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  • Pastor Jim French

The Man at the Pool of Bethesda

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, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.

One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.

Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” (John 5:1-17 ESV)

This is the first recorded healing Jesus performs in the Gospel of John and a passage with a few unique circumstances not found in any other Gospel healing passage.

There was a pool at a place called Bethesda which was near what was the city wall at that time. There were invalid people around the pool. The story goes that they were all gathered around the pool waiting for an angel to come and to stir up the water and the first one to get into the water would get healed. According to the story, only the first one in the pool would be healed. Everyone else remained in their condition.

For years we have assumed that this “stirring of the waters” was done by an angel of God and that this was a Jewish “holy” site. However, recent study has cast a different light upon the story as presented in the following excerpt from the website of the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies:

It is of possible that the pool of Bethesda was a Jewish religious ceremonial water cleansing facility, mikvah, associated with the Jerusalem Temple. (A “mikvah” was a pool specifically constructed for Jewish cleansing rituals.) But there are other interpretive options as well that to my mind make a lot more sense. 

There are many good reasons to believe that this structure situated walking distance from the back then walls of the city of Jerusalem was a healing center dedicated to Greco-Roman god of well-being and health – Asclepius. Devotion to Asclepius was well spread through the lands dominated by Roman Empire. There were more than 400 asclepeions (Asclepius-related facilities throughout empire), functioning as healing centers and dispensers of the god’s grace and mercy towards those in need). 

Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr mentions popular obsession with Asclepius among his contemporaries saying: “When the devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ? (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew, 69). In a statement attributed to the second century Jewish Sage Rabbi Akiva we read: “Once Akiva was asked to explain why persons afflicted with disease sometimes returned cured from a pilgrimage to the shrine of an idol, though it was surely powerless. (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 55a).”

If this actually was a healing center of Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of well-being and health, these people were not there to receive healing from Yehovah, the God of Israel, but rather from a pagan god. (Excerpt from Israel Institute of Biblical Studies,

I personally tend to lean towards this interpretation for a few reasons which I give below. If this is true, the first thing we can see in our story is that Jesus was not concerned about being seen entering a pagan site. His desire was to bring healing to a someone (most probably a Jew) who was not even seeking healing from the God of Israel, but from a demonic entity. (This man was so desperate and so deceived that he was seeking healing from a source forbidden by the law. Jewish law forbids this because any association with a demonic entity could result in demonization of that individual.) That too applies to Christians. Christians are not immune to influence from a demon.

Not every translation refers to an angel stirring the waters. Apparently this is because of the source manuscripts used in that particular translation. Some do not mention an angel at all. The ESV, for example, does not include John 5:4 in its translation but the King James does:

For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. (John 5:4 KJV)

So if there was an angel, where was he from – God or satan? The assumption by some is that this was not God's angel, but rather a demonic entity or even that the “stirring of the waters” was caused by the subterranean release of water below the pool. There are many different opinions on this and to be honest, we don't know which one it was.

Could it have legitimately been an angel from God? Perhaps. I'm not sure why God would choose to heal someone in this way but if it was legitimately an angel of God, then why was the healing limited to only one person? Why only was the 1st person able to get in the pool healed and no one else? That would seem to be healing based on “works” (Their ability to get to the pool, instead of by God's grace). That's one reason I tend to think that this most likely was a healing center dedicated to the Roman god Asclepius.

Jesus was intentional in ministering to the man. He went directly to the pool and to this man only. There are a lot of invalids there, but he only goes to one of them. Why only this one? We can't be sure, but my supposition is that he was perhaps the only Jewish person at the pool. We can be fairly sure that he was Jewish because in John 5:14 we see that he had gone to the temple. It is unlikely, at the very least, that a Gentile would go to the temple of Yehovah after being healed. Also the Pharisees approached him, castigating him for carrying his mat on the sabbath. They would not have approached a gentile with the same accusation.

In verse 6 Jesus approaches the man and he asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” On the surface this seems to be a question with a very obvious answer. You and I would say, “Of course, I want to be healed. I've been here for 38 years. I've been languishing here, wasting away for so very long.” Jesus knew this, so he must have a specific reason for asking the man the man if he wanted to be well. Something deeper was going on here.

The man answers, “I have no one to put me in the pool, so I can be healed. Someone always gets there first.” I think that Jesus was hitting on a couple of things here.

First, “You're a Jew. Why are you seeking healing from any place other that Yehovah?” This Jewish man, so desperate for healing that he spends most every day at a demonically infested pool has probably given up on seeing healing from Yehovah.

Secondly, this man saw only one way to be healed. He no longer believed that Yehovah God was his healer and he had put all his faith and trust in a demon-god. No practicing Jew would have frequented a place like this. He was lost in more ways than just his physical ailment.

Finally, he couldn't see past his affliction. Instead of saying, “Yes, I want to be healed,” the man says, “Well, I have no one to put me in the water. It's almost like he's telling Jesus, “Well, if you want to hang around until the water stirred again, maybe you can put me in the pool.”

