Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

37. The Healing at Bethesda (John 5:1-16)*

It was about this time in the ministry of Jesus that he made one of his periodic visits to Jerusalem. Precisely what “feast of the Jews” was the occasion of his journey has been the subject of much debate amongst the “authorities”. Many of them, taking the reference to harvest (Jn. 4:35) in a literal and not a proverbial sense, find themselves tied to a chronological scheme for the ministry of Jesus which will only allow of this feast being Purim. A perfectly absurd idea, this! Is it possible to imagine Jesus making the journey to Jerusalem specially to take part in the self-indulgent jollification and tomfoolery which the Jews were, and still are, wont to engage in at Purim?

It may be said almost dogmatically that this feast must have been one of the great convocations: Passover, or Pentecost, or the Day of Atonement or the ensuing Feast of Tabernacles. The most likely of these is the first. A number of important manuscripts read “the feast of the Jews.” This is precisely the next chapter's description of Passover (6:4 RV). Also, in the previous incident recorded by John (4:45), Passover is called simply “the feast” (compare also Mt. 26:5; 27:15).

If this identification stands, then John's gospel specifies four Passovers in the ministry or Jesus (2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 18:28), in order to emphasize “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (1:29). Some find difficulty in this conclusion because it means that John's record omits all mention of the activities of the second year of the ministry, but it is difficult to see why a gospel as selective as the fourth should not follow such a method.

That there were four Passovers in the Lord's ministry is made almost certain in any case by the incident of the Pharisees' criticism of the disciples' plucking the ears of corn, and the place where it comes in Mark and Luke. On any interpretation this must have been near to some Passover, and the other three are all clearly excluded.

If this Passover identification is mistaken, the best alternative is the Feast of Trumpets. It was a feast which foreshadowed resurrection and judgment (Mt. 24:31; 1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 11:15; 1 Cor. 15:52), and it was on these very topics that the Lord spoke so solemnly to his accusers after the miracle (verses 21-30). But, as will be seen in the next study, a Passover background also explains these allusions, and other parts of the Lord's discourse as well.

The present tense: “there is at Jerusalem” (v.2) provides a possible hint about the date of the writing of this gospel. After A.D 70 John would surely have written “there was” (18:1; 19:41 reinforce this conclusion). Indeed, a few copyists scented a difficulty here and altered “is” to “was”, thus indirectly supporting the conclusion now inferred from this present tense.

There at the pool Jesus singled out for attention a man who was thirty- eight years an invalid. Along with a great crowd of other sick and afflicted folk he sought the healing which was said to follow for the first who bathed after the moving of the water.

There are three separate problems here. First, the identification of the pool. Then, the question as to what is the correct reading of the text. And, thirdly, if the AV stands, how it is to be interpreted.


That the water was disturbed periodically is made clear by verse 7: “Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool.” This makes identification (cf. Robinson, Conder) with the Virgin's Fountain tolerably certain. According to Nehemiah 3:1 and 12:39 the sheep gate was somewhere on the east side of the city near the temple. And the Virgin's Fountain lay in the Kidron valley, southeast from the temple hill. Early writers and travellers in Palestine have commented on the phenomenon there -- a sudden unexplained uprush of water from time to time, known also more recently. Some have added that a spring in the temple area used to drain through underground strata to the Virgin's Fountain, the water sometimes reddened by the blood of the sacrifices (Eusebius). This would explain the name of the spring and account for the healing powers attributed to it. Perhaps this is how the fountain got its added name Bethesda (see Gk. of v.2), for one possible meaning is “Place of out-pouring”.

The usual identification of Bethesda with one of two large pools, remains of which have been excavated on the north side of the temple area, is surely mistaken, for the text (v.7) indicates that access to the water was for one person at a time. But a sheep-dipping pool, for the washing of the animals before being taken to the temple for sacrifice, would exactly meet the case. It is also to be noted that at the large pools at the northern site excavation has revealed no signs of porches.

The Textual Problem

But the explanation in the AV is: “an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water.” A handful of the more respected uncial manuscripts omit this, and since the modern scientific attitude to physical phenomena has no use for angels, it has become almost a dogma today that verse 4 (along with the concluding phrase of verse 3) is to be regarded as an unacceptable interpolation. There is something very unscholarly about this rather glib conclusion. Many early “Fathers”, more ancient than any of the manuscripts just mentioned, quote the text as in the AV. The Versions, most of which were made before the fifth century, also carry the familiar explanation. And all the rest of the manuscripts, except the small handful referred to, have the words just quoted. This is too solid a witness to be airily discarded. Nor does one's confidence in the said uncials grow mightily regarding this passage when it is observed that they all disagree among themselves about the , reading of verse 2.

How Scientific?

On the other hand is there any great difficulty in believing that the troubling of the water was brought about by an angel? Scientists talk readily enough about natural phenomena ..being governed by “laws of nature”, and seem 'to consider that they are thereby explained. Yet 'all that has happened is that they have been ^classified, systematized, and given another name. Real fundamental explanation is as far off as ever.

