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.”
The Apostle 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.”
In fact, one of the unique characteristics of this particular gate was that it wasn’t used to enter and exit the city but the Temple. It was an interior gate. As you passed through the Sheep Gate, designed to control the flow of sacrifices brought 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 the Pool of Bethesda 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 explains the reason for this 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 — folklore or a ruse?
Though I will concede there is little room for anyone to be dogmatic, I am of the opinion that something supernatural was taking place! Look again… 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 indicate he was himself skeptical. In some ways, the record is matter-of-fact.
Aside from this, if you believe the Old Testament is also a divinely inspired record of God’s dealings with humanity, such a scene isn’t that farfetched. God brought animals to the Ark in groupings of two. Abraham and Sarah conceived at an old age. You have 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.
Again, if you say you believe the first five words of the Bible, “in the beginning God created,” then you logically concede God exists outside of the natural order so that things we might initially perceive to be “supernatural” may in actuality be very natural for God. Sure, God can’t contradict the natural order, but He can supersede it.
Obviously, the water in the Pool of Bethesda wasn’t magical and didn’t possess any type of healing power. And yet, you should note the text doesn’t make this particular claim. Instead, John simply tells us that “at a certain time” God got involved, sent an angel to stir the water, and a unique miracle manifested as a resulted — a physical healing.
Not only does this miracle naturally fit within a Book that records the actions of the supernatural God, but the motivation for the miracle is totally consistent with what we know about this God. Again, you need to keep in mind this “great multitude” John describes “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 destroyed by sin.
Beyond that, the people navigating life with these types of afflictions were utterly hopeless. These people lacked healthcare. They didn’t have medicine. Aside from that, with regards to the social structure, they were the forgotten. 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 such a crowd and the scene it created… John is crystal clear on this day a “great multitude” had gathered. All “five porches” of this pool were filled with the “sick.” The Greek word we have translated as “sick” means the feeble or those without strength.
Whether it was on account of “blindness” (a word used to describe both a physical and mental blindness), “lameness” (in 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 it presented a stark view of sin's 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 happened daily, weekly, during this particular feast, or just sporadically), we do know this mob of suffering people is jockeying for a good place that would give them the best 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 the Apostle John continues his account… 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 this man hadn’t been born with this sickness, he’d contracted it! At one time in his life, he’d been fit as a fiddle. And yet, with time (38 years to be exact) his vitality and health were slowly robbed from him by this infirmity. As we’ll come to see, his health had deteriorated to the point he could no longer walk on his own strength.
Later in the story, in verse 14, Jesus will make an interesting and insightful statement to this man. He’ll say, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” In light of this exhortation, we know the man’s “infirmity” (his decline in health) had been the result of some poor life choices. In fact, most scholars believe this “infirmity” was likely some type of venereal disease contracted through immoral living.
If this were the case, the man was not only tormented physically but was suffering an even 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 affliction. Aside from these folks, he also took notice of the people sitting at this pool because of an accident that had left them maimed. It must have eaten at him that, unlike these people, he found himself in such a terrible plight because of his own sin and 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 stood by observing this scene at the Pool of Bethesda? In a sea of so much human suffering, I am curious why Jesus decided to single out this man out when so many needed His help? Either way, it’s the flow of this verse and the way John paints the picture I find to be deeply profound… “Jesus saw him, knew,” and “said!” Amazing!
This translation that Jesus “knew he had been in that condition a long time” is misleading. In your Bible, the words “in that condition” are italicized letting you know they were added by the translators for clarity but were not a part of the original manuscripts. While I’m sure Jesus knew the man had been suffering 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.”
You see it’s entirely possible Jesus singles out this man because this man had spent more time than anyone else at the Pool of Bethesda. To this point, 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.
Consider that for year upon year upon years — 38 to be exact — this broken man would make the painstaking journey from his home, through the Sheep Gate, and down to Bethesda. Through difficulties, he’d get himself to the pool’s edge and wait for the stirring.
How depressing that for a total of 38-years someone else had always beaten him into the water. For years, his best attempts had fallen woefully short. For years, his hopes had been dashed simply because he wasn’t quick enough. The man wasn’t able.
With this in mind, think about Jesus’ question. John writes, “Jesus saw, knew, and said, ‘Do you want to be made well?’” Honestly, what an audacious question for Jesus to ask such a man, at such a place, in such a condition? I mean why else would he be at the pool if he didn’t want to be healed? Why else would he have tried so hard for 38 long years?
So if the answer is obvious, we need to consider why was Jesus asking this man such a question? Let’s unpack what Jesus asks him working backward. In the Greek language, the word “well” can be translated as whole or sound. This is important because the word implies not just a removal of the disease that was afflicting him, but a complete reversal of the effects he’d experienced from such an affliction.
It should be reiterated that this man’s “infirmity” was likely the result of a physical action that contracted an internal disease that was destroying his life. The man’s outward condition had been the result of an unseen killer within. Understand, Jesus is not only asking this man if he wanted to be cured of the disease… He’s asking the man if he wanted to be made as if the disease had never existed in the first place.
Again working backward, consider the implications of Jesus’ use of the phrase “to be made.” By its very definition, what Jesus was proposing was a work that would commence in the man’s life independent of his specific involvement. He would “be made well!”
Though the man understood any miracle would occur supernaturally, the dynamic at the pool demanded his activity. With regards to what would happen with the angel stirring the water, he knew to “be made well” he’d have to work hard to be the first into the pool. As he painfully knew, for a healing to occur at Bethesda his ableness and ability were required.
Finally, notice the essence of Jesus’ question… “Do you want?” It’s amazing to me that 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.
