Jesus Heals the Man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-18)
My daughter recently handed me a book which records some very strange laws still on the books in our country. Some of these “whacky laws” are listed below:
- “In Pennsylvania, the penalty for cursing is a forty-cent fine. However, if God is mentioned in the curse, the fine is sixty-seven cents.”
- “It is illegal to mispronounce the name of the city of Joliet, Illinois.”
- “In Utah, the law requires that daylight be seen between two dancing partners.”219
- “In San Francisco, you are not permitted to carry a basket suspended from a pole.”
- “It is unlawful for goldfish to ride on a Seattle, Washington, bus unless they lie still.”
- “Michigan law once required taking a census of bees every winter.”
- “In Natchez, Mississippi, it is against the law for elephants to drink beer.”
- “An old Hollywood, California, ordinance forbids driving more than two thousand sheep down Hollywood Boulevard at one time.”
- “In Muncie, Indiana, you cannot bring fishing tackle into a cemetery.”
- “The California penal code prohibits the shooting of any animal, except a whale, from an automobile.”
- “In Kansas City, Missouri, children are prohibited by law from buying cap pistols. However, the law does not restrict them from buying shotguns.”
- “A Minnesota law requires that men’s and women’s underwear not be hung on the same clothesline at the same time.”
- “In Joliet, Illinois, women are not allowed to try on more than six dresses in one store.”220
I mention these “whacky laws” of our own land because I am about to point out some of the “whacky Jewish laws” of Jesus’ day. We are inclined to look at these laws and laugh, amazed at how ridiculous they seem. Before getting too carried away with our laughter, let me say this. Every one of these apparently ridiculous laws made sense to the lawmakers at the time they became law. These “whacky laws” did not come about in a vacuum; they were a legislative attempt to prevent or solve a real problem of some kind. Lest we think lawmakers wish to spend all their time making up silly laws, let me suggest that they must do so because of “whacky” folks like you and me.
As parents, we should be able to understand how this happens. We would love to be able to give our children a very general principle or guideline, and trust them to follow it. For example, we wish we could say to our child, “Just be home at a reasonable hour.” The trouble is that they do not agree with us about what “reasonable” means, and so we have to give an exact time. Our child says, “Mom, can I go down the street and play with Charlie?” We say, “No, I don’t want you to play with Charlie at his house.” So our child goes down the street and plays with Charlie out in the yard (to keep our rules), or he plays with Charlie’s brother in his house. We therefore learn to make our rules more and more specific, lest our child fail to behave as we intended. The more specific we make these rules, the sillier they appear to others.
I am not defending Pharisaism or the legalism of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Many of their rules would be very difficult to defend. Nevertheless, I must also say that most of the regulations I am about to call to your attention were probably necessitated by people who were unwilling to abide by principles; thus, religious leaders were forced to become more and more specific, to the point of unbelievable gnat-straining. Here are some of the regulations of the Jews in our Lord’s time:
Some of the detailed regulations are passing wonderful. For example, ‘(On the Sabbath) a man may borrow of his fellow jars of wine or jars of oil, provided that he does not say to him, ‘Lend me them’ (Shab. 23:1). This would imply a transaction, and a transaction might involve writing, and writing was forbidden. Or again, ‘If a man put out the lamp (on the night of the Sabbath) from fear of the gentiles or of thieves or of an evil spirit, or to suffer one that was sick to sleep, he is not culpable; (but if he did it with a mind) to spare the lamp or to spare the oil or to spare the wick, he is culpable’ (Shab. 2:5). The attitude to healing on the sabbath is illustrated by a curious provision that a man may not put vinegar on his teeth to alleviate toothache. But he may take vinegar with his food in the ordinary course of affairs, and the Rabbis philosophically concluded, ‘if he is healed he is healed’ (Shab. 14:4)!221
The Mishna says: ‘He that reapeth corn on the Sabbath to the quantity of a fig is guilty; and plucking corn is reaping.’ Rubbing the grain out was threshing. Even to walk on the grass on the Sabbath was forbidden because it was a species of threshing. Another Talmudic passage says: ‘In case a woman rolls wheat to remove the husks, it is considered sifting; if she rubs the head of wheat, it is regarded as threshing; if she cleans off the side-adherences, it is sifting out fruit; if she throws them up in her hand, it is winnowing’ [Jer. Shabt, page 10a]. The scrupulosity of these Jews about the Sabbath was ridiculously extreme. A Jewish sailor caught in a storm after sunset on Friday refused to touch the helm though threatened with death. Thousands had suffered themselves to be butchered in the streets of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes rather than lift a weapon in self-defense on the Sabbath! To these purists, the act of the disciples was a gross desecration of the Sabbath law. The worst of all was that Jesus permitted and approved it.222
In the above citations, J. W. Shepard is referring to the Sabbath laws of Jesus’ day, but we would be incorrect to suppose things have improved with time. A friend loaned me a book by Rav Yehoshua Y. Neuwirth entitled, Shemirath Shabbath: A Guide to the Practical Observance of Shabbath.223 This volume (my friend reminds me that it is the first volume) goes into great detail concerning the interpretation and application of the Sabbath for contemporary Judaism. In the preface to this work the author writes, “The Mishna (Chagiga: Chapter 1, Mishna 8) likens the laws of Shabbath to ‘mountains hanging by a hair,’ in that a multitude of precepts and rules, entailing the most severe penalties for their breach, depend on the slightest of indications given by a biblical verse.”224
He also reminds us of the importance which Judaism has placed, and continues to place, on the keeping of the Sabbath:
May we be privileged, by virtue of the proper observance of the Shabbath, to see the final redemption of Israel. Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, “Were Israel properly to observe two Shabbathoth, they would immediately be redeemed” (Shabbath 118b). Until such time, God’s only dwelling-place on this earth is within the four walls of the Halacha (Berachoth 8a).225
