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A week ago I wrote about an English doctor who had been reprimanded by the General Medical Council in London for conducting occasional faith-based conversations.  The name of his and his partners’ practice is the Bethesda Medical Centre, located in Margate (Kent).

That got me thinking about the story of Bethesda in the New Testament and how I hadn’t heard it for some years.  So, I checked the list of Lectionary readings.  Strangely, John 5 has been omitted, yet, it describes another beautiful miracle of healing which Jesus performed.

Because of its omission, John 5 is suitable for my ongoing series, Forbidden Bible Verses, equally essential to our understanding of the Bible.

Today’s reading is from the King James Version.  Exegetical commentary is from the 17th century Calvinist Bible scholar Matthew Henry and Hampton Keathley IV, the co-founder of Bible.org.

John 5:1-17

1After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

3In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.

4For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

5And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

6When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

7The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

8Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

9And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.

10The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed.

11He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk.

12Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?

13And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place.

14Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.

15The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.

16And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.

17But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.

——————————————————————————————

It is possible that the reason this story is excluded from public worship readings is that St John’s gospel is the only one which features it.  Matthew Henry explains that St John focussed on Jesus’s miracles in Jerusalem whereas the authors of what are known as the Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — record those He performed in Galilee.

Verse 1 mentions that the day this miracle takes place is a Jewish feast.  Matthew Henry believes it is Passover. His reasoning is Jesus’s presence in Jerusalem.  However, Hampton Keathley believes that because of the likely weather, it would probably have been the Feast of Pentecost, which is not the Pentecost which Christians know but Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks.  Although Jesus was a resident of Galilee, according to Jewish Law, He would have been obliged to be in Jerusalem for certain feasts.  Also bear in mind that this was a Sabbath, mentioned nearer the end of the passage (verses 9, 10 and 16).

Verse 2 tells us that near the sheep market there is a pool marked by five porches, or colonnades. This is where the sick go to be healed.  This pool is called Bethesda, or, as in some translations, Bethsaida. The name means ‘house of mercy’. You can click here to see a magnificent representation of the scene by Carl Heinrich Bloch, painted in 1883.

At Bethesda, people with a variety of ailments have gathered (verse 3).  Some are blind, others are lame or paralysed, some have withered limbs.  Matthew Henry says that the pool was widely known for its healing powers, thought to be God-given.

So, the backdrop for this story is a busy, bustling Jerusalem with people from near and far, and a group of severely infirm — ‘impotent’ as the word was in King James’s day — people at these healing waters who were desperate to be cured. Bear in mind that the worst afflicted were the least capable of getting into the pool.  With a religious feast and many people, they might have been passed by with no help available.

Some scholars believe that those walking to the temple would have passed Bethesda on the way. Matthew Henry describes it for us, referring to Bible scholars of his era (emphases mine):

In a world of so much misery as this is, it is well that there are some Bethesdas-houses of mercy (remedies against those maladies), that the scene is not all melancholy. An alms-house, so Dr. Hammond. Dr. Lightfoot’s conjecture is that this was the upper pool (Isa. 7:3), and the old pool, Isa. 22:11; that it had been used for washing from ceremonial pollutions, for convenience of which the porches were built to dress and undress in, but it was lately become medicinal

How it was fitted up: It had five porches, cloisters, piazzas, or roofed walks, in which the sick lay. Thus the charity of men concurred with the mercy of God for the relief of the distressed. Nature has provided remedies, but men must provide hospitals.

… The evangelist specifies three sorts of diseased people that lay here, blind, halt, and withered or sinew-shrunk, either in one particular part, as the man with the withered hand, or all over paralytic. These are mentioned because, being least able to help themselves into the water, they lay longest waiting in the porches. Those that were sick of these bodily diseases took the pains to come far and had the patience to wait long for a cure; any of us would have done the same, and we ought to do so: but O that men were as wise for their souls, and as solicitous to get their spiritual diseases healed! We are all by nature impotent folks in spiritual things, blind, halt, and withered; but effectual provision is made for our cure if we will but observe orders.

It was believed by those at Bethesda that the water stirred at a certain time — perhaps times — of year in order to effect its healing properties (verse 4). This stirring signalled the angel’s presence.  Matthew Henry notes that no mention of this is made in ancient Jewish texts.  However, the belief was there and, no doubt, some cures of which people spoke. The waters of Siloam, connected to King David — therefore, to Christ through lineage — were said to flow in it. Henry explains that it might have been a recent phenomenon, which was taken as a portent of the Messiah’s arrival.  Regardless, this is the only account of Bethesda which exists. Its miraculous healing powers ended, scholars believe, either with this miracle or at Christ’s death. Perhaps it is for this reason that this evocative account has been left out of the lectionary.  Yet, it is one which many of us know and remember.