The Bible's attitude to the world of Nature is (different. All is the work of God. Through the ministry of His angels He contrives and controls '^everything. He clothes the lilies, feeds the birds, brings snow or hail, governs the storm, controls the earthquake, uses winds and flames as messengers. And in harmony with this, His angel troubles the waters of the pool. This is not an unscientific explanation, but is really more scientific than the scientist, because more fundamental.

The explanation appended concerning the healings which took place is to be read as summing up the popular belief at that time. ”'Whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” It must be accepted that cures did take place in “that college of cripples”, but doubtless these were of a temporary or psychological nature, by contrast with Christ’s permanent healing (Gk. text) of the infirm man.

A Deserving Case?

The character of the invalid whom Jesus selected for special attention presents many problems within a few verses. It is difficult to make sense of the various facts told or implied about him, except on the assumption that he was not as severely stricken as he chose to appear. Whatever his affliction, he was not desperately anxious to be rid of it, presumably because, by provoking people's compassion, it provided him with an easy livelihood. If this were the case, he was certainly not the only man ever to settle down contentedly to the life of a malingerer.

If he was able to get to the pool day after day by his own powers, it is very surprising that he was nevertheless without the vigour to get into the water first just once out of the hundreds of times he was there. And if he had a friend who brought him regularly to the pool, it is passing strange that that friend would never add also the help to experience the blessing of the healing waters.

As other details are considered, suspicions regarding his character multiply. Was it not a strange question for Jesus to put to him?: “Do you wish to be healed?” Was the Lord so lacking in insight or commonsense? Why were all those sick people there? It hardly required superhuman insight to know their eager hopes and intentions. This suggests that the force of the Lord's question was: “Do you really wish to be healed?” The answer was not the emphatic desperate affirmative which might be expected. Instead, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool” sounds not unlike an excuse, as though he were brushing off an implied accusation or doubt.

Nevertheless Jesus healed him. Once again, as in his encounters with “demons”, the Lord asserted an authority superior to that of the angel of the waters. With authority in his look, he repeated the emphatic imperative he had used to the man let down through the roof: “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.” And, whether he would or not, the man found himself scrambling effortlessly to his feet. In a matter of seconds he had rolled up his mattress, shouldered it, and, pushing his way through the crowd, was gone. So, too, was Jesus. Before any of the bystanders could appreciate just what had taken place, both benefactor and blessed were out of their sight. The word which describes how Jesus “conveyed himself away” is one which suggests evasive action to avoid a blow!

The similarity in detail between this miracle and the healing of the paralytic let down through the roof (Mk. 2:1-12) has often been commented on. No doubt the parallel was intended. As the Lord had borne witness in Galilee, so now in Jerusalem. It seems likely that the miracle was part of a deliberate campaign of sabbath healings. Here was Messiah bringing in “the sabbath rest that remaineth for the people of God.”


The man had not gone far when he was accosted by some of the Pharisees who made it their sanctimonious business to be policemen of sabbath observance. It would be completely in character if a watch for this very thing was kept systematically at Bethesda every sabbath. Their reply to his straightforward explanation ignored the marvel of healing which had been wrought. Of far greater concern to them was the fact that someone (did they already suspect that it might be Jesus of Nazareth?) was treating with contempt the spiritual stranglehold which they had succeeded in imposing on the nation. Plummer's terse summary of their attitude is: “They ask not: 'Who cured thee, and therefore must have divine authority?' but: 'Who told thee to break the sabbath, and therefore could not have it?’” Yet they believed that the angel did such things on the sabbath!

“Sin no more”

Feeling himself to be on rather thin ice, and in need of an insurance policy, the man was careful to join in the worship at the temple as soon as he could that day. This would surely put him right with the Pharisees. There in the crowd Jesus came to him again. In his manner there was no approbation that the man was so soon acknowledging the blessing that had come to him. Instead, only solemn and even severe warning: “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (cp. and contrast Mk. 2:5). It is hardly likely that Jesus took the man's chronic disability as the divine retribution for some grievous sin committed thirty-eight years earlier. The continous imperative implied reference to a way of life. What could this sin be if not the wrong attitude (deceit? cupidity?), already suggested, to the disability which crippled him? The contrast between the Lord's rather dour approach to this man and the graciousness of his fellowship with the blind man healed at Siloam (chapter 9, especially v. 1-3, 34-38) could hardly be more pronounced.

Nor could there be greater contrast between the attitudes adopted by these two men to the hectoring criticism of the rulers. Whereas the one argued back with blunt and even derisive common sense, this fellow, putting aside the most elementary obligations of gratitude, went off at once to the authorities, glad of the opportunity to curry favour with them by identifying the one who had dared to bid him carry his bed on the sabbath day. It was a deliberate betrayal, comparable to that of Judas, according to the scripture: “They reward me evil for good to the spoiling of my soul” (Ps. 35:12).

