A reflection on John 5:1–15
About two years ago, my son began to experience severe pain in the chest area. Pulling our medical expertise together, my wife and I confidently “prescribed” two Aspirin and a hot shower to take care of what was surely just a pesky little disorder. (In our defence, it should be noted that a couple days earlier, a doctor had told him there was nothing to worry about.)
At some point, he decided to discard our medical advice and go to Emergency. Good thing, too. As it turned out, he urgently needed surgery to remove an infected gall bladder.
Here’s what I found interesting: even though this was a life-and-death emergency, the surgeon couldn’t proceed until my son signed two release forms authorizing the surgery. After carefully reviewing and signing the forms, my son successfully underwent the procedure and was released two days later.
The healing of an invalid
In John 5:1–15, there’s an odd story about a miracle Jesus performs when he goes up to Jerusalem for the “feast of the Jews” (v. 1). Three things strike me about the account.
First, Jesus elects to heal a man who has been sick for 38 years. Why him in particular? Why doesn’t Jesus choose a younger person who has more potential to resume a normal life? There certainly isn’t a shortage of invalids around the pool where Jesus finds the man.
The answer is simple: Jesus is being strategic. First, he wants to ensure no one will dispute the authenticity of the healing. Second, the healing must demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus has divine power and authority.
The second arresting feature of this story is Jesus’ question and the answer the invalid gives him. “Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks (v. 6). It’s an odd question. What does he expect the invalid to say? We know Jesus is perfectly aware of the man’s dire condition (v. 6). And we can only assume any individual in that situation would desperately want to be healed. But as peculiar as the question might be, the answer is no less surprising.
Instead of a resounding “yes,” the invalid gives Jesus an explanation. According to a tradition that some ancient manuscripts preserve, an angel would occasionally stir up the pool’s waters. On such occasions, it was believed the first person to get into the water would be cured of “whatever disease they had” (v. 4). As it turns out, the invalid has not, in all these years, been in a position to take advantage of the angel’s erratic visits. Someone else always manages to beat him to
The invalid’s answer suggests he doesn’t quite understand what Jesus is after. He probably perceives Jesus’ question as a reprimand: “Why, in all these years, haven’t you been able to take advantage of the pool’s healing properties? What’s wrong with you? It’s not like you have much else to do!”
But Jesus isn’t looking for an excuse. He just wants to know whether the man wants to get well. Period.
If Jesus had been a Pharisee, the fellow would’ve been as done as an overcooked turkey at Christmas. He would have lost the one chance to regain his life.
While the invalid’s answer isn’t the one Jesus has in mind, it’s close enough. God overflows with love and mercy. The smallest move toward him is all that’s needed. Jesus simply looks for a slight leaning in his direction – think of his response to the thief on the cross who merely asks that Jesus remember him (Luke 23:39–43).
They don’t get it
The response of the Jewish leaders is astonishing. A miracle has occurred. God has manifested himself. But they’re all bent out of shape about it: this man is carrying his mat on the Sabbath! (An activity, which as the text points out, is expressly forbidden on the day of rest.)
These leaders completely miss the point. This miracle should have been a source of great joy for them, but they aren’t interested in joy. They get their buzz from enforcing the law. Their universe is much too small to allow the living God to enter in. Their morality is defined by their version of the law of retribution: righteousness = blessing; wickedness = curse.
The Jewish leaders are obviously blessed; they must, therefore, be righteous. The invalid is cursed; he must, therefore, be wicked. Case closed. This is the real issue. Their appeal to some law forbidding the carrying of mats on the Sabbath is just a despicable, small-minded pretext (see v. 18). The real offence lies in the fact that a sinner is now walking! As G.K. Chesterton would say, it disrupts their perfect little circle of pure rationality.
Sin no more
“Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you’” (v. 14).
This story’s third peculiar feature is that Jesus commands this man to stop sinning. How can Jesus be so insensitive as to lay a guilt trip on a man who’s been dealt such a bad hand?
We shouldn’t assume that Jesus is linking sin and illness, as if the latter is always the outcome of the former. Such silly reductionism is exactly what our text is partly intended to challenge. Jesus is, in fact, uttering a warning.
It’s his way of reminding us that human beings are more than flesh and bones, or the sum of our appetites. With this ruthless and unexpected reprimand, Jesus flashes a neon sign in front of the man: “Don’t think for one instant that physical well-being is the end-all.”
There’s an illness of the soul that only a new orientation toward the living God can heal (see John 5:24, 39–40). Those who will not seek this deeper healing expose themselves to a fate much worse than being disabled for 38 years. Most of us would recoil in horror at the mere possibility of being in a condition similar to that of the invalid. But if we don’t take care of the spiritual disability that afflicts us all, such a condition will seem like a walk in the park.
Putting the story in context
“Do you want to get well?” If we went to the mall and asked this question, I wonder how people would respond. Some surely would say “yes.” Some would regale us with their life story, but never get to the point. Others would vehemently say “no,” and deny there’s anything wrong with them.
Many of us don’t realize we have a terminal disease. We think we just have the flu. Nothing a couple Aspirin and a hot shower wouldn’t cure.
It’s time for a reality check. Each one of us is hopelessly compromised. We’ve all sinned against somebody. We’ve all offended God and are in need of forgiveness. But forgiveness is costly. The greater the offence, the greater the cost. When we sin against God, the offence becomes infinite – and so does the cost of forgiveness.
We are doomed by our nature, our thoughts, and our actions. If it were up to us, there would be no hope. But God didn’t leave it up to us. God himself – in the person of Jesus Christ – sacrificed his life. He satisfied the infinite demands of justice and ultimate reality. He provided the cure for what ails us. In fact, he did everything to ensure we could all live forever in his presence.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
But there is one thing God won’t do. Remember my son? The surgeon couldn’t proceed until he had his explicit authorization to do so. God is in a similar predicament. He cannot apply the Great Cure without our “signature.”
“God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is the most wonderful and yet most terrible proposition ever uttered in human history. While God wishes to save all, he will never take anyone against his or her will.
Here we find ourselves at the nexus of the universe, eternity’s very edge. To those who say “yes” to Jesus’ offer, never-ending life in the presence of the living God. To those who turn him down, an eternity in an ever-expanding moment of self-pity and anger, forever imprisoned – to paraphrase C. S. Lewis – in a cell locked on the inside, forever out of God’s reach.
As Lewis aptly writes in The Problem of Pain, “You asked for a loving God: you have one.… God gives what he has, not what he has not; the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not.… If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows – the only food that any possible universe ever can grow – then we must starve eternally.”
—Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Old Testament and theology at Canadian Mennonite University, associate dean with MBBS Canada at CMU, and author of Demons, Lies & Shadows (2008).