Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
An Insignificant Miracle?
A quick, first glance at our story this morning might deceive us into thinking that this is a passing, little story in John’s gospel about a little miracle. There really isn’t anything terribly flashy about this miracle, is there? A man has been an “invalid for 38 years”, we’re told in verse 5. Generally, He seems like your ordinary, poor, disabled person who you might see in public today. Jesus approaches him, asks him if he wants to be healed, and Jesus heals him. That’s the miracle. Compared to Jesus’s other miracles, we might ask “what’s the big deal?”. Really, think about it. So far, we’ve seen Jesus turn a bunch of water into wine—that’s really cool and unique. That probably has some unique meaning and symbolism at work in the story. We’ve also seen Jesus heal a desperate Roman official’s son who was on the brink of death—and, Jesus did this from miles away! He simply said to the official, “your son will live”. The boy’s fever broke at that moment, even as he was miles away from Jesus. That’s another significant miracle. As we move forward in John’s gospel, we’ll see Jesus multiply bread to feed 5000 people. He’ll walk one water. He’ll raise people from the dead. Those are some truly outstanding, unique miracles Jesus did.
Although—what of this miracle, in our story this morning? I imagine this is like one miracle of the thousands which Jesus performed among the masses, wherein he healed the sick and the lame of their ailments. Those, it might seem, were his more ordinary, everyday miracles. Rememer, John said at the end of this gospel that Jesus did so many miracles that “were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” That’s a lot of miracles—meaning, John had to be selective and purposeful in the miracles that he did tell us about. Yet here, we’re spending a whole day learning about this one. What’s special about this miracle, that John takes time to tell us about it in detail? I’ll give you a hint—it’s not the miracle itself that makes this one stand out. Again, Jesus healed many invalids like this. It’s the occasion of the miracle that makes it significant. This was done on the Sabbath, folks. That’s a really big deal, apparently, and we need to find out why.
So, let’s dig in. We’ll first consider the sign—or miracle—that Jesus performed, and why it’s significant. We’ll spend a fair amount of time there, as we simply unpack the story and make some comments along the way. Then, to close, we’ll consider how this miracle was (or rather, was not) received. Ironically, the Jews weren’t the only ones who didn’t receive Jesus’s sign. The man himself, who was healed, didn’t fully received the sign as he should have. So, there are some lessons on faith and receiving Jesus, here in this story.
The Story of Jesus’s “Sign” (With a Few Extra Comments)
So, let’s consider what’s truly significant and miraculous in this story. I’m going to walk through this fairly slowly, unpacking some of the details John mentions in this story. So, we’ll build up to Jesus’s sign as we go. Look at verse 1 with me, again.
1 After this there was a feast of the Jews [note: we don’t know which feast, by the way], and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 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.
So, that’s the scene. Jesus came to Jerusalem for a feast, and he stopped by the pool of Bethesda. This a pool that the Jews would wash in at least for ceremonial cleansing. In Judaism, it’s called a Mikvah—and, this particular pool has been discovered today by archaeologists, and you can go visit it if you’re into that sort of thing. But regardless of the matter, this was a pool for ceremonial washing.
Now, you’ll notice that this particular mikvah had “a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed”. These were people who needed cleansing—but, they needed more than cleansing, didn’t they? They needed healing. They needed cleansing and healing, and this particular mikvah seems to have promised both.
A Parenthesis on the Missing “Verse”
If you look in your Bibles, many of you might see verse 4 is not in your Bible. If you have the KJV, you’ll see it. Otherwise, most other translations will put a footnote at the end of verse 3 saying that some of the Biblical manuscripts insert what has traditionally been known as verse 4, saying that the invalids would wait “for the moving of the water, for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had”.
So if there is any historical credence to what verse four is saying, there in your footnote, then this pool isn’t just a pool for ceremonial washing. This was a pool for healing according to those manuscripts. An angel reportedly stirred up the water, and the first one to get in the water after it was stirred would be healed. So, here’s the question, before we even really think about what the verse means: is that really supposed to be in our Bibles?
