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 Main Index : Commentaries : PNT : PNT Vol. 3 : Chapter V

Volume III
The Gospel According to John
Previous Chapter | Next Chapter



CHAPTER V.

JESUS AT BETHESDA.

      Thus far in his history of Christ John has followed the chronological order closely, and there is little difficulty in assigning the approximate date of each event. While he aims to select those events that illustrate his great aim, and often to supply what the other writers have omitted, rather than to give a full history, yet we can locate each occurrence in its proper connection until we come to the miracle at the pool of Bethesda. It occurred at "a feast of the Jews," on the occasion of the second visit of the Lord to Jerusalem after he began his ministry. It was after the occurrence at the well of Jacob, or the latter part of the fall, and before the feeding of the five thousand, which was about the first of April. This fact has made most commentators think that the feast attended was that of Purim, in early March. I do not harmonize with this view because, 1. The rigor of the season would have prevented the sick lying on couches exposed in the open air (5:3); 2. The short interval of three weeks to the passover makes it improbable that he would leave Jerusalem for a journey to Galilee; and, 3. The feast of Purim was not one ordained by the Jewish law, but an observance based on human tradition. The whole spirit of the Savior's teaching was opposed to such observances, and in the absence of testimony, I cannot believe that he ever came to Jerusalem to attend a feast of this kind.

      There is far greater probability that the passover named in John 6:4, was a year later and that a whole year of the Lord's ministry had intervened in the interval. This is the view of Irenæus, Eusebius, Lightfoot, Neander, Greswell, and of Andrews. According to their view, Christ went to Galilee in December and returned in the spring to Jerusalem to attend his second passover. The passover was, of all Jewish festivals, that in which Christ showed the greatest interest. He attended one at twelve years of age, another when he drove out the money changers, and probably the third, at this time, just one year later, on his second visit to Judea. John names two more passovers after this that the Savior attended, making, with this, four after his ministry began, and five including the one when he was twelve years of age. This much is certain, that it was our Lord's second visit to Jerusalem after his baptism, and that it occurred about a year after his first visit, as he had spent eight months in Judea, and a considerable time in Galilee, before his return.

      The location of the pool of Bethesda cannot be certainly determined. There were various pools around Jerusalem which were used for bathing, and more than one now fed by intermittent springs which agitate the water at intervals. The portion beginning with "waiting for the moving of the water" in the third verse and including the fourth verse, is omitted by the Revised Version, is not found in the best manuscripts, and is evidently an interpolation by some monkish scribbler who wanted to explain his ideas of how the water was moved.

      This passage in the life of Christ, apart from other interest, is deeply significant as the first conflict between Jesus and the authorities at Jerusalem. [84] At his visit one year before they had questioned his proceedings. The miracle at the pool of Bethesda causes them to seek to kill him (John 5:18).

      1. There was a feast of the Jews. John did not think it important to indicate what feast this was and we cannot certainly tell. It is remarkable that John in this case alone of all his allusions to Jewish feasts should have failed to give its name. Dr. William Milligan, in the International Lesson Commentary, suggests the following explanation of this omission: "Why did John, whose custom it is to mark clearly each festival of which he speaks (see 2:13, 23; 6:4; 7:2; 10:22; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1; 18:39; 19:14), write so indefinitely here? The only reply that it is possible is that the indefiniteness is the result of design. The Evangelist omits the name of the feast, that the reader may not attach to it a significance that was not intended. To John,--through clearness of insight, not from power of fancy,--every action of his Master was fraught with deep significance; and no one who receives the Lord Jesus as he received him can hesitate to admit in all his words and deeds a fulness of meaning, a perfection of fitness, immeasurably beyond what can be attributed to the highest of human prophets. Our Lord's relation to the whole Jewish economy is never absent from John's thought. Jesus enters the Jewish temple (chapter 2:4). His words can be understood only by those who recognize that he is himself the true temple of God. The ordained feasts of the nation find their fulfillment in him. Never, we may say, is any festival named in this Gospel in connection with our Lord, without an intention on the author's part that we should see the truth which he saw, and behold in it a type of his Master or his work. If this be true, the indefiniteness of the language here is designed to prevent our resting upon the thought of this particular festival as fulfilled in Jesus, and lead to the concentration of our thought on the Sabbath shortly to be mentioned, which in this chapter has an importance altogether exceptional." Two things ought to be added: 1. That the whole conflict that follows is about the Sabbath; 2. The feast of Purim, could not be celebrated on the Sabbath.

