“Jesus’s Third Sign, Part 1: Healing and Command”
July 14, 2019
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Our Scripture reading this morning is from John, chapter five, verses one through seventeen.
Please listen carefully, for this is God’s Word for us this morning.
5:1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 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?” 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.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. 10 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.”11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well!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.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
This is the word of the Lord.
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
We praise you, Lord,
and we ask you to teach us your ways and your truth.
Help us to take your Word into our hearts and onto our lips.
Make us to delight in your testimony more than in riches.
Help us to meditate on your precepts,
and to fix our eyes on your ways,
Grant us to delight in your truth,
and to never forget your Word,
for Jesus’s sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:12-16]
There are a couple important themes in our text this morning, and so following the pattern of what we did with the Samaritan woman at the well in June, I will again divide those themes into two different sermons – so we will look at this passage both this Lord’s Day and next Lord’s Day. This Lord’s day we will be looking more at the healing and the man who is healed, while next Lord’s Day we will look at the theme of Jesus healing on the Sabbath.
So whatever questions might come up for you from this text on the Sabbath and its place in this debate – tuck those away and we’ll come back to them next week.
The miraculous healing in our text comes as Jesus’s third sign in the Gospel of John, and as we approach it, we will need to remember again that Jesus’s miracles, especially in John, are not only displays of his power, but they are also signs – meaning that they point to realities beyond themselves, and are often rich with meaning.
What we witness here is a physical healing. And of course it is valuable and important as a physical healing. But it also points beyond mere physical healing. And there are at least two things that tell us that.
The first thing that indicates that Jesus’s mighty work here was intended to point to spiritual realities is actually the limited nature of what Jesus does in this passage. Augustine, preaching on this text, says: “[Our Lord Jesus Christ] went into a place where a big crowd of sick people was lying, blind, lame, with withered limbs; and since he was the doctor of both souls and bodies, and had come to heal the souls of all those who were going to believe, out of all the sick people he chose just one to be healed, [as a sign] […]. If we bring a lukewarm heart, a merely human capacity and disposition to bear on what he was doing, knowing what he had the power to do, then he did not do very much; in regard to his kindness, he did too little. So many were lying there, and just one was cured, even though, by one word, he could have set them all on their feet! So then, what are we to understand but that he used his power and his kindness to help souls grasp in his deeds what their eternal health and salvation required, rather than what their bodies needed for health in time?” [Augustine, 17.1]
The physical healings Jesus performed were valuable in themselves, but they had even greater value in the spiritual realities they pointed to. The physical healings were all temporary – undone eventually by physical death. But the spiritual healings brought eternal life, and with it the ultimate resurrection of the body for eternity. [Augustine, 17.1]
So the limited nature of the physical healing here points us to the fact that we should approach this miracle as pointing to a greater spiritual reality.
But along with that, the text itself links this man’s affliction and his healing to his spiritual state. Jesus himself does it in verse fourteen. He finds the man and says to him: “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”
Now, we should say a few things about this. First, Jesus, and the Scriptures as a whole, are clear that sickness and other suffering are not necessarily the result of our personal sin. Sometimes God brings suffering into the lives of his people not because they are in rebellion but because they are faithful. He does that in the book of Job, where he brings suffering to a faithful servant of his, in order to prove his servant’s faith and confound Satan. Sometimes God brings suffering into the lives of one of his people to advance God’s kingdom – as he often does in the cases of the persecuted or the martyred, including the faithful apostles, who rejoiced, in the Book of Acts, that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’s name [Acts 5:41]. Sometimes God brings suffering into his people’s lives and we have no idea why, as the book of Ecclesiastes highlights.
All of that is true.
But sometimes, he brings suffering into people’s lives because of their sins – because of the ways they have rebelled against him. In the case of his children, he does this as a form of loving discipline, to urge them to repentance and renewed faithfulness to him. In the case of those who have fundamentally rejected him, he does it as punishment in this life that foreshadows the punishment they will face in the next if they do not repent.
It is often hard to know why God has brought suffering into someone’s life – but Jesus has the ability to see it. And his words in verse fourteen of this text indicate that for this man, there was a link between his suffering and his sin. In fact, one commentator goes so far as to suggest that perhaps one of the reasons Jesus healed this man among all those present was because, of all those gathered “his illness, and his alone, was tied to a specific sin.” [Carson, 246] That much we do not know, though we do know there is a connection for this man between his spiritual state and his physical state.
And so this picture of healing gives us a physical picture of spiritual realities. And as we peer into that picture, I want to focus on two aspects of it: I want to focus on the way Jesus heals the man, and the way the man responds to the healing.
