Let’s face it – this is the side of Jesus that we love the most – the gentle healer who speaks a word of power to us and to our loved ones in the midst of our pain and suffering. We love to sing about our Good Shepherd Who leads us into green pastures and beside still waters. And I suppose the longer we live, the more we recognize our need of His healing touch, His guiding and protecting hand.
So, why would Jesus ask the sick man if he wants to be made whole? It’s obvious that he was desperately ill. In fact, he had been basically helpless for 38 years. And although this man’s encounter with Christ happened almost 2000 years ago, his experience is not so foreign to our helplessness. “Do you want to be made whole?” Surely Jesus doesn’t need to ask such a ridiculous question.
But maybe this question isn’t as silly as it sounds. Have you ever known someone of whom it could be said, “He enjoys poor health?” Don’t we all know people who, while they certainly don’t enjoy pain, at least seem to take advantage of ill health to avoid some of the demands that life places on them? For some people, illness provides a convenient excuse to avoid work, or to escape from difficult social situations. For these people, helplessness has become a part of who they are. They wouldn’t know what to do without it.
Of course, that doesn’t seem to be the case for this sick man. After all, he had come to a place where miracles happen, a place in which, when the waters were stirred by an angel, other people had been healed if they were the first ones to step into the pool. He certainly seems to be doing all he can to get well.
But none of his efforts are enough, are they? How many times did he try to be the first one into the moving waters? How many times did he fail? We don’t know. But after 38 years of illness, after countless attempts to heal himself, he is willing to admit to Jesus that he needs help. Now, the man certainly doesn’t ask Jesus to perform a healing miracle. In fact, the text doesn’t give us any reason to believe that he expects Jesus to be
able to do anything but pick him up and place him into the water the next time it moves. But the fact is that Jesus’ question prompts him to confess he need for help.
This is so hard for so many of us, isn’t it? In our American spirit of self-reliance, none of us likes to admit physical weakness, even to ourselves, let alone to anyone else. None of us wants to be a burden on others – we hate being dependent. It often takes a lot of suffering before we face our helplessness. But admitting that we have a problem, admitting that we need help is often the first step toward physical health.
So, maybe Jesus isn’t asking a silly question after all. Maybe Jesus was trying to confront this man not only with his need to be healed, but with his helplessness to tap into God’s healing power by himself.
But notice that Jesus’ question includes much more than just physical healing. He asks the man if he wants to be made whole. In the Hebrew mind, wholeness included, well, the whole of the human being – spiritual as well as physical. So whether this sick man realized it or not, Jesus’ question probes much deeper than his inability to move himself into the water. Jesus is not only inquiring about the state of his body, but of his soul.
Now, believe it or not, there are people who, if they understood Jesus’ question in such a spiritual way, would say that they don’t in fact desire that sort of healing. Some people are honest enough to admit that they like the sin in their lives. They like their separation from God and they don’t really want to let go of it. If Jesus were to ask them, “Do you want to be made whole,” they would respond, “No, I don’t want to be healed spiritually. I’m fine just the way I am.”
Others who have read and believed the truth of the Scriptures may still be trying their hardest to cleanse themselves by doing all sorts of good works. Though they call themselves Christians, they are, in their pride, still trying to make themselves acceptable to God. If Jesus were to ask them, “Do you want to be made whole,” they would say, “Yes, but I’m trying as hard as I can to do it myself.”
Others have come to the point in their spiritual lives that this sick man reached in his physical life – the point of realizing their helplessness. But instead of experiencing the victory of surrender to Christ, these people remain miserable in their sin, unable to rid themselves of habits and personality traits that they despise. Instead of confidently trusting Christ, they have given themselves over to despair. If Jesus were to ask them, “Do you want to be made whole,” they would say, “Yes, but that’s not going to happen, is it?”
“Do you want to be made whole?” No, it’s not a silly question at all. It’s a question that comes to all of us. It’s a question that demands an answer.
But just how important is this question to us? After all, even if we are willing to admit that we are helpless sinners in need of a savior, is spiritual healing anywhere near the top of our priority list?
Jesus certainly implies that it should be. For what does He say to the sick man after he is healed? Don’t sin so that nothing worse befalls you. What could that mean? What could possibly be worse than being physically incapacitated for 38 years? What could possibly be more important than bringing 38 years of pain and suffering to an end?
