SABBATH CURE AT BETHESDA.
“After these things there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a multitude of them that were sick, blind, halt, withered. And a certain man was there, which had been thirty and eight years in his infirmity. When Jesus saw him lying, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, He saith unto him, Wouldest thou be made whole? The sick man answered Him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk. And straightway the man was made whole, and took up his bed and walked. Now it was the Sabbath on that day. So the Jews said unto him that was cured, It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for thee to take up thy bed. But he answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. They asked him, Who is the man that said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? But he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed Himself away, a multitude being in the place. Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee.”- John 5:1-14.
The miracle here recorded is selected by John because in it Jesus plainly signified that He had power to quicken whom He would (John 5:21), and because it became the occasion for the unbelief of the Jews to begin the hardening process and appear as opposition.
The miracle was wrought when Jerusalem was full; although whether at the Feast of Tabernacles, or Purim, may be doubted. The pool at the sheep-gate or sheep-market is commonly identified with the Fountain of the Virgin, which still supplies a bath known as Hammam esh Shefa, the Bath of Healing. It seems to have been an intermittent spring, which possessed some healing virtue for a certain class of ailments. Its repute was well established, for a great multitude of hopeful patients waited for the moving of the waters.(14)
To this natural hospital Jesus wended His way on the Sabbath of the feast. And as the trained eye of the surgeon quickly selects the worst case in the waiting-room, so is the eye of Jesus speedily fixed on “a man which had an infirmity thirty and eight years,” a man paralysed apparently in mind as well as in body. Few employments could be more utterly paralysing than lying there, gazing dreamily into the water, and listening to the monotonous drone of the cripples detailing symptoms every one was sick of hearing about. The little periodic excitement caused by the strife to be first down the steps to the bubbling up of the spring was enough for him. Hopeless imbecility was written on his face. Jesus sees that for him there will never be healing by waiting here.
Going up to this man, our Lord confronts him with the arousing question, “Are you desiring to be made whole?” The question was needful. Not always are the miserable willing to be relieved. Medical men have sometimes offered to heal the mendicant’s sores, and their aid has been rejected. Even the invalid who does not trade pecuniarily on his disease is very apt to trade upon the sympathy and indulgence of friends, and sometimes becomes so debilitated in character as to shrink from a life of activity and toil. Those who have sunk out of all honest ways of living into poverty and wretchedness are not always eager to put themselves into the harness of honest labour and respectability. And this reluctance is exhibited in its extreme form in those who are content to be spiritual imbeciles, because they shrink from all arduous work and responsible position. Life, true life such as Christ calls us to, with all its obligations to others, its honest and spontaneous devotion to spiritual ends, its risks, its reality, and purity, does not seem attractive to the spiritual valetudinarian. In fact, nothing so thoroughly reveals a man to himself, nothing so clearly discloses to him his real aims and likings, as the answer he finds he can give to the simple question, “Are you willing to be made whole? Are you willing to be fitted for the highest and purest life?”
The man is sufficiently alive to feel the implied rebuke, and apologetically answers, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool. It is not that I am resigned to this life of uselessness, but I have no option.” The very answer, however, showed that he was hopeless. It had become the established order of things with him that some one anticipated him. He speaks of it as regularly happening-“another steps down before me.” He had no friend-not one that would spare time to wait beside him and watch for the welling up of the water. And he had no thought of help coming from any other quarter. But there is that in the appearance and manner of Jesus that quickens the man’s attention, and makes him wonder whether He will not perhaps stand by him and help him at the next moving of the waters. While these thoughts are passing through his mind the words of Jesus ring with power in his ears, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” And he who had so long waited in vain to be healed at the spring, is instantaneously made whole by the word of Jesus.
