The first three Gospels are so much alike that people accuse Matthew and Luke of borrowing heavily from Mark, who supposedly wrote His gospel first. But not so with John. His gospel is different from all of the others.
None of the Gospel writers penned strictly historical accounts. But among them, John was least interested in preserving the chronology of events, positioning them more to contrast with one another than to keep them in their proper order. A good example is John 2 where the water into wine miracle is followed by the cleansing of the Temple. The former took place at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry while the latter happened at the very end. John placed them side-by-side to contrast the purity of the gospel Jesus taught with the corrupt practices of the religion of the day.
From all the miracles Jesus performed, John chose to include only seven in his Gospel, along with seven “I am” statements and seven discourses. Out of the Lord’s 3 ½ year ministry John focused on only 21 days, devoting 10 chapters to the last week and 1/3 of the book’s 879 verses to one day.
Each of the seven miracles in John also symbolized a greater truth and frankly, to my mind a couple of them are a little strange. The water into wine miracle is a good example. But of all the miracles Jesus performed, perhaps the strangest one is the healing at the Pool of Bethesda in Chapter 5. It was so out of character for Him. Let’s read it. (If you want to read more about all seven, click here.)
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed (and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.) Note: Some manuscripts don’t have the parenthetical portion of this passage, but its inclusion makes the following clearer.
One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.
The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”
But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ “
So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. (John 5:1-15)
What’s Going On here?
A look at the anomalies will help us decode this strange miracle. For instance, usually upon encountering a group of people, Jesus healed all the sick among them, regardless of His personal plans. You can see what I mean in Matt 4:23-24;
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them.
And Matt. 14:13-14 says;
When Jesus heard what had happened, (the death of John the Baptist) he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
But at the Pool of Bethesda, where the place was littered with the sick and handicapped and where one sweep of the Lord’s hand could have taken care of everyone, John mentioned only one man being healed. And that one didn’t approach Him. Jesus made the initial contact after learning something about the man. “Do you want to get well?” He asked.
Then there’s the man’s story, a real Catch 22. Because he was crippled, he couldn’t get to the Pool in time to be healed. Someone else always got there first. But if he could have gotten to the pool first, he wouldn’t have needed healing. He needed someone to heal him right where he was.
And he never asked Jesus to heal him. In fact he didn’t even know with whom he was speaking. The Lord said, “Pick up your mat and walk,” and without hesitation the man did just that, for the first time in 38 years.
Then there’s the fact that this happened on the Sabbath, so by carrying his mat he drew the attention of the priests who told him it was illegal. The ex-cripple said he was obeying the man who healed him but he couldn’t tell them who the man was.
Later Jesus found him again and warned him to “stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Was that a threat?
The Story Behind The Story
With these facts in view, it appears that the healing at Bethesda is meant to convey much more than meets the eye. The first clue to what that might be comes with the fact that the man had been an invalid for 38 years. The only other time the phrase thirty-eight years appears in the Bible is in Deut. 2:14describing the length of time the Jews had spent in the wilderness where they received the Law.
This little hint tells us the cripple by the pool in his Catch 22 represented Israel in theirs. Because they were sinners, they couldn’t keep the Law to be saved. But if they could have kept the Law they wouldn’t have needed saving. They needed someone to save them just as they were.
Bethesda means House of Mercy. Like the cripple, Israel needed someone to show them mercy in their hopeless condition. The Lord showed His mercy to the cripple and offered to do the same for Israel.
Though Jesus came to the pool specifically to heal this one cripple, the man didn’t recognize his healer and didn’t know with whom he was speaking. Though Jesus came to Earth specifically to save Israel (Matt. 15:24), they didn’t recognize their Savior and didn’t know with whom they were speaking. “If you’re the Christ,” they said, “then tell us” (Luke 22:67). This after He had fulfilled hundreds of prophecies from their scriptures concerning His coming.
Jesus told the healed cripple to stop sinning lest something worse should happen. He couldn’t have been speaking generally because He knew that if man could stop sinning altogether, he could save himself and wouldn’t need a Savior. The Catch 22 wouldn’t exist. So He must have had a specific sin in mind.
By working to keep the Law in an effort to save themselves, the Israelites were relying on their own righteousness, a sin. The Law was never meant to be a means of salvation, but to reveal the need for a Savior (Romans 3:20). In admonishing the cripple, He was also telling Israel to stop committing the sin of self-righteousness lest something worse should happen. And because they refused, it did. In the Lord’s time on Earth Israel was subordinate to Rome but still existed as a nation. 38 years after the crucifixion Jerusalem was destroyed and soon after that Israel ceased to exist altogether.
So it looks as if this one crippled man was chosen to send a message to Israel, joining the Lord in acting out a parable.
But the Lord and the cripple were also sending a message to us. For which of us has not claimed to be our own Savior at some point in our lives? Which of us has not been proud in our self-righteousness?
Each of us is in the same Catch 22 as the cripple, helpless to save ourselves and therefore hopelessly lost. We’re destined to carry our sins to the grave unless God extends His mercy. And so meeting us right where we are, He asks us just like He asked the cripple, “Do you want to get well?”