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Lesson 26: The Impotence of Religion, the Power of Christ (John 5:1-16)

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September 8, 2013

There are billions of people around the world seeking salvation through religions that cannot save anyone. With sadness in my heart, I’ve watched Buddhists in Asia offering sacrifices, spinning prayer wheels, and going through other religious rituals in the hopes of attaining Nirvana. We have quasi-Buddhists in Flagstaff who fly prayer flags in the hopes that it will bring them good karma. I’ve seen Hindu holy men at the temple in Kathmandu who think that by looking weird and meditating every day, they will gain salvation. When we were in western China last year, our driver stopped the bus at sundown, got out his prayer rug, and said his prayers toward Mecca before we could resume our trip. We were there during Ramadan, when the Muslims think that fasting during the daylight hours will help get them into heaven.

I watched a woman in an Orthodox cathedral in Romania weep as she prayed to an icon of some “saint.” I’ve seen Roman Catholics kneel before statues of Jesus and Mary, praying their rosary beads in their attempt to be right with God. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses canvass our neighborhoods every weekend, thinking that their efforts will earn them salvation. And—let’s be honest—there are people in Protestant churches every Sunday who mistakenly think that their church membership and good deeds will get them into heaven when they die.

But the Bible is clear that religion is impotent to save anyone. By religion, I mean any humanly devised system of belief that teaches that by keeping their rules, rituals, and requirements, a person can gain eternal life. Jesus consistently confronted the Jewish religious leaders of His day, even though they claimed to be following the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They thought that by adhering to the Law of Moses, they could commend themselves to God. Over the centuries, they had added to that Law many of their own traditions. But Jesus deliberately confronted these religious leaders. Eventually, they were the ones who put Him to death.

In our text, we move from a section in John’s Gospel where we saw initial belief in Jesus as the Son of God to a section of mounting unbelief and opposition to Him, originating with the Jewish leaders (whom John often calls, “the Jews”; 5:10), leading finally to the cross. At the root of their hostility toward Jesus was that He confronted their man-made religious traditions, especially their Sabbath laws. Jesus never broke the Sabbath as God intended for the Jews to keep it. But He deliberately violated the human traditions that had grown up around the Sabbath, because many of the Jews mistakenly thought that by keeping these traditions they could be right with God. But no one can gain eternal life by keeping God’s law, because no one can keep it perfectly from the heart, which is the requirement.

And so Jesus deliberately did things on the Sabbath to confront the Jewish leaders. After all, He could have waited 24 hours to heal this lame man by the Pool of Bethesda. He had been paralyzed for 38 years; what difference would one more day make? And, Jesus could have told him to leave his mat there by the pool and come back and get it the next day, so as not to provoke the religious leaders. They had taken the Sabbath stipulation not to carry any burden on the Sabbath (Jer. 17:21-22) so far as to say that you could not carry a handkerchief from one room to the next. But to get around this rule, if you tied it on, then you could wear it into the next room! Jesus could have told this healed man not to do anything that would violate these Jewish traditions, but He did not. He told him to pick up his mat and carry it.

The great contrast that comes through in this miracle is the impotence of religion versus the mighty power of Christ. Neither the Jewish leaders nor the superstition about the angel healing the first person into the water after it was stirred up had helped this man in 38 years. But in one crisp command, Jesus brought instant and complete healing to him. The lesson is:

While religion is impotent to save, Jesus is mighty to save.

Let me explain that I do not see any evidence that this man whom Jesus healed was saved spiritually. In saying this, I am disagreeing with the venerable C. H. Spurgeon, who thought that the man exercised faith to obey Jesus’ command to get up, pick up his pallet, and walk (see, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 13:201; 21:22). But John never hints that the man believed in Christ. At first, he didn’t even know who Jesus was. He never thanked Jesus for healing him. And when he found out who Jesus was, he went to the Jewish authorities to report Him, even though he surely knew that they were hostile towards Him.