John habitually considered the miracles of Jesus as “signs” or object lessons, in which the spiritual mind might read unseen truth. They were intended to present to the eye a picture of the similar but greater works which Jesus wrought in the region of the spirit. He heals the blind, and therein sets Himself before men as the Light of the world. He gives the hungry bread, but is disappointed that they do not from this conclude that He is Himself the Bread sent by the Father to nourish to life everlasting. He heals this impotent man, and marvels that in this healing the people do not see a sign that He is the Son who does the Father’s works, and who can give life to whom He will. It is legitimate, therefore, to see in this cure the embodiment of spiritual truth.
This man represents those who for many years have known their infirmity, and who have continued, if not very definitely to hope for spiritual vigour, at least to put themselves in the way of being healed-to give themselves, as invalids do, all the chances. This crowding of the pool of Bethesda-the house of mercy or grace-strongly resembles our frequenting of ordinances, a practice which many continue in very much the state of mind of this paralytic. They are still as infirm as when they first began to look for cure; it seems as if their turn were never to come, though they have seen many remarkable cures. Theoretically they have no doubt of the efficacy of Christian grace; practically they have no expectation that they shall ever be strong, vigorous useful men in His Kingdom. If you asked them why they are so punctual in attendance on all religious services, they would say, “Why, is it not a right thing to do?” Press them further with our Lord’s question, “Are you expecting to be made whole? Is this your purpose in coming here?” They will refer you to their past, and tell you how it has always seemed to be some other person’s case that was thought of, how the Spirit of God seemed always to have other work than that which concerned them. But here they are still-and commendably and wisely so; for if this man had begun to disbelieve in the virtue of the water because he himself had never experienced its power, and had shut himself up in some wretched solitude of his own, then the eye of the Lord had never rested upon him-here they are still; for the best part of a lifetime they have been on the brink of health, and yet have never got it; for eight-and-thirty years this man had seen that water, knew that it healed people, put his hand in it, gazed on it,-yes, there it was, and could heal him, and yet his turn never came. So do these persons frequent the ordinances, hear the word that can save them, touch the bread of communion, and know that by the blessing of God the bread of life is thereby conveyed, and yet year by year goes past, and for them all remains unblessed. They begin despairingly to say-
“Thy saints are comforted, I know, And love Thy house of prayer; I therefore go where others go, But find no comfort there.”
This miracle shows such persons that there is a shorter way to health than a languid attendance on ordinances-an attendance that is satisfied if there seems to be still in operation what may be useful to others. It is the voice of Christ they need to hear. It is that voice summoning to thought and hope that we all need to hear, “Wilt thou be made whole?” Are you weary and ashamed of your infirmity; would you fain be a whole man in Christ, able at last to walk through life as a living man, seeing the beauty of God and of His work, and meeting with gladness the whole requirements of a life in God? Does the very beauty of Christ’s manhood, as He stands before you, make you at once ashamed of your weakness and covetous of His strength? Do you see in Him what it is to be strong, to enter into life, to begin to live as a man ought always to live, and are you earnestly looking to receive power from on high? To such come the life-giving voice of the Word who utters God, and the life that is in God.
It is important to notice that in Christ’s word to the sick, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk,” three things are implied-
1. There must be a prompt response to Christ’s word. He does not heal any one who lies sluggishly waiting to see what that word will effect. There must be a hearty and immediate recognition of the speaker’s truth and power. We cannot say to what extent the impotent man would feel a current of nervous energy invigorating him. Probably this consciousness of new strength would only succeed his cordial reliance on the word of Christ. Obey Christ, and you will find strength enough. Believe in His power to give you new life, and you will have it. But do not hesitate, do not question, do not delay.
2. There must be no thought of failure, no making provision for a relapse; the bed must be rolled up as no longer needed. How do those diseased men of the Gospels rebuke us! We seem always half in doubt whether we should make bold to live as whole men. We take a few feeble steps, and return to the bed we have left. From life by faith in Christ we sink back to life as we knew it without Christ-a life attempting little, and counting it a thing too high for us to put ourselves and our all at God’s disposal. If we set out to swim the Channel we take care to have a boat within hail to pick us up if we become exhausted. To make provision for failure is in the Christian life to secure failure. It betrays a half-heartedness in our faith, a lurking unbelief which must bring disaster. Have we rolled up our bed and tossed it aside? If Christ fails us, have we nothing to fall back upon? Is it faith in Him that really keeps us going? Is it His view of the world and of all that is in it that we have accepted; or do we merely take a few steps on His principles, but in the main make our bed in the ordinary unenlightened worldly life?