So first, the way Jesus heals the man. And what I find interesting here is the fact that Jesus heals the man with a command.
We see that in verses eight and nine. There we read: “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, take your bed, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”
What we see here is that with his command Jesus also offers the healing needed to obey.
With Jesus’s command, he also offers the healing needed to obey … yet we often act like he doesn’t.
We often act like Jesus just gives us just bare commands.
In 2013 the song “Take Me to Church” by the Irish musician Hozier hit #1 in the Billboard Top 40 charts. It was very popular – the music itself and the singer’s voice has this wonderfully haunting character to it that draws you in.
The song was also, both in the words and by the admission of the songwriter, an attack on the Christian church and its view of the world – especially in the area of sexuality. [Interview with “The Cut”]
Many Christians did not realize this was one of the messages of the song … I remember as the youth pastor overhearing a group of our youth playing this song and passionately singing along to it. My guess is that most did not really think through what they were singing.
In it, Hozier sings the line “I was born sick, but I love it, command me to be well.”
The lyric is actually a paraphrase of a line from the poetry of Fulke Greville … a line which is quoted on the opening pages of Christopher Hitchens’s book God is Not Great, which describes humanity as “Created sick, commanded to be sound.”
Setting aside what Fulke Greville’s larger point may have been with this line, in the hands of Christopher Hitchens, one of the vocal and outspoken New Athiests who died in 2011, it was a summary of the absurdity of the Christian understanding of the human condition.
Hitchens would say that according to the Christian Church, God created us sick, and then he commands us to be well. This, he would argue, is the gist of the Christian doctrines of original sin and a human’s responsibility for their sin.
In this view God is a cold and distant God who comes to spiritually sick human beings and demands their obedience, and when they are unable to give it, he judges them for it.
And this can be how many non-Christians view the Christian God today. He stands at a distance, arms folded, cruelly issuing commands that he knows we can’t follow, and then meting out judgment for our failures. One might ask what the point even is in trying to please someone like this.
And so if you’re a non-Christian and you’re here this morning, it’s worth asking yourself: Are there areas of your life where you feel this way? Are there areas of your life that you know the Christian God has called sin, but which you can’t imagine living without, and the command itself to live without it seems like a cruel joke – like a form of mockery? Are there commands like that, that keep you from approaching the Christian God?
Those are questions for any non-Christian to wrestle with, but non-Christians are not alone in the tendency towards this view.
Most Christians would not profess a belief that God is cruel and aloof in the commands he gives to his people. But the way many Christians think of God in their hearts … at least from time to time … is not that different from the view Hitchens proclaims.
In moments of temptation we can find ourselves feeling as if God has issued an impossible command to us … and we just can’t obey it … and so why even bother trying?
Then … in moments when we have given in … again … to the same sin we always seem to … again … then we can feel hopeless that we will ever grow spiritually in our obedience to God.
And then … as that sinks in … we can begin to get bitter towards God. We can view him as a tyrant who mocks us with commands we could never keep. And we can view him as cold and aloof ourselves.
This view … whether the Christian version or the non-Christian version … treats Jesus as if he stands apart and issues nothing but commands – impossible commands – and then watches us struggle and fail to obey them. And whether proclaimed by atheists like Christopher Hitchens or whispered in the hearts of Christians, it is a very common view today.
And what is especially striking and worth noting this morning … is how different it is from the picture of Jesus in our text.
Because the fact is that if Jesus issued only a bare command, then verse eight of our text would indeed seem like a cruel joke – like a form of calloused mockery.
Imagine the scene of Jesus walking up to an invalid, knowing he’d been an invalid for thirty-eight years and then commanding him to walk – standing over him and saying “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” … and then watching as the invalid struggled, and strained, and nothing happened.
That characterization would be a picture of cruelty.
It would also be a lie. It would be a false picture of who Jesus is and what he does … though a false picture we far too often believe.
And so Jesus here in this sign gives us a true picture of who he is and what he does.
And what we see here is that when Jesus gives a command, he also offers the healing we need to obey.
When Jesus gives a command, he also offers the healing we need to obey.
And that is what we see in verses eight and nine. Jesus gives the man the command to get up, to take his bed, and to walk – a command that it is impossible for the man to obey as he is. But then with it, Jesus offers the healing the man needs to obey. So that in verse nine we read “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”
The same Jesus who commands his creatures to walk with him and to obey his word, also offers them the healing they need to walk with him and to obey him.
