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We have noted that Jesus was again at the Passover, and that his visit to the bathhouse, which was a healing temple dedicated to the Greek/Roman god of healing, Asclepius and may have been near the birthplace of Jesus’ grandmother, Saint Anne, was to lead to the first of many direct confrontations with the Jewish religious authorities.
As we approach the text, which can be found in the Gospel of John, chapter 5:1-18, it is important to ponder why Jesus was there in the first place. Was he not attending the most holy feast of the Jews? Would not setting foot on the site of what was a pagan temple on the Sabbath have defiled him and prevented him from entering the Jewish Temple? Was this some form of outreach, for which the Jews are not particularly noted? Surely, these questions were going through the minds of the Jewish religious authorities, who appear later in the story.
Yet, as surprising as it is that Jesus was even there, what is even more surprising is the way in which this miracle took place. For once again, rather than praying a certain prayer, reciting a spell, or laying hands on the affected part of the body, Jesus simply gives the paralytic a command, a command that demanded both a decision and action on the part of the paralytic. In the first sign, obedience was the key. In the second sign, blind faith. Is the key to the third sign action? Please read along with us from the World English Bible:
1 After these things, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now in Jerusalem by the sheep gate, there is a pool, which is called in Hebrew, “Bethesda”, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water; 4 for an angel went down at certain times into the pool, and stirred up the water. Whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. 5 A certain man was there, who had been sick for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had been sick for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”
7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, another steps down before me.”
8 Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk.”
9 Immediately, the man was made well, and took up his mat and walked.
Now it was the Sabbath on that day. 10 So the Jews said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath. It is not lawful for you to carry the mat.”
11 He answered them, “He who made me well, the same said to me, ‘Take up your mat, and walk.’”
12 Then they asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your mat, and walk’?”
13 But he who was healed didn’t know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a crowd being in the place.
14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you are made well. Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
15 The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 For this cause the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill him, because he did these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them,“My Father is still working, so I am working, too.”18 For this cause therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also called God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
After coming to terms with Jesus going to the bathhouse on the Passover, we must examine what happened carefully, and understand what it may mean for both ourselves and for those whom we are called to serve.
The paralytic had been sick for 38 years, probably most of his life, if we had to take a guess. We do not know how long he had been coming to the pool, hoping to step into the water first when the “angel” stirred up the water in order to be healed. Not unlike the healthcare system today (which takes its symbol from Asclepius), there seemed to be an interminable wait to be healed. Furthermore, due to the large demand for free healing which could only be had, it seemed, via the benevolence of the “angel” at the pool, it seemed that the paralytic may age to the point where it may have appeared to most that a perfectly good healing was wasted on someone too old to enjoy it. As such, there nobody at the pool was willing to lend him a hand.
The man may have become dejected by his prospects. However, at the pool, he found a strange sense of satisfaction knowing that indeed there were those there who were worse off than he was. In time, he had given up begging to be placed into the pool, and sat there, each day that spring, comparing his state infirmity to that of others. If he could not be well, he would gain satisfaction knowing that there were others worse off than he was. This is what the human mind resorts to when it has been robbed of all hope, and it is death.
Then, Jesus walks up and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”
The man surprisingly answers, not in the affirmative, but with an excuse, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, another steps down before me.” Again, when a person has been devoid of hope, they tend to spend their time creating emotional defense mechanisms, commonly known as excuses, to explain their inability to change their circumstances, usually by blaming the inaction of others.
Jesus understands from the reply that asking direct questions will only lead to more excuses from the man. Instead, he gives him an assignment, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk.” Would the man accept the assignment?
It seems simple, right? But for the paralytic in Jerusalem on the Sabbath (the Passover, no less), it is an impossible task for two reasons. First, the man is paralyzed, he has not “arisen” under his own power for perhaps 38 years. Second, and more importantly, he had been taught from his youth that he was not to take up his mat on the Sabbath.
Jesus was asking the man to not only relinquish his internal defense mechanisms (and swallow his pride), but to do the impossible and break God’s command as interpreted by his religious leaders. This is an extremely difficult assignment.
The man takes the assignment, and is healed.