3. There must be a continuous use made of the strength Christ gives. The man who had lain for thirty-eight years was told to walk. We must confront many duties without any past experience to assure us of success. We must proceed to do them in faith-in the faith that He who bids us do them will give us strength for them. Take your place at once among healthy men; recognise the responsibilities of life. Find an outlet for the new strength in you. Be no longer a burden, a charge to others, but begin yourself to bear the burdens of others, and be a source of strength to others.
Before the man could get home with his bed he was challenged for carrying it on the Sabbath. They must surely have known that he himself, and many more, had that very morning been carried to Bethesda. But we can scarcely conclude from the Jews thus challenging the healed man that they sought occasion against Jesus. They would have stopped any one going through the streets of Jerusalem with a bundle on the Sabbath. They had Scripture on their side, and founded on the words of Jeremiah 17:21, “Take heed to yourselves, and bear no burden on the Sabbath day.” Even in our own streets a man carrying a large package on Sunday would attract the suspicion of the religious, if not of the police. We must not, then, find a malicious intention towards Jesus, but merely the accustomed thoughtless bigotry and literalism, in the challenge of the Jews.
But to their “It is not lawful,” the man promptly answers, perhaps only meaning to screen himself by throwing the blame on another, “He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed.” The man quite naturally, and without till now reflecting on his own conduct, had listened to Christ’s word as authoritative. He that gave me strength told me how to use it. Intuitively the man lays down the great principle of Christian obedience. If Christ is the source of life to me, He must also be the source of law. If without Him I am helpless and useless, it stands to reason that I must consider His will in the use of the life He communicates. This must always be the Christian’s defence when the world is scandalised by anything he does in obedience to Christ; when he goes in the face of its traditions and customs; when he is challenged for singularity, overpreciseness, or innovation. This is the law which the Christian must still bear in mind when he fears to thwart any prejudice of the world, when he is tempted to bide his time among the impotent folk, and not fly in the face of established usage; when, though he has distinctly understood what he ought to do, so many difficulties threaten, that he is tempted to withdraw into obscurity and indolence. It is the same Voice which gives life and directs it. Shall I then refuse it in both cases, or choose it in both? Shall I shrink from its directions, and lie down again in sin; or shall I accept life, and with it the still greater boon of spending it as Christ wills?
But though the man had thus instinctively obeyed Jesus, he actually had not had the curiosity to ask who He was. It is almost incredible that he should have so immediately lost sight of the person to whom he was so indebted. But so taken up is he with his new sensations, so occupied with gathering up his mats, so beset by the congratulations and inquiries of his comrades at the porch, that before he bethinks himself Jesus is gone. Among those who do undoubtedly profit by Christ’s work there is a lamentable and culpable lack of interest in His person. It does not seem to matter from whom they have received these benefits so long as they have them; they do not seem drawn to His person, ever following to know more of Him and to enjoy His society, as the poor demoniac would have done, who would gladly have left home and country, and who cared not what line of life he might be thrown into or what thrown out of, if only he might be with Christ. If one were to put the case, that my prospects were eternally and in each particular changed by the intervention of one whose love is itself infinite blessing, and if it were asked what would be my feeling towards such a person, doubtless I would say, He would have an unrivalled interest for me, and I should be irresistibly drawn into the most intimate personal knowledge and relations; but no-the melancholy truth is otherwise; the gift is delighted in, the giver is suffered to be lost in the crowd. The spectacle is presented of a vast number of persons made blessed through the intervention of Christ, who are yet more concerned to exhibit their own new life and acquirements, than to identify and keep hold of Him to whom they owe all.
