These pulpit notes are provided unedited and will thus contain some grammatical or typographical errors.[INTRODUCTION]
Don’t sleep with your head facing North, if you live in Japan. Don’t sleep with your Head facing West if you live in Africa. If you get a brand-new pair of shoes in Britain, don’t put them on the table. Got an itchy right hand? You may be coming into some money.
Live in Iceland? Don’t do your knitting outdoors or the temperatures will stay frigid. In India? You are better off not to cut your hair or nails on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays. If you want to stay young, carry an acorn in your pocket. If you want good luck all year long in Spain, eat twelve grapes at midnight on New Years.
Don’t wear red during a thunderstorm in the Philippines. Don’t enter a room with your left foot in Spain.
Don’t open an umbrella indoors. Avoid broken mirrors. Don’t let a black cat cross your path. Never walk under a ladder. If you’ve done any of these and haven’t suffered consequences yet, cross your fingers, knock on wood, perhaps find a penny and pick it up. Thank your lucky stars and rub a rabbit’s foot. If you have experienced some bad luck, then hold on because bad luck always comes in threes.
Every culture has its superstitions. Those irrational beliefs which we believe tell us something about what the future will bring. As unpleasant as some of them sound, they all provide a perceived benefit. Superstitions give us a sense of control. If we avoid this, or do that, then we can have some control over the randomness of life. Our fate or fortunes can be altered by our own actions.
On the other hand, a superstitious person can find themselves enslaved by restrictions, and rules. A paranoia about tempting fate and suffering for it.
Of course, to have such superstitions is to have a distorted view of God. Of who God is, how his favour is experienced and how and where his power is exercised.[TRANSITION]
In our passage this morning we find Jesus engaged in two different exchanges with two very different types of people, who both suffer from serious misconceptions about God. Both exchanges reveal misguided notions about God’s will, God’s character, God’s purposes, God’s favour, and God’s work.
As different as these people are, the solution to their God-confusion is the same. Each must recognize that Jesus Christ is the locus of God’s work on earth. So that it is through faith in Jesus that one experiences both the power and favour of God.
Let’s meet the first of these in John 5:1-9:
John 5:1-9a ¶ 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 waiting for the moving of the water; 4 [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.] 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…
Archaeological excavations in the northeastern quarter of Jerusalem have uncovered the remains of the pools described here. These twin rectangular pools were about the size of a football field. They were surrounded by covered colonnades on all sides, with another separating the two pools in the middle. Thus making the “five roofed colonnades” mentioned by John here.
These roofed colonnades provided welcomed shelter for the homeless, and the infirm. For this reason, it was a popular gathering point for the sick and beggars. That wasn’t the only reason that the sick gathered around the pools however.
Whether originating from a Jewish myth or a Pagan legend we don’t know, but it was a the belief of many that when the water in the pools was disturbed (probably by a natural spring), the first to get down into the water would be healed. The Jewish folk-legend attached to these events claimed it was an angel of the Lord doing the stirring.
This superstition provided enough hope for healing that the blind, and injured would gather daily. The paralyzed would even have others carry them to the pool in the hopes that some how they might make their way into the water at just the right time, and be healed.[INTRODUCE CHARACTER]
According to John, on this particular day there was a man, an invalid, who had suffered from his condition for some 38 years.
We learn from the passage that not only was this man an invalid, perhaps paralyzed, but he apparently had no close friends, nor family to help him. Perhaps even sadder than this, along with this man’s physical condition, and social condition, he also suffered from spiritual confusion.
He bought into the popular folklore that the way to attain healing from God was to simply to be in the right place, at the right time. God would send an angel to stir up the water at a random time and whoever happened to be lucky enough to stumble into it would be healed.
It is always sad to hear someone’s misconceptions about God but it is much more troubling when the person in question is suffering. The man in our passage has a confused understanding of who God is, and how God works. Consequently, he’s misplaced his hope and is set up for continual disappointment.
