John (Part 13): The Bethesda Healing (Ch 5:1 – 5:15)
Verse 6 of chapter 5 tells us that Jesus knew the man had been lying there a long time. Some may think that of course Jesus would know that fact because Jesus is God. And yet from other Gospel indications, we find many examples of when Jesus did not know something. What was the difference? Did he turn the dial of his omniscience down somewhere below full blast but still above normal humankind? I think that in his humanity or to be fully human, Jesus had temporarily given up his omniscience. He knew nothing more than others through any kind of self-contained supernatural ability. However, we are told that he was sinless, and being sinless meant that he depended entirely on the revelation of God for truth, goodness, and beauty. So at times he knew things more than others precisely because, at those times, the Holy Spirit revealed them to him. An emphasis in the NT is that we should imitate Christ. We don’t imitate him as God; we imitate him as perfect man.
At the end of verse 6 we read a question that Jesus asked the man. The question was, “Do you want to get well?” Perhaps the man paused. If he were a sarcastic person, he may have said (or at least thought), “Do I want to be well? No, I’m lying by this pool of healing because I don’t want to be healed. Duh! What are you thinking?!” But the man didn’t say that. He probably, rather, presumed that Jesus had asked because he’d been lying there for a while and never got in the water. He probably anticipated that if he simply answered, “Yes,” Jesus would then have asked, “Well, why don’t you just get in?” So, the man cut to the chase and answered what he presumed was Jesus’ unstated question: why doesn’t he get in? He couldn’t get in because no one was concerned enough to help him in when the water was stirred up. Maybe he was hoping that Jesus would hang around to help him into the water the next time it stirred.
But that was not the point of Jesus’ question. Just as Jesus asked or said simple but oddly fitting statements to Mary at the wedding, to Nicodemus, and to the royal official, his question here had more to it than face value consideration would show. Jesus’ overall concern was to get past the immediate physical need to the greater spiritual need. He had spoken of a second birth to Nicodemus who at first thought of the physical when Jesus had meant the spiritual. He had spoken of living water to the Samaritan who at first thought of physical water when Jesus had meant spiritual. Here too the physical healing was in the forefront of the man’s mind, but Jesus had begun to work in that mind to move it along the path toward the spiritual.
Jesus, then, took a first step by showing the man that purification and satisfaction were not in the capricious stirring of the waters but rather in Jesus himself. He is the living water. (Remember, living water is water than moves—just as the pool’s stirring or bubbling [most probably from air movement through caverns far below]). He focused the man’s attention on him rather than the pool. Jesus told the man to get up. Notice, he didn’t tell him to become well. He didn’t wave his hand or say some magic word. He didn’t have to. The man had become well through the silent work of Jesus at the urging of the Spirit. Jesus was now simply revealing this to the man, and so he told him to get up.
And the man did. He must have believed in some sense. He must have felt compelled to attempt what Jesus had told him to do. Perhaps he felt new strength in his legs. Perhaps it was merely the arresting authority emanating from Jesus (Mt 7:29) that moved him. But on arising, he found he truly was healed. He must have laughed and danced and shouted. But in the press of the people and the excitement of the moment, Jesus slipped away.
God had told the Jews to keep the Sabbath holy. In other words, he wanted them to break from the routine of work to concentrate on his rest—his provision for them. Trading away the principle for legalistic zeal, the Jews had developed a list of rules—things you could and could not do on the Sabbath. One of those things that they classified as “work” was transporting something greater than the weight of a dried fig. So when the Jews saw the formerly sick man carrying his mat, they exploded in anger (sadly, our normal response to other people’s sin). They reminded the man of their law. He told them that the man who made him well told him to pick his mat up.
Now, why did he say this? Why did he consider this a defense? Perhaps it wasn’t a defense. Perhaps it was merely the deflection of guilt away from himself. And it seemed to have worked. On hearing it, the Jews’ attention shifted from this person who maybe unthinkingly and accidentally performed this relatively minor act to someone who was actually consciously promoting the breaking of the Law. The Jews, then, want this healer identified. However, the man who had been made well did not know who his healer was.
