Beyond Superstition

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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. Now that day was the Sabbath. —John 5:1-9

The Gospel is not about miraculous healing, it’s about real healing. And the purpose of the Bethesda story is to reveal the grip that the power of superstition had upon God’s people, and to provide a real escape from it. The purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to break the hold that superstition had upon the poor and infirm, to set them free to follow God. As usual, the establishment profited from the foolishness and superstition of God’s people. Jesus ministered among the lowest classes of people—not exclusively, but generally—in part, in order to address these issues. Superstition and ignorance are often used to exploit people.

To begin this analysis, we must locate the Pool of Bethesda. It’s location would have been common knowledge among people at the time, so mention of it by John would have not been necessary. It was assumed.

Bethesda means “house of mercy” and is a composed of two words. The first is bayith, which is most often translated as house, but also as temple, prison, and even, dungeon. These latter translations are significant because the Pool of Bethesda has been located by scholars near the sheep gate, “between the tower of Meah and the chamber of the corner, or gate of the guard house or prison gate.” The second word which makes Bethesda is checed, which is most often translated as mercy, kindness, and goodness, but also pity, or reproach. An act of mercy can also be an act taken in pity. The house of mercy could also be a house of pity.

Bethesda was a small reservoir of water that had attracted the attention of the poor because it was in their neighborhood. Over time, five porches had been built around this reservoir to protect those who gathered there from the hot desert sun. Because of the location near the prison it is unlikely that it was originally built as a public swimming pool. There has been speculation that the Pool of Bethesda had been fed in part by water that had been used to rinse the Temple area after the altar sacrifices. There were many sacrifices resulting in much blood, and blood was sprinkled around the altar. The stench was covered by incense, and occasionally the blood would need to be rinsed away. That water then fed into the Bethesda pool giving it “spiritual” qualities because of its association with the Temple.

The water of the Bethesda pool was superstitiously believed to have healing powers. How so? The water had been used for cleansing and sacrificial rites, and coming from the Temple it was thought to have a lingering spiritual power of some kind. Occasionally, the whole Temple altar area would be flushed or rinsed, and the run off would drain into the Bethesda pool, stirring the water in the pool. And that “sanctified” blood was considered to be a blessing by the superstitious.

The Bethesda pool was in an out of the way location in Jerusalem, as you would expect a drainage system to be. The Jewish establishment did not highlight the blind, lame, and paralyzed in a prominent part of the city. Again, scholars locate Bethesda, near the sheep gate or prison, outside the city walls, and over time a “lower class” community developed there. Because Jesus often ministered with the poor, ill, and infirm, the setting of this miracle is certainly in keeping with the tenor of Jesus’ ministry.

The Superstition

According to John’s account, an angel stirred up the water and the first person in the water after the stirring would be healed. This was probably a simple restatement of the common, superstitious understanding of how the miracle of Bethesda was supposed to have worked. This was what people believed. John was not saying that this was what actually happened, but that this was what people believed and acted out.

Modern scholarship supports this view. Word Biblical Commentary indicates that verse 4, “may reflect an old tradition, it formed no part of the text of the Gospel.” Beasley-Murray was so convinced that verse 4 has no authenticity that he omitted it from his translation—but it must not be eliminated! Many commentators have thought that John believed this superstition to be fact, but there is nothing to confirm that John believed it. Rather, John included the superstition in his report because it is at the heart of the lesson of this story.

There was a certain man (v. 5) at the Pool of Bethesda who had believed this superstition for thirty-eight years—with no result! For this man the healing superstition of Bethesda had become a way of life. Everyday he went to Bethesda and waited for an angel to stir the waters, hoping or half-hoping to be able to be first in the pool and be healed.

One day Jesus saw him lying there (v. 6). The Greek word translated saw (eido) “often denotes spiritual perception.” Of all the people crowding into Bethesda to receive a healing, Jesus spiritually perceived this one particular man. Of all the people at Bethesda waiting to be healed by the miraculous water, Jesus healed only this one certain man. That in itself is a bit odd. Why this particular guy? Why not anyone else? Why would Jesus pick out one particular man rather than another? Perhaps Jesus spiritually saw the man’s need or his readiness or something. Jesus, as omniscient God, looked into the heart of this one certain man and saw into him, saw his heart. The Lord sees the heart (Jeremiah 20:12). What did He see?

