JOHN 1-4. THE CONTEXT
In chapter 2 Jesus worked his first sign, turning water into wine (2:1-12). He then went to Capernaum for a brief visit (2:12), after which he went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. While there, he cleansed the temple. Many believed because of the signs he was doing (2:13-25).
Chapter 3 tells of the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus (3:1-21) and a conversation between John the Baptist and John’s disciples (3:22-36).
Chapter 4 is dominated by the lengthy story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (4:1-42). Jesus then returns to Galilee, where Galileans welcomed him, because they had seen him in action at the Passover festival in Jerusalem (4:43-45). Then Jesus healed the son of a royal official—his second sign (4:46-54).
An odd thing about this reading is that it stops with the healing of the lame man—and a note that it was the Sabbath. Verses 10-18 continue the story. See the Postscript below.
We must be careful not to confuse this story with the story of the healing of the man born blind (9:1-34). In that story, the newly healed man acknowledged to his neighbors that it was Jesus who healed him (9:9-11). While his parents showed fear of the religious authorities (9:21-23), the man himself demonstrated considerable courage when the authorities confronted him (9:24-34).
JOHN 5:1. JESUS WENT UP TO JERUSALEM
1 After these things, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
“After these things, there was a feast of the Jews” (v. 1a). This feast is sandwiched between the Passover feast of 2:13-25) and the Feast of Booths (7:10ff.).
Scholars have expended great effort to determine which feast is represented here—all for naught. There is no consensus, unless it is that we cannot know which feast it was. This is a technical detail that will be of little interest to our congregations.
“and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (v. 1b). Jerusalem is the Holy City—the location of the temple—the place where the nation’s religious leadership (priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees) make their home. Jews observe major festivals there. Jesus will experience a great deal of opposition in Jerusalem, and will die on the cross there.
Home for Jesus is Galilee—less urban and less sophisticated—far from the bright lights. Most of Jesus’ ministry will take place in Galilee. Peter will acknowledge him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” in Galilee (Matthew 16:16). Jesus will go to Judea to die, but will return to Galilee after his resurrection (Matthew 26:32), and will deliver his Great Commission in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).
JOHN 5:2-3a. WHOEVER STEPPED IN FIRST
2 Now in Jerusalem by the sheep gate, there is a pool, which is called in Hebrew, “Bethesda,” having five porches. 3a In these lay a great multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed.
“Now in Jerusalem by the sheep gate (Greek: probatikos), there is a pool” (v. 2a). The fact that the word “is” is the present tense may indicate that this account was written prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.—but that is not certain.
Nehemiah 3:1 mentions a Sheep Gate (Hebrew: sso’n sa’ar) in the city wall of Jerusalem. It was located near the temple.
The Greek word probatikos means “sheep”—not “sheep gate.” The Greek word for gate, thyra, is not found in this verse. An alternate translation would be “Now in Jerusalem there is a sheep-pool.”
“which is called in Hebrew, ‘Bethesda'” (v. 2b). There are several variant readings in the manuscripts for this verse—including Bethesda, Bethsaida, and Bethzatha. Bethesda is probably the best reading.
Archaeological excavations have uncovered a double pool near today’s church of St. Anne that is probably this place. It is not part of the temple, but is located near it.
“having five porches” (Greek: stoa) (v. 2c). These stoa (porches or porticos) most likely had roofs held up by columns. They would provide shelter, and would be a natural gathering place.
“In these lay a great multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, or paralyzed” (v. 3a). This tells of the sick people who gathered there, but doesn’t indicate why they did so.
JOHN 5:3b-4. WHOEVER STEPPED IN FIRST
3bwaiting for the moving of the water; 4for 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 made whole of whatever disease he had.
Several manuscripts include these words, but most scholars today consider them to be a gloss (a later scribal addition to the original). Most modern translations omit them or include them only as a footnote.
JOHN 5:5-6. DO YOU WANT TO BE MADE WELL
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?”
“A certain man was there, who had been sick for thirty-eight years” (v. 5). Thirty-eight years would be the major part of a person’s lifetime in the days prior to modern medicine—especially for a person with a long-term illness. John doesn’t tell us the nature of the illness.
“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?'” (v. 6). There is no indication that the sick man knows anything about Jesus—or even that he recognizes that anyone important is present. He doesn’t seek out Jesus. He doesn’t ask to be healed. The initiative belongs to Jesus, who chooses the man from the crowd and asks if he wants to be healed.
We might be tempted to think that Jesus’ question suggests that really, really wanting to be healed is the key to healing, but the rest of the story moves in a different direction.
We don’t know why Jesus selected this man out of this crowd of infirmed people. As we will see in verses 10-18, it isn’t that the man has a sterling character. If Jesus is looking for someone who deserves help or inspires sympathy, he could surely find someone more suitable.
