JOHN 5:1-15.—FEB. 19.
Golden Text:—"A great multitude followed him,
because they saw his miracles."—John 6:2 .
THE word Bethesda signifies "House of Mercy." This was the name given to a large structure with five porches connected with a large pool of water, situated near to the walls of Jerusalem. The pool was fed by a spring whose underground reservoirs served as a trap for certain gases. When the gas accumulated in this reservoir it would force out the water, much after the same manner that oil wells sometimes flow out their contents. These flows of the water impregnated with the gases occurred at irregular intervals, and at such times the water in the pool would be disturbed or made to boil by the inflow as well as by the gases it contained.
The phenomenon not being understood, many considered that the agitation of the pool was miraculous, attributing it to an angel from heaven. Partly by the energizing influence of faith and partly perhaps by some medicinal quality imparted to the water by the gases, cures were effected which caused the pool to have considerable fame throughout that district. Benefit from the gases is suggested by the fact that it was only those who entered the water immediately after the agitation who profited by it. The impregnating gases, when once in the pool, would be speedily combined with the atmosphere, and those entering the water first would not only have the benefit of the impregnated water on their persons but would also inhale some of the escaping gases—ozone, or what not. A number of such springs are known to-day in various parts of the world, and many of them have a medicinal quality without any suspicion of a miracle. The American Cyclopedia on this subject says:—
"Medicinal waters are very common in many parts of the world, and people come to them from long distances to be cured. Priests, especially of Aesculapius, placed their sanctuaries near them, as at the alkaline springs of Nauplia, and the springs of Dodora. Phylostricus says that the Greek soldiers wounded in the battle on the Caicus were healed by the waters of Agamemnon's spring near Smyrna."
There is a spring of the kind mentioned in our lesson at Kissingen which, after a rushing sound, about the same time every day commences to bubble, and is most efficacious at the very time the gas is escaping. There are geysers also in Iceland, Wyoming and elsewhere of the intermittent or "troubled" character.
The House of Mercy with its five porches was built for a public sanitarium for the benefit and convenience of those who desired to use the agitated pool, and this explains why a great multitude of the sick, blind, halt, withered, lay in these porches waiting for an opportunity to benefit by the agitation of the waters. In this connection it should be noted that old Greek MSS omit the last seven words of verse three and all of verse four. These are not inspired words, were not written by John the Apostle, but were added to his statement later on—quite probably as a marginal note explanatory of the views held by the people, or possibly the thought of the copyist who made the marginal note. Some later copyist, thinking the marginal note was omitted from the text, added it in, and his manuscript, copied in turn, has come down to us. Until within the last fifty years, since the discovery of the older Greek MSS, none could know that these words were not a part of the divine [R3501 : page 40] record but an addition thereto, perhaps accidentally.
Our last lesson showed our Lord in Galilee and his second miracle at Cana. In this lesson we find him again at Jerusalem, drawn thither according to the Jewish usage to celebrate one of the great annual feasts. He was passing Bethesda, the "House of Mercy," and stopped to perform the miracle noted in this lesson. That our minds may the better grasp the situation, we quote descriptions of two such institutions given by modern writers: Bovet tells us of the bath of Ibrahim, near Tiberius, on the sea of Galilee, thus:
"The hole in which the spring is found is surrounded by several porticoes in which we see a multitude of people crowded one upon another, laid upon couches or rolled in blankets, with immeasurable extremes of misery and suffering." Zola describes the crowds at the grotto of Lourdes thus, "A perfect cour des miracles of human woe rolling along the sloping pavement. No order was observed, ailments of all kinds were jumbled together; it seemed like the clearing of some inferno, where the most monstrous maladies, the rare and most awful cases which provoke a shudder, had been gathered together."