The book contains many instructions about the keeping of the Sabbath, but I will mention only a few:
Cooking in most all forms (boiling, roasting, baking, frying, etc.) is forbidden on the Sabbath, in particular when the temperature is raised above 45 degrees centigrade (113 Fahrenheit).226
If the hot water tap is accidentally left on, it cannot be turned off on the Sabbath.227
Escaping gas can be turned off, but not in the normal way. One must turn off the tap of a gas burner with the back of the hand or the elbow.228
The preparation of food is greatly affected by the Sabbath. One cannot squeeze a lemon into a glass of ice tea, but one can squeeze lemon on a piece of fish.229
That one cannot light a fire on the Sabbath is taught in the Old Testament law (cf. Exod. 35:3). Strict Judaism views this to prohibit turning electric lights on or off on the Sabbath. The problem can be solved, however, by using a timer, which automatically handles this task.230
So, too, an air conditioner cannot be turned on by a Jew on the Sabbath, although a Gentile might be persuaded to do so.231
One cannot bathe with a bar of soap on the Sabbath, but liquid detergent is acceptable.232
I find the section dealing with “discovered articles” (pp. 233-235) most interesting. One is prohibited from transporting goods on the Sabbath. This would prevent merchants from conducting business on the Sabbath. It has been so highly refined that now one cannot carry something which he unknowingly took with him. If one is walking along on the Sabbath and discovers that he is carrying something in his pocket, he has several courses of action so as not to violate the Sabbath. He may, for example, drop the item out of his pocket, but not in the normal or usual fashion (by grasping it, removing it from the pocket, and dropping it on the floor). He can, however, reverse his pocket, expelling the object unnaturally, and thus legitimately. If the item is valuable, and he does not wish to leave it on the ground, he can ask a Gentile to watch the item for him. Otherwise, the item could be carried, but not in the usual way. He can carry it for a prescribed distance (just under four amoth), put it down, then take it up, and so on. Or, the man could relay it between himself and a fellow-Israelite, each one carrying the object for no more than the prescribed distance. If this is not advisable, the object can be carried in an unusual way, such as placing it in the shoe, tying it to his leg, or managing to suspend it between his clothing and his body.
Morris adds this regulation regarding work on the Sabbath:
Mishnah, Shab. 7:2 lists thirty-nine classes of work forbidden on a sabbath, the last being ‘taking out aught from one domain into another.’ An interesting regulation provides that if a man took out ‘a living man on a couch he is not culpable by reason of the couch, since the couch is secondary’ (Shab. 10:5). This clearly implies that the carrying of the ‘couch’ by itself is culpable.233
This information is not supplied to amuse you, but to prepare you for the issues that arise in our study of John chapter 5, as well as later on in John’s Gospel. A decisive change takes place here. Until now, signs and miracles may not have convinced all, but they definitely were instrumental in drawing some to faith. When Jesus turned the water into wine, a few realized what had happened, but only the disciples of our Lord are said to have “believed” (John 2:11). When our Lord went to Jerusalem and cleansed the temple (John 2:12-22), He also performed a number of signs, which caused a number to “believe in His name” (2:23-25). Nicodemus was at least impressed by the signs Jesus performed (3:2). The Samaritans did not require a sign, but many believed in Jesus when they heard His words (4:4ff.). The royal official who came to Jesus was forced to believe the word which Jesus spoke to him, and the miracle that resulted was instrumental in his coming to faith, along with his whole house (4:43-54).
Suddenly, when we reach this fifth chapter of John our Lord’s miracles actually precipitate intense opposition and persecution. The healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda brings about a reaction so strong that the Jews are even more resolved to kill Jesus. In chapter 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000, but after He informs these would-be disciples that they must trust in His sacrificial death, virtually all forsake Him. In chapter 7, when Jesus appears in Jerusalem, the Jews send officers to arrest Him. In chapter 8, when Jesus has an animated debate with the Jews and makes the statement, “Before Abraham came into existence, I am!,” many want to stone Him. From chapter 5 onward, the Jews are determined to do away with Jesus. As time goes on, their opposition to Jesus only intensifies.
As we begin our study of chapter 5 and witness the wonderful works of our Lord precipitating intense reaction to Him, let us listen and learn those lessons which God has here for us.
1 After this there was a234 Jewish feast, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool called Bethesda in Aramaic, that has five covered walkways. 3 In these a great number of sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed people were lying [“waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel of the Lord went down and stirred up the water at certain times. Whoever first stepped in after the stirring of the water was healed from whatever disease which he suffered.”]
We do not know which “feast” brought Jesus “up to Jerusalem” (see footnote 16). It seems clear that John did not care for us to know which one, and that this bit of information would not contribute to our understanding of what follows. There once was considerable discussion over the place where Jesus found this handicapped man. This now seems to be quite certain. William Hendriksen writes:
After much guess-work with respect to the identity of this pool, its site has finally been established to the satisfaction of most scholars. The pool (or, in reality, the reservoir which formed it) was laid bare in the year 1888 in connection with the repair of the church of St. Anne, in n.e. Jerusalem. A faded fresco on the wall pictures an angel ‘troubling’ the water. It appears, therefore, that by the early church this pool was viewed as Bethzatha. In the time of our Lord it had five porticos or covered colonnades where the sick could rest, protected from inclement weather.235
Multitudes of the physically infirmed are gathered around this pool. Among them is a man who has been disabled for 38 years. We do not know exactly what is wrong with him, but it is apparent he is immobilized by his malady, because it is necessary for someone else to put him into the pool (verse 7). The big question is: “What are all these ailing people doing at the pool of Bethesda?”