Although the healed man seems to have had little interest in Christ, Christ kept His eye upon him. Finding him in the Temple, where he had gone to give thanks for his recovery, or to see a place he had so long been excluded from, or merely because it was a place of public resort, our Lord addressed him in the emphatic words, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee.” The natural inference from these words is that his disease had been brought on by sin in early life-another instance of the lifelong misery a man may incur by almost his earliest responsible acts, of the difficulties and shame with which a lad or a boy may unwittingly fill his life, but an instance also of the willingness with which Christ delivers us even from miseries we have rashly brought upon ourselves. Further still, it is an instance of the vitality of sin. This man’s lifelong punishment had not broken the power of sin within him. He knew why he was diseased and shattered. Every pain he felt, every desire which through weakness he could not gratify, every vexing thought of what he might have made of life, made him hate his sin as the cause of all his wretchedness; and yet at the end of these thirty-eight years of punishment Christ recognised in him, even in the first days of restored health, a liability to return to his sin. But every day we see the same; every day we see men keeping themselves down, and gathering all kinds of misery round them by persisting in sin. We say of this man and that, “How is it possible he can still cleave to his sin, no better, no wiser for all he has come through? One would have thought former lessons sufficient.” But no amount of mere suffering purifies from sin. One has sometimes a kind of satisfaction in reaping the consequences of sin, as if that would deter from future sin; but if this will not hold us back, what will? Partly the perception that already God forgives us, and partly the belief that when Christ commands us to sin no more He can give us strength to sin no more. Who believes with a deep and abiding conviction that Christ’s will can raise him from all spiritual impotence and uselessness? He, and he only, can hope to conquer sin. To rely upon Christ’s word, “Sin no more,” with the same confident faith with which this man acted on His word, “Rise, take up thy bed”-this alone gives victory over sin. If our own will is too weak, Christ’s will is always mighty. Identify your will with Christ’s, and you have His strength.
But the fear of punishment has also its place. The man is warned that a worse thing will fall upon him if he sins. Sinning after the beginning of deliverance, we not only fall back into such remorse, darkness, and misery as have already in this life followed our sin, but a worse thing will come upon us. But “worse.” What can be worse than the loss of an entire life; like this man, passing in disappointment, in uselessness, in shame, the time which all naturally expect shall be filled with activity, success, and happiness; losing, and losing early, and losing by one’s own fault, and losing hopelessly, everything that makes life desirable? Few men so entirely miss life as this man did, though perhaps our activities are often more hurtful than his absolute inactivity, and under an appearance of prosperity the heart may have been torn with remorse as painful as his. Yet let no man think that he knows the worst that sin can do. After the longest experience we may sink deeper still, and indeed must do so unless we listen to Christ’s voice saying, “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee.”
JESUS LIFE-GIVER AND JUDGE.
“The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus which had made him whole. And for this cause did the Jews persecute Jesus, because He did these things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh even until now, and I work. For this cause therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only brake the sabbath, but also called God His own Father, making Himself equal with God. Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father doing: for what things soever He doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner. For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth Him all things that Himself doeth: and greater works than these will He shew Him, that ye may marvel. For as the Father raiseth the dead and quickeneth them, even so the Son also quickeneth whom He will. For neither doth the Father judge any man, but He hath given all judgement unto the Son; that all may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which sent Him. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth My word, and believeth Him that sent Me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgement, but hath passed out of death into life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour cometh, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in Himself, even so gave He to the Son also to have life in Himself: and He gave Him authority to execute judgement, because He is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour cometh, in which all that are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done ill, unto the resurrection of judgement. I can of Myself do nothing; as I hear, I judge: and My judgement is righteous; because I seek not Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me. If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. It is another that beareth witness of Me; and I know that the witness which He witnesseth of Me is true. Ye have sent unto John, and he hath borne witness unto the truth. But the witness which I receive is not from man: howbeit I say these things, that ye may be saved. He was the lamp that burneth and shineth: and ye were willing to rejoice for a season in his light. But the witness which I have is greater than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father hath sent Me. And the Father which sent Me, He hath borne witness of Me. Ye have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form. And ye have not His word abiding in you: for whom He sent, Him ye believe not. Ye search the scriptures, because ye think that in them ye have eternal life; and these are they which bear witness of Me; and ye will not come to Me, that ye may have life. I receive not glory from men. But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in yourselves. I am come in My Father’s name, and ye receive Me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive. How can ye believe, which receive glory one of another, and the glory that cometh from the only God ye seek not? Think not that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, on whom ye have set your hope. For if ye believed Moses, ye would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe My words?”- John 5:15-47.