This means that if you are a Christian, then the same Jesus who calls you to faithfulness and obedience also offers you what you need to heed his call.
It means, in moments of temptation, that as the Apostle Paul says in First Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Notice that Christ’s spiritual healing does not mean that you will stop facing temptations from day to day – neither does it mean that you will stop facing temptations in those areas where you most struggle – in your besetting sins and enduring spiritual battles.
Christ’s spiritual healing in this life does not mean the end of conflict with sin. But it does mean that he will provide what we need to stand up in each individual incident. It does mean that in the hour of temptation, Jesus is with us not only giving us his command, but also providing his help, so that we can endure the temptation. In every temptation we have the opportunity to take the help he offers us, or turn from it. We have the real opportunity to walk in obedient faith … or to return to our sin.
This also means for the Christian, that when you fail, when you give in to sin, as you return to Christ in faith and confess your sin from the heart and receive his pardon, his offer of healing and his promise of help in temptation remains in place. For the Christian confessing their sin and seeking repentance, Christ continues to offer his healing along with his command – and so there is no reason to give up in our areas of struggle.
And in addition to that, it means, for the Christian, that we have no grounds for bitterness over our sin. Christ does not abandon his people. He is faithful, as the Apostle Paul says. And he remains faithful and close – not cold and aloof.
But we still must take what is offered to us. We must respond to the command in reliance on Jesus. The man at the pool had to stand up himself and pick up his mat himself, and walk. Jesus did not eliminate his role – he didn’t make the man levitate and fly home with his mat – he called the man to get up himself and pick up the mat and walk. And the man had to do it – he had to do it in the power Jesus had given him … but he still had to do it.
The Christian must remember in your moments of temptation, in your moments of despair, in you moments of being tempted to bitterness, that when Jesus gives a command, he also offers you the healing and power you need to obey. That doesn’t free you from the hard work of obeying … but it does give you the ability to do that hard work.
That’s for the Christian. What about for the non-Christian?
What our text means for the non-Christian is that if you are someone who resonates with Hozier’s and Hitchens’s view of the Christian God, as a God who comes up to the spiritual hospital beds of human beings who were born spiritually sick and who then stands there with his arms crossed, commanding them to be well – it means that if your picture stops there, then it is a false view of the Christian God – it is a lie.
What you need to add is that as Jesus stands at the spiritual bedside, and gives that command, he also offers the medicine that would heal.
And that component – that offer to heal – that changes everything – that changes the nature of the command given, it changes the nature of the God who speaks, and it changes the nature of the sick one who turns away from the speaker.
It changes the nature of the command, because it is no longer just a command – it is an offer. It is an offer for healing and wholeness and restoration.
It changes the nature of the God who speaks, because that God is not cruel and detached but offering help and healing.
And it changes the nature of the one who turns away from that God … because the one who refuses such an offer is not refusing a cruel command … he is refusing the cure for his sickness.
Which brings us to the next question for both the Christian and the non-Christian to consider: Do you really want to be healed?
Both the non-Christian who does not want what the Christian God offers, and the Christian who is tempted to give up on the battle with sin, both needs to ask themselves: Do I really want to be healed?
Because the second thing that emerges in this story of healing is that it is often unclear how much we want Jesus’s healing.
This comes up in a number of ways for this man in our text.
First it comes up in the initial question that Jesus asks the man in verse six and his response in verse seven.
Jesus asks the man: “Do you want to be healed?” Now, as some point out, we should be hesitant to over-psychologize the question. On it’s face it could very well be an offer Jesus is making and not an inquiry into the sincerity of the man’s desire for healing. [Carson, 243]
And yet … with everything that follows, we might wonder if the Apostle John intends for us to think of it in both ways. Because again and again it seems unclear how much this man wanted to be healed – or at least how thankful he was for the healing.
He answers Jesus’s question “Do you want to be healed?” by saying in verse seven: “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.”
Now – some context is needed, and that context is given in an ancient gloss on the text that appears in some translations as the second half of verse three and all of verse four. You’ll notice those verses are missing from our translation but appear in a footnote of the ESV. Variations in ancient texts would indicate that this verse-and-a-half was not part of the original text of John’s Gospel, but began as an explanatory note beside the text, and was later accidentally incorporated into the text. Nonetheless, even if it is not part of John’s writing, there is no need to doubt that it accurately described the hopes of those at this pool. The marginal text reads that the blind, lame, and paralyzed at the pool were “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.” Now – since these verses are not original to John, that means we do not have a Biblical statement that that is actually what happened – but rather, we can have a good sense that that is what the people expected.