Such a picture met the eyes of our dear Redeemer as he passed this House of Mercy. We can imagine better than describe the extent of his sympathy with the poor ailing ones before him. If such scenes of sorrow, pain and trouble touch our fallen hearts sensibly and deeply, how much more intense must have been the sympathy [R3501 : page 41] which our Lord experienced in the presence of such conditions. We may be sure that he who loved the whole world so much that he left the glory with the Father and assumed human nature, that he might die and redeem us and ultimately deliver us from the power of sin and its penalty, sickness and death, must have sympathized with the multitude of sufferers before him, crowding one upon another for the opportunity to receive benefit from the agitated waters. Nevertheless, despite all this sympathy, the record shows that our Lord healed but one of them. Indeed, so far as we may judge, this was his usual custom, as illustrated also in his discourse, in which he pointed out that while in God's providence there were many widows in Israel during the famine time, Elijah was only sent to the widow of Zarephath, and while there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha healed of leprosy only Naaman, the Syrian. Similarly, there were great multitudes of sick at this House of Mercy, but Jesus healed only one.
The reason for this is not difficult to find. Our Lord at his first advent was in the world not to deliver it from the power of sin and death and Satan, but to redeem it, and any deliverances which he granted at that time were only partial and illustrative—demonstrations of his power intended to awaken faith in him and his redemptive work on the part of those who had the ear of faith to hear and the eye of faith to see. These few heard, but the rest remained blinded and know not the great Messiah unto this day. Thank God for the blessed assurance that in his due time all Israel shall be saved from this blindness (Rom. 11:25,26), and not Israel only but all the families of the earth—"All the blind eyes shall be opened and all the deaf ears shall be unstopped."—Isa. 35:5.
While freely admitting that all of humanity's difficulties, mental, physical and moral, are traceable to the original deception of Satan, practised upon our first parents—while therefore willing to concede that every case of sickness is more or less directly or indirectly the work of the Adversary, and that of all the diseased ones we might properly enough say of each that "Satan hath bound him," nevertheless we are not of those who understand that the time has fully come for the binding of Satan and for the loosing of his prisoners. That time by divine arrangement is future, fixed—it is the Millennium. Since our Lord did not perform miracles for all the sick, neither are we to expect all the sick of to-day to be cured either by natural means or by miraculous power. It comforts us to remember that Satan and every evil is subject to the Almighty's power, and that in the case of the Lord's consecrated and their interests he is both able and willing to overrule, so that what ever he permits them will result in their greater blessing.
We are distinctly told that our Lord's miracles manifested forth beforehand his coming glory. They were thus lessons or pictures or illustrations of the great work of restitution from sin and sickness and death which our dear Redeemer will accomplish for the world very shortly—during his Millennial reign. Then we, his Church, associated with him, will share his power and great glory and privileges. Those who were beneficiaries of his miraculous power at his first advent evidently were but a mere handful as compared to all the sick, impotent and blinded of that time; and those miracles, aside from illustrating the future power of the Lord, were designed to testify of him and of his apostles as the representatives of the Father in the establishment of the new dispensation—the Gospel age, so different from its predecessor, the Jewish age and its law of Moses.
It is not improper for us to speak of the man who was the one favored out of a great multitude as having been elected or selected by the Lord as the person through whom he would manifest his power and coming glory. The narrative does not tell us why the Lord selected this one in preference to others. We may reasonably assume, however, that his thirty-eight years of infirmity had developed in him considerable penitence for sin, considerable desire for righteousness; that he had learned some valuable lessons during those thirty-eight years under the hand of affliction; and that it was because he had thus come into a condition where healing would be to his advantage that he was the favored one. Similarly, this is true in the favors of grace which the Lord is distributing during this age, and which are really much more valuable than any physical blessings that could be bestowed.
We may not at first see why the Lord favors some more than others with the knowledge of his grace and truth, but we may safely assume that there is a lesson, and that lesson lies in the direction of honesty of heart, repentance of sin and a desire for or "feeling after God." When God has any special favors to bestow we may safely assume that they are not given out haphazard, but according to some partial conditions of faith or worthiness. In the case of this man who was healed let us notice that there was no record that he had more faith in the Lord than had the other ones about him. On the contrary, the context shows that he had no faith—that he did not even know the Lord, and did not learn until afterward who he was that healed him.