As soon as the impotent man discovered who it was that had given him strength, he informed the authorities, either from sheer thoughtlessness, or because he considered that they had a right to know, or because he judged that, like himself, they would rather admire the miracle than take exception to the Sabbath-breaking. If this last was his idea, he had not gauged the obtuseness and self-righteous spite of honest and pious literalism. “For this cause did the Jews persecute Jesus, because He did these things on the Sabbath.”(15) In what particular form the charge of Sabbath-breaking was brought against our Lord, whether formal or conversational and tentative, John does not say. He is more concerned to give us in full the substance of His apology. For the first time our Lord now gave in public an explanation of His claims; and this five minutes’ talk with the Jews contains probably the most important truth ever uttered upon earth.
The passage embodies the four following assertions: that the healing of the incurable on the Sabbath resulted from and exhibited His perfect unison with the Father; that this giving of life to an impotent man was an illustration or sign of His power to quicken whom He would, to communicate life Divine and eternal to all in whatsoever stage of spiritual or physical deadness they were; that His claim to possess this supreme power was not mere idle assertion, but was both guaranteed by this miracle, and otherwise was amply attested; and that the real root of their rejection of Him and His claims was to be found, not in their superior knowledge of God and regard for His will, but in their worldly craving for the applause of men.(16)
1. Our Lord’s reply to the charge of Sabbath-breaking is, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” He did not make any comment on the Sabbath law. He did not defend Himself by showing that works of mercy such as He had done Were admissible. On other occasions He adopted this line of defence, but now He took higher ground. The rest of God is not inactivity. God does not on the Sabbath cease to communicate life to all things. He does not refrain from blessing men till the sun of the Sabbath is set. The tides rise and fall; the plants grow; the sun completes his circuit on the Sabbath as on other days. “Why does not God keep the Sabbath?” a caviller asked of a Jew. “Is it not lawful,” was the answer, “for a man to move about in his own house on the Sabbath? The house of God is the whole realm above and the whole realm below.” For God the Sabbath has no existence; it is a boon He has given to His creatures because they need it. His untiring beneficence is needful for the upholding and for the happiness of all. And it is the same superiority to the Sabbath which Jesus claims for Himself. He claims that His unceasing work is as necessary to the world as the Father’s-or rather, that He and the Father are together carrying out one work, and that in this miracle the Jews find fault with He has merely acted as the Father’s agent.
From this statement the Jews concluded that He made Himself equal with God. And they were justified in so concluding. It is only on this understanding of His words that the defence of Jesus was relevant. If He meant only to say that He imitated God, and that because God did not rest on the Sabbath, therefore He, a holy Jew, might work on the Sabbath, His defence was absurd. Our Lord did not mean that He was imitating the Father, but that His work was as indispensable as the Father’s, was the Father’s. My Father from the beginning up till now worketh, giving life to all; and I work in the same sphere, giving life as His agent and almoner to men. The work of quickening the impotent man was the Father’s work. In charging Him with breaking the Sabbath they were charging the Father with breaking it.