Those who know me well understand that I am not predisposed to set certain texts of Scripture aside, simply because they are omitted from a number of highly respected manuscripts.236 For example, in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, even though the story of the “woman caught in adultery” is questioned as to whether it is a part of the original text, I am inclined to accept it as such. But the verses in question in our text just don’t seem to be original; rather, they seem to be an attempt of a later hand to explain the meaning of the ailing man’s words in verse 7. Let me summarize my reasons for doubting that the end of verse 3 and all of verse 4 are part of the original text.237
First, the verses which speak of an angel troubling the waters of the pool are not present in the best manuscripts.
None of the best and most ancient manuscripts have these words which accordingly, have not been retained in the A.R.V. On the other hand, Tertullian (about 145-220 A.D.) already shows that he knows this passage; for he states:
“An angel, by his intervention, was wont to stir the pool at Bethsaida. They who were complaining of ill health used to watch for him; for whoever was the first to descend into these waters, after his washing ceased to complain’ (On Baptism V).”238
Second, the alleged “miraculous healings” at the pool of Bethesda are not like any other healing I find in the Bible. Think about it. Have you ever read of any such miracle in the Bible, where an angel somehow energizes the waters, and the first person into the water is healed? Where do we ever read of angels being involved with healings? Water is often used in healings, but such miracles are always specific—not general. Naaman was healed of his leprosy when he obeyed Elisha’s instructions to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5). People are healed individually and specifically, not in some kind of “whoever can get there the first” manner. Even in the case of the bronze serpent, referred to in John 3, everyone who looked up to the serpent was healed. There is something very bizarre, very unusual (dare I say “troubling”?) about this “miracle.” Does God really heal someone because he can push and shove and bully his way into the pool first?
Third, this was not the time for miracles. The 400 years between the last book of the Old Testament and the coming of Christ were a time of silence. Prophets were not writing, nor speaking, so far as I can tell. Jesus broke that silence. John prepared the way for Jesus, but we are specifically told that he performed no signs (John 10:41). Why would we suppose there were “miracles on tap” for those who waited for an angel to “trouble the waters” at the pool of Bethesda when this was not a time for miracles?
Fourth, this ailing man, whose words in verse 7 are not in dispute, is not a man of faith, and thus his comments about the pool and its alleged magical powers should be considered cautiously. I do not dispute that this man supposed the pool had healing powers at certain times, but I do seriously question that this is indeed the case. Listen to what Carson has to say about this:
The invalid apparently held to a popular belief that the first person into the pool after the waters had been disturbed, and only the first person, would be miraculously healed. There is no other attestation of this belief in sources roughly contemporaneous with Jesus, but analogous superstitions both ancient and modern are easy to come by.239
Fifth, it is not at all uncommon for the sick to congregate around mineral water, which is believed to have healing powers:
In general it may be stated that it is never uncommon for people, afflicted with various illnesses, to gather around mineral springs. Think of the springs around Tiberias or, in our own country, of the waters of Hot Springs, Arkansas, which long before the Spaniards arrived were already being credited with healing virtues.240
Sixth, I am puzzled as to why Jesus has to ask this man if he wants to be made whole, and even more perplexed at the man’s answer. Why does Jesus ask this man if he wishes to get well? And why does the man not give a simple “Yes” in response? Instead, the man seeks to defend his “system” for failing to provide him with a healing. He blames this failure on others, since no one will help him into the pool, and others beat him to it. Unlike the woman at the well in chapter 4, or even Nicodemus in chapter 3, this man seems to have no spiritual insight, no theological content, and definitely no faith.241 Carson doesn’t care much for this fellow, as evident in his assessment of him:
He tries to avoid difficulties with the authorities by blaming the one who has healed him (v. 11); he is so dull he has not even discovered his benefactor’s name (v. 13); once he finds out he reports Jesus to the authorities (v. 15). In this light, v. 7 reads less as an apt and subtle response to Jesus’ question than as the crotchety grumblings of an old and not very perceptive man who thinks he is answering a stupid question.242
Perhaps it would be helpful to sum up my reservations by encouraging you to “see” what this miraculous healing by angel-stirred waters might look like if you made a movie of this part of our Lord’s life. To be true to the text, there would be a very large group of sick and hurting people gathered at the pool of Bethesda. Every one of them would be hopelessly incurable. Nothing more could be done for them. All they could do is beg, and hope and pray for a miracle. How eager all of them would be to believe the stories they heard about miraculous healings at this pool, even if they had never actually seen anyone healed.
Suddenly, the waters of the pool begin to boil, or bubble, or froth in some way, and pandemonium breaks out. Only one person will be healed per “stirring”—the first one into the pool. Every ailing person there at the pool is in competition with the rest of the multitude who are also hoping for a healing. If and when the waters are actually troubled, no one dares to tell anyone else, for fear they might reach the pool first. Can you imagine the pushing, shoving, and tripping that takes place as every ailing person desperately strives to be the first into the water? What a pathetic sight, to see cripples crawling, hopping, rolling, clawing their way to the water’s edge. What chaos there would be! And then, even if one person was healed, it would not be the most needy person, because the one with the smallest ailment would be the most likely one to reach the pool first. The most needy person would be the least likely to get into the water first. Therefore, the least needy would probably be the one cured, while all the rest struggle to get out of the pool, get back to their “stations,” and await their next chance. What a very pathetic scene.
