John 5:1-15.
Jesus, LORD of the Sabbath

       American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Jesus started his ministry immediately following his baptism by John the Baptist.  While traveling in the region of Jerusalem He attracted a following of apostles, disciples, and curious on-lookers.  As His reputation grew in the region, Jesus went north through Samaria to Capernaum in the region where most of Jesus' ministry would take place.  However, there was an important tradition that those Jews who were able would return to Jerusalem for several festive occasions during the year, and following that practice, Jesus would be found in Jerusalem during those times.

John 5:1.  After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 

The synoptic gospels present the events that follow in a sequence after the healing of the royal officer's son in Capernaum, some time after the events of John, Chapter 4.  As we read John's gospel we find that the writer was not as concerned with historical chronology as he was with the sequence of events that took place in the growing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leadership that eventually led to his arrest and crucifixion.  One example we see is in this verse where the specific feast of the Jews is not identified.  Many scholars argue that this could be one of any number of feasts.  However, others point out that only one celebration was held in their culture that was referred to as "The Feast", and this was the feast of Passover.  If this is indeed the Passover feast, this event could be taking place as long as a year into Jesus' ministry.

Without regarding the specific feast, we find it instructive to note that Jesus went to Jerusalem during the traditional feasts.  We observe that, though Jesus' teachings and actions were often in conflict with Jewish legalistic dogma, Jesus was a respected Jewish leader, often referred to as "Rabbi" or "Teacher."  As such, He took part in the Mosaic Jewish traditions along with others in a similar setting.  We find that it was only when traditions, laws, and prohibitions that had been legislated by the Sanhedrin stood in conflict with the needs of people that Jesus set them aside.  When Jesus traveled from place to place He wore the clothing that would identify a Jewish teacher.[1]  Jesus fit into the culture of the practicing Jews.  However, because Jesus loved the people through a love that was nothing less than God's love, He always took the time to demonstrate that love to people within the confines of cultural expectations, and often times stirred significant controversy when He would leave those confines when a person was in true need.  This trip to Jerusalem would quickly turn into such a demonstration of God's love and its preeminence over tradition.

John 5:2.  Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. 

The traditional location of the pool of Bethesda (also referred to as Bethzatha and Bethsaida meaning "house of mercy") was in the northeastern corner of the city near the sheep gate.  This particular pool was a common meeting place for people because of the healing powers that it was believed to have had.  Consequently, a colonnade was built around all four sides and a fifth went down its center in order to provide room for all of the people who would want to dip in its waters.

John 5:3-4.  In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.  4For 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. 

One can easily form an image of the scene that would take place daily at the pool of Bethesda.  As soon as people started their daily routines, many of the sick and infirmed would come to, or be brought to, the pool with hopes of receiving a complete healing of their infirmities.  Tradition held that healing could be obtained if someone with spiritual authority, referred to here as an angel, would come down to the pool and agitate its waters so that the first person to bathe in them following this angelic visitation would be healed.  Even a casual reading of these verses reveals that the last part of verse 3 and the whole of verse 4 is a parenthetical statement, presumably used to give some explanation as to why the pool was surrounded by the ill and infirmed.  It is interesting to note that this parenthetical passage is contained in most manuscripts dated after the fourth century BC, but is not included in any earlier ones.  Some Bible translations place these verses in brackets, or italics, or will in some form set them apart because of this.  The addition of text during the fourth century BC does not serve to discredit the authority of the text in any way, and as we can observe in this instance as it serves well to establish its context.  Such early editing of the biblical text (referred to as "redaction") is common 

The picture that John draws here is vivid.  We can almost visualize the structure of the pool, get a feel for its location, and visualize the crowd of people surrounding the pool hoping that this will be the day that the angel comes to stir the waters.  It is likely that there was no historical precedent to establish this tradition, but rather, it was promulgated by verbal fables passed down through recent generations.  Little do they know that there was a hint of truth in the tradition that drew them, as the One sent from God would come to the pool of Bethesda this day.

John 5:5.  And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. 