When considering healing in this instance, it is interesting to note not only what Jesus did to heal this man, but also what he did not do. He did not:
1. Lay guilt upon the rest of the people at the bathhouse for not helping the man get to the pool.
2. Ask people on the behalf of the man to please help him get to the pool.
3. He and his disciples did not take the man down to the pool themselves
4. He did not recommend that the man go to see a real physician
5. He did not pray for the man, lay hands on him, or send him to the religious authorities to be prayed over
What he did do, with few words, was to help the man to understand his problem. The man perceived that his immediate problem, beyond his physical ailment, was that he could not get into the pool. If only he could get to the pool, he would be healed. As getting to the pool proved elusive, he began to blame the lack of action by others for his inability to be healed.
The man’s real problem, as Jesus pointed out, was that he had given up on taking any sort of action on his own for his healing. In a world where there is always a medical solution if “we just had the money,” as well as someone else to blame for our personal problems, this lesson is especially poignant.
In doing this, Jesus not only healed the man of his physical ailment, he began to heal the Jews of the web of rules that they had weaved in a vain attempt to observe the Ten commandments and the myriad of other rules that they attempted to observe.
For the Ten Commandments can only be truly observed when one understands that they are completely incapable of living by them.
For abstaining from lifting certain objects under certain circumstances does not help one observe the Sabbath, but taking daily action to provide for oneself and others allows all to live eternity in the Sabbath rest that Jesus offers.
Not surprisingly, the Jewish authorities, upon seeing the man walking with his mat, in complete obedience to Christ’s word; therefore completing his assignment, chastise the man for breaking the Sabbath rules.
Jesus later encounters the man and gives what would become a familiar command to those who he has made well, even today:
“Behold, you are made well. Sin no more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
When the Jewish leaders discover that it was Jesus who made the man well, rather than marveling that such a thing should be done for a man lame for 38 years, they take the opportunity to deride Jesus for healing on the Sabbath.
This would be the first of many instances that Jesus would expose the moral impoverishment that in those days passed for observing Gods law. It was for this reason that the Jews sought to eliminate him. For the Golden Rule had no place in their economic or religious system as they played a dangerous balancing act of pleasing the Romans and protecting their heritage.
Jesus was offering them a way out, but they were to far down the road of compromise. They were a nation sitting by the bathhouse, waiting for an “angel” to stir the waters when Jesus walked up to them.
We are finding that each sign appears to have a central theme, an overarching lesson that Jesus was teaching. Perhaps this is why John chose these seven out of the seemingly infinite miracles of Jesus that he had witnessed. In Changing water into wine, Obedience appears to be central to the operation of the Miracle, in the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “Whatever he says to you, do it.”
In healing the Official’s son, the operation of blind faith, believing without seeing, is required, “Go your way. Your son lives.” is Jesus’s response as the Official pleads with Him to journey from Cana to Capernaum to heal his son.
Today, as we begin to examine the third sign, the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda, we must be attentive to the presence of an underlying theme, for it is becoming clear that John selected each miracle carefully, and is recounting each one in order to give us something of eternal value, something that we can use today.
In the book of John, the narrative of the third sign immediately follows that of the second sign, beginning in John, Chapter 5, verses 1 – 17. It begins with Jesus returning to Jerusalem.
The return to Jerusalem
As we pick up the narrative, we find that Jesus has gone to Jerusalem for the second time during his earthly ministry (we know that he went once before with his parents at twelve years of age, making it technically the third time). This time, Jesus goes to Jerusalem in full view of the religious authorities. The observant reader will recall that after His Passover first visit, Jesus and his disciples were run out of Jerusalem by the Pharisees for what may be called “excessive baptisms.” This time, Jesus would have the first of what would be many direct confrontations with the Jewish religious authorities.
In relating this sign, John does something that at first appears to be an uncharacteristic oversight, he forgets to tell the reader which particular feast of the Jews that Jesus is attending. This apparent oversight has led come commentators to conclude that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem to celebrate Purim, which would have occurred in early March.
However, it is more likely that the feast that John referred to, or didn’t refer to, as it were, is actually the second Passover that Jesus attended during his earthly ministry. This can be inferred both positively, in that the Passover was referred to as the “Feast of the Jews” and that the explicit Passovers mentioned in John 2:13 and 6:4 require an extra year between them. This interpretation also allows for the harvest seasons mentioned in Mark 2:23 and 6:39.