Think of the notion of God and God’s power which must undergird this man’s thinking as he sits alongside the pool with his hope in superstition…
- Such superstition sees God working where he is not.
There were healing shrines throughout the ancient world meant for the worship of pagan gods known for their healing powers. What this man was doing at this pool and other Jews like him was simply appropriating pagan practices and attaching God’s name to it.
Although the superstition had attributed the stirring of the water to an angel of the Lord, the fact of the matter was, it was simply a natural occurrence and God’s power wasn’t in it.
This man’s hopes were misplaced and his conception of God was distorted. If he wanted to see where God was at work, he would have to look, not to the waters of the pool, but to where God was really working – through his Son.
- Such superstition separates God’s power, from God’s person.
Think again about what this particular superstition implies about God’s character. According to the superstition, and angel would come at random times and stir up the water, imparting to it healing properties. Upon the stirring, you can imagine the scene, the sick and injured and lame, and even some paralyzed, desperate to be healed would fight off one another in order to, perhaps, make it to the water first. The supposed reward for such behaviour, was healing from God.
When I picture this I see God presented as a King, driving through crowds of the starving and tossing out a single piece of bread to be fought over by the masses.
The so-called god behind this superstition is not the God of scripture. What this superstition has done is separate God’s power from what we know about God’s person. It thinks of God’s power as an impersonal, undirected force to be won like one wins the lottery. There is no relationship here, just exchange.
For some, such a god is far more comfortable to deal with. An impersonal god whose power can be accessed apart from relationship is ideal since it removes concepts of holiness, or morality or intimacy.
Some are far more comfortable with the idea of a divine power which can be accessed apart from relationship and through ceremony, ritual, or the keeping of rules.
Vain, ritualistic, programmatic, religion or superstition forgets that our God is relational. We relate to him as a children relate to a loving Father. He is not a cold, distant, unloving entity whose power is unlocked by just the right behaviour at just the right times.
The cure for anxiety over our troublesome circumstances then is not to rely upon our own faithfulness is obeying just the right practices to appease the divine powers that be and ensure good fortune comes our way. On the contrary, Jesus said:
Matthew 6:25-34 ¶ “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Not only was this man seeing God at work where he wasn’t; but he was also seeing God as impersonal and uncaring. Both these misconceptions would soon be challenged, as we will see.
Not only did:
[Such superstition see God working where he was not.]
[and separate God’s power, from God’s person.]
- Such superstition placed the man’s fate in his own hands
If I could only get into the water first! If I could only know exactly when the water would be stirred. If only I could convince someone to put me in.
There is an irony in this of course. A man who clearly had no ability to help himself has chosen to place his hope in a superstition which depended upon his own ability!
Such is the case with all superstition.
Superstition is really born out of our desire to have some sort of control over our destiny. If I do this, or that, or don’t do this or that, then I can have some control over the outcome. Our superstitions are evidence that we feel hopelessly adrift upon the waves of fate and are grasping for something to bring some sort of order.
It makes us feel better to be doing something.
Even those who believe in God can be guilty of this. We are not content to leave things in God’s hands so we alter our faith to include things we must do. We must pray or say certain words or phrases, a certain number of times, while assuming a certain posture, at a certain time of day, while facing a certain direction, while clutching a certain object. We must give a certain amount of money. We must declare a certain mantra. We must confess at certain frequencies. All of this makes us feel as if we are contributing in some way. We are exercising some control. We can feel good that we’ve done what we are supposed to do to secure the outcome we desire. It is all superstition with more in common with paganism than Christianity.
When Jesus introduced the model prayer he prefaced it with this:
Matthew 6:7-8 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Empty phrases… as if just the right number of repetitions will unlock God’s ear. Don’t be like that. God knows what you need. Speak to him as your loving Father, sharing your heart and your desires. Take the focus off of your performance and your obedience and place it upon your loving heavenly Father who knows what you need and loves you.
