Mercy in Misery
When I was growing up, my dad used to say, "You know, son, the Bible says God helps those who help themselves." But when I finally started reading the Bible, I found out that it doesn't say that anywhere. In fact, the Bible says that God helps helpless, downtrodden people. "[God] delights in mercy," the prophet Micah wrote (Micah 7:18).
Did you know the word mercy appears close to 300 times in the Bible? If it pops up that many times, that tells me it's a priority. Certainly one of Jesus' most distinguishing characteristics in His earthly ministry was His mercy toward people who were hurting. Now, the Roman world in which He lived was not big on mercy; it glorified courage, strength, and justice. But into that merciless world stepped a merciful Savior, who we see in John 5 heal not only a miserable man's body, but his spirit as well.
Let's read about it: "After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?'" (John 5:1-6).
It doesn't take much to imagine the sight and the smell of these people wasting away by the pool of Bethesda, waiting for the movement of some subterranean spring to bubble up, brought on by the actions of an angel, as the story went. These people were totally desperate and helpless.
And Jesus, the text tells us, saw a man lying there. Among throngs of people, Jesus' eyes rested on one individual man who He knew had a disease. The point is this: mercy begins by how we see people. I often find myself asking God to keep me sensitized to what I see, because I see a lot of suffering as a pastor. Matthew 9 says that when Jesus saw the multitudes, "He was moved with compassion" (v. 36)—with mercy.
What Jesus saw at the pool of Bethesda then informed what He did: "When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?' The sick man answered Him, 'Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.' Jesus said to him, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk.' And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked" (John 5:6-9).
Pop down to verse 14 for a moment: after Jesus healed this man, He "found him in the temple, and said to him, 'See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.'" What could possibly be worse than thirty-eight long years suffering from a debilitating disease? I'll tell you what: eternal suffering as a result of unrepentant sin. Disease robbed this man of the best years of his life, but unrepentant sin would rob him of eternity. Jesus loved him enough to confront him with this truth.
And that's mercy. Mercy is ultimately shown by preaching the gospel and caring for broken souls, not just broken bodies. There's no other message like the gospel that can bring healing.
Showing mercy isn't easy, but it's imperative. If you follow the One who is merciful, it naturally follows that you will show mercy to others. So ask the Lord to change your heart, if it needs changing in this area. Learn to notice those who are hurting around you. Reach out not just physically, but spiritually as well, knowing that God doesn't help those who help themselves—He helps those who can't. And praise Him that He does!
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