“Do you want to be healed?” John 5:6
It’s likely that every one of us here today is both attracted to Jesus and bothered by Jesus – if we’re honest. It’s hard not to like him. But it’s also hard not to be unsettled by him, and even upset. And it’s not as though God overlooked this. It’s not as though God’s PR department miscalculated. God wants Jesus to be two opposite things at once, and we need Jesus to be two opposite things at once – both impressive, attractive, desirable, reassuring, comforting, even alluring, and troubling, destabilizing, provocative, controversial, even offensive.
If your Jesus never shocks you and corrects you, you have a false Jesus who is an idealized projection of you. And how can a false you save the real you? We are so fallen, so broken, so mistaken, that a real Savior will feel to us at times like a real problem. In fact, the Bible calls Jesus “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8). In other words, in his flinty objectivity, in his refusal to unJesus himself, our Lord is like a stone we trip over, so that we fall flat on our faces. Everyone who comes to the real Jesus experiences him in these two ways. He both melts in your mouth, and he wrecks your life. Our lives are so wrong, that for our lives to be wrecked by Jesus is the first half of salvation – first deconstruction, then reconstruction, and all of it by his grace. But even when we trip over him and fall flat, it’s not because of a failing in him but only because of a prejudice in us that we’ve never noticed before. And it’s good to us to be alerted to our thoughts and feelings that feel normal and even obvious but that block him out and limit us to ourselves and all the sickness we have inside.
We’ve all seen the commercials on TV for a prescription medication. Half the commercial is taken up with warnings about the side-effects: “This is a great medication for solving your problem. But it will make other things worse.” The gospel has no warning label. There are no side-effects to Jesus. He is pure health to our souls. We let him down, and he forgives us. We shed his blood, and he doesn’t scream for our blood. All our problems with him come from our own confident misconceptions and demands and pride and fear. And in his great love for us, he is provocative enough to bring these barriers to his grace up to the surface of our awareness, so that we can get free of them and move forward with him wholeheartedly.
In our passage for today, Jesus says three hard things to help us see how we are more Jesus-resistant than we know. Then we can open up at that very point and experience renewal. We can get free today from significant blockages inside us. We can renounce our comfortable but defunct habits of the heart and receive Jesus more deeply than ever before. By his grace, you can do that this morning. So let’s see how his hard sayings can do us more good than all the flatteries of this world.
1. “Do you want to be healed?” (John 5:6)
We might think that question is almost insulting. This man had been paralyzed for 38 years. He was there at the pool of Bethesda because people were being healed there. Apparently, real healings were being given by God in this unusual way. Which makes Jesus’ question all the more perplexing. If healing is available, wouldn’t everyone want it?
But Jesus never wasted words. He asked this man, “Do you want to be healed?”, because the answer is not obvious. We don’t always want to be healed of our sickness of soul. Sometimes we don’t even know what we want. So a hard question like this invites us into honesty. The more honest we are, the more we start to see within what needs healing – bitterness, regret, fear, doubt. Our unhealed sins and injuries don’t just go away. They drain us and haunt us. We don’t feel God’s presence. We’re tired of life. Let’s face that about ourselves. This man needed to face himself. Having been paralyzed for 38 years, he had the perfect excuse for doing nothing with his life. He hadn’t worked for 38 years. Other people had provided for him. Other people had done everything for him. But if Jesus heals him, he has to get a job. He has to make his own way and even help others. He cannot live an unproductive life. It would not be shocking if this man had become so locked into self-pity, that the thought of healing was scary. That’s why Jesus asks him. In fact, the very first thing Jesus says in the flow of John’s Gospel is this question: “What do you want?” (John 1:38, NIV).
How kind the Lord was not to wait for this man to ask for help. The Lord moved toward him. No one else was willing to help this man, as he himself says in verse 7. No one else cared. But Jesus cared. And he not only cared, he was able to help. Jesus didn’t help him get to healing; Jesus is healing.
