Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Taming Power

"Power corrupts." This is a famous saying. To this we may add saying, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." David's sin with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) is a typical illustration from the Bible on the corrupting influence of power.
David happens to see Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and he wants to make her his wife. But it is not easy even for the king in Israel to take the wife of another person. So, he devises a plan. He was the king and Uriah one of his employees, the best way to possess Uriah's wife is to get him killed. So the king sends Uriah to battle. David also tells his commander to position Uriah in the most vulnerable place where death is sure. And thus he manages to get him killed in the battle! And when the news of Uriah's death was brought to David the king, he makes a stoic comment: "It's Okay, the sword kills both sides." It is natural. David then sends for Bathsheba and she became his wife. The story goes on to say that her son became the next king in Israel after David. A perfect plan: but David would not have done this a few years ago when he had no power.

The David without power was a different person. He was a fugitive for a while; running away from king Saul who was chasing him. One day he had a golden opportunity. He and his enemy who seeks his life happened to be in the same cave. He could have drawn the sword and killed his enemy who was sleeping right in front of him. Instead, he said, "I will not lay hands on the Lord's anointed" and left him there. However, he just cut a piece from Saul's garment to prove that he was very close to him and could have slit his throat open. The Bible says that even that action, that is cutting a piece of his cloth hurt David's conscience. Then he was a fugitive; he had no kingdom, no power and no army. Now the same person who became king would devise a plan to kill an innocent person so that he can possess his wife. In the process he would risk the lives of many other soldiers involved in the battle. In the process he would bring shame upon his countrymen by choosing to lose a battle. It was a match fixing of a sort. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.
How can those who are in leadership protect themselves from the corrupting influence of power? First of all, by realizing that none of us have absolute power. God is ultimate. Secondly, power has corrupting influence on us only when we are too conscious of power. Finally, take power as an opportunity to serve and not to control. Then there would be so much freedom and purity in the use of power.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Knowing Christ....

The knowledge of Christ that strives to make him known as Paul did by his life is possible only when we are willing to move on beyond ourselves.

In Philippians 3:10, when Paul talks about knowing Christ, he is not talking about a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. By this time (almost towards the end of ministry and life) Paul have had that knowledge. Nevertheless, he is talking about knowing Christ as a continuing process that culminates in attaining resurrection from the dead. I am even tempted to think that the expression "to know Christ" is a synonym for Christian life. Christian spirituality is a process of knowing Christ in increasing measure each day until we see him face to face in eternity.
This knowing of Jesus requires rejecting everything that stands on the way of intimacy with Jesus. Raimondo Panikkar, a leading Christian theologian once remarked: "To arrive at God, we should not stop at us." That means if we are on a journey to know Christ, we should explore beyond ourselves. Paul seems to be doing that. He wrote: "I Consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish..." (Phil. 3:8). This knowledge of Christ is at a cost. That is to lose everything that stands on the way of that knowledge.
Egoism is the greatest enemy of this knowledge. Egoism is the pre-occupation with oneself. In this thinking, the self become paramount in ones thinking. This is when I am at the centre of my thinking, and I strive to become the focus of attention. Such a pre-occupation with one's self hinders knowing Christ. That is why Panikkar's words become meaningful: "To arrive at God we should not stop at us." The knowledge of Christ that strives to make him known as Paul did by his life is possible only when we are willing to move on beyond ourselves.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Devotion: Sacrificial Extravagance

I looked up Wikipedia for a definition of the word "Devotion" and was surprised to find that in Christianity "devotion" is identified with Bible Study. And that is very much true. When someone says that s/he had devotion in the morning what they mean usually is that they read their Bible. However, the meaning of the word is quite different from studying the scriptures.

Devotion is being devoted to someone or something. It is ardent love or surrender in love. Many Hindu Bhaktas understand and practice devotion in that sense. However, in Christian spirituality we often tend to forget this aspect though it has a very prominent place in the Bible. For example, Jesus asking Peter if we love him more that all that he has is certainly a demand for ardent love and total surrender in love (John 21:15). Loving God is a dominant theme in both the Old and New Testaments. See for example the command in Deuteronomy 6:5: "Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength."

John 12:1-8 is a passage that deals with this theme of devotion where we find Mary engaged in a practical act of devotion to the Lord. There is another story, which is similar to this in Luke's gospel (Luke 7:37-50) where a woman identified only as a "sinful woman" washes and anoints Jesus' feet. The woman mentioned there could be different from the one in John 12:1-8 or the same. However, that is definitely another act of devotion. Then again we see Mary's devotion expressed in contrast with that of Martha's service in Luke 10:38-42. Here Martha was involved in caring for Jesus, probably preparing food for Jesus and his group. However, Jesus commends Mary as he endorsed that he chose the better; that is to sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say.