“Friend, 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 for your life — the status quo or a radical transformation? Is there a part of you that has accepted this affliction as the just consequence of your choices?” Sadly, I have found some people never experience the healing Jesus offers 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 simply not able!”
The way I read this statement, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool” oozes passion and desperation. Simply put he’s making an appeal for Jesus to help him into the water. You see the man falsely believes his only hope was getting into the 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 likely 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.
Check out what happens next… 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.”
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 to demonstrate that he could if he was only willing to trust and try his hardest. Why can’t we let Jesus be awesome without demanding human involvement?
What’s off about this perspective is that it isn’t what the passage says happened. Look again… “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 2nd and 3rd directives correlate (“take up your bed” so he “took up his bed,” “and walk” so he “walked”), notice Jesus begins with the command “rise” with the correlation that “the man was made well.”
Part of the problem is how we read this story is a faulty understanding of the word “rise!” In the Greek the word we have is egeirō which is a verb meaning to cause to rise. Please understand, this was an impossible command for a man in his condition. In and of himself there was no way he could rise up on his own. And yet, while the word is a directive, the word itself also carried with it the power to fulfill the directive!
In Luke 8:54-55, we’re given another example of this work in action. We read, “Jesus took the little girl by the hand (a little girl who was 100% dead by the time Jesus arrived), and called, saying, ‘Little girl, arise! And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway.” The word not only called her forth it caused her to come forth! Here’s my point… The word egeirō doesn’t compel a person to act. It causes a person to act.
For example… When you go to a Falcons game and the announcer tells the crowd to “Rise Up!” what happens? Well, you hear the directive, you put down your nachos and beer, and stand to your feet to cheer on the team who’s likely blowing a 4th quarter lead.
And yet, this is not what this particular Greek word describes. You see if the same word was used, not only would you rise up but the guy in the wheelchair behind you would rise up as well. In actuality, no one in the entire stadium would have been able to remain seated.
With this in mind, Jesus told the man to rise up, and what happened? John says the “man was made well!” Sure, following this he actively obeyed the 2nd and 3rd directives to “take up his bed and walk,” but only after Jesus had done something within him — something for him! What this man at the Pool of Bethesda couldn’t do in his own energy and efforts (complete healing and restoration), Jesus was able to accomplish with one powerful word.
Jesus cured the man of his disease and He reversed its effects. The man was made whole! Friend, if one word coming from the mouth of Jesus possesses that amount of incredible life-changing power, imagine the transforming effects an entire Book filled with His Words might have the ability to accomplish in your life?
Please note, John, setting the scene by mentioning the fact this “pool of Bethesda” possessed “five porches” is really unusual. Because pools in the ancient world were typically four-sided, the construction of this pool of water was incredibly odd.
In fact, while for centuries scholars dismissed this detail as a literary addition, when the Pool of Bethesda was excavated in the 19th-century archeologists discovered a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a dividing wall that acted as a dam. Incredibly, they found the Pool of Bethesda had four porches situated along the outer parameter with a fifth running through the center dividing the two distinct basins just as John described.
Now the reason this detail demands our consideration is what it tells us about the purpose of the Pool of Bethesda. It would seem this pool was not used for drinking water and 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). This of it as being a Jewish baptismal where pilgrims would wash before entering the Temple to worship.
According to Hebrew tradition, a Mikveh had to be sourced with living water. In most situations, this would be water coming from a natural spring or a river. In such a dynamic where neither were available, a two basin structure like Bethesda was permissible. Because of its construct, the southern basin (where a person would wash) would be continually replenished with a flow of freshwater coming from the northern reservoir.
This is why this is significant… In the previous chapter, John recorded a fascinating exchange Jesus had with a gentile woman at the well when He offered her something radicle… “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 promise of Living Water, he’s struck by the contrast provided by this scene. You see the Pool of Bethesda was the closest version to Living Water Jewish religion had to offer. Outside the Temple there literally existed a pool advertising Living Water. And yet, tragically it only provided the “great multitude of sick” (those forbidden from entering the Temple in their unclean state) nothing more than an empty hope that if they tried hard enough they could be made well.
For John, the man with the infirmity was a prime example of how religion had failed. The man desired a healing that never came. Let down, after let down, after let down. For 38 long years, the man had tried his best but to no avail. And yet, after just one encounter with Jesus, this man would never have the need to visit this pool ever again! What religion (his efforts) had failed to provide this man, Jesus afforded with a single word.
The word “Bethesda” possessed two meanings. While “bet” is translated as the house of, the suffix “hesda” had two different meanings in Hebrew and Aramaic. In Aramaic, it’s translated as shame while in Hebrew the word means grace. One commentator observed, “This dual meaning was appropriate for the location was as a place of shame 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 came to offer the world with the knock-off afforded by religion than the Pool of Shame and Grace? 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 is this disease of sin remedied and the effects reversed? How can the dead spirit within find itself awaked to life? How can you rise up and “be made well” when you have no strength in and of yourself?
Let me give you an answer… While you’re in the midst of your brokenness, experiencing the external results of that internal killer named sin, pursuing remedies that always fail, never work, and will let you down, religious rites that fall woefully short, feeling lost, worn out, hopeless, and desperate… My friend, Jesus sees you, knows you, and is right now stepping into your life in order 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 — Living Water! Beyond this, you will also need to be honest with yourself that the things you’ve been pursuing have failed to save. Like this man, you’ll need to admit you aren’t able, and apart from being “made” you’ll never experience the change you so long for. How amazing that in a place of shame you can discover God’s transforming grace!
And yet, do not be mistaken… In the end, the miracle occurs, the healing takes place, your life changes forever, not when you muster up the energy to obey the impossible commands of God, but the moment Jesus speaks into the depths of your soul and says, “Rise Up!” So my friend the pressing question remains… Are you listening?
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