So while I do not believe that this healed man believed in Jesus and was saved spiritually, I do think that this miracle illustrates Christ’s power to save, as contrasted with the impotence of religion to save anyone. And so I hope that you understand that coming to church, serving the church, being baptized, taking communion, or any other religious activities can never forgive your sins or gain you eternal life. But Christ is powerful to save you and will save you instantly if you will believe in Him. Note three things:

1. The human race, fallen in sin, needs God’s salvation above all else.

The pathetic scene around the Pool of Bethesda (the most likely reading, which meant, “Pool of Mercy”) must have been a sight to behold! It was a large pool surrounded by five porticoes, and, “In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered” (John 5:3). These people in various states of physical impairment are a picture of the human race maimed by sin. While not all sickness is a direct result of sin (although this man’s condition did seem to stem from his sin, 5:14), all sickness and death is a result of Adam’s fall into sin. Those awful effects of sin will one day be removed in the new heaven and earth (Rev. 21:4).

Do you ever look at people whose bodies are impaired and grieve over the toll that sin has taken on the human race? In 1987, Marla and I were walking on a very crowded street in Guangzhou, China in the rain. We were moving along with the crowd when I almost stepped on a man who only came up to just above my knees. He had no legs and no wheelchair. He was using his arms and hands to propel his torso along the muddy street. He probably often got stepped on or knocked over. A wave of horror swept over me and I immediately thought of the rest of the people around us, who were just as impaired spiritually as that poor man was physically.

The scene by this pool must have become even more grotesque when the water bubbled up. Verses 3b-4 are not in the original text of John, but were added by a later copyist to explain the man’s comment to Jesus in 5:7. Occasionally the water would bubble up, probably from a spring below, but the people superstitiously thought that it was an angel causing the disturbance and that the first one into the water would be healed. Perhaps someone had once been healed of some psychosomatic disorder after the bubbling of the water, and it led to this myth. So there was probably a mad scramble of these blind, maimed, and crippled people, clamoring over one another to be the first into the water after it bubbled. It’s a tragic picture of helpless, sin-wounded people, putting their faith in some religious superstition that cannot save them, rather than trusting in Jesus Christ, who can save the worst of sinners.

2. Religion is impotent to save anyone, but it is powerful to enslave many.

Religion has no power to save anyone, but it is powerful in one way: it is powerful to enslave those under its influence.

A. Religion is impotent to save because it focuses on outward conformity to manmade traditions, not on inward conformity to God’s Word.

The Pharisees were the religious police of the day, much like the Taliban in Muslim countries today. When they saw this man carrying his mat on the Sabbath, they pounced (5:10), “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” When the man explains that he has been healed and that it was the one who made him well who told him to carry his pallet, the religious police didn’t rejoice at his healing or praise God for such a miracle. Rather, they wanted to know who had healed him, so that they could go after him. We’ll see the same thing with the blind man whom Jesus heals in John 9. Impotent religion emphasizes outward conformity to its rules, but it can’t change hearts.

We watched the movie, “The Kite Runner,” because it was filmed in some of the areas where we traveled last summer. It exposes the hypocrisy of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In one horrific scene, they stone a woman accused of adultery. But the leader who carries out the stoning also takes children from an orphanage to use for his own evil sexual pleasure, and then disposes of them like so much trash. That’s the impotence of all religion: it focuses on outward conformity to its rules, but it ignores its own lack of conformity to God’s holy standards on the heart level (Mark 7:6-23).

Jesus sought out this man after he was healed and warned him (5:14), “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.” As I said, not all bodily sickness is directly linked to sin (see John 9:2-3), but sometimes it is. This man’s 38 years of being crippled was due to his sin! Sin never gets us what it promises! Jesus lets him know that He has healed him, but that now he needs to stop sinning. Going to the temple and keeping the Jewish traditions will not deal with his heart. God is not fooled by those who are religious outwardly, but whose hearts are full of lust, greed, pride, and selfishness. The “something worse” that Jesus warns the man about is not another 38 years of sickness, but the eternal judgment of God, which is far worse. Religion can’t save because it focuses on external conformity. It can’t deal with our sin on the heart level.