I remember a man in my boyhood church named Rolf Jacobsen. Mr. Jacobsen got cancer. He was suffering terribly. My dad went to see him in the hospital. They were close friends. Dad asked him, “Rolf, would you like to die?” And Mr. Jacobsen said, “Oh no, Ray. This could be the greatest day of my life!” Rolf Jacobsen was a Christian. This man in John chapter 5 was not. He doesn’t even know who Jesus is. Verse 13 tells us that. So his healing cannot have been self-induced. It cannot have been the power of his faith. It cannot have been mind-over-matter. It was only the healing power of Jesus, by radical grace.
This is the Jesus offering himself to us today. He is not asking us, “Are you healthy? Are you able? Are you religious? Are you qualified?” He knows we are not. We are all like these pathetic people at the pool of Bethesda – blind, lame, paralyzed (verse 4). We have nothing but need. Here is his only question to us today: “Do you want to be healed? Do you want my power in your life? May I take your sickness of soul? May I give you a new beginning?” Maybe we’ve been suffering so long and become so despondent that we’ve given up. Maybe we’ve become so habituated to misery that it’s our new normal. Maybe we even think it’s God’s will for us. But God’s will is not to give us the misery we deserve but to give us favor we don’t deserve, to the praise of the glory of his grace. All he asks of us is that we be willing, that we be open. Do you want to be healed? It’s true that his healing of our hearts will so lift us up that he will also give us new capacities and we can’t be self-centered any more. He will help us at that level too. He has thought of everything. When Jesus asks us if we want to be healed, he is taking away every reason to hold back. The Bible says, “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16). So, in asking us if we want to be healed, he’s outing every one of us today. Nothing limits him. Let’s answer his hard question with an honest reply: “Yes, Lord, I want to be healed. I want to be rid of my pain. But I have to admit I don’t always want to be rid of my sin. And I don’t always want to stand up with newness of life. But if you can heal me at all, you can heal me completely. So my answer is Yes. I’m all in.” Will you say that to Christ?
2. “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)
Not exactly heartwarming, is it? It isn’t what we expect from Jesus. He’s all about grace and mercy, right? But what the Lord says here is obviously a warning, a serious warning. Something worse than 38 years of paralysis might happen to this man – something like eternal hell. And this man needs to know what is really at stake in his existence. Our Lord does not say to this man, “Friend, your healing is by grace, a kind of grace that means you have nothing more to be concerned about, nothing more to think about, you don’t have to be courageous, you have no decisions to make. My healing grace is going to make the rest of your life easy and obvious. And I will never say or do anything that might shake you up.” Jesus didn’t say that. He never said that. I wonder if our understanding of grace is the same as his understanding of grace. He did say, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” What did he mean by that?
From everything the Bible tells us, “Sin no more” cannot mean being perfect from this moment on. But the Lord is warning this man not to go back to whatever sin got him into trouble in the first place. Apparently, this man’s suffering was the result of sin in his life. That implication seems inescapable. Which I find very comforting. The other sufferers there at the pool were presumably innocent. Sometimes there is no direct connection between our sins and our sufferings. But other times we suffer precisely because we’ve acted wickedly. That was true of this man. I find that comforting, because it was this man to whom Jesus came – not to the innocent sufferers but to the guilty sufferer. It was this man, who somehow deserved his affliction, whom no one else would help – it was this man that Jesus singled out for mercy. And the Lord added a warning as part of his mercy.
How much would Jesus have to hate us not to warn us of the land mines that are all around us and the judgment to come? Warning is one thing that love does. We warn our children not to go off with strangers. We tell guests from out of town how to avoid traffic congestion. We give colleagues at work a heads-up about difficult customers. If we care, we warn. And so does God. Why then are we so strict with God only, as if his warnings diminished his grace? If we have understood God’s grace in such a way that all we can receive from him, all we’re willing to listen to, is affirmation and reassurance and pleasantness, then we are blocking out part of his love. Paul, the apostle of grace, said to the Corinthian church, “When we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32). In other words, if the Lord has to shake us awake, in order to save us from hell, that too is his grace.
