If you’re like me and you process Scripture best by breaking books down into thematic categories, you should note chapter 5 marks a new section of John’s Gospel. If you were to generalize chapters 1-4, the theme centers on the identity of Jesus. Now that John has accomplished this, chapters 5-11 begin to explore the growing opposition Jesus would face.
As I mentioned in our introductory study (and to a large extent it demands repeating), one of the fundamental differences between this last Gospel and what’s called the Synoptics (the first three) is that while Matthew, Mark, and Luke intentionally set out to provide a written historical record of events, John writes instead with a particular intent.
It’s always important as you work your way through the Gospel of John that you keep in mind the stated purpose for his narrative - why he writes. As he begins his conclusion John adds (John 20:30), “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Unique only to his Gospel is that John intends to provoke a decision from his reader. The Gospel of John demands a verdict - a response. From his account, John wants you to “believe” or place your complete faith and confidence in two important truths concerning Jesus: (1) That “Jesus is the Christ” - the Messiah, the long-awaited Savior of the world, and (2) “That Jesus is the Son of God” - God made flesh, God incarnate, the God-man!
Everything John includes in this book pursues this very specific aim. While Matthew presents Jesus to the Jews saying, “Behold the King!”, Mark heralding Him to the Romans as “Behold the Servant!”, with Luke declaring to the Greek, “Behold the Man!” John unashamedly shouts to all that may hear of Jesus, “Behold your God the Savior of the world!”
Not only is John honest concerning his intent (that he’s deliberately seeking to convince you of these two important truths about Jesus), but he adds that he’s doing this hoping “you may have life in His name!” John not only invites the seeker to believe in Jesus (making this book seeker-friendly), but he wants the believer to consider the obvious and logical ramifications a faith in Jesus should manifest in their life (Christian-centric as well).
John 5:1-4, “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, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.”
“After this” implies that sometime after Jesus healed the nobleman’s son (end of John 4) while He was hanging out in Cana of Galilee that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” to celebrate “a feast of the Jews.” Admittedly, this transition from one story to the next is rather vague.
Not only does John fail to tell us how long after the events in Cana Jesus decided to head to Jerusalem, but our author fails to even name the specific “feast” that necessitated Jesus make the journey in the first place. Honestly, for John’s purposes neither point matters for what occurs at this Pool of Bethesda perfectly illustrates both lessons concerning Jesus he established in the previous chapter: The Woman at the Well and the Nobleman.
Before we unpack this larger point (which I find to be amazing) I think it would be best for us to initially work our way through the activity of the text. Right from the jump I think we can all agree what’s happening at the Pool of Bethesda is perplexing if not down right bizarre.
John sets the scene by first giving us the local. He says “in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate” there was “a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda” that had “five porches.” As far as the geography is concerned, if you were to exit the Temple Complex and head north inside the city of Jerusalem, you would naturally use the “Sheep Gate.”
Note: This was not a gate used to enter the city, but one to enter and exit the Temple. As you passed through this gate designed to bring the sacrifices up to the altar, the Roman fortress of Antonia would be on your left with the Pool of Bethesda directly in front of you.
John continues by explaining that this pool possessed “five porches” and that “in these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.”
Our author then quickly explains the reason for this interesting scene adding… “For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.”
Obviously, the most pressing question that arises from this passage is whether or not there was actually something supernaturally occurring at the pool when the watered stirred or if this was nothing more than the development of a cruel superstition - folk lore, a ruse?
Though I’ll concede there is little room for anyone to be overly dogmatic, I’m of the opinion that something supernatural was taking place at the Pool of Bethesda. John records “at a certain time an angel” sent from God came to the pool and “stirred up the water” so that upon seeing the “stirring whoever stepped in first was made well of whatever disease he had.”
Now before you think I’m crazy, please consider two important points: First, John is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and there is absolutely nothing in the original language to indicated he was himself skeptical. In some ways the record is matter-of-fact.
