(A) Introduction. (Read the reference.)

Many ministers use this story to preach the gospel. It is always good to preach the gospel but it is wrong to see a parallel between the healing of the disabled man and the salvation of someone disabled by sin. This approach does violence to the character and attitude of the long-term invalid at the poolside. It is a very simplistic interpretation of the sign.

The pool of Bethesda was a well-known place of healing. At one time it was even regarded as a sacred site by pagans and dedicated to their God of healing - Asclepius. It may have been a pool fed by a thermal spring which periodically bubbled up disturbing the surface of the water. Some Jews attributed the up welling to an angel.

(B) The question Jesus asked? "Do you want to get well?" v6.

Why did Jesus ask the impotent man this question? Is it possible to be paralysed for 38 years and not want to be well? Yes - for the following reasons:

    (1) The man had got used to his way of life. The poolside was a familiar environment. The people he knew best were there. The man was a fixture - even something of a celebrity - he had been waiting for the moving of the waters for so long.

    (2) The paralysed man's disability was his livelihood. It aroused sympathy. Perhaps some who regularly visited the pool to dispense charity admired him for the very length of time he had been there. I expect he had a group of loyal patrons.

    (3) It is unlikely the disabled man was prepared to meet the challenge of a new life. He would need to find a job and support himself. In some ways this was harder, more demanding, than begging.

What I have written above is true at several levels. It is true of:

    (a) The physically sick. A few people find it easier to be an invalid. They get plenty of attention and shed all their responsibilities.

    (b) The spiritually sick. Lots of people in the West have a comfortable, easy life and don't want to change it. They reassure themselves that if the worst comes to the worst God will forgive them because Jesus died to save sinners. Such complacent, indolent, self-indulgent, lost souls cannot be bothered to follow Jesus.

    (c) Sick and dying churches. I belong to such a church. I wonder if we really want to be better with all the effort and sacrifice that this would involve. It is easier to limp, or crawl, along as we are.

(C) The disabled man's attitude.

The invalid did not respond positively to the question Jesus asked. He didn't cry out, "Yes! Yes! Yes! I would give anything to be better." His heart did not thrill with anticipation of being healed. Instead, he told Jesus his hard luck story. The man had it ready. He told it often - it had made him something of a celebrity at the pool of Bethesda. For 38 years he had been unable to take advantage of the up welling waters of the thermal spring. He had no friend to help and someone else always beat him to it.

Why does the disabled man tell this story?

    (1) He sees himself as a helpless victim of his handicap and isolation. He was unwilling to acknowledge the help he must have received to survive for so long. Someone must have moved him to the toilet and got him food. Did he try hard enough to get down into the healing water?

    (2) He hoped to arouse pity in Jesus and get a generous donation. Jesus may have looked a soft touch!

There are some lessons for us:

    (a) It is easy to develop a victim mentality and to allow a disability to rule our lives. We can give in to illness, weaknesses of disposition or to circumstances.

    I share a weakness with my grandfather and father - an intense reluctance to take the initiative. I hate initiating change. So I put off replacing my car, planning a holiday, contacting a prospective pastor or even getting a haircut. If I didn't fight this peculiar debilitating trait I would never do anything new. However, I certainly haven't conquered my fear. It has probably kept me from finding a wife! Then I fall into the same trap as the man at the pool and whinge to God about it.

    There are innumerable folk who rise above their circumstances and refuse to be victims. The apostle Paul continued on his missionary journeys in spite of his thorn in the flesh. God's grace was sufficient for him. A few weeks ago John Bean took our services at Brockley. He had not long come through a very dangerous operation on his upper spine. He came hobbling into our chapel on two sticks and conducted worship sitting down. John was determined to keep going and continue with his preaching ministry. Corrie ten Boom tells a story in her book 'Tramp for the Lord' entitled, 'One Finger for His Glory.' During the 'Cold War' period Corrie visited an apartment in Lithuania where an old woman bent and twisted by multiple sclerosis lived. She could still control movement in one hand. All day and far into the night this woman typed out Christian literature with one finger. Translating, typing and praying for those who would read her work - triumphing over her adversity.

    (b) We can use a disability for an unworthy purpose - to arouse sympathy, shirk responsibility and excuse unworthy behaviour. There is a growing tendency for delinquents to cite child abuse in mitigation for their criminal behaviour.

(D) Jesus delivers a shock to the system.

(1) Jesus does not sympathise with the disabled man! He gives him three brusque orders: "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." v8. Jesus deals with other sad cases far more gently.

The paralysed man is ordered to his feet. He was cured at once. The man had no say in it. He exercised no faith. He had to get up.

The invalid was told to carry his mat - even though it was the Sabbath and this would get Jesus into trouble with the religious authorities. Jesus is telling the man that from now on he must take responsibility for his life - starting by carrying his own bed.

Finally he is commanded to walk, to walk away from the pool of Bethesda - away from his old dependent life.

(2) The invalid was so shocked by what happened to him that he doesn't even get Jesus' name. True, Jesus slipped away, but if the man had been prepared for healing surely he would have thanked his benefactor and at the very least asked for his name.

