Summary: John the Baptist called the Jewish leaders, snakes. Today the Jews accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath by healing a paralytic man at what was probably a Temple to the Greek snake god of healing named Asclepius
Last week we finished up the double story of the Samaritan woman, and Jesus teaching the disciples who were on a save Jesus mission to a Samaritan village to get food. Perhaps it was the same village that the Samaritan woman had returned to tell the elders about Jesus. If so, they supplied the food the disciples brought back with them to feed Jesus with. But they were astonished by Jesus' response that he had already eaten. Instead, Jesus fed them the gospel. This story seems to have had a happy ending. We can't be too sure about the fellow we meet today.
Exposition of the Text
Verse 1 tells us that Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate a feast. It does not tell us which one, whether a major feast like Passover, or a minor one. This has left commentators divided. However what feast it was is unimportant. John is careful to identify what feast Jesus was at elsewhere. So what I feel is important here is not the feast itself as much as it was the Sabbath day. If it wasn’t one of the feasts that Jews were required to attend, it does not matter. Jesus went out of his way to find the Samaritan woman at the well. This same necessity from the Father may have moved Jesus to keep not a feast as much as an appointment with this man lying by the side of the pool.
Commentators do not agree, nor does the Greek text as to the name of the pool complex, whether it is Bethesda, which means “House of Mercy”; Bethsaida, which means “House of Fish”; or Beth-zatha, which means “House of the Olive Tree”. Again, the name is not important here. What is important is that a great number of sick people had gathered there in hopes of healing.
Healing pools were common in the Pagan world and tied in to the supposed healing powers of the Greek God of healing called Asclepius. In fact, there was a large temple and pool to that God in the city of Ephesus where tradition says was the location from which John wrote the Gospel. The sick after a ritual in the temple would bathe or be bathed for purification in hope of healing. The insignia of this God was a snake wrapped around a pole. The medical profession added the wings of Hermes to this to come up with the modern symbol of the medical profession. What makes this interesting is that Jesus in this gospel mentions Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness that whosoever had been bitten and then looked at the lifted up serpent were healed. What is clearly being implied in John’s Gospel is that true healing does not come by looking at a snake on a pole but rather to see Jesus lifted up on the cross. Neither the snake of Moses or of Asclepius matters. Nor does ritual bathing. Jesus is the source of all healing.
We don’t know how many if any were actually healed by the waters of the pool. Most Greek texts do not include verse 4, which explains that an angel came from time to time to stir up the waters. At any rate, the Jewish authorities would have looked with suspicion if not contempt at this place as they would think this as Heathen superstition. Whether or not verse 4 is original or a margin note by a later writer is unimportant. What is important is that the sick man believed this pool would cure the first one who entered it when the water is troubled. And so did a great deal of others.
Seeing the desperation of the large number of sick people around the pool, there must have been a lot of competition for the places nearest the pool so they could be the first in the water. The water probably did not bubble there very often, which made watching day and night an exceedingly agonizing task. Some people who were less afflicted could get into the pool by themselves on their own strength and would have a distinct advantage over this man who had been there 38 years. Not only this, the stronger would have pushed the weaker people away from the pool. Also, those who were richer could hire strong men to be beside them to throw them into the pool when the waters were troubled.
So if there were any healings there, and there probably were some, the people who were in the least need were far more likely to make it into the pool first. But this man had no friend to help him like the four friends of another paralytic who tore the roof off the house to get him to Jesus. Nor did he have the means to hire someone to throw him into the water as the straw mat he lay on indicated his poverty. So here we see him, pushed away from the pool, forgotten, neglected, and without any real hope. For 38 years he lay there without any real hope or help. In fact, he may have lay there longer than anyone else. The rule of the place was first come, first served.