      2. There is at Jerusalem . . . a pool. It has been held that this language proves that John wrote before Jerusalem was destroyed. It only proves that he knew of the existence of such a pool and as far as he knew it still existed. Even if the city was destroyed the pools would mostly survive, and many exist to this day. [85]

      3, 4. In these lay a great multitude. All that follows "waiting" to the beginning of the 5th verse is wanting in the ancient manuscripts and is an interpolation. The efficacy of the pool might have been due to mineral elements, or even to effect on the imagination.

      5. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. In the porches around this pool a great number of afflicted persons were gathered on account of a belief that the waters had a miraculous virtue. The Scripture does not say (leaving out the interpolation) whether they had or not, but the multitude thought so. One was, probably, a paralytic who had been diseased thirty-eight years and had now been long waiting at the pool.

      6. Wilt thou be made whole? On the Sabbath day, while Jesus was attending the feast, he walked out to the pool of Bethesda, and seeing this poor sufferer and knowing that he had long been there without relief, he asked him the above question. He certainly knew that the man would like to be healed, but he asked the question to secure the man's attention. In almost every miracle he requires attention and an act of the will on the part of the subject. So in healing of sin, the will of the sinner must be reached and act, in order that he may be saved. "Almost every miracle is a parable of redemption."

      7. I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool. His attention was excited, but his only thought was of being healed by the pool. He explains that he has no man to put him into the pool, and his movements are so slow on account of his infirmity that some one else always anticipates him. His answer reveals the ideas that prevailed. The water was agitated at intervals, probably by an intermittent spring, and they supposed that the first one to enter after would receive the benefit. Only one could be healed at a time. No doubt many were, even without a miracle. In nervous diseases faith is the great healing power.

      8. Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. Then came the command to rise and walk. [86] When the Lord commanded there was always prompt obedience. He spoke not as man, but as the Son of God. He healed not by some other power, as did prophets and apostles, but by his own. His commands are always imperative, whether to the winds, the waves, the dead, the sick and infirm, and are always followed by immediate obedience. The powers of nature recognize it as the same voice that said, "Let there be light, and there was light." Note, however, that while Christ speaks with divine authority, the act of obedience is required. The man must rise, take up his bed, and walk. The bed was either a mattress which served as a couch by night and a seat by day, or a low bedstead. He was commanded to take it in order to emphatically show that he was a perfectly cured man.

      9. Immediately the man was made whole. Nature always recognized Jesus at once as her King. There was no slow process of healing, but the cure was immediate. Lazarus came forth at once; the lame walked at his voice. This man at once heard the command, was whole, took up his bed and walked. The result seems like an echo of the command. Observe the process: 1. Christ addresses the man; 2. He commands; 3. The man obeys. It is the obedience of faith. 4. In the act of obedience he is healed. Christ is the healer, but he is healed by the obedience of faith.

      10. The Jews, therefore, said unto him. "Therefore," points to the fact that he was carrying his bed on the Sabbath day. The term, "the Jews," does not refer to the people, but to the authorities. John always uses it to signify, not the multitude, but the rulers. The man was officially stopped and questioned. The bearing of burdens on the Sabbath was forbidden, not only by Jewish tradition, but by the law. See Exodus 31:13; Jeremiah 17:21 and Nehemiah 13:15-19. The Pharisees, however, had carried the matter to extremes never designed. Their doctors had gravely decided that "on the Sabbath a nailed shoe could not be worn; it was a burden; but an unnailed shoe could be worn; that a person could go with two shoes on, but not with only one; and that one man could carry a loaf of bread, but that two men could not carry it between them." The spirit of love, rest, worship and peace in the original Sabbath had given way to the iron bondage of formality. It was needful for one who was "Lord of the Sabbath" to teach them that "the Sabbath was made for man." These rigid martinets who delighted in frivolous minutiæ and forgot the spirit of the law, at once interrupted the man who was healed and accused him of breaking the law.