As for the angel, he writes:

(1.) The preparation of the medicine by an angel, who went down into the pool, and stirred the water. Angels are God’s servants, and friends to mankind; and perhaps are more active in the removing of diseases (as evil angels in the inflicting of them) than we are aware of. Raphael, the apocryphal name of an angel, signifies medicina Dei-God’s physic, or physician rather. See what mean offices the holy angels condescend to, for the good of men. If we would do the will of God as the angels do it, we must think nothing below us but sin. The troubling of the water was the signal given of the descent of the angel, as the going upon the tops of the mulberry trees was to David, and then they must bestir themselves. The waters of the sanctuary are then healing when they are put in motion. Ministers must stir up the gift that is in them. When they are cold and dull in their ministrations, the waters settle, and are not apt to heal. The angel descended, to stir the water, not daily, perhaps not frequently, but at a certain season; some think, at the three solemn feasts, to grace those solemnities; or, now and then, as Infinite Wisdom saw fit. God is a free agent in dispensing his favours …

The power of miracles succeeds where the power of nature succumbs. [2.] A miraculous limitation of the virtue as to the persons cured: He that first stepped in had the benefit; that is, he or they that stepped in immediately were cured, not those that lingered and came in afterwards. This teaches us to observe and improve our opportunities, and to look about us, that we slip not a season which may never return. The angel stirred the waters, but left the diseased to themselves to get in.

At Bethesda was a man who had been infirm for 38 years (verse 5).  Jesus saw the man and had already known his state (verse 6), for He was the Son of God.  Jesus asked the suffering man if he wished to be healed.

What a moment that must have been.  Imagine what this man must have thought, suffering for so many years — perhaps most of his life — and not being able to manoeuvre himself into the pool or be helped into it by charitable people (verse 7).

Suddenly, Jesus commands — yes, using the imperative tense — the man to pick up his mat — his ‘bed’ — and walk (verse 8).  Instantly, the man was able to rise and walk (verse 9). How does that happen?  Did this man already have faith or not?

Hampton Keathley IV takes up the story:

Jesus focuses on one man out of a whole crowd of people who are all there for the same purpose. He does not heal the whole crowd. He heals just one. Why?

Some suggest it is because this man is the only one who had given up all hope of ever getting into the pool.10 This man had been sick 38 years. I wonder how many other experiments this man had tried to get healed. He was ready to hope in something else. If that is true, it is analagous to the principle that people have to recognize they are lost before they are ready to trust in Christ. But, what is very evident in this miracle story, is that this man didn’t even know who Jesus was and so his faith was not involved.

Perhaps the lesson is that God’s sovereignty, plan and purpose are bigger than human need. It is not limited by human infirmity. Just because he heals only one person does not make him unjust.

What Mr Keathley says in the last paragraph, is indeed a notion which is difficult to understand in today’s world.  Surely, we think — almost instinctively — everyone should be made well.  Some may interpret this as human arrogance, yet, many of our relatives appear to be suffering needlessly.  Why is this, we wonder.

If it was true then, is it true today? A lot of people say, “If God did this for them, then why doesn’t he do this for me?” Why doesn’t God heal my cancer or my mother’s cancer, he healed theirs….

I think it is interesting to note that the solution to the man’s problem was Jesus, but he couldn’t see it. He was focused on getting to the pool. He wanted to use Jesus to help him get to the pool. He wasn’t looking to Jesus for the healing.

I think there are a couple of applications we can make from verse 7.

Just like this man had used his resources for 38 years to get well, we usually depend on our own resources to solve our problems. When they don’t work, we despair.

Sometimes we do turn to God, but with the wrong goal in mind. Just like this man who wanted Jesus to help him get down to the pool, I think we often look to God to give us what we think we need, when in fact, what we need it God, himself. If I’m depressed over my finances, I want God to give me a better job, help me win the lotto or whatever, when I really need to just depend on God and let Him work out the details. If I’m depressed over a bad relationship or marriage, I want God to change the other person, when maybe I’m the one that needs to change or at least learn to depend on God for the fulfillment that no human can possibly give.

So, we see that this story has a deeper meaning other than the magnificent healing of the man who could not get into the pool of Bethesda by his own power.

In verse 10, the Jewish authorities tell the man that he is not allowed to carry anything on the Sabbath.  This is illegal under Jewish law to this day, in accordance with Mosaic Law.  A Jew is not really supposed to carry or operate anything on the Sabbath, even today, although some do.  Strictly speaking, they are not allowed to cook or even operate a lightswitch. In some orthodox households, wives put a stew on low heat or in a crockpot on Friday for a Saturday meal. It occurs perhaps less frequently now, but better-off Jewish families, particularly in the United States, used a Gentile called a shabbos goy (Sabbath Gentile) to regulate their heat, electricity and cooking of food.  A Jewish gentleman I knew in London told me how one of his close relatives died on the Sabbath (sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday).  His family were alarmed because preparation for Jewish burial rites must be started straightaway.  The question was — who would pick up the phone to ring the rabbi?  And would the rabbi answer the phone? Fortunately, their rabbi answered and gave them permission to begin preparing for the rites, even though it was the Sabbath.  But, I digress.