We can determine to some degree what Jesus saw by the question He asked the man. J.C. Ryle said that “the English language here fails to give the full force of the Greek. Jesus asked ‘Hast thou a will?’” The Authorized Version translated it, “Wilt thou be made whole?” (v. 6). To understand Jesus’ question we must go back to verse 5 and determine the man’s ailment as best we can.

The man was an invalid, he suffered from astheneia, a Greek word that means weakness or sickness. It is sometimes used to describe the “weaker sex” (1 Peter 3:7), Paul’s “unimpressive” appearance in 1 Corinthians 2:3, and the “weakness of the flesh” of Matthew 26:41, where Jesus reprimanded the disciples for sleeping in the garden, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (asthenes). A willing spirit is contrasted with weak flesh.

No doubt the man lived the lifestyle of an invalid. For thirty-eight years he had chased a chance for miraculous healing at Bethesda. He was caught in the grip of a superstition that dominated his life, but produced no satisfying result. Surely some physical ailment had caused this man to seek healing many years ago when he first started going to Bethesda. And during the ensuing decades he undoubtedly acquired additional ailments as a result of age and the adapted patterns of life that were part of that scene, that lifestyle.

We all do this to one degree or another. We all become like the people we are with, whether we adapt to them or are simply attracted to people like ourselves. Birds of a feather do flock together. And this man had fellowshiped for thirty-eight years with the lame, with those who believed this superstition. If we know nothing else about the man, we can be pretty sure that he believed this superstition.

Jesus saw in this man a common weakness that was in need of the strength and healing of the Holy Spirit. Jesus saw that this man’s weakness (astheneia) could be strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Jesus may have chosen this particular man because he represented those who had been caught up in this particular superstition. To heal this man in the way that Jesus healed him would show the others how they, too, could be healed.

The Miracle

Jesus asked him,“Wilt thou be made whole?” (AV). I hear indignation in Jesus’ voice as He asked the question. Do you even want to be healed? The question accused the man of not really wanting health and wholeness. Healing would upset his adapted lifestyle. His life would change if he were healed, and real change is hard for people, and particularly hard for people who are stuck in a rut, captured by bad habits.

People often get stuck in the lifestyles of their sin and develop sin related diseases. Diseases are often fed by the lifestyles people live. And too often people live particular lifestyles hoping to reap some benefit from the ailment they claim. Like a person on welfare, a vicious cycle of behavioral justification can take over people’s lives. Sometimes it seems easier to be sick than to be healthy.

I imagine this man had made a life of begging and receiving charity, and to some extent he was caught in a vicious cycle. In fact, I think that this is the context of the miracle that provides the lesson it teaches. This guy had learned how to beg, and we can assume that after thirty-eight years he was able to make a living of it. It probably didn’t provide much, but enough. Over time it became a reliable skill. He learned where to be, how to dress, what to say in order to evoke the guilt that would produce an alm from a passerby. At some point, it probably became his only way to make a living. After thirty-eight years he believed he could do little else. So, he took charity because Temple goers practiced charity.

Jesus then came along and asked him if he wanted to be healed. Note that the man didn’t answer the question that Jesus asked him. Rather, he responded with his belief that his problem was someone else’s fault.

“It’s not my fault,” he said. “I have no one to help me.”

But that was not an answer to the question that Jesus asked. Jesus inquired about him, about his own willingness to be healed, not about his friends. Jesus asked him if he was willing to be healed, and he answered that he had no friends to help him. He deflected Jesus’ question about the state of his own heart, suggesting that his problem was that he had no friends. And the lack of fellowship is a serious problem which Jesus also healed by reintegrating the man into the Temple fellowship—which was how the Pharisees became aware of what Jesus had done (see John 5:14-15).

The man was ill, weak, even sick after thirty-eight years of playing this game of “it’s not my fault.” Can you hear the righteous indignation in Jesus’ voice? Can you feel His frustration, not just with this particular man, but with the whole situation at Bethesda—the spider web of superstition that had been woven around this Temple drainage pool.

The Command

“Rise,” said Jesus (v. 8). And he did. The fact that he rose suggests that there had been nothing keeping him from rising before Jesus saw through him and commanded him to get up. Of course, there is a miracle involved in his rising. But it may not be that the medical condition of his legs miraculously changed. Rather, the spiritual condition of his heart may have miraculously changed. Jesus wasn’t aiming at his legs, He was aiming at his heart!