As already intimated, our Lord's words to his followers, "Greater works than these shall ye do because I go unto my Father," have been fulfilled throughout this Gospel age in that it is a greater work to open the eyes of the understanding than to recover sight to the natural eyes; it is a greater work to open the ears of the understanding than to recover the natural hearing; it is a greater work to heal from sin than to heal from its type, leprosy; it is a greater work to recover from the lameness and weaknesses which have come upon the entire race through the fall than to restore strength to the natural limbs. In accordance with this thought we now remark that as our Lord queried the one whom he healed, asking, "Wilt thou be made whole?" and as he thus let the matter depend upon his own will, so it is with those who are now being healed of moral ailments, of those who are now being spiritually enlightened, etc.—the assistance is with themselves. If they have the ear to hear and the eye to see, to appreciate, to understand the gift of God in Christ, the question then is "Wilt thou be made whole?"
How many there are morally leprous, mentally blinded and partially deaf, who can see and hear and comprehend a little of the grace of God, and who, by accepting this little which they understand and by [R3501 : page 42] desiring to be made whole, might go on from grace to grace, from knowledge to knowledge, from triumph to triumph, ultimately to the full attainment of the great blessing which the Lord has proffered to his "little flock"—to become heirs of God, joint heirs with Jesus Christ our Lord, in his Kingdom, if so be that we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified together.
In harmony with this thought, let us all use our influence with all with whom we come in contact, with all who have no power to see or hear or understand or appreciate the grace of God, to urge upon them their acceptance of divine aid as we ourselves have experienced it—"grace sufficient for every time of need." Only with those who answer this question affirmatively is it worth our while to expend effort. The will must be pointed to the Lord or his blessing cannot come upon the heart and the life; we cannot hope that the Lord will work a miracle of grace in the hearts of the sin-sick unless they are ready to answer this question in the affirmative, "Wilt thou be made whole?" Only those who so will can be benefited in this age, for this is the divine order—the Lord seeketh such and such only to worship him in spirit and in truth. Our Lord at the first advent testified again on these lines, saying to many of those who heard his preaching, "Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life." To come unto the Lord means to accept his arrangements, to answer his query, saying, Yea, Lord, I would be made whole.
The healing of such is not instantaneous but gradual. [R3502 : page 42] They grow in grace, knowledge and love, and the completion of the work of grace will be in the First Resurrection "change," which the Lord promises to all those who in the present time answer his question affirmatively, and show that they are in earnest by seeking to walk thenceforth not after the flesh but after the Spirit. These come under the care of the Good Physician, and eventually he will make them whole, complete, perfect in his likeness.
Ere long the present election of the Church, the present favor and privilege of being made whole, will reach its accomplishment in the First Resurrection, and then, thank God, a still more general blessing will be open for the world. The promise of the Scriptures is that in God's due time the tabernacle of God shall be with men and he shall dwell with them. This is not yet. The race is still under the curse, Satan is still the "prince of this world," we are still waiting and praying, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven." The establishment of God's tabernacle or house in the world will be during the Millennial age. It will be a house of mercy, not merely for the elect few, but, according to the great Oath-Bound Covenant, God through his elect Church, the Christ, Head and body, the antitypical seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), shall "bless all the families of the earth."
Ah, yes; what a grand day that will be! "God shall wipe away the tears from off all faces"—yea, also, the reproach of his people shall be done away. No longer will it be a reproach to be of the Lord's people, no longer can it be said to the Lord's mouthpieces, "You tell of the love of God and his mercy and of the value of the great atonement, but we see sin and suffering, sorrow and death, continually reigning over the world." The reproach will be ended, Satan will be bound, the knowledge of the Lord will fill the whole earth and the wiping away of all tears and sorrows and aches and pains will begin. And to all who will rightly receive these favors and fall in line with them, the blessings will ultimately be completed in the full perfection of restitution accomplished at the end of the Millennial age, at the ushering in of the everlasting epoch, while for those who will then neglect, refuse the divine arrangements a merciful blotting out of existence has been arranged.—Acts 3:23.
