In this series, we are examining some of the questions God asks key biblical characters. God does this, not because he seeks information, for he knows all things. Rather, he asks questions as a wise counselor. His questions help us see for ourselves what we really believe, what our real needs are, the inadequacy of our attempts to meet those needs, and thus they help us to want to receive his wise help.
This week we examine a question Jesus asks a paralyzed man. It is found in John’s gospel—Jn.5—and Jesus asks it just before he performs one of seven miracles that John recorded. In 20:31, John tells us that these miracles not only met specific people’s physical needs; they were also “signs”—symbolic acts that reveal Jesus’ unique identity and ability to meet humanity’s deepest spiritual needs (CHART).
So first we will read this account as observers of this historical account of how Jesus miraculously met this man’s real physical need. Then we will read it as participants, seeing how this man’s condition is a picture of our spiritual needs, and how Jesus claims to be the only One who can meet these needs.
Read 5:1-4. 5:3b,4 was not written by John and therefore does not belong in the biblical text. It should be bracketed (as in NASB) or deleted (as in NIV) because it is not in any of the earliest manuscripts, and where it appears in later manuscripts it is often marked to signal probable spuriousness. It is probably a marginal explanatory note of 5:7 that later got incorporated into the text—namely, it explains a local superstition about the pool, but the biblical text does not affirm this belief.
Read 5:5. This man is probably the worst case around the pool—he has been paralyzed longer than the life-span of most chronically sick people of that day.
Read 5:6. Jesus seeks this man out and asks what seems to be a ridiculous question: “Do you wish to get well?” This would be like asking someone who has been waiting in the ER for three days: “Do you want to get medical attention?”
Yet the man’s answer reveals the wisdom of Jesus’ question (read 5:7). He doesn’t answer Jesus’ question! He answers a different question: “Why are you here?” He is so beaten down by his prolonged disability and neglect by others that he can’t see beyond it. His suffering has so constricted his thinking that he can no longer envision anything other than the misery of his situation. He exemplifies our street-level definition of insanity—doing the same thing that doesn’t work over and over again, expecting different results. He is helpless and hopeless. You get the impression that, had Jesus not interrupted him, he would have continued his pitiful complaint about the injustice of the system that had kept him all these years from entering the pool.
But Jesus interrupts him with a command designed to shock him out of his auto-pilot response (read 5:8). His command has two life-changing implications:
First, it is an authoritative claim about who Jesus is. Jesus is saying: “You are in a new situation now because I am not like everyone else. Many others do not care about your condition, but I do care. Others may care but are unable to help you, but I can totally restore you.” Jesus speaks on his own authority—not like the prophets or apostles, who always referred to God’s authority. He is claiming to be the promised Messiah (Isa.35:6)—God-incarnate who comes to rescue humanity and restore the entire universe!
Second, it is a summons for the man to personally trust Jesus’ claim and act on it. To even try to get up by his own power is totally impossible for him. I envision Jesus holding out his hand, calling the man to concretely trust him by grasping his hand and getting up. Will he listen to his old tapes and protect himself from another disappointment by rejecting Jesus’ claim—or will he take the risk of trusting him by obeying his command?
Read 5:9. The text implies (as other texts state explicitly) that as the man chooses by faith to get up, Jesus heals him. His faith does not heal him; Jesus heals him as he exercises faith in Jesus by obeying his word. Imagine his astonishment as he discovers that the paralysis is gone, his atrophied muscles are restored, and even his long-forgotten motor skills are regained! He picks up his beggar’s mat and walks away into a new life!
Jesus came into this multitude of broken people, he sought this man out in his hopeless physical condition, and he restored him to physical health when the man believed his word. This is a stupendous healing—but it is not an end in itself. It is a “sign” of Jesus’ authority to provide profound spiritual healing to each of us.
This is why Jesus sought out the man later (read 5:14). Jesus is not saying: “God zapped you with paralysis for some sin that you committed—so you’d better watch out or he’ll punish you with a worse sickness!” He is saying: “I healed you physically, but you have a far more serious problem. Your moral guilt for your sins will bring you under God’s judgment unless you get deliverance from this.” (And the implication is that he needs Jesus to deliver him from his sins, just as he needed Jesus to deliver him from his paralysis.) Jesus is warning him not to let his temporal blessing lead him to neglect his spiritual problem. This is a good warning for us also!