So, this man had placed his hopes in his own ability (which he didn’t have), to make it to the waters (where God was not working), to receive healing by God’s power (which was divorced from any sense of God’s personal mercy or compassion).
What we are seeing is a desperate man, with misplaced hope, and a distorted understanding of who God was and how he operated.
Well, all of this is about to be challenged. Look at verse 6:
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.”
As this man lay under the colonnades, surrounded by other sick and injured, Jesus approached him. He asks him “Do you want to be healed?” A rhetorical question if there ever was one. Why would Jesus ask this?
- Jesus would have him realize that the power of God is not in the waters, but in Him.
- Jesus would have him realize that God isn’t working in the pool, but that Jesus is the one carrying out God’s work.
- Jesus would have him take his misplaced hope, and place it in Him.
So, while this man is waiting for his cold, impersonal god to stir up the waters for whoever is lucky enough to stumble into it to be healed, Jesus comes walking by and addresses him personally.
This is Jesus of whom Paul wrote, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col 2:9). What is this man going to learn? That when God makes himself known through Jesus Christ, what becomes immediately obvious is that God is a God of mercy and compassion and relationship.
Jesus would have this man realize that God is compassionate and merciful, and personal. He cares for his state and has come to heal him. He would have him realize that God is at work – through his ministry. He would have him realize that he needs a healing which is entirely out of his hands, but entirely within Jesus’ ability – and desire to give him.
Now the man does not take Jesus’ question as an offer and responds “I have no one to put me in the pool” and “while I am going another steps down before me.” This is a sad response. This is the response of someone who sees themselves as the victim of fate. I don’t have anyone and others always beat me to it.
This by the way if often the posture of those who do not believe in God. Instead of seeing purpose and meaning behind even difficulties, they see themselves as continually victimized by others.
Well, in Jesus, this man has someone and there is no effort to be exerted or competition to be won. So, Jesus responds in verse 8:
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…
With that, the man is healed. Jesus has mercy upon him, and cures him of his four-decade long condition
Whether this man ever believes in Jesus for salvation, we do not know. But, one thing we do know, Jesus gave this man and all who witnessed it, a lesson in who God is, where God is working. God’s power is not in the inanimate “healing pool.” A cold, anonymous working, separate from God’s personal, relational, mercy-directed work.
Instead, God was present that day in the person of Jesus Christ, walking in the midst. All that Jesus did was in accord with the will of God. He came with mercy, compassion, and power, directed toward the suffering. Faith or hope was not to be directed superstitiously toward an idol, an icon, a talisman, or object, or a pool but towards God’s Son.
[TRANSITION] So, is that the end of this account? No. Not at all. Jesus is not finished teaching, by way of illustration, where and how God works. However, the targets of his lesson are about to change.
We said in our introduction that in our passage this morning we find Jesus engaged in two different exchanges with two very different types of people, who both suffer from serious misconceptions about God and that both exchanges reveal misguided notions about God’s will, God’s character, God’s purposes, God’s favour, and God’s work. So, let’s look and see who else enters the picture and how Jesus respond to them…
9b 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.
After Jesus healed this man, he said to him “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” He would have had a straw-filled mat which could be rolled and carried. That’s the bed spoken of here.
Amazingly, the Jews here know that this man has been healed but are not rejoicing with him, but are instead fixated, or even enraged, that he dares to carry his bed on the Sabbath day. Why? Because, unlike the man who was healed, who was superstitious, these men suffering from a different sort of religious problem. They were legalists. You may be surprised to learn that the superstitious and the legalistic have some things in common where their concept of God is concerned.
The Jews in Jesus day had largely become heartless, superficial and authoritarian. They were more concerned about the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. They enforced manmade regulations with zeal while neglecting mercy, and compassion.
Whereas God gave commands in the Old Testament to guide and protect and bless and to maintain distinction between his people and the nations around them. Judaism in the time of Jesus had hollowed out the heart of the law and simply emphasized the commandments as things to be done in order stave off God’s disapproval.