But this gives Jesus an opportunity of more clearly describing His relation to God. He declares He is in such perfect harmony with God that it is impossible for Him to do either that miracle or any other work at His own instigation. “The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He seeth the Father doing.” “I can of myself do nothing.” He had power to do it, but no will. He had life in Himself, and could give it to whom He pleased; but so perfect was His sympathy with God, that it was impossible for Him to act where God would not have Him act. So trained was He to perceive the Divine purpose, so habituated to submit Himself to it, that He could neither mistake His Father’s will nor oppose it. As a conscientious man when pressed to do a wrong thing says, No, really I cannot do it; as a son who might happen to be challenged for injuring His father’s business would indignantly repudiate the possibility of such a thing. “What do I live for,” he would say, “but to further my father’s views? My father’s interests and mine are identical, our views and purposes are identical. I cannot do anything antagonistic to him.” So Jesus had from the first recognised God as His Father, and had so true and deep a filial feeling that really it was the joy of His life to do His will.
This, then, was the idea the Lord sought to impress on the people on the first occasion on which He had a good opportunity of speaking in public. He cannot do anything save what is suggested to Him by consideration of God’s will. Even as a boy He had begun to have this filial feeling. “Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?” That in Him which is most conspicuous and which He wishes to be most conspicuous is perfect sonship; filial trust and duty carried to its perfect height. It is this perfect filial unanimity with the Father which makes His life valuable, significant, different from all other lives. It is this which makes Him the perfect representative of the Father; which enables Him to be God’s perfect messenger to men, doing always and only the will of God in men’s sight. He is in the world not for the sake of fulfilling any private schemes of His own, but having it as His sole motive and aim to do the Father’s will.
This perfect filial feeling had no doubt its root in the eternal relation of the Son to the Father. It was the continuance, upon earth and under new conditions, of the life He already had enjoyed with the Father. Having assumed human nature, He could reveal Himself only so far as that nature allowed Him. His revelation, for example, was not universal, but local, confined to one place; His human nature being necessarily confined to one place. He did not assert superiority to all human law; He paid taxes; He recognised lawful authority; He did not convince men of His Divinity by superiority to all human infirmities; He ate, slept, died as ordinary men. But through all this He maintained a perfect harmony with the Divine will. It was this which differentiated Him from ordinary men, that He maintained throughout His life an attitude of undoubting trust in the Father and devotion to Him. It was through the human will of the Lord that the Divine will of the Eternal Son uniformly worked and used the whole of His human nature.
It is in this perfect Sonship of Christ we first learn what a son should be. It is by His perfect loyalty to the Father’s will, by His uniform adoption of it as the best, the only, thing He can do, that we begin to understand our connection with God, and to recognise that in His will alone is our blessedness. Naturally we resent the rule of any will but our own; we have not by nature such love for God as would put His will first. To our reason it becomes manifest that there is nothing higher or happier for us than to sink ourselves in God; we see that there is nothing more elevating, nothing more essential to a hopeful life than that we make God’s purposes in the world our own, and do that very thing which He sees to be worth doing and which He desires to do. Yet we find that the actual adoption of this filial attitude, natural, rational, and inviting as it seems, is just the most difficult of all difficulties, is indeed the battle of life. Who among us can say that we do nothing of ourselves, nothing at our own instance, that our life is entirely at God’s disposal?
To this filial disposition on the part of the Son the Father responds: “The Father loveth the Son, and showeth Him all things that Himself doeth” (John 5:20). If we ask how Jesus saw the Father’s works, or how, for example, He saw that the Father wished Him to heal the impotent man, the answer must be that it is by inward sympathy the Son apprehends what the Father wills. We in our measure can see what God is doing in the world, and can forward God’s work. But not by mere observation of what God had done and was doing through others did Jesus see what the Father did, but rather by His own inward perception of the Father’s will. By His own purity, love, and goodness He knew what the Father’s goodness willed. But the Father was not passive in the matter, merely allowing the Son to discover what He could of His will. Godet illustrates this active revelation on the Father’s part by the simile of the father in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth showing the son the things he made and the method of making them. This simile, however, being external, is apt to misdirect the mind. It was by a wholly inward and spiritual process the Father made known to the Son His purposes and mind.