Later (maybe that day, maybe days later) Jesus found him in the temple. Jesus noted that he was well and then exhorted him not to sin anymore so that nothing worse would happen to him. Was Jesus’ implying that sin had caused the man’s disease? Possibly, although we know that physical disability doesn’t necessarily occur in response to a certain sin (as in the case of the blind man in John 9). But was it in this case? Was Jesus, then, merely telling the man not to sin again or some worse physical disability would occur? Well, most commentators think it is more than that. In fact, they say that the first meeting was to heal him physically, and the second meeting was to heal him spiritually. They believe Jesus was saying, “You sinned before and you became lame. Don’t sin again or God will strike you with a worse calamity (namely, eternal death).” But if this really was the focus of Jesus’ comment, why does Jesus leave it at that? Does Jesus seek this man out a second time merely to tell him to avoid eternal punishment by trying not to sin again?
An important point to this story may be something that we don’t find included. In Jesus’ entire interaction with the man, did he really present the gospel? He asked the man if he wanted to be well. He told him to pick up his mat and walk. And then he told him not to sin anymore. Is that the gospel?
John’s point, I think, stretches beyond the surface level consideration of individual gospel presentation (although it is there and we’ll get to that shortly). The man in this story represents something greater than himself. We have touched briefly on Jesus’ ministry first to the Samaritan woman who represented a people distantly related to the Jews but who were placed outside the circle of God’s covenant. We talked of the royal official representing Gentiles who had definitely always been outside the covenant. But in this, the next story in the sequence, Jesus encounters a Jew—one who is inside the covenant circle. This person then, it would seem, represents the Jews in general. Now, what is his response to Jesus? The Samaritan response was embrace. The Gentile response was embrace. The Jewish response? It appears, I think, a response of rejection. Let’s look back at the story again.
Jesus had asked him in verse 6, “Do you want to get well?” This may not have been such an odd question as first thought. We presume the man came to the pool to get well. Presumably someone brought him. Likely someone brought him each day, left him for the day, and then helped him home at night. I say that was likely because this was not a hotel that had a pool; this was just a pool for public bathing. How did the man eat or afford to eat? Just like the lame man at the Beautiful gate to the temple (Acts 3) who was carried to a high trafficked public place to beg, so would it appear that this was a similar situation in that this man was probably also daily carried here to the high trafficked public pool to beg. He defended himself to Jesus by saying no one would help him into the pool, but perhaps he was accepting of that fact. His life, because of his illness, was made as comfortable as it could be (he had his mat), engaging in the only occupation he could—begging, and resigned to continue this lot in life. So, Jesus, knowing that this man was there in the regular daily routine of his life, asked him, “Do you want to get well?” Jesus wanted to know whether he was satisfied with his condition in his daily routine begging for his income or would he grasp the challenges of truly getting well.
As we reflect on how this man represented the Jews, we understand the nation in the same condition as this man. They are broken. They had had covenant relationship with God, but they had sinned and they were spiritually lame and feeble. They were ostensibly looking for someone (the Messiah) to heal their nation, but they made themselves comfortable in the routine of their illness. Jesus came to the nation just as he came to this one man. Jesus presented himself to the nation, essentially asking them if they wanted to get well. Jesus offers relief. Jesus offers rest. Jesus personifies the Sabbath of God.
In our story the Jews explode in horror that someone would break their Sabbath Law. The invalid first deflects blame from himself and then returns to the Jews to accuse Jesus. This is the activity of the nation, deflecting blame and rejecting this Sabbath of God in favor of their Law and tradition.
The message that Jesus had given to this man—don’t sin or something worse would happen—is the OT message of the Law. The Law, Paul said, was a prison guard (Gal 3:23-24), telling the Jews not to sin. When Jesus told the man not to sin, the man should have immediately responded, “But I can’t do it! Help me!” Instead, the man left Jesus to return to the Jews and their Law, accusing Jesus—the same reception Jesus received from the nation.
