The miracle here recorded is selected by John because in it Jesus plainly signified that He had power to quicken whom He would (v.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.
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,
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 (xvii.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."
 Verse 4 is omitted by recent editors on the authority of the best ancient MSS.