My observation has been that unbelievers who are in process of becoming believers, plus new believers, have no problem with Jesus saying hard things. They want to know. But sometimes believers who have heard sermons and read books and listened to podcasts, and so forth – something inside them changes. And if Jesus doesn’t say the nice things they’ve been told he should always say, they raise objections. Let’s be careful that our understanding of his grace doesn’t end up telling Jesus what he’s allowed to say. As the apostle Paul said, “Do not receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). Receiving the grace of God in such a way that it doesn’t melt our hearts and change us and crack us open at a deep level – that is receiving his grace in vain, with no impact. Until we are with the Lord in heaven above, we will always be only an inch away from ruining our lives. God is realistic about that. He wants us to be realistic. Let’s stay open. The Bible says, “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).
3. “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:17)
That statement doesn’t seem hard, does it? But it really bothered people back then: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Jesus” (John 5:18). What made our Lord’s words so provocative?
We can see from the context that it’s about the Sabbath, the Saturday of each Jewish week, when the law of Moses told them to rest and do no work but spend the day focused on God. In fact, the law of Moses said that the Sabbath was the sign of the old covenant (Exodus 31:12-17). In other words, it was by observing this one law, the Sabbath law, that a Jewish person showed his allegiance to the entire law. So the Sabbath was not just one law among others. The Sabbath was how they saluted the flag of God’s kingdom on earth. It was how they said their “pledge of allegiance.” It was written into their national constitution, in Exodus chapter 31. It established their identity. And here Jesus is saying that he is reinterpreting the whole thing, with God on his side. He is taking to himself the right to stand over the Sabbath. Everybody knew that, if you break the Sabbath, you strike at the vitals of Old Testament religion. And Jesus is saying, “It all belongs so completely to me that I can work on the Sabbath, and I’m not violating the law, because I don’t answer to the law, because there is no law above me, because I am the law. My Father and I are working every day, including the Sabbath, to heal and to save and to help undeserving people. That is our rest. That is our recreation. That is our focus. You must redefine everything you’ve ever believed in light of me and my Father God. I am the object of your religion. I am the key to your metanarrative. I am the rest and stillness and quiet and peace you long for. I am asserting my right to take command of everything most sacred in your existence.”
That is a hard saying. No wonder they wanted to silence him. They understood what he was claiming – that his work falls into the same category as God’s work. To rethink everything in light of Jesus is how we come into alignment with God. But to limit him is to go against God.
So here’s the question for you and me today. Will we receive Jesus as he is, hard sayings and all? Or will we let our own preconceptions limit him? Will we bring our most cherished ideas under his wisdom? Or will we try to squish him down into the smallness of what we’ve always believed? Every one of us has a decision to make.
No one is more provocative and more loving than Jesus. Some of us here today don’t even believe in him. He died to atone for your sins, you don’t believe in him, and he isn’t sorry, he doesn’t regret dying for you. He isn’t thinking, “What a waste of effort!” He died gladly for you. Some of us here today have toyed with him and sometimes cozied up to him and other times run away from him. And he died for you too, and he has no regrets. He was glad to. Some of us here today love him, but we often let him down. And he died for you too, and he isn’t cursing the day but he’s glad for what he did for you. Whoever you are, he loves you with a whole heart when you don’t love him with a whole heart. And here is the step every single one of us can take today. Say to the Lord Jesus, “I don’t understand you. Some things you say scare me. But I receive you. I trust you more than I trust myself. I entrust myself to you. And I want to spend the rest of my life receiving from your fullness grace upon grace, including the hard parts.”
William Still, a dear friend of mine in the Church of Scotland, said this: “The greatest, highest and most practical truth of our lives is that we are recipients.” Do you mind being a constant recipient of Jesus, whatever he says? Or will you go it alone?