The Healing of the Infirm Man of John 5

The least the Jews could have done at first was to ask why he was carrying the pallet. They must have realized that it was an unusual thing to carry in the performance of servile work. It wasn’t a hammer, ladder or a basket of wheat or barley. They weren’t making “a righteous judgment but only one of appearance.” This is exactly what Jesus said to them when he chided them at a different feast in Jerusalem concerning this healing. See John 7:23-24.

In his Gospel, John shows us how Jesus came to be sacrificed as the Lamb of God. The opposition and outright hatred of the Jewish authorities escalated against Jesus throughout his ministry. John centers on His enemies in Judea and its capital, Jerusalem, where He was to die. John selected 3 miraculous signs in or near Jerusalem to illustrate this point – the healing of the infirm man; the healing of the man born blind; and the raising of Lazarus.

There are  5 other great signs, making a total of 8 reported by John in his Gospel. Seven were before the Resurrection, 1 was after. (The water turned wine in Cana of Galilee; the healing of the Nobleman’s son at Capernaum; the feeding of the 5000; the walking on the water of the sea of Galilee; and then, after the resurrection, the miracle catch of 153 fish). 6 of them are reported only by John, 2 of them (the feeding of the 5000 and the walking on the water) are found in other gospels. 

Each of these signs were followed by confrontations with the Jewish leaders in which the animosity against Jesus grew, and in which Jesus declares His divinity to them. Both the deeds and the words of Jesus were proof to His people that their long ago-promised Messiah had finally arrived. The offer of Messiah’s Kingdom was given in the Israelites best interests, but the people refused the offer. This was just as God had privately counseled because He wanted the Gentiles (us) to share the commonwealth of Israel. The sign we will look at is in chapter 5 about the healing of a man infirm for 38 years.

John 5: 1-18  (World English Bible translation used. Verses in italics)

After these things, there was a feast of the Jews. Probably Passover. If so, then this helps establish the timeline of Jesus’ ministry as about 3 1/2 years long, for John is the only writer to keep track of the annual feasts  Jesus attends during his ministry.   and Jesus went up to Jerusalem the required place for all adult males “to appear before the Lord,” as commanded in the Torah (Moses’ writings). Now in Jerusalem by the sheep gate,  the northern entrance through the outer wall of Jerusalem through which the sacrifice animals entered the city, on their way to the Temple area. This is a fitting place to illustrate Jesus as a “Lamb” who is near this entrance when he performs this important miracle which launches his persecution in Jerusalem.  

there is a pool, which is called in Hebrew, “Bethesda”, having five porches. Bethesda means “house of mercy.” We are about to read of a great act of mercy. About these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; Whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. A certain man was there, who had been sick for thirty-eight years. notice the detail. This is the exact amount of time that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (One year at Sinai and another for other travels adds to the 38 to make 40).

When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been sick for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” 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’m coming, another steps down before me.” The infirm man treats Jesus’s question as a simple inquiry from a stranger and gives him a reasonable explanation for why he could never get to the stirred water first to be healed. Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” three short commands of divine authority. And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. Suddenly, lying there, all “disuse osteoporosis” of the bones and muscular atrophy that his infirmity created over the many years disappeared instantly. The man was restored to perfect health and strength. He got up, bent down and grabbed his long-term friend/enemy pallet and carried it joyfully, no doubt, away from the pool.

But, by obeying the command of his healer to carry his pallet, this man made well runs into trouble.

And that day was the Sabbath. If only it had been any other day of the week, but, Jesus had deliberately picked the Sabbath day for both a sign and a foundation on which to teach the Jews about himself as the Son of God and about the Sabbath.

Observance of Sabbath days was the 4th of the 10 commandments which were written on the stone tablets by the finger of God. All Israelites were to observe them strictly as days of rest in which no servile work could be done. The Jews that is, the leading influential Jews, said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath. It is not lawful for you to carry the mat.”  That was some warm greeting to a man who had just received a miracle of outstanding magnitude. Yet, the Jews made no mention of it – no congratulations, no offers of a holiday and party. They were only concerned that the man appeared to be breaking the Sabbath. Performing servile work on that day was a capital crime.  

The least the Jews could have done at first was to ask why he was carrying the pallet. They must have realized that it was an unusual thing to carry in the performance of servile work. It wasn’t a hammer, ladder or a basket of wheat or barley. They weren’t making “a righteous judgment but only one of appearance.” This is exactly what Jesus said to them when he chided them at a different feast in Jerusalem concerning this healing. See John 7:23-24.

God did not define in detail what “servile work” was in the Mosaic law. That was left up to Israeli judges to determine. After the people of Judah returned from 70  years of captivity in wicked Babylon about 550 years before Jesus’ time, they came up with 39 categories of forbidden work on Sabbaths.


Of the 39 categories, one was not to carry an object through the public domain, which is what the newly healed man was doing. 

The categories were part of the oral law, the Traditions of the Elders. Violations of these oral traditions could be punished by death – even, in some cases, where Mosaic law did not call for death. The Pharisees held the most sway in the religion of the Jews of Jesus’ day. They were the “Tradition Police.”

