Snake Handling and Sabbath Keeping
Last week we finished up the double story of the Samaritan woman, and Jesus teaching the disciples who were on a save Jesus mission to a Samaritan village to get food. Perhaps it was the same village that the Samaritan woman had returned to tell the elders about Jesus. If so, they supplied the food the disciples brought back with them to feed Jesus with. But they were astonished by Jesus' response that he had already eaten. Instead, Jesus fed them the gospel. This story seems to have had a happy ending. We can't be too sure about the fellow we meet today.
Exposition of the Text
Verse 1 tells us that Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast. It does not tell us which one, whether a major feast like Passover, or a minor one. This has left commentators divided. However what feast it was is unimportant. John is careful to identify what feast Jesus was at elsewhere. So what I feel is important here is not the feast itself as much as it was the Sabbath day. If it wasn’t one of the feasts that Jews were required to attend, it does not matter. Jesus went out of his way to find the Samaritan woman at the well. This same necessity from the Father may have moved Jesus to keep not a feast as much as an appointment with this man lying by the side of the pool.
Commentators do not agree, nor does the Greek text as to the name of the pool complex, whether it is Bethesda, which means “House of Mercy”; Bethsaida, which means “House of Fish”; or Beth-zatha, which means “House of the Olive Tree”. Again, the name is not important here. What is important is that a great number of sick people had gathered there in hopes of healing.
Healing pools were common in the Pagan world and tied in to the supposed healing powers of the Greek God of healing called Asclepius. In fact, there was a large temple and pool to that God in the city of Pergamum which was one of the seven churches which John had charge over and near Ephesus where most commentators believe that the Gospel of John was written. The sick after a ritual in the temple would bathe or be bathed for purification in hope of healing. The insignia of this God was a snake wrapped around a pole. The medical profession added the wings of Hermes to this to come up with the modern symbol of the medical profession. What makes this interesting is that Jesus in this gospel mentions Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness that whosoever had been bitten and then looked at the lifted up serpent were healed. What is clearly being implied in John’s Gospel is that true healing does not come by looking at a snake on a pole but rather to see Jesus lifted up on the cross. Neither the snake of Moses or of Asclepius matters. Nor does ritual bathing. Jesus is the source of all healing.
We don’t know how many if any were actually healed by the waters of the pool. Most Greek texts do not include verse 4, which explains that an angel came from time to time to stir up the waters. At any rate, the Jewish authorities would have looked with suspicion if not contempt at this place as they would think this as Heathen superstition. Whether or not verse 4 is original or a margin note by a later writer is unimportant. What is important is that the sick man believed this pool would cure the first one who entered it when the water is troubled. And so did a great deal of others.
Seeing the desperation of the large number of sick people around the pool, there must have been a lot of competition for the places nearest the pool so they could be the first in the water. The water probably did not bubble there very often, which made watching day and night an exceedingly agonizing task. Some people who were less afflicted could get into the pool by themselves on their own strength and would have a distinct advantage over this man who had been there 38 years. Not only this, the stronger would have pushed the weaker people away from the pool. Also, those who were richer could hire strong men to be beside them to throw them into the pool when the waters were troubled.
So if there were any healings there, and there probably were some, the people who were in the least need were far more likely to make it into the pool first. But this man had no friend to help him like the four friends of another paralytic who tore the roof off the house to get him to Jesus. Nor did he have the means to hire someone to throw him into the water as the straw mat he lay on indicated his poverty. So here we see him, pushed away from the pool, forgotten, neglected, and without any real hope. For 38 years he lay there without any real hope or help. In fact, he may have lay there longer than anyone else. The rule of the place was first come, first served.
The long despair of this man probably caused him to become a bit dull and depressed. And like Nicodemus and the woman at the well, he looked at the situation through earthly eyes rather than heavenly hope. He responded to Jesus’ question whether he wanted to be made well by saying that he has no one to help him. His little and pathetic hope was for a strong man to be able to throw him in the water forcefully, for this is what the Greek word bale means. I could just imagine him looking at Jesus ands seeing a man over 30 years of age, which is nothing in our day, but was near the life expectancy of 40 years in his day. Not only this, Jesus had probably weakened His body by his fasting and excessive travels. As we can remember from the woman at the well story, it was Jesus, not the disciples who was too weak to continue. Also in chapter 8, the Pharisees in responding to Jesus’ claim to be older than Abraham, looked at Him and said that He wasn’t even 50 yet. This means that Jesus’ hard schedule made him look even older than he was physically. I can just see the look of despair at his seeing Jesus’ appearance. A strong young man is what he felt he needed. Jesus’ physical appearance would give him little reason to hope. What could this man do? Remember Jesus had not revealed Himself to the man. He was just what appeared to be a rather weak stranger wanting to help this man who was even weaker. It wasn’t a team for success.