But did Jesus present the gospel? Of course he did! Jesus presented himself. He is the gospel! The gospel is the good news that God has provided redemption. That gospel word is embodied in the Word made flesh—in Jesus. It is interesting that ever since the Enlightenment of the 18th century, Christians have disparaged the ideas of that period outwardly but thoroughly embraced it inwardly. Even the gospel has been defined in our present day to be a list of propositions that must be believed. But propositions of the gospel are not prescriptive; they are descriptive. The gospel is the Word made flesh, not the flesh made word. Encountering Jesus is the gospel. Certainly propositional thinking finds a home there, but we must remember the order. Meeting Jesus comes first. Just as revelation had come to all the main characters in all the stories previously, this man has revelation come to him. But unlike the others, this man turns away. Remember faith electionism teaches a revelation-response interaction of God with humankind. God reveals. As people in faith embrace his revelation, God moves toward them with further enlightenment—all the way to salvation. But (as in Romans 1) when people reject his revelation, God moves away. This man had met Jesus, but this man rejected, and we do not read (as with the Samaritan and the royal official) that he ever trusted.
When we think back of the setting that John gives us in the beginning of the story, perhaps he is even there giving a hint of what is to come. He mentioned that the pool was by the Sheep gate. Why the reference? Those Gentiles in the Mediterranean world reading his Gospel would not have had a better understanding of the location of the Bethesda pool simply because John mentioned it was by the Sheep gate. If they didn’t know where the Bethesda pool was, they certainly wouldn’t know where the Sheep gate was. Perhaps the mention was to tie the story to the attitude of the Jews, moving along dumbly as sheep, clutching to their ritual even when the Giver of Life comes to heal them.
The fact that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath becomes the focus of discussion as John continues his narrative. The Jews (Pharisees and officials) had found out that Jesus had pushed the bounds of the Sabbath, and so they were ready to attack. They confronted Jesus. They asked him to explain himself. And Jesus replied, “My Father is still working, and I am working also” (5:17). And John tells us that this enraged the Jews further because by this they understood Jesus to be making himself equal with God.
In verses 19 through 47, Jesus responds to the Jews. This lengthy response is not merely a dissertation on Jesus relationship to the Father or how his testimony is accomplished. Rather, Jesus is providing a specific answer to the Jews’ charges that he broke the Sabbath and claimed equality with God. And so to understand his response, we should begin by understand the Jews’ complaint.
There are three instances in the Gospels that discuss the events of the Jews’ complaining that Jesus violated the Sabbath Law. The first is in Matthew 12 (with parallel passage in Mark 2) when Jesus and his disciples are walking along on the Sabbath by a field in which mature wheat is growing. As they pass along they pull the heads of the stalks to eat the grain. The Jews equate their action with reaping or harvesting, which Sabbath Law forbade. In the same passage (and apparently on the same day), Jesus entered the synagogue. Finding a man with a withered hand, he healed him. Again the Jews complain that Jesus is performing a work of healing on the Sabbath when Sabbath Law prohibits work on that day.
The second event is in Luke 13. A woman had a condition in which she was almost bent double, unable to stand straight. Jesus heals her, and the Jews again complain that he worked on a Sabbath. And, finally, we have our incident in John 5 in which Jesus heals the man at the Bethesda pool.
So, the accusation of the Jews is that Jesus disregards the Law, which specifically states not to work on the Sabbath. Many Christians attempt to defend Jesus by saying that he did not really break the Law of God, but rather he didn’t pay attention to the greater restrictions that the Jews had added to the Law. However, if we disregard the minutiae to the Jewish laws and concentrate on only the OT, do we still find that to be true?
Exodus 20:8-11 presents the law about the Sabbath that is the fourth of the Ten Commandments. There it specifically states that they were to do no work on that day. Moving on to Exodus 35:1-3 we learn that violating the Sabbath by doing any sort of work was to be punished by execution. And in Numbers 15:32-36 we read of an incident in which a man was found gathering wood (presumably for a fire) on a Sabbath. God tells Moses that the people must stone him to death, which they do. Therefore, we find a strong Sabbath Law with an extremely serious penalty for disobedience, ordained by God for what may seem like a minor infraction—the gathering of sticks for a fire. Were the Jews so off base, then, for their horror at the man made well who we find simply transporting his bed or of the disciples gathering wheat to eat or Jesus performing works of healing?
Well, I think there is a difference in what Jesus did, and we understand that difference through Jesus’ own remarks in those instances. We must next study those.