John chapter 5 is the first text within the gospel of John in which a miracle of Jesus is directly connected with his sovereign ability to impart spiritual life. Jesus Christ heals a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years and goes onto explain how the Father has given him authority to give life to those whom he desires. There is much in this text that should convince us that the Gospel of John clearly teaches that man is dead in sin and unable by nature to respond to Jesus Christ unless a supernatural act of power and grace is performed in order to bring the sinner out of their deadness.
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids–blind, lame, and paralyzed. 4 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:1-6)
After Jesus healed the official’s son (John 4:46-54), he now heads up to Jerusalem for a Jewish feast. It is unclear what feast this is referring to. John goes onto describe a pool near the sheep gate called Bethesda, where a large number of blind, lame and paralyzed would be placed. Verse 4, which is absent from most modern translations reads, “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.” (John 5:4 NASB) There are various reasons why this verse is omitted in modern translations, and the main reason is that it is not in the earliest copies of the New Testament that we have. (1) If you want to further study why these differences in the early copies of the New Testament don’t give us reason to question if we have a reliable text, watch an excellent presentation done by Dr. James White on “The Reliability of the New Testament Text”.2
Jesus then sees a man who had been unable to walk for 38 years, and addresses the man directly by saying, “Do you want to be healed”. This is an interesting question to ask a man who has been paralyzed for that long. Some might say that Jesus is pointing out that this man is so used to his condition that he might just like being that way, or has become complacent in his desire to be healed. I think that Jesus’ aim here is to point out the spiritual inability of this paralyzed man and all people that are under the dominion of sin. Jesus asks this question to draw out of the man the fact that he has no power or ability to bring about his own healing. (see next verse) Also, note that of all the “multitude” of sick people laying around this pool, Jesus chooses this man to speak with. Why did Jesus choose this man? There are two main types of answers people give to this question. The first would be to focus on something unique about the man that caused Jesus to pick him, like that Jesus knew this man would be more receptive than the others. The second would be to focus upon Jesus and his sovereign choice to “give life to whom he desires” (5:21). What is the man’s response to Jesus’ question?
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” (John 5:7)
Notice that the man does not answer Jesus’ question directly. A simple “yes” would have sufficed to answer the question that Jesus asked. But this man answers by pointing to two things that cause him to be unable to get a healing by going down into the pool: he cannot get down to the pool, and if he attempts to go down another person gets there before him. Don’t miss this connection. Jesus asks that man about his “desire”, “Do you want to be healed”, and the man responds by pointing to his “ability”. The man says nothing to Jesus about his desire to be healed, but one could assume by his response that the answer is yes. But the man talks about his inability to get down to the pool without help and his inability to get into the pool first. This is actually the answer that Jesus was pulling out of this man. This issue for this man is not his “desire” to be healed, it is his “ability” to bring about his own healing. The reason the man has been in this condition for 38 years has nothing to do with his desire to be healed, but his reason for being in that condition is that in and of himself he has no ability to bring about his own healing. Jesus’ response to this man is quick and decisive.
Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” (John 5:8)
Jesus gets right to the point and tells the man to get up and walk. Think about this for a moment. What does it mean to walk up to a paralyzed man and tell him to get up and walk? Imagine if you walked up to someone who has been wheelchair bound their entire lives and said “Hey, you in that wheelchair, get up and walk!” That would be the height of cruelty, would it not? You would be mocking that person in the wheelchair because you know darn well that this person does not have the ability to walk. So Jesus says to this man “Get up and walk”. This is in effect the same thing. Jesus commands this man to do something that this man has had no ability to do for 38 years! What is the difference between Jesus and us? We do not have the ability or power to impart supernatural healing to a paralyzed person which enables them to obey our command, but Jesus Christ does. When Jesus Christ tells the man to get up, by his sovereign power he simultaneously grants this man the ability to do what He commands.
This is a very important point that will be explored more deeply when we get to Jesus’ teachings in this chapter that are connected with this miracle. There are some people who, when they read the Bible, place so much of an emphasis on human ability, that they would read this story in a totally different way. They would want to focus on the ability of the man to respond to the command of Jesus. They would want to say, “Look at this man, he responded to the command of Jesus to get up and walk, and because of this response he was healed”. They would want to focus on the fact that this man had been this way for 38 years so he must have been particularly desperate to be healed compared to all the others. In other words, they would put the primary focus on the response of this man to Jesus, and a secondary focus on the power of Jesus to give the man the ability to obey his command to get up and walk. I think I will be able to show by a consistent exegesis of the rest of John 5:1-29, that this would be a complete misreading of this miracle. Jesus places the emphasis on his power to heal, not upon this man’s ability. Jesus focuses not on the response of this man, but on his sovereign power to give life to whom he desires. To put in another way, imagine this man walking around after this healing saying to everyone, “I responded to Jesus and this is how I am able to walk! Aren’t I such a good responder!” That would be ridiculous. Did the man have to respond by getting up? Of course he did. But did he have the ability to respond apart from the sovereign power of Christ imparted to his paralyzed limbs? No.
