God's Pool and Man's Porches
Archibald G. Brown, August 18th, 1872, East London Tabernacle
"Inside the city of Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, was the pool of Bethesda, with five covered porches. Within these lay a large number of the sick — blind, lame, and paralyzed — waiting for the moving of the water, because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had. One of the men lying there had been sick for thirty-eight years." John 5
I am sure you will readily believe me when I say that my presence here this evening is the result of a strong, and I might also add, painful effort. There have been many things during the past few days calculated to make me shrink from the work of preaching tonight. When the heart receives a heavy blow, there is a natural tendency to shun the public gaze, and a strong desire to court quietude.
In addition to this heart-reason, there has also been a mental difficulty, for I have found it no easy matter to gather my thoughts together in any small measure, or center them for any length of time on any one topic. No matter what text I selected, the moment I sought to concentrate my mind on it, I found my thoughts flying off at a tangent, into a home that is darkened, to a mother who is widowed, and to a family that has been bereaved of its father. To break the fetters and get free to think of anything save the anxious watchings and heavier bereavement of the past week has taxed all my powers.
Besides which (it may be a sign of weakness — but I confess it) there has been a thought something like this crossing my mind: There certainly will be found some to say, "If Mr. Brown felt the death of his father very much, he would not be able to preach." And we all know that there is such an inclination to give way to that tyrant called "the proper thing," and to sacrifice our conscience to its claims, that there was even on this account a strong temptation to leave to other lips the joy of pleading for the sick — lest for a moment, my love to my departed father would be called into question, and my filial affection doubted.
But that which has decided me at all hazards to attempt the work, is the special object calling us together this evening. I thought I heard a voice saying "Don't be selfish in your sorrow, and God forbid because you have been bereaved, that the sick, and the sorrowing, and the poor should lose your advocacy." And I am sure that if those lips which have so often spoken in this place — if those lips now sealed in death, were but able to speak — they would be the first to cry, "Do not let the hospital suffer because of my departure — but rather let the fact of my having been cut down, serve as an extra argument when you plead on behalf of those who are following me through the valley of the shadow of death, not merely having the pain of sickness — but the additional sorrow of poverty and privation."
Under these circumstances I throw myself upon your generous sympathy; and if my thoughts seem to run every one away from his fellow rather than together, and if there is a lack of consecutiveness and order in the sermon — please excuse it, and believe that the difficulty has not been to preach well — but to preach at all.
This verse you will see states that by the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, there was a pool called Bethesda, signifying "the house of mercy," and that at certain seasons of the year, an angel came down and stirred the waters. Whoever then first stepped in after the stirring of the water, was made whole — no matter what the disease might be under which he was suffering, or how long the period he had been so afflicted.
This evening we are not going to enter into the vexed question about the angel stirring the water — whether it was mythical or whether it was real — whether it merely symbolizes the medicinal and healing powers of the water, or whether an angel actually came down that could be seen by the sufferers surrounding the pool. I need hardly say that for myself I prefer the latter interpretation. John states it was an angel, and I see no reason why we should accept anybody's supposition as preferable to his direct statement. If the angel merely represents medicinal power, I do not see how that clears away the difficulty, as it was only the first one who stepped in that was made whole. To believe in a momentary medicinal virtue capable of healing any and every sickness — to our mind, requires greater faith than to believe it was purely miraculous. We hold therefore that at certain times a direct power came from Heaven, making that porch-surrounded pool a veritable "house of mercy."
All the healing work of the pool was God's work, and His alone; but in our text we have man's work side by side with God's work. There were five porches. In all probability, these porches were built by some charitable people in the city of Jerusalem who had argued something like this, "We have no power to heal the sick — but we can at all events build a shelter for them when they come seeking a cure. It is not in us to move the water into an all-healing pool — but we can build a place so near the water, that when the sufferers come after many a weary mile, they will be able to rest there, secured from the sun, and sheltered from the tempest, and wait in comfort until the angel of mercy stirs it with his wing."
Thus I think you will see we have in our text the union of God's work and human agency. God digs the pool — and man builds the porches. Our subject then tonight is God's pool and man's porches — or the union of Divine mercy and human charity.
First of all we will look at Bethesda as an illustration of God's work and man's agency in the healing of sick souls. It is a high honor, beloved, to be a co-worker with God, no matter in how humble a capacity. To have anything at all to do with Jehovah's work, is an honor compared with which all the honors of this world are paltry and worthless. No star or medal the world ever put upon the breast of any man is so high an honor as that which he has who in some humble way works hand in hand with God.
The Creator, and the creature,
the Father, and the adopted child,
the Redeemer, and the redeemed,
both engaged together in some work — the result of which is the triumph of mercy and compassion; this is a peerless dignity indeed, an incomparable honor.