This really is worthy of a quick, parenthetical blurb this morning. Most translations—with the exception of the KJV—exclude verse 4 from the Biblical text, and reserve it for a footnote. Why is that? It’s an important conversation to have, folks, because the integrity of the Bible is heavily challenged by our culture today. If you go out and talk to people about Christianity, what is one of the challenges you will often hear against Christianity? Quite simply—people do not trust in the integrity of the Bible. It’s been completely stripped. People will look at this—how some translations include verse 4 and some don’t, and say “see! you claim this is God’s word but you have different Bibles!”. Others will say, “Who got to choose what books go in the Bible? What about the book of Enoch? What about the apocrypha?”. Many will say, “the Bible is full of scribal errors, we don’t have the original anymore—haven’t you ever played telephone?”. That’s a big one. People will appeal to the game telephone to demonstrate that the Bible can’t be true. Do you know the game telephone? It’s when a dozen people get into a line, and try to communicate a message from one end of the line to the next, through the dozen people. Usually, the message changes by the time it gets to the end of the line. People don’t hear a word right, or they forgot a part of the sentence—and, in our case, there goes God’s word. It’s lost in translation, as it’s being communicated from one scribe to the next.
Remember, we do not have the original manuscripts of these books in our Bibles—we don’t have the original version of John which John himself penned. We have copies of it—in fact, copies of copies, of copies, of copies, and so on. Then, of course, these copies differ in varying ways. How can we be certain that our Bible is reliable, the word of God, as spoken through his apostle John?
Again—“haven’t you ever played telephone before?” That, among many other arguments, have truly unsettled many Christians and caused them to question and leave the faith. We do a disservice to God’s word and to our souls by not talking about these problems. They’re problems that are
culturally discussed today, popularized by National Geographic documentaries and popular books. I would suggest that the average American today does not believe the Bible we have today is a faithful representation of what John or Paul or Moses originally wrote. That’s a problem.
Here’s how it works, folks. We have tens of thousands of manuscripts to work from—all originating from varying manuscript traditions—and they agree. By and large, they agree. The errors and discrepancies that you hear about are mostly misspelled words, or a word left out, or a punctuation error, or some other grammatical mistake that hardly ever changes the substantial meaning of a passage. When there are discrepancies, we can be thankful for the thousands of manuscripts we have. If you have thousands of manuscripts that are making different scribal errors at different parts, you can compare the manuscripts. We can say, “looks like these 3000 manuscripts agree on this word, but this one here looks like it used a wrong word in that sentence. Oops! Scribal error!”. That’s simple logic, folks. That’s what we’re talking about. In more difficult cases, there are ways scholars can reasonably determine which manuscripts faithfully preserve the original. It’s a very logical, orderly science—and we can be thankful that scholars today have tens of thousands of manuscripts to compare with, some that go all the way back to the 2nd century. With these, we can confidently say that they are able to determine God’s word. I really don’t think the varying manuscripts is a problem at all.
Needless to say, if this is something you’re struggling with—if you’re unsettled by the arguments against the Bible’s integrity, I would love to walk you through this in more detail. But to put it simply, God has preserved his Scriptures—and, he’s done it through the work of thousands and thousands of scribes who—though imperfectly—no doubt faithfully preserved God’s word for us today. I’ve heard many, many men much smarter than me say that there are no scribal errors, no missing verses—even in the trickier cases—which change or challenge any teaching of Christian doctrine, whatsoever. You’ll never hear someone debating the meaning of justification or sanctification or glorification on the nuances of a scribal error. “Well, if you go with those manuscripts, then the Bible says your saved by your works. But if you go by those manuscripts, the Bible says you’re saved by grace”. You won’t see that conversation happening in reference to any tenet of Christian theology. That’s encouraging to me, folks.
Verse 4: Not Original to John, but Still Helpful
And so it is with this verse in our passage, in John 5:4. I agree with most people today who say that John 5:4 is not original to John’s gospel. John did not write about an angel stirring up the waters at the pool of Bethesda—there simply isn’t strong evidence from the thousands of manuscripts we have to confirm it. Although, as we might expect, excluding verse 4 doesn’t change the meaning of the story. In fact, verse 4 is actually describing something that verse 7 alludes to. Look at how this whole conversation went between Jesus and this man. Keep reading, there in
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.”
What is this invalid referring to, there? Jesus asks him, “do you want to be healed?”, and he’s asking this man at this pool. This is the pool of Bethesda—again, a pool of ceremonial washing, but supposedly according to local legend and superstition, it’s also a pool that’s said to provide healing. So, the man says “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.” This man is referring to what the added verse—verse 4—is describing. Again, verse 4 says that an angel stirs up the waters at certain times, and the first person to get in is healed. Even though that’s not inspired scripture, it is reflecting the common belief of the time concerning this pool, and it helps us understand the man’s trouble in verse 7. So this man, wanting to be healed, is in a troubled spot. He doesn’t have someone to put him in the water when it’s stirred up—and, when it is stirred up, he can’t crawl in fast enough. Someone always gets in before him.
