In the northeast corner of Jerusalem, just behind the back end of the temple, there is a gate known as the sheep gate. It was built in the time of Nehemiah for the purpose of herding sheep into the temple area for sacrifices without having to herd them all the way through town. Just outside of this area was a large and deep pool, known as the Pool of Bethesda.
In New Testament times, sick, crippled and disabled people would gather at this pool waiting for an angel to come stir up the waters. Whenever this happened, the first one into the pool would be healed. It was ironic that the gate for sacrificial lambs to enter the temple was just beside them, while they languished in pain and disability. The spotless, unblemished and healthy sheep were herded straight past on their way to the slaughter to cleanse unrighteousness from the people, but did nothing to serve the cripples they walked past.
Jesus, of course, is the fulfillment of the sacrificial system. In John 5 he entered Jerusalem and went to the pool of Bethesda. He, the final atoning sacrifice who takes away the sin of the world, passed by the pool of invalids. The difference, of course, is that while he was there, he healed a man rather than simply passing by.
At the pool was a particular man who had been sick for 38 years. It is obvious that this man is living in a nearly hopeless state, and will never be able to get into the water ahead of the others. He has been there 38 years. He has never been the first one into the pool, he tells Jesus that it is virtually impossible, and he has no one to help him get in. He is alone, helpless, and hopeless. For 38 years he has seen spotless and healthy lambs herded past on their way to be sacrificed for sin, but these healthy animals do nothing for him. They are not able to transmit their health onto his sickness. If anything, when the lambs come, he would have been herded away from them, lest he touch one and make it unclean.
It is important to understand the setting. He is only feet from the temple. More than that, he is feet from the back end of the temple, the end where the Most Holy Place was sheltered. He saw the spotless lambs, he heard the prayers of the priests and the confessions of sin. It all took place right over the wall on the holy and clean side of the temple. He was on the unholy side, among the other invalids. He has waited there for 38 years and nobody has helped him.
Now Jesus is there, asking if he wants to get well. The man has no idea who Jesus is, which becomes evident later, and therefore does not know that Jesus can heal, or that Jesus even cares about him at all. He explains to Jesus that in order to get well he will need someone to help him get into the pool. That means someone who is willing to wait around all day, everyday, alertly watching the water and able to grab that sick man and throw him in the water ahead of all the others. It would be a huge favor to ask a complete stranger.
Jesus simply tells him to pick up his pallet and walk. It is remarkable. The sick man thinks the healing process is hard. He thinks it will require a constant companion who is willing to stay by his side 24/7. It is so difficult that he has found no one willing to do it for 38 years. This indicates that he has no family and no friends whatsoever. What he needs is simply too hard for anyone to be willing to do. He has tried for 38 years. Now Jesus heals him instantly with a spoken word and no effort whatsoever.
Of course, the story is not over. There are legalistic Jews hanging around the temple looking for people to condemn. These people seem to be around every corner in Jerusalem, doing nothing but nitpicking and thinking of trick questions to catch people with. They are frequently demonstrated to be fools, cowards, and, at times, demonic.
They see the man carrying his pallet and condemn him, saying he is not allowed to carry his pallet on the Sabbath. The situation is absolutely ridiculous. That is the only way to read it. Try to imagine being the sick man who had just been healed. What would go through your mind if, after 38 years of disability, you were suddenly healed, and a couple of religious people who have walked past you everyday on their way to the temple inform you that you are not allowed to carry your pallet, because it is the wrong day. Apparently they would rather that he had remained by the pool all day, acting like a sick man, and stood up and walked away the next day.
The man simply says he was healed, and the guy who healed him told him to carry it. He doesn’t know who Jesus is, and Jesus had slipped away before he could find out. The zealous legalists are stymied for the moment.
Then Jesus finds the man again and the man reports to the legalists who Jesus is. They begin to persecute him for daring to heal the man on the Sabbath.
His response is fascinating.
John 5:17 – But he answered them, “My father is working until now, and I myself am working.”
They charge him with working on the Sabbath. He responds that he is working.
He does not deny it, he does not explain a loophole about why he was allowed to heal, or argue with legalistic points of the law about what constitutes “work” and what doesn’t. He simply, and matter-of-factly, states that yes, he is working, and his father has been working too.
What is the lesson to be learned?
Simply that God is always working, and Jesus is always working, and our job is to keep pace.
The old system had people working continually, hunting for spotless animals, sacrificing them according to all the regulations, and constantly keeping everything clean. They were always working, but they were not keeping pace with God. They were on a legal structure rather than a grace structure. Not only that, but their policies and practices got directly in the way of God’s work. When Jesus healed, they condemned him for it, and condemned the man he healed. Not only were they working on the wrong thing, but they were actually working directly against him.
In order to keep pace with him, we must know what he is doing. We must re-evaluate what we are doing and make sure it aligns with what he is doing. We must make sure that our sacrificial lambs are not walking directly past him on the way to the slaughter. Instead, we follow him to his sacrifice, remembering to serve rather than to be served, and to forgive rather than to condemn.
Am I keeping pace?
Application: Keep pace
Prayer: God thank you for your spotless and holy son, who not only takes away my sin for eternity, but also gives life and healing in the present. Help me to keep pace with your work, and thank you for your grace and forgiveness when I fail