March 30, 2023

Jesus Heals a Lame Man at the Pool of Bethesda

In John chapter 5, we learn of the story of Jesus healing a lame man at the Pool of Bethesda. According to some Bible translations, an angel stirred up the waters which allowed whoever entered them first to be miraculously healed. Yet, the earliest copies of the Gospel of John only mention the movement of the water and say nothing about the angel. So, what caused this troubling of the waters, and, more importantly, what can this story teach us about becoming whole through the atonement of Jesus Christ?

The story begins with Jesus traveling to Jerusalem during one of the Jewish feasts (John 5:1). While John doesn’t mention which feast it was, some scholars suggest it might have been the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost (Brown, 206). Before a pilgrim could enter the temple, they had to become ritually clean by immersing in what is known as a mikvah filled with living water. Living water came from a natural source of moving water such as a spring, rainwater, or a stream. If even just a small amount of living water was added to water that was stagnant or not moving, all of it would then be considered “living,” and thus suitable for purification.

With tens of thousands of Jews coming to Jerusalem during such feasts, many ritual bathes or mikvot were constructed around the temple to accommodate the large crowds. The Pool of Bethesda is believed to be one of these ritual washing areas. Bethesda had two large pools surrounded by porches on all four sides, with a fifth porch, as referenced in John 5:2, dividing the two pools. Both pools were massive in size and together were about the dimensions of a standard soccer field. The pools were located at the bottom of a small valley north of the temple. During the rainy season, runoff water would funnel down the valley and collect into the northern pool. Today the northern pool has been mostly covered by centuries of soil and later structures making it almost impossible to visualize.

The southern pool had large steps and landings that led down to the water level. It was likely on one of these landings where the lame man rested. Visitors today can still see at least some of these steps, which have been exposed by archeologists. The steps are surprisingly tall as one climbs up them, making it understandable why the lame man was unable to easily climb down them.

The thick wall dividing the two pools, or the fifth porch, has a shaft that goes down to the bottom and connects the two pools. One could climb up and down the shaft because of small footholds that had been carved in the side of the wall, creating a sort of ladder. Climbing down, a person could open recesses in the shaft, allowing the water to drain from the northern pool to the southern pool. This would bring the “living” rain water from the north pool in contact with the stagnant water in the southern pool, making it usable for ritual purposes. As Jewish pilgrims came to Jerusalem, they could come to this pool, or one of the many others, and climb down the steps until they arrived at the water level. Once they had been immersed in the water, they were then considered ritually clean to worship at the temple.

Thus, rather than being the result of angelic power, the moving of the water seems to have been caused by water coming from the northern pool, bubbling up as it came through the drainage tunnel. With this setting in mind, let’s now dive into the story of the healing of the lame man by Jesus.

The day was the Sabbath. Many people with physical illnesses had gathered on the steps and large landings, where they waited for the movement of the water. Apparently, they believed that whoever was able to get into the moving waters first would be healed. As Jesus entered Bethesda, he was drawn to a particular man whom Jesus somehow knew had been afflicted for many years. We don’t know this man’s age, but for 38 years he had suffered, longing for a miraculous healing that never came.

Jesus walked up to him and asked, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6 NKJV). Instead of answering with a simple yes or no, the man replied that he had no one to help him into the pool when the waters were troubled. In essence, the man focused on what he perceived as the main obstacle that stopped him from being healed. In great power, Jesus simply stated, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk” (John 5:8). 

The man was instantly healed and took up his bed to leave as commanded by the Savior. Yet as he proceeded on his way, he was confronted by Jewish leaders who accused him of breaking the Sabbath. The Law of Moses didn’t actually prohibit the carrying of a bed on the Sabbath, but later Jewish traditions apparently did. As Jesus did so many times, he seemed to have purposefully healed this man on the Sabbath day, as it provided him an opportunity to teach about the true purpose of the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath is not about obeying contrived lists of dos and don’ts. Rather, the Sabbath should be a day for spiritual and even physical renewal and healing. It should be a day where we focus on reaching out to heal and lift others.

The occurrence of this miracle during a Jewish feast should also not be overlooked. Around this time, thousands of pilgrims would have been ritually bathing in these pools after a long journey toward the temple. We may ask ourselves, where did this man first go after he was bid to rise and walk. Perhaps it was to the temple, where, for the first time in nearly four decades, he would be able to participate in its sacred rituals (Razafiarivony). 

For those who have struggled for years with heart-wrenching physical or spiritual challenges, for those who feel no one is there to assist or heal them, the words of Jesus to the man at Bethesda can offer powerful comfort and encouragement. As Isaiah so beautifully wrote, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31).

This story teaches that Jesus is the true source of living water. No matter how long we have to endure hardships, we can trust that he will never forsake us. He can pick us out of any crowd and knows precisely what we need most. Whatever’s keeping us from progressing on our journey towards God’s presence, Jesus can lift us up and help us on our way. If it’s the stagnant or corrosive elements of sin that are keeping us down, the healing waters of Christ’s atonement can make us clean and whole. 

Even death itself can’t conquer us, seeing that through Christ all will someday rise up, walk, and live forever! “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). In a way, no matter our circumstances, Jesus is bidding each of us to take up our beds and walk—to walk with him, to walk for him, to walk and follow him. As we act in faith, we’ll find that we have the power to do whatever he commands, because he has lifted us up and made us whole.

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