Can you imagine how frustrating that situation must have been for this man? He was religious about getting to the well, in the hopes he could be the first person in so that he might be healed. Only, he simply wasn’t fast enough. The crowds of invalids would have flooded right over him, to get to the pool. We’re talking 38 years of paralysis—and he gets trampled over every time. The only way he could get in there first, and beat the crowds, is if someone would help him.
“Do you want to be healed?”, Jesus says to this man. You have to wonder what this man was thinking. He didn’t recognize Jesus—verse 13 in our passage says that very clearly. He had no idea who Jesus was. Although, Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed. Perhaps this man optimistically thought Jesus was suggesting he’d help him be the first in the pool. Again, he responds to Jesus’s question in verse 7, “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. [Will you help me get in?]”
Jesus, of course, had a something else in mind. 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.
Jesus healed this man—not the supposed angel, not the pool. Those superstitions weren’t taking this man anywhere. Jesus did it, with his word.
Healed… On the Sabbath?
Now again, it’s tempting to think that this is one of Jesus’s ordinary, everyday miracles. He was always healing people when he was amongst the crowds. However, this one was different. Look at the next verse, and we’ll suddenly discover why this was such a radical thing for Jesus to do. Verse 9, “Now that day was the Sabbath.” That’s a game changer, folks. That’s what makes this miracle stand out as unique, and worthy for John to include it here in his gospel. When we jump ahead to verse 16, we see how this all comes into fruition not around Jesus’s healing, generically, but the Sabbath. Verse 16–
16this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
That’s where this whole story is moving. Jesus performed a miracle on the Sabbath, in Jersualem of all places, and he did purposefully to build up to this statement which everyone understood. “My Father is working until now, and I am working”.
This isn’t a miracle for the sake of miracles. In fact, John’s gospel doesn’t call these things which Jesus is doing “miracles”. A part of me wishes we’d get that out of our vocabulary, because it’s not a helpful word anymore. If you search your Bible, you’ll be hard-pressed to find that word in there.The word is in there, but not as often as we’d think. You’ll see the words “signs” and “wonders” instead, and for good reason. Granted, the King James Version uses the word “miracle” more than our modern translations, but if the folks who translated the KJV lived today, I don’t think they’d use the word “miracle” as readily as they did in the 17th century.
When you see the word “miracle” in your bibles, it’s usually translating the word “sign”—as in a “sign post”. When Jesus heals people, he is performing signs which point to his glory, his power, his salvation, his divinity. These are signs, folks. That’s a much better word than miracle.
Let me ask you this—is a miracle a sign? It depends on how you use word, doesn’t it? We can use the words “miracle” and “sign” interchangeably, but I think we need to be careful when we do. If you ask someone on the street today, “what is a miracle?”, many will give you an answer without any reference to God at all. Generally, we speak of a “miracle” as something that generically defies the laws of logic or physics. If someone gets out of a deadly car accident unscathed, what do we often say? We’ll say “it’s a miracle he got out”. Unbelievers might even say that. “It’s a miracle, it defies logic and physics, I can’t understand it and I’m not going to try.”. That’s how we often use the word miracle—it’s a much more generic term used by believers and unbelievers alike. “Do you believe in miracles?” is a common question you’ll hear in pop culture, and people will say “yes I believe in miracles” without a single thought to God. Strange and unexpected things happen every day! They need not be a “sign” from above—there’s such a thing as luck!
Now, what if you said “do you believe in signs?”. That’s a very different question. It’s far more specific. You hear “sign” and you say “a sign from whom, or what? what’s the sign pointing to?”. That’s how the gospels speak of all the things Jesus was doing. He was performing signs.
So, what do the signs mean? Jesus intentionally heals a man on the Sabbath, and he wraps it all up with a shockingly provocative statement, “My Father is working until now, and I am working”. That’s what the sign means, folks, and that statement is filled with rich meaning for us to consider. “My father is working until now, and I am working”—even on the Sabbath. What did Jesus mean by that?
He means that he’s working the sort of Sabbath peace and prosperity into God’s people, on God’s Sabbath, as only God can do. Jesus is working God’s life and redemption into the world on the Sabbath—and, that’s God’s job. That’s what the Sabbath is all about, isn’t it? It’s about resting in, and receiving, God’s work of redemption, even as he especially works it into you on the Sabbath. Now, do you realize what that means? It means that God works on the Sabbath, especially since the time sin entered the world.