Two Views of This Miracle
Since there are many ways to understand the healing of this man at the pool of Bethesda, let me present two extremes—and then challenge you to choose one or the other, or something in between.
Best Case Scenario
Let’s give this man every benefit of the doubt as we work our way through the story. An angel really does come by the pool from time to time to stir it up, and the lucky243 person who manages to out-maneuver all the rest of the ailing folks gets a healing. Jesus comes by the pool and takes note of this one particular fellow, who seems to have been unsuccessful for the longest time, and asks him if he would like to be healed. In effect, the man says, “Yes.” Jesus commands him to stand, take up his bed, and walk, and trusting Jesus, he does. This just happens to take place on the Sabbath. The healed man is quickly intercepted by “the Jews,” who inform him that he is breaking the law by carrying his bed on the Sabbath. He tells them that the one who commanded him to get up and walk is the one who also commanded him to carry his bed. (The inference is that if He could command him to walk—and he did walk—then surely he would be wrong to fail to obey Him when He commanded him to carry his bed.) He also tells his accusers that he did not have the chance to find out the name of the One who healed him, and commanded him to take up his bed.
The former paralytic makes his way to the temple, where he praises God, and offers a sacrifice. There at the temple, while the man is worshipping, Jesus finds him. He warns him not to sin further, lest something worse happen to him. The man then knows that it is Jesus who healed him. So grateful is he for his healing that he cannot help but tell others. When he tells the Jews it is Jesus who healed him, it is to bear witness to his healing and the mighty work our Lord has done.
Worst Case Scenario
The paralytic is one of a great many physically infirmed folk gathered by the pool of Bethesda. This may be a comfortable place, out of the heat of the sun and the biting cold of the winter winds. It may be a good place to beg, since many would frequent the pool, just as Jesus does. And there is the popular myth about an angel, who comes from time to time to trouble the waters, so that the first one to get into the water is healed. The man waits by the pool, hoping for such a healing.
When Jesus arrives at the pool, neither this man’s pleas or his prayers or his piety fixes our Lord’s attention on him. It is our Lord’s awareness that the paralytic has suffered this way for 38 years. Our Lord seeks him out, asking him if he wants to become well. He does not ask him if he has the faith to be healed. The man isn’t even thinking in such terms. This man is locked in on only one kind of “miracle,” the miracle of being the first one into the angel-stirred waters. He does not—indeed will not—admit the failure of his system for obtaining healing. Instead, he makes excuses. It isn’t his fault; no one will help him into the troubled waters, and someone else always beats him into the pool. If he hopes for anything from Jesus, it is for Him to stand there beside him until another “stirring of the waters,” helping him into the water when this happens.
Jesus does not debate with the man about his superstitious system for being healed. But the way in which He does heal him is certainly in stark contrast with this man’s system. The man has to wait for “troubled waters.” Jesus immediately heals him, without the use of water. The man is one of a crowd, who hopes by his own efforts and initiative (with the help of others) to beat all the other ailing people into the water, thus obtaining a healing by his own efforts—a kind of “survival of the fittest” (or the fastest). Jesus heals him, without even being asked to do so. At the command of our Lord, the man stands up on his feet, takes up his bed, and walks.244 It seems he can do nothing other than obey. This happens to send the man on his way, avoiding a scene, and not attracting the attention of the crowd. Jesus is thus able to “slip out” without creating hysteria among this multitude of hurting people, all of whom would seek to be healed.
As he walks along carrying his bed on the Sabbath,245 the man is intercepted by the Jewish religious leaders. They are not concerned about this fellow—they do not even acknowledge his healing, let alone rejoice because of it.246 They are simply distressed that he is “breaking the rules”—their rules.247 The healed paralytic seems to be awfully quick to excuse himself. It isn’t his fault, he maintains; he is only doing what he has been told to do. The One who healed him told him to take up his bed and go. What was he to do? The One who has just healed him is now the One who is to blame.
The Jews demand to know just who this person is who told him to take up his mat and walk. He honestly doesn’t know. Jesus has managed to “slip out”248 since there is a crowd. The man would never have been able to identify Jesus as the one “guilty” of healing him unless our Lord had not Himself—for the second time—sought him out. This time Jesus finds the man in the temple. We are so eager for this man to “see the light” that we are almost willing to accept this as proof of some kind of faith. If this man has become a believer, why does John not mention it, as he has each previous time? Worse yet, why does John inform us that the man subsequently seeks out the Jews to tell them that the One they are after is Jesus? This man is a Judas—a betrayer, who turns on Him who has done only good to him.
Why then does Jesus find the man in the temple? How can I be so sure that he is not praising God and worshipping there? First, let me ask a question: Do you assume that just because someone goes to church—any church—that they are true believers, there to worship in spirit and in truth? Many are in church for the wrong reasons. How many of those in the temple are there to worship God in spirit and truth? When Jesus went to the temple earlier, He found it necessary to drive people (and cattle) out of the temple. Is the fact that they are at the temple proof of piety? I think not!
Jesus finds the man in the temple. Once more, He has sought him out. Jesus must know that doing so will identify Him to the authorities and cause Him great trouble (just as He knew that this man had suffered long and hard when He chose to heal him—verse 5:6). Even knowing this, Jesus goes to him with one thing in view—to warn this man to “stop sinning,” lest something even worse happen to him.249
One could say that the paralytic had sinned 38 years earlier, and that his malady is the consequence of that sin. Why then does Jesus seem to urge the man to “give up” his sin, as though it is ongoing?250 Some might naively suppose that because this man is handicapped he has no opportunity to sin. There are always the sins of the mind. This man could have found a way to sin in a way that his circumstances uniquely equipped (and tempted) him to do. I am inclined to infer that this man’s sin may have been related to his way of seeking deliverance from his malady. Those who suffer some severe affliction are often tempted to do almost anything to find relief. For example, some people turn to drugs or alcohol to “ease the pain”; others to different addictions to which they become enslaved. This man may know that his “cure” is pure superstition, and that God did not approve of it, any more than He did of Saul’s seeking guidance by means of a medium (1 Samuel 28). This may be why the man seems almost defensive as he seeks to explain to our Lord why his method didn’t work. Is this the reason Jesus presses him as to whether he really wants to be healed?
