away the physical blemish, but the blood of Christ washes away the sin.
So when we look at John 5, we can see that John has been working this theme of water to show his readers, “look, I could care less if you think this spring has angelic powers, because something better than an angel is here to heal, it’s the Christ!” That’s why I think John doesn’t bother to include the gloss in his Gospel. It’s not important to him. The cripple is seeking healing in something that can never, has not for 38 years provided healing, and John is saying that healing, that blessing is only found in Christ.
A Final Note: Why Jesus?
Some of you are here this morning, and you’ve summited some pretty serious mountains of difficulty in your life, only to be face to face with yet more inevitable obstacles; hiding behind many of these obstacles is, no doubt, the fear of failure and disappointment. Right? You’re looking out at this summer and you know that not only are new challenges coming, you’re stuck with the same faults, the same weaknesses and in the same vulnerabilities. And there is going to be the tendency that wells up within you to double down on your own efforts, to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps and to charge down to whatever magical pool of healing you think might save you. And that’s a real tendency, and indeed, some of you might still be hanging around some of these pools just waiting for that water to stir up.
And maybe some of you are thinking this morning that perhaps Jesus is tired of seeing you by that pool. That maybe in your mind you can recall a time where you really did feel like Jesus was a vibrant and active presence in your life, but since then you, like the crippled man at the pool disregarded his caution and went back to a life of sin. And the very real, and I think appropriate question that can arise from that is, do I have any other recourse than to just try and do this myself? I mean, I tried Jesus and failed, and now, I’ve got one option left, and that’s doing it on my strength and on my own.
Let me offer just two comments in response to this.
First, I want to gently note that this mode of thinking is predominantly the domain of works righteousness. It’s a decision that says I am going to earn back my place with Christ, that I am going to fix this problem. And friends, what more is this than simple self-righteousness? That we have, within the resources of ourselves the capacity to fix our problem? The ability to get to the pool in time to make everything better?
Second, and I think far more importantly, the repeated, emphatic and over-arching message of the scriptures is that Jesus isn’t tired of you. That Jesus isn’t done with you. That it is the impulse of a loving, tender and compassionate God to send his son to seek and save the lost. I mean, sure, we’ve got a picture of a stubborn and obstinate cripple in the story who scorns the very one who heals him, but how much greater, how much more beautiful is that man, the one who walked through the sheep gate, the one with healing in his hands? The one who condescended, he came down, into our plight, into our world, into our struggle, and not to condemn the world, but through him, the world might be saved? I mean, friends, this isn’t the stern rebuke of an angry and distant demi-urge, this is the flesh and blood, the real and genuine care and compassion of Emmanuel, God with us.
And we see this compassion, which literally means “suffering with” painted throughout the canvas of scripture. Sometimes we see the prophet Isaiah connected with our advent readings, and what does Isaiah say about this man, about this messiah? Isaiah 53:
"He was despised and rejected by men;a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not" (Isaiah 53:3).
And we’re used to hearing that, right that Jesus is a man of sorrows? Acquainted with grief? But notice especially what Isaiah is doing here in the context, whose grief is Jesus so intimately acquainted with? Just carry over into verse 4:
"Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken,smitten by God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4).
Man, Jesus is here and he’s present and he is familiar with your struggle, with your disappointment, with your ache and your loss. And not just familiar, man he carries them. He willingly submitted himself to the burden. This is why Matthew in chapter 8 picks up on Isaiah’s meaning, where we see that Jesus doesn’t heal one person, he heals many:
"And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 'He took our illnesses and bore our diseases'" (Matthew 8:14-17).
And not just Isaiah, the shortest verse in all the bible paints in no uncertain terms that Jesus cares about your suffering, John 11:35 “Jesus wept” and the following verse right after notes that this very demonstration shows the Jews how he cared about the loss of Lazarus and how it affected his friends and family. This is why St Peter in his epistle exhorts us to “cast all your cares on him”, why Peter, why would we do that? “because he cares for you.” Man, that pool doesn’t care about you.
And if that isn’t enough then let me leave you with one final reason to seek Christ, to return to Christ, to find your refuge, your healing and your resolve in Christ. You’ll recall that, earlier, we looked a little bit at the question that Jesus asks the cripple at the pool of Bethesda. And you’ll recall, it was a strange question, right? Now some of your minds might have been piqued to a similar question that Jesus asks a blind man in Mark 10, namely “what do you want me to do for you.” Indeed this is similar, but I daresay we can find greater encouragement in Christ’s words to a leper in Mark 1:40-41. Here is just a fleeting glimpse, the smallest of stories, and indeed, a single verb that I think helps us unlock not just some of the meaning of our story in John but our hope in Christ. Here we see that a Leper, approaching Jesus implores Christ to be made clean, and we see these words:
"And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, 'If you will, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, 'I will; be clean'" (Mark 1:40-41).
Now, I don’t want to get bogged down in the Greek, but let me just show you this. The word for “will” here can easily, and is often, translated as “want” elsewhere in the New Testament. So look at this verse: there is a sick man, an unclean man, a burdened man, and outcast who approaches Jesus and says “hey if you want to you can heal me.” And Jesus replies, “I want to.” Do you see how this beautifully reverses our text from John? Instead of us, saying with the cripple, of course I want to be healed! That’s why I am here! I literally want nothing else than to be set free from this paralysis, we can see Jesus, emphatically stating: do I want to heal you?! Of course! That’s why I am here! I literally want nothing else than to set you free from this paralysis.
Friends, this transcends the gospel of Mark, it transcends 2000 years of history and meets us here, today. Do you want to be healed? Do you want to be restored? Do you want life and life to the full? Then can I suggest, as a brother and friend in Christ, that you skip the magic pool of a self-help plan and go right to the source. That you ask the God-man himself and receive healing for the physical and the spiritual. Indeed, the whole person.