Stirring Up Controversy
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 5:1–5:18
“STIRRING UP CONTROVERSY”
1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now there was in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, “Take up your bed and walk.” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
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.
Growing up, I was taught that there are three things that ought never to be discussed in polite conversation. Those things were money, politics, and religion. The reason was that those three topics invariably lead to argument, hard feelings, and controversy. Living in a less civil and certainly less caring time, those same three things have come to be the staple and substance of much of our contemporary dialogue. If you haven’t recognized that, then you haven’t been watching much cable news recently.
Still, even in our day, most of us try to guard our words and opinions so as not to offend others. Whether out of courtesy or fear for what we believe others may think of us, we attempt to steer clear of those topics that could possibly drive a wedge between us. Most of us recognize that to be true and are grateful for the respect others show us in that regard. And certainly we should extend that same courtesy to others.
Having said that, it is somewhat ironic that the most controversial figure who ever lived is the One many of us have come to know as Savior and Lord. Jesus Christ is loved, served and worshiped by some; but He is hated, despised, and rejected by others. It was that way in His life, it was that way in His death, and it remains that way to this very day. Jesus Christ is most polarizing person who ever lived. Even history is divided by His Advent—B.C. and A.D.—as is humanity itself. Everyone seems to have an opinion of Jesus, or will in time be forced to arrive at one. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, we are all forced to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth is either “lunatic, liar, or Lord.”
The Gospel of John was written to reveal true the identity of this One and to force a verdict from everyone who reads this account.. Through a carefully selected body of evidence—mainly Jesus’ words and works—John presents Him to us as “the Word become flesh” (cf. John 1:1 and 14)...as God become Man for the purpose of restoring lost and sin-stained creatures to their Creator.
As we come to chapter 5 this morning, we are transitioning from the section that Merrill Tenney has called “the period of consideration” into “the period of controversy.” More than year into His public ministry, Jesus’ reputation has been spreading throughout Galilee and Judea, and even into Samaria. He has captured the attention of many, provided eternal hope and salvation to others, and has aroused the displeasure and disfavor of the religious elite. Not only had He become the subject of much conversation, but He was the subject of growing controversy as well. His miracles were about to become more public, and His message more pointed. And, as we shall see at the end of this passage, His very life would be placed in jeopardy.
Verses 1 through 18 describe for us the third of Jesus “signs”...miracles that John has chosen to include in his record of our Lord’s ministry. Always in complete control of His circumstances and never subject to them, Jesus doubtless intended for the event described in this passage to incite controversy.
So, let’s begin in verses 1 through 5 with...
The setting for the miracle (5:1-5).
“After this” suggests that there is a break in the sequence from where we left off at the end of chapter 4. When we last saw Jesus and His disciples, they were in Cana of Galilee. Some time has passed, and He is now in Jerusalem at what is here called “a feast of the Jews.” It all likelihood it was the Passover season. Even though His disciples are not mentioned in this story, there is no reason to think they were not with Him.
There were three so-called “pilgrim feasts” that Jewish males were required to make under the Mosaic Law. In Exodus 23:17 we read, “Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord GOD.” Those three “feasts” were the Passover in April, the Feast of Pentecost seven weeks later, and the Feast of Tabernacles in October.
The scene is described as taking place “in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate” where there was “a pool...called Bethesda.” According to the description given in chapters 3(:1, 32) and 12(:39) by Nehemiah, the pool would have been located in the northeastern corner of the city and near where the Temple complex would have stood. Jesus is pictured entering the Sheep Gate, the very gate through which the sheep that were to be sacrificed would repeatedly enter. It was a foreshadowing of the coming day when He would present Himself as the full and final sacrifice—“the Lamb of God” (cf. John 1:29)—who would atone for and take away men’s sin (cf. Hebrews 10:4).
The pool of Bethesda is described as having “five roofed colonnades” or porches where the lame and disabled would be brought hoping to experience a miraculous healing or cure. Verse 3 tells us that those with every kind of affliction were there...including, as verse 5 indicates, “one man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” That is a very long time—possibly a lifetime—to suffer.
If you are using an English Standard Bible this morning, you will observe that there is no verse 4 recorded. That is because later translations, which are based on earlier and more reliable manuscripts, have determined that the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4 were not a part of the original text of Scripture. That being said, allow me to read that omitted portion which older translations (such as the King James Version) include, and then make a comment. The disputed words are found in a footnote of the ESV. Following the phrase in verse 3 that reads, “blind, lame, and paralyzed,” the addition to the text reads:
“...waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.”