We know this much for certain: The man is guilty of some sin he has not yet given up. Jesus heals him in spite of this, but then returns to inform him that He knows about the sin, and that he must give it up or face the possibility of greater consequences. There is no indication of any repentance, no mention of faith, and no inquiry as to who Jesus is or what He is about (as with the Samaritan woman). We are only told that after this confrontation, the man goes to the authorities to reveal Jesus’ identity to them. It is almost too terrible to be true. Perhaps this is why we find it so hard to accept.
The Battle Begins
16 Now because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish authorities began persecuting him. 17 So Jesus told251 them, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.” 18 For this reason the Jewish authorities were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God.
The focus quickly changes from the paralytic to Jesus. Once informed that Jesus is the one who healed the paralytic, the Jews cease to harass the healed man and fix their attention on Jesus. John tells us that they “began persecuting him.” I was initially inclined to think that this “persecution” involved constant questioning, challenging, and heckling, and no doubt efforts to discredit our Lord before the people. John tells us in verse 18 that from this point on they “were trying even harder to kill him.” This seems to imply that the persecution mentioned here is very intense.
In each of the Gospels, the issue of the Sabbath arises, which becomes a point of on-going contention between Jesus and the Pharisees. The introduction to this message provides examples of the extremes to which some Jews went to “protect” the Sabbath. In each and every Gospel, Jesus is accused of violating the Sabbath. We will deal with these other instances in the Synoptic Gospels a little later in this series. Actually, the Sabbath controversy is short-lived in John 5, though it will be taken up again in chapters 7 (verses 22-23) and 9 (verse 16). Here in chapter 5, the Sabbath issue arises, but our Lord’s response to the accusation that He is a Sabbath-breaker raises a much more serious concern for the Jews—His claim to be one with God. The words of our Lord that follow focus on this larger issue, rather than on Sabbath-breaking.
Our Lord’s response to the Sabbath question here is unique to John’s Gospel. Though the same accusation of Sabbath-breaking is consistently made by the Jews in the other Gospels, our Lord’s response there is different from His defense here. Here, Jesus defends His actions by pointing out that He is merely imitating His Father by working on the Sabbath. You will recall that while the keeping of the Sabbath is the Fourth Commandment, the historical basis for the Sabbath is what God did at creation:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-11, NKJV).
The Sabbath is the “sign of the Mosaic covenant,” and thus to violate the Sabbath is to be worthy of death (Exodus 31:14-17; 35:2-3; Numbers 15:32-36). The Fourth Commandment requires the people of God to imitate God, who “rested” on the seventh day of creation. The logic is simple: God rested on the seventh day, and so must men. But Jesus gives us a very different twist on this. He argues that God is constantly at work, even on the Sabbath. Since God is working non-stop, the Son is also working, and cannot cease for the Sabbath.
It is not just this logic that distresses the Jews; it is how Jesus describes His relationship with God. Jesus does not say, “Our Father is working until now, and I too am working.” He says, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.”252 The inference is very clear: Jesus is claiming that God is His Father; He is claiming to be God. If our Lord’s claim is true, the Jewish authorities cannot and should not hinder the working of the Son of God on the Sabbath.
In what sense is God “working”? There is certainly a general sense in which God is working to maintain His creation and to bring about His plans and purposes: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB).
There is a specific sense in which God has been “at work” from the time of creation on, bringing about salvation for fallen men. Mere men can contribute nothing to this “working.” It is God’s work. And so men should rest on the Sabbath. But since Jesus is God, then He, as God, must work at that which His Father is working. A part of that saving work is healing the sick (see Luke 4:16-21; John 11:2-6).253 The Jews are therefore wrong in condemning Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath.
The Jews grasp the implication of our Lord’s words. Notice that John does not tell us that from this point on that the Jews are trying to kill Jesus. He tells us, “For this reason the Jewish authorities were trying even harder to kill him” (verse 18). These Jews have already determined that Jesus must be put to death. This incident, and especially our Lord’s words, give them further incentive for doing this as soon as possible. They resolve to redouble their efforts to kill Jesus, not just because He is violating the Sabbath (a sin punishable by death), but because He is making Himself equal with God.
This is not the “watershed” incident, which convinces the Jews that Jesus must die. That decision has been reached earlier, on an occasion that John does not include in his Gospel. John chooses to introduce the theme of opposition here with the story of the healing of the paralytic. This opposition continues to the end of the Gospel, reaching its climax at Calvary:
The three chapters of this section, John 5-7, record the shift from mere reservation and hesitation about Jesus to outright and sometimes official opposition. The first point of controversy is the Sabbath (5:9ff.), but this is soon displaced by a fundamentally Christological issue arising out of the dispute over the Sabbath (5:16-18), and this in turn leads to an extended discourse concerning Jesus’ relationship with the Father, and the Scriptures that bear witness to him (5:19-47). Although the miracles of ch. 6 evoke superficial acclaim (6:14-15, 26), that allegiance cannot endure Jesus’ teaching: even many of his disciples abandon him (6:66). By ch. 7, he is being charged with demon-possession (7:20), and, amidst profound confusion in the masses, the authorities try to arrest him (7:30), but without success (7:45-52). Throughout this rising clamour, Jesus progressively reveals himself to be the obedient Son of God, his Father (5:19ff.); the bread of life, the true manna which alone can give life to the world (6:51); the one who alone can provide the thirst-quenching drink of the Spirit (7:37-39).254
This incident in John 5 does two things. First, it discloses the wickedness of unbelieving Jews, especially of unbelieving Jewish leaders. Our text describes a man who has been handicapped for 38 years. Jesus sees him and takes pity on him, not because he is pious, but because he has suffered so long. Jesus heals him without even requiring faith of him. Jesus then seeks the man out, warning him about continuing in his sin. And what does this man do? He informs the Jewish leaders of our Lord’s identity. If he knows that the Jews have already purposed to kill Jesus (as John tells us in our text), then he turns Jesus over to be killed.