Based upon the following verses, the man who is described here suffered from being unable to walk for a period of 38 years.  What happens to even the strongest person if they do not use their legs for such a long time?  People who have suffered from disuse as a result of coma or injury for a fraction of this time find that muscles atrophy after a relatively short period of disuse.  If someone were to be given the command to walk after such a long period of time, the muscles in the legs would be far too weak to provide support, and the sufferer would have to go through extensive rehabilitation.  It would seem that when Jesus came to the pool He first selected for his attention a person who is in this predicament.  This man probably came to the pool regularly, and with an infirmity that had lasted so long, he would be well-known by all of the others that came to the pool regularly.  We also will find that the people who would carry him to the pool would simply drop him off, lowering his pallet near the edge of the water, and walk away only to pick him back up at the end of the day.  This man was part of the community that was a consistent part of this pool-side “family,” and all of these people, from their years of close relationship, would know each other well and know clearly the tradition of healing that the pool held as they shared it with one another in hopes that a miracle might touch one of them.

This community had another important characteristic.  The Jewish traditions held that people who were sick were being punished for sin, making them ceremonially unclean.  When so infirmed, they could not be cleansed sufficiently to enter the temple, and practicing Jews feared that any contact with such unclean people would make themselves unclean, and subject to the rituals and sacrifices of cleansing, neither of which they desired to do.  Consequently, the infirmed that collected around that pool were a subculture of outcasts.  There would be few, if any, healthy Jews there who carefully practiced the traditions of their religion.  This community of infirmed Jews found themselves separated from their families and from their larger community.  The lame man had no hope of ever re-entering the community.  He had no hope of ever again seeing the interior of the temple.  The entry of an unclean person into the temple area was no little issue.  Later, after Jesus' ascension, the apostle Paul would be thrown into prison after creating a riot when some of his enemies rumored that he had taken an unclean person (Timothy) into the temple.  Separation from their faith, their heritage, and their loved ones characterized the life of those who sat around the pool of Bethesda.

John 5:6.  When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? 

Jesus' presence at the well would be obvious.  He may have looked like a stranger to some, and He may have been known as a healer to others.  Jesus entered the pool area and approached this man who has been lame for almost 40 years[2] whose case is simply hopeless.  This man would have little or no hope of healing.  It can be surmised that over the years that he had come, his attendance had become one more of socialization than any true hope of healing.  The hope that the angel would come in season was held by many, but neither the lame man nor any other would have had occasion to experience the coming of the angel.  It was simply a hope that people held, people who had no other hope at all.  Consequently, Jesus' question to this man becomes important.  "Will you be made whole?"  We would think that anyone would respond quickly with a resounding "Yes!", but that is not the response that Jesus received.  We are able to see that through all of this waiting, the man still held out hope that the angel would someday come, and yet if the angel came, he doubted that he could even then be healed.  Consequently, the man would have had little reason to take this "angel" seriously.

John 5:7.  The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. 

We find here that the man had lost all hope.  He found himself powerless to be able to even respond to an opportunity to healing if it were to come.  The state of this man is not unlike the state of all people before they come to faith in Christ.  The lame man was suffering from a hopeless condition, for without faith one is lost and separated from a relationship with God, facing an eternity of such separation, a state of existence that we refer to as “hell.”  This man was stricken to a lifetime of separation from community, a small taste of the nature of such separation.  Those who have not turned to Christ are likewise separated from the joy and peace of knowing God, separated from a relationship with Him, and that separation will continue after death when their soul is eternally separated from God.  The people of the pool community believed that someday a savior would come who would stir the waters of the pool and the first to respond would be healed.  What they had missed from the prophesies of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah, was that a Savior would indeed come, and would stir their hearts, filling it with the healing power of the Holy Spirit, a power that would heal the sickness of sin that eternally separates man from God.

The healing of the infirmed at the pool would require an act of faith.  The tradition held that when the angel came to the pool and stirred the water, the first one to enter the pool would be healed.  Entering the pool is an act of faith.  Faith is belief put into action.  These people understood faith, and this man demonstrated such faith.  He fully believed that he could be healed if the angel came, but he had no way to enter the water.  Likewise, salvation from sin comes from faith: a belief that is followed by action.  Belief alone cannot save.  The man could believe that entering the water would heal him, but as long as he stayed at the side of the pool, he could not be healed.  Action was required.  Likewise, people can believe that everything in the Bible is true, but until one takes that knowledge and applies it in faith, they are continually lost.  Remember James' statement, "the devils believe, and they tremble."[3]  Belief cannot save, as we may note that satan has a more confident and intimate belief in God than any man.  What is it that makes one who believes in Christ any different than satan?  Satan knows that Jesus is LORD, but rejects His Lordship.  Like satan, those who reject Jesus' Lordship in their lives cannot be saved, and will spend an eternity separated from God.