There are a number of other cases that we cite in order to argue that devotion to God in the sense of ardent love and surrender is very much part of Christian and biblical practice. However, what I would like to focus here is on the act of devotion.

First of all devotion emerges out of a deep sense of obligation to God. This is very graphically expressed in Luke 7:37-50. What makes people resort to such acts of worship which humbles them and calls for self-sacrifice for the sake of expressing their love for their God? Jesus explains it as a sense of having received (in this case forgiveness) more from God. It is a matter of perception. A proper perception of what we have received from the Lord leads us to an obligation to reciprocate that in acts of love.

Secondly, devotion also involves listening to the Lord and enjoying his presence in our lives. This is what Jesus brought out through the contrast between Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. There is no question that Martha believed in Jesus as much as Mary did. However, the Lord expects us to express our faith in acts that please him. Just as two people who are love, enjoys being together and talking to each other, Jesus expects us to be with him and listens to him. Peter had learnt this early in his life with Jesus. John 6 talks about a crisis that arose in the Jesus movement. Many those who were following Jesus left him because they found his words hard. Then Jesus asked the twelve disciples who were in the inner circle if they also would like to leave him. However, Peter's reply to that is remarkable. He asked, "Lord! To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" That is Peter's reason for following Jesus; he has found the presence and words of Jesus indispensable to him.

There were two sisters and the eldest one has to read bed-time stories to the youngest every day. Tired of her chore, one day she decided to record the stories on tape and play to her little sister every night. When she introduced the tape to her sister, the little girl refused to use it saying, "it hasn't got a lap." That is important: it is not just the story that matters, the presence and voice of the sister matters too. So is the disciples' attachment to the Lord.

A final observation that I would like to make is that devotion also takes us to sacrificial extravagance. In John's gospel (John 12:1-8) Mary anointed Jesus with a very costly perfume. The cost of it is estimated by Jesus' treasurer (Judas Iscariot) as equal to one year's wage. To save that much money a person has to work more than a year! Critics of Mary's act called it "extravagance" and "waste". Ardent love for Jesus takes us to the extreme of sacrifices and giving. Giving to the cause of the Kingdom of God should not be considered as a funding the church or mission finances but expression of our love for God. Giving must be considered as an act of devotion. There is a joy that comes from giving out of love for Jesus. Augustine's words may someway illustrate it: "Where your pleasure is there is your treasure; where your treasure is, there is your heart; where your heart is, there is your happiness." Giving thus is an act of devotion: it is delighting in the Lord!

In order to inculcate devotion in us we need to have a sense of obligation or indebtedness to Jesus. This is thus expressed in acts of devotion as experiencing his presence and an eagerness to hear voice daily in our lives. Then it may take us to acts of devotion which involves sacrifice from our side.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Days of Antipas

"The days of Antipas" means not only a period of persecution but a period of perseverance as well. It signifies the days of believers who withstood the pressures from outside to surrender.In the church in the city of Pergamum, there were some people who remained faithful to Jesus in the days of severe persecution. Apostle John calls these days of persecution "the day of Antipas" (Rev. 2:13). 
The Antipas mentioned here should not be confused with Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas was a wicked ruler whom Jesus called "fox". He is the one who offered the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter to his daughter. He might have tried to kill Jesus and presided over Jesus' trial. However, the Antipas mentioned in Revelation 2 was the bishop of Pergamum, a pagan city in the first century AD. The name means "against all." There is a great contrast in the names--Herod was against all that was good, however, Antipas the bishop of Pergamum was against all that was bad.
Living in a pagan city and witnessing to the power of Jesus was not easy. The city of Pergamum was a center of pagan worship where sacrifices were offered to demons. That is why the Bible calls this city "... where Satan has his throne" (Rev. 2:13). An ancient writer, Simeon Metaphrastes records that the demons of this city appeared to the people there and told them that since the power of Antipas was casting them out they cannot live anymore in that city. The people approached the conservative governor of the city to restrain Antipas. However, Antipas refused to budge and had to pay a very high price of his defiance. The aged Antipas was thrown to the brazen altar alive and was roasted. His martyrdom is celebrated by some orthodox churches on April 11 every year.
Some members of the church of Pergamum "remained true" to the name of Jesus even in this difficult times. "The days of Antipas" means not only a period of persecution but a period of perseverance as well. It signifies the days of believers who withstood the pressures from outside to surrender. Believers in various parts of the world are going through persecution. We need the grace of God to turn this period of persecution to "days of Antipas", the days of those who withstand the pressure to surrender their faith.

