In John 5, Jesus encounters a sick man lying beside the pool of Bethesda – waiting, waiting, waiting for healing to come. The man had been ill for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight!
Jesus approaches him and asks what seems to be a silly question. Some might even think it cruel:
Would you like to get well?
Call me crazy, but that seems like a rhetorical question to me. A surprising question, even, considering the One from whom the words were uttered. And perhaps because of the seeming ludicrousness of the question itself, I have to pause and wonder just why Jesus asked the thing He asked.
It’s interesting that Jesus often questions people though He already knows their thoughts on the matter. Therefore, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that the questioning must be for us. A challenge toward introspection, an invitation to know ourselves more clearly – the deep, inner man and not just the shallow soul which gives pat answers of political and Christian-friendly correctness.
When asked if he wanted to be made well, the man did not answer with a simple “yes.” Instead, he responded with an excuse. The New Living Translation records his reply this way: “I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.”
Years of frustration are loaded in that answer. Thirty-eight years of sickness and weakness, inability and insufficiency. Thirty-eight years of longing to be first, just once, but somehow always being too far behind. Unnoticed and overlooked. Thirty-eight years of unmet expectations being the only consistent in life. Thirty-eight years watching others receive the answer to his heart’s longing. Thirty- eight years of having his hopes stifled by this constant companion called resignation.
I can’t, sir. I have no one to help me…
How fruitless his efforts to obtain healing on his own, yet still he lingered by the pool. Still he waited.
Enter Jesus… who sees and knows the depth of his need, the length of his sickness, the lifetime longing to be noticed, the desire to be first – just this once. The ache to have someone willing to help. Jesus sees him there. All of him. He sees the wrestling and the waiting and the loneliness.
And Jesus comes.
With compassion and purpose.
The Savior steps on scene with power to change our situation, despite the number of years of persistent trial.
Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk.
There’s a command and also a finality in the chosen words of our Savior here in this moment. It’s as if He is prompting the man toward new life: Rise up in your healing; pick up all signs of your commitment to continue in this old life; remove all comfort from the temptation to stay here in the place of helplessness and unbelief; and walk in the wholeness God has granted you.
Jesus simply told the man to move forth on his own in the power God had given him.
And the man did as instructed… and was immediately met by accusations. Faith works like that, you know. It’s immediately challenged by unbelief.
This particular man’s challengers were the religious elite.
Didn’t the man realize it was the Sabbath, and he was not to labor in carrying about his mat? Why was he breaking the rules?
… and why are we so quick to deny the gift of mercy while grasping judgment with both fists?
How is it possible that the work of healing accomplished by the grace of God becomes insignificant to those who live to make accusations? Thirty-eight years of illness miraculously healed, and they are worrying about bedding being carried across town.
How often do we find ourselves denying the greater good so we can continue clinging to the lesser?
The same Jesus who seems almost to instigate “sin” by instructing the man to pick up his mat on the Sabbath later finds the man again and warns him to “stop sinning.” This seems like an oxymoron, but Jesus consistently shows His concern for the souls of men is much greater than His concern for their adherence to tradition alone. He challenges the man to leave behind the former bonds and cease living in the habit of sinning so as to avoid something “far worse” than thirty-eight years of illness.
Bound by the ignorance of their religious piety, the Jewish elite were obliviously heading for something “far worse” in their denial of Christ. Perhaps they were the ones who would have profited the most from the same question asked of the sick man:
Would you like to get well?
Perhaps we would profit also.
How do we answer Him?
The question itself extends the hope.
Jesus’ questions are like that.
Our response holds either our belief or distrust. Our acceptance or denial of life.
The truth and power are available, extended by the same Savior who spoke healing into a man bound by illness for thirty-eight years. The same power is still at the ready.
And the same question still presents itself.
Are you willing to pick up your mat and walk?