But lest, dear friends, you and I should get too exalted in mind at the idea of being fellow-laborers with God, let us call to mind a truth well-calculated to keep pride at a distance, or to put it in the dust if present. God can do without us. The pool could do without the porches, and do as well without them. It had none of its healing qualities from them. No poor sufferer was ever eased of his pain because of the influence of the porches on the pool. It was the pool alone that did the work and had all the glory of the cure. If some ruthless hand had laid all the porches low, and left nothing but ruins in their place, the pool would have been as powerful to heal as if they had never existed.
So let us remember, in order to be kept free from any pride of soul that God may use us — that if we were dead tomorrow, God could do as well without us. The pool can do without the porch — but the porch is a worthless thing without the pool; and therefore, child of God, if you have had the high honor put on you of doing anything for your God, you must cast the glory at his feet, and say, "Lord, you have used me — but I know you could have used anybody else! You have blessed me — but you could have blessed anyone else as much! You have employed instrumentality — but you could have done away with it all. You have honored the porch — but all the healing has come from the pool. From first to last, all is of You. You are the Alpha, and You are the Omega."
But remember, on the other hand, that God so ordered it that the porches should be built by man. Although not dependent on human agency, it yet seems to be God's "mode of operation" never to do for man what man can do for himself. Man could not make a pool of Bethesda, so God made it for him. But man could build five porches — so God left man to do it.
You will find throughout scripture history, that our God acts ever after this plan. He warns Noah of a coming deluge, gives him all the directions as to how to build the ark, and by a miracle, He constrains two of every kind to enter the ark when built. Man could not do that. However, He leaves it to man to drive all the nails and shape the timber. That was something that man could do. So it is right through the history of all his saints.
Take for example Israel in the wilderness. To cause bread to fall from Heaven was beyond the power of any man. God does that; but when the bread had fallen, they could go outside their tent doors and gather it; and therefore the Lord did not rain the bread into their mouths — but onto the ground; and if they would not take the trouble to go and fetch what God had given them — they would starve, and it would serve them right. "What you give — they gather," Psalm 104.28, is not only true of the beasts of the forest — but of the children of His love. The gathering makes them prize the gift the more. God digging the pool, does not exonerate man from building the porches.
Let us for a moment look and see how this may be APPLIED in many ways.
This blessed Book is all from God. No human hand dug its deep well of truth. From Genesis to Revelations it makes one glorious Bethesda. It is a house of mercy, and in its chapters and verses there is latent healing power, that needs but the moving of the Spirit to heal anyone. To write this book, and make it a power of healing for souls, is God's work, and His work alone.
But you and I can place this book into the hands of different people, and that is our work. God writes the book — but it is for us to print it, and distribute it on every hand.
He makes this pool of Bethesda; but you and I, perhaps through the agency of a Bible Society, have to help build the five porches. "Faith comes by hearing," and God's most frequent method of salvation is to save men through the preaching of His cross in His sanctuaries. Now that is God's work. Man can neither give himself nor anyone else faith; but man can build the sanctuaries for the gospel to be preached in. Therefore God does not build any chapels by miracles. If men want to have houses to worship in, God says, "that is your work — you must toil, and you must collect, and you must give, and you must pay for it. You can build the brick porch — but it is for Me to make it a Bethesda, a house of mercy to thousands."
No one has power to give peace to an anxious soul, or touch and heal the heart that has been wounded. There is no earthly house of mercy that we possess — no man devised Bethesda — that can give rest to the sin-convinced and self-condemned soul. This is God's work. But we can throw open an enquirer's class as a porch to help the sinner to the house of mercy; and therefore we say that no church is truly complete unless it has the porch of an enquirer's class to shelter the trembling penitents and point them to the pool.
To restore a backslider is as much God's work as to convert a sinner. We have no power to bring back again the soul that has wandered; but we can build a porch to encourage his return — we can look after him in his wanderings — we can take him by the hand, and speak the kindly word of warning and entreaty.
Thus you see, God and His saints work together in happy union. God doing all that man cannot possibly do — and at the same time leaving to him all that can be accomplished by human means. God, in other words, looks after the pool, and says to His saints, "Now you look after the porches."
It has occurred to me that in many ways Bethesda makes a very beautiful illustration of what a Christian church ought to be. I will briefly notice one or two points.
The first thing we observe is — that those porches were only built for the sake of the pool. You cannot imagine any gentleman in Jerusalem having built them merely for the sake of an architectural display. Most certainly they were not built for lounges, and it is equally certain they were not built for people to sleep in. They were simply built to help men to get to the water that could heal them.
