52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #12. Healing at Bethesda

by Travis Bookout

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In our last post we observed that Jesus finally made his way home from the Passover (John 2:13; 4:43-45). After a wedding feast in Galilee (John 2:1, 11), Jesus took a trip up (up in elevation, but south on a map) to Jerusalem for Passover, then He came back up to Galilee through Samaria. Throughout this journey Jesus made a significant impact in Jerusalem (John 2:23), Samaria (John 4:39-42), and Galilee (John 4:43-45, 53-54).  His signs and people’s testimonies have been causing large numbers to believe in Him.

And He can’t stop now. There is no time to rest. John immediately moves to Jesus’ next journey back to Jerusalem. Another feast was about to take place so again “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 5:1). Upon entering the city, He meets a man who “had been ill for 38 years” (John 5:5). This man spends his time by a pool of water with the “sick, blind, lame, and withered” (John 5:3). He’s an outcast with no social status. Basically, he is the exact opposite of the last guy Jesus just met (John 4:46-54). Jesus had just been in Galilee with a royal official and now He is in Jerusalem with the outcasts of society. Yet another example that Jesus cares for all.

But this man believed he could be healed. He had hope in something, but unlike the royal official, that hope was not Jesus. His hope was to lay by a mystical pool of water. The pool of Bethesda was believed to have mystical healing powers, which is why so many in need of healing surrounded it. Thus, it’s an excellent location for Jesus to visit. It’s an excellent location for His next sign.

The ill man wants to be made well, but complains, “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” (John 5:7). Basically, this guy has been at a stop sign at a busy intersection for 38 years. Someone keeps pulling out in front of him and he can’t go. Every single time the water is stirred up, he tries to get in, but someone beats him to it.

You may be wondering, “What in the world is he talking about?”  This whole story is bizarre. What does he mean by the water being “stirred up” (John 5:7)?  Why does he need to get in first? Why does he believe this water will heal him? There’s an interesting history to this pool which might help explain some of these details and why it’s so important that Jesus healed him without using this water. Prior to the 19th century, it was doubted by some that this pool even existed because nothing like was known. Then, as so often happens, archeology did its thing and a pool matching this description was discovered. We now know where it is and you can visit it today if you find yourself in Jerusalem. Or you can just google a photo of it.

The mystical healing powers of this pool were at first believed to come from the gods of Greek mythology. The son of Apollo, Asclepius, was the god of medicine and healing. This pool was at one time dedicated to him as a place of healing, probably by an occupying Roman garrison. It had pagan roots, and while Jews would have rejected the paganism associated with the water, some maintained the idea of its mystical healing power.

There’s a textual variant which is not original to the Gospel of John (although it’s maintained in the King James and New King James Version and bracketed in the NASB) which attributes the healing power to an angel which stirred the water (John 5:3b-4). This variant shows an attempt to make the healing power of this pool consistent with Judaism by attributing it to an angel rather than a god. I think this misses the point though. The pool is to be seen as a place of false hope and Jesus is contrasted as the only source of true hope.

He spent most of his life with an illness that couldn’t be cured. Upon seeing him, Jesus asks, “Do you wish to get well?” (John 5:6). The answer might seem obvious, but perhaps it isn’t. The healing that Jesus offers is an amazing blessing, but not everyone is interested. Some might grow comfortable by the pool of water, putting false hope in a healing they can never truly receive. After the man explains that he has no one to help put him in the water (perhaps hoping that Jesus will stick around and be that helper), Jesus says, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk” (John 5:8). Jesus entirely ignores the statement about the water and heals him anyway. Jesus heals him without the aid of mystical waters or pagan beliefs.

Then, like always, a problem arises. The man picks up his pallet and begins to walk, but it’s the Sabbath. You’re not supposed to carry stuff on the Sabbath. As the Jews rebuke him they ask who healed him. Incredibly, John tells us, “But the man who was healed did not know who it was” (John 5:13). What a remarkable thing to say! What a remarkable contrast with the royal official in John 4:46-54. The royal official heard of Jesus, sought Him out, and believed. This man had never heard of Jesus, did not seek Him out, and was healed without believing. He was still complaining about the water when Jesus healed him. And he didn’t even know who Jesus was! His hope was in the pool when it should have been in the stranger standing right in front of him.

Later in the story, this man meets up with Jesus in the temple. Jesus tells him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (John 5:14). Jesus likens this man’s physical illness with a spiritual illness. Perhaps in this we see the point of the sign. Jesus embodies His Father as the Forgiver of sins and spiritual Healer. So many long to be made well, but so few seek the proper source. This man put his hope in mysticism instead of Jesus. He was talking with Jesus and had no idea that this stranger could be his solution.

Maybe we would all benefit from opening our eyes and trying to see how Jesus could be our solution. Maybe we would all benefit from asking ourselves the question, “Do you wish to be made well?” Then go to the Source of all healing. Not Asclepius, not an angel who stirs up the water, not wealth, alcohol, or mindless entertainment, but the working and active Son of God (John 5:17). This man soon learned and reported “that it was Jesus who had made him well” (John 5:15). Hopefully, we all can say the same thing.

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