One of the definitions of egeiro (rise) is “to arouse from the sleep of death.” It means to cause to wake up. Rise and shine, Jesus commanded the man. Wake up and smell the coffee! Jesus then said, “take up your bed and walk.” Airo (take up) means to remove. The sense of Jesus’ command was: Remove yourself! Get your things, get up, and get out of here!

The final verb Jesus used, peripateo, is a compound verb most often translated as walk, but also means to be occupied, to make one’s way, to progress, or to make due use of opportunities. Jesus commanded the man to get up, get out, and occupy himself in some other way. We sometimes use the same word when we mean walking the walk. And that is exactly what the man did. He got up and left. Was he all warm and tingly inside? Or did he leave because he had been caught cheating his own life.

The Lesson

What have I done to the miracle of Bethesda? Has the miracle simply been explained away with this interpretation? Not at all! The miracle was that the man obeyed the Lord’s command. The real miracle was obedience to Christ and the healing that comes from simple obedience. The miracle was that the hard edge of God’s truth kicked this particular man out of his habituated comfort zone. It was not a warm-fuzzy-violin-sawing-on-the-heartstrings-of-sentimentality kind of miracle. Rather, it was more of an oh-(expletive deleted)-I’ve-been-discovered-and-I-can’t-do-it-anymore kind of miracle. But it was a bona fide miracle!

The miracle has not been destroyed at all. Rather, it has been made all the more real because it is no longer a silly superstition about being touched by Jesus’ magic wand. The “Jesus’ magic wand” interpretation confuses superstition with reality. It turns Jesus into the same kind of miracle worker that superstitions feed on. But Jesus was out to break the superstitions that had enslaved humanity, not to further them.

The miracle at Bethesda was the work of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. The miracles of the gospel are always a matter of the grace of obedience, not the magic of superstition. Remember, not everyone at Bethesda was healed, just this one certain man. God chose to heal only him. Jesus made an example of him. And he was healed by God’s grace through obedience to Christ, through faith. To be awakened to the truth, to believe the truth is what faith is all about.

The miracle of that healing, the miraculous healing of God’s grace through obedience to Christ, is readily available to all of God’s people. Of course, it doesn’t always give you what you expect, or what you want. But it does serve God’s purpose—and that is enough for God’s people. What else could a Christian want than to be in service to God’s purpose?

This understanding of the miracle at Bethesda is consistent with Jesus’ teaching regarding miracles and the gospel He preached. It proclaims the truth to those who have lost the truth, and is the result of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God. The miracle at Bethesda is a classic example of Jesus’ teaching that the gospel is not a matter of superstitious magic, but of the grace of simple obedience in Christ.

In this light, the gospel shines clearly in the Bethesda story, though it runs counter to our own superstitions. Shouldn’t we expect the miracles of Jesus to surprise us? Don’t God’s miracles overturn human superstitions? Shouldn’t Christianity put an end to superstition? The answer is yes, yes, and yes! The story of Bethesda is not yet over.

The Larger Problem

The difficulty was that the man’s new walk of faith bumped into the Sabbath practices dictated by the Pharisees. It revealed a larger lie at the heart of the Temple establishment. Jesus didn’t want to eliminate the Sabbath or the Sabbath proscriptions, only to free people from domination by legalistic Sabbath dictates that had come from men, not God. Jesus wanted the real Sabbath observance to serve God. The Sabbath had been taken hostage by Jewish legalists. The Pharisees had used the Sabbath to force adherence to a legalistic religious system in which they were the top benefactors, and which took advantage of the poor and superstitious.

The rub came because the new-found-freedom that Jesus gave to the man threatened the Temple system. It showed the Pharisees to be hardhearted and wrong. The Jews believed that any attack upon or deviation from their Sabbath laws, or any of their laws, amounted to a personal attack upon them. And they “sought all the more to kill him” (v. 18).

Jesus had freed the Bethesda man and called him to get up, get back into society, and walk the walk of faithfulness. But as the man moved away from his sin and the religious system that kept him locked in it, he also moved away from the Sabbath as interpreted and dictated by the Pharisees. Jesus had made an example of this one particular man, and his example, his healing, his freedom in Christ, his freedom from superstition, threatened the establishment of the Temple.

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