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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Jesus Comes to the House of Mercy
Text:John 5:1-15 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 146:1,4,5                                                                           

Ps 103:1,4                                                                                                      

Reading – John 5:1-23

Ps 34:6,7,8

Sermon – John 5:1-15

Hy 46:1,2,3,4

Hy 13:1,2,3,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters, in the book of Proverbs we read this wisdom, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (13:12). Like so much of Proverbs, these words capture well the experience of our lives.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Someone who prays and prays for the healing of an illness can relate to that. Someone who waits and waits for things to get better financially can relate to that. You can hope for something for a long time, but your hope keeps getting deferred, put off, delayed—the answer doesn’t come.

And that makes the heart sick. You despair of ever seeing an improvement. Or you wonder if your prayers make a difference. After so long, you feel like giving up, like making the effort won’t even be worth it. Why set yourself up for disappointment?

God’s people can know about this kind of heartsickness and hopelessness. The man in John 5 knew it, because for thirty-eight years he couldn’t walk. And for a long time, this crippled man had waited beside the pool called Bethesda hoping to get better. Maybe this would be the year that he could dip his legs into the healing waters and he could walk home on his own strength! But his hope was deferred, again and again.

It’s a man who is sick at heart whom Jesus meets. But then our Saviour illustrates the glorious beauty of that proverb’s second half: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” Jesus fulfills the man’s deepest earthly desire, and along the way He reveals to the man the One whom he must desire more than anything.

This is the third sign of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospel of John. He has turned water into wine, He has healed the dying son of the nobleman, and now Jesus shows mercy to the crippled man. In so doing, Jesus reveals the depths of his compassion for those who suffer. At the same time, we’re going to see that this sign points to Jesus’s great authority, as one equal to the Father. I preach God’s Word to you from John 5:1-15 on this theme,

            Jesus shows mercy to the crippled man at Bethesda:

                        1) where it happened

                        2) how it happened

                        3) when it happened


1) where it happened: During his ministry, Jesus was almost always traveling. In our reading of the four Gospels, we probably don’t take much notice of this, but if you mapped his movements, you would see Jesus going north into Galilee, then south to Judea, then north to Samaria, then looping back south towards Jerusalem.

Our text begins with one of these geographical notes. “After this”—that is, after the healing of the royal official’s son, far to the north in Cana of Galilee—“there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v 1). John has told us that He has previously been in Jerusalem, right at the start of his ministry, when Jesus first cleared the temple courts. That event sparked a conflict with the religious leaders, a conflict soon to erupt again on this trip. It says that Jesus goes for “a feast of the Jews,” which we assume was one of the three annual pilgrimage feasts: Tabernacles, Passover or Pentecost.

With Jesus in the capital, John sets the scene in one corner of the city: “Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches” (v 2). First of all, the Sheep Gate was located in the northeast corner of the city, quite near to the temple. And close to this gate was a pool.

Maybe you’re picturing something like your community pool, complete with a gym and swimming lanes, but this pool was more like a public bath. Because houses back then didn’t have indoor plumbing, every once in a while people would go wash at a communal bath.

Jerusalem in the first century had several such pools. Archaeologists have even uncovered what was the likely site of the Bethesda pool. It was actually a double set of pools, two right next to each other. There was a porch or covered area along each of the four sides, and then there was a fifth porch area, between the two pools—probably to separate the men’s area from the women’s.

The pool was called Bethesda, which in Hebrew means something like “house of mercy.” In a moment we’ll see why. Under the five porches, where they could be kept out of the heat of the sun, were many people gathered every day: “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed” (v 3).

Try to imagine the scene of all these poor, afflicted people. Maybe you’ve been in a very crowded Emergency Department at the hospital one evening, with sick people everywhere: some moaning on their beds, some stumbling around, others laying there very still—but everyone needing help. The pool of Bethesda was where people went for help, hoping desperately for some improvement in their condition.

And what brought them here? Verse 3 says very simply that they were “waiting for the moving of the water.” Jerusalem’s water supply came from a steady spring outside the city walls, and the water was brought in through a series of tunnels. But without pumps and jets, you wouldn’t expect a lot of movement in the water of the pool.

However, John explains what God caused to happen at Bethesda: “For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had” (v 4). 

This verse stirs up a lot of questions in our minds. How long had this been happening? Why did only the first people into the pool get healed? How often did the waters get moved? And why did God make it happen? For most of these questions we have no solid answers.

But as to why this was happening, we surely find our answer in God’s character. The LORD is a compassionate and merciful God. In a time when there was little relief available to sick people, when there was minimal help for the handicapped, the LORD showed grace.