You should be aware that no manuscript before AD 400 contains these words. Then, why do some Bibles include them? You are right to ask that question. The most plausible explanation is that they were a scribal note meant to be a commentary on this text (similar to the notes we find in our modern study Bibles). If so, it was then inadvertently copied by others into the text of Scripture itself and passed along until they became a received part of the later manuscripts. Even if they are not a part of the Sacred Word—and I don’t believe they are—these words were likely intended as an explanation for the prevailing tradition that God would at certain seasons send an angel to cause the waters in the pool to “bubble up” so that those who washed in them might find healing. Verse 7 indicates that the man described in this account firmly held to what seems to have been a superstitious belief.
“Thirty-eight years” may have been this man’s entire life. How long he had been coming to this pool with the hope of being healed is anyone’s guess. It would seem that he was a “regular” there. Butt like so many others, he was ignored day-by-day by passers-by. But that was about to change. As one writer put it, “The impotent man was about to meet the omnipotent Lord.”
And so, along comes Jesus. Beginning with verse 6 and extending into verse 9, we find the record of...
The “sign” (or the miracle) (5:6-9a).
We are told that “Jesus saw (the man) lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time.” He asked Him a question that would turn out to be the pivotal point of the entire story: “Do you want to be healed?” In one form or another, it is the very same question He asks of every one of us: “Do you want to be made well?”
Have you heard Him ask that of you? I assure you that He has asked it...probably many times. “Do you want to be made whole?” “Do you want to have your most important need met?” “Do you want to have the assurance of sins forgiven and know that you have been made right with God?” On this day, He asked the invalid man, “Do you want to be healed?”
Given that man’s tragic circumstances, we would have expected him to say, “Yes! Of course!” But look at verse 7: “The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps before me.’” That response is noteworthy because it reveals that this man’s hope lay not in Jesus, but in the stirring of the water...in the supposed cure, and not in the One who was the Curer. He reasoned that his infirmity had persisted because he couldn’t get into the water. In an “everyman-for-himself” scene, others had always managed to beat him in getting down into the pool. Maybe Jesus could help him get into the water. But water—in his day and in ours—cannot save anyone, whether it be the pool of Bethesda or the baptismal pool of a local church. It is clear at this point that this man had more faith in what he believed to be the means of healing than in the One who was able heal.
To this day, people dip themselves into the “healing waters” of places called “Warm Springs,” “Hot Springs,” and “Mineral Springs” in search of relief for their bodily ills. Jesus was aware that this man needed healing that went far below the surface and into his soul. But would the man himself recognize his greatest need? The truth is, even if he could have gotten into the water and let it wash over him all day, he would still not be healed in the inner man. Even now countless numbers are trusting so many other things—including many “religious” things—to do for them what only Jesus can do. In one way or another this story continues to be repeated everyday.
“Get up,” Jesus said to him in verse 8, “take up your bed, and walk.” The man must have been puzzled. “Get up? Are you kidding me? If I could get up I wouldn’t need the water.” But then he moved slowly on his straw mat...first a foot, and then a leg. He rose up to his knees, then braced himself to stand, then cautiously stood. Amazed at what he found himself able to do, he dared take a step. And then another. And verse 9 says, “And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.”
Jesus’ word accomplished His will. The Lord never gives a command apart from providing the enabling to carry out that command. Immediately and completely the man was healed! This was now the third of Jesus’ “signs” or miracles that John has chosen to include in His Gospel.
But notice what immediately follows. No word of gratitude. No word of rejoicing. No word of praise. This former invalid simply walks away without a word of thanksgiving on his lips. That is amazing...almost as astounding as the miracle itself! I don’t believe that John has merely forgotten to include a report of the man’s thankful rejoicing...it simply didn’t occur! The rest of this passage would seem to bear that out.
Nowhere are we told that this man “believed” and ended up following Jesus. All of which makes this “sign” stand in stark contrast with the one we saw last week when Jesus healed the nobleman’s son. The only “post script” to the account of the miracle that John includes is in telling us that the miracle took place on “the Sabbath.”
But that is not an irrelevant detail, as we shall see. In fact, it leads us into...
The significance of the miracle (5:9b-17).