Monday, July 24, 2006

How to Handle Offenders

People think that they can create a better world by annihilating all those who are against it, but Jesus may not agree!
Recently, in Mumbai a man who appeared to be a thief was beaten to death. The people did not care to hand him over to the police, but they took the law in their own hands. That's what the Jewish leaders who brought the woman caught in adultery also wanted to do (John 8:1-11). Their thinking was very much in line with that of the legal and social systems of our day: the best way to get rid of sin is to annihilate the sinner.
Those who commit crimes or sins continue by trivializing their act. People can always point out to bigger crimes and get away with their "small" offenses. They can always justify saying that they are not the only ones who does such things. We live in a day when people think that paying penance is the be best way to get over sin and its effect. Mahatma Gandhi once told a person who killed a Muslim boy during the riots following India's partition that he can get over the guilt by adopting a Muslim boy and bringing up as his own. That hardly removes the guilt in the eyes of God, but may help us to manage the guilt feeling. Modern psychiatry teaches us to manage anger, get over guilt feelings, etc. but hardly reconciles us to God.
In every act of sin, at least three parties are involved. One the offended, against whom the sin is committed. The second the offender, the one who commits the sin. However, often in the modern thinking the third party is often ignored. That is God. Every act of sin has grieved the heart of God and every sin is committed against God. Penance may sometimes help the offender by helping to feel good; it may also help the offended also. Revenge may help the offended. None of these removes the guilt in the eyes of God. that requires forgiveness from God. Unless we hear God's voice saying "Go Now..." (John 8:11) it is not forgiven. Only God can do that, and that is what Jesus did to this woman. His way of handling the sin is not by trivializing sin, nor by annihilating the sinner but by transforming the sinner to a saint, someone forgiven
There was a woman who claimed that she get direct revelations from God. A committed Christian wanted to test her and asked her to find out from God about the sins he committed while in college. The following day he approached this woman to find out what God's reply was. She said that when she asked God about the sins he committed in the past, God told her that he doesn't remember any. Sins forgiven by God are forgotten for ever!
An offender continues until caught. Once caught the s/he may not be spared. However, the Lord let us free from the guilt of sin on one condition. That is a commitment not to sin again, to have a desire to live lives that are upright before him. That is why he said to this woman, "Leave your life of sin!" (John 8:11). It is a call to holiness: "Be holy as I am holy". When tempted to trivialize our sins let us remember we can come to Jesus for cleansing.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

" Confidence to pray stems out of the realization that God is in control of our situations. He can control and conquer the situations that we go through."
Why do we pray to God? As all our actions must have some explanations, we must be able to explain why we pray to God. The prayer of the Psalmist is "Give us aid against the enemy, for the help of man is worthless" (Psalm 108:12).
One of the reasons for this prayer is the confidence in God, which is reflected in verse 13: "With God we will gain victory, and he will trample down our enemies." The second reason is the realization that the human power is worthless. The psalmist cannot trust in human power in order to win the battle that he is engaged in.
However, the most important reason is a realization of the sovereignty of God over the nations. The divine oracle cited in verses 7-9 is the basis of the prayer in verse 10. In this verse God's authority over the nations around Israel is spelt out. Israel's enemies, and particularly the country of Edom with which they are engaged in the battle now are at God's disposal. He can parcel it out as He likes, he can treat some as his washbasin, and some are like the place where he will throw his sandals. In other words, it is God who decides the destiny of the nations and thus God is able to protect each nation.
Confidence to pray stems out of the realization that God is in control of our situations. He can control and conquer the situations that we go through.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Guidance for Strangers on Planet Earth

“Listening to God through His Word must be a daily habit and ordering our life according to the revealed will of God must be an instinct.”

I cannot drive without maps. During my short stay in the US a few months back, I always asked people for their ZIP code and downloaded a map with driving directions from I found this more dependable than calling up friends and getting the directions to their house over the phone. Being new to the country, I needed reliable guidance and I always depended on Yahoo maps!
I am a stranger in this world too. I am moving forward in life. Every day new people, new circumstances, new challenges encounter me. I never been there before in most of these situations and I hardly know what to do. I desperately need guidance in life; some authority to tell me what to do, what to say and how to react.
The psalmist who penned Psalm 119 was also in a similar situation. However, he is more poetic than me. He says of himself: "I am a stranger on earth" and prayers "... do not hide your commands from me" (Psalm 119:19). Psalm 119 is a psalm about the Law of God. It extols the benefits of obeying the Word of God. In the Word of God, we find correction and rebuke. There are times when pride corrodes my mind and I need the Word that cleanses me.
Living life according to the Word is a delight. It is more than the delight and pride that you have when you knock at the door of your friend and say you made it (by following the driving directions), and your friends eyes widen with surprise. That is why the psalmist could say, "your statues are my delight, they are my counselors" (Psalm 119:24).
There are many guideposts in modern culture. However, there is only one time-tested guidepost for our life. That is the eternal Word of God. Listening to God through His Word must be a daily habit and ordering our life according to the revealed will of God must be an instinct.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The first drunken act!