Have you ever thought about that? I mean, in one sense, God is always working, depending on how you define “work”. Every second of every day, he is upholding the universe by the word of his power. He’s keeping the universe, spinning in motion. But on the Sabbath, he’s uniquely blessed it to be a day of rest in his kingdom. It’s a day when he’s uniquely committed to working his salvation, mercy, peace, and justice into the hearts of his people. John Calvin said it this way (and I paraphrase)—
“[On] the [Sabbath] day the heavenly Lawgiver [intends to give his people] spiritual rest, in which believers ought to lay aside their own works in order to allow God to work in them.” \
As quoted in Hughes Oliphant Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture. Revised and Expanded Edition, page 24.
That’s wonderful, isn’t it? The Sabbath is a day for you to lay aside your work, to allow God to work his spiritual blessings in you. “The Father is working until now, and so am I—even on the Sabbath’, Jesus says.
So with that said—Jesus performed this sign of healing this man on the Sabbath day in order to demonstrate his work to bless on the Sabbath. This sign is a beautiful imagery for us, folks. Jesus is Lord over the Sabbath—and, he’s committed to working that sort of blessing into you on the Sabbath. This man was an invalid for 38 years—have you stewed in any particular misery for 38 years? Perhaps an addiction? An ailment? Well, Jesus has power over your sin and misery, folks, and he’s working every day—and especially on the Sabbath—to give you his life, comfort, and freedom from sin. By faith, commit yourself to him and his Sabbath rest. It’s a blessing of his work, folks.
Now, by healing this man on the Sabbath, Jesus isn’t simply signifying his commitment and authority to work God’s blessings into fruition on the Sabbath. He’s also signifying that he’s God—and, this is something the Jews didn’t overlook? They understood it. “My father is working until now, and I
am working”—the Jews understood what that meant. They understood that God must continue working, in some way, on the Sabbath. If there’s any person who must be working on the Sabbath, it’s God. So also Jesus, even as he calls God his “Father”, making himself equal with God (verse 18).
Folks, these are amazing signs that Jesus is performing. He’s showing forth his sabbath-rest—his redemption, his life, his forgiveness of sins, his salvation, even as God himself. This paralytic man didn’t deserve this. Jesus did it out of his manifold grace and mercy. That’s how he works. The only question is, do you want it? “Do you want to be healed?”, Jesus asks. Did anyone in this story want it?
So, we considered what the sign means—why this sign (this miracle) is significant. It reveals that Jesus is the giver of sabbath rest and blessing, and it reveals that Jesus is equal with God who alone works on the sabbath. Now, let’s look closer at how both the Jews and this man responded to Jesus.
The Jews’ Bloodthirst, and the Paralytic’s Cowardice
The Jews turned the whole thing into a man-hunt. Jesus trampled their baby—their precious sabbath laws. It’s amazing, really, how this pans out. Somehow, the Jewish authorities heard about this man who had been healed, and they pay no attention to the healing!
What do they say to the man, there in verse 10? In short—“you can’t pick up your mat on the Sabbath!”. Can you imagine saying that to someone who had just been miraculously healed after 38 years of paralysis? “I can’t believe you pick up your mat! You sabbath breaker!”. These Jews paid absolutely no attention to the healing.
Why not? For one thing, they were blinded by their pride and religious zeal. This all started when they accused the healed man of breaking the Sabbath—only, not according to God’s rules, but according to their tradition. Remember, they accused him of picking up his mat and moving it on the Sabbath. That prohibition is not in the Bible. It’s in their tradition and customs, not in the Bible.
In the end, their tradition kept them from seeing the glory of God in this passage. Instead of rejoicing with the man (and seeking Jesus’s healing and peace), they held up their own laws and customs because that’s what comforted them. That’s what gave them power, control, assurance, peace. They had their laws, and it was exceedingly distressing to their souls if even this man who had been healed disobeyed them.
Of course, they became even more angry when they learned that it was Jesus who healed this man, telling him to take up his mat. That drove them to a desire to kill Jesus.
Folks, they knew that this wasn’t just a miracle—an unexplainable mystery that defies physics. This was more than that. They were keenly aware that this was a sign—and to them, it was a sign that they were losing control. A new authority was in town, doing things only God can do.
Underneath all the opposition and resistance Jesus saw in this passage is our sinful, human desire to take comfort in what we can control. The Jews, generically, took comfort in controlling the masses with their sabbath laws and customs. Jesus came in and radically disrupted that narrative, and the Jews scrambled for control to the point of plotting Jesus’s death. The pursuit of control is devastating, folks, and we all have it.