And so this man states that while he was brought here to the pool, he has no way to get in and be healed when the right time comes.
And there’s a range of ways we could read this man’s response. We could read it most positively as a direct response to Jesus, indicating that he does desire healing, but is unable to get it at the pool. Or … in light of the picture we get in the rest of this passage, we might read it with some frustration in his tone. As one commentator puts it, in light of the full portrait we get of this man, his answer in verse seven “reads less as an apt and subtle response to Jesus’ question than as the crotchety grumblings of an old and not very perceptive man who thinks he is answering a stupid question.” [Carson, 243]
Even more than that, we might wonder at the desire for healing in a man who has been brought to the pool, but who has not secured help in obtaining the healing he needs once he gets there.
The man’s desire for healing could be read in a range of ways through verse seven, but a more negative picture emerges in what follows.
We learn in verse thirteen that the man, upon being healed, did not even bother to find out the name or identity of the man who healed him. We see in verse eleven his readiness to throw his healer under the bus when the authorities questioned him. We see in verse fourteen, when the man and Jesus did speak again, it was not because the man was looking for Jesus but because Jesus was looking for the man. We see in the same verse that the man still needed to be warned to turn from his sin. And we see in verse fifteen that once he knew Jesus’s identity, one of the first things this man did was go back to the threatening authorities and tell them Jesus’s identity which led, in verse sixteen, to the Jewish authorities persecuting Jesus. [Browne, 209]
Now … we don’t want take these facts too far, but we also don’t want to ignore them. On the one hand these responses do not seem to exemplify the kind of devotion to Jesus and thanksgiving for his healing that we might hope for. On the other hand … the man does not seem treacherous so much as flawed, bumbling, and disappointing. Commentators describe him as a man “guilty of dullness”, “persistent naivete” or general “unpleasant[ness]” as opposed to real treachery. [Carson, 246; Browne, 209; Morris, 307] Or as one commentator sums it up: “The man was not the stuff of which heroes are made.” [Morris, 306]
Taken as a whole, something seems to be implied about the man’s lack of enthusiasm for his being healed. We might wonder at why that might be. But in some ways it maybe it is not that mysterious. The life he knew for 38 years was the life of an invalid. Perhaps he had grown an attachment to some aspects of it. Perhaps while in principle he wanted to be healed, in his heart the issue was a bit more complex.
And that possibility should lead us to consider our own lives.
We see something of the spiritual equivalent of this lack of enthusiasm for healing in a well-known line from Augustine. Augustine wrote in his Confessions that his prayer to God in his adolescence was “Grant me chastity and self-control, but please not yet.” Augustine then goes on to explain his prayer, saying to God: “I was afraid that you might hear me immediately and heal me forthwith of the morbid lust which I was more anxious to satisfy than to snuff out.” [Augustine, Confessions, VIII.7.17]
And the same sentiment is often true of us as well, isn’t it?
We might in principle of course insist that we want to be healed and freed from slavery to our sin. We might be offended by anyone who would suggest otherwise. We might focus our frustration on God and the unreasonableness of his commands and the lack of help we feel in approaching them.
But the fact is that our biggest struggle with our sin is that we don’t really want to be healed … we don’t want to be freed. When we pray for deliverance, our hearts whisper a “but please not yet” after each prayer.
Even Hozier – the musician I mentioned earlier – seems to have enough self-awareness to admit this. It’s interesting how he changed the line that he paraphrased. The original line of poetry quoted by Christopher Hitchens was “Created sick, commanded to be sound.” But Hozier sang it as “I was born sick, but I love it, command me to be well.” Even while surrounding it with critiques of Christianity, he still seems to realize that it is his love for his sin and brokenness that is the root issue.
Which means we need to open our eyes to the reality of our sin and brokenness. The attachment that the man in John chapter five has for his illness might be understandable in certain ways – but it is still a deeply flawed way of thinking. There might be a sense of safety and security in his illness – he knew who he was, he knew his role, he knew what was expected of him and what was not expected of him – it was familiar to him. There might be small comforts he enjoys. But he is a prisoner to it – and he should want to be freed.
And so with us and our spiritual illnesses. Your sin – the ones you struggle with, the one you silently add a “but please not yet” to your prayers about, the one you can’t imagine your life without – it is a prison as much as this man’s illness was. You often feel it. You feel degraded by it. You feel the lack of freedom to do otherwise. You see the parts of your life and heart that your sin claims. And yet still, there is a temptation to become a “prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” [Wallace]
Such love for enslavement is a delusion. Your calling is to see it as such, to name it, and to open your eyes to reality.