"We have two options when we see our dear ones in sin. One is to do nothing about it and give it as much publicity as possible as Ham did. The other is to go and correct so that they may not continue in sin."
It is normal to bungle, especially for the first time. In the first meeting to be chaired, the first speech to be done, it is normal to make mistakes. The very first day of driving, I scratched against a small truck and I learned that truck drivers in my city (Pune) do not pay much attention to the electric signals of other vehicles. However, as the Danish proverb says ("No dog bumps into the same stone again!") mistakes are not to be repeated.
The Bible says Noah was the first to plant a vineyard (Genesis 9:20)!* Thus he must be the first person to make wine and drink it too. He probably did not have anyone to tell him that too much wine intoxicates and you lose control on your thinking and body. There was no one on earth to tell him that so much of wine can make yourself a mockery. This may explain why God did not condemn Noah for drinking wine and become naked before his family though getting drunk is a serious sin and being naked before others is even more serious.
However, the point of the story in Genesis 9:18-28 is not Noah's indecent behaviour but how his sons responded to it. The spiritual lesson is what do you do when you find someone in sin. Two examples are given in that chapter. The first person to spot Noah drunk and naked was his second son Ham who later became to father of Canaan. He did not do about it, but just goes and publicizes it to his two brothers. He could have just covered him; then he did not have to tell his brothers that their father was naked. However, when Ham and Japheth the other sons were told about this disgraceful episode they covered his nakedness making sure that they themselves did not see their father's nakedness. As Noah woke up when the effect of wine wore away he might have noticed the extra garment that was on him and found out what had happened.
We have two options when we see our dear ones in sin. One is to do nothing about it and give it as much publicity as possible as Ham did. The other is to go and correct so that they may not continue in sin. The Bible exhorts us in Luke 17:3, "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him." Correction is a spiritual duty that we have to each other in the Body of Christ.
* Some versions, for example, NIV translates this verse as "Noah, a man of the soil, proceed to plant a vineyard" instead of " Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard" (NRSV). See the footnote in NIV.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

King, Servant and Sacrifice

Jesus is  not the king of the materially minded people; he had come to rule our hearts
"Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself" (John 6:15).
It was an opportunity that anyone who would like to have: to become king! However, Jesus runs away from that excellent opportunity. However, in John 18 when questioned by Pilate, Jesus ascertained that "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth" (John 18:37). At the same time he also had made clear that his kingdom "... is not of this world" (John 18:36).
There are crucial differences between the way kingship was understood by the people of Jesus' day (including Pilate) and Jesus. That is why Jesus had to clarify that his kingship is not an earthly kingship. The people around Jesus, who had just eaten the food that Jesus multiplied from five loaves and two fish, had a different concept of kingship. For them the ideal king is someone who can feed the hungry. The rulers should provide opportunities so that people can work and earn their living. Low taxation, high per capita income, secure investments, etc are all part of it. Here is however, an ideal candidate for kingship: he provides all these without you working for it. He not just provides you opportunity to earn your bread and butter but actually serves it without any effort from your side.
Jesus conceived kingship as an authority that is higher than that of this world. He has come to rule the hearts of the people. That is another way of saying he has come to establish the kingdom of God. A bunch of people craving for the material things, concerned only about their livelihood and nothing higher than that would hardly qualify to be the citizens of this Kingdom. He don't want to be their king. He had no other option except to flee that crowd.
Establishing the eternal kingdom, with eternal values that are high above the earthly, is through the servant-hood. He came to be a servant of all. He suffered as a servant and then became the ultimate sin-offering. Since he became the sacrifice for all of us, those who believe in Him are now citizens of the Kingdom of God and members of the household of God. Becoming the king of Jews that day could have foiled the eternal plan of God. Now he is my king and he rules my heart. Thank you Jesus for fleeing that mad crowd.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Crowd that Jesus Really Pulls!