We cannot imagine the consequences of an eternity without God any more than we can really imagine the life and destined future of the lame man.  All that we observe and know about our universe is permeated with the power of the Holy Spirit, and has been since its creation.  The Spirit moved across the face of the waters of the earth during the creation event,[4] and has continued to be the active hand of God's power in this universe.  Imagine if that hand were removed, and only evil existed in the whole universe.  Imagine such a state for eternity.  Thoughtful consideration of this truth should be frightening, and those who are not concerned are either ignorant of the truth, or foolish.  "It is a fool who says in his heart, 'There is no God'."[5]  However, the folly of fools can be exposed, and the ignorant can be taught.  There is hope for all.

John 5:8.  Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. 

What did Jesus say to the lame man?  He might as well have told him to do the impossible.  Thirty-eight years of atrophy cannot be repaired in an instant.  Even if the nerves could send commands to the muscles to move, the lame man would be able to do little more than before.  One can imagine the natural reaction of the lame man.  In our culture, his response might be something like, "Ya gotta be kidding!"  Consider the opportunity that this man had.  All he had to do was have enough faith to take the first step and he would be immediately healed.  Those who are lost in sin face a similar decision.  Jesus said, "Come all ye who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." [6]  With a world of weary and heavy-laden people we find a tragic few who come to God in faith through Jesus.  Most simply refuse to believe, and are like the lame man would have been had he refused to take the first step.  Our first step toward God through Jesus is like the first step of a child.  Jesus also said, "Permit the little children to come to me, for such is the Kingdom of heaven."[7]  Children would come to Him with no preconceived notions, no presuppositions that would serve as a barrier to their belief.  Those who have grown out of their childhood years build walls of unbelief.  Just as the lame man would have to step off of his pallet, those who are lost must step off of their foundation of unbelief that holds them lame and helpless.  How did the lame man respond to Jesus' invitation?

John 5:9.  And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath. 

One can only imagine the feelings and sensations that this man experienced.  He knew he had no real hope of healing, and when this stranger told him to walk, he fully intended on trying.  What would it have felt like for him to feel strength returning to his legs?  How must he have felt when he stood to his feet and did not topple over?  The infirmity that had tormented this man for almost 40 years had entirely vanished.  In its place was overwhelming joy.  His place in his family was restored.  He would again be able to enter the temple of the LORD.  Likewise when one takes that first step of faith in Jesus Christ, that sin that torments the sinner and separates him from God vanishes with God's forgiveness, and in place of the guilt and shame of sin, in place of the eternal separation from God that such sin engenders, is given to each believer the peace and joy that comes from the newfound knowledge of forgiveness, and like the strength that returned to the lame man's legs, the power of the Holy Spirit that brought the lost to salvation continues to strengthen the believer as He comforts and guides the believer for the remainder of his days.

This message of truth, this promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ that is even woven through the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament, is as hard for people to believe as it would be for the lame man to believe that he could simply stand up and walk.  It simply, when taken in the world view of man, does not make sense.  If anyone should have been able to see who Jesus was, it would have been the learned Jews who knew the contents of the writings of the Law and the Prophets.  However, the people had allowed the faith of their fathers to be replaced with the rituals of tradition, and the heart for God of their ancestors was replaced with a distain for all who did not agree with their dogma.  The needs of people were secondary to the tenets of their tradition.  The traditions of man had entirely replaced faith in God. 

In this event, we may understand how Jesus perceived the conflict that arises when tradition displaces God's purpose.  The act of healing that just took place was done on the Sabbath day.  The Jews had created a large and exceedingly burdensome set of laws that forbade almost any activity on the Sabbath so that they would not break the commandment to "remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy."  The list of Sabbath restrictions was formidable, and their most strict rules governed the prohibitions against any action that could be construed of as work.

John 5:10-11.  The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed.  11He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk. 