And this is the way that God has always been inclined. Listen to what He declares to Zion in Jeremiah 30:17, “But I will restore you to health and I will heal your wounds.” Through his almighty power at Bethesda, God gave small previews of what He could do in restoration. Through the stirring of the waters, the sick could be made well.

That pool for healing can bring to our mind what Scripture says about water’s ability to cleanse. In the course of daily life, the contamination of sin was all around God’s people. So the LORD law instructed the Israelites to cleanse themselves with water, to undergo regular rituals of washing. But water is not enough. You can take a shower every day, and scrub yourself until your skin is raw, but you’ll still be dirty with the pollution of sin. For water only cleans the outside.

So God promised something more, promised a true purification from sin. In places like Ezekiel 36:25, the LORD told Israel, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.” For those who were paying attention at Bethesda, they were about to get a glimpse of this salvation. Journeying to Jerusalem, and then visiting this place of healing, Jesus was about to fulfill God’s promise.


2) how it happened: In that big crowd of suffering people, you can be sure that everyone had a sad story to tell. Jesus singles out just one: “Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years” (v 5). We don’t find out what was the nature of his illness, but it was something that hindered the man’s movement and walking. He is crippled, and he has been for a long time—probably suffering for much of his life.

We also don’t know how long he’s been at Bethesda, but we assume for many years. If you weren’t able to walk, there wasn’t much else you could do: beg, wait, watch. Gathered at that pool were the expendable people in Jerusalem, the forgotten and not needed.

In that sense, it’s the perfect place for Christ to go. Jesus has deep compassion for those who suffer, and He helps the needy. Walking among the makeshift beds and sleeping mats, Jesus sees the man, and “knew that he already had been in that condition a long time” (v 6). He doesn’t even have to ask his story, because Christ knows.

That’s an encouraging truth, isn’t it? The perfect knowledge of Christ means that He is totally familiar with our situation, with each and every one of us. He knows our sin, He knows our pain, knows our disappointments and struggles, knows it all. Sometimes a person can’t be bothered to explain their troubles to someone else, because it’s just so complicated. So much to say, and it’s been going on so long—where would you even start? But Christ searches us and He knows us. He understands us, every chapter of our story, every paragraph, every twist and turn. And He has compassion.

Speaking to the man who hasn’t walked for thirty-eight years, He asks, “Do you want to be made well?” (v 6). After waiting for so long, you’d think that of course the crippled man would want to be made well.

But think of how he’d seen the opportunity pass him by, year after year. For nearly his entire life he’s been stuck in the ‘waiting room,’ watching other sick people come to Bethesda, and some leave after being healed, and probably seeing many others die. And maybe after all these years, the way to avoid bitterness was to give up hope. That’s how we protect ourselves sometimes: lower our expectations, don’t nurture optimism, but just exist.

Does the man still want to get well? For Jesus, such a question is never simply about physical wellness, bodily strength and quality of life. What’s this man’s true problem? And could the law save him from it? Or could the miracle water of Bethesda truly cleanse him? This man needed something more—just as we need something more. Our greatest help won’t come from medicine, and not from psychology, or money, or good relationships, or anything else. Do you want to get well? Do you want to be made whole? Then are you desiring Christ? Are you seeking the Lord, and putting your hope in him alone?

To Jesus’s question, he answers in a roundabout way, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me” (v 7). At Bethesda, it was first come, first served. To get healing, you had to step into the waters immediately after the stirring up. And there was room only for a few before the effect was lost. Think of how agonizing that must have been—to be within sight of physical restoration, within reach, yet unable to move, lacking anyone to help him.

But on this day, the man’s Helper has finally come. In rich mercy, Jesus says, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (v 8). And at once, the man is healed. He takes up his bed, probably little more than a thin mat made of palm leaves. And he walks.

As with all of Jesus’s miracles, we’re expecting this one. It doesn’t faze us. We probably think little of the fact that after thirty-eight years without walking, this man’s legs would have been shriveled to nothing: no muscle, little circulation, joints that are completely seized up. He probably wouldn’t even know how to walk anymore. But he stands and he walks.

It’s another spectacular miracle. And in the Scriptures, the healing of crippled people is always a sign of the coming Messiah. In the day of his salvation, says Isaiah, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing” (Isa 35:6). With great power and mercy, Christ shall restore all who are broken.

The miracle of healing is a sign, a way marker for the Messiah. It’s about the work that He is starting, and the work that He is yet to perform. Christ wants to make everyone well, to restore all who believe in him.

That great restoring work is going to happen in Jerusalem too—not on this journey in John 5, but another journey, when Christ comes for another feast, the Passover. He will come to the city knowing that He’s the Lamb who is going to be sacrificed, that from his body will flow rivers of cleansing blood, through which his people are made whole.