The Sabbath day, which was given by God as a gift of rest to mankind, was perverted by the Jews into an onerous, burden. Whereas it was designed by God to bring a needed time of rest and reflection and worship, it had become a meticulously regulated drudgery which was policed without mercy.
Jewish scholars in their attempts to ensure the sabbath law was not broken, defined 39 types of work forbidden on the sabbath, which are recorded in the Mishnah.
The main classes of work are forty save one: sowing, ploughing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing crops, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, shearing wool, washing or beating or dyeing it, spinning, weaving, making two loops, weaving two threads, separating two threads, tying [a knot], loosening [a knot], sewing two stitches, tearing in order to sew two stitches, hunting a gazelle, slaughtering or flaying or salting it or curing its skin, scraping it or cutting it up, writing two letters, erasing in order to write two letters, building, pulling down, putting out a fire, lighting a fire, striking with a hammer and taking out aught from one domain to another. These are the main classes of work: forty save one. (Šabbat 7:2)
There are countless illustrations of the absurd nit-picking which the Jewish leaders employed in determining who had and who had not violated the Sabbath. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
So, Jesus healing and doing works of mercy and compassion on the Sabbath was a continual offense to the Jews. Jesus summed up the proper view of the Sabbath during another exchange in Mark 2:
Mark 2:27-28 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The way the legalistic Jews dealt with the Sabbath seemed a lot like superstition. If I write down one letter I’ll be OK, but if I write down two, I’ll face the wrath of God. If I sew one stitch, I’m OK, but two will result in judgment. If I spit on the ground and move it around in the dirt, I may be guilty of tilling the ground, resulting in God’s disapproval. You can see how legalism and superstition overlap.
So, here in our text a man has been delivered from his illness of 38 years and the immediate response from the Jews is not rejoicing with him over the mercy he’s received, but they are enraged and determined to get to the bottom of who dared to claim the authority to tell him that he could carry his bed roll.
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.
I said there were similarities between the superstitious and the legalist and here we see some.
We said that the superstitious separated God’s power from his personhood. Remember, the lame man only perceived God’s power working in the pool, divorced from any personal, relational compassion on God’s part. The god of the lame man was cold and impersonal.
Well, the legalists concept of God is also cold and impersonal. I mean, a man who has been healed after 38 years of illness?! Rejoice with the guy! Celebrate with him! Throw a party! Help him restart his life! Hasn’t he suffered enough?
To think that here is a man who has clearly received mercy from Jesus and now immediately finds himself judged by the religious leaders of his day. What a statement on the divide between Jesus and the legalistic Jews of his day.
So, the legalist divorces God’s character of mercy, love, and compassion from God’s commandments. They take only the negative commands of God, hollow out the heart of the law and enforce them with rigid authoritarianism.
The superstitious lame man’s concept of god was a cold, impersonal god who begrudgingly showed mercy and did so apart from relationship. And the legalist’s concept of God was a cold, impersonal God who begrudgingly showed mercy and did so apart from relationship.
Next, we also saw that the superstitious lame man had bought into an understanding of fate which placed the onus on him to do something for himself which he was ultimately incapable of doing. Even if he could get into the water, the healing was a myth. Even if he could do what he wanted to do, it wouldn’t affect his outcome at all.
In the same way, the legalist loves rules and commandments because it appeals to his own self-righteousness. He feels as if he is doing something to contribute to his own righteousness, his own acceptance by God, his own favour in the eyes of God. In reality, all his rule-making and commandment keeping isn’t contributing an iota to his righteousness or his acceptance by God. In fact, his determination that he has something to offer and that he can attain righteousness via his own efforts is keeping him from genuine salvation.
Next, we saw that the superstitious man was misguided as to his understanding as to where God was working. The lame man lay under the covered porticoes day in and day out because he was convinced that God would stir the waters and he had a chance to be healed. He was wrong. God was not working in the pool. It was merely superstition.