Aside from this, if you believe the O.T. is also a divinely-inspired record of God’s dealings with humanity, such a scene isn’t all that farfetched. God brought animals to the Ark in groupings of two. Abraham and Sarah conceived at an old age. You have the 10 Plagues and Moses parting the Red Sea. God supernaturally providing manna from heaven.
People being healed of a poisonous serpent bite by looking at a bronze serpent on a pole. The sun standing still. An ass speaking to Balaam (or the one who speaks from this pulpit most Sundays). Naaman being cured of leprosy by dipping in the Jordan River. A dead man coming back to life when he was cast onto Elisha’s bones. Jonah surviving three days in the belly of a great fish. Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The 3 Amigos enduing the fiery furnace.
You see if you believe “in the beginning God created” then you logically concede God exists outside of the natural order so that what we might perceive to be “supernatural” is in actuality very natural for God. Sure, God can’t contradict the natural order, but He can supersede it.
Obviously, the Pool of Bethesda wasn’t magical and didn’t possess some type of healing power, but you should note the text doesn’t make this claim. Instead, John tells us “at a certain time” God got involved, sent an angel to stir the water, and a unique miracle resulted.
Not only does this miracle naturally fit within a Book that records the acts of the supernatural God, but the motivation for the miracle is absolutely consistent with what we know about this God. Don’t forget this “great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, and paralyzed” God loved with all His heart. They were His people suffering the terrible effects of living in a fallen world.
Beyond that, in many ways people with such afflictions were utterly hopeless. The people lacked healthcare, medicine, or even concern. Most of them occupied the bottom rung of society. Can I see a situation where such a healing was both actual and literal? Absolutely!
Imagine the crowd and the scene itself. John doesn’t tell us there were a few present. He describes a “great multitude.” All “five porches” of this pool were filled with the “sick.” The Greek word we have translated “sick” literally means “to be feeble or without strength.”
Whether it was on account of blindness (which was a word used to describe both a physical and mental blindness), lameness (in the Greek this word described a person who’d been maimed), or a form of paralysis - these people were utterly powerless. Honestly, such a scene is not only heartbreaking, but presented a stark view of sins effect on humanity.
While John doesn’t provide us any additional information about this “certain time” the water would stir (we don’t know if this took place daily, weekly, during this feast, or sporadically) this mob of broken, we do know these suffering people are jockeying for a place that would give them the greatest chance of getting into the pool first. You can imagine the rising tension, the anxiety. This was your only hope of being healed and having your life restored.
It’s in such a scene that John continues his account of this story… John 5:5, “Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years.”
Though John only uses a few words, I’m struck by such a sad description. “A certain man” waiting desperately for “a certain time” when he might possibly experience a most unlikely healing… If only he could muster enough strength to be the first person into the water.
While we know nothing of this man (his name, family history, vocation, or age), John says he “had an infirmity thirty-eight years!” In the Greek this coupling “an infirmity” is rather telling. Not only does it mean this man was “want of strength” or possessed a “feebleness of health,” but these things had come as the result of some internal malady or disease.
The point is that this man hadn’t been born with this sickness, but had contracted it. At one time in his life he’d been fit as a fiddle; and yet, over time (38 years to be exact) his vitality and health had been robbed by this infirmity leading him now to this desperate place. As we’ll come to see things had deteriorated to the point he could no longer walk.
Later in the story, in verse 14, Jesus makes this statement to the man, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” Many scholars believe Jesus’ statement may confirm the fact the man’s “infirmity” (his weakness and decline in health) had been the result of a venereal disease contracted through immoral living.
If this is the case the man was not only tormented physically, but had suffered a greater affliction of the soul. As he looked around at this “great multitude” he no doubt saw men and women who, at no fault of their own, had been born with their condition. He took notice of people who were sitting at this pool because of an accident that had left them maimed. Unlike these groups of people, he found himself in such a plight because of his own stupidity.