Well, think about it. Where is that sick man now? Sure, Jesus made him physically whole, but eventually his body wore out from something. Eventually he died. The physical healing that Jesus gave him, no matter how profound, was only temporary.
So, what could be worse than experiencing 38 years of physical pain? Being separated from God for an eternity. It’s no wonder that spiritual healing is of primary importance to Jesus. It should be first on our priority list, too.
But in the real world, in our world, on what do we spend more of our regular prayer time – begging God to give us and our loved ones physical healing or to make us spiritually clean? Or think about it this way: what if you had to choose one or the other? Which would you choose – spiritual holiness or physical health?
For what if sickness in our lives or the lives of our loved ones is one of the ways that God was using to bring us greater holiness? What if God were to use suffering to bring us closer to Him, to encourage us to trust Him more? What if we knew that ending our suffering would make it less likely that we would draw closer to God? Would we still pray for relief?
Yes, we love to sing about our Good Shepherd, who leads us into green pastures and beside still waters. But what if He leads us instead through the valley of the shadow of death? Will we follow Him there? Would we rather have comfort, or would we rather have Jesus? It turns out that Jesus the healer is more challenging than we thought at first, isn’t He?
Of course, Jesus was just as great a challenge to the people of His day, although for different reasons. After all, they thought they had everything all figured out. The Law of Moses clearly said that everyone was to take a day off on the Sabbath, and yet there could be no doubt that Jesus was healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus was even telling a man to carry away his unneeded sick bed as a trophy of his healing. The people of Jesus’ day thought all this proved He was a sinner. Because Jesus didn’t fit into all the expectations they had of their Messiah, they rejected Him, no matter how great His healing power was.
Of course, we don’t have such a distorted view of Jesus, and not just because we have long since forgotten the blessing the Sabbath was intended to bestow. We’ve read the end of the story, and we know very well who Jesus is – not a demon, but the very Son of God. We know Jesus was right to make Himself equal with God, because He is fully man and fully God. We may not understand that, but we know it to be true.
Okay, so are we any more comfortable with the Jesus we say we know so much about? Are we ready to embrace what Jesus’ identity means for us? For if Jesus is God, then isn’t His glory more important than our comfort? If Jesus is God, shouldn’t our holiness be more important to us than our physical health? If Jesus is God, don’t we have to do everything He says, instead of picking and choosing the parts of the Bible we agree with? If Jesus is God, don’t we have to submit our understanding of the Scriptures to His, admitting that He knows more than we do?
Come to think of it, if Jesus is God, doesn’t that mean we have to submit to His will for our lives and the lives of our loved ones? Don’t we have to trust that He knows best, in spite of the sickness and the suffering that come our way? The people of Jesus’ time sought to kill Him because He wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected. Are our expectations of Jesus any more realistic? Are we any more inclined to bow the knee to His authority? Or will we reject Jesus if He doesn’t give us what we want?
But no matter how challenging Jesus is for us, we still find wonderful news in this passage. For look again at how this sick man answered Jesus’ question. He didn’t really answer it, did he? He didn’t explicitly ask for help, did he? He didn’t ask Jesus to make him physically well, and he certainly didn’t ask Jesus to take away his sins.
In the same way, John tells us that the Jews, the people of God who studied the Scriptures and who tried to keep the Law of Moses, never really understood Jesus. When He didn’t do the sorts of things they expected their Messiah to do, they rejected Jesus. They tried to kill Him.
But the good news is that Jesus brought healing into the sick man’s life anyway. The good news is that Jesus gave this sick man what he really needed. The good news is that Jesus challenged this man to greater holiness, even though he didn’t ask for it. The good
news is that Jesus died to save, not people who recognized Him and who celebrated His coming, but to save people who despised Him and rejected Him, to save sinners like us.
The good news, therefore, isn’t about anything we do or leave undone. The good news is what Jesus does for us and in us. The good news is that it is Jesus and the Father who are working in us and through us, and yes, in spite of us. The good news is that Jesus is still working to bring healing into a sin-sick world.
So of course we want Jesus to be at work. Of course we want Jesus to bring physical healing to us and to our loved ones. But do we really want Him to bring spiritual healing into the lives of helpless sinners? Do we want Jesus to be working on us, remaking us into His own image? Do we really want to be made whole?