The Pool of Bethesda
These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
The healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda in John chapter 5 is a good example of Christ’s compassion for his followers, or his potential followers.
And a certain man was [at the pool of Bethesda], which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.
Think of yourself as the man with the infirmity. You can’t walk, and you have been that way for 38 years. That would be terrible today, but even 200 years ago, you would have been much worse. There was no way you could earn your living, at least no way that you could earn as good a living as an able bodied person, and you would actually have been very vulnerable to those around you. Two thousand years ago you would have been an almost impossibly difficult situation.
This man has found a solution to the problem. All he had to do was be the first into the pool when the waters were troubled. That must have been an absolute torment to him. If he could walk he could get to the pool in time, and he believed he could be cured – but if he could walk he wouldn’t need to get to the pool. The thing he needed was just beyond his grasp. Imagine how desperate he must have been, being at the pool every day, never getting cured.
One day Jesus comes past and he speaks to the man. Jesus knows he has been there for a long time, and he speaks to him: “Wilt thou be made whole?”
That must have been a great relief to the man. Somebody is speaking to him and is offering him help. In all the time he had been at the pool this may have been the first person that did this. And what help did he ask for: “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.” All he wanted was a hand getting into the pool at the right time. Such a little thing that would mean a lot to him.
But Jesus doesn’t do it. He does something much, much better.
Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.
“Sir, will you help me into the pool”
“Stand up and walk. You are cured. You don’t need the pool.”
It’s like coming home to find a letter from the inland revenue. You think it is a demand for more money, but you open it and you realise that it is a tax rebate. Excellent, you think, I’ve got a couple of hundred pounds I wasn’t expecting. That’s a nice little bonus. Then you read the whole letter. It isn’t just a couple of hundred pounds. It is tens of thousands, and there is the reassurance you don’t need to pay tax again. It is not just a nice bonus, it is something that you always hoped would happen, but never expected to.
The man was sitting at the pool, and someone talks to him, offering him help. But it is help beyond the man’s wildest dreams. Rise, take up thy bed and walk. This man had been waiting for that for 38 years. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he is given the message he never thought possible.
Partly because of the way he is portrayed in films and on TV there is a tendency to think of Jesus as being almost like the original hippie, slightly disconnected from the world around him, talking in complex mystical terms.. This story shows that he was the opposite. He was a man who had great compassion for his fellow man. He was gentle, kind and loving.
The man that was healed didn’t know who Jesus was – we are told that in verse 13. This is quite unusual, at least among the recorded healings. Typically someone approaches Jesus, knowing who he is and asks to be healed. There is a fairly typical incident at the end of Mark chapter 10. Mark 10, verses 46 to 52:
And they came to Jericho: and as he went out of Jericho with his disciples and a great number of people, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me. And many charged him that he should hold his peace: but he cried the more a great deal, Thou son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus stood still, and commanded him to be called. And they call the blind man, saying unto him, Be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee. And he, casting away his garment, rose, and came to Jesus. And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole. And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way.
“Son of David have mercy upon me!” cried Bartimaeus.
“What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” asked Jesus.
“Lord, that I might receive my sight,” he replied.
“Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole”.
Bartimaeus recognises Jesus for who he is and asks him to restore his sight. Jesus grants Bartimaeus’ request because Bartimaeus has faith.
Compare this with the man at the pool of Bethesda. The man is approached by Jesus, and he doesn’t recognise him. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed. That’s an amazing offer. The son of God approaches you and asks you if you want to be healed. The man doesn’t appreciate this offer because he doesn’t recognise Jesus. He asks for something really quite trivial – to be helped into the pool. Jesus doesn’t do that. He does something far better. He heals the man completely there and then. And, crucially, the healing is not dependant on the man having faith. The healing happened before the man had faith.
We all know that The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them (Psalm 34, verse 7), and this obviously applies to people like Bartimaeus. There is sometimes the tendency to assume that if the angel of the LORD encampeth around those that fear him then the angel of the LORD does not protect those that do not fear him. In the same way that Jesus healed a man who did not have faith at the time of his healing, but later went on to be a believer, the angel of the LORD protects those who will one day fear him. In the letter to the Hebrews, talking of the angels, the writer says: “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” The angels minister to people who will become heirs to salvation, just as Christ ministered to the lame man who was not a believer at the time but later went on to be one.
We all have loved ones who do not follow Christ, and I am quite sure we all pray for them. It has been suggested that if we don’t pray “hard enough” for our loved ones then God will neglect them. Nothing could be further from the truth. God doesn’t require proof of faith before he reacts. He doesn’t ignore us until some magic point at which we can be considered believers. He looks after us from day one.
Both God and Christ are described as being shepherds. The shepherd looks after all his flock, even the ones who are two young to understand who he is. The older sheep are probably quite sensible. They know the shepherd is there to look after them. I imagine it takes times for the lambs to learn this. They are not born with inbuilt knowledge of the shepherd.
But that doesn’t stop the shepherd looking after them. The mother sheep doesn’t have to keep reminding the shepherd to keep an eye on her lambs. He does it anyway because he is the shepherd, and although the lambs don’t yet recognise it, they are part of his flock.
It is difficult when we have loved ones who are outside the household of faith. Although we have a responsibility to teach and lead them we shouldn’t worry that our teaching or leadership isn’t good enough, because God looks after both those who follow Christ now, and those who will have faith in the future.