Enabling the Lame Man
I enjoy good children’s books, and not just to read to my children, but because they can be beautiful, fun, and moving. Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss is one of my favorites. It contains a page halfway through that is dedicated to the Waiting Place, drawn in dreary shades of grey, blue, and brown. Anyone who has felt stuck in life can relate to this page. Whether you were frozen by indecision, waylaid by illness, job loss, or some other crisis, or facing some other intractable scenario, what got you unstuck? Did someone come alongside and help, did an opportunity simply emerge in time, or did a sudden burst of insight and inspiration propel you forward? The lame man in John 5 was in the Waiting Place. And Jesus met him there.
J. C. Ryle describes his bleak state quite well:
We read of a man who had been ill for no less than thirty-eight years! For eight-and-thirty weary summers and winters he had endured pain and infirmity. He had seen others healed at the waters of Bethesda, and going to their homes rejoicing. But for him there had been no healing. Friendless, helpless, and hopeless, he lay near the wonder-working waters, but derived no benefit from them. Year after year passed away, and left him still uncured. No relief or change for the better seemed likely to come, except from the grave.
Whatever we make of the healing waters of Bethesda, this man had not found his way into them. And yet rivers of living water came to him.
Jesus’ question in verse 6, “Do you want to be healed?” is both arresting and puzzling. But it requires no speculation to detect the compassion behind it. Jesus looked out, saw the crowds, and had compassion on them. And he saw individuals too. Jesus question serves to draw the man out of himself and prepare him for his rescue. The man’s answer shows that while he is only yards away from a potential solution, he no longer entertains hope of improvement. Then, having singled the man out of the crowd, Jesus issues direct commands: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” Immediately, the man does.
The striking development in this third of the seven signs, the public miracles that structure John’s account, is that Jesus takes all the initiative. His mother does not prompt him as she did at the wedding in Cana. And there is no mention of faith as there was with the official in the immediately preceding context. In fact, the portrait of the lame man is entirely unflattering. He shows no expectation of Jesus helping him. When Jesus meets him later, he offers warning instead of assurance: “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” And the last thing we’re told about the man is that he exposes Jesus to the threatening authorities. This sign tells us that Jesus is more willing to intervene for our good than we naturally desire him to.
Sin has brought all kinds of misery into the world, and Jesus has come to deliver us from sin and, consequently, its miseries. Furthermore, Jesus performed this sign on the Sabbath to challenge prevailing religious notions of rest. It is neither quietist inactivity nor ritualistic drudgery, but peace and empowerment. Jesus comes to bring rest. He meets us in the Waiting Place, but he does not leave us there.
If we think that Jesus does not care for us in the Waiting Place, this sign reminds us that his coming into the world, his death, burial, and resurrection, give us solid ground to trust in his promises and character to carry us through. He has a gracious purpose for our lives that will glorify him. Though we lie on beds of sorrow, we will soon get up, even if we still carry those beds with us, and begin moving forward again. Life has its Waiting Place—its bypath meadows and sloughs of despond to use familiar images from John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress. John’s third sign encourages us to get up, take up our beds, and walk, because we walk with the risen Christ, the Waiting Place behind us, the land of Beulah before us.
Steven McCarthy is the rector of Christ Church Anglican (South Bend, IN). He earned an M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Pittsburgh, PA), and is a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (Grand Rapids, MI). He and his wife are native Michiganders. They have three young children.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on John (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1879), 1:265.