The Crowd Puller
The Crowd that Jesus Really Pulls!
The Gospel of John presents Jesus as a loner in the opening chapters of the book. The statement in John 1:11 is rather startling: "He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." And then we see Jesus walking (alone?) in John 1:29 when John the Baptist introduces him saying, "Look, the Lamb of God!" Then the following day Jesus gets two disciples of John the Baptist to follow him (John 1:35-42). In the second chapter, we see a small crowd around Jesus but they had come for the wedding in Cana and not because of Jesus. Then until chapter 6, he mostly ministers to solitary individuals: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, etc.
However, by the time we reach the sixth chapter he has become so popular that there were 5000 adult males in the crowd when he multiplied the fish and loaves by Lake Galilee. Rest of the sixth chapter is about the type of people who came to Jesus in large numbers. In these days of mega churches and large crusades, where success and blessings are a matter of numbers, a closer look at this passage is useful.
The first large crowd that came to Jesus because they had seen "the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick (John 6:2). It is this large crowd (numbering 5000 adult men and children and women not counted) that stayed late into evening so that Jesus had to feed them. Miracle workers are still great crowd pullers. Healing miracles, whether it is Christian or non-Christian does draw large crowds even now.
Then in 6:23 we see another group from the city of Tiberias arriving the following day in the place where Jesus had fed the people. They had come evidently seeking free food. They were disappointed because Jesus had moved from that place (probably Bethsaida) to Capernaum. However, the crowd, having not found Jesus there follows him to Capernaum. Looking at them Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill" (John 6:26). Looking for the Jesus who feeds and meets the physical and material needs explains why large crowds gather into meetings and churches where the promises of material blessings are offered.
Large gatherings of people are one thing, but what matters is those who stick! Towards the end of the same chapter, we have people leaving Jesus out frustration! Verse 60 records the disciples grumbling at Jesus' teaching that they found distasteful. Verse 66 says, "from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." It is not just the people on the periphery but some disciples (who belong to the inner circles) also left Jesus. This is what happens when miracles stop and people are asked to make moral commitments. There is always a demand for material blessings without any moral or spiritual commitments. This explains why the crowd around teachers of the Word and the churches where teaching the Word get priority is thin!
However, 12 definitely stayed back (see verse 70). The Christian Church has a history of 2000 years and growth and spread that  surpass any other spiritual movement in history because these twelve decided to stick to Jesus even when there was no loaves being multiplied or no sick was being healed. They stayed with Jesus because they found that, as Peter put it, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). These are the twelve who became witnesses of his death and resurrection and later the pillars of the Christian Church.
Real loyalty to Jesus is a commitment to his Word. This is a commitment to believe what he says, and obey he speaks through his Word. The number of this group who follow Jesus because they have found eternal life in him is not that big!

Paulson Pulikottil
Union Biblical Seminary, PB NO. 1455, Bibvewadi, Pune, India.
Phone: 020-21711158

The miracle mix

Miracles are the display of God's power not the strength of our faith
For a miracle to happen you have to have faith, that is what I was taught. I was also taught that miracles happen only when certain people pray, the anointed ones. I have thus developed a notion, as many of my readers have that miracles is a product of right amount of faith with anointing. If there is something wrong in that mixture then miracle may not happen.
Now, I know those who told us this haven't really read their Bible carefully. In the Bible, miracles have happened in the context of unbelief and sometimes by people who lacked faith. They themselves did not believe that a miracle is going to happen.
When God did miracles through Moses in the presence of Pharaoh, it did not depend on the faith of Moses nor the Pharaoh. In fact the miracles were performed that Pharaoh may believe. When the Syrian official Naaman was healed of leprosy what was the role of his faith in his healing? He did not believe that dipping himself in the murky waters of Jordan is going to heal any skin disease. However, he did so, not because of faith but because his servants insisted! However, that miracle generated faith in him. Take any miracles that has happened in the Bible, miracles are not necessarily the product of ones faith, but faith is the outcome of miracles. John the evangelist puts this way, "many put their faith in him". They put their faith in him because they saw the miracles that he did. So, God does miracles in order that we may have faith in him.
The healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda happened not because he had faith in Jesus. He did not express any hope that he will be healed nor did he know who Jesus was.
Miracles are a displays of God's power over human body, and nature both his creations.
However, the question remains: then why did Jesus could not perform miracles in places where they did not believe in him. Is not the faith of the centurion the reason for the miracle that he experienced?
We hear this often: "Exercise your faith". It accents human effort, while miracles are purely what God does at his discretion. Nothing may happen however hard your exercise your faith, unless God makes the move!

Paulson Pulikottil
Union Biblical Seminary, PB NO. 1455, Bibvewadi, Pune, India.
Phone: 020-21711158

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Meet a God who exceeds our expectations