As a result of our Lord’s gracious miracle, these Jewish leaders are seen for who they are. They suppose that they love God and their fellow man, in obedience to the law of Moses. They think themselves pious, and expect to be the first to enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, they expect a prominent leadership role in that kingdom. And yet when Jesus comes to town and heals a paralytic, their only concern is that the healed man is “walking illegally” (with his mat). They hardly seem to notice or care that the man is “walking”—the paralytic has been healed! And then, because Jesus has performed such a miracle, they begin to persecute the Son of God.255 When Jesus points out that this is exactly who He is, they redouble their efforts to kill Him. The wickedness of man never ceases to amaze us.
The second thing this incident in John’s Gospel does is to provide the occasion for Jesus to state very clearly (and very early in this Gospel) just who He is. I have often heard someone say, “Just who do you think you are?” Jesus tells these Jewish leaders who He is, and they do not like it at all.
Here, my friend, is the most important point of all. Who Jesus is makes all the difference in the world. Some ignorantly or foolishly say that Jesus did not claim to be God. They have not read the Gospels well, and they can hardly have read John’s Gospel at all! John tells us that Jesus is God (John 1). He now tells us that Jesus claims to be God (chapter 5—not to mention chapters 3 and 4). And he tells us as well that Jesus’ claim to be God is the reason why the Jews feel justified in resolving to put Him to death.
It is completely clear that John claims Jesus is God come down to earth, having taken on human flesh. It is clear that Jesus claims to be God, having come from the Father in heaven. And it is also clear that the Jews understand Him to do so. The issue is not whether our Lord claims to be God, nor whether His enemies think He is claiming to be God. The issue is whether our Lord is who He claims to be.
If Jesus is who He claims to be, then we would expect Him to have authority over sickness, demons, and even death. The signs which He performs show this to be the case. If He is the Son of God, then He also has the authority to act in God’s behalf, indeed, to act as God—healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins, or cleansing the temple. Everything our Lord says and does hangs on this single issue: is Jesus who He claims to be? If He is, then we should accept His words as the very words of God. We should cast ourselves upon Him for the forgiveness of our sins and for the gift of eternal life. In John’s words, we should “believe” and have life in His name (20:31).
The most important question you will ever answer is this: “Who is Jesus Christ?” John gives us the answer, clearly. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who speaks and acts for God, and as God. Jesus Christ is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the only One through whom your sins can be forgiven, the only way to heaven (John 14:6). Do you believe this? John wrote this Gospel to convince you of this truth (20:31). Believing on Him is the only way to heaven. Rejecting Him is to remain destined for hell. It is as simple as that. These are not my words; they are His words, and you must determine whether or not you believe Him. Believing His words does not make them true, any more than denying them makes them false. You should believe them because they are true, because they are spoken by the Son of God. Believing them does save you, and rejecting them proves you worthy of eternal condemnation (hell).
It is not without significance that John selects this miracle as further evidence of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. Note the words of the prophet Isaiah, and compare them not only with the story of the healing of the paralytic in our text, but with the healing of the lame man in Acts 3:
4 Say to those who are fearful-hearted, “Be strong, do not fear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, With the recompense of God; He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. 6 Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert (Isaiah 35:4-6, NKJV).
1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time for prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried up, who was placed every day at the temple gate called the ‘Beautiful Gate’ so he could ask for money from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple courts, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked directly at him (as did John) and said, “Look at us!” 5 So the lame man paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!” 7 Then Peter took hold of him by the right hand and raised him up, and at once the man’s feet and ankles were made strong. 8 He jumped up, stood and began walking around, and he entered the temple courts with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the man who used to sit and ask for donations at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, and they were filled with astonishment and amazement at what had happened to him (Acts 3:1-10).
Our text has several more lessons to teach us, which I shall briefly mention.
We cannot help but notice that those who are most in the wrong here are those who are most assured of being right. Wanting to be right, and thinking you are right are not the same as being right. There are few evils as great as doing wrong in the name of doing what is right. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isaiah 5:20, NKJV).
Those who do evil in the name of doing right are also those who call Jesus evil for being right and doing what is right.
Doing what is right does not always result in a righteous or a rewarding response. Doing what is right is always the right thing to do. Doing what is right may very well produce a favorable response. But we must also remember Jesus’ words that if men rejected and persecuted Him, they will certainly do so to us. If our Lord’s good deed resulted in betrayal by the recipient of a supernatural healing, and persecution by the Jewish religious leaders, let us expect that our good deeds may also produce unpleasant responses.
18 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own. But because you do not belong to the world, but I chose you out of the world, for this reason the world hates you. 20 Remember what I told you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they obeyed my word, they will obey yours too. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. But they no longer have any excuse for their sin. 23 The one who hates me hates my Father too. 24 If I had not performed among them the miraculous deeds that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen the deeds and have hated both me and my Father. 25 But this happened to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without reason’” (John 15:18-25).