Here Jesus' heart is revealed. He expresses his love and compassion for the man, ignoring the man's singular focus on his physical problem and he simply tells him to “Pick up your bed and walk.” And the man was healed immediately.

This wasn't a delayed healing. Immediately, the man was healed. He picked up his bed, and he walked. Amazing! Jesus just spoke the Word and the man was completely, totally healed! He had his life back! This miracle, as incredibly wonderful it is, was more than a simple restoration of the man's nervous system (assuming that his affliction was because of nerve damage to his spine). There's much more here.

On the surface, there was probably an injury to the man's spinal cord or something which made him unable to walk. Whatever was going on in this man's body, whether it is his spine or an injury of some kind, he's healed. Immediately his basic affliction is healed, but there's more.

That man had been laying there for 38 years. There were no physical therapists in that day – no one to massage his legs or stretch and exercise them to keep his muscles from atrophying. This man's leg muscles are nearly non-existent. He is probably just skin and bones from the hips down. So Jesus also performs a creative miracle in that he restores the man muscles. He created tissue in the man's legs that had been lost years before. And he also restores all the connecting tissues in his nerves and legs.

Now the man's muscles and bones and nerves are complete – all working together in perfection. And the man now stands up and walks Here is another miracle. This man hadn't walked in 38 years. We don't know why. Maybe he was born this way or maybe have been injured. He may have had a disease, but it had been 38 years since this man had walked. He has to learn to use his muscles. He has to learn balance again.

And here's another part of the miracle. Jesus has restored this man's balance and coordination. He has restored this man's ability to use his bones and muscles and nerves together to walk. Jesus is, in essence, making the man's body completely whole. That's one of the beautiful things here, Jesus doesn't stop, just fixing what's wrong. He restores everything that was a result of an injury or damage and any atrophy that has occurred.

In the New Testament the word used most for healing is the Greek word sozo. Sozo is translated as “healing, deliverance from an evil spirit, or eternal salvation depending upon the context of the verse. In essence it means “wholeness” or “completeness” in every way, including our physical, spiritual and emotional wellness (aka “prosperity”). It means restoration to God's original purpose for this person. It's equivalent to the Old Testament word “shalom”, which means “prosperity of being.” When we say “shalom” to someone, we are wishing them wholeness and prosperity in soul, body, spirit, finances, relationships and in every part of the person's life. We're wishing them prosperity in every aspect of their lives.

If we look closely at our text from John 5 it doesn't say that he was just healed. It said he was made whole. He was made “sozo”. He was made complete.

The day this occurred was the sabbath. Jesus often healed on the Sabbath. When he did so it was often to make a point. The Pharisees and the scribes, the Jewish leaders had made observing the sabbath just a list of rules. They had made it such a holy day that they'd lost the meaning, the real purpose of the Sabbath. (The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Mark 2:27) They had entirely missed the meaning of the sabbath and indeed all of the Mosaic law.

After his healing the man is carrying his sleeping mat, and the Jewish leaders see him and they say, “You're doing something is wrong, carrying your mat. You're breaking the rules.”

The Pharisees had spent a lot of time and effort in defining what one could or could not do on the sabbath. God had commanded that no work be done on the sabbath so they needed to define work. And if someone violated their definition of work, in their eyes that person was breaking Mosaic law.

So the man who had been healed answers and says, “The man who healed me said to pick up my mat and walk so I did.” And the interesting thing here is that the Jewish leaders who are interrogating him are not at all interested in how he was healed, but only in persecuting the one who did the healing. They are more concerned about Jesus supposedly breaking the law by doing what they call work on the sabbath than how this man was healed. Keeping the rules was more important to them than the man's restoration. Rules were more important to them than compassion.

Their focus was entirely in the wrong place. Their focus was on what they could do and how they could earn God's favor instead of God's grace. God shows up with power and grace and mercy, and this man is restored, and all they want to talk about is the rules!

Later on in the temple, Jesus searches out the man and tells him to stop sinning or something worse may happen to him. So what we can see from this is that the man is almost certainly Jewish and that perhaps his condition was associated with a sin he had committed, or he was currently sinning. Perhaps Jesus was telling him that it was a very dangerous sin to seek life and wholeness from any other source than the one true God, Yehovah. Jesus was telling him that he has to stop doing what he was doing or something worse than his injury could happen to him.

I believe that Jesus healed only that one man at the pool because he was most likely the only Jewish man at the pool. In Matthew 15:24 Jesus told the Canaanite woman that he was, “only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.” That could be why he only approached this one man, because he was the only Jew at the pool.

I think the important thing to take away from this passage is Jesus' compassion. Jesus reaches out and restores this man – his entire man to life! That was Jesus' purpose for that man and for us – to give us life more abundantly (John 10:10b) and it's his love and compassion for us that moves him to do so!


Pastor Jim


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