First Look: John 5:1-9

After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 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 making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.

What seems at first to be a rather unremarkable healing story is actually full of interesting tidbits.  On a textual level, there’s an issue of a missing verse.  On a theological level, Jesus seems to be illustrating much more than healing.  Finally, on a narrative level, there is trouble on the horizon resulting from the fact that all of this takes place on the Sabbath.  Let’s look at each one of these issues in turn.

Who Moved My Verse 4?

Depending on what version of the Bible you’re reading, you may notice that the verses skip from verse 3 to verse 5.  I typically use the NRSV (seen above), which is one of the versions lacking a verse 4.  The King James Version, however, reads as follows:

In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For 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. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. (emphasis mine).

What’s the deal?  As it turns out, when the KJV was written the manuscripts used contained the omitted verse, so it was included without critique.  However, in the centuries between the writing of the KJV and the NRSV (and other versions such as the NIV), other earlier manuscripts were discovered without the text of what we call ‘verse 4′.  Those compiling and translating later versions used the best and earliest manuscripts at their disposal, and saw verse 4 as a later addition to the text not original to John’s gospel.  Thus, for the sake of simplicity in comparing translations the NRSV, NIV, and others simply omit a verse 4 and leave the following verse numbers unchanged.

What can you do with this?  Not much.  It might make for an interesting sermon or discussion on textual variants and the transmission of written texts, but it’s probably just a trivial tidbit you can use to annoy your friends.

Now For Something Completely Different

Shifting gears, we have the actual healing event at the center of this passage.  It seems to be a simple and straightforward miracle story, with the introduction of someone suffering from an illness, followed by an encounter with Jesus, who heals the person by speaking a command.  In this case the command is, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”  Is this really a routine healing story?  Hardly.  Both the setting and the command given by Jesus make it remarkable.

The pool at Bethesda was a well-known place of healing during the time of Jesus.  Today, incidentally, the site has been excavated, as can be seen in the following video:

It was believed that an angel would periodically stir up the waters of the pool, and the first one into these ‘troubled waters’ would be healed of their afflictions.  Jews and Pagans alike held the site to be sacred, which is perhaps why John’s gospel describes a rather grand temple-like structure with five porticoes at the pool’s location.  Apparently the man introduced to us in this passage had been there for some time, pinning all of his hopes for being cured on one day being the first person to enter the pool when the waters were troubled.  The problem, as John tells us, was that he was an invalid, and some more able-bodied sufferer inevitably made it to the waters before he ever could.  And so he waited…

When Jesus shows up at the Bethesda pool, the man is once again lying around waiting for something that may never happen.  We are told that he had lived there for 38 years.  That’s an incredibly long time to wait for anything!  Perhaps the healing waters of the pool were the man’s best chance at being restored, or maybe he had just grown accustomed to the waiting life.  At any rate, Jesus – after some initial questioning – simply tells the man to get up and walk.  He doesn’t instruct those around the pool to let the man get into the pool.  He doesn’t help the man down to the waters.  He simply says, “Stand up.”  The man then gets up and walks.

The word Jesus uses in his command is everything, here.  He tells the man, Ἔγειρε(eg-ei-re), which means “to arouse from sleep” and is frequently used in the New Testament to describe resurrection.  To read this as a simple healing story misses the point.  Yes, the man sought healing, but Jesus sought to bless him with something much more profound than physical healing.  Jesus seeks to give this man new life.  He seeks to give the man something completely different than the typical physical healing that this pool supposedly provides.  The suffering man is in effect raised from his thirty-eight year long dead state to a new life of wholeness and worth.  Isn’t that what Jesus comes along to give to all of us as well?

Yet how often do we search for wholeness and worth in the material things around us – in wealth, in property, in physical security, in things that have no real capacity for restoration in the first place?  We may as well be invalids, lying by the side of a pool for years on end, never realizing that our wholeness is not about the things we’re seeking.

It’s about the One who is seeking us!

Now That Was a Sabbath!

This is the thing that gets Jesus in trouble.  If you keep reading after verse 9, you’ll see that the Jewish leaders don’t much like the fact that Jesus has been healing people on the Sabbath.  Their notion of the Sabbath is one tied up in legalistic assumptions of what God requires.  God rested on the Sabbath, right?  Well, so should we!  Jesus, however, obviously understands the Sabbath to be something else entirely.  He’s literally living with a different sense of God’s time, and how God would have God’s people use it.  Instead of trying to avoid anything the law identifies as “work” on the Sabbath, Jesus simply uses the Sabbath to glorify God by caring for someone in need.

How will we use our Sabbaths?  Hopefully at the end of the time God has given us, it will be appropriate for someone to look back on it all and say, “Now that was a Sabbath!”

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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming lectionary gospel text written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz.  It is usually published on Mondays.

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