This passage lies at the beginning of a unit within the Gospel that continues through 12:50 that covers the major Jewish festivals. The specific festival in question here in chapter 5 is not identified by the text, so for our purposes we will not worry about trying to speculate on this point, although there are various theories put forth by commentators; the application here is not affected by which festival is involved.
The pool at Bethesda was stirred periodically, we don’t know how often, and the first lame person into the pool when it was stirred would be healed. The man who is the subject of our text was so disabled that he was not able to move quickly enough to be first, and had suffered his disability for 38 years. In our text, Jesus will heal him, command him to pick up his mat and walk, and then slip back into the crowd. The aspect of this event that we will concentrate on today is the reaction of the Jews, while next time we will concentrate on Jesus’ response to them in vv. 16-47.
The first three verses are discussed in the introduction, however you might notice that the NIV does not have a verse four. It is contained in the footnote and omitted from the text. The King James renders verse four thusly: “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.” This verse does not appear in the early manuscripts, yet in the latest ones it suddenly appears. This is considered to be the result of an early margin note giving the local explanation (myth?) that had later been incorporated into the text.
Jesus walks up to the man and asks him a simple question: “Do you want to get well?” The man’s reply demonstrates that he had little hope. Not only had he been in this condition for 38 years, but the pool rules required that he be first into the pool, and only people better off than he had any chance of making it; he appears to have been demoralized. Jesus did not argue, lecture or pity, He simply gave a command without further comment: The man complied without hesitation. I wonder if we would be so bold in this man’s condition! The man believed Jesus; he took Jesus at His word. There were no questions, arguments or hesitations: He followed Jesus’ command. All appears to be well until verse 9… it was the Sabbath!
In verses 10-13, we cannot help but be amazed at the ridiculous reaction to this miracle: It was the Sabbath and you aren’t allowed to carry your mat. Nobody said, “Wow, aren’t you the guy who was crippled for 38 years… and now you are healed: Praise God!” No, there will be no rejoicing for what God has done, only condemnation because the guy picked up his stupid mat. The man told them that he had the mat because the guy who healed him had told him to pick it up, and of course they demand to know who had done that. (Conspiracy to break the Sabbath!) The man had no idea…
A curious thing happened: Jesus ran into the man later and warned him to stop sinning lest something worse happen to him and the man ran to the Jews to report who his co-conspirator was. There are several possible reasons for Jesus’ words to the man, although it seems to me that the most likely meaning is to warn the man not to sin lest he receive condemnation at the final judgment. It seems unlikely that Jesus was talking about carrying the mat on the Sabbath! Notice also the lack of the man thanking Jesus for his healing, could that be the answer? In any case, the man ratted on Jesus to the Jews. Curious, don’t you think? This act, of course sets up the next part in this story which we will consider next time.
For today, it is interesting to consider where all of these Sabbath rules came from. Rest assured that it was not from the Law, but rather they came from the Jews’ interpretation of the Law, a very strict interpretation that converted a day of rest and relaxation into more of a heavy yoke of obligation that Jesus dealt with over and over again.
Do we Christians make up rules of conduct that Jesus didn’t give us and turn our faith into a heavy burden instead of its being a joy? This should make for an interesting discussion!