It can be inferred negatively as well, in that Purim was not considered a religious feast of the Jews (it would be akin to the 4th of July, in a very stretched metaphor), and that it is unlikely that, due to the climate in Palestine in early March, that the sick persons by the pool would be lying in the open air.
The final arguments against the feast being Purim lie in the narrative itself. As Jesus performs the sign on the Sabbath, for which the religious take exception to Him, and the feast of Purim cannot be celebrated on the Sabbath.
The greater question, perhaps, is why did John, who meticulously recorded the name of the other Jewish feasts in his gospel, omit the name of this particular feast? For an answer, as well as beautiful insight into the importance of John, we turn to Dr. William Milligan in the “International Lesson Commentary”, who is here quoted in Volume III–John of B.W. Johnson’s “The New Testament Commentary,”
Why did John, whose custom it is to mark clearly each festival of which he speaks (see 2:13, 23; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1; 18:39; 19:14), write so indefinitely here? The only reply that it is possible is that the indefiniteness is the result of design. The Evangelist omits the name of the feast, that the reader may not attach to it a significance that was not intended. To John,–through clearness of insight, not from power of fancy,–every action of his Master was fraught with deep significance; and no one who receives the Lord Jesus as he received him can hesitate to admit in all his words and deeds a fulness of meaning, a perfection of fitness, immeasurably beyond what can be attributed to the highest of human prophets. Our Lord’s relation to the whole Jewish economy is never absent from John’s thought. Jesus enters the Jewish temple (chapter 2:4). His words can be understood only by those who recognize that he is himself the true temple of God. The ordained feasts of the nation find their fulfillment in him. Never, we may say, is any festival named in this Gospel in connection with our Lord, without an intention on the author’s part that we should see the truth which he saw, and behold in it a type of his Master or his work. If this be true, the indefiniteness of the language here is designed to prevent our resting upon the thought of this particular festival as fulfilled in Jesus, and lead to the concentration of our thought on the Sabbath shortly to be mentioned, which in this chapter has an importance altogether exceptional.”
The significance of the Pool
The Pool of Bethesda. Up until the 19th century, when archeologists uncovered the site of the pool where Jesus performed this sign, there was no evidence outside of the Gospel of John that the pool existed. This lack of evidence caused some to argue that the Gospel was written later by someone who did not have first hand knowledge of Jerusalem and chose to use the pool in a metaphorical sense.
The discovery of the pool by archeologists in 1856 did wonders for the credibility of the Gospel of John.
As it turns out, the pool, which was first mentioned in the 8th century BCE, was formed when a dam was built across the short Beth Zeta Valley, creating a reservoir. The pool is mentioned in two other Biblical texts 2 Kings 18:17 and Isaiah 36:2, where it is referred to as the “upper pool”:
17 The king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rabsaris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to king Hezekiah with a great army to Jerusalem. They went up and came to Jerusalem. When they had come up, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is in the highway of the fuller’s field.
2 The king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem to king Hezekiah with a large army. He stood by the aqueduct from the upper pool in the fuller’s field highway.
3 Then Yahweh said to Isaiah, “Go out now to meet Ahaz, you, and Shearjashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway of the fuller’s field.
A second pool was then added on the south side of the dam around 200 BCE. In the first century BC, caves to the east of these pools were turned into baths as part of what was know as an asclepieion, a Roman healing temple dedicated to the god Asclepius. The symbol for this god of medicine, healing, rejuvenation, and physicians is used today as the symbol for the American Medical Association and is ubiquitous in medical settings.
The site was brought inside the walls of Jerusalem by the expansion of Herod Agrippa around 50 BCE. The pools, which had been constructed to bring living water into Jerusalem, had been turned into a pagan bath house whose waters are thought to have healing powers. Naturally, it was crowded with those hoping to become well.
Today, the site of these pools is in the Muslim East Jerusalem near the ruins of a Crusader church which was completed in 1138 CE on a site that what was thought to be the birthplace of Jesus’ grandmother, Saint Anne.
So Jesus, on the Passover, the holiest of all Sabbaths, goes to the pagan bath house, which also happens to be the site that representatives of the Assyrian army stood and publicly humiliated Hezekiah, the King of Judah, before Jerusalem was invaded by them in 701 BCE. Furthermore, according to later tradition, is near the grotto where his grandmother was believed to have born.
The pool at Bethesda ia a very interesting place, and Jesus has chosen to go there on the Passover. What would he do?