(3) Why then did Jesus heal this man? There are at least 3 possible reasons:

    (a) The disabled man led a poor life. It was a squalid, demeaning existence. He lay there day after day begging for sustenance. He was totally reliant upon others for everything.

    (b) Jesus dealt with the cause of his indignity, the bodily infirmity that for so long had been his humiliation.

    (c) Jesus gave the beggar at the pool the opportunity to change. He gave him the chance to make a new beginning.

(4) Jesus did what so many are trying to do today with:

    (a) Criminals in prison. The work done to rehabilitate offenders provides them with an opportunity to change.
    (b) Addicts. Programs to get addicts off drugs gives them the chance to make a new beginning.
    (c) People with facial deformities. I watched a TV documentary in which a woman who had a disfiguring birthmark removed said it literally gave her a new life.
    (d) People with chronically low self-esteem. Counselling, therapy and re-education are all ways of liberating men and women from disabilities that ruin their lives.
    (e) Folk who feel sorry for themselves. Sometimes a person wallowing in self-pity needs a short sharp shock to the system. Old Dick Clark used to do a little work for Mr Clarkson. It was mainly what was called hedging and ditching. One day Dick was standing in a ditch looking pretty miserable. Mr Clarkson asked, "How are you today, Dick." Well, Dick started to whine and grizzle. John Clarkson didn't put up with it for long - he'd already had a basin full at breakfast from his wife! "Look here, Dick," he said, "if that's how you feel get out of that ditch, go home and come back when you're feeling better." At the end of the morning Dick was still in the ditch. Before he went off for dinner he told Mr Clarkson, "You gave me just what I needed. It did me the power of good." Sometimes a bit of straight talking will give a man the chance to make a better beginning.

A tremendous amount of effort is expended in an attempt to give people with a poor quality of life the opportunity to change. We should not belittle such work because it is exactly what Jesus did for the disabled man at the pool of Bethesda.

The man's body was healed but not his heart.

(1) The healed man remained a beggar at heart. Jesus found him in the temple and said: "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." v14.

What was the man doing in the temple that prompted Jesus to make these remarks? Why did he need reminding that he was well again? Sadly, the former invalid was pretending to be disabled. There were plenty of visitors to the temple who did not know him. He was on the game - begging for a living.

The beggar had not taken the opportunity to change. He was a bit like the former Manchester United footballer George Best. The man had been given new legs but not a new heart. George was given a new liver but his heart remained unchanged - and he was soon drinking again.

(2) The man cured of his physical disability had not entered into a relationship with Jesus. In fact he was resentful of him. When he is accused by the religious authorities with breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat he blames Jesus: "The man who made me well said to me, "Pick up your mat and walk." v11. This is not a very manly response - the former invalid is shuffling off responsibility for his actions. He remains the victim!

Then, when he did discover the identity of his healer, he went at once and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. v15. The man informed on Jesus and got him into trouble: So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. v16. This vindictive behaviour is not what we would expect of a man who has been made well!


It is possible for people to receive benefits from Christianity without being at all grateful. Indeed, they may well be like the Bethesda beggar - vaguely resentful. When I was a boy society was still greatly influenced by Christian belief. People were generally law abiding and Sunday was a day of rest. There were undoubtedly those who longed for more permissiveness!

Willie went down hill when his mother left home and his parents divorced. He got grubbier and grubbier. Dirt and Willie were intimately acquainted. He was rarely equipped for work - lacking pen, pencil and exercise books. Willie never did any homework although he spent several hours in my room at lunchtimes inscribing a few grimy sentences to pacify his irate Geography teacher. Then his father remarried a Christian lady who attended one of our Grace Baptist chapels. Willie was transformed. He looked well scrubbed. His clothes were clean. Willie even began to present some homework! Each Sunday he was dragged to church. I said to him, "Well, Willie things are looking up. How do you like your dad's new wife?" Willie scowled!

(F) How is the miracle at the pool a sign?

Jesus could and did perform miracles of healing that gave men and women the opportunity to change their lives for the better. It is good to remove the underlying causes of human indignity and humiliation such as disease, poverty, ignorance and injustice. But the miracle at the pool shows that this is not enough. All such efforts, however necessary, do not address man's fundamental problem - his diseased heart - his flawed and fallen nature. The disabled man that Jesus healed was given the chance to make a new beginning which he did not take because his heart remained unchanged.

Christ's great work, his redeeming work, involved no supernatural act. He offered himself as a sacrifice for mankind's sin. He suffered, bled and died that we might be forgiven. More than that: To all who receive him, to those who believe in his name he gave the right to become children of God. John1v12. Everyone who believes in Jesus is born again into the family of God. That is a new beginning. We come under the protection of a Heavenly Father, we have Jesus as our Great High Priest and we are given the Holy Spirit of truth to enlighten and support us. When we yield to Jesus, surrendering unconditionally to him, we are changed by the indwelling Spirit and equipped for a new life as Christians.