With great satisfaction and promptitude the rulers had Jesus arrested before he got away from the temple court. They had already determined to get rid of him (v.18). He could have evaded them, of course. Doubtless he foresaw that this would be their reaction sooner or later. It is even possible that one purpose behind the miracle was to afford an opening for personal witness to the leaders of the nation by themselves, so that unhampered by the presence of the crowd they could discuss his claims and make cool appraisal of his character.

An Acted Parable

Looking back from perhaps thirty eight years later, the apostle John was able to see that in more ways than one this healing of the impotent man at Bethesda was a sign to the believers (if not to the rulers), an acted parable of orthodox Jewish reaction to the Son of God.

The pool and its remarkable powers might well be a figure of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. The five porches suggest immediately the books of the Law. And if Bethesda does not mean “place of outpouring”, the best alternative is “house of mercy”, the term so often used with reference to the covenants of promise. If the angel-messenger stirring up the waters, reddened by sacrifice, is a figure of John the Baptist, then the one who first went down into the water was Jesus himself. The impotent man represents the people of Israel, who under the Law, must work out their own salvation, and yet by the Law were shown to be “impotent, blind, halt, withered.”

Overlooking completely the angel's troubling of the water as an echo of Exodus 14, the Expositor's Greek Testament has this biting comment: “To find in the man's thirty-eight years' imbecility a symbol of Israel's thirty-eight years in the wilderness is itself an imbecility.” So be it! The Free Church professor who wrote that enlightening observation had not entered far into the mind behind the signs in John's gospel. By what more striking detail could there be suggested by the figure of a man shut out of the temple, a people who through faithlessness were still shut out of their God-promised inheritance? Now Jesus offered immediate aid, imparting ability to master the disability of sin. This “sabbath rest” from “one's own works” (Heb. 4:9, 10), which should have become a God- glorifying thankfulness, instead only provoked the resentment and persecution of those who set Law and temple above everything else.

Jesus went away. The man went to the temple, and showed deep anxiety to keep friends with the men of the temple, even at the cost of stirring up trouble for Christ and his cause.

The Lord's words of warning to the healed man were seen, doubtless, by his apostle as a solemn charge to the first-century Jewish Christians not to go back to their old allegiance to legalism, lest “a worse thing befall thee”. What happened to the man in the gospel may be inferred from the development in the early church. The witness of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of other depressing passages in the writings of the apostle Paul is that in the main the Jewish believers did go back to synagogue and temple. In effect, they betrayed Christ's gospel to their Lord's adversaries, and a worse thing did come upon them -- the shattering events of A.D. 70. For the salt had lost its savour, and there was no means wherewith it might be salted again.

Notes: John 5:1-16

There is. The dating argument from these words can be extended by attention to 2 Pet. 1:14 and Heb. 11:17. Also, it is surely obvious that the sustained argument against Judaism in John's gospel would hardly have been necessary if written after A.D.70.

A pool The same pool is referred to in ls. 7:3; 22:9, 11; 36:2 and in 7:14 are the virgin and her Son, and in 7:4 LXX is the word “sick (impotent)”.
Waiting. The Greek emphasizes expectant waiting.
An angel. The angel of the waters: Rev. 16:5, 6, which passage gains in force by being set alongside this figure of Israel in Jn. 5.

Stepped in. In 18 places this word means “embark”, so perhaps “ventured” would be a more accurate translation.

He had. Better: he was held in the grip of.
When Jesus knew... by enquiry, so the Greek might suggest.
These verses have a neat ABCDDCBA shape about them.
Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. v. 11, 12; Mk. 2:11. This miracle was not readily forgotten; Jn. 7:23 was 18 months later.
Not lawful. So said the rabbis. But what a difference between this and Neh. 13:151
Sin no more implies: Forsake your sin-habit. What sin, if not that already suggested? Contrast Mk. 2:5.

Lest a worse thing befall. So, whilst this is not necessarily always the case (Jn. 9:3; Lk. 13:2, 3), there certainly is such a thing as a befitting retributive justice from God: Jud. 1:6, 7; Gen. 42:21; Ez. 35:6, 15; Jer. 51:49; Rev. 16:6; 11:18; 2 Kgs. 9:36; and consider the experiences of Jacob, David and Achan.
Jesus, which had made him whole. This is surely the only good thing about the man. It could have been: Jesus, who bade him take up his bed. The more favourable interpretation of the man's character reads v. 15 as an expression of his excitement at being healed (but is this adequate, for he must have known what would ensue?). This view also reads v. 14 as a sufficient deterrent to betrayal.
Persecute. A continuous verb, implying a trial -- in v. 19ff.

Because he was doing (Gk.) these things. That verb and the plural “things” implies that they were taking into account a lot of other acts of Jesus. The healed man was ignored; contrast 9:34.

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