On that day at Bethesda, Jesus healed only one man out of the entire multitude of the blind, lame and paralyzed. In a way, that’s realistic for our life in the present time. Not everyone in the church has their burden lifted. Some have to wait a long time for Christ’s answer. A person who is suffering prays and prays, and he hears only what sounds like silence. A person has pain and gets little relief. Hope can be deferred so often that after a while, we put a heavy lid on it to keep it from hurting.

Yet this sign points all of us to our sure hope in Christ. Each of us was paralyzed in sin, totally captive to our misery. We had no ability to improve our condition, and we lacked all helpers. But Christ came to us, for He knew our misery, and He reached out with mercy. By his death, He has already restored us to God, has already made us well. And He has promised to restore us completely, to one day heal us in body and soul. This is our hope, the anchor for our soul, firm and secure in the heavens.


3) when it happened: Sometimes a good story-teller adds a twist, just when you thought things were about to wrap up. That’s what we have in our text. If the story ended half-way through verse 9, it would be a simple and beautiful story of healing: “And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.”

But then comes the second half of the verse, “And that day was the Sabbath.” There’s more to say here, another layer because of when this miracle happened. When the Jewish leaders see the man leaving Bethesda, mat in hand, they take offense. Verse 10: “The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”

Now where did they get this idea? Was there actually a law against carrying your bed on Sunday? The fourth commandment said you had to rest on the Sabbath, and not work. But how do you define work? For most people, work involved carrying things, whether tools or bunches of grapes or jars of milk. So you couldn’t carry a burden on the Sabbath (cf. Jer 17:21). But even a ‘burden’ needed to be defined. How heavy is too heavy? And how far is too far to carry? This is the reason that many traditions developed around the law, regulations to specify and clarify.

And the leaders judge that this man has broken the Sabbath. His thin bedroll might have been his only worldly possession, and he might be walking for the first time in thirty-eight years, but the law is the law. As far as the leaders were concerned, if the man has waited so long for healing, why couldn’t he wait a few more hours until the Sabbath is over?

That’s the black-and-white viewpoint of a legalist. But Jesus had no trouble making the man ‘work.’ As He showed in his other healings, Christ actually saw the Sabbath as the perfect day for such activity. He said to the Pharisees in Luke 6:9, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” The Sabbath is God’s day for restoration and renewal. The Sabbath is a day for God’s good news for broken people. What better day to heal someone!

The healed man has a straightforward answer for the leaders: he simply points them to the mysterious person who had come to the pool that day, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk’” (v 11). He told me to! And in verse 15 the man again points them to Jesus, “[He] told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.”

Some commentators suggest that this was something like a betrayal. The man wanted to get the blame off himself, so he deflects it to Jesus. That’s possible. But it could also be that this man actually recognizes Jesus to have authority over the Sabbath. If the Christ told me to walk and take up my mat, then I will! A man who restores life like that also has the authority to lift the burden of human traditions.

Even so, this healing leads to trouble for Jesus. The next section begins on a note of opposition: “For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath” (v 16). The leaders take another step toward the unthinkable. They seek to kill him, and later they will kill him. Persecution results, and more controversy—in chapter 5, Jesus and the leaders argue about keeping the Sabbath. Jesus says things like, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (v 17).

And you can tell that for Jesus, the argument isn’t so much a legal question, but a personal question. Who is Jesus? What is his identity? Jesus’s defense boils down to the fact that He and the Father are one. The God who once spoke at Sinai is the same as the man who healed at Bethesda. Therefore Jesus stands above all constraints and traditions, and He is able to do all things for the good of his people.

As for the healed man, Jesus follows up with him in verse 14. Notice that their conversation takes place “in the temple.” For thirty-eight years, the man had not been allowed into the temple courts on account of his infirmity, considered unclean. But now he’s been cleansed and he draws near to God, surely to thank and praise him for his mercies.

There Jesus meets him, and speaks a word: “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you” (v 14). Jesus wants to make sure he’s back on the path to life. For again, He’s concerned with much more than physical rehab. The man’s greatest trouble wasn’t shriveled legs, but a shriveled heart. So Christ urges him to “sin no more.”

That doesn’t mean the man had brought this infirmity on himself through an especially terrible sin. But the fact is, all sin deserves judgment—ours does too! So Jesus calls the man to repentance. Don’t sin now, but go with God. Don’t take for granted your new wholeness, but use your restored life in the service of Christ.

And that’s the enduring command of Christ for everyone He forgives and renews. If Jesus in his mercy has set you free, then you are free indeed—not to sin, but to obey. If Christ has given you hope, go and sin no more, and then live for him in all good things!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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