I like comedies better than tragedies. Stories with warm, fuzzy endings where they all live happily ever after get me every time. I shy away from stories that end in defeat, death-beds, and despair. What about you? There are lots of warm, fuzzy stories in the Bible—the grand epic or meta-narrative that we call the Bible is the greatest comedy of them all. But there are some tragic episodes in the biblical saga of redemption, episodes like the one we find in John 5. Evidently we need tragedies too.
Jesus’ encounter with the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-17) is well known to many Bible readers. I come away from this story with mixed emotions. It’s great to see Jesus’ merciful, miraculous power at work, but the story doesn’t end well. The Jewish leaders clash with Jesus over his Sabbath activity, and things go from bad to worse when Jesus claims to be working right alongside his Father on the Sabbath. But the lack of a warm fuzzy ending to this story shouldn’t distract us from its point. What really matters in John 5 is not the invalid but the validation of Jesus. The nasty conflict over the Sabbath healing leads to Jesus’ teaching about the four central testimonies that validate his identity and mission. These testimonies are at the heart of the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of the Word who became flesh and lived among us, and we had better get them right.
Getting the Invalid Right: What do you think of this guy?
The invalid is often portrayed as suffering from paralysis, but John 5 simply says his illness prevented rapid movement. We don’t know how old he was when his illness began, but after 38 years of suffering he would have been an old man in those days of shorter life expectancy. To be honest, I don’t like this guy very much, but then again I haven’t suffered 38 years from a debilitating illness. In his case empathy is not a matter of “walking a mile in his shoes” but of imagining what it would be like to experience 38 years of hopelessly watching other people walk. I do have to give the invalid kudos for going to the Temple after he was healed, but for several reasons he is not a very sympathetic character:
- Many commentators view the man as a whiny complainer due to his response to Jesus in John 5:7.
- Jesus warned him to stop sinning (5:14).
- After he was healed, he showed no gratitude but exposed Jesus to persecution (5:15).
- As far as we know, his healing did not lead to faith in Jesus.
In any event, what you or I think of the invalid matters very little. Like all the rest of us, he will stand or fall before God’s judgment seat. His healing in John 5:1-9 leads to a second encounter with Jesus (John 5:10-15), and then on to major conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders about the Sabbath. Jesus had told the man to pick up his bedroll and walk, and the religious leaders viewed this as Sabbath-breaking work (5:16-18). So a sweet story turns sour, reminding me of a sarcastic saying that I first heard uttered by Hawkeye Pierce on an episode of the old TV show M*A*S*H*: No good deed goes unpunished.
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John 9 portrays another sabbath healing by a pool—that of the congenitally blind man in John 9. It’s instructive to compare these two healings, especially the relationship of sin and illness in both accounts. We plan to do this in our next post on John’s Gospel.
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Getting the Place Right: Where was the Pool of Bethesda?
After the Samaritans came to faith (John 4:1-42), Jesus went on north through Samaria to Galilee, where he healed a Roman official’s son. Then he returned to Jerusalem (4:43-5:1). It’s likely that the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) was located inside the present Lion’s Gate of the Old City, which some identify with the biblical “sheep gate” (Neh 3:1, 32; 12:39). This is near the location of the Second temple Roman Antonia fortress at the NW corner of the Temple enclosure, also near the beginning of the traditional Via Dolorosa. The adjoining St Anne’s Church, built in 1040, is an attraction today for many tourists. The church’s fine acoustics have led to the custom of tourists singing hymns there. Go here for a short clip from the 2019 GRTS Ancient World of the Bible Study Tour.
Educated archaeological guesswork has led scholars to this representation of the pool in the Second Temple Jerusalem model at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The four sides of the pools with the middle partition would mean there were five covered porches or colonnades (John 5:2). The pool went through several phases of construction and usage through the centuries. Archaeological evidence indicates it was associated with healing before and after the days of Jesus, with some remains dedicated to the Roman healing deity Serapis/Asclepius. Unfortunately for us today, the various phases of the ancient pool are obscured by later structures, most notably a Byzantine basilica built over the central partition between the pools. Some believe the pool was used in Second Temple times to wash sheep to be sacrificed in the Temple. Others think it was primarily a mikveh or ritual bath. Here are some additional images with explanation.
Getting the Text Right: What did they do with John 5:3b-4?!
Those who read John 5 carefully may notice that John 5:4 (not to mention the last clause of John 5:3) is missing! Among major English translations, only the King James (1611) and New King James (1982) versions include the verse. Although conspiracy theories about the missing verse are out there, its absence is rooted in textual criticism, the science and art of getting to the original text of ancient documents by comparing the existing copies. Typically, textual critics prefer readings found in the oldest copies of ancient documents. They also prefer readings that make the most sense of a document’s flow of thought. Together these two principles lead scholars to the original reading, the one that best explains the origin of the other readings.
John 5:3-4 is not found in the oldest Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of John. What’s more, as you can see in the image above, around 20 of the manuscripts that do contain John 5:3-4 mark it with asterisks or obelisks due to doubts of its authenticity. These doubts may have come from the verse’s absence in other manuscripts available to the copyists, or from doubts about the content of the verses. It does seem odd, to say the least, that God would send an angel to stir the water so that only the first person who managed to get into the pool would be healed. Sick people would be engaging in a “sick” competition with one another for healing. Inevitably the person needing healing the most would have the least chance of being healed. This scenario seems incompatible with the character of God. I agree with those who believe that John 5:3b-4 originated as an ancient marginal comment on John 5:7, which alludes to sick people seeking to get into the water when it was stirred up. John 5:3b-4 reflects a popular superstition, not a true view of healing. The invalid rightly complained about the injustice of this situation, but Jesus showed him the true character of the merciful Father who sent him (John 5:7-8).
Go here if you would like to read further on why the verse is not found in most current versions of the Bible, and here for arguments that the King James Version was correct in including it. Go here to learn why dubious verses like these here and there in the New Testament do not call into question the central teachings of the Christian faith.
Getting the Sabbath Right: Why did God institute it?
The Sabbath is one of the central teachings of the Hebrew Bible, originating in God’s work of creation (Gen 2:1-3; Exod 20:8-11; 31:13-17; Deut 5:12-15). Israel often neglected the Torah’s Sabbath commands, leading to prophetic warnings of judgment (e.g. Jer 17:19-27; Ezek 20:12-13; cf. 2 Chron 36:15-21; Neh 13:15-22). The hypocrisy of outward Sabbath observance without heart-dedication to God was also a problem (Isa 1:13).
The earliest Rabbinic traditions about the Sabbath are found in the Mishnah, composed from previous oral traditions around 200 CE. Tractate Shabbat is one of the longest sections of the Mishnah, dealing in great detail with proper Sabbath observance, especially with what constitutes work. One activity that was strictly prohibited was moving an object from one place to another (Mishnah Shabbat 7:2). Technically, this is what Jesus told the former invalid to do: “pick up your bed and walk (John 5:8-16). Jesus’ command did not violate the written law of Moses, the Bible, but it did violate the traditional oral law that eventually became the Mishnah (cf. Matt 15:1-9; Gal 1:14; Josephus, Antiquities 13.297, 408; Mishnah Avot 1).
All four Gospels portray Jesus’ controversies with the religious leaders over proper observance of the Sabbath (e.g. Matt 12:1-14/Mark 2:23-3:6/Luke 6:1-11; Luke 13:10-17; John 5:9-18; 7:22-23; 9:14-16). Jesus simply did not see eye to eye with many of the traditional Sabbath regulations viewed as authoritative by the religious leaders. Jesus put the disagreement in these terms in Mark 2:27-28:
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So then, the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath.
In other words, the Sabbath is not God’s primary concern, humanity is. As faithful Jews today will affirm, the Sabbath is not a wearisome burden to bear but a refreshing gift to enjoy. Jesus claims to be Lord of the Sabbath, one with authority to redirect the religious leaders to the right priority and practice.
The Sabbath-healing of the invalid in John 5 comes up again in John 7:21-24, where Jesus reminds the Jews that certain commands, like circumcision on the eighth day (Gen 17:12; Lev 12:3; Luke 1:59; Phil 3:5), take priority over others, such as Sabbath observance. Jesus reasons from what is accepted by all Jews to what is controversial—this is called a lesser to greater argument by logicians today, and in Rabbinical thought it was called light and heavy (קל וחומר, Qal Wachomer). Here’s the argument: if it is appropriate to care for a relatively minor physical problem, the circumcision of a baby boy’s foreskin, when the right day to do so falls on the Sabbath, why isn’t it appropriate to care for a major physical disability on the Sabbath?
Jesus’ teaching is consistent with other Rabbinic texts that speak of protecting life as the primary value of the law (Mishnah Shabbat 18:3; cf. Josephus, Antiquities 12.277; 13.12-13; 14.63; War 1.146). A few centuries of additional Rabbinic reflection on the Mishnah led to the Babylonian Talmud, which encouraged caring for acute, life-threatening illness on the Sabbath but prohibited caring for a chronic disease which could just as well wait until tomorrow Talmud Yoma 84b). It is likely that Jesus would not have agreed with this distinction.
This controversy should not be misrepresented—Jesus was not aligning himself against Moses and the religious leaders. Rather, he was aligning himself with the written law of Moses against the oral traditions of the religious leaders. As we will see next, John’s Jesus, like Matthew’s Jesus (Matt 5:17-21), came not to annul Moses and the law but to fulfill them.
