Summary: Do you want to get well? Do you want to be made whole? Then are you desiring Christ? Are you seeking the Lord, and putting your hope in him alone?
In the book of Proverbs we read this wisdom, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12). Like so much of Proverbs, these words capture well the experience of our lives.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Someone who prays and prays for the healing of an illness can relate to that. Someone who waits and waits for things to get better financially can relate to that. You can hope for something for a long time, but your hope keeps getting deferred, put off, delayed—the answer doesn’t come.
And that makes the heart sick. You despair of ever seeing an improvement. Or you wonder if your prayers make a difference. After so long, you feel like giving up, like making the effort won’t even be worth it. Why set yourself up for disappointment?
God’s people can know about this kind of heartsickness and hopelessness. The man in John 5 knew it, because for thirty-eight years he couldn’t walk. And for a long time, this crippled man had waited beside the pool called Bethesda hoping to get better. Maybe this would be the year that he could dip his legs into the healing waters and he could walk home on his own strength! But his hope was deferred, again and again.
It’s a man who is sick at heart whom Jesus meets. But then our Saviour illustrates the glorious beauty of that proverb’s second half: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jesus fulfills the man’s deepest earthly desire, and along the way He reveals to the man the One whom he must desire more than anything.
This is the third sign of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospel of John. He has turned water into wine, He has healed the dying son of the nobleman, and now Jesus shows mercy to the crippled man. In so doing, Jesus reveals the depths of his compassion for those who suffer. At the same time, we’re going to see that this sign points to Jesus’s great authority, as one equal to the Father. I preach God’s Word to you from John 5:1-15 on this theme,
Jesus shows mercy to the crippled man at Bethesda:
1) where it happened
2) how it happened
3) when it happened
1) where it happened: During his ministry, Jesus was almost always traveling. In our reading of the four Gospels, we probably don’t take much notice of this, but if you mapped his movements, you would see Jesus going north into Galilee, then south to Judea, then north to Samaria, then looping back south towards Jerusalem.
Our text begins with one of these geographical notes. “After this”—that is, after the healing of the royal official’s son, far to the north in Cana of Galilee—“there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v 1). John has told us that He has previously been in Jerusalem, right at the start of his ministry, when Jesus first cleared the temple courts. That event sparked a conflict with the religious leaders, a conflict soon to erupt again on this trip. It says that Jesus goes for “a feast of the Jews,” which we assume was one of the three annual pilgrimage feasts: Tabernacles, Passover or Pentecost.
With Jesus in the capital, John sets the scene in one corner of the city: “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches” (v 2). First of all, the Sheep Gate was located in the northeast corner of the city, quite near to the temple. And close to this gate was a pool.
Maybe you’re picturing something like your community pool, complete with a gym and swimming lanes, but this pool was more like a public bath. Because houses back then didn’t have indoor plumbing, every once in a while people would go wash at a communal bath.
Jerusalem in the first century had several such pools. Archaeologists have even uncovered what was the likely site of the Bethesda pool. It was actually a double set of pools, two right next to each other. There was a porch or covered area along each of the four sides, and then there was a fifth porch area, between the two pools—probably to separate the men’s area from the women’s.
The pool was called Bethesda, which in Hebrew means something like “house of mercy.” In a moment we’ll see why. Under the five porches, where they could be kept out of the heat of the sun, were many people gathered every day: “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed” (v 3).
Try to imagine the scene of all these poor, afflicted people. Maybe you’ve been in a very crowded Emergency Department at the hospital one evening, with sick people everywhere: some moaning on their beds, some stumbling around, others laying there very still—but everyone needing help. The pool of Bethesda was where people went for help, hoping desperately for some improvement in their condition.