“Do you want to be made well?” (v. 6b). Why would Jesus ask such a question? We think, “Of course, the man wants to be made well, Jesus!”—but perhaps he doesn’t. Not everyone wants to be made well. Some people enjoy being pitied or dependent on others. Some people are reluctant to leave the familiar and explore possibilities for a better life. It is difficult to impose healing on a person who is comfortable with the way things are. Such a person is likely to sabotage efforts to produce change.
This man has tried and failed to achieve a miracle for nearly four decades, so it is quite possible that he hasn’t tried very hard—isn’t really interested in being healed.
On another level, Jesus’ question signals the crowd that he is considering a dramatic intervention. People who overhear the question will watch carefully to see if they might have the opportunity to witness a miracle.
JOHN 5:7. I HAVE NO ONE TO PUT ME IN THE POOL
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.”
“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” (v. 7). The man doesn’t answer Jesus’ question directly. He doesn’t say, “Yes, I want to be healed.” Instead, he explains why he hasn’t been healed. He has had no one to help him get to the pool while it was stirred up. He has tried to get there, but someone always steps in his way. He accepts no responsibility for his circumstances.
JOHN 5:8-9a. ARISE, TAKE UP YOUR MAT, AND WALK
8 Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your mat, and walk.”
9a Immediately, the man was made well, and took up his mat and walked.
“Jesus said to him, ‘Arise, take up your mat, and walk'” (v. 8). Jesus doesn’t allow himself to be put off by the man’s failure to answer his question more directly. He doesn’t try to get the man to say that he wants to be healed. He doesn’t ask the man if he has faith. Nor does he tell the man that if he will only believe, God will heal him. There is no indication that the man’s faith plays any role in this healing.
Nor does Jesus touch the man to effect the healing. He simply commands the man to take up his mat and walk.
“Immediately, the man was made well, and took up his mat and walked” (v. 9a). Jesus’ word is powerful, and effects this healing. The man takes up his mat and walks. There is no indication here that he thanks Jesus or praises God for his healing.
JOHN 5:9b. NOW IT WAS SABBATH ON THAT DAY
9b Now it was the Sabbath on that day.
“Now it was the Sabbath on that day” (v. 9b). The author includes this note to set up the Sabbath controversy that is recounted in verses 10-18.
This is one of six Sabbath controversies reported in the Gospels. They include:
• Plucking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-27; Luke 6:1-5).
• Healing the man with a withered hand (Matthew 12:9-14; Like 6:6-11).
• Healing a crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17).
• Healing a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6).
• Healing a sick man (John 5:1-18; 7:21-24).
• Healing a man born blind (John 9:1-34).
JOHN 5:10-18. POSTSCRIPT —NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
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.
While these verses are not in the lectionary reading, we can hardly ignore them.
As noted above, this man was neither a man of sterling character nor a man of faith. When Jesus asked if he wanted to be healed, the man grumbled that no one ever helped him. However, after being healed, he doesn’t bother to thank Jesus or to praise God.
Now, confronted by “the Jews”—Jewish religious leaders—the man tries to defend himself by casting blame on Jesus, who healed him and told him to pick up his mat and walk (v. 11). He still doesn’t know Jesus’ name (v. 13).
After Jesus shows himself to the man again (v. 14), the man seeks out the Jewish leaders to tell them that it was Jesus who healed him (v. 15)—hardly the kind of action that we would expect from someone who had just been healed of a lifetime illness by Jesus. There is nothing attractive about this man—nothing at all.
When the Jewish leaders persecute Jesus and try to kill him “because he did these things on the Sabbath” (v. 16), Jesus provokes them further by saying, “My Father is still working, so I am working, too” (v. 17). The Jewish leaders then seek even more strongly to kill Jesus because he has broken Sabbath law and has called God his Father, “making himself equal with God” (v. 18).
While we have come to think badly of the Jewish leaders because of their opposition to Jesus, we must acknowledge that they have a point. One of the Ten Commandments (the third or fourth commandment, depending on the numbering system) says,
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. You shall labor six days, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. You shall not do any work in it, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy” (Exodus 10:8-11).
The penalty for failure to keep this law was death (Exodus 31:15).
But what constitutes work? With all good intentions, the Jewish leaders had tried to anticipate all the possible ways that one could violate this law—and had added thousands of specific rules to guide Jewish people in every conceivable circumstance. The products of their efforts were called the Mishnah and the Talmud. So far, so good!
But two problems arose from this commendable effort:
• The first was that the Jewish leaders began to treat their man-made rules as if they were co-equal with God’s law. They became inflexible and uncaring, adding to the people’s burdens instead of guiding them gently along the right pathway.
• The second was that the Jewish leaders, charged with being shepherds to Israel, instead became “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8), more concerned with their own prominence and perquisites than the welfare of the people they were called to serve.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
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Wright, Tom, John for Everyone: Part One: Chapters 1-10 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, 2004)
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan