Merciful Jesus

John 5 demonstrates the attribute of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Jesus remains merciful to all those in unbelief, offering His hand of spiritual help as long as each person lives. We also see the enemies of the gospel in this passage, who they are, what they say, and how they act. Religious people who remain in unbelief are reminded by Moses in Exodus 34:6-7 and Deuteronomy 7:9-10 that the Lord God is both compassionate and just, extending lovingkindness to all and punishment to the guilty who reject Him. We learn from David that God will show Himself merciful to the merciful (2 Sam. 22:26), and all the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth to those who keep His commandments (Psalm 25:10). Paul teaches us more about the rich mercy of God in Ephesians 2:4-5. We are made alive by Christ because of the great love by which God loved us even when dead in our transgressions.

To the unsaved, Christ extends the mercy of God, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. To the saved, Christ is simply, profoundly, continually, and eternally the very mercy of God. The Lord is always extending His mercy to the unsaved. Psalm 145:9 reminds us that the Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all of His works. God allows the rain to fall and the sun to shine on both the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45). The Lord is mercy. It is God’s heart to withhold judgement as long as possible while offering those in unbelief the daily opportunity to turn from sin and trust in Christ alone for salvation.

Religious unbelief believes it does not need the mercy of God, because it is convinced good works and the adherence to traditions appease the wrath of God. To the merely religious, clinging to tradition is salvation, and good works are mercy. Jesus performs His third miracle in John 5 among religious unbelief in the city of Jerusalem where there is already a growing dislike of Him. Jesus’ miracle of mercy ignites an extreme hatred against Him among those who remain dedicated to religious tradition. This passage demonstrates to us that unbelief of all kinds and especially religious unbelief will forever be an enemy to our Savior and His exclusive claims and offer of salvation by grace, free from good works and tradition.

The Merciful Love of Jesus

Regardless of the persecution received from religious unbelief, Jesus continues to offer mercy. Jesus remains kind and compassionate. His obedience is always on mission, bringing glory to God the Father. Our true obedience and growth in holiness should reflect the burden of our Savior, the desperate need for each one to know Christ.

Jesus, the perfect law keeper, travels to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews in obedience to the law of God given to Moses (John 5:1). Among crowds of people, Jesus finds His way to those most desperate at the pool called Bethesda. This pool was near the sheep gate where the lambs were brought in for slaughter at the Passover celebration. Religious superstition held that this pool was visited by angels who stirred the water. When the waters moved, the sick could enter and be healed. Most reliable sources believe this pool was fed by a warm spring that would bubble at random times, having a soothing and healing effect on many who were chronically ill.

Among all those gathered on the five porches around this pool, Jesus speaks to just one person. We learn from this story that Jesus is very personal in the offering of His mercy. Jesus starts a conversation with this sick man, asking if he wants to get better. This man has been sick for thirty-eight years and has been unable to get into the pool all this time. Just as with the Samaritan woman, Jesus is the one to begin the conversation. His active obedience requires offering spiritual and physical healing, a gift of His own mercy and grace. Because He is merciful, Jesus starts a relationship with unbelief before addressing sin.

In John 5:8, Jesus speaks three commands: "Get up, pack up, and get going." Jesus’ words contain the same power they did the week of creation when He spoke all things we see into existence. Jesus speaks, and in a moment, the man realizes his body has been made completely whole. God in Christ is always active to give good gifts. James 1:17 reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights, the God of creation. This sick man has received the best gift of his life up to this point. Paul taught the Romans that it is the goodness of God given to everyone, both the saved and the unsaved, to bring unbelief to repentance and faith in Christ (Romans 2:4). Every good thing given to us by our Creator is for the purpose of drawing us to Christ. In addition to initiating a conversation and relationship and giving the good gift of health, Jesus’ mercy is extended by offering this man an opportunity to explore who Jesus, the Giver of the gift, is. But the man does not.

The mercy of Jesus and His obedience always remain on mission, and this should be the heart of every believer. Regardless of the outcome, we are to live both virtues of obedience and mercy intentionally by grace towards unbelief. We, too, must be initiating conversations and relationships as Christ has modeled, making ourselves available to the lost.

The Merciless Reaction of Unbelief

In this passage, the enraged religious leaders hold to their extrabiblical traditions because in the doing of them they find salvific value. One of the Jewish traditions was keeping the Sabbath day which is part of the Mosaic Law (Exodus 20). Jesus kept the Sabbath day, and as the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus kept the Mosaic Law perfectly His whole life. However, the Jewish religious leaders had added thirty-nine different expectations to how the Sabbath was to be observed. Honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy according to Moses simply meant that no one could work for the purpose of commerce on that day. Everything the Jewish leaders criticized Jesus and His disciples for doing on the Sabbath related to their manmade additions to the Sabbath law of Moses.

The healed man is confronted by the religious leaders since he is defying one of these additions to the law (John 5:10). They want to know who healed the man, but he does not know, for he did not investigate that merciful act he received (John 5:12-13). From the perspective of the religious leaders, the person who encourages defiance of the manmade additions is worse than the one who violates them. The religious leaders turn their fury to finding the man who incited the rebellion. Throughout the gospels, we read how they seek to seize and kill Jesus multiple times, but the Spirit of God withholds their efforts because it was not Jesus’ time to die. Through all of this, Jesus remains merciful.

Religious unbelief is radically consumed with finding, persecuting, and cancelling out true, compassionate, merciful Jesus and His people who are like Him. Jesus and Christ-likeness are always initiating relationships in a merciful fashion to share the love and forgiveness of Christ and offer His peace. Genuine saving faith lives holy and loves mercifully, while religious legalism cannot do either.

The Mindless Actions of a Healed Man

The response of the healed man is bewildering (John 5:14-16). He hears from the very Word of God, yet his mind is not engaged as to what has happened to him. This is how self-absorbed unbelief can be. Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus, experienced so much of Jesus, both witnessing divine works performed and hearing words spoken by God in flesh. While Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver, the healed man in John 5 betrays Jesus for safety.

Jesus later finds the healed man in the temple and remarks on the man enjoying his health (John 5:14). The man seems unmoved by Jesus’s mercy and fails to even thank Jesus. Not telling the man His name, Jesus mercifully instructs him to not sin anymore, opening this man’s eyes to who Jesus is. The grammar of John 5:14 tells us that Jesus knew the man’s sickness of thirty-eight years was related to a sin from that long ago. Jesus is calling this man to repentance after He has built a relationship and granted him a gift. A warning to this man of the judgement to come wakes him to who Jesus is. Proving himself to be an unbelieving coward, the healed man runs immediately to report to the Jews who were persecuting Jesus because He was violating their man-made additions to the Mosaic Law (John 5:15-16). Jesus informs these religious leaders that He is not the lawbreaker, but they are (John 5:17).

As Jesus is merciful, we, too, must remain merciful, kind, and compassionate towards unbelief. If we build a relationship properly, unbelief will be willing to listen when the conversation comes around to sin.

Application Points

  • Are you offering mercy to someone in your life who is unsaved? God would have us burdened with this need for those desperate and lost to know Christ.
  • Are you developing a relationship with an unbeliever first before addressing the sin in that person’s life? Jesus would have us show the same mercy and grace that He modeled and that we have received from Him.

Tools for Further Study

Cross References to Explore
  • John 9:1-35 – The blind man’s response to Jesus' mercy on the Sabbath.
A Quote to Ponder

D.A. Carson said this of religious unbelief: “There are none so blind as those who are always certain that they can see.”