This passage is a reminder of the “weakness” of signs and wonders, and of the power of God’s Word. Signs and wonders do not necessarily produce faith, and the faith they do produce is second-class, in and of itself (2:23-25). Here, the miracle Jesus performs does not even produce faith in the one who is healed. The paralytic betrays our Lord by identifying Him to the authorities. Signs and wonders are something like illegal “drugs”—they may produce a spectacular effect at the beginning, but as time goes on, there is a demand for more and more. Signs and wonders have a diminishing effect. They are not wrong, for John uses them in this Gospel to convince his readers that Jesus is the Messiah, so that men and women might believe in His name and obtain the gift of eternal life.
While signs seem to produce fewer and fewer saints, the word of our Lord is mighty. Jesus does not need the angel-troubled waters of the pool of Bethesda to heal the paralytic. He does not even need the faith of this disabled man. All that is required is His word. At His command, the man who has been disabled for 38 years gets up and walks—not only walks, but carries his bed with him. He who is the Word, the Logos, who created the world with a word, is the One who heals with but a word. We should thus heed His words, for they are spirit and life (John 6:63).
Finally, we see in our text a beautiful example of sovereign grace. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, God’s undeserved goodness. Because it is grace, and cannot be earned, it must be sovereignly bestowed. That is, grace is not bestowed upon men because of who they are or what they have done. Grace is not given to those who are worthy and withheld from the unworthy. Men are always unworthy of the grace God sovereignly bestows upon them. Knowing what we know, who of us would have selected this fellow to be healed, rather than some other individual? Jesus heals this man, knowing him as well as He knew the woman at the well. He knows this man’s sin, which he persists in practicing up to the moment of his healing and beyond. Jesus knows this man will turn Him in to the authorities, who are determined to kill Him. This man is the recipient of God’s grace, not because of who he is, but because of the kindness of our Lord alone. If we are honest, we will quickly admit that we, too, are unworthy recipients of His grace as demonstrated by our salvation.
Pressing this point further, notice that our Lord ministers to this ailing man, knowing he will not come to faith. Jesus serves this man who will not be saved. Jesus does not just serve to save. That is, He does not just serve those who will be saved. He serves because of who He is, not because of the worthiness of those served. Let us be careful that we do not serve men, assuming they will be saved. They may not be saved, no matter how much we serve them. We, like our Lord, serve out of the depths of the love God has given us for others, regardless of whether that love is reciprocated or rewarded by those whom we serve.
An Important Question
Allow me to raise a question which may be on your mind: “Why doesn’t Jesus heal the others who are ailing at the pool of Bethesda? If Jesus is able (and surely He is), why doesn’t Jesus heal everyone at the pool that day?” My first “tongue-in-cheek” answer is that Jesus is leaving some for the apostles to heal, after His resurrection and ascension. For example, there was the crippled man healed by Peter and John on their way to the temple in Acts 3. However, this is not a satisfactory answer. Let us pursue the matter further then.
First, I must remind you that this question is not entirely academic. Jesus is still able to heal every sick person. God still heals today, but only a few, rather than all. The answer to the above question is also the answer to those who desire that God heal all the sick today.
Second, healing is a manifestation of God’s sovereign grace. No one deserves to be healed. Thus, no one has the right to complain if God does not heal them. We have no more right to complain about not being healed than we do to complain about not being a millionaire. If grace is undeserved, and sovereignly bestowed, then God is free to heal those whom He heals and not to heal the rest.
Third, it is very wrong to conclude that those who are not healed by God are those from whom God’s grace has necessarily been withheld. Do not understand me to say that those whom God heals are those who receive grace, and that those who are not healed are those from whom grace has been withheld. God may very well manifest His grace through physical affliction. One’s physical affliction may be that which God uses to draw men to Himself. How many healthy people came to Jesus for grace? But God may also use physical affliction in the life of the Christian to produce spiritual depth and growth, and thus to be a blessing to others (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-11).
Fourth, let us look at a text which deals directly with the question at hand:
29 Now as soon as they left the synagogue they went to the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was lying down with a fever, so they spoke to Jesus at once about her. 31 He came and raised her by taking her hand. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them. 32 When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered by the door. 34 So he healed many sick with various diseases and drove out many demons. But he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 Then Jesus got up in the darkness of the early morning and went out to a deserted place, and there he spent time in prayer. 36 Simon and his companions searched for him. 37 When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go elsewhere, into the surrounding villages, so that I can preach there too. For that is what I came to do.” 39 So he went into all of Galilee preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons (Mark 1:29-39).
For our Lord, one healing leads to many healings. Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Word gets out, and by evening, a crowd of sick people assemble outside the door. Jesus graciously heals those who gather. In the morning, an even greater multitude has gathered, and yet Jesus is nowhere to be found. Simon and his companions set out to look for Jesus and find Him praying. Simon’s words (paraphrased) are almost a rebuke: “Lord, where have you been! What are you doing out here, praying? There is a huge crowd of sick people waiting for you back at my mother-in-law’s house. Let’s get going; there’s work to do!”
Does Jesus not care about these sick people? Of course He does. But He also knows that it is a never-ending problem. The more He heals, the more will come to Him for healing. The more who come, the more time He will spend healing. Jesus knows what His mission is. His mission is not primarily to heal, but to proclaim the good news of the gospel. In importance, His healing ministry is secondary. It accredits His ministry and message. It sets Him apart from other teachers. Here is a man who “teaches with authority,” by not only speaking about God’s grace, but by demonstrating it! Jesus heals very selectively because of His mission. In addition, He heals selectively because man’s primary problem is not sickness, but sin. In many cases, men’s ailments are used of God to bring them to faith.