Think about the paralytic man. It’s a similar problem at work, there. For a long time, he had found a way to get to that pool of Bethesda with the hopes that he might be the first one in after the angel reportedly stirs up the water. That was his religion—that was his hope. He had held onto that hope for decades, maybe. His misery and his regular trips to the pool defined him. In some odd way, he may have found comfort in his identity. Think about it—Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?”. The man doesn’t say “yes! help me!”, or any such thing. He complains. He wallows in his misery. “I have no one to help me, and everyone gets there first!” He’s an Eeyore, folks. He’s not seeking a solution. He’s not answering Jesus’s question. He’s sulking in his misery, and you almost have to wonder if he prefers it that way. When Jesus heals him, is there any “thank you”? Is there any praising Jesus?
This man, it almost seems, despised Jesus. You know, Jesus almost got him into trouble with the Jewish authorities, asking him to break the Sabbath. Then, when he later sees Jesus, Jesus almost has to remind him—“see! you are well!”. It’s like Jesus is saying, “isn’t it wonderful?”.
Many compare this with the blind man who was healed on the Sabbath in John 9. In John 9, the man at least knew Jesus’s name—and, when he got into trouble for sabbath-breaking, he stood up for Jesus. He actually called Jesus a prophet, and then the Pharisees reviled the man for being his disciple and standing up for him. That’s a radically different response. It’s brave. It’s thankful. The actually man mocked the Pharisees in John 9:30, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where [Jesus] comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” The man is saying, “where do you think he’s from? Can’t you read the sign?!” At the end of the story, he’s worshipping Jesus.
It’s quite the contrast to the man in our story. Our paralytic shows no signs of worship. He’s a miserable man who remains miserable, even after being healed. He bows down to the Pharisees and rejects Jesus.
What would cause a man to do that? It’s the way of the flesh, folks—unwilling to let go of its own misery. This was his life! He had to have found some level of control and comfort in it all somehow. Then, Jesus shows up and just heals him—now what? His whole life as he knew it is gone. He needs to get an entirely new life! He’s got to face new challenges—challenges like standing up for Jesus in front of the Pharisees. That’s scary. Or, he needs to face challenges like repentance and faith, if he’s going to follow this Jesus guy who just healed him. Do you remember what does Jesus say to him in verse 14? “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you”.
Something worse than 38 years of paralysis and poverty? Is there something worse than that? Well, there’s God’s wrath and judgment—which, I think is what Jesus is referring to here. Although, if this man didn’t think his misery was so bad—if he held onto it in his Eeyore sort of way, than I suspect this warning had no effect on him. “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you”. This man might have said, “but Jesus, my misery wasn’t all that bad—in fact, I almost feel more lost, more helpless, now that my life as I knew it is gone. I don’t know who or what I am anymore!”. It’s hard to relinquish your life, your control and comforts.
We Like Our Misery, But Jesus…
Folks, we’re not much different. In our flesh, we like our misery. We like our control. We can control our misery, can’t we? We can orchestrate ourselves, so we know what to expect, and there’s a comfort to that. Except, it’s still misery. It’s a frightening thing to let go of our idols, no matter how miserable they make us.
When I talk with folks who need to let go of their addictions, I often talk about how fear is often the limiting factor that’s keeps us holding onto our addictions—our idols. Perhaps you smoke a pack a day, and you’re able to get yourself down to one cigarette a day. You don’t even feel attached to the cigarette anymore. For whatever reason, you just can’t let go of that last cigarette. If Jesus were to step in and take it from you—much like Jesus took this man’s ailment from him—you’d be offended. Why is that? It’s no longer about the cigarette, is it? It’s about the control. It’s about that big question—“who would I be without that cigarette, without that misery, that crutch, that addiction? would I be myself anymore?” Well, I can tell you this. You’d be a new creation, surrendered to Jesus, enjoying his Sabbath-rest, his Sabbath-peace and joy and healing. It’s a wonderful thing, folks, to surrender to.
So, we considered Jesus’s sign, and we considered the way the Jews and this man failed to receive the sign. In this story, Jesus is showing himself to you as the giver of Sabbath rest—forgiveness of sins, peace, comfort, new life that doesn’t involve identifying with your miseries. Like his Father, he worked to offer Sabbath rest—and his work culminated in his death and resurrection. He’s offering you to rest in his forgiveness, his Spirit, and the hope of his kingdom. We need not identify with our miseries any longer. By faith, renounce them, and trust in Jesus who is offering rest for your contentment and joy.