      11. He that made me whole said unto me. The defence of the man is that he was ordered to do it. He knew not who had healed him. Christ had suddenly appeared, spoken the words of healing and then disappeared in the crowd. He [87] had never seen the Lord before, and he was little known at Jerusalem, only having visited the city once before, since he began his ministry.

      12. What man is it that said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk? This question betrays the narrow bigotry of these officials. They do not ask, "Who healed thee?" but confine themselves to the charge of Sabbath breaking. They care nothing that the man is healed, and would far rather that he was lying on his couch, sick, and unable to move, than that he should carry it on the Sabbath.

      13. For Jesus had conveyed himself away. It is explained why the man did not know who healed him. As soon as Jesus spoke the words he disappeared in the multitude, none of whom probably knew him. In the later portion of his ministry crowds attended his footsteps and the whole land rang with his words and deeds, but at this stage he was comparatively unknown in Jerusalem. Christ never worked his miracles for popular applause or seemed to seek observation. The man had faith in him who commanded him to rise and walk, but had no idea who he was.

      14. Afterward Jesus findeth him in the temple. The man probably went there, moved with gratitude, to give thanks for the great mercy he had received. Still the temple was the great place of public resort in Jerusalem of all classes; great crowds gathered there, and he may only have wished to see and mingle again among his fellows, and to visit scenes from which he had long been excluded. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee. His own sins, thirty-eight years before, had brought on his infirmity. What was their nature we are not informed, but we know that often our fleshly ills can thus be accounted for. The words of Jesus show to the man that he knew his whole life, and brought up a flood of memories. His sins when he was young had ruined his health; now he is well, but is warned to beware lest a worse thing come upon him.

      15. The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus. The second time he saw him he learned that it was Jesus. The authorities had demanded to know who it was that told him to "carry his bed;" in obedience to the demand when he had learned he told "who had made him whole." He had probably been charged to carry word and did so to exculpate himself. The Jews thought of the violation of the Sabbath; he thought of being made whole.

      16. The Jews persecute Jesus. The word is literally rendered "pursued Jesus." [88] At once they hunted him and attacked him. They did not at first "seek to slay him." This is omitted by the Revision and does not appear in the old manuscripts. But the officials now come to Jesus to learn why he has done this act. It is the second time they have met him face to face; the first time after he had cleansed the temple (John 2:14); then he had claimed authority over the temple as his Father's house. Now he has laid his hand on the Sabbath day and claims to be its Lord. He had wrought the miracle on the Sabbath; commanded the man to take away his couch on the Sabbath; and in the wonderful address that he makes "to the Jews" justifies his course by the example of God, and makes "himself equal with God."

      17. My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. The answer of Jesus to his accusers goes to the very root of the matter. The basis on which the Sabbath rested was that God had ceased his creative labors on the seventh day. Jesus shows that God's rest was not idleness. His government, providence, and direction of nature were not suspended on the seventh day, or ever since creation. The Father had continued his works of love and mercy. He worked in these works right on till Jesus came; "now," says the Son, "I work as my Father works. There is no suspension on the Sabbath of works of benevolence and mercy." The Father's example is the pattern given to direct man. By this example the work of love is never a violation of the true Sabbath law. Comparing with Matt. 12:8 and Mark 2:27, we deduce as the Savior's teaching: 1. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath; above it; can modify or change it at his will. 2. It was made for man; for all men; for the poor, the bond as well as the free. What helps man is lawful on the Sabbath. 3. The Father's example is the true rule. He worked right on, but with a change of work. Work, like his, to help and bless humanity, is proper. It is rest that should be activity; a change from secular toil for our own interests, to work for the benefit of man. There is rest by a change of work to a higher kind of activity.

      18. Because he not only had broken the Sabbath. The Pharisees were horrified, not only at what they deemed the breaking of the Sabbath, but at the high ground on which the Lord placed his defence. They could not understand how the Sabbath could be kept without placing the soul under bondage to outward forms. Jesus broke these bonds and gave the soul liberty, pointing out the essential spirit of the law, which consisted in following the divine pattern. The Pharisee would have kept this poor man on his bed all day watching it to keep it from being stolen; Christ bids him to take it to its proper place that he may appear in the temple and worship. The Pharisee would have placed him under a bondage that would have made the day one of secular anxiety; Christ frees him and allows him to keep the day in the worship of God. But said also that God was his Father. This high claim seemed to them blasphemous. They understood his language to [89] mean that he was personally God's own Son, therefore of Divine nature, and equal with God. They understood him aright, but such a claim seemed to them astounding and blasphemous. They regarded him only as a man, however wonderful, and for a man to claim that he was Divine! Hence "they sought the more to kill him." They did not undertake to carry out his death at once, for that was not possible save by outright murder, but to prepare the way for his condemnation. Over two years later it was on this very charge that he was condemned. When all other charges failed the high priest asked him if he was the Son of God, and when he affirmed, he cried, "He blasphemes," and the Sanhedrim voted," He is worthy of death."


PRACTICAL OBSERVATIONS.

      1. Like our Savior we should seek out objects who need our help. There are the needy all around us. We cannot excuse ourselves because we do not see them. We should hunt them up.

      2. Christ is the great Healer. He can heal us of the diseases that paralyze our souls. In order that he may heal us we must (1) Listen to him; (2) Believe in his words; (3) Obey him. Whatever he bids us do must be done.

      3. Sin is pregnant with evil. Our calamities are almost all born of our own sins. Those who live debauched lives destroy their bodies. Most of those who live in constant bodily affliction can trace the origin of the trouble to their own acts. Sin will curse in this life and curse in the life to come. Jesus will save from the eternal curse of their sins all who come to him.

      4. A law may be kept in the letter and yet violated in the spirit. Outward forms alone cannot serve God. A bondage to frivolous forms cannot enable us to keep the Lord's day right. There must be the free spirit that seeks in all things to glorify God and bless man.

      5. As Christ followed in the footsteps of the Father, so we must follow Christ. "It is lawful to do good" on the Lord's day. Works of mercy and love are pleasing in the sight of God. We may relieve suffering, journey to worship, or bear burdens that will free us from cares that keep us from divine worship. It is better to ride on the street cars in order to attend church, than to break the Savior's law by staying away.

      6. Why did Jesus choose the Sabbath day to walk in the porches of Bethesda? He chose that day, and he selected that man, and he laid on him the command he did, for the very purpose of bringing himself front to front with the Jewish rulers. To this miracle we are indebted for one of the most wonderful discourses of the Savior.

      7. According to rabbinical authorities it was forbidden to travel more than two thousand cubits on the Sabbath, to kill the most offensive kinds of vermin, to write two letters of the alphabet, to use a wooden leg or a crutch, to carry a purse, or for a woman to carry a seal-ring or a smelling-bottle, to wear a high head-dress or a false tooth. Among other restraints laid upon animals, the fat-tailed sheep was not allowed to use the little truck on which the tail was borne to save the animal from suffering. These are a portion of thirty-nine prohibitions of the same kind.--Canon Cook. [90]


THE GLORY OF THE SON.

      19. Then answered Jesus. To their charge that he was guilty of blasphemy in making himself equal with God. In his answer he abates nothing from the high claims he has just made, but he meets their thoughts and purposes by a justification. The Son can do nothing of himself. He asserts his Sonship, but shows that the power of the Son comes from the Father. Perfect Sonship involves perfect identity of will and action, and hence, "Whatsoever the Father doeth, these also doeth the Son."

      20. He will show him greater works than these. The miracle of healing that has just occurred shall be followed by greater works which, on account of the love of the Father, the Son will be permitted to do.

      21. So the Son quickeneth whom he will. The Father is the fountain of life, and can restore life to the dead. The Son possesses the same power and will show it forth.

      22. Hath committed all judgment to the Son. In the 20th, 21st and 22d verses are given three proofs of the exaltation of the Son, all introduced by "for." The Son is loved of the Father, shall quicken the dead, and shall judge the world.

      23. He that honoreth not the Son, honoreth not the Father. Because the Son speaks the words, does the works, and is the manifestation of the Father.

      24. Hath everlasting life. The conditions of eternal life are (1) knowledge of the revelation of the Son; (2) a belief of it such as to cause its acceptance. [91]

      25. The dead shall hear the voice . . . and live. Primarily the reference is to those spiritually dead. They shall hear and the Son will give them eternal life. It was already true that these heard his words and were made alive. It shall also be true of those in the graves at the resurrection (verse 28). The power of Christ to give life was shown in Jerusalem a little later in the case of Lazarus.

