Several years ago, during an intern experience working as a Pastor, I got an opportunity to climb my first mountain. As a kid from Kansas that claims a bump in the middle of a field as it’s highest elevation point, this was a very exciting opportunity. It was no Everest, but since the climb required ropes, ice picks and crampons, along with an overnight stay, it seemed legit.
Like firsts often are, this turned out to be one of the more memorable climbing experiences for me, although for all the wrong reasons. The food left much to be desired, getting beyond the tree line took longer than expected, and on our descent, darkness fell quickly. We lost our tents, and had to bivouac for the night (another first for me!). At daybreak, we finally located our tents, dragged our tired behinds out of the forest, and slogged our way home.
None of that was as discouraging to me as what happened in the middle of the climb. When we got near the top, we realized there was a rock scramble that our group was ill-prepared for. Instead of being able to victoriously summit and celebrate our achievement, we had to give up just 300 feet from our goal. From a safety perspective, it was the right thing to do. But few things are as deflating to me as feeling like I’ve left something halfway done.
John 5 starts with the richly symbolic story of a sick man beside the pool of Bethesda, living life halfway. While his malady is not specifically identified, he most likely suffers as a paraplegic. The word used to describe his condition refers simply to general human weakness, but can also figuratively mean, “impotence in the sense of inner poverty or incapacity.” [mfn]Vol. 1: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (493). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.[/mfn] Whatever it is that afflicts him, he has resided beside these “healing waters” for almost 4 decades.
This prolonged suffering helps explain his lack of optimism. Jesus asks him a seemingly foolish question, with what should be an obvious answer: “Do you want to be healed?” Instead of answering affirmatively, he offers only an excuse about being too slow and without proper assistance. In body and spirit, he lives as less than human, as only half a man.
Jesus is persistent however. He doesn’t scold the man for throwing a mini-pity party. Instead, Jesus declares a word of faith, in the form of a command: “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” Immediately healed, the man obeys, and walks into his new life, with his bed in tow.
When the Jewish leaders see this man flagrantly breaking the Sabbath, they are livid with Jesus. In their regard for the Sabbath, they display an utter disregard for human suffering. Of course the Sabbath breaking is not what ticks the Jews off the most. That moment comes when Jesus offers this loaded defense for his actions: “My Father is working until now and I am working.”
Like Father, Like Son
With this statement, the attention of the chapter shifts from the activity of Jesus, to the source of his authority. Instead of backing down, Jesus reiterates his equality with God and claims that he only does what the Father “shows him.” This describes a direct connection between father and son, as if Jesus is an apprentice learning the family business. It refers to every aspect of Jesus’ life experience. Through words of affirmation and guidance, through mysteriously revealed Spiritual insights, and through an immersive experience involving his senses, emotions and perceptions, Jesus sees exactly what his Father is doing in the world.
Christians tend to have difficulty appreciating how absurd these statements would seem to the 1st century Jews. But this kind of statement causes trouble among a variety of audiences. It contributes to the secularist approach to the gospels as a mere myth. It offends Muslims who much admire Jesus, but cannot understand equating him with God. And while Christians defiantly defend the words of Jesus, many struggle to fully embrace the example he set.
If you’re a Christian, ask yourself this question: how often do you truly look and discern what the Father is doing to decide your course? This goes back to the kind of influence Jesus was building. Jesus does only what the father is doing. He watches his movements and imitates those. How often do we look at something else?
It seems quite natural to check our financial resources, our social status, or our networks of connections to determine our future course. Meanwhile, we remain out of touch with what the Father wishes to reveal through these moments.We can’t hear his gentle voice, sense his permeating presence, and perceive his movement even in the fluctuation of our emotions. But this was how Jesus lived every moment.
Where We Set Our Hope
According to Jesus, this perception of the Father’s leading was also lacking in the experience of his accusers. Listen to a few of his assessments of them:
“You do not have the Father’s word abiding in you.”
“You do not have the love of God within you.”
“Yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”
The Jews could easily say, with many others today, “Your words don’t apply to us, because we don’t follow you.” On this point, Jesus actually seems to agree. He insists, “I will not accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you set your hope.”
Think about that for a minute. Perhaps you’ve been hurt by the church, or religion or religious people. Or maybe you can’t match reason with faith, or your faith can’t stretch to accepting Jesus as lord of all. Instead you set your hope on community, on human intellect or a non-Christian faith. Or even if you do believe in Jesus, you have difficulty embracing the more mysterious aspects of his faith journey. You don’t like a faith you can’t fully explain. What if the place you set your hope is truly your judge in life?
Jesus does not indict the Jews on account of his words, or even directly their response to him. Rather he speaks to the results of their course, in their own inner world. Since they placed their hope on Moses, he simply prompts them to examine that hope. Have they followed that hope to it’s natural conclusion? Are they living out that hope with courage and integrity? Or are they holding back on the parts that make them uncomfortable?
According to John, whatever you set your hope on, Christ is the end of that hope. He is the word from the beginning, the Messiah Moses points to, and the son of God. But life is not found from agreement with these hopes; life is found in relationship with Christ himself.
This is the true challenge that Jesus extends to us. In the same manner that he immersed his life in the Father, and depended on that fellowship for all he did, we must immerse ourselves in the presence of Christ. And this brings us back to the side of the pool, back to that peculiar question, “Do you want to be healed?”
This was the point of pairing the stories of the lame man and the accusers of Jesus. Both the man and the Jews were relying only on partial strength. One suffered from an obvious physical condition, the others from an unseen “inner poverty.” They each were living life halfway .
After initially hesitating, the lame man accepted the offer of healing. Thirty-eight years of empty vigilance at the poolside was enough for him. He embraced the words of truth and stood up to walk into new life.
The Jews response at this point is incomplete. John has yet to finish telling that story, but they seem content to hold onto mere words on a page, rather than experience life with the One these words point to.
That leaves you and me, the readers to answer for ourselves. Am I content with rituals without meaning, intellect without wisdom, and belief without power? Am I content to live life halfway? Or do I want the full experience offered by Jesus? Do I want to be healed?
For Prayer & Reflection
Take some time to respond to God about the passage and primer you just read. Read through John 5 again, and let these questions help guide your prayer time.
- Where in your life do you feeling you are showing up “halfway?” What would it mean to be healed?
- Where have you set your hope in life? How is that impacting your inner life?
- What would coming to Jesus look like in your daily experience?