This is why Jesus goes on to explicitly explain the meaning of the man’s healing (read 5:24). Just as Jesus healed the man the moment he responded in faith to Jesus’ word (5:8,9 – “immediately”), so he gives us eternal life the moment we respond in faith to Jesus’ word (5:24 – “has eternal life”). “Eternal life” is permanent deliverance from God’s judgment and restoration to a personal relationship with God (Jn.17:3). Only Jesus makes eternal life possible because only Jesus qualifies as God’s perfect Substitute to pay the full penalty of our sins (Jn.3:16;explain 1Jn.2:2). And this passage says that eternal life begins now (not after you die)—the moment you put your faith in Jesus.
Will you take your place with this man? Will you acknowledge that your life is broken beyond human repair—or do you still think you can fix yourself (Matt.5:3 - penes vs. ptochos)? If you are “poor in spirit,” Jesus has come to you and is speaking to you right now through his Word! He is the Messiah, and his presence changes the situation. He is willing and able to heal you in the most radical way—he can deliver you forever from God’s judgment and forge a love relationship with God that will last forever. He is summoning you to “get up”—to trust his claim by taking hold of his hand and receiving eternal life. What is your response? Will you take his hand and let him heal you—or will you reject him and remain without God and without hope?
I want to spend the remainder of our time talking about another application of this passage—an application to those of us who have already trusted Jesus’ promise to give us spiritual life. The same Jesus who is able to heal our spiritual death is also able to bring substantial healing in our moral and psychological and relational lives. It is possible to believe in Jesus for eternal life, yet to not believe in his power to heal us substantially in these areas.
I say “substantial healing” because we will not receive full moral or psychological or relational healing until Jesus returns. Only then will he make “all things new.” But he does promise real and substantial healing in this life for his children who keep trusting him. His death on the cross has broken sin’s authority over us (Rom.6:4,6), and he his Spirit lives within us to gradually transform us into his likeness (2Cor.3:18).
Are there areas of brokenness in your life that you feel Jesus cannot heal substantially in this life? Do you have areas that you view like this man viewed his paralysis? “I will never overcome my fear of commitment.” “I am doomed to relational failure with my spouse, children, friends, etc.” “I will never get freedom from this addiction to drugs, food, porn, entertainment, etc.” “I am doomed to live in fear and anxiety instead of with God’s peace and hope.” “I will never be to serve God and others with real joy and power.” “I will never overcome my anger, impatience, laziness, etc.”
Jesus comes to you and me in these areas and asks us: “Do you wish to get well?” Have you answered Jesus’ question (as I often have) like this man did: “Others can be healed in this area—but not me. Others get the help they need—but not me. This is just the way I am. I’m going to be stuck here the rest of my life.” And the longer we believe this, the more plausible it seems—and the more areas of our lives it spreads into. But the truth is that this is just unbelief. Jesus has already fulfilled his promise to heal us of our most formidable problem, and therefore he can certainly heal us in these areas as well.
He wants us to take responsibility for our fatalism or self-pity or cynicism and say: “Jesus, I repent from my unbelieving attitude. I choose against my feelings and past experience to believe that your presence changes my situation. I believe; help me in my unbelief.” I find that this is sometimes an ongoing, even daily, choice. This is grasping his hand of pushing it away. This is a choice that no one else sees—but it is the choice that lays hold of healing power!
And he often commands us to take some specific action that expresses our trust in his power to change us. He may command you to confide you struggle to another Christian and ask him/her to pray with and for you. He may command you to ask forgiveness of those whom you have sinned against (by commission or omission). He may command you to gather regularly with others who have the same struggle for mutual encouragement, prayer, and accountability. He may command you to consistently serve someone in a behind-the-scenes way. He wants us to say: “Jesus, I will obey this command to ‘get up’ and trust that you will work through it to heal me in your way and timing.” This is a choice that often feels scary—even impossible—yet this is what unleashes the power of Jesus to heal us!
Five years from now, many of us with the same kinds of crippling sins will be substantially healed—while others of us will be more deeply crippled. What will be the difference between us? Not the extent of our sin problems—Jesus is more powerful than any of them. Not Jesus’ willingness to heal us—he has already stated that he is willing. The only difference will be that some of us will have chosen to believe him, while the rest of us have not! “Get up!”
“The man does not hear Jesus’ question... Instead, he tells the lonely story of his disappointment... because when the water was bubbling he never had the chance to get into the water; others were always in before him. Here is the portrait of a depressed and totally discouraged person. He is so completely captive to his negative feelings about his situation that he is unable even to hear a new question... The man answers as if Jesus had asked the question, ‘Why are you here?’... His answer is a complaint about the injustice of the system which has all these years kept him from entering the pool.” Earl F. Palmer, The Intimate Gospel (Word Books, 1978), pp.60,61.