Yet, the healed man did not carry his pallet in the performance of gainful employment, nor was he performing some servile task left over from the day before, which was what the Law of Moses intended to forbid. He carried it on the Sabbath because the Lord, who had rested on his own Sabbath long ago after finishing his work on the heavens and the earth, and the one who had written the Sabbath law on stone at Sinai, had told him to. The “Lord of the Sabbath” commanded the man to carry his pallet on the Sabbath.

There was also something practical about it. The pallet was his own property and his own business. It would not be right to leave it until the end of the Sabbath as poolside litter and possibly a chore for others to take care of. The healed man might have ran off, eager to leave that pallet behind for good as he went to enjoy a life of health and vitality.

On another occasion Jesus told the paralytic let down through the roof to rise and take up his bed. The apostle Peter later in Acts 9 told a similarly-paralyzed Aeneaus to rise up and make his bed. Since you’re now able-bodied, take care of your own things. Enough time and effort has been put in by others to take care of you. Now that the Lord has made you well, the days of entitlement, which were proper for you to have in your extremity, but that you might have grown accustomed to, are over.  It might very well be your turn to help your infirm neighbor just as you’ve been helped for so long. I imagine the man let down through the roof was back later with his four friends repairing it, and enjoying and rejoicing in every moment of it.

Carrying the pallet was the main token of his victory over a long-standing infirmity. Who could rightly deny him this expression of triumph given by Yahweh Himself? What a better way to celebrate than to carry the thing on the Sabbath that for so long carried him? How was that a “servile burden?” The man had entered his physical rest from his illness on the day whose name means “Rest.”

This dazzling, obvious truth was hidden from the blind religionists who challenged the man. They sought the man who performed the miracle; but not to praise God for his great mercy or to ask of him some divine benefit. They wanted to put him to death. This hard-heartedness is incomprehensible when viewed objectively, but within the darkness of  pride it made perfect sense to the self-exalted Pharisees. When facts and common sense defy the views of men, their only answer back is death to the one who opposes them.

What a dilemma the man faces immediately upon the wonderful blessing – what a fiery dart of condemnation awaited his return to normal society. Certainly the man, being a Jew, knew of the Sabbath prohibitions, but in his joy from standing again under his own power for the first time in 38 years, it didn’t occur to him it was wrong to carry his pallet on that happy Sabbath day.

Others who witnessed the incident saw two astonishing but contradictory things that day: That the man who laid there for 38 years is suddenly walking about whole; but he is committing a death-penalty crime. The “sign” became a “wonder” to them.

Upon hearing this accusation, the Sabbath laws came to his mind, no doubt. This miracle had become trouble for the innocent recipient, who only moments before had been lying among his society of fellow sufferers around the pool, making the best of a hard life.

Then Jesus passed by and spoke to him. To have Jesus speak to us through his Gospel today is our salvation, for He is God in the flesh, a Savior and God’s representative to man to bring Sabbath rest for the soul. The message and the Man are one, “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth!” (Isaiah 45:22)

But, certainly, this man was known as the invalid by all the people, and by the authorities. He had been a public burden for 38 years, living off the charity and good will of friends and family. They had brought him to the poolside every day in view of everyone. Perhaps they encouraged him that maybe today, after so long, he would be the first to enter the pool should the angel come. But, it was not an angel that made him again a productive member of society, it was the Creator of the angels humbly veiled “in the likeness of sinful flesh.”

By the word of Jesus, he became one who could now help the infirm and contribute financially to their welfare once he got a job. Perhaps he went on to grow and sell produce in the marketplace. Perhaps he would tithe to the temple instead of receiving of the tithe. He could even help carry the litters of the infirm to Jesus. In seven words, “Rise, take up your pallet and walk,” he had a brand new life.

He answered them, “He who made me well, the same said to me, ‘Take up your mat, and walk.’” What could he say? He had been authorized to do it by his Healer, but certainly, he might immediately protest to the Jews, no one who commanded another to commit a capital crime would be able to heal like this. This must have been clear to them or to anyone with common sense. Yet, merciless religious tradition has a way of suppressing what a child can easily see.

Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” It is obvious why they ask: Whoever told him must be apprehended and stoned. It’s hard to imagine the healed man didn’t understand why they wanted to know.

But he who was healed didn’t know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a crowd being in the place. The man cannot give his benefactor away because he didn’t know who it was. He had never seen him before, apparently. But, is it right for him to give the name of his healer to a hostile authority, even if he did know? Would you?

Let’s see what he does.

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple The man had rightly gone to the temple to give praise to the God of Israel who had visited him so miraculously that day.

and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Seriously consider the gift you’ve been given, and your ways. Don’t be like King Hezekiah who had been given 15 extra years of life but about whom it was later said in 2 Chronicles 32:25, “But Hezekiah didn’t render again according to the benefit done to him; for his heart was lifted up:” Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” There was more to the man than his bodily affliction. He was still a sinner. Beyond his physical need was the deeper and eternal one of his soul. Jesus confronts him about his sins out of love and concern. He needed to warn him so that he would not fall into a worse judgment than the one from which he had just escaped. He would not lose his healing from paralysis, he would receive something worse, perhaps death; for the wages of sin is death.

