Sometimes, when we read through the Gospels, we’ll see passages where Jesus does something remarkable, then everyone gets mad. On occasion, the Gospel writers explain why people got angry, but often we don’t get much overt explanation—which causes some twenty-first-century Bible readers to scratch their heads.
In the excerpt below from the brand-new Signs of the Messiah, Andreas J. Köstenberger unpacks the John 5 passage in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man, then faces persecution.
. . . the narrative (in John 5:5–9a) focuses on one such invalid, a man who had been in this condition for thirty-eight years. This must have seemed like an eternity for the man to be languishing without a realistic chance of being healed. One of the reasons John may have chosen to include this sign is that there was virtually no way this miracle could have been staged. The man had been lying there for thirty-eight years, and countless people had seen him. This is not an individual who had faked his illness so that Jesus could fraudulently buttress his own messianic credentials. Rather, the man had been indisputably and irremediably crippled and stood in desperate and verifiable need of healing. The longtime and public nature of the man’s predicament renders Jesus’ healing of this man all the more credible and remarkable. As with the later case of Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, this healing definitely passed the smell test. It was without a doubt a genuine healing.
Now that the stage has been set, the healing ensues. The first thing Jesus does is ask the man, “Do you want to be healed?” (5:6). Well, of course the man wanted to be healed! Why did Jesus even bother to ask? Yet Jesus’ question did not merely stir the man’s will to recover; it also exposed his superstition. “Sir,” he replied, “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” (5:7). This verse is probably the reason why some later scribes inserted verse 4 into some later Greek texts, as it alludes to the common superstition of an angel stirring the waters.
To the invalid’s mind, his is a futile task. How can he be first in the water when he is unable to walk? Humanly speaking, he’ll never be able to access healing. Yet Jesus pointedly cuts straight through any such nonsense, folklore, and superstition, telling the man simply, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (5:8). And the man obeys.
In our lives, there may be times when we face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to God meeting our needs or answering our prayers. Yet what we fail to see is that what appears to be impossible to us is possible for God. In Jesus’ terms, we need mountain-moving faith (Matt 17:20), or better, we need faith in a God who can move spiritual mountains that we find not only impossible to move ourselves but that we cannot even imagine God can move. But he can!
The aftermath of Jesus healing the lame man
Interestingly, John has withheld one important piece of information until this very point—namely, that the healing took place on a Sabbath. This is an indication of the deliberate manner in which the Fourth Evangelist has crafted his account. He held off on sharing this piece of information until it became an issue in the story.
At once, the “Sabbath police” (i.e., the Jewish authorities) confronted the man who had just been healed after a thirty-eight-year-long illness. The infraction that drew the leaders’ ire was that the invalid, after having been healed by Jesus, picked up and carried his mat or bed, an activity considered work and thus forbidden by Jewish Sabbath regulations (though not Scripture itself).
So what does the healed invalid do when confronted regarding his supposed infraction? He blames Jesus. In effect, his response is: “Don’t blame me; blame Jesus!” Well, thanks a lot! Jesus has just graciously and powerfully restored this man’s ability to walk, and he repays Jesus by reporting him to the authorities. I wonder if any of you has experienced this kind of ingratitude from someone whom you have helped. I know I have. And it hurt!
When questioned further, the man admits that he doesn’t even know who Jesus is or where to find him. Then, a little later, Jesus finds him in the temple area (“find” may or may not imply that Jesus was actually looking for him). Jesus sternly warns the man not to sin any longer so that nothing even worse may happen to him (likely implying that the man’s original illness had been due to sin).
John doesn’t record the man’s verbal response. He simply tells us that the man at once went to the authorities to tell on Jesus. That’s really incredible. Not once, but twice he blames Jesus and tries to get him into trouble. What has Jesus done to deserve this? All he has done is heal the man. That’s not only unbelief; it’s an inexplicable lack of gratitude.