Likewise, the legalist suffers from a serious misunderstanding regarding where and how God is working. He is convinced that God only works within the confines of his religious system. The legalist is convinced God works, and only works, through the rules, regulations, and commandments which their system has erected.
Look at how Jesus responded to the Jews when they made known their disapproval of Jesus telling the healed man to carry his bed:
17 ¶ But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
Do you want to know where and how God is working? It is not through your legalistic, judgmental, merciless system of manmade rules and regulations. God was working in seeking out this lame man and healing him. God was working through Jesus to heal, and he was doing it on the Sabbath.
Considering God’s intention for the Sabbath, this makes perfect sense. The Sabbath was a gift to man for the purpose of rest, reflection and worship and now this lame man can finally experience rest from his 38 years of affliction. The Sabbath was the perfect time to exercise such mercy and compassion.
Yet the legalistic Jews couldn’t see it. They were convinced that God only worked in accord with their system. He couldn’t possibly be at work on the Sabbath because their system prohibited it.
Well, Jesus actively opposed their manmade restrictions which they rigidly and unlovingly enforced, in the name of God.
The superstitious man saw God working where he wasn’t. The legalistic men failed to see God working where he was.
In the gospel of Mark he had a similar encounter where he said to the Jews in addressing their legalism:
Mark 7:6-9 “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!
He followed that up with a damning example of how they elevated their tradition over the commandment of God and ripped the heart out of the law.
Jesus point here is that their concept of God was wrong. Their god would prioritize the Sabbath over showing mercy to a man who had been lame for nearly 40 years! Their god was more preoccupied with a bed being carried than with sharing the joy of a man who had just received rest from 4 decades of pain. Their god was more concerned with rules, regulations, and commandments than love, compassion, and mercy.
Jesus says to them, God is at work and he is at work on the outside of your system.
He wasn’t at work in the pool, and he isn’t at work in your rules. God is at work in and through me.
Jesus presented himself as the locus of God’s work on earth.
- God’s power is not divorced from his person. Instead, God’s power and his compassion are present in their fullness in the person of Jesus Christ.
- God has not made our destiny dependent upon our own ability, but has instead given his Son who gives eternal life freely.
- God’s favour is not experienced outside of relationship with him but is graciously and fully given to those united to him through his Son.
In the face of superstition and legalism, Jesus came with a message about who God is, and how God works.
God is a personal God who loves. He is a merciful God who withholds judgment. He is a compassionate God who is sympathetic to our suffering. He is a gracious God who gives far more than we could possibly deserve. He is a relational God who operates in the context of personal relationship. He is the big-hearted God who hates legalism, hypocrisy, authoritarianism and judgmentalism. How do we know this? In large part because Jesus came as the fullness of the godhead in bodily form, and that’s exactly the time of character he had.
But more controversially, Jesus came with the message that God is the God who sent his Son. He is performing his work of salvation exclusively through him. He is adopting men and women into his family, only through Jesus. He is extending love, mercy and compassion through Jesus and Jesus alone.
For this reason, where the Father works, the Son is working and where the Son is working, you can be sure the Father is working.
And so, Jesus’ message that the Father is at work through him and him alone begins to further raise the ire of the Jews in a way which will escalate all the way to his eventual crucifixion.
John, in verse 18 is preparing us for that moment by closing out our passage this way:
18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
At a time when there is rampant confusion regarding who God is and how he works, both by the superstitious who see God in everything, and the legalist who only sees God in their system, Jesus stands as the corrective to both.
God is at work in the world through his Son. Through Jesus God would show his love and forgiveness toward you. He would spare you a lifetime of disappointment by directing your hope away from the superstitions of this world and toward his Son. He would spare you a lifetime of religious burden by directing you away from legalism and to the freedom he offers through his Son.
As we close, let’s be reminded that on that day Jesus healed one man and not all. What he did was give a foretaste of a complete eradication of sin and suffering yet to come. The day is coming when he will wipe away every tear, heal every illness and usher us into an eternal Kingdom where we are forever in the presence of our loving Heavenly Father.