The sickly man at the pool.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 July

Whom Jesus cured on Sabbath.

John 5.1-18

When people compare the gospels, they lump this story together with the story in the other three gospels where Jesus cured the paraplegic. ’Cause this guy sounds paraplegic. But we’ve no idea if that was his problem: All John wrote was he was asthenón/“sickly.” Without strength, weak, feeble. The KJV translates it as “impotent,” which means something entirely different nowadays, and if you want your listeners to giggle, go ahead and keep calling him “the impotent man.” Jn 5.7 KJV I’ll stick with “sickly,” thank you.

This took place at a pool in Jerusalem, during one of Jesus’s thrice-yearly Dt 16.16 trips to temple. The Sheep Gate was the east-wall gate, just north of the temple. (Today it’s the sha’ar ha-Arayot/“Lions’ Gate,” named after the leopard carvings over it, which get confused with lions. It’s the entrance to the Muslim quarter.) The KJV calls the pool “Bethesda,” so that’s what most bibles go with. But the original word is a bit harder to pin down. Greek bibles call it Bithatha (Codex Sinaiticus), Bithsaida (Codex Vaticanus), Bithesdá (Textus Receptus), and Bithzathá (UBS). People nowadays figure it was called Beit Khésda/“mercy house,” but the Copper Scroll among the Dead Sea Scrolls calls it Beit Eshdáthayin/“two mercies house.”

Two mercies, ’cause two pools. They were built by head priest Simon bar Onias in the first century BC. One held warm water, the other cold. They were surrounded by four shaded porticoes, and there’s a rock formation which provided the fifth shade. Apparently this was a therapeutic healing center—with a popular myth about an angel stirring the pool, which wormed its way into the Textus Receptus as verse 4. Since it’s not in the oldest copies of John, you’re not gonna find verse 4 in most current translations.

John 5.1-4 KWL
1 After these things Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a Jewish festival.
2 There’s a pool with five shaded areas by Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate, called Beit Eshdáthayin in Aramaic.
3 By it lie a large number of sickly, blind, injured, or disabled people.
[They wait for the water to move,
4 for sometimes an angel came down to the pool and stirred the water.
Whenever the water stirred, the first in got better from whatever ailment they had.]

I put it in brackets because though John likely didn’t write it, some Christian added it to explain the comment in verse 7 about “whenever the water gets stirred up.” Maybe that’s what first-century Judeans believed about the pool. Or maybe the water got stirred up whenever the attendants dumped in a fresh batch of bath salts. We don’t know. We just know the water getting agitated was a big deal, and “others go in before me” was the sickly man’s complaint.

We don’t know why Jesus was there, or why he zeroed in on one particular man and cured him, instead of curing everyone. Maybe he was the only one at the pool on Sabbath. ’Cause yes, it was Sabbath. This isn’t the first time Jesus did such a thing on Sabbath, but it’s probably the first time he got caught.

John 5.5-9 KWL
5 There was a certain person who’d been sickly 38 years. 6 Jesus saw him laying there.
He knew he’d been there a long time, and told him, “You want to get better?”
7 The sickly man answered him, “Master, whenever the water gets stirred up,
I have nobody who could throw me in the pool. I get into it; others go in before me.”
8 Jesus told him, “Get up. Pick up your cot and walk.”
9A Next, the person got better, took up his cot, and walked.

“You wanna get better?”

Lots of preachers like to point out the sickly man answered Jesus with a complaint. Then they jump to the conclusion he was a bitter, whiny, self-entitled wretch.

They forget Jesus’s culture. Pharisees taught that if you were sick or unwell, it was your own damn fault: Somebody sinned, and God was punishing you for it. Jn 9.2 The onus was on you to get better—and if you didn’t, you were either still hip-deep in sin, or too lazy to improve yourself. You know, like the way Americans feel about the poor.

It’s for this reason the preachers neither understand Jesus’s question, nor the sickly man’s answer. They look at Jesus’s question as a dispassionate rhetorical question, a passive-aggressive rebuke, an attempt to push the same buttons as the Pharisees had. “You wanna get better?” Of course he wanted to get better. It’s why he was at the pool! They always imagine the guy had a lot of bile in him, and his complaint, “I have nobody to help me” was expressed with all the cold fury of a frustrated man.

Okay, now divorce that rotten attitude from the story, and look at Jesus again, with all the compassion he actually had for the sick. And look at the sickly man again, this time responding to the compassion he saw from our Lord, and giving Jesus a straight answer.

Yeah, likely he was frustrated. I can’t really say I blame him—after 38 years of suffering, of trying to get help from this pool and failing him, of putting up with Pharisee rebuke, “If you really wanted to get better, you’d stop committing the sins that God’s obviously judging you for.” But I don’t necessarily see bitterness in him. That, you’ve gotta project onto the guy, and I don’t think it’s warranted. In his response, I simply see, “I’m trying to get better. But I could use a little help here.”

So Jesus helped him.

“It’s Sabbath! You’re not allowed to carry your cot.”

As I (and John) pointed out, Jesus did this on Sabbath, the day we’re meant to do no work, but rest. Pharisees were very specific about what constitutes rest. The Mishnah has a whole section, or tractate, called Shabbát—and it’s all about what you can and can’t do on Sabbath. There were 39 specific Pharisee rules about what not to do: No planting, plowing, reaping, gathering, threshing, winnowing, etc. Carrying your cot broke the 39th rule: No moving something from one significant place to another.