The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. This is a betrayal. The willingness of the man to reveal Jesus to those who demanded to know who the violator of the Sabbath was is hard at first to reconcile with the gift he received. But, down deep, we all know, if we look hard enough. He didn’t like being called on his sins. No one does – unless they are willing to acknowledge the truth of it, having been convicted by the Word of God and the Spirit of God unto godly sorrow and repentance, For godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation. (2 Cor. 7:10). Healed as he was, he resented the Great Physician getting so personal and demanding.  Barely consciously perhaps, he wanted to see his healer dead for going beyond the wonderful earthly benefit and disturbing his conscience. So, he went away to tell the Jews in charge of Sabbath stoning who it was.  

People love God’s gifts – life, health, wealth, and the multitude of enjoyments available in the world – but they don’t love God.  They resent his restrictions on their lusts; his demands to turn away from their sins which they love; to put faith in his Son who died for their sins; to learn from Him to live in view of the fact that he will one day return in glory to judge everyone for their deeds and ways.  “I’ll take all the things you’ll give me,” they say to God, “but I won’t take you! If I could, I’d put you to death so you stop bothering me.”  Oh, yes, that’s in the heart of man – “a desperately wicked and deceitful thing it is, an incurable thing.” Unless God intervenes personally for their ultimate good they’re doomed. But, none of us are beyond the indictments of Scripture. May God help us all love the truth even if it hurts, for it will set us free of our sins.

For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. Not only was telling the man to carry his bed on the Sabbath a felony, but also healing the man was a crime against the Sabbath. The reason they had for this was that a healing was an improvement to the body. Improvements are the product of servile work, therefore forbidden by the Jews on the Sabbath. According to their tradition, healing was only allowed in emergencies. The man lying there for 38 years could just as well have been healed on another day. This is what they taught about healing, as a synagogue ruler judged after Jesus healed a woman in a Sabbath service who was bent over for 18 years: ” The ruler of the synagogue, being indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the multitude, “There are six days in which men ought to work. Therefore come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day!” (Luke 13:14). What remarkable blindness to begrudge someone their healing on the Sabbath out of a supposed reverence for the God who healed her.

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, so I am working, too.” Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

First it was the healing on the Sabbath, then authorizing the healed man to carry his pallet that evoked the death penalty for Jesus. Now they wanted to kill Him “all the more” because he claimed equality with God. To them, the claim was a blasphemy worthy of death. Unless it was true, of course, as it is of Jesus. He suffered for telling the truth about Himself. Today, Christians suffer for saying the same things about Jesus to a Christ-hating world. But, as offensive as this exclusive claim about him might sound to them, there is no alternative. There is no debate. Jesus Christ is the Son of God.This was made known by his resurrection from the dead to immortality. “I am he that lives, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; (Rev. 1:18)

The statement was like a bomb going off. He just called God, “MY Father.” The Pharisees understood Jesus is claiming equality with God. Jews did not use “my Father” to address the Almighty. Father or Our Father, yes. Also, my Lord, or my God; but not My Father because it denotes direct association with him in nature. Adding, “So I am working too” like My Father, Jesus connects his activities directly to God’s.

But, there is more than that. By saying that God is working until now Jesus means that God is not currently resting in his Sabbath. He has returned to work. The work was not creation, but re-creation of fallen mankind. 

When Adam and Eve sinned, God was under no moral obligation to fix what the man had broken. It was out of mercy that he acted to repair sin-damaged man. Thanks be to Him that he did, for if he stayed in his Sabbath rest, as was his right to do, he would have left us to our doom. The Pharisees, the supposed defenders of the faith, were actually condemning Jesus for coming to their rescue. They were flailing out like a wild brute beast might do to someone who came to free it from a trap. Such madness. Their blindness would be more explicitly pointed out in his confrontation with them in chapter 9 after healing the man born blind.

Jesus was sent to offer overwhelming proof that He had the right to this claim of divinity. His deeds and words spoke of his perfect unity with God as no other man has ever done – not even Moses. No one could do what Jesus did unless God was with him. In fact, had these people not been so blinded by religious hypocrisy and pride, it would have been they who would have proclaimed Him the Son of God, based on the evidence of his great signs and wonders. Jesus would not have had to do it Himself.

Yet, God had something greater in mind than having Jesus be proclaimed who he was by all the Jews: His purpose was to die, to be executed through their envy and hatred of Him. Without His death, we would have no hope of forgiveness; and we would remain without God in the world.

God made sure that the Jews were capable of the deed by the time He sent Jesus to become a Man. Jesus’ death had to do with fulfilling the promise God made to Abraham when He first spoke to him: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Gen. 12:3b) The “all peoples” are the Gentiles and the Israelites. For a long time, the Gentiles were alienated from this promise. Only the Israelites could claim Yahweh as their God. God looked beyond them to us, so that one day, we could be grafted by faith into their root, the Lord Jesus Christ. But, before that could happen, He had to be sacrificed as the Lamb of God for our sins and raised from the dead.

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