John 5:6, “When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’”
I wonder how long Jesus observed this scene at the Pool of Bethesda? In a sea of so much human suffering I wonder why Jesus singled this man out? Honestly, I wonder why Jesus only approached this one man when so many needed His help? Regardless, it’s the flow of this verse I find to be deeply profound… “Jesus saw him, knew,” and “said!” Amazing!
This translation Jesus “knew he had been in that condition a long time” is a bit misleading. In your Bible the words “in that condition” are likely italicized letting you know they were added to the text for clarity, but were not apart of the original manuscripts. While I’m sure Jesus knew the man been suffering from this “infirmity” for 38 years, it’s more likely John is telling us that Jesus “seeing him lying there” knew he’d been lying there “a long time.”
Though I’m speculating, it’s entirely possible that Jesus singles out this man because he’d spent more time than anyone else at the Pool of Bethesda. It’s hard to imagine a dynamic where someone could have survived longer than 38-years. I mean if the healing intended to make a splash, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better candidate.
For years upon years this man went to painstaking efforts to get to the edge of the pool only for someone else to beat him into the water. For years his best attempts had fallen short. For years his hopes had been dashed simply because he wasn’t quick enough - wasn’t able.
With this in mind… “Jesus saw, knew, and said, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” Honestly, what an audacious question for Jesus to ask such a man? I mean why else would he be at the pool if he didn’t want to be healed? Why else would he try so hard for 38 long years?
So if the answer is so obvious, why is Jesus asking this man such a question? Let’s unpack this question working backwards. In the Greek this word “well” can be translated as “whole or sound.” The word implies not just a removal of the disease inflicting him, but a complete reversal of the effects he’d experienced from such a condition.
It should be reiterated that this man’s “infirmity” was likely the result of an action that contracted an internal disease that had completely destroyed his life. The man’s outward condition was the result of an unseen killer within. Jesus is not only asking this man if he wanted the disease inflicting damage remedied, but he’s asking if the man also wanted to be made as if the disease had never existed in the first place.
Working backwards, consider the implications of Jesus’ use of the phrase “to be made.” By its very definition, what Jesus is proposing was a work that would commence in the man’s life independent of the man’s specific involvement. He would “be made well.”
Though the man understood any miracle would occur supernaturally, the dynamic at the pool still demanded his activity. To “be made well” he’d have to work hard to be the first into the water. For a healing to occur at Bethesda his ableness and ability was required.
Finally, notice the essence of Jesus’ question… “Do you want?” Jesus doesn’t ask the man, “Do you need?” Nor does He ask, “Are you able?” Instead, Jesus asks, “Do you want?”
Brilliantly, Jesus is speaking to the man’s desire. “What do you really want? Do you want to be made whole or have you grown comfortable in your present condition and misery? What do you really desire - the status quo or a radicle transformation?” Sadly, I have found some people never experience healing because they don’t want to be healed.
John 5:7, “The sick man answered Him, ‘Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.’”
How very interesting that in response to a question centered on desire the man points to his activity. It’s as though he’s saying to Jesus, “Do I want to be made well? Yes! Absolutely! I’m tired of my condition… Tired of this life… Tired of my misery. Tired of laying here. Why else would I keep trying so hard to get into this pool when the water stirs?”
But that’s not all the man is saying in his response to Jesus… When he says “I have no man to put me into the pool, but while I’m coming, another steps down before me” the man is making a sad, but brutally true confession. “Yes! I want to be made well, but Sir don’t you see it’s impossible! No matter how hard I try I always come up short. I’m not able!”
I see this statement “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool” as an appeal for Jesus to help him. The man falsely believes his only hope, only chance was getting into that water first. What he doesn’t realize is that Jesus didn’t need to put him into the pool for the man to be made whole. Now in fairness to this man, he has no idea who Jesus is. From his perspective he could only think of one way his need could be met! Sadly, he was misguided.
