We might think we know the answer as to why people suffer: it’s a matter of cause and effect. There are things we humans do that have ill effects on our health, on the world, on other people that cause suffering at some point in our lives. But though everyone suffers to some degree, not all suffer in the same way or for the same reasons. There is no easy answer to the question of suffering and evil. The apostles thought they did have such an answer and maybe we do too. Yet the cause or reasons for suffering are largely unknown and this despite all the medical and scientific advancements and discoveries of our modern age.
Jesus does give us an answer to the problem of suffering in this miracle of giving sight to the man who had been born blind. Here, Jesus again demonstrated His divinity. He had said He was the light of the world and here He showed it in rather graphic fashion. The disciples had questioned Jesus about the man, seeking a quick, easy and logical answer to explain why bad things happen. There is comfort in attributing adversity and sickness to sin, for then we feel safe as long as we avoid that sin. But the disciples were wrong in their assumption. What Jesus said is that this happened that the works of God would be manifest, that He would be glorified. Yes, adversity is a result of sin, ours, others or the sin of Adam, but Jesus’ reply reveals the bottom line: all suffering is for the glory of God. No matter what other explanations there may be, ultimately God does whatever He wants. Such an idea is frightening because it means we have no real control over what happens to us. God is in charge. He determines the best way to accomplish things, the punishment of the wicked, as well as the sanctification of the righteous. All things that happen are for the glory of His name not for our material ease and comfort.
That is a tough answer that does not fall into our neat little categories. We find safety in seeing all that happens in terms of cause and effect. But God defies our attempts to control life. He is unpredictable. But He is not mean or vindictive but loving, merciful and compassionate. We can trust Him to always do what is good so we must assume that He has a higher purpose in allowing suffering than merely punishment for sin. And, in fact, pain and adversity draw us closer to God. They crush, humble and strip us of our pride and self-sufficiency, so we depend on Him alone. Only then did we begin to grow from legalistic, self-righteous boasters, to loving and compassionate Christians who reach out to the poor and oppressed. Only then will we acknowledge that He is sovereign Lord of all, that He is not accountable to us. He does not have to present us with a case for why He allows suffering nor does he need our input. He is glorified in the exercise of His sovereign will.
It seems that every time that Jesus spoke with the religious leaders of the Jews, He antagonized them. The reason is that He spoke words of authority and truth which ran contrary to the rules of the bureaucratic Jewish religious system. The leaders of the Jews could not accept these truths because they felt that Jesus challenged their authority and power. He was someone to be eliminated. Rightly did Jesus call them children of the devil for though they claimed to know God and to be His followers, they did not walk in obedience to Him. Thus the same words He spoke that angered them fill us with peace, hope and comfort.
The most wonderful thing He said which the Jews felt was blasphemous was “Before Abraham was, I am.” The Jews got really angry because they knew He was equating Himself with God, saying that He was Yahweh. If they had been wise and humble this would not have angered them as much as cause them to wonder. This man who performed all these mighty signs, wonders and miracles and who spoke the words of God was obviously a righteous servant of the Lord, possibly a great prophet. For such a one to utter blasphemy would be out of character. Then it would have dawned on them that He had to be who He said He was.
Many today still refuse to accept this truth. Jesus to them is just another righteous man on a par with Moses, Buddha, Mohammed and L. Ron Hubbard. But Jesus does not give us this option for He is infinitely superior to all men: He is God incarnate and faith in Him is the only true faith there is. This aggravates a lot of people. They know that if they were to admit that Jesus is God they would have to change their lives, to repent of their sins. In addition such a belief is the ultimate in intolerance for it says there is only one God and only one way to God.
Some scholars contend that this story of the woman caught in adultery is out of place in John’s gospel. It seems to interrupt Jesus’ ministry at the Feast of Tabernacles, so indeed the story may not belong here. Nevertheless the story fits quite well with John’s message for it clearly illustrates the mercy and love of God as well as His justice. It also sets a great example for us to follow when we deal with those sinners we find especially vile, disgusting and repulsive. We can’t be self-righteous like the Pharisees who had already condemned the woman. We must treat all sinners with respect and be willing to grant them forgiveness.
This is not to say that the woman had not done something worthy of punishment. She had. Yet we cannot feel smugly superior to those we think heinous sinners (homosexuals, fornicators, perverts, etc.) and think we can just pass judgment on them. The reason, as Jesus points out, is that we are all sinners, and all deserving of death. Many people including many Christians may feel like they can ignore their own weakness and frailty so they can condemn others without compassion or mercy. But that is not what we get from God. What we get is forgiveness. Jesus forgave the woman but warned her not to sin again. He would suffer her punishment thus making Him the only one who could truly forgive sins. And He will do the same for the vilest of sinners. We must follow His example. This does not mean we ignore the laws of the state. Every one who breaks the civil law must be held accountable for his misdeeds and suffer due punishment. Forgiveness allows individuals to forgive wrongs suffered.
