The story of the invalid by the pool of Bethesda is very revealing. Here, we learn of a man who wastes thirty eight years of his youth in a system that always raised his hopes to be cured of his infirmity, but in reality made it difficult for him to ever receive the cure he so desired. Although the system promised a solution for any kind of problem, it was operated under conditions which only favored a certain class of people. You had to be smart, you had to be swift, and you had to be the first, in order to benefit from this system. It was a “survival of the fittest” kind of system.
In the opening verse to this story, we read:
“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches.”
Jerusalem is the city of God, a place of peace, delight and rest, symbolic of the perfected Messianic kingdom. The sheep is symbolic of believers and kingdom seekers; and the sheep gate is the port of entry through which sheep were led into Jerusalem.
In Psalm 24:3-4, the Psalmist asks and answers a vital requirement for entering into Jerusalem: “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart; who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully.” – NKJV The pool, therefore, was strategically positioned near the sheep gate to provide cleansing for people seeking to enter into the kingdom.
A further background study unveils to us a hidden contradiction embedded in the system we find at work in Bethesda. This great contradiction is hidden in the description given to this pool whose waters had curative power. We are told that the pool is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. Bethesda, of Chaldee origin, means “house of kindness”, which could also mean “house of mercy”. But this invalid was not shown any kindness or mercy. Rather, he suffered a great deal of unfair treatment: (1) There was no one to help him. (2) There was no consideration given to how long he had spent there. (3) He was always overtaken by another. In order to deceive him and to keep him glued to this unyielding system, he was made to be at home in a porch. In fact he even had a bed there! This porch was a covered colonnade where he could sit or lie, protected from the weather and the heat of the sun. It’s amazing how this system could make him comfortable in his discomfort for 38 good years! We are also told that Bethesda had five of these porches; the number five being symbolic of grace. But this invalid was made to struggle for his redemption.
I have heard several preachers criticize this poor invalid without really looking into the challenges he was faced with. Some say that: he was lazy, he was not determined, he did not persevere, and he did not have enough faith. But this invalid made attempts for 38 years. He always watched for the stirring of the waters. He persevered for as long as 38 years. And he did have faith in the curative power of the agitated waters. The real problem was that he placed his faith in a system that sabotaged his efforts to be cured of his infirmity.
This man should have received his healing right in the first season he spent in Bethesda, when the angel came down to agitate the waters. He did have a desire to be healed but his desire was not enough. He needed to meet the demands of the system. He needed to be smart and swift. He even needed to learn how to be ruthless – how to step on a dear brother or displace a friend so he could be successful. This system perverted justice and contradicted every virtue it stood for. In the house of mercy, we witness cold-bloodedness. It was a legal system based on works. And you had to learn to play by the rules, which were weak and unyielding by reason of human limitations.
The system of law promised life but brought forth death. The system of law promised liberty but rather brought bondage. The system of law had the power to eliminate the sinful act but could never purge the sinful conscience.
“For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” – Rom 8:3-4, NKJV
It was obvious that this man’s predicament was a consequence of sin because Jesus told him afterwards to stop sinning (John 5:14). We all have been plagued by sin in one way or the other. The fact that someone sins in a different way than we do, does not make us any less sinful. The wages of sin is death and if we are to be delivered from the grips of sin so we could enter into Jerusalem (the kingdom), we must identify the right system of faith to rely on.
Jesus walks into the story after 38 years of struggle in this invalid’s life. In John 5:2, we read:
“ 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?” – KJV
Notice that Jesus walked passed everyone and went straight to this invalid. There must be a special reason for this because we are told that a great multitude of impotent folk were gathered at Bethesda; and I believe they all wanted to get well. Jesus takes note of the fact that this invalid had been at Bethesda for a very long time and He asks the invalid a very necessary question: “wilt thou be made whole?” I see this question to mean two things: Number one, Jesus was asking this man if he desired to get well; and number two, Jesus was asking if this man thinks he could get well in that kind of system.
Psalm 127:2 reads: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for He grants sleep to those he loves.” – NIV
Again notice how the invalid responds to the question. He does not give a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Jesus’ question, but rather brings up a complaint in response to the question.
The sick man answered Him, “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.” – John 5:7, NKJV
In other words, the invalid was telling Jesus: “I certainly want to get well, just that my efforts cannot meet the demands of this system. I need a helper; I need a savior.” We all have a “defining moment”—a moment when it becomes clear that we can’t save ourselves; a moment when we finally understand that we need a Savior.
It’s interesting to note the moment at which Jesus walks into this story. Jesus comes at a time when this invalid had patronized this old system for 38 years. In the number 38, we see two numbers at play here. We see the number 3, which is symbolic of ‘divine completion’ and we see the number 8, which is symbolic of ‘new beginning’. Jesus therefore comes at such a moment to fulfill the law and thus bring an end to the old system of salvation by works, and also to initiate a new system of salvation by grace – independent of works. Jesus was the help that was absent in Bethesda. Jesus was the mercy that was absent in Bethesda. Jesus was the kindness that was absent in Bethesda. Jesus was the grace that was absent in Bethesda. Jesus came to offer the cleansing that was independent of special seasons and requirements. The healing miracle that Jesus wrought in this man’s life was immediate!
Another interesting development was the reaction to the sick man’s healing.
“At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.””
These Jews were the custodians of the law. They sought to challenge this man’s healing because it violated their laws. Today, the situation is not different. We have men who refuse to enter into the kingdom of God, and yet by their so-called traditions and laws, they shut the door to those trying to enter. The lesson here is that, we are bound to face opposition whenever we make that decision to switch or shift into the new system based on grace.
“And from the days of John the Baptist until the present time, the kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force [as a precious prize — a share in the heavenly kingdom is sought with most ardent zeal and intense exertion].” Matt 11:12, AMP
The order has changed! But sadly, most of us are like this invalid. We are glued to an old system, although there is a new and better system. We are stuck to using our own efforts to solve problems we could never solve on our own. It’s time to acknowledge the need for a savior. It’s time to stop struggling with sin, addictions, sicknesses, lack and needs in our lives. Why are we strangely occupied in solving an old problem that has already been solved? God has already provided a solution for every need through an awesome Savior – Jesus Christ. It is therefore not a question of whether we have faith or not. Rather, it is about what or who we chose to place our faith in.
In conclusion, I submit to you a paradigm shift from an old system that did not only lack a Savoir, but also sabotaged your efforts to get saved, to a new system that has an awesome Savoir and is also founded on the sure corner stone of grace.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.