Picking up the story at verse 10, we see that it was precisely because the miracle had taken place on a Sabbath that the religious leaders were upset. Throughout this section this group is referred to simply as “the Jews.” Made up of both Pharisees and Sadducees, and later referred to by Jesus as “blind guides...straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel” (cf. Matthew 23:34), they tolerated no rivals to their religious authority. But Jesus challenged their self-declared assumptions, and in so doing incited their already impassioned opposition against Him.
The healing of the invalid marked the first open conflict between Christ and these religious representatives, although controversy had been brewing since chapter 2(:13-22) when Jesus chased the “money-changers” out of the Temple. Their variance over the Law—namely, how it was to be interpreted and applied—was the principle source of conflict, with the meaning of the Sabbath becoming a major talking point. Both Jesus and the religious leaders highly regarded the Law, but at issue were the scrupulous restrictions and regulations that these religionists had added. Over time their traditions had become as binding upon the people as God’s Law itself.
For example, the so-called “ tradition of the elders” (cf. Matthew 15:2) distinguished thirty-nine categories of work which were forbidden to be undertaken on the Sabbath. The thirty-ninth of these involved the carrying of a load from one dwelling to another. By this standard, the man’s action of carrying his pallet home was a violation of their Sabbath requirement. According to Old Testament Law there was no such strict prohibition. Simply put, their legalistic standard had been allowed to run amok with no consideration of extenuating circumstances.
What they did not understand—and few of them ever would—is that Jesus had not come to “abolish them but to fulfill” the commands contained in the Law. And He would carry out every stipulation of God in a manner that maintained the spirit of the Law, with a “righteousness (which exceeded) that of the scribes and Pharisees” (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). In time He would even reveal Himself as “the lord of the Sabbath” (cf. Matthew 12:8).
Instead of rejoicing at the man’s healing, these Jewish authorities at best brought up a fine point of the Law (cf. Jeremiah 17:21), and at worst misrepresented the spirit of the Law altogether. In Mark 2:27, Jesus explains that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” But when they saw the man well and walking upright, they confronted him, saying, “Why are you carrying your mat on the Sabbath? Don’t you know that is a violation of the law?” It opened the door for the man to bear witness to Jesus and to testify of His healing grace.
But the didn’t.
Instead, as verse 11 suggests, He passed the blame on to the very One who had healed him. Listen again to the interchange between this man and the religious leaders in verses 11 through 13: “But he answered them, ‘The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 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.” I find that utterly amazing, and yet so consistent with fallen human nature.
Unlike the Samaritan woman or the royal official in chapter 4, we are never told that this man “believed.” He may have, but his response to the Jewish authorities suggests that in not even knowing Jesus’ name and yet making Him the reason for incurring the leaders’ displeasure, Jesus was to him more of a “scapegoat” than a “Savior.” I wonder how frequently we too have been guilty of misrepresenting Jesus in ways more subtle and covert.
Later on (and we’re not told how much later), “Jesus found him in the temple.” Maybe the man had gone there to give thanks to God. We can hope so. Our Lord’s words to him in verse 14 probably reveal something of the man’s character: “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” While all illness is the result of living in a sin-cursed world, not every illness is directly caused by personal acts of sin. Sometimes that is the case, and that may be what Jesus is alluding to here. The “nothing worse” seems to imply that Jesus is extending an invitation for this man to turn from his sin...to “Repent and believe in the gospel” (cf. Mark 1:15). The something “worse” would be to face the eternal judgment of God if he refused.
Jesus’ ability to heal physical paralysis demonstrates a far deeper significance...namely, that He has the authority to forgive sin and to grant eternal life to those who believe in Him, trust in Him, and commit themselves to Him.
But again the man’s response is troubling. Instead of embracing the One who had brought healing to his body, he runs off to religious authorities and “rats out” Jesus. Quite likely he had been threatened by them if he were to have contact with “that man” again. Regardless, this act merely served to “fan the flames” of the controversy that was heating up between Jesus and those who declared themselves to “speak for God.” The conflict was an inevitable part of God’s plan—His Providence—an inevitability that would reach its climax at the Cross.
Verse 16 is chilling in describing the tense climate of that time. When these religious leaders’ suspicions were confirmed that it was indeed Jesus who had healed the man, they entered into “full attack mode.” We read, “This was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.”
In response, Jesus’ defense—as it always is—was with the voice of truth: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” I find two observations in these words...one theological and the other practical.