John 5:8-9, “Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’ And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath.”
I’m grieved when I hear commentators say the man was healed the moment he attempted to obey the command of Jesus to “Rise!” They will even add that Jesus asked him to do the impossible specifically in order to demonstrate that he could if he was willing to trust and try his hardest. Why can’t we let Jesus be awesome without demanding human involvement?
What’s off is this is not what the passage says. Look again at the text, “Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’ And immediately the man was made well!” Then he “took up his bed, and walked.” While the second and third directives correlate (“take up your bed” so he “took up his bed,” “And walk” and he “walked”), notice Jesus begins by issuing the command “Rise” and the correlation is that “the man was made well.” Clearly, the collection of his bed and the walking were the results of a healing the man had no role in doing!
Once again part of the problem is a faulty understanding of this word “Rise!” The Greek word we have here is “egeirō” which is a verb meaning “to arouse” or “cause to rise.” Please understand, as an impossible command for a man in this condition, the word is more than a directive. The word itself also carried with it the power to fulfill the directive.
In attempting to calm John the Baptizers fears about His true identity, Jesus relays the following message recorded in Matthew 11:5 that “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up…” Luke 8:54-55, “And Jesus took the little girl by the hand, and called, saying, Maid, arise. And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway.” The word “egeirō” doesn’t compel one to act. It causes one to act.
For example… When you go to a Falcons game and the announcer tells the crowd to “Rise Up!” - you hear the directive, put down your nachos and beer, and stand to your feet to cheer on the team. But note this is not what the Greek word used here is describing. If the same word was used the guy in the wheel chair sitting behind you would have also risen up to his feet as well. In actuality, no one in the stands would have been able to remain seated.
With this man Jesus specifically uses a word that means “to recall the dead to life” and what “immediately” resulted? John says the “man was made well!” Sure, he actively obeyed the second and third directions, but only after Jesus did something within him - something for him! What this man at the Pool of Bethesda couldn’t do through his own energy and efforts (complete healing and restoration), Jesus was able to accomplish with one powerful word.
If one word of Jesus possess that amount of incredible power, imagine the transforming effects a whole Book filled with His Words might have the ability to accomplish in your life?
As I mentioned at the beginning of our study John is more interested in the development of a theme rather than providing the reader with a strict chronology. As such it would appear John specifically transitions from the events of chapter 4 (the Woman at the Well and the healing of the Nobleman’s Son) to this particular story at the Pool of Bethesda because what happens here is a perfect illustration for the two themes he’s just introduced in John 4.
For starters, John setting the scene by mentioning that this “pool of Bethesda” possessed “five porches” is completely unusual. Because pools in the ancient world were fundamentally four sided, logically, you’d figure such a structure would have four porches - not five.
While for centuries scholars dismissed this detail as an unhistorical literary addition, when the Pool of Bethesda was finally excavated in the 19th-century archeologists discovered a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a dividing wall that acted like a dam. Incredibly, they found the Pool had four porches situated along the outer parameter with a fifth through the center dividing the two distinct basins just as John described.
The reason this detail demands our consideration is what it tells us about the purpose for the Pool of Bethesda. It would appear this pool was not used for drinking water, but instead had a specific religious function - which explains its close proximity to the Temple.
Archeological excavations have revealed that the southern basin had broad steps for entry with the northern basin acting as a deep reservoir. This tells us the Pool of Bethesda was a Mikveh (a bath used for religious immersion and ceremonial purification). Imagine it as a Jewish baptismal pilgrims would have to wash in before entering the Temple to worship.
According to Hebrew traditions, in order for a pool to be used for this purposes, a Mikveh had to be sourced with running water coming from a natural spring or river. In a dynamic where neither were available, a two basin structure like Bethesda was permissible.
Because of its construct the southern basin was continually replenished with a flow of fresh water from the northern reservoir. In a profound way the Pool of Bethesda had religious significance because it provided on Mount Moriah “Living Water” essential for purification.