2. This quickening of the impotent man was meant to be an object lesson, a sign of the power of Jesus to communicate life, Divine and eternal, to whom He would. “Greater works” than this of curing the paralytic “will the Father show to the Son, that ye may marvel” (John 5:20). As through His word vigour had been imparted to the impotent man, so all who listen to His word will receive everlasting life (John 5:24). As the impotent man, after thirty-eight years of deadness, found life on the moment by believing Christ’s word, so every one who listens to that same voice as the word of God receives life eternal. Through that word he connects himself with the source of life. He becomes obedient to the life-giving will of God.
The question, How can the spiritually dead hear and believe? is the question. How could the impotent man rise in response to Christ’s word? Psychologically inexplicable it may be, but happily it is practically possible. And here, as elsewhere, theory must wait upon fact. One thing is plain: that faith is the link between the Divine life and human weakness. Had the impotent man not believed, he would not have risen. Christ quickens “whom He will;” that is to say, there is no limit to His life-giving power; but He cannot quicken those who will not have life or who do not believe He can give it. Hence necessarily “the Father hath committed all judgement unto the Son.” To the impotent man Jesus put the question, “Wilt thou be made whole?” and by that question the man was judged. By the answer he gave to it he determined whether he would remain dead or receive life. Had he not on the moment believed, he would have doomed himself to permanent and hopeless imbecility. Christ’s question judged him.
Precisely so, says Jesus, are all men judged by My presence among them, and My offer of life to them. For the Father has not only given to the Son to have life in Himself, that He may thus communicate it (John 5:26), but “He hath given Him authority to execute judgement also, because He is a Son of man.” For these words do not mean that Jesus will be Judge because men should be judged by one who shares their nature, (17) or because they must be judged by the holiest and most loving of men(18)-as if God Himself were not sufficiently loving-but, as the object-lesson shows us, Jesus is necessarily Judge by appearing as God’s messenger, and by offering to men life everlasting. By becoming a son of man, by living in human form as the embodied love and life of God, and by making intelligible God’s good-will and His invitation to life, Christ necessarily sifts men and separates them into two classes. Every one who hears the word of Jesus is judged. He either accepts quickening and passes into life, or he rejects it and abides in death. This human appearance, Jesus seems to say, which stumbles you, and makes you think that My pretensions of judging all men are absurd, is the very qualification which makes judgment one of My necessary functions.
And this explains why we find Christ uttering apparent contradictions: at one time saying, “For judgment came I into this world,” and at another time saying, “I came not to judge the world.” The object of His coming into the world was to give life, not to condemn men, not to cut them off finally from life and from God, but to open a way to the Father, and to be their life. But this very coming of Christ and the offers He makes to men constitute the critical test of every soul that is brought into contact with them. Judgment is the necessary accompaniment of salvation. Man’s will being free, it must be so. And this judgment, determined in this life, will one day appear in final, irreversible, manifested result. “The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”
3. But naturally the Jews would say: “These are extraordinary and apparently extravagant claims to make. It is not easily credible that this voice which now so quietly speaks to us is one day to wake the dead. It is not easily credible that one whom we can carry before our courts is to judge all men.” To which thoughts Jesus replies: “I do not expect you to take My word for these things, but there are three guarantees of My truth to which I point you. There is first of all (1) the testimony of John(19)-a man in whose prophetic gift you for a while prided yourselves, rejoicing that God had sent you so powerful and enlightening a messenger. His whole function was to testify of Me. This lamp, in the light of which you rejoiced, was lit solely for the purpose of making quite visible to you that which you now say you cannot see. But this is not the best witness I have, although those of you who cannot see for themselves might be saved if only you would believe John’s testimony. But (2) I have greater witness than that of John. John said that I should come as the Father’s agent. Well, if you cannot believe John’s words, can you not believe the things you see? This impotent man raised to health, is this not a little hint of the Divine power that is in your midst? And are not all the works I do the Father’s works, done by His power and for His purposes? Is not My whole career its own best evidence? But besides, (3) the Father Himself has borne witness to Me. He has not appeared to you. You have not heard His voice nor seen His shape, but His word, His own sufficient account of His nature and connection with you, you have. You search the Scriptures, and rightly, for they are they which testify of Me. They are the Father’s word which, had you listened to, you would have known Me as sent by Him. Had you not mumbled only the husk of Scripture, counting its letters and wearing it on your foreheads, but had you, through God’s law, entered into sympathy with His purpose on earth, had you, through all that Scripture tells you of Him, learned His nature, and learned to love Him, you would at once have recognised Me as His messenger. ‘Ye have not His word abiding in you;’ ye have not let it lie in your minds and colour them; ye have not chewed, and digested, and assimilated the very quintessence of it, for had you done so you would have learned to know God and seen Him in Me.(20) But ‘whom He sent, Him ye believe not.’”
The very Scriptures which had been given to guide them to Christ they used as a veil to blind themselves to His presence. Jesus points out where their mistake lay. “You search the Scriptures, because you suppose that in them, a mere book, you have eternal life; the truth being that life is in Me. The Scriptures do not give life, they lead to the Life-giver. The Scriptures, by your superstitiously reverent and shallow use of them, actually prevent you from finding the life they were meant to point you to. You think you have life in them, and therefore will not come to Me.” So may a book, lifted out of its subordinate place, be entirely perverted from its use, and actually hinder the purpose it was given to promote. To worship the Bible as if it were Christ is to mistake a finger-post for a house of shelter. It is possible to have a great zeal for the Bible and yet quite to misapprehend its object; and to misapprehend its object is to make it both useless and dangerous. To set it on a level with Christ is to do both it, Him, and ourselves the gravest injustice. Many who seem to exalt the Scriptures degrade them; and those who give them a subordinate place truly exalt them. God speaks in Scripture, as this passage shows, but He speaks for a definite purpose, to reveal Christ; and this fact is the key to all difficulties about the Bible and inspiration.
4. The unbelief of the Jews is traced by Jesus to a moral root. They seemed very zealous for God’s law, but beneath this superficial and ostentatious championing of God there was detected a deep-seated alienation from God which unfitted them for knowing either Him or His messenger. “Glory from men I do not receive (John 5:41). But the reason of this is that ye have not the love of God in you, and cannot appreciate Divine glory or recognise it when you see it. How can you believe, when your hearts crave the glory you can give to one another, your ambition rising no higher than to be spoken of by ignorant people as the upholders of religion? You have taught yourselves to measure men by a wholly spurious standard, and cannot believe in one who is a transparency through which the glory of God shines upon you.” Had some one come in his own name, seeking a glory the Jews could give him, adapting himself to their poor conceptions, him they would have received. But Jesus being sent by God had that glory which consisted in being a perfect medium of the Father’s will, doing the Father’s work and never seeking His own glory.
This, then, was the reason why the Jews could not believe in Jesus. Their idea of glory was earthly, and they were unfitted to see and appreciate such glory as He showed in deeds of kindness. And those sayings of Jesus penetrate deeply into the permanent roots of unbelief.
It was certainly a great demand on their faith which Jesus made. He asked them to believe that the most Divine of prerogatives, life-giving and judging, belonged to Him. But He gave them evidence. He only asks them to believe what they have seen exemplified. He does not as yet even ask them to draw inferences. He does not blame them for not seeing what is implied regarding His eternal relation to the Father. He adduces evidence “that they may be saved;” that they may be induced to partake of the life He dispenses; and He laments that they will not believe that He is commissioned by God to speak words of life to men, although He has given them demonstration of His commission and power to give life.
To us also He speaks-for plainly such powers as He here claims are not such as can be capriciously given and withdrawn, rendered accessible to one age but not to another, exhibited on earth once but never more to be exercised. They are not powers that could be given to more than one messenger of God. To suppose more than one source of spiritual life or more than one seat of judgment is against reason.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on John 5". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany