54 This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee. 5:1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.John 4:54-5:7
2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralysed. 5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 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?” 7 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.”
A. [John 4:54; 5:6f.] At ease in Zion?
As occasionally happens in Scripture, two narratives are placed next to one another so that a comparison can be made. The classic example — to my mind — is found in Mark 10:17-20 and 46-48; where the rich young ruler drops the “Good” from his greeting, “Good Teacher” after Jesus asks why he calls him good; but Bartimaeus — undeterred by the rebuking of the bystanders — cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The lesson — which is not the main lesson of either passage — is that persistence in prayer is better than politeness, but you’ll have to think about that one.
The theme of John 4:46-5:47 is Jesus coming to his Own and meeting with both belief and unbelief so it is hardly surprising that the sequence opens with a conspicuous example of faith. What might be more surprising to us is that Jesus initially accused the official of sign-seeking:-
47 When this man heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and asked him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.”John 4:47-49
But the official’s faith — which grows and and spreads to others through the course of the narrative — is already there in his persistent plea for Jesus to come down.
By way of contrast, the reply from the paralysed man at the Pool of Bethesda is evasive: “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.” He does not say, “Yes! I want to be healed.” or even, “No! I’m quite comfortable here thank you very much.” Instead we get an excuse which raises more questions than answers; and anyone looking for wonder — and not particularly interested in significance — is going to press right on to see if he is healed. (And he is, but, in a very real sense, that’s another story.)
It is quite easy to see what the paralysed man is complaining about in his answer. For some reason the story had began that the first person to get into the pool when the water was disturbed would be healed. Belief that it would be so must be reinforced by the expectation that all the benefit would be received by the first person in the water. Quite naturally, in a scramble, the first in would generally be the least incapacitated in the first place. The whole set-up is far too much like the orchestrated showmanship of modern-day miracle-healing rallies for my stomach; but putting all that to one side: see how ironic it is that this man complains about his lack of a man to help him down; and he does so to the only man who is able to help him up.
To risk importing yet another miracle account for a comparison: how often are we found ignoring the presence of the one who calmed the sea because we’re preoccupied with looking for meaningful ripples in our own particular pool of life?
B. [John 5:1f.] House of Mercy?
Going up to Jerusalem three times a year for the feasts, punctuated the years of ministry that were spent mostly in Galilee. Herod’s Temple had been building or rebuilding for over forty years and the city was more and more geared up to accommodate the huge influx of visitors. Built by the Sheep Gate — the name denotes the purpose — the five roofed colonnades with its attached pool may well have been intended as a place where animals for sacrifice could be bought but if so, another purpose had taken over and the pool was called “Bethesda” which means “House of Mercy” in Aramaic.
Bethesda sounds like a hospital though it wasn’t quite that. The name will have had a double function, attracting those who were in need of mercy but also those who wished to show mercy by charitable giving. Needless to say, its provision also catered for those who wished to rid themselves of burdensome dependants and others who wished to be ostentatious about their almsgiving.
Lying in poolside shade on a comfortable bed with food brought to you by strangers who imply that you’re doing them a service might lose some of its appeal in time, but there were worse places for a man with no responsibilities to pass his days.
How merciful was it though to leave this mass of humanity to rot with only the hope of a glitch in the plumbing and a successful sprint into the pool to aspire to? All the Jews — and the Samaritans too — were expecting the manifestation of the Messiah at any moment and Bethesda was full of people staring at the surface of a pool of water.
C. [John 3,5] Multitudes in the valley of decision
Three numbers define this passage:-
• First number (the one we do not know): a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralysed. And we don’t know what happened to them either; although we don’t need to imagine that every single one of them was too busy staring at the water to notice the miracle that was taking place right next to them. We have every right to expect that some of them were present at the pool a couple of years later when the day of Pentecost arrived; [Acts 2:1] when those who received Peter’s word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. [Acts 2:41] That day it wasn’t just those who were first into the water that came out walking in newness of life [Rom. 6:4].
• Second number (the one that isn’t there): It doesn’t take eagle eyes to note that there is no John 5:4 in our E.S.V. text. What older versions have as v. 4 is an explanation about the stirring of the waters — saying that an angel did it — but it isn’t in the earliest mss. and we treat it as a pious footnote that got incorporated into the text by mistake.
It is a judgement that you have to make for yourself, ultimately; but the couple of cases where verses have been removed from what was once thought to be the best text, have served rather to increase trust in the rest, than undermine it.
It is likely that some superstitious belief about how the waters came to move accompanied the (equally superstitious?) belief that the first man in when the waters moved would be healed would be healed. Be all that as it may, all futile attempts to replace the “missing” verse four serve to distract us from the vital question which is “Do you want to be healed?”
• Third number (thirty-eight): as in “One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” Thirty-eight years was the length of time from when the Exodus generation refused to enter the land until the last of that generation died:
And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn to them.Deuteronomy 2:14
which is significant in itself. However, thirty-eight years earlier was eight years after the start of the temple rebuilding and eight years before Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus there to be dedicated. It strikes me that while Simeon and Anna were in the temple continuously waiting for God’s salvation to arrive the invalid was somewhere else looking for some waters to mysteriously move. And us: what have we spent the best part of our lives looking for?