1 After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep [market] a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. 6 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? 7 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. 8 Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. 9 And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. 10 ¶ The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry [thy] bed. 11 He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. 12 Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? 13 And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in [that] place. 14 Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. 15 The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole. 16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. John 5:1-16
Jesus came into the world “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), and here we see Him reach out in compassion both to heal a man who had received no compassion and ultimately to save a lost soul. The religious leaders of the Jews, on the other hand, showed no compassion and even began to persecute Jesus for showing compassion on the sabbath day.
John 5 tells us of Jesus’ compassion on a man with a debilitating infirmity who was lying by the Pool of Bethesda (which means House of Mercy) in the hope of being able to pull himself into the pool when the water was stirred by an angel so he could be healed. However, as Jesus knew and recognized, he had been in this state for 38 years. And, as the man stated to Jesus, he had no one who cared enough for him to help him into the pool when the water was stirred, and someone else always made it into the pool before him.
In love and mercy toward this man, Jesus, the Son of God, said to him, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” The man was healed, stood up, picked up his bed, and walked.
There was, however, a problem for those who should have rejoiced at this miracle of God and the mercy shown to this helpless man. It was the Sabbath! Instead of praising God for healing this poor man, the Jewish leaders confronted the man, saying, “It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed.”
They showed no mercy and no compassion toward this man but were so wrapped up in their legalistic interpretations of the commandment regarding the Sabbath (cf. Ex. 20:8-11; Isa. 58:13-14) that they failed to recognize that showing mercy and doing good on the Sabbath was at the heart of the commandment (cf. Hosea 6:6; Matt. 12:7-8). They were so concerned over strict obedience to the letter of the law that they missed entirely the spirit of the law — love for God and neighbor!
Why did they do this? Because they sought to be righteous and acceptable to God through their obedience to the letter of the law — amplified by traditions of the elders that added human interpretations and applications, often contradicting the very spirit of God’s law.
Does this still happen today? Most certainly! Whenever people condemn others for failing to follow their own man-made traditions and applications of God’s commandments. It happens when people condemn the worship of others because it differs from their own worship styles and traditions; when ministers are condemned for showing compassion on those who are ill or who have strayed by ministering to them with God’s Word and Christ’s Supper before they are officially received as church members; or when “Christians” condemn others for playing cards, dancing or consuming an alcoholic beverage. Certainly, the list could go on, but the point is that it is so easy for us to fall into the same trap as the religious leaders of the Jews — to be so wrapped up in our own self-righteous attempts to please God with our man-made traditions and applications of God’s Word that we miss the point of God’s Word and condemn the innocent.
And man-made religious views and traditions so often keep people from trusting in Jesus Christ for mercy and forgiveness. The religious leaders of the Jews so hated Jesus for doing good works on the Sabbath that they began to persecute Him and wanted to kill Him. Jesus’ teaching and works were counted as an affront to their efforts to be righteous before God by their strict obedience to their traditions. Rather than acknowledging their own sinfulness and looking to Jesus as their Messiah and Savior from sin, they sought to discredit Jesus and destroy Him.
Could it happen yet today? Most certainly! It is so easy for us to think God is pleased with us because we hold to our religious traditions, worship with the same liturgies and hymns and in the same styles as our forefathers, strictly observe the Sabbath and Old Testament dietary laws or set aside Sundays as a new Sabbath, refrain from alcohol, avoid dances or card playing, etc., etc., etc. It is so easy for us to go beyond the clear words of Scripture and condemn those who fail to live in accordance with our religious views and traditions.
When we do so, not only do we often fail to see the spirit and intent of God’s law, but we fail to see the truth that we are utterly sinful and cannot please God with our works. As Isaiah writes, even our best works are “unclean” and “filthy rags” in God’s sight (Isa. 64:6). And, when we fail to see our utter sinfulness and the wrath and judgment of God upon us which is due, we fail to look to Jesus and His innocent sufferings and death in our stead for pardon and forgiveness.
Out of concern for this man’s soul, Jesus also cautioned the man whom He had made whole: “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14). Jesus warned this man that the eternal consequences of sin are far greater than the earthly consequences of sin. To suffer forever the condemnation of God in the fires of hell is far worse than the 38 years he had spent as an invalid. Jesus was urging this man to repent of His sinful ways and look to Him for pardon and forgiveness lest a far worse thing happened to him than what he had already experienced.
So also, Jesus urges and calls us to repent of our sinful ways and look to Him and His cross for pardon and forgiveness. If we depend on our own religious works and traditions, if we fail to acknowledge our utter sinfulness before God, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). How can God forgive and cleanse us? It is because “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1,2).
Dear Lord Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, grant that I not twist Your Word and seek to be acceptable in Your sight by my own works and traditions, but humble myself, acknowledge my sins, and look to You for pardon and forgiveness. In Your mercy, cleanse my heart and soul in the precious blood You shed for me on the cross that I may be made whole and acceptable in Your sight. Amen.
[Scripture is quoted from the King James Version of the Bible.]