What God can do for us always exceeds what the world can offer us. We need to realise this important fact and respond to God in faith. This is the important lesson that we can draw from the first 15 verses of the fifth chapter of John's Gospel.
The story found only in the Gospel of John, is set in Jerusalem in one of the porticoes of the Pool of Bethesda. In the ancient times it was a tank where rainwater was collected and stored. It was here that Prophet Isaiah in the eighth century BC met king Ahaz according to Chapter 7, of the Book of Isaiah.
Isaiah 7:3 "the upper pool", near the Washerman's Field.
In Jesus' time it is called Bethesda, the Jews might have pronounced in Aramaic as BET-HESDA meaning, House of Mercy. It got is name for the reputation of the miracle of healing that was going on there.
It was built as a Roman Bath during the days of Jesus. In Roman times pools had porticos, and changing rooms, and steps leading to the pool. It could have been a swimming bath, similar to the swimming pools of our days. Apostle John tells us that it had five colonnades, that is it had five porticoes and steps that led to the water where the sick were laid.
The sick were brought there with the hope of being healed. Now and then there would be a stirring in the placid waters of the pool. It could be the eruption of some underground springs in the pool, which fed the pool. People believed that an angel stirs the water and the first person to get into the water after it is stirred will be healed.
So, there are many who are waiting for their healing in the porticoes of this pool. We don't know how many times a day, or month or year, the angel visited the pool and stirred its waters. However, its seems that there was a big crowd around the pool: the sick and their edear ones who accompanied them and spectators too. The spectators were there to cheer up the lucky person who got into pool first and came out of it healed or to make fun of those who entered the water but missed it by seconds and got out of it simply wet. There was so much expectation, excitement and fun around the pool.
On one Sabbath day Jesus visits this pool and asks a man who had been invalid for 38 years if he would like to be healed. The man thought that Jesus is offering help to get into the pool first, because he had no one to help him to get into the water. He himself cannot do it beating others since he is invalid. However, Jesus commands him to get up, take your mattress and walk. Instantly, the man is healed, he carried his mattress and headed for home.
This creates problems. The Jews interprets this as work done on Sabbath, which is traditionally considered as a day of rest. No one is allowed to work on Sabbath. They believed that on the Seventh day, God rested from all his work of creating this world so every pious Jew should also observe it as day of rest and set it apart for worship. Jesus has violated the Sabbath laws by healing on that Holy Day. Jesus also has violated the Sabbath by making the sick man carry his mattress and walk. So. they started persecuting him to the extent of plotting to kill him.
Jesus uses the argument that ensues to explain what is Sabbath, who is the father God, and why healing a person on Sabbath is not a violation of Sabbath.
I feel guided by the Holy Spirit is guiding us to compare what the world can offer us with what He offers us and to examine our attitude and response to God's offer. So, let us proceed by looking at three important aspects: What the world can offer a person in need; what Jesus can offer; and thirdly how we respond to Jesus' offer.
What the world could offer
The world has something to offer to everyone who seeks help. However, what the world offers depends on various factors. If we take the Bethesda as a model of what the world could offer to person in need, the first thing we find here is that, all that it can offer depends on human effort.
The world has turned an ordinary pool were clothes were washed, to an elaborate system that offers miracles. However, all that it could offer is miracles with conditions.
Your healing depends on your efforts
The pool of Bethesda did heal people. I don't want to question that fact. Or at least the people believed that they were healed. However, in order to be healed at Bethesda, the patients had to meet some conditions. The foremost of these conditions was that you got to be the first person to enter the water.
It is a miracle that depends on your with athletic performance. Only the best sprinter in the crowd of the sick people lying there could be healed. You need to out run others in order to be healed.
If you are not able to run fast, you need the help of an able-bodied person who can carry you to run with you to the water and be the first to be in the water when the water is stirred. If you do not have strength, and if you do not have an strong relative on your side, the pool of Bethesda is of no use to you.
That explains why this man has been there waiting for his healing for many years. He was invalid; he is not going to make it to the pool by himself. He doesn't have anyone to carry him to the water. He will have to wait for that day, when there will be no one other than himself left at the porticoes of the pool when the angel stirs the waters. That day is not going to come.
It is a pool that heals the sick, but only those sick who has the strength to run faster than others.
Your healing depends on your luck
To be healed you need to be the first. If you miss by a split second, then you only got wet not healed.
I would imagine that the sick people sat as close as they can to the edge of the water.
The competition was tough. The sheer of the competitors was high. Apostle John tells us in verse 3 that, "There was a great number of people" (5:3) there.
Many of them had able bodied relatives determined to get their sick to the water first! So, it all depended on your luck!
The fact is that the majority of the sick gathered there have no chance of making it to the pool without sheer luck or with the help of the most talented companion. Apostle John gives us a sample of the people who were gathered at the pool. They were the blind, the lame and the paralysed; verse 3.
The blind may not make it to the water because a sighted person will spot the stirring first and get into the water before a blind can do it.