B. While religion is impotent to save people from their sins, it is powerful to enslave people to its damning system.

These religious leaders surely had seen this man lying helplessly by the Pool of Bethesda over the years. Now they see him walking around in the temple. You would think that they would be rejoicing with him over this amazing miracle and giving glory to God. But all they could do was rebuke him for carrying his mat on the Sabbath and track down the healer who had told him to do it! John says (5:16), “For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath.”

You would think that they would recognize that Jesus could only do such a miracle by God’s power. Later, when Jesus healed the man born blind on the Sabbath, the healed man pointed this out to the Jewish leaders (9:30-33). The climax of their spiritual blindness was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, but rather than repenting and believing in Jesus, they sought to kill both Jesus and Lazarus (11:53; 12:10)! So the religious leaders were enslaved to their own system, which could not save them from their sins.

But they also sought to enslave the people under them. Here, they threaten this man for carrying his mat on the Sabbath, which was their manmade tradition. He apparently was afraid of their threats and wanted to put himself in good standing with them, because when he later found out who Jesus was, he informed the Jews, knowing full well that it would put Jesus in jeopardy (5:15). Rather than worshiping the One who had healed him (9:38), the man was afraid of offending the religious leaders. He was in bondage to their damning religious system.

All human religions work the same way: they use fear and threats to keep people in submission to the system. The Roman Catholic Church held power over most of Europe for a thousand years by threatening people with torture, imprisonment, death, and eternal hell if they dared to challenge the Pope. They did not teach that God graciously forgives all the sins of the one who believes in Jesus apart from works. Islam is even worse for holding people in bondage to their system by brute force.

But this miracle contrasts the impotence of religion with the mighty power of Jesus:

2. Jesus is mighty to save.

As I said, there is no indication in the text that Jesus saved this man spiritually. To the contrary, the evidence points to the fact that he was not saved. But all of Jesus’ healing miracles are illustrations of spiritual salvation. They display Jesus’ mighty power, not just to heal bodies that will eventually die, but to heal souls that will live forever with Him in glory. Note three things here:

A. Jesus knows the condition of every person.

John 5:6: “When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” We are not told whether Jesus asked someone nearby about the man’s situation, but we’ve already seen that Jesus knew about Nathanael before He met him (1:47-48). He knew the hearts of the people in Jerusalem who superficially believed in Him (2:24-25). He knew the sins of the woman at the well in Samaria (4:17-18). So it’s likely here that Jesus’ knowledge of this man’s condition was supernatural. He may have picked him out of the crowd to heal because He knew that he was the most pathetic case there. He had 38 years of frustration and discouragement in his attempts to be healed. Jesus knew.

Jesus also knows everything about you. He knows all of your thoughts and secret sins. He knows all of your disappointments and discouragements. There is nothing hid from His sight (Heb. 4:13). And He not only knows, He also cares!

You may wonder, “If Jesus knew all about this man, then why does He ask him (5:6), “Do you wish to get well?” At first glance, it’s a strange question to ask a man who has been sick for 38 years! Didn’t Jesus know the answer to that question? Of course He did! Jesus never asked questions to gain information! He asks questions to get us to see our need for Him. He may have wanted the man to recognize his own helplessness and to look to Jesus for healing. Or, He may have wanted the man to recognize how discouraged and lacking in hope he was, as seen by his complaining answer (5:7).

Also, the question uncovers the fact, as strange as it may seem, that some people do not want to get well because it means that they will have to be responsible. As James Baldwin observed (in Reader’s Digest, 1/83), “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” If he became well, the man would have to stop begging and start working for a living. If he got well, he couldn’t complain about his circumstances. He couldn’t blame those who didn’t care enough to help him into the water. And, he may not have wanted to be healed because, as Jesus later tells him, he then needed to stop sinning so that nothing worse would happen to him. Some people actually love their sin so much that they are willing to risk going to prison or contracting a disease like AIDS or to go on suffering rather than give up their sin!

