John 5

Miracle at Bethesda

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases.—Psalm 103:2,3

Carl Hagensick

As Jehovah is mentioned as the “healer of all diseases” under the Old Testament -law arrangements, so Jesus, as the Father’s active agent, performed countless miracles healing the infirmities of those who came to him at his first advent (Luke 5:15).

A remarkable example of one of these healing miracles is recorded in the fifth chapter of the gospel of John. This event occurred during one of Jesus’ visits to observe the feasts in Jerusalem, probably the feast of Passover on this occasion.

The Location

The miracle occurred at the pool of Bethesda, close by the sheep market on the eastern side of the city. Archaeologists concur on the location of this pool and have done extensive excavations at the site. The gospel account mentions five porches, or covered walkways, which surrounded the pool and protected visitors from the heat of the sun. Dr. James Lancaster, writing of how the pool would have appeared in Jesus’ day, states: “At that time the pool was divided by an east-west dam across the center. The five porticoes may have referred to the four sides and the central dam.”

Verse 4 speaks of an angel periodically troubling the waters, giving them healing powers. There is some question about the authenticity of the verse because it is missing in both the Sinaitic and Codex Vaticanus. It was not unusual for the Jews to attribute unexplainable phenomenon to the angels. It is also possible the pool’s owners, possibly priests, operated a sluice gate in a dam to “trouble” the waters and make a profit from the waters’ presumed alleviative powers.

If there were curative, or even palliative powers, to the waters of the pool, it might well explain why it was given the name Bethesda, meaning the house of mercy or house of grace. Alternatively, it may have taken its name from the suburban area Bezetha, where it was located. Some scholars feel that it is the same site mentioned as the “king’s pool” in Nehemiah 2:14.

The Ailment and the Man

Though we are not informed as to the nature of the man’s infirmity, we may safely assume that it inhibited his ability to walk since the miracle-producing words of Jesus were, “Rise, take up thy bed and walk” (John 5:8). The Greek word translated infirmity, asthenia, literally means “lacking strength.” The word is not so much suggestive of paraplegia (the inability to use one’s extremities) as it is of para­paresis (the lack of strength greatly inhibiting the functionality of the limbs).

From the fact that he had had his ailment for 38 years, we may deduce that he acquired it when he was a young man. That it was not a birth defect is attested to by Jesus’ words to the healed man later in the temple: “Behold thou art made whole, sin no more, lest some worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14).

These words strongly infer that the ailment which Jesus healed was a direct result of some sin or vice which the man had committed some four decades earlier. Such paraparesis can result from syphilis or from prolonged alcoholism with its accompanying malnourishment and lack of vitamin B-12. We simply do not have enough evidence to form a solid conclusion as to the nature of the infirmity. Such details are also unnecessary.

The account does not state that he had sufficient faith in Jesus to request a miracle as so many others had done. In fact he did not even recognize that it was Jesus to whom he was speaking, though he was apparently later apprized of the fact (John 5:13-15). He simply asked for assistance in getting into the pool when the waters became agitated. Although his faith did not reach out to request relief from his illness, it was strong enough to quickly respond to the command to arise and walk. That was the faith that resulted in his immediate cure.

Lessons for Us

The same Greek word asthenia is used of a Christian in James 5:14, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” Here it does not refer to physical weakness, but to spiritual faint-heartedness. This spiritual weakness can frequently be traced to our former sins of lack of faith and trust in the overruling providences of God.

How often we want to say as did the early disciples, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5)! The Lord responds not by miraculously carrying us to the healing waters, but rather by calling out to our faltering faith: “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” It is by responding to that command that we are healed of our spiritual infirmities.

Frail human nature trends downward in the course of sin. The longer we are in that condition, the greater the load of guilt we bear, the weaker we become, and the feeling of estrangement from the throne of heavenly grace grows stronger. But even if it extends over the greater part of one’s life, as long, as it were, as thirty- eight years, we may rest assured that the Lord will respond to our call for help. Christ’s response will not be to direct us to some earthly palliative, some temporal pool of Bethesda, but will, in itself, produce full healing if we will but have the faith to believe. When we arise to that call of faith, it will not be to dip our body in some agitated, earthly waters, but to walk straightway to the temple of worship and praise the Lord for his goodness unto us.