In verse 11, the infirm man, now healed, affirms Jesus’s healing.  Matthew Henry explains:

The man justified himself in what he did by a warrant that would bear him out, v. 11. “I do not do it in contempt of the law and the sabbath, but in obedience to one who, by making me whole, has given me an undeniable proof that he is greater than either. He that could work such a miracle as to make me whole no doubt might give me such a command as to carry my bed; he that could overrule the powers of nature no doubt might overrule a positive law, especially in an instance not of the essence of the law. He that was so kind as to make me whole would not be so unkind as to bid me do what is sinful.” Christ, by curing another paralytic, proved his power to forgive sin, here to give law; if his pardons are valid, his edicts are so, and his miracles prove both.

Even so, it was a brave statement for a man who had just been cured after 38 years to make in front of a group of legalists.  Most of us know how intimidating they can be.

And, indeed, in verse 12, the Jewish authorities enquire as to the identity of the man who healed him.  By God’s sovereignty, verse 13 relates that the man is unable to identify that it was Jesus. The word ‘wist’, by the way, comes from the German wissen, to be acquainted with a person, place or thing. In fact, by that point, Jesus is already a distance from Bethesda, surrounded by a crowd.  Matthew Henry explores the detail of the enquiry and the response:

Observe, How industriously they overlooked that which might be a ground of their faith in Christ. They enquire not, no, not for curiosity, “Who is it that made thee whole?” While they industriously caught at that which might be a ground of reflection upon Christ (What man is it who said unto thee, Take up thy bed?) they would fain subpoena the patient to be witness against his physician, and to be his betrayer. In their question, observe, [1.] They resolve to look upon Christ as a mere man: What man is that? For, though he gave ever such convincing proofs of it, they were resolved that they would never own him to be the Son of God. [2.] They resolve to look upon him as a bad man, and take it for granted that he who bade this man carry his bed, whatever divine commission he might produce, was certainly a delinquent, and as such they resolve to prosecute him. What man is that who durst give such orders? …

Christ was unknown to him when he healed him. Probably he had heard of the name of Jesus, but had never seen him, and therefore could not tell that this was he. Note, Christ does many a good turn for those that know him not, Isa. 45:4, 5. He enlightens, strengthens, quickens, comforts us, and we wist not who he is; nor are aware how much we receive daily by his mediation. This man, being unacquainted with Christ, could not actually believe in him for a cure; but Christ knew the dispositions of his soul, and suited his favours to them, as to the blind man in a like case, ch. 9:36. Our covenant and communion with God take rise, not so much from our knowledge of him, as from his knowledge of us. We know God, or, rather, are known of him, Gal. 4:9.

And, it so happens that Jesus and the cured man meet again in the temple (verse 14).  Jesus gives what many of us would see as a cryptic warning (verse 14):

sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.

What could that mean?  Hampton Keathley explains:

This man had no faith. He didn’t even know who Jesus was. This account destroys the idea that miracles are always the consequence of faith. Later we will see that raising a dead person is also not the result of the person’s faith. Only a few of the 35 miracles were the consequence of faith.

Vs 14 makes me think that sin was probably the cause of his ailment. This is the only miracle when someone is told this. This tells me that we need to be real[ly]  careful not to jump to any conclusions about the cause of someone’s sickness. There are certain Christian groups that attribute most sickness to sin. I think that is wrong and dangerous. It is dangerous because those that believe that, logically believe that if they stop sinning, they will get well. If they don’t get well, then they can only conclude that they haven’t figured out which sin it is that caused this.

Jesus says, “Don’t sin anymore, so that nothing worse may befall you.” What could be worse than 38 years of sickness? Perhaps he is referring to Hell. That would fit the following context of John 5:29.

On Jesus and the healed man meeting in the temple, Matthew Henry says:

(1.) Where Christ found him: in the temple, the place of public worship. In our attendance on public worship we may expect to meet with Christ, and improve our acquaintance with him. Observe, [1.] Christ went to the temple. Though he had many enemies, yet he appeared in public, because there he bore his testimony to divine institutions, and had opportunity of doing good. [2.] The man that was cured went to the temple. There Christ found him the same day, as it should seem, that he was healed; thither he straightway went, First, Because he had, by his infirmity, been so long detained thence. Perhaps he had not been there for thirty-eight years, and therefore, as soon as ever the embargo is taken off, his first visit shall be to the temple, as Hezekiah intimates his shall be (Isa. 38:22): What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord? Secondly, Because he had by his recovery a good errand thither; he went up to the temple to return thanks to God for his recovery. When God has at any time restored us our health we ought to attend him with solemn praises (Ps. 116:18, 19), and the sooner the better, while the sense of the mercy is fresh.

Suddenly, in verse 15, the man tells the Jewish authorities that it was indeed Jesus who healed him.  Henry writes:

We have reason to think that he intended this for the honour of Christ and the benefit of the Jews, little thinking that he who had so much power and goodness could have any enemies; but those who wish well to Christ’s kingdom must have the wisdom of the serpent, lest they do more hurt than good with their zeal, and must not cast pearls before swine.

And, at that point, the Jewish authorities begin to plot against Jesus and discuss a plan to murder Him for working on the Sabbath (verse 16).

Jesus’s bold answer in verse 17 indicates that He had an understanding with God the Father as to what He was supposed to do on Earth.  If it meant working on the Sabbath, so be it.

Next week: John 5:18-25

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