B. Jesus can speak the word and instantly heal a soul who has been bound by sin for decades.

Jesus didn’t reply to the man’s complaint about nobody caring for him (5:7). Rather, He said (5:8), “Get up, pick up your pallet, and walk.” With the command, Jesus imparted the power. The man’s atrophied legs were instantly strengthened (5:9): “Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.” It’s the same as when He told the man with the withered hand (Luke 6:10), “Stretch out your hand.” But that was the problem—he couldn’t stretch out his hand. But with the command, Jesus imparted the power. Even more dramatic was when Jesus spoke to the dead Lazarus (John 11:43), “Lazarus, come forth.” Dead men aren’t known to respond to commands! But because of the power of Jesus’ word, Lazarus came forth after four days in the tomb. It’s like His future command at the end of the age (5:28-29): “All who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth,” either for a resurrection of life or of judgment.

As I said, this isn’t just a story of a physical miracle, but a picture of what Jesus can do for you spiritually. He commands you to do something that you cannot do for yourself, any more than this crippled man could obey Jesus’ command to walk. He says to you, “Believe in Me and you will not perish, but have eternal life.” No matter how long you’ve been crippled by sin, if you will respond to Christ’s command, your response is not from your sinful heart. It’s the gift of God. When you obey His command, He imparts His power to give you eternal life.

C. Jesus is sovereign in imparting salvation to whomever He wishes.

Why didn’t Jesus clear out the Pool of Bethesda by healing everyone there? He had the power to do it. But it wasn’t His purpose to do so. He only chose to heal this one undeserving man. Why didn’t the Lord choose everyone in Ur of the Chaldees to follow Him, but just chose Abram? It wasn’t His purpose to do so. Why didn’t He choose both Ishmael and Isaac and both Esau and Jacob? It wasn’t His purpose to do so. Why doesn’t God save everyone? It’s not that He lacks the power. Rather, it isn’t His purpose to do so. Jesus makes this clear (John 5:21): “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” Jesus is sovereign in imparting salvation to whomever He wishes (Luke 10:22). The rest are responsible for their damnation.

Many Christians stumble over the doctrine of election, which runs from Genesis to Revelation. They want to attribute their salvation to their own “free will.” But the Bible is clear that before we are saved, we are spiritually dead, blind, and crippled. Romans 3:11 says, “There is none who seeks for God.” If you’re saved, it’s not because you were smart enough to choose God. It’s because He was gracious enough to choose you. That way, He gets all the glory and you get none (1 Cor. 1:26-31)!


Some of you may be thinking that I’m contradicting myself. On the one hand, I say that you must repent and believe in Jesus to be saved. On the other hand, I say that you cannot repent and believe in Jesus unless He has chosen you for salvation and He works in your heart to bring you to repentance and faith. So you’re saying, “Come to Christ,” but, “You cannot come!”

Asahel Nettleton, a great revivalist preacher (1783-1843) raised this seeming contradiction in a sermon and then said (Asahel Nettleton: Life and Labors [Banner of Truth], by Bennet Tyler & Andrew Bonar, p. 216, italics his):

A celebrated preacher, in one of His discourses used this language: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” In another discourse, this same preacher said: “no man can come unto me except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” Now, what think you, my hearers, of such preaching, and of such a preacher? What would you have said had you been present and heard Him? Would you have charged Him with contradicting himself?

Then he adds the obvious, that this preacher was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ! Religion cannot save you. Christ is mighty to save you. He invites you to come to Himself. But if you come, it’s because the Father graciously drew you.

Application Questions

  1. Since there is no indication in the text that this man believed in Jesus, why did John include this story in his Gospel?
  2. Some have argued that if God could save everyone but chose only some, then He is unloving. The same could be said here: Jesus could have healed all, but only chose one man. Was He unloving? How would you answer this charge?
  3. Why is it important to affirm (as Scripture does) that salvation is totally from the Lord and not a joint project between Him and us? What truth is at stake (1 Cor. 1:26-31)?
  4. What is the main difference between “religion” and biblical Christianity? Why is the distinction important?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation), World Religions

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