Getting Jesus Right: Why did he work on the Sabbath?
The controversy over the invalid working by carrying his bedroll on the Sabbath only gets worse when Jesus claims that he and his Father are at work together on the Sabbath. This really incenses the religious leaders, who decide Jesus must be killed. Jesus defends himself in the rest of the chapter (John 5:19-48), explaining how (1) the Father, (2) John the Baptist, (3) the “works” he is doing (the miraculous signs), and (4) Moses all bear witness to him. Let’s look briefly at each of these four witnesses.
- The Father is the ultimate witness to Jesus. As the Word-become-flesh, Jesus is sent as the Father’s agent to reveal God’s person and mission to the world. Jesus did only what the Father led and empowered him to do (John 5:19-20). Seeing the incarnate Word is the closest mere humans can come to seeing God. As Jesus said to Philip, Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). The Father’s witness to Jesus began with his giving the permanent, immeasurable, fullness of the Spirit to Jesus (John 1:32-34; 3:34; 6:27; 20:21-22). The Spirit bears witness to Jesus in three ways— through John the Baptist, Jesus’ signs, and Moses.
- The great prophet John the Baptist bears witness to Jesus by preparing Israel for Jesus’ ministry. This is clear from John’s prologue (John 1:6-8, 15), and from the very first part of the story of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. Who can forget the Baptist’s arresting words,”Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)? Jesus described John as a “burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35). Many who came to Jesus acknowledged that everything John said about Jesus was true (John 10:40).
- Jesus’works show that he is empowered by the Spirit to show the Father’s love to a hurting world. Many Bible students have noticed the progress of Jesus’ signs in John, and how they lead up to the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Jesus’ own resurrection is the final sign, the culmination of a series of signs selected to lead people to faith: Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31). Sadly, many did not believe despite the clear testimony of these miraculous acts of Jesus (John 12:36-43).
- Judaism and Christianity have a fundamental disagreement over the sufficiency of the law of Moses. In the Gospel of John, Jesus fully reveals the God whom Moses only partially and temporarily glimpsed (Exod 33:12–34:9, esp. 34:6 with John 1:14-18). Jesus is the prophet like Moses whose coming is promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-18 (cf. John 1:21; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22; 7:37). The God who first spoke to Israel through Moses and the prophets ultimately speaks to Israel and all other nations through Jesus and the apostles. The law of Moses and the shalom it promised is fulfilled by Jesus (John 1:17, 45; 3:14); 5:39-47; cf. Matt 5:17-21; Luke 24:27, 44; Heb 1:1-2).
Getting Ourselves Right with God: Do you want to be healed?
“Do you want to healed?” This question to the invalid leads to the fourfold validation of Jesus in John 5. The man’s anguished reply to Jesus made it clear that he had absolutely no hope of being healed (John 5:7), but he immediately found out that the power of Jesus transcended his desperation. Although John 5 is silent on this, we would hope that his physical healing eventually led to the healing of his relationship with God. In any event, the invalid’s story leads us into the story of the testimonies that validate Jesus.
Testifying about oneself was inadequate in biblical law (John 5:31); ideally “two or three witnesses” were required (cf. Deut 17:6; 19:15; Num 35:30; 1 Kgs 21:13; Matt 27:59-62; Heb 10:28). John 5 shows that Jesus goes way beyond the typical legal requirement. Those who did not believe in Jesus then, and those who do not believe in him now, cannot claim there is a lack of testimony to validate Jesus’ claims to be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). If, as Jesus said, he did only what the Father enabled him to do, “whoever does not honor the Son dos not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23).
The Fourth Gospel contains a series of scenes or episodes where people encounter Jesus. Some believe and some do not, and some times it’s difficult to tell what they really think of Jesus. The Samaritan woman and her fellow villagers quickly came to faith. Others like Nicodemus went through a long process before they began to follow Jesus. People like the invalid here in John 5 didn’t immediately become believers, but perhaps later they were convinced by the many testimonies that validated Jesus.
Where do you fit into all of this? Have you encountered Jesus? How did you respond? If you’re not a follower of Jesus, why not read through the Fourth Gospel a few times and consider its many testimonies that validate the claims of Jesus? Your eternal life hangs in the balance. If you’re already a believer, renew your walk with God by refreshing your understanding of Jesus as he is presented in the Gospel of John.
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And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness [Num 21:9], so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants. (John 3:14-21 NLT)
. . . the Father judges no one. Instead, he has given the Son absolute authority to judge, so that everyone will honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son is certainly not honoring the Father who sent him. I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life. (John 5:22-24 NLT)
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For a full video lecture on John 5, go here.
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