But have not all of us been guilty of this kind of ingratitude at one time or another? Jesus died on the cross for our sins; yet prior to our conversion, we essentially told him, “Thanks, but no thanks. We’re not interested.” We all have treated Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf with contempt, or at least indifference.
Why was Jesus persecuted?
John goes on to tell us that “this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath” (5:16). It appears that Jesus deliberately healed on the Sabbath almost as if to provoke the dispute that ensued. Were there not seven days in a week? He could have healed this man and others like him on any day of the week. Why did he have to do it on a Saturday?
Well, he did heal people on other days of the week, as we see in the other Gospels. Not every healing, or even most healings, were performed on a Sabbath. The point here, I believe, is simply that if Jesus encountered a person who required healing, he didn’t allow the fact that it was the Sabbath stand in the way of the healing. To do so would have been to capitulate to the unreasonable, petty, and legalistic Jewish stipulations regarding what was or was not permissible on the Sabbath.
Jesus thus used his Sabbath healings to challenge Jewish traditions that were unbiblical and based not on the word of God but on faulty human reasoning and conceptions about God. In this way, Jesus asserted his superior knowledge and insight into God’s character and requirements. As he said elsewhere, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). And he, being God, had authority over the Sabbath (Matt 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5). Thus, the Jewish authorities were correct in discerning that by healing on the Sabbath, Jesus implied he was God.
In the verbal exchange that ensued following Jesus’ healing of the lame man in John 5, Jesus declared, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Clearly, he put himself on par with God. But what did he mean by his statement, “The Father is working until now?” I believe he here corrected the Jewish assumption that the Sabbath was absolute and that God had forever finished his work. True, the Sabbath commemorated that last day of creation on which God “rested” from his labors, but every child knows that God never sleeps or gets tired and thus truly needs no rest. As Isaiah wrote, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isa 40:28). So, as Jesus pointed out, God the Father is continually at work; and in the same way, Jesus, too, was always working—including his work of healing people on a Sabbath if need be.
In the inexorable dynamic of this Johannine narrative, what started out as an innocuous encounter and subsequent healing has slowly but surely morphed into a messianic sign, a pointer to Jesus’ authority as the Christ and Son of God. The healing was not primarily about the invalid whose ability to walk was restored; it was primarily about Jesus’ identity as the Christ and Son of God.
Secondarily, the story is also about people’s need to respond to Jesus’ disclosure of his true identity with personal trust in him. The Jewish leaders who opposed him and took offense at his perceived infraction of their Sabbath rules fell short, as did the man who went off physically healed but spiritually still remained in his sin. His ignorance, unbelief, and outright ingratitude toward Jesus serve as perennial reminders that such abject disregard of Jesus leaves people subject to God’s wrath and renders them without excuse. The Fourth Evangelist makes this unfortunate reality explicit when he writes in another aside, “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” (5:18; cf. v. 16).
The issue was ultimately not Sabbath-breaking; the real conflict pertained to Jesus’ true identity. As the authorities rightly discerned, by calling God his own Father, Jesus claimed equality with God. However, as the believing reader knows, Jesus was not “making himself” equal to God—he truly was equal to God! Yet tragically, the authorities were unwilling to consider this possibility because their hearts were hardened due to their own sin.
Brothers and sisters, we desperately need hearts that are malleable, open, and receptive to who Jesus is and what he wants us to do. A Christian who hates fellow believers or even works actively to bring about their demise is a hypocrite.
You may argue that you don’t hate other believers. But do you love them? Love means giving your life for others as Jesus did and taking positive action on their behalf, not merely ignoring them or even harboring contempt in your heart toward them. We all need to examine our hearts if we desire to learn the lesson John wants to teach us through the story of the invalid and the Jewish authorities who were intransigent toward Jesus because of their sinful, hardened hearts.1
Pick up Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel by Andreas J. Köstenberger for a deeper look at Jesus’ signs—and what they teach us about John’s message and intent.
And if you enjoy this book, you may enjoy some of these other works by Dr. Kostenberger:
- Andreas J. Köstenberger, Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2021), 79–84.