      26, 27. Son of man. These verses affirm that God has not only given to the Son to have life in himself, or to be a fountain of life, but has also made him, the judge of mankind, because he is the Son of man, a judge who can share the nature of those called to judgment.

      28. Marvel not at this. What marvel that the Son should give spiritual life to those dead in sins and sit as Judge, when even those in their graves shall come forth at his command? He who had power to rescue Lazarus from the grave, surely has the power to give life to the soul and to confer immortality.

      29. And shall come forth. At the general resurrection all shall come forth from the tomb; those who have wrought good to life eternal; the evil doers to damnation. It is clear from this passage that there is a judgment beyond the grave.

      30. As I hear, I judge. The judgment of the Son is based on a perfect knowledge of the will of the Father. It is the Father's will that moves him, his own will being merged in the will of the Father.

      31. If I bear witness of myself. I is the emphatic word and is equivalent to "I only." He' cites other witnesses that these Jews ought to heed.

      32. There is another that beareth witness of me. I believe the reference is to the Father, referred to again in verse 37. I think that verse 34 shows that he does not mean John. [92]

      33, 34, 35. Ye sent unto John and he bare witness. See Chap. 1:19. John had borne positive testimony and the Jews, in great part, believed him to be a prophet of God. Jesus did not receive human testimony, but referred them to John's witness that "they might be saved."

      36. I have greater witness. His works. Christ's life and deeds were a proof that the Jews could not answer. See Chap. 3:2.

      37. And the Father himself . . . hath borne witness. God hath borne witness in the prophecies that were so wonderfully fulfilled in Christ, he also bore witness in the power he gave to Christ, and he bore witness by his voice at his baptism, and after this date, at the transfiguration, though these Jews had neither seen nor heard.

      38. Ye have not his word abiding in you. The proof of it was that they did not believe the one whom God had sent, though the word bore continual witness to him.

      39. Search the Scriptures. Or rather, "ye search the Scriptures" for eternal life. Yet those Scriptures were full of the testimony of Christ. Of him had all the prophets borne witness. He of whom the Scriptures spoke was the Life, yet they refused to come to him that they

      40. Might have life. They turned away from the life that was in their own Scriptures. The word search implies painstaking, exhaustive examination.

      41. I receive not honor from men. This seems to connect itself with a thought which he detected in their hearts that he had rebuked them from disappointment.

      42, 43. I know you. He read their hearts. The love of God. Love of God is [93] always manifest in obedience to his will. The rejection of Christ, who came in the Father's name, was proof that they were without the love of God. They rejected the Christ of God, but would readily follow a human deceiver. This was verified in their history.

      44. How can ye believe? They sought human glory and elevation, and hence could not be of the contrite and lowly spirit needful for belief.

      45. Do you think that I will accuse you? Moses will be their accuser. They had failed to keep the spirit of the law, or to accept his testimony.

      46, 47. Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me. Moses recorded various prophecies that were fulfilled in Christ, and all the types, shadows and symbols pointed to him. Had they believed Moses they ought to have accepted Christ. The reader should note the reverence with which Christ always alludes to the writings of Moses. The fault that he charges upon the Jews is not that they reverence Moses too highly, but that they disregard his sayings. There is not the slightest intimation that he regarded the Pentateuch aught else but the genuine composition of Moses. Those critics of our times, who profess a profound reverence for the authority of Christ, but insist that the books assigned to Moses are frauds of a later age than his time, should learn a lesson from the example of Christ.


PRACTICAL OBSERVATIONS.

      1. Unbelief is due to the heart rather than to the mind. The unbeliever chooses unbelief. Christ said of the Jews: Ye will not believe.

      2. Sonship implies the reproduction of the Father's will in the Son. If we are the children of God our will must be lost, in his. Every child of God will pray, "Thy will be done."

      3. The prophets, John, the Father himself, his own sinless life, his divine wisdom, his superhuman power, and his ability to transform the souls of men and to give them a new life, all bear witness that Jesus is the Son of God.

      4. Christ is our life. He has power to quicken the soul into new life, to make it a new creature and to give it a deathless existence. This stupendous and beneficent result is due to "hearing his voice." "They that hear shall live." They that "have ears and hear not" will remain in death. Every "one that hath ears let him hear." [94]

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