But this stranger who had come to the sick man is not Who He appeared to be on the surface. This wasn’t an ordinary middle-aged man. This man was none other than the Creator of the world come down in human flesh, Jesus Christ. He told the man to pick up His bed and walk. To his surprise, he was able to do so. His physical infirmity was healed, but he was still a few bricks short of a load where it really counted. He displayed neither thankfulness nor joy. He did as he was told, nothing else. He picks up his bed and heads home.
There were at least some Pharisees in the place, because they call out to this man, asking him why he was carrying his bed on the Sabbath day. Apparently, this man wasn’t the only dull clod in the place. Technically, the Pharisees were correct in the letter of the law. But someone greater than the Law was here, for He was the One who had given the Law to Moses in the first place. This would bring Jesus into direct conflict with the Pharisees, but this is a discussion for next week.
The man showed his dullness by avoiding trouble with the Pharisees by blaming the one who had healed him. How much easier was it and is it to blame others for one’s own problems. “I don’t have help.” “The person who healed me told me to do it.” If the man were alive today, he would probably be blaming FEMA. But he wasn’t entirely without knowledge. He went to the Temple, which is what the Law said he was supposed to do to give thanks for his healing.
Jesus met him there. Jesus had made good His exit while the turmoil was going on, wanting to confront the Pharisees on His timetable and not theirs. But He knew His work was not yet done. Physical healing was and is not enough. Physical healing had given the man his first day of true rest in 38 years, but if he didn’t know and come to Jesus believing, he was going to suffer for eternity. This man was an old man by the reckoning of age in Jesus’ day. If he were to die in this present state, he was going to be lost forever. So the Lord comes to the Temple looking for Him and tells the man bluntly that he had found physical healing, but he needed to cease from his life of sin or a worse thing would happen. This is not to say that it was sin which caused his infirmity, although it may have. What Jesus was warning him of is the eternal consequences of sin. If he didn’t repent, something far worse would happen to him.
We don’t know if the man took the warning or not. We can see where Nicodemus later asks the body of Jesus for burial from Pilate. This gives us hope for Nicodemus. The change in the Samaritan woman gives us hope for her also. But the only thing this man does is to tell the Pharisees the name of the one who healed him. We would be hard pressed to find anything close to faith in Jesus in this entire passage. We can only hope that Jesus’ travel all the way to Jerusalem to heal him and not one of the others there and also to come to the Temple to warn him shows that the Lord had hope in this man, and that he later repented.
Application of the Text
The first thing we can learn from this passage is that our God is a seeking God. And he just doesn’t care for us in a crowd, but as individuals. Jesus was willing to leave the crowds to go to a Samaritan woman. And He was just as willing to go to Jerusalem to pick a man out in the crowd that time and everyone else had forgotten. Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd and says that a good shepherd cares, protects, and even dies for the sheep. The shepherd is the one willing to leave the ninety and nine and find the one lost sheep. And when He finds that lost sheep, He carries him on His shoulder back to the flock rejoicing. And not only does our Good Shepherd Jesus rejoice, but the Father, the Holy Spirit, and all the host of heaven. And now God calls us to join Him in seeking out the lost, sick, weak, and forgotten.
The second thing we learn is that salvation is entirely the work of God and not us. This man could contribute nothing to either his healing or his salvation. His healing did not come by his doing something he could not do such as throw himself into the pool. And no one else was able to help either, or else only the rich and powerful or some spiritual elite could attain it. Your mother and your father cannot help you. Neither can the government or doctors or any other agency. And this man was not about to find salvation either. We have just seen how dull he was. But then, so was Nicodemus.
True healing is spiritual. We don’t know how many people might have found healing at the pool of Bethesda -- perhaps a few, perhaps many. But as we learned that it wasn’t enough for the man to be healed of his sickness. He needed to be saved. In fact Jesus warns us that it is better to go into heaven with only one eye or one foot or one hand than to be cast whole into hell. It would have been far better for the man to never have been physically healed and to have stayed at the pool for the rest of his life and believed on Jesus than the other way around.
This man had the opportunity for both. I certainly mean no ill against doctors who have learned to cure many maladies. But it is not enough. There is a far greater sickness with eternal consequences which needs to be healed. We need to be healed from sin, or something far worse will happen, for sin has one hell of a payday. I applaud those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked. I am all for helping our fellow man. But this is not enough. We need to do these things and then come back to warn them of this greater need. Just like in this case, we might not know how this warning might be taken or whether it will be heeded. But we must warn them.
Finally, we must remember that Christ is the healer. We might be weak or strong as this world counts strength. We could be Arnold Schwarzenegger or the 98 pound weakling. We could be Mother Teresa or Hugh Heffner. We could be Bill Gates or a homeless person. Regardless of our relative standing in this world, we must come to the realization that we are spiritually bankrupt before God. We all stand completely in the need of God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ and that we cannot save ourselves. God and His gifts cannot be earned or purchased with money. We are every bit as dull without Jesus as either Nicodemus or this man we meet today. What stands out is not this man’s merit, or ours, but the overwhelming grace of Christ. It is as the great British preacher Charles Spurgeon noted on this passage that this was the place where the impotent meets the omnipotent. Only Jesus can make us whole where it really matters.