By J.R. Miller
"One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years." John 5:5. It is not easy to be sick year after year. Prolonged invalidism very seriously tests the quality of life. Some people fret and chafe in such experiences. Pain is hard to bear. Then their illness seems a sad interruption to their activities, breaking into their plans for lifework. It is much easier to go to one's tasks every day, toiling for long hours--than it is to lie quietly in bed, doing nothing, yet keeping sweet. Yet invalidism, when accepted in faith and trust, and endured with patience--often produces very beautiful life. There are shut-ins whose rooms are almost like heaven in their brightness and joy. Some of the most wonderful revelations of divine grace have been made in cases of long and painful illness, when the sufferers have accepted their condition as God's will for them and have found it a condition of blessing. Richard Baxter, who himself had been an invalid for long years, has a note on this passage which is worth repeating: "How great a mercy was it to live thirty-eight years under God's wholesome discipline! Oh, my God, I thank You for the like discipline of fifty-eight years; how safe a life is this, in comparison with full prosperity and pleasure!" The furnace fires of sickness burn off many a chain of sin and worldliness. Many now in heaven, no doubt, will thank God forever for the invalidism which kept them from sin when on the earth.
Jesus came down to the Bethesda spring that Sabbath and, as His eye looked over those who were waiting there, He noticed one man to whom His sympathy went out at once. He saw all the sufferers who were sitting in the porches that day, and He was moved with compassion as He looked upon them. He saw them, however, not merely as a company of sad people--but as individuals. He knew the story of each one--how long he had been suffering, how hard his life had been. Among all who were there that day, He singled out one for special thought and help. Probably he had been a sufferer longest. At least this man's case made its appeal to the heart of Jesus. He knows about each patient in a hospital, or each shut-in in a town. This personal interest of our master in those who are sick or broken in their lives, is wonderfully comforting. He knows all about us--our pain that is so hard to bear, our disappointments year after year, growing at last to hopelessness. It is very sweet to be able to say always, "He knows!"
Coming up to this man, Jesus asked him, "Do you want to get well?" He wished to rouse him from his lethargy. He asks the same question now of each one who is in any trouble. He comes especially to those who are spiritually sick, and asks them if they will be made whole. The question implies His willingness and readiness to heal. He can take these deformed, crippled, and helpless lives of ours--and restore them to strength and beauty. It seems strange that anyone should refuse to be made whole, when Christ comes and offers to do it. If we were sick in body, and He wished to make us well, we would not say, "No." If we were crippled and deformed, and He wanted to make us spry and straight, we would be glad to accept His offer. Why is it that when He comes to us and asks us if we would have Him make our maimed and crippled souls whole--so many of us say, "Oh, no! "Or, "Not yet!"
The man did not answer the question directly--but uttered a complaint. He had been so long used to hopelessness, that the song had altogether died out of his heart. He had always been pushed aside when there had seemed a possible chance for him. "I have no one, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool." Other people always got ahead of him. He had no one to help him, and he could not go himself. There are some people who really seem to have no friend. Nobody ever gives a thought to them. There are many unsaved people who might almost say the same, "I have no one to help me to Christ." No one cares for their souls. True, there is none who could not come to Christ if he would. Yet Christian people must not forget that the unsaved need the help of those who are saved, that the forgiven must carry the news of mercy to the unforgiven. Part of our mission in the world--is to help others to Christ. This man waiting at the fountain's edge is a type of many people about us--close to the healing waters, with hungry, unsatisfied hearts, needing only the help of a human hand or the sympathy of a loving heart to lead them to Christ, yet never getting that help or that sympathy, and sitting close to the waters year after year, unhealed, unsaved.
It was an important moment for this man when Jesus spoke to him. There was a shorter way of help for him than by waiting for someone to put him into the water. "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk!" The man might have said: "Why, I cannot rise. That is the very thing I have not been able to do for thirty-eight years. Take up my mat! Why, I could not lift a feather; and as for walking, I could as soon fly. I cannot obey His command, until I get strength to do it." There are people who talk just in this way about beginning the Christian life. They plead their helplessness as a reason for their delay. There is a fine lesson for such people in this man's prompt obedience. The moment he heard the command--he made the effort to rise, and as he made the effort--strength was given to him.
New life came to this lame man, with the obeying. Christ never commands an impossibility. When He bids us rise out of our helplessness and begin the Christian walk--He means to give us the grace and strength to do it. The command to take up his mat was a sign that he would not have any more need for it. He had been lying upon it for many years. Now it should be rolled up as no longer required. Some people enter upon the Christian life as an experiment. They will try it and see if they can hold out, yet they still keep the way open for return to the old life if they should not have success in the new. But this is not the way Christian faith is meant to act. We should burn the bridges behind us--that we may not possibly retreat to the country out of which we have come. We should put away the implements of our wickedness, our crutches, our staves and our beds, with no thought of ever returning again to them.
"Take up your mat, and walk." The word "walk" suggests that the man was not simply to rise up and stand where he was--he was to move out in the paths of duty and service. The invalid is restored, that he may take his place in society, and let his hand become busied among the activities of life. We are saved to serve.
Before the man could get far with his mat, he was challenged for breaking the Sabbath. There are people who spoil everything. They find fault with every beautiful thing anyone does. These men knew what had happened to this poor man. We would think they would have rejoiced in him in His restoration. But the fact that he seemed to them to be violating one of their Sabbath rules, bulked more largely in their eyes than all the blessings that had come to him. When they told the happy man that it was not lawful for him to be carrying his mat on the Sabbath, he answered that He who had cured him told him to take up his mat and walk. When they asked him who the man was, he said he did not know. He had been made so glad by his healing--that he gave no thought to the Healer. Jesus had slipped away in the crowd. Too often, however, men receive benefits--without showing gratitude to the person through whom the benefits are received. Many of those who are helped by Christ, have but little interest in Christ, and never think of Him, though they owe so much to Him.
But, although the man had shown no regard for his Healer, Christ was deeply interested in him, and followed him up. Finding him in the temple, He said to him, "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." Evidently the man's thirty-eight years of illness had been brought about by some sin in his early life. There are many men who in a lifelong feebleness or infirmity, pay the penalty of sins of youth. Very pathetic is the cry of the Psalmist, "Remember not the sins of my youth" (Psalm 25:7). The man had been healed--but his continued health depended now upon his right living being continued. If he turned back again to the sins which had brought upon him his diseased condition through so many unhappy years, the evil would return in worse form than ever. There is something worse even than thirty-eight years of helplessness. These words have serious warning for everyone who has been forgiven. The condition of forgiveness is repentance, and repentance, if it would prove true--must be final, unconditional and unchanging.