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8. Exegetical Commentary on John 5


    [3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 -12:50)]

      [1 B The Early Months of Jesus’ Public Ministry: From Cana to Cana (chapters 2-4)]

      2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)

        1 C The Third Sign, at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem: The Healing of the Paralytic (5:1-47)

          1 D The miraculous gift of restoration to the man at the pool (5:1-15)

          2 D The conflict with the Jewish leaders over the right to heal on the Sabbath (5:16-47)


Bell, H. I., “Search the Scriptures [Joh. 5,39],” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 37 (1938): 10-13.

Bowman, J., “The Identity and Date of the Unnamed Feast of John 5,1,” in Near Eastern Studies in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. H. Goedicke (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971): 43-56.

Jeremias, J., The Rediscovery of Bethesda; John 5:2 (Louisville: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1966).

Kysar, R., “The Eschatology of the Fourth Gospel—A Correction of Bultmann’s Hypothesis,” Perspective 13 (1972): 23-33.

Meeks, W. A., The Prophet King: Moses Traditions and Johannine Christology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967).

Moreton, M. J., “Feast, Sign and Discourse in John 5,” in Studia Evangelica 4 [ = Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1968)]:209-13.

Summers, R., “The Johannine View of the Future Life,” Review and Expositor 58 (1961): 331-47.

Vardaman, E. J., “The Pool of Bethesda,” Biblical Research 14 (1963): 27-29.

Wahlde, U. C. von, “The Witnesses to Jesus in John 5:31-40 and Belief in the Fourth Gospel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981): 385-404.

Wallace, D. B., “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 71 (1990): 177-205.

Wieand, D. J., “John v. 2 and the Pool of Bethesda,” New Testament Studies 12 (1966): 392-404.


      2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)

        1 C The Third Sign, at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem: The Healing of the Paralytic (5:1-47)

          1 D The miraculous gift of restoration to the man at the pool (5:1-15)

5:1 The only transitional note we have, again, is in 5:1— metaV tau'ta. We cannot be sure how long after the incidents at Cana this occurred because this temporal indicator is non-specific. As far as the setting goes, there is difficulty because of the textual variants: eJorthv or hJ eJorthv —”a feast” or “the feast”. This may not appear significant at first, but to insert the article would almost certainly demand a reference to the passover. Externally this problem is difficult to decide, but it is probably better to read the word eJorthv as anarthrous in agreement with Nestle-Aland 26th ed. and United Bible Societies 3rd ed. and thus a reference to a feast other than the passover. The incidental note in 5:3, that the sick were lying outside in the porticoes of the pool, makes passover an unlikely time because it fell toward the end of winter and the weather would not have been warm. L. Morris thinks it impossible to identity the feast with certainty.73

Jews were obligated to go up to Jerusalem for 3 major annual feasts: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. If the first is probably ruled out because of the time of year, we may also suppose that the last is not as likely because it forms the central setting for chapter 7 (where there are many indications in the context that Tabernacles is the feast in view.) This leaves the feast of Pentecost, which at some point prior to this time in Jewish tradition (as reflected in Jewish intertestamental literature and later post-Christian rabbinic writings) became identified with the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. Such an association might explain Jesus’ reference to Moses in 5:45-46. This is conjectural, however. The only really important fact for the Evangelist is that the healing was done on a Sabbath. This is what provoked the controversy with the Jews recorded in 5:16-47.

5:2 The site of the miracle is also something of a problem: probatikh'/ is usually taken as a reference to the Sheep Gate near the Temple. Some (Brown, et al.) would place the word kolumbhvqra with probatikh'/ to read “in Jerusalem, by the Sheep Pool, there is (another pool) with the Hebrew name…”. This would of course imply that there is reference to two pools in the context rather than only one. This does not seem necessary (although it is a grammatical possibility). We are not helped by the gender of the words since both are feminine (as is the participle ejpilegomevnh). Note, however, that Brown’s suggestion would require a feminine word to be supplied (for the participle ejpilegomevnh to modify). The traditional understanding of the phrase as a reference to the Sheep Gate near the Temple appears more probably correct.