The lame: has less chance of making it into the pool first, because the dumb sprinter may make it to the water before him.
Same is the case with the paralyzed. A paralyzed person, is less likely run to the water first.
So it is a game of luck where the contestants were, unable to see, unable to walk and unable to move parts of their body. Bethesda pool healed; that is what the people believed; and they would say, "Go and try your luck!"
Your Healing is controlled by legalism
Thirdly, the healing miracles at the Pool of Bethesda was limited by the legalism of the Jews. First of all, you can not be healed on a Saturday even if you are the only person around that day and there was a higher chance of getting into the water before anyone because, on Sabbath you are not allowed to work. Now, even if you are healed by some chance on a Saturday, then you cannot walk out of the place. You are not supposed to work on a Sabbath day. Carrying your mattress will be considered as work. You have to make a choice: either be healed on a Sabbath day and thus invite the anger of the pious Jews they. may even kill you or respect the legal restriction and remain sick for another day.
The culture of the Jews thus worked against those who wanted a miracle of healing that might happen in their life. Because for the world, rules and regulations are foremost, and human need has lesser priority.
Bound by the limits of your physical strength, left for your luck, and bound by the cruel law, here is a man who has been invalid for 38 years! We don't know whether he has been there for 38 years or he was there for 38 years!
It is a picture of you and me without the touch of Jesus. We are trying our best, using all our efforts, taking all chances, but still without success. It is Jesus who makes a difference in the life of this man. A new life after 38 long years of suffering.
Now let us look at the second part of what this story teaches us, that is what does this say about how God in Jesus works.
What the Jesus can offer a sick man
Jesus approaches this man, who has very little chance of being healed by the Bethesda miracle and asks him whether he would like to be healed. Then asks him to get up, pick up his mattress and walk.
Jesus heals this man on a Sabbath when no Jew is allowed to work.
For this he invites opposition from the Jews.
"So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him" (John 5:16) and verse 18 says that they even plotted to kill him.
Why did Jesus break the Sabbath, and invite the wrath of the Jews in order to heal this man. Waiting for one more day may not mean anything for a man who has been suffering 38 years!
Jesus' priority is human need
The first thing we learn from this is that for Jesus the priority always has been the human need. Cultural practices came second for Jesus, but he gave preference to deal with the pain people went through.
Jesus did not disregard the Jewish practices. He showed that it is not the letter of the law that matters but compassion to his creation. Don't imagine that Jesus was doing this make the Jews angry. He was not doing this to show that Sabbath can be violated.
Jesus kept the Sabbath
Jesus observed Sabbath. The Bible makes it very clear that Jesus did not disregard Jewish practices. He said once, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17).
Jesus did not want to break the Sabbath; as a Jews he observed the Sabbath. Jesus always went to the Synagogue on Sabbath day to worship and sometimes to preach. He never encouraged anyone to break Sabbath. Luke 4:16 says that it was Jesus custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day.
"He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read" (Luke 4:16).
Jesus disregarded the Sabbath to alleviate human pain
However, there are six instances where Jesus broke the strict restrictions of the Sabbath. In five of these instances it was to heal people who had been suffering for long years. The sixth one was to let his starving disciples have some food. That is to say that whenever Jesus violated the Sabbath, it was to alleviate human pain.
Let us look at each of these:
Matt. 12:1-13 we read the story of the disciples plucking the heads of grain while passing through the grainfields. Though it was on a Sabbath, and Jewish law interpreted plucking corn as harvesting and thus work, Jesus did not stop them doing that. For Jesus what mattered is not the strict observance of the Jewish laws but the hunger of his disciples. He did not want his disciples to go hungry on a Sabbath day.
In the same chapter of Matthew, and also in Mark 3 we read about Jesus healing a man with a withered hand on a Sabbath day. This man had been suffering with a withered hand and Jesus felt the urgency of his need and decided that he cannot wait till Sabbath is over. So again he broke the Sabbath so that he may alleviate the pain of a sick man.
Another instance of Jesus breaking the Sabbath is found in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus healed a woman crippled for eighteen years; This woman has suffered for eighteen years. Jesus decides that she doesn't have to wait another day for her healing.
The next case is the passage we are now looking at John 5; where Jesus breaks Sabbath in order to heal a man who was invalid for 38 years.
In John 9 we find Jesus again breaking the Sabbath laws. This again was to heal a sick person. In this case, it is a man who was born blind. He has never seen light in his life. Jesus decides that he doesn't have to wait another day; he heals him on the Sabbath day.
The last case is found in John 14 where Jesus heals a man with dropsy. The man with dropsy had suffered enough, but Jesus will not wait for the Sabbath to be over to heal him.
We learn a important lesson from these. For Jesus what matters is not the laws and restrictions. He cannot wait when a person suffers. Any suffering demands immediate attention of Jesus.
Our God exceeds the limits of man made laws. He has less regards to the human cultural limits and he is an iconoclast.
God works overtime to show compassion
A second important lesson is that our God is one who works overtime to show compassion. Jesus' answer to the Jews when they asked him why he is working on Sabbath is interesting. He said, "Jesus said to them, 'My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working'” (5:17).
