“Institutional Man” (John 5:1-15)

John 5:1-15  After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 

2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.  3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.  4   5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

They say necessity is the mother of invention.  But when one’s needs remain unmet, necessity becomes the grandmother of desperation.  John gives us a sparing number of details.  In fact, it wasn’t until nearly 400 years after John’s death that scribes started including a clarifying remark.  Some English Bibles include verse 4: “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.”

This small detail completes the scene.  Apparently it was believed that from time to time, an angel would stir the waters of the pool.  The first one in received total healing.  Did it work?  We don’t know—but then again, maybe it didn’t have to.  Desperation can make a man do strange things, and shape and distort his soul like clay.

Jesus finds a man who’d spent 38 years in the shadow of desperation.  For all we know, this man lived his whole life in this condition.  In today’s world, a physical handicap like this would be a setback.  In this man’s world, it was a death sentence.  A paralyzed man had to rely on others for everything.  Food.  Hygeine.  And over time, pity came to outweigh hope.


6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”  7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, 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.”

Jesus, we’re told, “knew what was in man” (John 2:25).  So His question seems strange.  “Do you want to get well?”  But the man never exactly answers the question, does he?  Instead the man offers an excuse.  He has no helpers, only competitors.  It’s here that for the first time, the man’s sickness begins to take shape.

We may not be able to draw a straight line between first-century paralysis and present-day desire, but that doesn’t prevent us from defining ourselves by our flaws.  If you had to define yourself by your worst experience, what would it be?  See, there’s some words that package a whole litany of stories and emotions in just a few syllables.  Single.  Infertility.  Alone.  Divorce.  Cancer.  These words haunt us.  Taunt us.  Betray our confidence that the world could ever be good to us.

On a long enough timeline, these words become strangely familiar—if not comforting.  The film The Shawshank Redemption tells the story of Andy Dufresne, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  He befriends his fellow inmates, including Red who reminds him that the world inside is not at all like the world outside.  Stay inside long enough, he warns, and the world outside loses luster.  He calls this being “institutionalized:”

“These walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized…They send you here for life, and that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.”

For the “institutionalized,” the condition matters more than the cure.  Loneliness, divorce, cancer—these become sources of my identity.  “Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks.  His question is simple, though haunting: “Are you prepared to let your life be defined by something more than this?”  The “institutionalized” person gets used to getting by on pity.  The kind words of others become the only reminder of being alive.

Jesus offers more.


8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”

9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.

The Sabbath referred to the day when God finished His work of creation.  For devout Jews, it was meant to be a day of rest.  But the Sabbath is also used to refer to a time in the future when there would be a true rest, a better rest for all of God’s people (Hebrews 4:9-10).  “Get up,” Jesus says.  “Walk.”  The whole scene hints at a time in the future when all of God’s followers would be granted the power to stand—not just from earthly disease but from death itself.

If Jesus embodies this kind of power, if Jesus offers this kind of promise, why would I pursue identity elsewhere?   Hope replaces fear.  Wonder replaces doubt.  If suffering and death are going to be reversed—nay, eliminated—then my identity is not found in my flaws, but in the spectacular promise of resurrection.  I “get up;” I “walk”—not because of a strength that lies within me, but a strength that is given to me through the miraculous provision of the gospel.


Unfortunately, in the first century there were those that were more concerned about Jesus’ Sabbath violation.  Resting on the Sabbath wasn’t just an option; it was a strict requirement.  The religious authorities were too preoccupied with maintaining order than in celebrating the miracle.  So they pursued answers from the man:

10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.”  11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.'”  12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”  13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.

The man can’t give them the answers they want.  It wasn’t until later that Jesus attached His name to the man’s experience:

14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”  15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

There’s something unsettling about this final encounter.  Stop sinning?  Something worse?  Was this a threat?  Could Jesus have meant that the man’s earlier sickness was some sort of cosmic punishment?  Suffering is a product of a sinful world, but as Jesus makes clear later, not all suffering is a direct result of human sin (John 9:3).  Not that this makes Jesus’ message any less troubling.

Think about it.  What if Jesus could give you exactly what you wanted?  Would that really make you happy?  If your greatest problem is loneliness, would a new relationship really make you happy?  If your greatest problem was a lack of income, would money really make you happy?  So you see what Jesus is saying: Don’t assume that being paralyzed was your greatest problem.  If the problem was only physical, a physical cure would solve everything.  But the problem—for him, for you, for me—is more than that.  External cures won’t help an internal problem.  Our problem is spiritual.  Our problem is sin.  Only the gospel can cure this inner, spiritual sickness.

The most shocking news of all is that on the cross, we see exactly what Jesus meant by “something worse.”  On the cross we see the shocking nature of God’s just and righteous anger at human sin.  On the cross, God demands blood.  On the cross, God offers His own.

Like this man, my identity can be wrapped up in my own circumstances.  It can be wrapped up in my choices, or even the choices of others.  The gospel says that I am defined not by my circumstances, my failures, or my flaws, but by the unending love of an unfailing Savior.

Which defines you?