The response of the Jews is amazing.  If one were to write the rest of the story, we would assume that the people would be amazed by this miracle:  a man who has been lame for almost 40 years stood up and walked.  However, instead of looking at his legs, the Judean Jewish leadership looked at his pallet.  This man had one characteristic that separated himself from everyone else in the community: he was carrying something.  The Sabbath laws forbid the carrying of goods since it was considered to be an act of working.  So, instead of being excited for this healed man, instead of being awestruck by the miracle, all they could see was that this person broke the law.  They were ready to condemn him for this act. 

In this event John fully introduces us to the spiritual state of the Judean leadership during the years of Jesus’ ministry.  Though they considered themselves the pious and religious elite, their hypocrisy knew no bounds.  Convinced that they were entirely righteous and beyond reproach, they thought they had all of the answers, and their dependence upon their own works blinded them to the truth of the miracle of God's grace.  They had just witnessed the most amazing example of grace in action they had ever seen when this undeserving man was miraculously and permanently healed.  However, they cared nothing for grace.  They cared nothing about the new life that had just been given to this man.  All they cared about was that the law of the Sabbath had been broken, and this man, or some man, must be punished.

One might observe the stark contrast of how Jesus approached the Sabbath, and how the Judean Jews approached the Sabbath.  Jesus' healing of the lame man was clearly a work performed on the Sabbath day, and by so doing, Jesus was indeed breaking a legislated traditional law of the Sabbath.  Also his instruction to the man to carry his bed was an instruction to break one of the first of the list of Sabbath work laws.  However, the long list of Sabbath rules was not written in Mosaic law, but rather these restrictions were legislated by the Sanhedrin over several generations, becoming little more than a baseless verbal demand of the Pharisees that had been established by a godless and prideful leadership, a verbal demand that, devoid of any consideration of God’s true purpose for His people, stood firmly between that purpose and its fulfillment.  As a result, the Pharisees became the zealous keepers of the Sabbath, enforcing their extensive and burdensome set of rules.  Jesus would later use this incident to teach that the Sabbath was intended for man, not man for the Sabbath.[8] 

Years of self-centeredness had fully blinded the Judean leadership to the true purpose of the Sabbath day, and what it meant to keep it holy:  to be set apart for God's glory.  What could glorify God more on any day than the revelation of His power through the miraculous healing of a lame man?  What better day to demonstrate acts of love and grace?  The Sabbath is a day that we are to make holy:  separated from the other days of the week, resting from our weekly labors so that we can devote time to honoring God.  Sharing the message of grace is one such way to honor God, and on this day at the pool of Bethesda there was one man sharing a great deal of personal testimony that would later be attributed to Jesus.

Sometimes even churches develop traditions and laws that stifle the expression of grace.  When people create rules and traditions or write constitutions and by-laws that take priority over the needs of people, they are creating an environment much like that established by the first-century Judean leadership.  Such churches shun those who they perceive as being "sinful" in the same manner that the Jews shunned those that they considered unclean, judging one another just as they judge those outside of their circle of fellowship.  Just as the Jews looked at the pallet that the man was carrying, such legalistic people will look at the works in a persons life and define them by those works rather than by the heart that is in desperate need of God's love.  When confronted with the guilt of their sin, such believers who hold tightly to their rules and traditions become very defensive and agitated, as some might even become who are reading these words.  How did the Jews respond?

John 5:12-13.  Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? 13And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place. 

Ignoring the miraculous healing, the Judean leaders questioned the healed man concerning the identity of the person who told him to carry his bed on this Sabbath day.  We can clearly observe that the power of God's grace had been at work in this man's life as he still did not even yet know who it was that came by the pool that morning and commanded him to take up his pallet and walk.  All he knew was that once he was lame, then he met the Angel of Bethesda, and then he could walk.  The Jews found themselves threatened by this act that took place on the Sabbath, because it dramatically and powerfully challenged their Sabbath traditions, something that they had fiercely defended.  If their Sabbath law could be brought into question, all laws would be brought into question, and their very definition of who whey were and the nature of the authority that they held over the people would be irrevocably challenged.[9]

John 5:14-15.  Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple, and said unto him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.  15The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole. 

