John 5:1–18: The Healing at the Pool on the Sabbath, Jesus is Equal With God
This passage starts with Jesus back in Jerusalem, because there is a “feast of the Jews” (though John doesn’t mention which feast). While he’s there he comes to a pool called Bethesda, where a “multitude of invalids” (verse 3) tend to hang out. There seems to be a belief in the healing powers of the pool, that have something to do with the waters being “stirred up.” (This is one of my less intensive “recaps” of a passage, apparently…)
Jesus gets into a conversation with one of the men lying there:
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” 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 going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. (verses 6–9a)
However, we are told in the second half of verse 9 that this happened on the Sabbath. Some of the Jews—it feels to me like religious leaders, not man-on-the-street Jews, but the passage doesn’t specify—see the man carrying his mat, and ask him why he’s doing that on the Sabbath. Jews were not allowed to do “work” on the Sabbath, and the religious leaders’ definition of “work” at the time would have included carrying a mat, so in their eyes this man was breaking the Sabbath by carrying his mat because it was “work.”
So the man answers them very candidly: the man who had healed him told him to pick up his mat, so he did. And you’d think that the next question they’d ask would be, “well, who healed you then,” but it’s not:
So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” (verses 10–12, emphasis added)
They ask him why he’s carrying his mat, and he says it’s because the man who healed him told him to, so they ask, but really, who told you to pick up that mat? They are so worried about the fact that he’s doing “work” on the Sabbath that they skip right over the fact that the man was miraculously healed.
However, Jesus is gone by this point, so the man can’t answer them as to who told him to carry the mat. But Jesus finds him later, in the temple:
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (verse 14)
So now the man is able to go back and find the Jews who’d been pestering him, and tell them that it was Jesus who’d healed him. This ends up having some expected repercussions for Jesus:
And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
This passage feels to me like one of those passages that really emphasizes how we sometimes focus on the wrong things, neglecting the important things.
I wonder how many modern-day Christians get surprised by how closely Jesus adhered to Judaism. He was, in fact, a Jew. We think of Jesus as starting a new religion, and breaking away from the old Jewish religion, which is… sort of right and sort of wrong. But while Jesus was a person on earth he was a Jew, and adhered to the Jewish faith. In fact, he obeyed the Law perfectly, something nobody else in history has ever done!
I don’t know how often the regular, run-of-the-mill Jewish person of Jesus’ day made it to Jerusalem for the feasts, but I’m sure that Jesus made it to every single one.
Breaking the Sabbath
An important distinction I made above is about the rules and regulations about “work” in relation to the Sabbath. Because the Old Testament rules about the Sabbath did say that the Israelites were to do no “work,” but didn’t really define what was meant by “work.”
And this is where I give the religious leaders of Jesus’ day a bit more credit than others sometimes do. I definitely agree that they ended up in a bad place (which we’ll get to in a second)—I’m not going to argue with my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ about the faults of the Pharisees!—but I think they got there from a starting point of good intentions1. My understanding is that it went something like this:
- The Israelites returned from exile back to the Promised Land. They’d had a long, uncomfortable history of not properly obeying the LORD, and for once they were determined to obey Him properly.
- They looked at some of the Law’s commandments, such as doing no work on the Sabbath, and realized that they were a bit vague; how is the average Jewish person supposed to know if they’re “working” or not—what if someone accidentally goes too far?
- So they started creating some guiding principles around some of the rules and regulations in the Law. “If you want to avoid ‘working’ on the Sabbath, than you should avoid doing this and this and this.” If the average Jewish person—who didn’t sit around all day studying the Law!—adhered to these guidelines, they could safely assume they were following the Law.
- Unfortunately, as time went by, the religious leaders started to put more weight on these “recommendations” than they did on the actual Law. What was originally intended to be sort of a “companion guide” to the Law became a law in and of itself. This had a couple of consequences:
- It turned obedience of the LORD into a matter of following rules and regulations, not of having a relationship with Him and wanting to be like Him. It created a very legalistic approach to religion, which even the Old Testament Law was never intended to be.
- It also meant that the religious leaders got confused as to their priorities. If there were any points on which the Law disagreed with their additional rules and regulations, in their minds the additional rules and regulations would take precedence over the Law! (See, for example, Matthew 15:3–5.)
- Compounding this, I’m assuming that any of the new rules they were creating were probably getting more and more strict as time went by. For example, I’m guessing Version 1 of the “guidelines” didn’t prohibit carrying a mat, but by the time this story takes place they did. I can’t back that up with any kind of evidence, it’s just an assumption based on human nature.
My point is that Jesus didn’t ask the man to commit a sin. The man didn’t violate God’s Law by carrying his mat. He did violate some extra rules, that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had added to the Law, but Jesus didn’t see that as a bad thing; if anything, these extra-biblical rules were bringing people away from God, not to Him.
No really, he’s breaking the Sabbath!!!
As mentioned above, the Jews in this story—again, I’m assuming they’re religious leaders, not just “regular Jews”—are so stuck on the fact that they think this man is breaking the Sabbath that it doesn’t seem to even register with them at first that this man was miraculously healed.
- Them: Why are you carrying a mat?
- The man: I was miraculously healed, and the guy who healed me said–
- Them: Don’t change the subject, why are you carrying a mat?!?
Almost after the fact, it starts to register with them that the mat carrying part is secondary; the important part of the story is that this man has been miraculously healed. And when they finally do start to understand that the mat carrying is secondary and the healing is the important thing, what is their response? They stop worrying about the fact that the man was carrying his mat on the Sabbath, and start worrying about the fact that Jesus is healing on the Sabbath! You can see how they had bad priorities: the rules were more important than healing this man of his infirmity.
Sin No More
Interestingly, when Jesus finds the man again, he instructions him to “sin no more.” In fact it’s even stronger than that; he instructs him to “sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (emphasis added). Does this mean that the man’s infirmity was caused by his sin? Maybe! It sounds like it!
We often emphasize the fact that suffering is not always caused by sin, which is very true (and is worth reminding ourselves of), but… sin does have consequences, and sometimes our sufferings are caused by our sins. (A straightforward example: if I cheat on my wife and catch a sexually transmitted disease, my suffering from that disease is my own fault, caused by my own sin. If I pass that disease on to my wife, she’ll also be suffering, but it won’t be through any sin of her own.)
This passage isn’t explicit about this point, but Jesus’s words definitely make it seem like this man’s infirmity is caused by his own sin. And if that’s true, notice that Jesus healed him anyway. There is no view from Jesus that he’s only going to heal people who are “worthy,” or that this man deserves his infirmity and should therefore be left alone. He doesn’t even tell the man to sin no more as a prerequisite for healing him; Jesus heals him first, and then tells him to sin no more.
Christians should never get the terrible notion in our heads that some people are deserving of our aid and some aren’t; we should never put people in categories of “worthy” or “unworthy” of our help and care. It’s unchristian in the larger sense, and it doesn’t follow Jesus’ example in the narrow sense. It’s just not a view that’s held in the Bible.
The religious leaders’ real problem with Jesus, at the end of this passage, is not that he told the man to carry his mat, or even that Jesus was healing (i.e. “working”) on the Sabbath. Their real issue by the end of this passage is that Jesus is calling God his Father, making himself equal with God.
Every once in a while you might come across someone who says that Christ never claimed to be God, but he did. On numerous occasions. There was no confusion from Jesus’ listeners in this passage as to what claims were being made: Jesus was “making himself equal with God.”
Some of this history I’m getting from a book I read, in which a Jewish scholar gave some of this background, but alas I don’t remember what book it came from. ↩︎