A lot of controversy has surrounded the name of the pool itself: the reading of the Majority Text, Bhqesda, has been virtually discarded in favor of what is thought to be the more primitive Bhqzaqa or Betzetha (Old Latin). The latter is attested by Josephus as the name of a quarter of the city near the northeast corner of the Temple area. He reports that the Syrian Legate Cestius burned this suburb in his attack on Jerusalem in October AD 68.74 However, there is some new archaeological evidence (published by Milik in Discoveries in the Judean Desert III [1962]): Copper scroll 3Q15 from Qumran seems to indicate that in the general area of the Temple, on the eastern hill of Jerusalem, a treasure was buried in Bet 'Esdatayin, in the pool at the entrance to the smaller basin. The name of the region or pool itself seems then to have been Bet 'Esd, “house of the flowing”. It appears with the dual ending in the scroll because there were 2 basins.

Bhqesda seems to be an accurate Greek rendition of the name, while Milik suggests Bhqzaqa is a rendition of the Aramaic intensive plural Bet 'Esdat. All of this is not entirely certain, but is certainly plausible; if Milik is correct, both the textual variants would refer to the same location, one a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name, the other a Greek rendering of the Aramaic. This would be an unusual instance where two textual traditions which appear to be in conflict would both be correct!

On the location of the pool, we may note: the double-pool of St. Anne is the probable site, and has been excavated; the pools were trapezoidal in shape, 165 feet (49.5 m) wide at one end, 220 ft. (66 m) wide at the other, and 315 ft. (94.5 m) long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades (rows of columns) on all 4 sides and on the partition—thus forming the “5 porticoes” mentioned in 5:2. Stairways at the corners permitted descent to the pool.

Regarding the use of the present tense ejstin and its implications for the dating of the Gospel of John, see the previous discussion on the date of the Gospel (pp. 14-15 above) and the article by D. B. Wallace, “John 5,2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 71 (1990): 177-205.

5:3-4 The major problem in these verses is over the inclusion of verses 3b-4: few textual scholars today would accept the authenticity of these verses. However, in support of their inclusion, there is fairly broad geographical support. True, a considerable number of important manuscripts (66 75 a B C D) favor omission, but the standard canon that the older reading is preferred is not always conclusive. The same applies to the shorter reading—and the longer reading can just as easily explain the shorter in the case of accidental omission. Internally, it is argued that the verses are theologically offensive, and that at least 7 of the words are non-Johannine. But such statistical arguments prove little; and if the verse is theologically objectionable that gives strong weight to the probability it was deliberately excluded in some copies.

As far as I can see the text is incomplete without something here to explain verse 7, the reference to the troubling of the water. Most today would say this is what motivated a copyist to add verses 3b-4; but the text as it would stand without the verses in question is so difficult that it does not seem consistent with Johannine style elsewhere. It would seem, in fact, either obscure or careless to leave this incident unexplained, when elsewhere John goes to such great lengths to add notes and comments to aid readers who might not be familiar with Jewish customs, places, names, etc. Thus at this point I am inclined to think that some portion of verses 3b-4 may be authentic; but sorting out which exact combination of words is difficult and may be impossible given the present state of our knowledge of the history of the text.

It has also been said on the other hand that there was a popular tradition about the stirring of the water by an angel, which the author of the Gospel chose not to include because he regarded it as popular superstition, and therefore left the matter unexplained. It would seem, however, that he could have included the reference while pointing out that it was only legend; but in any case this is sometimes advanced as an argument in favor of the shorter reading.

5:6 gnouv" Supernatural knowledge on the part of Jesus (parallel to 2:25) is implied, though not demanded by this statement. Jesus could also have obtained the information from his disciples or bystanders. But in the context it seems that the author wants his readers to infer that Jesus knew this supernaturally, since there seems to be no time interval at all between the two participles, which indicates that at the moment Jesus saw the individual, he knew this.

5:9b h deV savbbaton We are given an important note on the time of the healing—it was on the Sabbath. John now goes on to tell us why this was significant, in that it brought about confrontation with the Jewish authorities.

5:14 i{na mhV cei'rovn soiv ti gevnhtai Later (9:3) Jesus does not hold that sickness or disease is always a result of sin. Here, however, he does seem to imply that some suffering is the result of personal sin. What is the point of the warning? That if the man sinned again, he would be stricken with an even more severe ailment? Probably not. The phrase “something worse” probably refers to what would happen at the man’s judgment (future judgment in this case)—compare 5:29. This would be “worse” than any physical disability by far!