The Bible says that God rested on the seventh day of creation; they believed that it is the reason for the observance of Sabbath. From this the Jews at least some Jews in the days of Jews deducted that God is a God who takes a weekly rest!
That is not how the Bible portrays God. The psalmist sang about God as, "He will not let your foot slip-- he who watches over you will not slumber; Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4-5).
Jesus corrects a wrong popular notion. Sabbath is not God's holiday. God is
• God is always awake
• God is always active
• God is always powerful
• God is always willing
Let us draw new strength and confidence from this fact. Our God gives our pain the highest priority. Our God is a God who works overtime to show his compassion to his people. He never takes a break!
God is much beyond what we think of him. Our God is a God who exceeds the notions of God that our world has taught us. He is beyond the pious notions that we were brought up with.
Our Response to God's initiative
The next question is how do we respond to such a God.
The first thing that we note is that most often, we fail to understand God's intentions for us.
Unable to understand his intentions
The invalid man in this story stands up for all of us. His answer to Jesus question reveals many things; the first being his inability to understand Jesus' intentions for him.
Jesus approached this man and asked, (verse 6), "Do you want to get well?"
The answer ought to be simple and direct one: Either "Yes" or "No".
His answer we find in verse 7. He said,
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
He answered that he has no one to take him to the water. In other words, he was saying that he want to be healed, but what he need is a person who can take him to the water beating others.
This is typical of the inside the box thinking. This man is not able to think of a possibility of being healed without dashing into the water first. He has been so used to the system of Bethesda that he can only think of Jesus to help him take most of Bethesda. He cannot think out of the Bethesda box!
We do the same! We try to understand God's actions in human terms. We cannot think of a God who exceeds human abilities. We try to limit God within a human framework.
Most of the time we think God is another human being.
We always try to understand God's plans for us through the man-made frameworks.
What we need is grace to know God's intentions for us. His intentions for us exceeds even our expectations.
The second aspect of our response to God's initiative in our life is that we always respond in self-pity.
Not the man's answer again. The first thing he says is that, "I have no one". That is, I have no one to help me.
Self-pity is a an attitude that looks only at your weaknesses while ignoring your own God given strength. Self pity happens when you focus on what you can not do, or what you are not and ignore what you are and what God can do through you.
How people use self-pity
Most often people use self-pity in order to avoid taking up God-given tasks. People often point to their problems and ask God to let them go. In the Bible, there was a man who later became a leader who used this as an excuse. It is none other than the Moses, the founder of Judaism.
When God called him and asked him to go to Egypt and deliver his people Moses used an excuse highlighting his weakness. In Exod. 4:10, we read that
Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exod. 4:10)
If we look back at Moses life, we see a different person. Though he grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh, he always wanted to help his people. When he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he killed the Egyptian. On another occasion when he saw two Hebrew fighting with each other he tried to intervene. He did not think of his weaknesses then. But when God calls him to a task, he would highlight his weakness. Self-pity is most often used to avoid God.
When God makes an offer, he is not asking you to make a list of your weaknesses. He only wants you to say Yes/No to his simple question.
The third aspect of our response to God's initiative is blame. He said, "Someone gets in the water before me".
If self-pity focuses on one's weakness, blame is a attempt to take the focus of us and leave it at someone else's door! This comes from our unwillingness to own up our own mistakes.
Origin of the blame game: Garden
According to the Bible, this game started in the garden of Eden. There were three culprits in the garden of Eden. The Serpent who deceived the woman to eat the forbidden fruit. The woman who knowingly disobeyed God's command by eating the fruit. The Man who ate the fruit without questioning. When God came to the garden he did not question the serpent first. He questions the Man, though he is at the end of the chain of actions.
However, Adam first blamed Eve. In Genesis 3:12, we read the what Adam told God.
The man said, “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
He tries to escape blaming his wife.
However, when God turned to the Woman, he tried to pass the buck on to the snake. She said, The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen 3:13).
The snake has no one to blame.
But when God punished the offenders, he did not waste time tracking the origin of the sin, but by punished every offender. The reason is simple: everyone is responsible for his actions. God won't let us off the hook by blaming others.
Blaming is useless: How hard you try to blame another person, it is not going to change you. It is a waste of time.
Blaming, can only help to take the focus off you for a while; the onus for our actions rest on us. By blaming you may succeed in making another person feel guilty but it may not change you nor the circumstances that makes you unhappy.
All that we need to do in order to take the offer of God who exceeds our expectations is to come to him in humble faith. Not to pity ourselves, nor to blame others, but to trust in the unlimited wisdom and power of our God. Because God exceeds our expectations.
What God has to offer always exceeds what the world can offer.
What God can do for you is not limited by your strength, your circumstances, nor the strength of the people around you.

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