It is quite common for politicians, kings and rulers of all sorts to make public appearances at times of feasting and holidays. This is so that they can take advantage of the energy and fervor of the celebrants and use it to make themselves look good or boost their control and power over those they rule. That is why Jesus’ brothers wanted Him to go to the feast and announce that He was the Messiah. This would build up His support and He would step into His role as a dynamic leader. But Jesus knew that His glory would not come from the acclaim of the people and the exercise of military force. The way to true glory is through works of service unto others not in displays of power, beauty, talent or skill which are what pervades the media, the culture and even the church.
Jesus’ glory would come from obeying the will of the Father and being crucified as a common criminal. Our glory comes from accepting His way and becoming servants. As servants we receive a great blessing which is new life akin to an everlasting supply of fresh flowing water which in Israel at that time was rare. Such water is life. Jesus used it to speak of the Holy Spirit who would be given to all who put their faith in Him. As long as we stay attached to this source of life we will never be spiritually depleted and we will never sin. As long as we stay attached to this source we can endure any series of trails and suffering. It is when we take ourselves away from the source, when we place our trust in wealth or people, that we suffer emotional and spiritual turmoil and fall into temptation and sin. But it is always because we have turned away, not God.
Jesus performed 2 spectacular miracles that demonstrated that He is God. In the first, when He multiplied the loaves and fishes, He showed that He can create matter out of nothing. He did not even need the 5 loaves and 2 fish that were on hand for He just suddenly started to pull loaves and fish out of the thin air! He spoke the word and they appeared. In the second miracle He showed His power over the natural world as He was able to control the weather and the sea, calming both with a word. Both of these acts take us back to Genesis when God created all there is out of nothing and then He stilled the chaos of the deep and formed it into the earth and all the living creatures. Yet the significance of the events was lost upon those who witnessed them. They wanted an explanation. Jesus gave them one which they again failed to understand. By calling Himself the bread of life He was telling them that He was the source of all life both spiritual and physical. He was not telling them that they had to literally eat of His flesh, but that all they had to do was believe in Him, that he was the way to God, that He was God, but they would not believe Him. We should not be too harsh on them because the concept of God incarnate was totally beyond the scope of their understanding. Yet today even though this truth is familiar many still reject it. Many place it on the level of pagan mythology and many more reject it as it means all our own efforts at self-justification amount to nothing, that we need a savior. This is what Jesus means when He calls us to eat His flesh: we must become one with Him in His death and resurrection s so that we will be one with Him for all eternity.
John uses this story of Jesus’ healing of a man who had been crippled for 38 years to again illustrate the inadequacy of the Law. Jesus violated the man-made religious Sabbath regulations by healing on the Sabbath and telling the man to carry his bed. This antagonized the leaders of the Jews. Over the centuries, the religious leaders and teachers of the Jews made rest a burden of rules and regulations that was more laborious than anything the Lord had intended. The law was intended to show man his sinfulness and his need for God. But the religious leaders of the Jews saw it as an end in itself, something that if followed, could make one right with God. Their folly was presuming that they could follow it, something which was made easier by their own additions, interpretations and loopholes. The law brought not grace, peace and rest, but bondage, slavery, and condemnation. It’s a wonder many in the contemporary church continue to enforce their own version of religious laws and rules. God want His church to dispense mercy and grace for all of us are sinners in need of forgiveness.
The Law certainly had failed to help this man at Bethesda. He was a sinner and did not deserve to be healed. Jesus knew it and realized that this man was in a hopeless situation. He needed the grace which the Law could not provide because it could not take away his sin and unrighteousness. By healing him, Jesus showed that He is God and Lord of the Sabbath. He has the power to give rest, to heal and to save. Jesus justified his work of healing by reminding the Jews that God worked on the Sabbath. This explains the violence of their reaction. The Sabbath privilege was peculiar to God. In claiming the right to work even as his Father worked, Jesus was claiming a divine prerogative.
Although Jesus had come as Messiah to the children of Israel we see here 2 incidents that show that the gospel message is going to be preached to all peoples, not just Jews. The invitation to enter the Kingdom was going to be made to people of all religions and moral backgrounds not just law-keeping Jews. Jesus came to make the Spirit of God available to all. This is why John tells us that the first person that Jesus actually told that He was the Messiah was not only a non-Jew but an idolatrous and sexually immoral Samaritan as well. This shows us that God can and does save the vilest of sinners simply by showing them some tough and honest love.
The second incident concerns Jesus’ dealings with another social outcast, a member of King Herod’s court. He was perhaps only a marginal Jew and the association with Herod would make him open for criticism and disdain from the Jews. Jesus seemed to question the man’s motives in asking for a miracle, for many people say they believe in Jesus but only for what they can get. Jesus was only trying to elicit the level of the sincerity of his request. The man revealed to Jesus the intense fervor of a loving father. This shows us that the Lord will save those who earnestly seek His mercy. Therefore we should never avoid presenting the gospel to people we do not respect or who are or seem immoral. No doubt they are immoral for all men are sinners in need of a savior. We do not know what the Lord’s intention may be regarding them. We only know He has commanded us to present the gospel to all for He wants all to come to repentance.