And one way we do that is we respond rightly to the offer of freedom and healing that Jesus extends to us.
When Jesus gives a command, he also offers the healing we need to obey … therefore in thanks to and reliance on Christ, we must accept his healing, and persevere in faithfulness to him.
That is what we are called to in this text: As Christ offers us his healing aid, in thanks to him and reliance on him, we must accept Christ’s healing, and persevere in faithfulness to him.
It means, to begin, that we need to do some things that this man in John chapter five did not do.
It means that we acknowledge, to ourselves, to God, and to others, how God has already brought healing into our lives. It is somehow easy for us to forget the work that God has already done in our lives – to walk away from our healing, just like this man, without giving a word of thanks to Jesus or thinking to publicly praise him for what he has done. Instead, we must acknowledge what Christ has done for us, and give thanks to him. Hope in future spiritual growth and healing often begins with acknowledging past spiritual growth and healing. A deeper desire for spiritual healing and wholeness often begins with giving sincere thanks for the ways God has delivered us from sin in the past. Such acts begin to reorient us to a sane view of the slavery of sin and the freedom offered to us in Christ.
This also means heeding the warnings of Jesus. Jesus gives this man a warning in verse fourteen. He says “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Now, Jesus is not expecting immediate sinlessness from this man – but he is calling him to make a break with his sin, to respond to it with repentance rather than acceptance, and to turn to God. And while Jesus may be warning him of the possibility of future suffering in this life … it is more likely that he is especially warning him of the eternal consequences of his sin, if he does not turn to God in faith. For if slavery to sin in this life is dark and lonely and degrading, it is exponentially more so if we choose slavery to sin for eternity.
We might consider and downplay the cost of our sin in this life, and then resist Jesus’s healing work. But recognizing the possibility of seeing those costs compounded for eternity – recognizing the possibility of our eternal souls living out deeper and deeper slavery to sin forever – that should expose to our eyes the ugliness of sin, that should cause us to want to turn from sin and accept Jesus’s healing work in our lives all the more.
We might add that accepting Christ’s healing, thanking him, relying on him, and persevering in faithfulness to him, will mean coming to Jesus again and again for ongoing help and healing. It will mean being people who, once again unlike this man in John 5, are repeatedly seeking Jesus, to give him thanks, and to express our needs to him – needs for ongoing forgiveness, needs for ongoing help.
And that will include asking him to heal us at deeper and deeper levels – asking him to heal not just our tendency to sin, but that deeper love we have for our sin – the love for it that makes our hearts whisper “but please not yet” to our prayers for deliverance. The same Jesus who made the invalid walk, who frees us from slavery to sin, can also bring healing to our love for sin. We should be coming to him every day and asking him to do just that.
And as we do those things, as we pursue Christ in those ways, we begin to turn from our delusions over the nature of our slavery to sin – we begin to desire the healing Christ brings to us, and we persevere more and more in faithfulness to him.
When Jesus gives a command, he also offers the healing we need to obey … therefore in thanks to and reliance on Christ, we must accept his healing, and persevere in faithfulness to him.
It can be easy to dismiss the man in this text. To shake our heads at his lack of desire for restoration. To roll our eyes at his unthankfulness, his cowardice, and his lack of pursuit of Christ after all Christ did for him.
But that’s not the most honest way to read this text.
The most honest way to read this text is to let your eyes get larger and larger as you read on … and realize how often you have been this man. How often you have not really wanted to be healed. How often you have been unthankful upon receiving Christ’s help. How often you have responded in dullness.
But then … as you see in this man your own flaws, consider again verses eight and nine. Despite this man’s conflicted heart, Jesus healed him. And if you come to Jesus, he will heal you too.
And as you see in this man your own deficiencies, read again the first half of verse 14: “Afterward Jesus found him.” Despite this man’s dullness and unthankfulness, Jesus came and found him again, and instructed him in love. Jesus still pursues you even in your dullness and unthankfulness.
And as you consider that, let it grow in your heart a gratitude for who our Savior is. He is the one who heals the conflicted. He is the one who pursues people like you and me.
Let us therefor turn to him, hear his command, and receive his healing work in our lives.
This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine, The Confessions. Translated by Maria Boulding. Second Edition. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012.
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 1-40. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2009.
Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John. vol.1. Anchor. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966.
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Hozier. Interview with “The Cut” (https://www.thecut.com/2014/03/qa-hozier-on-gay-rights-sex-good-hair.html)
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971.