And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. (John 5:9)
Notice the order of the events in this verse. First the man was healed, then he took the step of getting up and walking. This is very important to note. First Jesus Christ must impart to the man the ability to get up and walk, and only then can the man exercise his will and get up. Why is this so important to recognize? Because this physical miracle that Jesus performed is meant to point us to the deeper spiritual reality of our ability to bring about our own spiritual life. Just as the paralyzed man was unable to get up and walk without the supernatural power of Christ first healing him, so also we are unable to accomplish any spiritual good without Christ first imparting spiritual life to us. We are unable to come to Christ in true and saving faith unless Christ first imparts to us the ability to come. (John 6:44) This is a consistent connection that will bear itself out in the Gospel of John. We have already seen Jesus teach this truth in Chapter 3, saying that one must be born again before they are able to see or enter the kingdom of God. We will also see that one does not have the ability to overcome paralysis (chapter 5), come to the bread of life (John 6), receive sight (Chapter 9) or be raised from the dead (chapter 11), unless the sovereign and supernatural power of Christ is first present to give one the ability. By the time you get to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, if you still think that it is mainly about the human response to Jesus, then your man-centered bias will be exposed. Is that person prepared to say that Lazarus had to respond to Jesus first in order to be raised from the dead?! Believe it or not, I have heard one Arminian preacher who said just that.3
Another note in this verse is that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath day. As we will see, what grabs the attention of the Pharisees is that Jesus healed on a day when people were not allowed to carry a mat around because that would be considered “work”. Think about the way that the Pharisee’s rabid devotion to their traditions and interpretation of the law blinded them to the power of Christ. Instead of being amazed and awe struck by the fact that this man who had been paralyzed for 38 years is now walking past them, all they can focus on is the fact that he is carrying his mat! And if you think this attitude is not present in the modern day church, then you haven’t ever been to church. For example, if a person who has never been to church in 38 years, and looks like it, walks in the door on Sunday morning, many people will respond by looking at how that person is different from them and disobeying the law of God, rather than rejoice that God has possibly drawn this person into the church to hear the preaching of God’s word.
So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.”11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.'” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. (John 5:10-13)
There are two things going on here. The fact that the man is walking while carrying his mat, and that the man has just been healed from 38 years of paralysis. Notice what the Pharisee’s choose to focus upon. The man responds to their criticism by telling them that the man who “healed” him told him to take up his mat and walk. Their response to this is not to say, “Wow, you mean to tell me this man healed you!” No, they choose instead to focus on the fact that Jesus told the man to carry his mat. This is what an obsessive focus on the external traditions of men does. It blinds people to the power of God and the glory of Christ. This would be like a young man who has come to church for the first time and the Holy Spirit does a mighty work in their heart so that they see Christ for who he truly is and his sinfulness for what it truly is, but this young man is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of some secular rock band. Then after church, he walks up to a group of church members and shares with them that God has opened his heart to understand the gospel. Then one of the elders responds, “You know that t-shirt you are wearing is not pleasing to God, right?” See how that elder is so blinded by his obsession
that this man is not dressed right that he misses the fact that Christ has just done an amazing work in his midst? What effect do you think that response would have on that young man? It would be very discouraging to say the least.
The Pharisees question the man as to who it was who told him to take up his mat and walk, for the obvious reason that they want to question someone who had the audacity to upset their sabbath keeping rules. The man does not know Jesus’ name, and when he looked back near the pool where Jesus was, he couldn’t see him to point him out to the Pharisees. But Jesus had slipped away into the crowd after he performed this healing, so he was nowhere to be found.
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)
This is a very interesting exchange we have here between Jesus and the man who was healed. Why would Jesus now confront the man with his sin? There is a clear distinction Jesus makes between the fact that the man has been made “well”, referring to his physical healing, and the man’s spiritual condition as that of a sinner. Jesus is pointing to the man’s spiritual condition that needs addressed, in distinction to his physical condition. Don’t miss this point because it is crucial to the overall exegesis of this text, especially the connection between Jesus’ authority and power over the physical realm and his authority over the spiritual realm. This distinction Jesus is making between the man’s physical inability to rise from his paralysis and his spiritual inability to rise from his sinfulness. Just as it required the supernatural power of the Son of God to raise this man from his physical paralysis, it will also take Jesus’ power to raise this man from his spiritual paralysis. The something “worse” that many happen to this man is the judgment of God upon his unbelief and rebellion to the Son of God.