Living Water… Remember that in His interactions with the Woman at the Well Jesus offered her something radicle… Something religion could never provide… He offered her a “Living Water” that would permanently quench her inner thirst. In John 4:14 Jesus said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst,” because “the water that I give will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”
I imagine as John, with quill and pen, is marinating on this incredible promise of Living Water, he’s struck by the contrast provided by this scene at Bethesda. The Pool of Bethesda was the closest version to Living Water religion had to offer, but it was terribly inadequate.
Outside the Temple existed a pool advertising Living Water aimed at purifying. And yet, tragically it only provided the “great multitude of sick” (who were forbidden from entering the Temple in their unclean state) nothing more than an empty hope that if they tired hard enough they could be made well. For John the man with the infirmity was the prime example.
The man desired a healing that never came. Let down - after let down - after let down. For 38 long years he’d tried his best, but to no avail. At this point he figured healing was impossible.
And yet, after an encounter with Jesus this man would never have need to visit this pool ever again! What religion (his efforts) had failed to provide, Jesus afforded him with a single word. A religious ritual became obsolete the moment he encountered Jesus!
But that’s not the only reason this story is so relevant in light of chapter 4. While in Cana of Galilee Jesus radically transforms the nobleman’s life - not by healing his sick son on account of his obedience, but by healing the man’s child before he’d done anything at all.
As we discussed, it was Jesus’ demonstration of grace that in the end saved the man and his household. Once again it’s this amazing truth that draws John’s mind back to Bethesda.
Not only will Jesus’ actions at the Pool of Bethesda dovetail off of His dialogue with the Woman at the Well about Living Water, but it’s a perfect segue from His interactions with the nobleman. The word “Bethesda” possessed two meanings. While “bet” is translated as “house of” the suffix “hesda” had two different meanings in the Hebrew and Aramaic. In the Aramaic it can be translated as “shame,” while in the Hebrew the word means “grace.”
One commentator remarked, “This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate, since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and as a place of grace due to the granting of healing.” Can you think of a better place for Jesus to contrast the Living Water He offers with the knock-off afforded by religion than the Pool of Bethesda?
People in shame arrived at Bethesda - desperate for a grace that never came. So Jesus specifically came to those in shame - to offer a grace that changes everything!
As we close may I ask you to consider… How are the effects of sin reversed? How can the dead spirit within find itself awaked to life? How can you “be made well?” Let me answer this question… While you’re in the midst of your brokenness, experiencing the external results of that internal killer named sin, pursuing remedies that don’t work, religious rites that fall woefully short, completely lost and desperate - Jesus sees you, knows you, steps into your life (often unsolicited), to ask you a very simple question… Do you want to be made well?
Sure, like this man at the Pool of Bethesda you need to desire more than the status quo. A man who fails to search will discover nothing. Beyond this, you will need to be honest that the things you’ve been pursuing have failed to save. You’ll need to admit you aren’t able and apart from being “made” you’ll never experience the change you so long for.
And yet, do not be mistaken… In the end the miracle occurs - healing takes place - life change happens, not when you muster the energy to obey the impossible commands of God, but the moment Jesus speaks into the depths of your soul and says, “Rise!”
Friend, the key to experiencing the amazing grace of God boils down to one central thing… You saying “YES!” when Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well?”
As we close, if these truths concerning Jesus strike a cord in your heart you’re willing to accept and surrender yourself to, please in the depths of your soul pray…
“Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I believe You are the Son of God who died on the cross to atone for my sins. I place my complete faith in that work as the only basis for my forgiveness, restoration, and righteousness before You. I confess that on the 3rd day You rose from the dead providing me a relationship with You today. Right now, Jesus I choose to repent of my sins and ask that by Your grace You fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Take my broken life and make it whole. Transform who I am from the inside out. Jesus, I confess You as both my God, my personal Lord, and my eternal Savior. Amen.”
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