Every sanctuary that is built aright, is built from the same motive. It is built simply to lead men to Christ. I fear that it is not a very uncharitable thing to say that if we were to go deeply into the history of many sanctuaries, we should find that a multitude of motives very different from this, helped in their erection. Too often they are built without a thought of their becoming houses of mercy. Many of them have for their foundation stones a previous split in some other place of worship; while many others have arisen more through the pride of some great man — or the bickering of some ill-tempered man, than anything else.
But observe, secondly, that the porches were only of value as they led to the pool. Yonder is a man who has been a paralytic for years. He has heard about the marvelous power of this water, and he says, "I will go and try it." Suppose that when he gets as far as the porch, he sits down and says, "Well, now I have gotten to just where I desire;" and he begins to look around the porch and says, "What a comfortable place this is! How kind of those gentlemen in Jerusalem to ever have built it." And suppose he were to wait month after month, and year after year in that porch. I ask you how much better would he be for it? That porch might just as well be his sepulcher. It has no power to heal him. The man is as diseased as ever, and as far as he is concerned, that porch is simply worthless. In other words, the porch was no good to any man unless he went beyond it.
Do you observe too that those who filled the porches were just the very ones we want to see filling our sanctuaries? You find the congregation described in the third verse, "now in these porches lay a great multitude of disabled folk, of blind, crippled, withered, waiting for the moving of the waters." Here we have the kind of gathering we want to see filling all the spiritual porches of the land.
First of all, there were sick ones. Here is a poor paralyzed man, and there a disabled one. Yonder is one shaking all over with the fever, and there is another fearing instant death through heart disease. All kinds of disease are represented. Oh, I would that all the sanctuaries of England were full of sick souls! all kinds, no matter how bad — and the worse, the more welcome.
Let us see to it, dear friends, that we never seek to be such a very highly respectable congregation, that the presence of any heinous sinners would shock our sensibilities. May the Lord bring in here the most monstrous sinners of East London, and make this Tabernacle a great porch for desperately bad cases! Whoever else is shut out, room must be made for them. A sanctuary unfrequented by "the atrocious sinners" of the neighborhood, is of little service to God, and no annoyance to the devil.
They were not only sick ones in those porches; they were something better. They were those who knew they were sick. They came there with a special purpose, and that purpose was to be healed.
That preacher has delightful work who preaches to a congregation drawn by the same desire. That sermon will most assuredly bear fruit, that is preached to a company of lost sinners who feel their sinnership and have come in the hope of obtaining mercy.
Friend, let me ask you — Have you come here tonight in the hope of being healed? As you wended your way along the road, did you feel like one of those desperate men going to the porch saying, "Oh I wish that God might just stir the water tonight! Oh that there might be a power from Heaven which would give the sermon some magic influence with this heart of mine!" Oh my friend, we hold out the hand and greet you. We are right glad to see you here. This porch was built for just such souls as you — and before long, if not tonight, you will find Bethesda through it.
And then observe that that they were poor people that were there, people that could not in any way afford to have a doctor. The beggars and the riff-raff of Jerusalem were there — men who did not have a penny to give to anyone to help them into the water when it was stirred.
If you had asked one of the Pharisees that Christ speaks about in the sixth chapter of Matthew, to walk into the porch, in all probability he would have gathered round about him the long flowing garments of his respectability lest they touch such creatures, and hold his breath as he walked, lest he get contaminated by coming among such a wretched rabble crew!
I wish that we could see more of the poor and penniless helping to fill our sanctuaries. Members of the church, I beseech you to listen to this word — whoever else may be overlooked or unnoticed, mind that a poor person is not — and whoever else may be left to stand during the service, let it not be such a one. Rather let it be yourself. And whenever you see a man who has unmistakable marks of more than ordinary poverty about him, let him be the one who has the first grasp of your hand. We want this porch to be filled, like Bethesda, not merely with the sick — but with the sick poor.
And observe, lastly here, that there were plenty of them. It is said, "In these porches lay a great multitude." There is nothing easier than to sneer at numbers when they come to hear the preaching of the word, though I never hear them despised when the meeting is of a political or secular nature. I willingly grant that numbers, of themselves, are not worth much; but at the same time let it be remembered that, if there are no fish in the pond, you cannot catch any — and if there is only a handful of people in a chapel, hundreds cannot be saved there. The Holy Spirit cannot turn a pew into a saint; but if there are half-a-dozen lost sinners in the pew — He can change them into six saints who will sing eternal praises to their God. Therefore it is mere false humility to say that one does not rejoice when multitudes flock to hear. May God make every porch in this great east end of London, too narrow for the throngs of the poor and the sick and the spiritually diseased that will crowd into them.
We close then, by observing that wherever we find God placing a pool — we are to build a porch; and where we see Him at work, we are to seek to have a hand in that work — to be fellow-laborers with Him. Where the Lord in his mercy digs a Bethesda — let us as a church add the five porches!