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.