John 5.9-13 KWL
9B This day was Sabbath, 10 so the Judeans were telling the healed man:
“It’s Sabbath! You’re not allowed to carry your cot.”
11 He answered them, “The one who made me better told me, ‘Pick up your cot and walk.’”
12 They asked, “Which person told you, ‘Pick up and walk’?”
13 The healed man hadn’t known who he was—
in that place, Jesus had his face turned to the crowd.

I don’t know how devout this newly-healed man was, ’cause he was, after all, at the pool on Sabbath. But when the Judeans objected to his carrying his cot, he didn’t blow them off. Maybe he really was concerned about keeping Sabbath; maybe he feared getting in trouble with society. Either way he attempted to shift the blame to his healer: “Well the guy who cured me told me to.”

But he couldn’t identify that guy. Apparently Jesus was still in the vicinity, but he’d exénefsen/“turned his head away” in the direction of the larger crowd. The man couldn’t tell him from anyone else. Other translations go with St. John Chrysostom’s interpretation that Jesus disappeared—he “had conveyed himself away.” Jn 5.13 KJV Me, I figure Jesus was off curing other sick people at the pool. John only mentions this one guy Jesus healed, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were others.

Then, in temple—probably there to thank God for healing him!—he ran into Jesus again:

John 5.14 KWL
Later Jesus found him in temple, and told him, “Look! You got better.
Sin no more: Worse things could happen.”

An encounter which has led generations of commentators to assume, “Oho, he was sickly because he sinned.” Otherwise why would Jesus tell him to quit it, and warn him of worse?

Missing the point. You recall the Pharisees believed people were sick because they sinned? Well, Jesus had cured this guy despite his sins. He didn’t order the guy to repent before he cured him. He ordered the guy to repent after he cured him. The cure had no connection to any of his sins. Implying the illness had no connection to any of his sins.

The same’s true of our salvation. Jesus doesn’t offer to save us once we’re good; once we repent, clean up our act, put away our sins, and make ourselves all nice for him. He accepts us as the sinners we are, and he cleans us up. He tells us after he saves us to go and sin no more. It’s not a prerequisite. We’re saved by grace alone.

Regardless, the man ratted out Jesus to the Judeans.

John 5.15-16 KWL
15 The person left, and reported to the Judeans, “Jesus is the one who made me better.”
16 The Judeans were hassling Jesus for this reason: He worked on Sabbath.

And again, let’s not be too hard on him. Some folks suffer for 38 years and come out the other end with all sorts of noble, strong character. Others haven’t learned a thing. This guy seems to have been in the second group. He was weak in spirit; let’s be gracious to the weak.

As Jesus was. This was not a threat: “Listen sinner, didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” That’s not who Jesus is. Jesus is all about grace. We need to see that as his motivation for warning the guy. “Don’t get yourself hurt again!”

It’s not against the Law to heal on Sabbath.

Because Christians aren’t aware of what the Law actually teaches, they often believe the Judeans and Pharisees were correct in saying Jesus was wrong to heal on Sabbath. They often believe Jesus did break the Law in healing on Sabbath—because he was gonna do away with the Law anyway. Contrary to what Jesus himself taught. Mt 5.17

There is no biblical command which forbids healing on Sabbath. And if you read the Mishnah, there’s no Pharisee custom forbidding it either. Of the 39 actions Pharisees forbade, not one of them says “No curing the sick.” They had to stretch the meanings of “No finishing a job” and “No untying” (i.e. freeing someone of their illness). As if Pharisees didn’t untie their animals to water them every single Sabbath. Lk 13.15 More than once, Jesus taught it doesn’t break Sabbath to do good deeds for others, Mk 3.4 that Pharisees did good deeds all the time, especially in emergency, Lk 14.5 and how much better of a deed was it to cure the sick? Come on; how is it ever sin to be benevolent?

But while Jesus’s usual argument was, “How is it evil to do good on Sabbath?” for some reason his argument this time around was, “I’m just doing as my Father does.”

John 5.17-18 KWL
17 Jesus answered them, “My Father works today, just like I work.”
18 So the Judeans all the more wanted him dead for this reason:
Not only was he dismissing Sabbath custom,
but he said God was his own Father, making himself equal to God.

Now, there’s a really deep legal concept embedded in Jesus’s statement, and if you know how Roman adoption works, you’ll realize why the Judeans were so outraged by it. If you don’t realize it, relax; I’ll get into that next time. I have a different point to make today.

I will say ignorant Christians often interpret this to mean, “I’m the Son of God, so I’m neither bound by your customs, nor even the Law.” Which turns Jesus into a major jerk—which goes entirely against his character. That comes from their bad attitudes. Not Jesus’s.

If Jesus was merely claiming he had the almighty prerogative to do whatever he wants—including break whatever commands and customs he felt like—then Jesus could violate the Law like crazy. It’s why lawless Christians love this interpretation. It gives them license to violate the Law like crazy, and sin themselves sticky. But it’s not at all what Jesus meant.

Jesus wasn’t claiming the almighty power to do as he pleased. He claimed he did as the Father did—and the Father is benevolent, kind, generous, compassionate, forgiving. He does good deeds every day of the week, Sabbath included. Ever been sick, and got well on a Saturday morning? Looks like God cured you on Sabbath too.

Yeah, a lot of bad interpretations of the scriptures are the result of bad attitudes. Remember: Jesus is kind. His goal is always to demonstrate his Father’s love, and in so doing reveal the sort of kingdom he intends to rule. Bear that in mind when you read the gospels.