For our Lord, healing the sick is a “tempting” thing to do. He cares about our sickness and our suffering. He is constantly moved with compassion toward those who are afflicted. Healing is also the easy thing for Him to do. It is not so much for His healing, but for His teaching that Jesus is opposed, rejected, and even crucified. Healing would make Jesus too popular, too quickly, and thus undermine His mission of proclaiming the truth—and ultimately of dying on the cross of Calvary to atone for man’s sins. Jesus purposes not to heal everyone who is sick, because that is not His primary calling, and it can become a hindrance to His priority of proclaiming the good news of the gospel.
One final observation: Jesus does not heal all because His mission is to bring about a much deeper and much more permanent healing from our sins:
I said, “LORD, be merciful to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You” (Psalm 41:4, NKJV).
Who forgives all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases (Psalm 103:3, NKJV).
He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destructions (Psalm 107:20, NKJV).
He heals the brokenhearted And binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3, NKJV).
But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV).
This “healing” He offers to all who will receive Him as the “Lamb of God,” as the One who died in the sinner’s place, bearing the guilt and penalty for their sins. Have you experienced this healing? It is offered to all who will receive it.
234 The Greek New Testament manuscripts differ as to whether the definite article is to be found with the word “feast.” The NET Bible has chosen (with what seems to be the majority of conservative scholars) to follow the texts without the article. If it was “the” feast, the reference here would most likely be to the Passover. As it is (“a feast”), we are not certain as to which of the feasts reference is being made.
235 William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), p. 190. D. A. Carson adds: “The name of the pool is variously attested in the manuscripts as Bethesda, Bethzatha, Belzetha and Bethsaida. The first of these is almost certainly right, not only on various transcriptional grounds, but because it is now supported by the corresponding Hebrew name in the Copper Scroll from Qumran, first published in 1960. ‘Bethesda’ is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew [word rendered] ‘house of outpouring’; the Copper Scroll attests … the dual form of the same expression: ‘house of twin outpourings.’ … A Bordeaux pilgrim visited Jerusalem in AD 333, and described a pair of pools with five arcades (though he called the pools ‘Betsaida’). Sporadic excavations have probed the site for more than a century. It is located near the Church of St. Anne, in the north-east quarter of the Old City (near Nehemiah’s ‘Sheep Gate’). There were two pools, lying north and south, surrounded by four covered colonnades in a rough trapezoid, with a fifth colonnade separating the two pools.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 241-242.
236 I don’t wish to delve into the debate between differing schools of textual criticism here, but I must at least point out that not all scholars agree as to which texts are the most highly respected.
237 I should point out to those who are fans of John Calvin’s works that in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he makes no mention of any problem in verses 3 and thus seems to assume that the story about the angel troubling the waters is true.
241 “This healing differs from many others in that, not only is there no mention of faith on the part of the man, but there seems no room for it. The man did not even know Jesus’ name (v. 13) … Jesus is not limited by man as He works the works of God.” Morris, pp. 303-304.
246 “There may also be a hint of irony (much more strongly developed in the healing of Jn. 9): the Jews hear of the wonderful healing and of the formal breach of their code, and are interested only in the latter. They think they see what is important, but in religious matters there are none so blind as those who are always certain that they see (cf. 9:39-41).” Carson, p. 245.
247 No doubt they would point to texts like Exodus 20:10; Nehemiah 13:15; and Jeremiah 17:21-22. Nevertheless, it was “their interpretation” of these texts which led to the extreme and hypocritical applications they drew from them.
249 We must understand our Lord’s words here in the light of His words to His disciples in John chapter 9. There, the disciples automatically assumed that the man’s blindness was the result of someone’s sin. In that case, it was not so. That man had been born blind so that God might be glorified when our Lord healed him. In this case, the man’s sickness actually did result from his sin (see also Numbers 12:9-15; 2 Kings 5:25-27; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 11:30). Sickness may be the direct result of sin, but it is not always, not necessarily, the case.
250 There is some discussion as to the subtleties of the present imperative (with a negative: “stop _____”). The note in the NET Bible downplays this emphasis, but I am inclined to stick with Morris on this point, who writes: “‘Sin no more’ means ‘sin no longer’ (Goodspeed: ‘Give up sin.’). There is the implication that the man has sinned, and continues in his sin. Jesus enjoins him to break with it and be reconciled to God.” Morris, p. 307.
251 “Indeed, the verb behind ‘answered’ (apekrinato) is in the aorist middle—in John, found only here and in v. 19 (the aorist deponent passive, aprkrithe, might be expected). Abbott (par. 2537) argues that this verbal form has legal overtones: Jesus responds to their charge, he offers his defense. The fact that the middle voice of this verb is so regularly attested in legal documents (MM, pp. 64-65) may provide some support for this view.” Carson, p. 247.
252 “The expression ‘My Father’ is noteworthy. It was not the way Jews usually referred to God. Usually they spoke of ‘our Father,’ and while they might use ‘My Father’ in prayer they would qualify it with ‘in heaven’ or some other expression to remove the suggestion of familiarity. Jesus did no such thing, here or elsewhere. He habitually thought of God as in the closest relationship to Himself. The expression implies a claim which the Jews did not miss.” Morris, p. 309.
255 “We are thus introduced to a theme which is important in the rest of this Gospel. Jesus does His mighty works, His ‘signs.’ But, instead of faith, strenuous opposition is aroused among the national religious leaders.” Morris, pp. 298-299.