- Theologically, we know from Genesis 2(:2-3), that God ended His creative work on the sixth day and rested on the seventh. That is where the Sabbath originated. What we need to recognize, however, is that “rest” does not mean inactivity or idleness. Jesus freely admits that God’s work has been going on nonstop ever since. Even though the Father introduced a “Sabbath rest” He is still actively engaged in doing good. We could well say that “God’s Sabbath-work” is one of “re-creation.” Works of mercy are in complete accord with true Sabbath practice. In fact, as we have already seen, “the Sabbath was made for man” (cf. Mark 2:27). When Jesus healed the invalid on the Sabbath and instructed him to remove his bed form the porch of Bethesda, he was employing the Sabbath in a perfectly legitimate way.
- What that means practically is that, as His children living in this age, we too are to be steadily about the “Father’s business” (cf. Luke 2:49, KJV). This is true not only on the Sabbath, but everyday and in every way. Although God’s creative work ended at the end of the Sixth Day, His work of Providence continues. And as His people, we are charged to do His bidding until He returns and time is no more.
But such an explanation did not quiet the Jews. They pounced on Jesus’ words, “My Father” like famished dogs on a slab of meat. What right did He have to lay exclusive claim to God as “His” Father? This riled their anger to the “boiling point.” And that brings us to...
The sequel to the miracle (5:18).
This concluding verse “turns up the volume” on the level of hatred and animosity these religious leaders had for Jesus. Verse 18 reads, “This is 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, (now notice) making himself equal with God.” In other words, they got the point! They understand Jesus’ claim to Deity and they had witnessed the evidence in support of that claim. But instead of falling before Him and calling Him “Lord and God,” they charged Him with blasphemy sought for a convenient opportunity to rid themselves of Him.
In a short time their plot would find fulfillment. At their instigation, Jesus would be tried and executed...nailed to a cross and die. In their minds, they believed to have been acting as God’s emissaries whose mission it was to rid themselves of one they considered to be a blasphemer and a traitor to their religious tradition. In reality, however, they were carrying out the plan of Providence set in motion from before the foundation of the world. For it was on the cross that Jesus would bear the sins of His people, those who would in time come to trust in His name, and find eternal salvation.
As with every story in Scripture, Jesus is the central figure. He is the hero. He is the main character. He is the point. This will become even more pronounced as we proceed through chapter 5 next Sunday. In the today’s passage, we have observed Jesus as the prime mover in orchestrating the events that inevitably would lead to the mounting opposition against Him. Even though we are still in the relatively early months of His ministry, He is drawing a clear line in the sand in terms of where people stand in their relationship with Him.
- In verse 6, it was Jesus who saw the man and was aware of his need to be healed.
- In verse 14, it was Jesus who brought healing to the man instantly and completely.
- In verse 14, it was Jesus who found the man in the Temple and urged him to “Sin no more.”
- And in verse 17, it was Jesus who made claim to His true identity, thus incurring the wrath of those who would shortly clamor for His death.
The Bible confirms the fact that we are all “invalids,” “blind, lame, and paralyzed” spiritually. Jesus is aware of our need long before we are...in fact, that is what brought Him to take up residence among us in the world that He created. Only He is able to do for us what cannot do for ourselves, and so He asks the same question of us all, “Do you want to be healed?”
There are those who sense His presence and hear His call. They may have felt His healing touch and recognized His authority, but continue in their refusal to acknowledge Him and submit to Him as Lord. His marvelous and, at times, miraculous works are done in attestation of His authority. They are intended to reveal our sin and awaken us to faith. And yet some remain as hardened as these Jewish authorities in refusing to declare Him as Lord.
In this life, He shows mercy and grace to all, even His enemies. But the day will come—sooner than most of us expect—when He will meet out justice upon those who oppose Him. The Scriptures exhort us “not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1).
Jesus has testified to us that the Father’s work continues. The Son has taken the lead in that work, and He calls us alongside of Him to extend that work as far as we can in His name and authority. Later on, Jesus will tell His trusted disciples, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).
The controversy introduced in this passage would soon go public. Fast forward two thousand years and Jesus Christ remains the most controversial and polarizing Person in human history. The Savior’s words, as recorded by the Synoptic writers, continue to resound with greater efficacy than ever before: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23).
I pray that we all will hear those words and give heed to them, because the Day surely is fast approaching when the tools of our work will be permanently laid to rest. The Scriptures have promised, “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Hebrews 4:9-10).