John Study Lecture - Week 8 - On Helplessness

The following text is my notes from the lecture I delivered on John 4:7-5:15 at Community Bible Church's women's Bible study on February 25. The audio did not record, so I'm posting the notes here for those who were unable to attend. 

Today we are looking at a series of encounters John tells us about—encounters between Jesus and needy people. In each case, the needy person responds differently to Jesus, and both the actions of Jesus and of these people have implications for us today. So let’s just dig right in.

Last week, Joyce taught us beautifully from the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. I don’t want to re-cover ground we’ve already gone over, but we will look at this story a bit at a slightly different angle today as it relates to these other encounters.

So here’s where we’re going. In John 4:7-42, Jesus is in Samaria, hanging out with the unclean Samaritan people. This is Encounter #1.

Then in John 4:43-54, Jesus returns to Cana in Galilee and heals the son of a Jewish official. This man represents Encounter #2.

Then finally in John 5:1-15, we see Encounter #3 with the man at the pool called Bethesda.

As we look at each of these encounters, let’s remember one key thing from a previous week in our study—John 2:24 tells us that Jesus did not entrust Himself to everyone, because He knew what was in the hearts of all men. So in each case we look at today, we can remember this—Jesus knew what was in the heart of each person. And it’s not that each person needed to have a good heart to be saved. Kelli reminded us that none of us have “good hearts.” Rather, Jesus knew whether someone was truly being drawn to Him to seek Him, or if they were rather just looking to get something from Him.

Encounter #1

So let’s look first at chapter 4. We’ve already seen this encounter with the woman at the well. Jesus talks to her about living water and He cuts quickly to her heart, showing her He knows her and that she is needy.

Here they are, at Jacob’s well, and Jesus tells the woman what her need is, and what He alone can do about it. He so beautifully reveals Himself to her—to this woman, an over-the-top unclean Samaritan woman—because He knows her heart and is doing the will of the Father. He makes her aware of her helplessness, and she is drawn to Him.

Then she goes to her town and tells everyone, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” She’s unashamed, and she leads the people to Jesus.

The people believe because of her testimony, and they ask Him to stay with them. The Greek word here is the word for “urged” and it’s in a continual sense, which means they kept asking Him. So Jesus stays with them for two days and many more believe because of His word. They don’t see signs, but they hear the teaching of Jesus and then they say something so amazing in verse 42:

“And we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

This is the first time this phrase has been used, and it’s so appropriate here. This is Jesus initiating His plan for cross-cultural missions. He is not just the Savior of the Jews—He’s the Savior of the WORLD.

And in the midst of all this, Jesus teaches His disciples about the harvest—that some will sow, others will reap. Eventually, His own disciples would reap a harvest in Samaria and to the ends of the Earth, a mission we are to carry on even today.

But let’s look back at this woman again and notice 2 things about her:

First, she sees her helplessness and knows she is dependent on Christ for living water.

Second, she undergoes a radical identity shift.

I heard David Platt give a great illustration, so I’m going to adapt it here for my purposes.

Imagine I came in here late today, rushing in, out of breath. You were all just sitting here, waiting for me to show up. When I finally came running in, what if I said:

“Sorry I’m late. I had a flat tire on the interstate and when I got out to change it I got too close to the road and a Mack truck came by and hit me. And wow, did that hurt. So when I picked myself up, I got the tire changed, but that’s why I’m late. And a little sore.”

If I said that, you would never believe me. And why? Because when you get hit by a Mack truck, you are never the same. At all.

Platt used this story to illustrate a true conversion experience as opposed to those who are “Christian” in name only.

The fact is, as this Samaritan woman could tell us, when you get hit full on by the gospel of grace, you are never the same. Your identity changes.

So the Samaritan woman, and many other Samaritans, see that Jesus is greater than their traditions and they honor Him by wanting to spend time with Him. They aren’t looking for signs—they want JESUS Himself.

Encounter #2

But after 2 days, Jesus departs for Galilee. Now, the last time we saw Him there, He was turning the water into wine in Cana, a fact John reminds us of in verse 46. But in the verses immediately preceding that one, John writes that Jesus had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown. So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast.

This seems to be a bit of a contradiction, and commentators disagree on the reason for this. But what seems to be happening is that John is using irony, something he does elsewhere as well. He’s saying the Galileans “welcome” Jesus kind of tongue in cheek. They do give Him honor and welcome Him, but this is based on signs, not on true faith in the Savior of the world. Compare this to the welcome He receives in what is known as the Triumphal Entry. One day He’s a king; shortly thereafter, He’s a crucified criminal. So the honor of these people is based on tricks and signs—things they had seen Him do in Jerusalem and wanted to see replicated in their own town.

So an official comes from Judea to Galilee to ask Jesus to come and heal his son, who was at the point of death.

And in verse 48, Jesus calls this guy out as a sort of representative of the people at large, saying, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The word “you” in both cases in that verse is plural. He’s talking to all of the people. And because of the way John has organized his gospel account, we see this juxtaposed with the Samaritans’ response. They saw no signs or wonders, and yet believed.

And, for just a second, let’s turn to Matthew 8. Here we see a similar encounter, but with a centurion—a man who was not Jewish like our official in John 4. So let’s read, starting at verse 5:

When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.

So we see the stark contrast. The centurion thinks of Jesus as a man with authority and honor and power, knowing He has only to say a word and the servant will be healed. After all, Jesus is THE WORD. But the official in John 4 insists that Jesus come with him. He doesn’t seem to know much about Jesus except that He can perform signs and miracles, and that’s exactly what he needs.

This man knows he is needy and helpless, but he seems to think the limit of his helplessness is with his dying son.

But I love what happens here, because Jesus could have refused the man’s request, or He could have gone down and healed the man’s son in person. But He doesn’t. He does something better.

In His mercy, Jesus chooses to reveal Himself to the official by forcing Him to step out in faith.

He does not agree to come with the official, but instead says, “Go; your son will live.” So the man believes the word that Jesus speaks to him and he goes on his way. Then his servants meet him and tell him the amazing news—his son was recovering, and the fever had left him at the moment Jesus said to him, “Your son will live.”

In His mercy, Jesus does not leave this helpless man to himself. He forces Him to truly encounter Christ, and this encounter in faith leads to belief for the man and his entire household.

Taking it a step further, it is also merciful of Jesus to rebuke the Galileans. They lacked faith, so He rebuked them. Sometimes the rebuke of Jesus is a severe mercy—a line in the sand that forces His hearers to look at their hearts and determine what they believe.

So in Encounter #2, we see another helpless individual who meets Jesus and undergoes a change in His identity. Just as the Samaritan woman went and told others about Jesus, this official tells his family what has happened and they all believe.

Now, we don’t see the same desire to be with Jesus here that we did with the Samaritans. But we need to know that John is writing this account of Christ primarily for Jewish readers. D. A. Carson suggests John includes the mission to Samaria to attract some of his own people to the good news of Christ Jesus by making them envious.

Paul says something similar in Romans 11:13-14 – “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.”

So we see the Samaritans as a unique group of people in chapter 4, and perhaps John includes them in order to contrast their response to Jesus with that of the Jewish leaders, who we will see as we read the beginning of John chapter 5.

And this is where it gets sad and convicting.

Encounter #3

We see Jesus go up to Jerusalem. Prior to this, He had been in Jerusalem at some point cleaning out the temple and then at a feast performing signs. So now there’s another feast, although we aren’t told which one, and Jesus goes to a pool called Bethesda by the Sheep Gate. Your translation may include a verse that makes you say, “What in the world?” because it describes the common superstition about this pool of water. Some translations include this verse, verse 4, which basically says an angel of the Lord would go down at certain seasons into the pool and stir the water, and whoever was first to step into the pool after it had been stirred would be healed of his disease. This verse is not included in some of the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel, so it seems it was perhaps added to explain the superstition to those who didn’t know. It’s possible there was a kind of spring underground that caused the pool to bubble at times, which led to this story about an angel.

Regardless, that is not the point of the story. This man, who we’re told had been sick for 38 years with some illness that prevented him from walking, had been at the pool a long time. So Jesus asks, “Do you want to be healed?”

The man doesn’t really answer directly—maybe he considers it an obvious question. Of course he wants to be healed—that’s why he’s here. But he explains that it’s not going to happen. He doesn’t seem to know anything about Jesus. He’s not looking to Him for healing. But Jesus heals Him anyway. He says, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And immediately the man is healed and gets up, takes up his bed, and walks.

The only problem, as John tells us at the end of verse 9, is that it’s the Sabbath. And there are some power-hungry Law-mongers awaiting any deviation from their additions to the Jewish Law.

So the “Jews,” which indicates the Jewish leaders, see this man carrying his mat and they call him out and tell him it’s not lawful for him to be carrying his bed on the Sabbath. Now, you might have missed the part of the Old Testament law when God tells Moses the people are not to carry their beds on the Sabbath. It’s easy to miss. Because it’s not there. The prohibition against working on the Sabbath in the Old Testament related to one’s customary employment. Basically, you just couldn’t do your job on the Sabbath.

But in the New Testament, Rabbinic opinion has changed everything and the Law now lists carrying something from one location to another as one of 39 classes of work forbidden on the Sabbath.

This is important to understand because modern Bible teachers will sometimes say Jesus himself broke the Law. But we know from Melissa’s teaching in week 3 on the incarnation that it was absolutely vital that Jesus fulfill the whole Law. But the Law He fulfilled was the true Law given by God; not the one the Jewish leaders had corrupted with their rules. And Jesus came to usher in a new age. The Law would be reinterpreted and fulfilled because something more and greater had arrived.

So back to the text, the leaders call this man out for carrying his mat and he says, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”

This man has just been healed, and because he seems to care nothing for Jesus (I mean, he doesn’t even know the name of the man who just healed him), he throws him under the bus and blames him for his breaking of the Law.

And then note the Jews’ response in verse 12: “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”

Is anything missing here? Maybe the part where they ask, “Who healed you?” But that’s not important to them. An infraction against their man-made rules is far more important than a miraculous healing.

But this guy doesn’t know who healed him. So later Jesus finds him in the temple and says, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” This seems to indicate that his illness was a result of sin. We know this is not always the case, but that does not mean it never is. But what we also see is that this man has only undergone a physical change—his heart has not changed, apparently. We know this because he immediately goes and tells the Jews it was Jesus who healed him. And this was not a naïve action—he knew the Jews were already angry with whoever told him to pick up his mat and walk, so his reporting of Jesus’ identity seems to be intentional.

But let’s look at something beautiful about Jesus here. He knows the sin in this man’s heart, but he doesn’t require the man to stop sinning in order to be healed. He says, “Sin no more,” after He has already healed him. But sin does have consequences. If this man had become a true believer as a result of his encounter with Jesus, would Jesus have to say, “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you”?

No, in this man we see no identity shift. He is helpless, just as the Samaritan and the official. But as Jesus points out his helplessness and need to turn from his sin, this healed man goes on his merry way to incite the Jews against his Healer.

Commentator Leon Morris said of this guy, “The man was not of the stuff of which heroes are made.” Understatement there, huh. But what would make him a “hero” in God’s economy would be a recognition of his utter helplessness. This guy didn’t see it that way. I think he was a schemer, trying to get in good with the Jewish leaders by betraying the man who had just changed his life in a miraculous way.

Unlike the Samaritans, who urged Jesus to stay with them, this man didn’t want Jesus—only what He could get from Him. And the Jewish leaders were interested only in Jesus because of His disregard for their laws.

Leslie Newbigin said, “’The Jews,’ as they are portrayed in this gospel, are not uniquely blind or stubborn people. They represent established religion. They represent us.” We see this as they ignore Jesus’ miracle in order to point the finger at Him for disobeying their rules. We do this too, in our churches, as we ignore the lives being miraculously changed in order to point out the ways others are not measuring up to our standards of holiness.

These Jewish leaders, and this healed man, deny their helplessness before God. They are so dependent on their self-sufficiency that they ignore miracles in their midst. They had made the Law into something they thought they could handle, or at least that they could make sure they were fulfilling better than anyone else.

But, as we’ve talked about before, the Law was, in reality, WAY bigger than they understood. Had they really seen that, they would have fallen on their faces before God, in utter helplessness and dependence on Him.

Recently I was watching part of a special on PBS about people who have come out of the Amish communities in which they were raised. The following is a quote from a man who was featured in this program, which was called “Shunned”:

Something happened when I was out there in the world. This was like the 6th time I had left. A friend of mine of mine opened up the Bible and showed me how to get to Heaven, and it was through Jesus Christ, and Him alone. After I got saved, I went back to the Amish, but I never forgot what happened that day. I came back, settled down and got married and decided, ‘I’m raising my children within the culture.’ But when I wanted to know how to get to Heaven, no one could tell me for sure. To the Amish, Jesus alone is not enough. Working, trying your best, following the rules and traditions of the forefathers…if you do it all just right, then hopefully you’ll get to Heaven. For me, all the good works and traditions and regulations covered up the simple plan of salvation.

He goes on to say that the 7th time he left, he knew it was for good. He tried to leave notes, but tore them up, saying, “I knew no matter how hard I tried to explain, no one would understand.”

Now this man and his wife call themselves “missionaries to the Amish,” opening their home to teenagers and young adults coming out of the Amish community, sharing the love of Christ with them.

But it’s so, so hard to come out of that when you’ve relied on your own ability to keep rules and regulations your whole life. The documentary showed at least one girl returning to the Amish way of life, unable to break free and establish a new identity.

In the same way, if we haven’t truly been wrecked by the Mack truck of the gospel, then we might still be trying to do it on our own. We might just be relying on self, rather than recognizing our dependence and helplessness. This is why sometimes it’s the “bad girls” who have an easier time being helpless and weak before Jesus. Like the Samaritan woman, when our sin is right there in front of us, constantly condemning us, it’s easier to look to Another. We see our need and must only be told Who it is who can meet our needs, and what we must do to be saved—believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

But for others of us, it’s harder. We’re trusting our merits. But Jesus can smash our merit to pieces and arrest our hearts in amazing ways. He can, like He did with the official with a sick son, mercifully show us our true need. He can show us nothing brings happiness but Him.

But here’s what happens. Even when we trust Him and see our need and He hits us with the gospel in the most powerful way and we’re humbled and brought to our knees. Even when we trust Him completely and He changes our identity, we can so easily start acting like preschoolers, insisting “I can do it by myself.”

We start comparing with others, either to feel better about ourselves and our self-achieved “holiness,” or to see what we should be doing better. We look for people to tell us what to do to please God. We forget our new identities so easily.

In essence, we make the Law small again. We subconsciously think we contributed something, like Byron has been teaching. We forget just how big the Law is, and how utterly helpless we are.

But we are dependent. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As we’ll study next week, Jesus goes on here to say that He Himself is dependent. So if Jesus was dependent on the Father, it makes sense for us to be dependent on Him as well. And one key way we do this is by walking in helpless dependence through prayer.

A man named Paul Miller wrote a book on prayer that God is using in my heart right now, and he writes this: “Prayer mirrors the gospel. In the gospel, the Father takes us as we are because of Jesus and gives us his gift of salvation. In prayer, the Father receives us as we are because of Jesus and gives us his gift of help.”

The Father loves the Son, and that love spills over to us. He is a helping God who delights to see His children run to Him in weakness and helplessness. Think about small children who run to us with their needs, asking kindly, “Please help me,” rather than saying, “I can do it by myself!!!” Think how your heart longs to help, and then think how much more our Father will help us.

Weakness is the way. It’s the way we come to Christ, and it’s the way we live in Him. There’s no room for self-sufficiency when we see how insufficient we really are.

My husband’s sister is one of my dearest friends in the world. She and her family live in an underprivileged neighborhood in an old mill town in South Carolina. She lives amongst the patients she treats in her job as a Physician’s Assistant in an infectious diseases clinic, seeing people with HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis and other infectious diseases.

