It all started with a miraculous healing at a magical pool with pagan overtones. Legend had it that at random times an angel would stir up the waters of the twin pools at Bethesda in the city of Jerusalem, and that whoever was the first to jump in was healed of any disease or disability they had. As a result, the five colonnades (one was between the two pools) were packed with disabled and chronically diseased people and their helpers; it reminds me of a British Retail Sale with people camped out in front of the shops, and lining up the fastest route to the checkouts!
We find the whole story in John chapter 5. It was a Sabbath and Jesus chose to wander around these pools, chatting to the ‘campers’, and probably breathing in the general atmosphere of resigned despair and deferred hope. Lying down nearby was an old man (by those days’ standards) who was paralysed in some way, who had no chance of getting into the pool first and had been disabled 38 years; for some reason Jesus squatted down by him and asked him if he wanted to get well. Strange question? Surely the instant answer would have been ‘yes’ – of course? What reason would he have had to say ‘no’?
There are some – certainly not all – chronically sick people who have so adapted to their disability and have so included it in their lifestyle, that they have become socially, economically, and emotionally dependent on the ‘crutch’ that their disability provides, and the compassion in others that it invokes. A beggar, making a reasonable income from an obvious disability, would be far poorer without it and would not necessarily have the skills or strength for an able-bodied job. So, it was a reasonable question after all. Are any of us, who are suffering from a chronic illness, nervous about ‘moving forward’, wondering what a healed life would be like and how we would cope as an ‘ordinary’ person? Sometimes we turn the grace that God gives us to endure a bad situation into a ‘rut’ that makes future progress so much harder.
John’s gospel treats every miracle it reports as a springboard for teaching, for learning more about God and about who Jesus is. In this miracle, it is interesting to note that Jesus is not interested in the individual’s personal faith as a prerequisite for healing to occur – in fact it is pretty obvious that the guy did not know Jesus from Adam! Yet Jesus healed him – and on the sabbath too! Did you wonder why he didn’t walk around the pools and heal everyone else at the same time? On this occasion, Jesus implies (v14) that the man’s sinful lifestyle may have contributed towards his illness too, although chapter 9:1-3 makes it clear that not all sickness is directly caused by a person’s sin.
The fact that this miracle took place on the sabbath and – in the view of the Pharisees, was technically defined as ‘work’ – is the ‘bridge’ that John uses to lead us from the miracle to the teaching. Nowhere in the Law of Moses does it forbid healing someone on the day of rest, but the Pharisees, in their zeal to avoid any chance of offending God, had broadened the definition of work to include many everyday actions – e.g. carrying a mat! Jesus didn’t directly contradict the sabbath regulations but used them to make the point “My Father is always at work and therefore so am I”. He knew, and the Pharisees knew, that he was claiming to be the Son of God and was therefore God himself on earth (see verse 18). The rules were that anyone claiming to be God was guilty of blasphemy and due a stoning to death – except that the rules did not cover the rare occasion when the person claiming to be God was God!
Jesus elaborates in verses 19-23: “My Father and I are so united that we cannot even act independently. We give life together, we do miracles, we judge the world together, and we forgive together”. Certain roles are assigned to the Son, and certain ones to the Father, but they act in perfect unity. Even Jesus, the Son of God, could do nothing of his own personal initiative!
Verses 24-25 are huge (read them again now): By receiving the message of Jesus and by believing (putting our full weight on) God, we bypass and avoid all judgment and cross over immediately from death to life (notice the past tense in that sentence). The time has now arrived (and it is still here!) when the spiritually dead will hear the message of Christ and those who listen will come alive forever! This is talking about spiritual death and spiritual life. But in verse 28, Jesus points to the far future (even for us) and says that one day, all those who have died will hear the voice of Jesus on the day of his return and all will rise bodily to meet their Creator and Saviour.
Finally, at the end of the chapter, Jesus lists the evidence (the witnesses) that confirm he is God: John the Baptist, God the Father, the miracles he does, the Old Testament scriptures, and Moses himself (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). To be a Jew meant that the logical step was to accept God’s Messiah, yet they wilfully rejected him. There is so much evidence that points to the fact that Jesus is and was the Son of God, and that what he said is true. Are some of us refusing to come to him to have life too?
JUDGES 6 and 7
As dream interpretations go, this one was at the top of the Premier League! A Midianite soldier shares an inconsequential dream he’d had the previous night about a bouncing barley bread loaf smashing into his tent and collapsing it. Quick as a flash, his Midianite colleague snapped in an interpretation that was so accurate that it not only predicted the outcome of the battle but named the unknown Israelite army leader and credited God with the entire victory! Cowering in the shadows was that very leader, who must have been hugely encouraged to hear a pagan warrior sounding completely convinced by that message – after Gideon himself had needed several reassurances and three miracles from the Lord to be convinced that he really was the man. Maybe he speculated with adopting a modified ‘Dambusters’ strategy involving bouncing bread too!
The Midianites were there in the first place because Israel had yet again abandoned the true worship of the true God and sunk into worship of the god Baal and goddess Asherah, punctuated with the occasional requirement to burn one of your children in an altar fire. Baal worship in general was easy (dead easy!) and provided an ideal excuse if you wanted to ‘stray’ with a temple prostitute – you could just tell the wife that you had been to an all-night worship meeting! It placed no moral demands or responsibilities on the worshiper and was an ideal place to meet up with your mates and business colleagues… a kind of Bronze Age golf club.
God punished Israel by removing his cover of protection over the nation and permitting foreign armies and raiding parties to take over the land and ruin the harvests. Gideon, in an effort to hide from the Midianite invaders, was forced to thresh his wheat in an enclosed winepress – which was about as effective as attempting to sail a boat in the local indoor swimming pool!
God appears to him and greets him as though the battle had just been won – as opposed to ‘not even started’. Looking around him, Gideon is understandably slightly cynical about his chances, and it requires a whole bunch of miracles before he begins to grow in faith. Finally, he gives in to God’s call and is allocated his first job: ‘clean up your own family before you can clean up the nation’. Gideon’s obedience to the Lord results in his father regaining a bit of pride too.
The reduction in Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 is a classic example of making sure God gets the glory. If there is too much human help, the causes are blurred, and cynical onlookers will draw the wrong conclusion. Having disposed of the scared ones (lots of them!), the final selection was based upon drinking style – and the Lord basically chose those who had the least popular moves, but who kept their eyes on what was going on around them!
Having been encouraged by the dream-prophecy, Gideon launched a surprise night attack, when the majority of men and camels would have been tucked up with their cocoa. With lighted torches hidden in empty clay jars, they sneaked close and then smashed the jars and blew the trumpets, yelling at the tops of their voices. If some of you were sleeping camels, suddenly awakened by bright lights, circus noises and raucous shouting, you would probably go mental! And so they did. So also did the Midianites. In the darkness and confusion they attacked one another, leaving the Israelites looking on like spectators to God’s work.
A new testament verse comes to mind that sort of sums up the message of Gideon and applies it to us today: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,”…made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body”. (2 Corinthians 4:6-11.)
– Gideon’s lights flaring from broken jars representing the light and life of Christ revealed from our mortal bodies.