This man is a delightful study in character—so much so that Brown sees it as a mark of authenticity:

…in his obtuseness this man is, for instance, very different from the clever blind man whom Jesus heals in Chapter 9. The personality traits that he betrays serve no particular theological purpose and are so true to life that they too may have been part of the primitive tradition. If the paralytic’s malady were not so tragic, one could almost be amused by the man’s unimaginative approach to the curative waters. His crotchety grumbling about the “whippersnappers” who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure. The fact that he had let his benefactor slip away without even asking his name is another instance of real dullness. In verse 14 it is Jesus who takes the initiative in finding the man, and not vice versa. Finally, he repays his benefactor by reporting him to “the Jews.” This is less an example of treachery (as Theodore of Mopsuestia urged) than of persistant navet.75

          2 D The conflict with the Jewish leaders over the right to heal on the Sabbath (5:16-47)

5:16 Note the plural tau'ta, which seems to indicate that Jesus healed on the Sabbath more than once (cf. John 20:30). We know this to be true from the Synoptics; the incident in 5:1-15 is thus chosen by the Evangelist as representative.

5:17 What is the significance of this verse? A preliminary understanding can be obtained from 5:18, noting the Jews’ response and the Evangelist’s comment. They sought to kill Jesus, because not only did he break the Sabbath, but he also called God his own father, thus making himself equal with God.

This must be seen in the context of the relation of God to the Sabbath rest. In the commandment (Exod 20:11) it is explained that “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Philo, based on the LXX’s translation of tbv as katevpausen rather than ejpauvsato, denied outright that God had ever ceased his creative activity. And when Rabban Gamaliel II, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Aquiba were in Rome, ca. AD 95, they gave as a rebuttal to sectarian arguments evidence that God might do as he willed in the world without breaking the Sabbath because the entire world was his private residence!

So even the rabbis realized that God did not really cease to work on the Sabbath: Divine providence remained active on the Sabbath, otherwise, all nature and life would cease to exist. As regards men, divine activity was visible in two ways: men were born and men died on the Sabbath. Since only God could give life and only God could deal with the fate of the dead in judgment, this meant God was active on the Sabbath.

This seems to be the background for Jesus’ words in 5:17. He justified his work of healing on the Sabbath by reminding the Jews that they admitted God worked on the Sabbath. This explains the violence of the reaction. The Sabbath privilege was peculiar to God, and no one was equal to God. In claiming the right to work even as his Father worked, Jesus was claiming a divine prerogative. He was literally making himself equal to God, as 5:18 goes on to state explicitly for the benefit of the reader who might not have made the connection.

There is a thought which occurs frequently in the Church Fathers related to this: God did not rest after creation but only after Jesus’ death. Jesus worked during his ministry, but after his death came the Sabbath rest promised to the people of God (cf. Hebrews 4:9-10). This thought is provocative but needs to be modified somewhat. That Sabbath rest does remain; in Hebrews it ultimately refers to the Kingdom of Messiah. But in the Gospel of John, the Messiah is here and his kingdom is at hand. The works he works (on the Sabbath) bring about conditions which typify the Greater Sabbath—the Messianic Kingdom. What more appropriate day to make a man whole, than the day which stands as a reminder, not just of God’s rest from creative activities in the past, but as a reminder of the permanent rest in the Messianic kingdom? I don’t think the Jews would have seen this—they were too incensed with Jesus’ blasphemous (in their opinion) claim to equality with God. But John’s readers, enjoying the advantages of retrospect, could appreciate it.

And it is most significant that in Jesus’ reply to the Jews, both realized eschatology and final eschatology are blended: realized eschatology in 19-25, final eschatology in 26-30.

Note this tension between present and future: eternal life is a thing to be had now (24a) and the transition from death to life is already made (24b); dead (25) refers to those spiritually dead. But in (29) the (physically) dead come out the tombs at the voice of the Son for a (future) judgment.

5:19 Jesus is completely dependent on his Father and does none of his works on his own. The Father and the Son are of one essence, and one principle of operation.

5:20-23 What works does the Son do? The same that the Father does—and the same that the rabbis recognized as legitimate works of God on the Sabbath (see note above on 5:17).