Jen, like Christ, has a heart for the lowly. She hugs and listens to the transvestites, prostitutes, homosexuals and convicts who come to her exam room weekly. She loves the drug dealers and illegal immigrants in her neighborhood. She and her husband welcome the middle-of-the-night knocks on the door for medical care or food. She loves the helpless.

But sometimes it’s much harder to love those on the other side of the tracks who see the needs of a community like Jen’s, but turn a blind eye to their own needs. Those who see poverty of condition, but not poverty of spirit. Those who look for ways to have coat drives and donate food, but don’t want to go any further than that. And those who are ignorant to their own poverty of spirit, and the only One who can meet the true needs of both the transvestite and the Sunday school teacher.

When we don’t see our own helplessness, it’s much easier to look down on people. I know this, because I do it every day. We start to think of why other people are in the positions they are—“Well, obviously this is just a result of their poor decisions.”

Praise God I haven’t received the just deserts of my poor decisions.

Like the Amish missionary said, it’s simple, but we make it complicated. We put conditions on salvation, which Jesus provided freely to all who believe in His life, death, resurrection and His power to save.

Or, we put requirements for holiness on one another. We want to be taught to be holy by the rules of other people, rather than running in helplessness to the Word—both Scripture and the One it testifies about—the Word made flesh. We make lists instead of praying. We walk through our days saying, “What would whoever do here? She’s godly,” rather than saying, “Father, I need your help.” I know, because I did this multiple times yesterday.

And we hold onto our lives, scheming like the healed man in John 5, rather than running with abandon to proclaim the good news about the “Savior of the world.” We forget our new identities—that we’ve been crucified with Christ, and therefore we no longer live, but Christ in us. And the life we now live in the flesh, we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave His life for us.

We’re free to be helpless.

We’re new creatures, bought with a price, given a name (even though our shame is great), and a new identity.

We know Jesus is better than tradition—the water in Jacob’s well, the purification jars, the pool at Bethesda, or our man-made law. He’s better than all of it.

So we are free to live in joy, and to die for gain.

John Calvin said, “Unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” This leads to holiness—complete happiness in Christ, leading us to give ourselves truly and sincerely to him.

And when we do this, we no longer fear the future. We aren’t like the blame-shifting man. We know Jesus and are prepared to die for Him, because that would be true happiness.

Let me close with this testimony from Josef Tson, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned, beaten, and exiled in Communist-ruled Romania in the late 70’s and early 80’s:

“During an early interrogation I had told an officer who was threatening to kill me, ‘Sir, let me explain how I see this issue. Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.’

‘Here is how it works. You know that my sermons on tape have spread all over the country. If you kill me, those sermons will be sprinkled with my blood. Everyone will know I died for my preaching. And everyone who has a tape will pick it up and say, ‘I’d better listen again to what this man preached, because he really mean it; he sealed it with his life.’

‘So, sir, my sermons will speak ten times louder than before. I will actually rejoice in this supreme victory if you kill me.’

After I said this, the interrogator sent me home.

Another officer who was interrogating a pastor friend of mine told him, ‘We know that Mr. Tson would love to be a martyr, but we are not that foolish to fulfill his wish.’ I stopped to consider the meaning of that statement. I remembered how for many years, I had been afraid of dying. I had kept a low profile. Because I wanted badly to live, I had wasted my life in inactivity. But now that I had placed my life on the altar and decided I was ready to die for the Gospel, they were telling me they would not kill me! I could go wherever I wanted in the country and preach whatever I wanted, knowing I was safe. As long as I tried to save my life, I was losing it. Now that I was willing to lose it, I found it.”

This man recognized his identity in Christ and did not fear. He walked in dependence on the Father. Our lives are not the same as his. My life is not the same as my sister-in-law’s life. God does not place us all in the same kind of ministry or life.

But what is the same is this: We are all helpless. Helpless to save ourselves, and helpless to sanctify ourselves. We cannot make ourselves better. But we can gaze in wonder at our Savior and pray that we would find our happiness completely in Him, no matter where He sends us. Because, as the Father sends the Son, and the Son sends us, we share in their love and proclaim that love to others. And, because we’re helpless, He gives us His Spirit, who shines in our hearts to give us, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”