After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:1-18).
Often when Jesus healed a person or brought healing to the life of a person we see a grateful, positive response. But not always. In this conversation with Jesus we see something very different, and it illustrates how Jesus continued to warn, love, and exhort those who were ungrateful, offended, and outright opposed Him.
After the events in John 4, Jesus goes up to a feast in Jerusalem. John is not specific about which feast, and his phrase “after these things,” is not clear. In any case, Jesus comes to the pool of Bethesda, where many invalids would lay. The ESV brackets the real context as non-original (as do many modern translations); whether it’s original or not it does give at least a clue as to why the people are there:
[The people were] waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.
We cannot and won’t comment as to whether this is original, a legend, or the truth. The point is that the people believed that’s what happened. And it may be that indeed there had been healings–after all, the word must have spread that something happened there. In any case, here we find the man at the center of this conversation with Jesus, having lain there for 38 years, the text says. We know little about him–what kind of ailment he had, whether he was born with it, his background, etc. John typically includes such details that highlight the point he is making.
A Rude Question?
Like the conversation with the woman of Samaria (John 4:1-26), Jesus begins this conversation. He does so with a simple question: “Do you want to be healed?” At first it seems this question is a bit insensitive. Who wouldn’t want to be healed? Who would desire to continue laying there day after day?
The man, however, gives neither an affirmative nor a negative answer to Jesus’ question. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” What kind of answer is this? It’s one that shifts the blame. Life was so cruel to him for placing him in this position, and now he has no one that would help him. As with the woman of Samaria, the answer reveals the condition of his soul. He has lost hope, grown cold and bitter toward the world.
This condition happens when one sets a goal for himself to attempt to meet some personal need. “I’ll be a whole person, significant and secure, if I can just be healed and get on with life. So, I must be healed. Here’s a way to do it.” When that goal is not reached, and perceived as unreachable, the person will often shift the blame in order to protect what little self-worth they still have–and to protect themselves from any future failure (“If I don’t try anymore I won’t fail.”)
Exposing the Holes
Jesus doesn’t directly engage the man as He did to the woman of Samaria. Instead, He simply says, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” When the man was healed, not only was his body healed, but his will was healed, for he did not hesitate to obey but stood up immediately and began to walk. For Jesus, the physical healing, of course, was not an end in itself. It was rather a way to expose the real need of the individual. And in this case, we see the true heart of the man after the healing.
Of course, the Pharisees are all over the man for breaking the Sabbath: “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” Like the blind man of John 9, this man also gives testimony to his healing. Yet, there is no thankfulness. It is again an attempt to shift the blame: “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” So, it’s Jesus’ fault that this man was breaking the Sabbath.
The man is questioned about who it is that healed him and caused him to break the Sabbath. Jesus, however, has slipped back into the crowd, as He often does after teaching or healing in the Temple. But, Jesus apparently goes looking for the man (v. 14). The reason for the search is obvious from His words: he was concerned about the man’s spiritual condition. Jesus tells him, “Look, you have been healed. Stop sinning so that something worse will not happen to you.”
We need to be careful when considering these words. While they may indicate that the man’s condition was a result of sin, they may also simply serve as a warning to the man that in the future, his sin may lead to something more serious may happen to him. In John 9, Jesus specifically said that his blindness was not a result of sin. So we must be careful when developing doctrine from these passages.
Judging by his response, the man may have been offended. Instead of submitting in obedience, he goes back to the Jewish leaders and reports that it was Jesus who healed him, as if to cause trouble for Him, with some success. The Pharisees “persecute” Jesus, according to John (v. 16), though he is not specific as to what form that took. It’s obvious that the Jews charged Jesus with breaking the Sabbath, because Jesus’ reply is, “My Father is working even now, and I am also working.” It’s also clear that the Jews understood Jesus’ statement, for they sought “all the more to kill Him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”
Takeaways From this Passage
What do we learn from this story? The primary message here is first that Jesus comes to all, no matter where they are. He comes to expose our deepest needs, but only so that He can fill them. He heals us so that we can turn to Him in obedience and trust, opening our hearts to Him. Finally, Jesus reminds us that He is the Lord of the Sabbath and places people over rules.
[Some of the material in this post has been adapted from my book That You May Believe: A Commentary on John, available on Amazon.]
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