But it is one thing to obtain that heavenly grace to walk upright, and it is another thing to maintain that state of favor. To maintain that state, we must further respond to the added call, “Go and sin no more, lest some worse thing happen unto thee.” The apostle Paul states the matter in plain terms: “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:29).

The Sabbath Debate

A group of the Jews who had not witnessed the healing, but saw the impotent man walking away with his bed, accused him of breaking the Sabbath laws by what he was doing. His response was simple: the man who had healed him told him to carry it. When he identified Jesus as the healer, the anger of the Jews turned against him.

The various exchanges between Jesus and the Jews over the Sabbath law resulted in different responses. The response of Jesus on this occasion increased their hatred so much that they sought to kill him.

All he said was, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work” (John 5:17). At first glance, this could appear in their eyes as accusing God of being a Sabbath breaker. After all, the Sabbath law was based on God resting during the Sabbath: “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:10,11).

Apparently, however, the Jews had reconciled themselves on this question, perhaps reasoning that God was exempt from his own laws. In this case their accusation was deeper; the charge was blasphemy. Perhaps God could break his own Sabbath law, but if Jesus ­violated it, he was making himself equal with God. Undoubtedly Jesus increased their anger even more when he said it was not he that worked on the Sabbath, but God who enabled him to do so (John 5:18,19).

In verses 20 to 22 Jesus shows how these works only prefigure greater works. Claiming to be Jehovah’s representative in all matters of judgment, he foretells that making the lame man walk was only a foregleam of the greater work of raising the dead. He refers here, not to the temporary resuscitations of Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus, but to the future work of the great anti­typical Sabbath of raising all mankind from the tomb.

It is on the basis of these prophesied works that he sums up his relationship with the Father in verse 23: “All men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father which hath sent him.”

Two Resurrections

Jesus proceeds to illustrate the greater works which he will do. In verses 24 to 27 we read: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that hear­eth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; and hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.”

In this passage he is not referring to the work of bringing all mankind back to life. Rather he limits these benefits to those who hear and believe on his word. He implies that the Father, who had life “in himself,” passed that non-dependent life to his son who, in turn, gives it to the believing hearer.

Although the words “and now is” in verse 25 are not found in the Sinaitic manuscript, they are not far from being correct. Beginning at Pentecost the procedure for producing immortal life began with the bestowal of the holy spirit.

In at least one important aspect, this “new life” or resurrection concept for the church ­operates in an opposite way than it does for the balance of mankind. Humanity will receive new bodies and then, walking up the highway of holiness (Isaiah 35:8-10), develop a righteous character. For the church it is the reverse; they first develop a holy disposition and then are given celestial bodies (1 Corinthians 15:40).

Jesus continues by describing another great event. “Do not marvel at this” work with his church, he says, but know that there is still another resurrection, one that will affect the entire human race.

The updated version of the New American Standard Bible, noting in its subheading covering verses 25 to 32 that they speak of “Two Resurrections,” correctly translates verses 28 and 29: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”

Seven Witnesses

Having stated his defense against the charges of blasphemy, in John 5:31-47 Jesus calls seven witnesses to the stand to prove the accuracy of his statements:

1. He, himself, is the first witness.

2. An unnamed second witness is probably the man he had just healed. This unnamed man was an accurate eye-witness of Jesus’ claims.

3. John the Baptist is the third witness.

4. The works he performed were the fourth witness as he later says, “Though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the ­Father is in me, and I in him” (John 10:38).

5. Jehovah was the fifth witness. The accusers of the Lord had never seen him or heard his voice, not because it was impossible, but because they had not used the inner ear of conscience to perceive his message. God’s word did not abide in them.

6. The sixth witness is the Old Testament. If they searched its pages, they would discover its Messianic prophecies were being fulfilled in Jesus.

7. The final witness was Moses: “Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?”

Thus did our Lord turn the healing of an impotent man, made ill through his own excesses, to the glory of God by becoming one of the witnesses of Jesus’ Messianic claims. Not only that, but this became yet another illustration of the far-reaching powers of his coming kingdom. That kingdom was something which he not only preached, he gave his life on the cross of Calvary to make it a reality.