Reading: John 5:1-18.
We have pointed out
that the key to these signs is to be found in the
reaction which took place toward them, and that is true
in this case. Let us look at a few of the features.
First of all, we must
note the Jewish setting of this sign. It was at the
"feast of the Jews", and most likely that was
the Feast of the Passover. In that case it would be the
greatest of all the Jewish feasts and would account for
the multitude being in Jerusalem at that time, for while
it was not necessary for the people to go up there for
the other feasts, it was imperative that they went up for
the Passover. So there was a great multitude in Jerusalem
at this time, and this sign was performed there, that is,
at the very centre of Israel.
And then it was
performed on the Sabbath Day. You will have noticed that
the Sabbath is mentioned four times in these few verses.
It was that which governed the whole life of Israel, and
all the laws of Israel were gathered into it. It
represented everything in the life of Israel.
I hope you are
collecting all these features, because we are going to
find our key to this sign in them.
One more feature. The
man upon whom this sign was performed had been in his
place of helplessness for thirty-eight years. That
prepares our way toward the meaning of things, so we turn
to have a look at this man.
He was an earthbound
man. His bed was only a very thin mat and there was not
an inch between him and the earth. He was well down on
the earth, and was a fixture. But he had not accepted
that position; he had been struggling with the earth and
against his situation for thirty-eight years. It does not
need much imagination to visualize him: every so often he
made an effort to get up, struggled to get away from his
bed. And then he had to fall back again - and he always
came back to the place from which he started. Every
effort to leave that bed only resulted in his having to
fall back on it again. He was a prisoner of his bed. It
was his master and he was completely helpless there. The
thing which was supposed to give him rest gave him no
rest at all. And he was in that position for thirty-eight
years. That is long enough to show that the situation was
Now we will look at the
background. What is it that lies behind this? You will
see why I spoke about the Jewish setting, for this is a
picture of Israel under the law and Israel in the
wilderness for thirty-eight years. The first generation
that came out of Egypt reached the border of the land and
then, because of unbelief, were turned back into the
wilderness for thirty-eight years, and there they
struggled under the burden of the law. They wanted to get
away from their position but they never could. They
wanted to get into the land, but never arrived there. If
their own effort could have got them there, they would
have been there, but the fact of the matter was that they
were going round in a circle and were always coming back
to the place from which they started. The bed of the law
was only making them know the weakness of the flesh. It
gave them no rest - it only showed them how helpless they
Of course, those of you
who know your New Testament are already thinking of the
Letter to the Romans, and especially Romans 7. Do you
remember that chapter? Here is the poor man struggling
under the law. He says: "The good which I would
I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I
practise... O wretched man that I am!" (Romans
7:19,24). That is the man at the Pool of Bethesda: 'What
I want to do I never can do. What I do not want to do
(that is, stay here), I am having to do all the time. Oh,
wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from this
Let us go back to
Israel. You remember that the Letter to the Hebrews
always speaks of the land of promise as 'God's rest'. It
says of that first generation that they never entered
into 'His rest', and that "there remaineth
therefore a sabbath rest for the people of God" (Hebrews
4:9). Now the land of promise is shown to be a type of
Christ in heaven: Christ risen from the dead. You see,
Israel had to go through the Jordan when it overflowed
all its banks. The swellings of Jordan were a type of
death, and they had to go through death on to
resurrection ground. Then the word to Joshua was that he
should go up and possess the land. It is
resurrection and ascension. It is Christ in heaven,
victorious over death, and His people with Him there. As
Paul says: "And raised us up with him, and made
us to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ
Jesus" (Ephesians 2:6).
Well, now where are we
in our New Testament? It is quite true - we are in the
Letter to the Hebrews, but with this man at the Pool of
Bethesda we are somewhere else, very distinctly: we are
in the Letter to the Galatians, and you have to put the
whole of that Letter right into these eighteen verses of
John 5. What is the Letter to the Galatians all about?
First of all, it is about the bondage of the law and the
law making nothing perfect but bringing everybody into
bondage. The people who are under the law are in this
Letter spoken of as being in bondage. The Apostle says
that the Jerusalem which is below, or beneath, "is
in bondage with her children" (Galatians 4:25).
That is where the poor man was, in Jerusalem, but in
bondage in the Jerusalem which is beneath. So Galatians
first of all speaks about bondage under the law.
Then the second thing
that the Letter to the Galatians speaks about is the
spirit of sonship in Christ. You will recall that the
great words of this Letter are 'sons' and 'the Spirit'.
We are all sons of God by faith in Jesus Christ. It is
sonship in Christ, and the spirit of sonship is the Holy
Now we come back to
John and hear the Lord Jesus saying: "If
therefore the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free
indeed" (John 8:36); "ye shall
know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John
8:32). What is the truth that makes us free from the
bondage of the law? It is the great and glorious truth of
our sonship in Jesus Christ.
Need I turn you to the
Letter to the Galatians? The idea of liberty, 'liberty in
Christ', is mentioned eleven times in that Letter, and
that is more often than in all the other Letters put
together. "Stand fast therefore in the liberty
wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled
again with the yoke of bondage" (Galatians 5:1 -
A.V.). And again: "For, brethren, ye have been
called unto liberty" (Galatians 5:13 - A.V.). It
is the liberty of the sons of God through faith in Jesus
And note again: the
name 'Christ' is mentioned forty-three times in this
little Letter. That is tremendously impressive. If it has
a lot to say about the law and about liberty, it has far
more to say about Christ. The law is broken in Christ,
and all its bondage is destroyed for the sons of God.
They are free by grace, and Christ has made them free.
I do not know whether
this was in John's mind, but I do see that he had a great
deal in his mind which we do not always notice. What I
mean is this: Why was it that when John spoke about the
Pool of Bethesda he said that there are five
porches there? Was it the artist giving a little touch to
the picture? Well, John was an artist in words, but the
Holy Spirit was writing this thing through John, and five
is the number of grace. Wherever you look in the Bible
five is the number of grace. You and I carry that very
number on both hands and both feet, if we are normal
people; and more than that, we have five physical senses.
Why, we are made up of fives! God meant us to be people
of grace. This poor man was in bondage to the law, but "the
law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus
Christ" (John 1:17). And right there, in the
presence of the bondage of the law, was this testimony to
the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
What is this sign,
then? It is a wonderful sign! This man is a true picture
and representation of what it means to be under the law.
Jesus stood and cried: "Come unto me, all ye that
labour and are heavy laden" (Matthew 11:28).
What did He mean? The burden of the law was upon the
people, indeed, it was a heavy burden for them. The
Pharisees gave more than two thousand interpretations to
the law of Moses, and said: 'The law of Moses does not
mean that you have only to keep ten commandments; it
means that you have to keep two thousand.' There was not
a point in all their human life where this law was not
applied and made their lives difficult. And all this was
gathered up into the Sabbath: 'You must not make your bed
on the Sabbath! You must not carry your bed on the
Sabbath! You must not poke your fire on the Sabbath! You
must do nothing on the Sabbath - you may not even walk
more than three miles.' Two thousand regulations for
their lives! The one thing that they were meeting every
day, and especially on the Sabbath, was 'You may not'.
"Come unto me,
all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give
you rest" (Matthew 11:28). What has happened?
Jesus has appropriated the Sabbath to Himself. It is no
longer a day of the week - it is a divine person. (If the
Seventh Day Adventists saw that, the whole of their
system would go in five minutes!) No, Jesus is God's
Sabbath. He is the end of God's works, and in Him God has
entered into His rest. This is the 'rest which remaineth
for the children of God' - not a day of the week or on
the calendar, but a divine person, the Son of God. In Him
we come to rest, and that which was our bondage is now
our servant. In Him that against which we were always
struggling is now our victory. Oh yes, Jesus is the
Sabbath, and if we live in Him we shall not spoil the
Sabbath. Every day should be a day of rest to our souls.
Oh, this is a mighty thing that the Lord Jesus has done!
Now note: the Lord
Jesus looked upon that which He did for this man as a
very great and serious thing. When He found him in the
temple He said to him: "Thou art made whole: sin
no more, lest a worse thing befall thee" (John
5:14). Now back to the Letter to the Galatians: "Ye
were running well," said the Apostle, "who
did hinder you?" (Galatians 5:7). 'You are
returning, or are in danger of returning, to the old
bondage. You are listening to those Judaizers who want to
bring you back under the bondage of the law, and if you
go back there the last state will be worse than the
first. It is a worse thing to fall away from grace than
never to have been in grace.' That is what the Word says
- 'a worse thing'. Oh, dear friends, we have been
liberated from this whole law through faith in Jesus
Christ. Let us walk, and continue to walk in our liberty.
"Ye were running well" - that is
better than walking. Let us not stop running.
To return to the Letter
to the Hebrews. There are two phrases in that Letter
which run right through. One is: 'Let us'... "Let
us press on to full growth" (Hebrews 4:1
- R.V. margin). 'Let us', says the writer, 'go right on
in Christ in the new position that grace has brought us
Then there is the other
word that is constantly recurring in this Letter:
'Lest'... "Lest there be any man that falleth
short of the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:15): "Lest
any man fall after the same example of unbelief"
(Hebrews 4:11 - A.V.). It is a word of warning and
precaution - the alternative to going on is going back.
Now, you see, all this
is an explanation of the life which we have in Christ. It
is a life which makes us free, delivers us from bondage,
brings us into rest and opens up a grand and glorious
prospect before us.
Let us hear the
warning: "Sin no more". It is a sin to
turn away from grace and to turn back to law. It is the
sin of turning from liberty back into bondage. It says of
this first generation of Israel in the wilderness: "And
turned back in their hearts unto Egypt" (Acts
7:39). And the Lord says of such people: "My soul
hath no pleasure in him" (Hebrews 10:38). It is
a terrible thing to lose the pleasure of the Lord! That
is sin indeed.
Well, that is the dark
side of the sign. But what a lot there is in this
incident of the man at the Pool! What I have said about
it is not just my own imagination, for all the New
Testament afterward proves this to be true. See those
disciples again. How defeated they were before the Spirit
came on the Day of Pentecost! They were always trying to
do the right thing and were always failing. They were
always trying not to do the wrong thing and say the wrong
thing, but they were always doing it. You are very sorry
for them, are you not? You hear poor Peter saying: 'I
will go with Thee, even unto death.' Well, that is a good
resolve, a good intention. He meant well, but when it
came to the test, did he do it? Oh no, he was in bondage
to his own weakness. But look at that man on the Day of
Pentecost! He, with the other eleven, are men who are set
free. Oh yes, they are men at liberty. No more bondage!
And the New Testament goes on to show this wonderful
truth of deliverance in Jesus Christ from all bondage.
John was right in
choosing this sign, and the Holy Spirit was right in
choosing it. He knew all the wonderful doctrine and
reality of grace that was in it. "Wouldest thou
be made whole?" This is what it means to
be made whole - to be taken out of the kingdom of the
bondage of the law and to be put into the kingdom of the
grace of the Lord Jesus.
I hope this appeals to
your heart and that it is not just some interesting
teaching! Oh, I am quite sure that if you were seeing it
in the spirit there would be a smile on your face and a
song in your heart. You would be singing: 'Free from the
law, O happy condition!' That is what this man sang. I
don't suppose he knew our hymn, but that was what he was
singing - 'Free from that bed, O happy condition'!
May the Lord bring us
into the blessing of the liberty which is in Christ!