We see a very beautiful picture in verse 14.  We find Jesus at the Temple, a very appropriate place for Him to be.  However, Jesus also found the healed man in the Temple.  Under Jewish tradition, when an infirmed person was healed he was to show himself to a Jewish priest who would examine him and determine that he was now healed.  The individual would then go through a ritual of cleansing, after which he could rejoin the Temple community.  This man had just completed this process and was standing in the Temple for the first time in at least 38 years, and it many have been the first time he had entered its gates in his life.  His presence in the Temple meant something to him that no other person in the facility could ever fully understand.  He was experiencing a joy of belonging that he could have never hoped for.  Once he was separated from God, and now he was invited into His presence.  It is here in this reverie that the healed man again met Jesus.  One can imagine the scene as Jesus comes to the lame man (or maybe the other way around), and immediately there is a sharing of smiles and an embrace.  The appreciation that this man must have felt for Jesus was unfathomable.  He would ask Jesus, "What can I do to repay you for what you have done for me?"  Jesus answer is the same as it is to all who would come to Him in faith:  “turn from your sin and follow me.” 

The man's response was natural.  As he went from this place, he could now tell everyone who it was who had saved him from a lifetime of misery and separation.  He shared his good news with all who would listen, and listening closely were those Jews who aggressively sought to condemn him and to bring to their form of justice the man who healed on the Sabbath day.

John 5:16.  And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the Sabbath day.

We find in all of the gospel accounts that the persecution of Jesus by the religious leadership in Jerusalem started with His first acts of mercy.  The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke first share the story of the lame man who was lowered through the roof of a man’s house.  This lame man would experience the same miraculous healing that was experienced by the man of Bethesda.  However, the relationship between the healing and the beliefs of the Jewish leadership is a bit more clearly illustrated in the incident in the house.  The Jews held a close cultural tie between sickness and sin.  Most believed that all sickness was the direct result of those sins that could not be forgiven through sacrifice such as those that were deliberately committed.  Only sins of error could be forgiven by the sacrificial system.  This is why David could not find forgiveness for his sins of adultery and murder in the sacrificial system.  This inability to find forgiveness was so ingrained in Jewish tradition that when Jesus spoke of forgiving sin, their response was to kill Him, believing that He was speaking words of blasphemy that were worthy of death.

Jesus’ healing of the lame men, both in Bethesda and in the house, was a demonstration of Jesus’ primary purpose: to forgive sin, serving to provide a means by which people could truly enter the kingdom of God.  Prior to healing the man in the house, Jesus publically forgave the man of his sins, much like he did for this man in the Jewish temple.  The Jewish leadership was both astonished and angered at such a statement.  They firmly believed that no person has the authority to forgive sins.  Jesus followed their statements with His own, 

Mark 2:9-12.  Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? 10But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) 11I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.  12And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion. 

Like the man at the pool of Bethesda, the man in the house took up his pallet and walked away, and like the Jews at Bethesda, the Judean Jewish leadership that was present at the house came together immediately to conspire how to kill Jesus.

The people who conspired to kill Jesus were not the “heathens.”  They were those considered to be the most important of the “children of God,” those that God had chosen to spread the news of His love to all.  Those who consider themselves members of the body of Christian believers can look into their own beliefs and determine if there is any hypocrisy in their religion.  Does the dogma of the church come before the needs of people?  Are those who are in need of God's grace shunned by the church?  Is the make up of your local church a little subculture to itself that excludes anyone who is dissimilar?  The Jews became a worldly society with a Godly theme.  Likewise churches are in danger of becoming worldly clubs with a Christian theme.

It might be time to take stock and determine who the LORD of our Sabbath is.  Is our time and place of sanctuary applied in the same manner of grace that Jesus displayed?  Are all welcomed and loved just as Jesus welcomed and loved?  Are our arms open to those who are living in sin and are hurting, as Jesus' arms were open to these also?  If not, something has built a barrier between our calling and our actions.  Let us seek God's forgiveness for our sin of self-centered community and repent, turning instead into a community that, like Jesus, truly loves those who need Him the most.  Only then will Jesus truly be LORD in our church, LORD of our lives, LORD of the Sabbath.[10]

[1] Matthew 9:20.

[2] No numerological inference intended, but one could take one.

[3] James 2:19.

[4] Genesis 1:2.

[5] Psalm 14:9.

[6] Matthew 11:28.

[7] Matthew 19:14.

[8] Mark 2:27.

[9] Readers might find interesting the thirty-nine categories of the Melachot, an extensive list of restrictions placed upon work done on the Sabbath day through legislation of the Sanhedrin; activities that include Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing. Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting, Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Sifting, Grinding, Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, Marking. 

[10] Matthew 12:8.