The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. (John 5:15-16)
The man goes immediately and tells the Jewish authorities that the identity of the man who healed him was Jesus of Nazareth. And notice again, because of the strong influence their traditions have upon them, they could care less that a man who was paralyzed for 38 years was healed, but all they can think about is the fact that Jesus told this man to carry his mat on the sabbath day! We must be very careful not to allow our inherited traditions and the idea that “we have always done it this way” blind us to the work of God in our midst. But instead of recognizing the work of God in their midst, they instead choose to persecute Jesus.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” 18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:17-18)
Jesus now responds directly to their accusations that he is a sabbath breaker. His defense is to say that His Father is working and He is also working as well. Now if you missed the significance of the connection that Jesus makes in that statement, the Jewish leaders sure don’t. They see clearly that Jesus is making himself equal with God. How is this? We have it explicitly stated in verse 18 that Jesus is making himself equal with God by the simple fact that he is calling God his own Father. This personal relationship that Jesus is claiming to have with God, using the term Father to describe it, is interpreted by the Jewish leaders as a claim of equality with God. However, there is another deeper issue going on here. Within the Jewish understanding of the Sabbath day was the debate over what God himself actually did during the Sabbath. It is clear in Genesis that God rested on the Sabbath day. “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” (Gen 2:2)
In the final analysis, the Jews came to the conclusion that there were a couple of things that God simply couldn’t stop doing altogether on the Sabbath day, or the universe would cease to function. The two main things God did on the Sabbath Day was that he continued to give life and execute judgment. (Both of these things Jesus claims to possess authority to do in 5:19-47) God did not stop women from giving birth on the Sabbath day, and he did not prevent people from dying on the Sabbath Day. These were “works” that God continued to do on the Sabbath day, despite the fact that the Genesis text says he ceased from his work. But clearly, with this background, you can see why they took Jesus’ statement about He and His Father both “working” on the Sabbath day as a blasphemy.
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. (John 5:19-20)
Jesus now launches into his extended discourse concerning his relationship to the Father. Jesus claims that he can do nothing on his own accord, but He only does what he sees the Father doing. Jesus is making the claim that he is able to “see” what the Father is doing. He has the ability to know perfectly what the will of God the Father is. Not only does he see what the Father does, he also does what the Father does. Don’t miss the powerful and scandalous nature of these claims, because, once again, the Jews sure don’t! Jesus is saying here that he see what the Father is doing, and he does what the Father is doing. He is claiming equality with God the Father. Why does Jesus have this ability to see and do what the Father is doing, because the Father “Loves the Son”, and therefore shows him all that he is doing. This relationship that the Father and the Son have is one of Love, and because of this Love that the Father has toward the Son, the Father will show him even greater works to do, so that the people may marvel or be amazed. What are these greater works?
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. (John 5:21)
Now this is a very powerful claim Jesus is making here. He is claiming that he has the ability and authority to raise the dead and give them life! He is claiming the same authority that God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth has, to give life and raise the dead! Remember, as I said above, part of the Jewish understanding of that time was that God continued to give life and sustain life on the Sabbath day, or else the universe would cease to function. Jesus is claiming this authority for Himself. Notice also the last phrase, “to whom he will”. The Greek word there is the word θέλει-Thelei, which means “desire”. Jesus is saying that he gives life to whom he desires to give it. What is the reason why the Son of God gives life? Is it found in the desire or will of man? No. It is located within the desire and will of the Son of God. When Jesus walked up the to the pool and saw a multitude of sick people laying by the pool, he only walked up to one man and healed him. Why? He desired to give life to that man’s limbs and on one else. We have no basis for finding the ultimate reason for the actions of Jesus Christ in the will of man or the worthiness of man. Jesus Christ acts in accordance with the will of His Father, and he has authority to extend his life giving power to those whom he desires to give it. Jesus is making the amazing claim that as God the Father gives life on the Sabbath day, he also gives life on the Sabbath day, and this is why he remains blameless in the matter of which the Jews are accusing him. Jesus is defending his actions by asserting his equality with God in even stronger terms.
1 “Few textual scholars today would accept the authenticity of any portion of vv. 3b–4, for they are not found in the earliest and best witnesses (p66, p75 א B C* T pc co), they include un-Johannine vocabulary and syntax, several of the MSS that include the verses mark them as spurious (with an asterisk or obelisk), and because there is a great amount of textual diversity among the witnesses that do include the verses”. Wallace. See also: Metzger, Bruce. Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. UBS, NY. 1971. Pg. 209
3 James White reviews this sermon by Pastor Bob Coy on The Dividing Line, found here: https://www.aomin.org/aoblog/2011/07/12/today-on-a-radio-free-geneva-bob-coy-and-calvinism-part-2/