In performing the miracle our Lord instructed the healed one to take up his bed and walk, and he did so. The bed probably was a very light mattress or comforter, after the custom of that time, and there was no real labor connected with this injunction. It was not the violation, therefore, of the Sabbath restrictions of the Jewish Law, which our Lord neither violated nor taught others to violate, for he was a Jew and subject, therefore, to all the terms and conditions of that Law as much as any other Jew. His object in instructing the man to carry the bed was probably twofold:—
(2) Indirectly it would attract the attention of the doctors and scribes of the Law, because they had formulated certain restrictions respecting the day which were not the Mosaic requirements. Our Lord would make use of this opportunity to teach a lesson, not only respecting his power but respecting a proper observance of the Law—that it was designed of the Lord to be for the benefit of mankind and not a moral fetter. Our Lord explained this on one occasion, saying to the scribes and Pharisees that their interpretation of the Law made it burdensome to the masses of the people—that they exaggerated the small features of the Law unduly, and that the greater principles of it, pertaining to righteousness, justice, love and mercy, they overlooked entirely.
From this narrative we see that just this result was attained. The scribes and Pharisees reproved the man for carrying his bed, and he returned that he was fully justified in so doing, because the person who healed him of his thirty-eight years' ailment must have been wise enough and good enough to be an authority on this subject and he was merely following his directions. Thus our Lord's miracle was made prominent to the class that he specially wished to have recognize him, namely the leaders and representatives of the nation, who specially were on trial at this time whether or not they would receive him; and, secondly, the difference between his teaching and good works and the teaching and no works of the Pharisees would be more manifest on the other hand.
It would appear that the healed man was so astonished by the incidents connected with his relief that for the moment he forgot to look for or inquire particularly about the one who had performed the miracle: and our Lord, not wishing to refuse the great multitude of sick ones there gathered, quietly withdrew, so that by the time the miracle was known the healer was not to be found. He had performed the miracle for the glory of God, to call attention to the new dispensation, and to himself as the divine representative in it, and incidentally he had healed, we may assume, the most worthy one of that multitude. The fact that Jesus specially met this [R3502 : page 43] man again in the Temple, where he had probably gone to express his thanks and praise to the Lord for his relief, implies that he had seen in the man something of more than ordinary character, which not only led him to heal him but also to reveal himself to him.
Our Lord's salutation to the healed man in the Temple must have been very significant, showing the latter that he was not only able to heal but that he had knowledge of the sins which had led up to the diseased condition thirty-eight years previously. He said to him, "Behold thou art made whole: sin no more lest a worse thing befall thee." There is a valuable lesson in our Redeemer's counsel—helpful not only for that poor man, but still more valuable and helpful to those who have by the Lord's grace been healed of sin-sickness, those who have been justified, those who have been accepted into God's family as sons of God. The penalty for original sin has been a severe one and has attached itself to every member of Adam's race; yet for this original sin God has provided a great atonement, and ultimately every creature shall have the fullest opportunity for escape from all its penalties and wages. But when thus liberated a fresh responsibility is upon us. As the apostle declares, if we sin wilfully after we have received a knowledge of the Truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins, but we may surely look for judgment and fiery indignation which will devour us as adversaries. (Heb. 10:27.) The wages of original sin which the whole race has tasted is death, with its accompaniments of sorrow and pain—dying. The wages of wilful, deliberate, intentional sin, after we have been justified from all our sins—that penalty would be a worse thing, very much worse than the original penalty; for although it would be the same penalty of death, it would be the second death, for which God has assured us he has made no provision for recovery—Christ dieth no more. If after being released and justified we sin wilfully, and yet with a measure of weakness and imperfection tempting us, we may expect stripes; but if we sin wilfully and deliberately, aside from a particular temptation or weakness, we may expect nothing further in the way of divine mercy and forgiveness, because having enjoyed these in respect to the original sin we would thus come under a new and personal condemnation, for a new and inexcusable violation of righteousness whose penalty is death without hope of recovery.