(1) (5:21) Jesus grants life (just as the Father grants life) on the Sabbath. But as the Father gives physical life on the Sabbath, so the Son grants spiritual life (note the “greater things” mentioned in verse 20).

(2) (5:22-23) Jesus judges (determines the fate of men) on the Sabbath, just as the Father judges those who die on the Sabbath, because the Father has granted authority to the Son to judge.)

But this is not all. Not only has this power been granted to Jesus in the present; it will be his in the future as well. In verse 28 we have a reference not to spiritually dead (only) but also physically dead. At their resurrection they respond to the Son as well.

A Note on the Structure of the Narrative:

In Chapter 4 Jesus granted physical life to the nobleman’s son. But that was only a sign of the life from above (a[nwqen) which the Father has given the Son authority to grant.

In 5:1-15 Jesus healed the paralytic, and ordered him to stop sinning. To those who are held in the bondage of death and sin the Son offers life, and the only danger is that one will ignore that offer. To do so would be not to trust in the Son. And something worse would surely befall such a one—at the last judgment (cf. 5:29).

5:29 Compare Dan 12:2, and note this as a foreshadowing of chapter 11, when Lazarus is called out of the tomb at the voice of the Son of Man. Note the similarity of 5:29 to 3:20-21. Compare 6:29: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” See also Carson (258-59) on the individual emphasis here.

5:32 To whom does a[llo" refer? To John the Baptist or to the Father? In the nearer context, verse 33, it would seem to be the Baptist. But verse 34 seems to indicate that Jesus does not receive testimony from men. Probably it is better to view verse 32 as identical to verse 37.

Note the multiplicity of testimony to who Jesus is (all of which the Jews were ignoring):

(1) The Baptist (v. 33)

(2) The works themselves (v. 36)

(3) The Father (v. 37)

(4) The scriptures (v. 39)

5:35 oJ luvcno" Sirach 48:1 states that the word of Elijah was “a flame like a torch.” (The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, is one of the books of the OT Apocrypha.)

5:37 “You have never heard his voice nor seen his form”—compare Deut 4:12 “you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form—only a voice.” Also see Deut 5:24 ff., where the Israelites asked to hear the voice no longer—their request (ironically) has by this time been granted.

How ironic this would be if the feast is Pentecost, where by the first century AD the giving of the Law at Sinai was being celebrated!

5:39 The indicative of eJrauna'te fits the context better (indicative and imperative forms are the same here).

Note the following examples from the rabbinic tractate Pirqe Aboth (“The Sayings of the Fathers”):

Pirqe Aboth 2:8—”He who has acquired the words of the Law has acquired for himself the life of the world to come.”

Pirqe Aboth 6:7—”Great is the Law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and in the world to come.”

How ironic, again, if this is the feast of Pentecost when the giving of the Law was being celebrated! The reader, of course, recognizes what the Jewish authorities did not: that Jesus himself (not the Torah) is the true source of life eternal (cf. the dialogue with Nicodemus in ch. 3 and the dialogue with the Samaritan woman in ch. 4).

5:46 The final condemnation will come from Moses himself—again ironic, since Moses is the very one the Jews have trusted in! This is again ironic if it is occurring at Pentecost, which at this time was being celebrated as the occasion of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. The statement ejpisteuvete Mwu>sei' is to be taken literally and relates directly to Jesus’ statements about the final judgment in ch. 5 (5:28-29).76

A Summary Note on chapter 5:

Disbelief in the face of all this testimony must be motivated by pride; it is a deliberate disbelief (5:40). Jesus attacks the roots of this disbelief with vigor. If it were an intellectual problem it could be met by explanation; but it is really a problem of the moral orientation of life and of the love of God, and so it is met by prophetic accusation. What the Jews are rejecting is not one sent from God—they willingly accept self-proclaimed messiahs (5:43). What they are really rejecting is the demand to place their trust in Jesus as Messiah sent from God, as indicated by his divine prerogatives. The failure to accept Jesus, to trust in him, is ultimately to prefer self, and ultimately to reap the consequences for one’s choice. It is a decision to remain in the darkness rather than come to the Light (cf. 3:19-21).

73 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 299, n. 6.

74 Bellum Judaicum (War of the Jews ) 2.530.

75 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 209.

76 Cf. Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet King: Moses Traditions and Johannine Christology (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967), 161.

Related Topics: Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Miracles

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