The Healing at the Pool on the Sabbath
Christ and Judaism
The fifth chapter of John’s Gospel begins a new section of the book. Like the first major section of the Gospel, this next section extends over four chapters, beginning with chapter 5 and ending with chapter 8. It deals as a whole with the development of opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ on the part of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and with Christ’s response to their opposition. The fact that this is a new section is important; for if we recognize the differences between this section of the Gospel and the first four chapters, we will have a lesson for ourselves about how we are to persevere in God’s service.
Little is ever accomplished in this life without a firm purpose. Caesar would never have conquered Gaul; Einstein would never have discovered relativity; the United States of America would never have landed men on the moon; nor would many thousands of other great accomplishments ever have been achieved without a firm purpose. Moreover, just as this is true in secular matters, so is it true spiritually. The only difficulty is that many Christians seem to live more by whim than by a firm determination to pursue the will of the Lord; consequently, many lack a firm purpose. We know what this means personally when we begin a work but soon drop it, when we determine to study the Bible every day but end up doing so only for about a week, when we get fired up to witness for Jesus Christ but then stop when we notice the first real sign of hostility.
Why do so many Christians seem to live like this? Why do we lack perseverance? There may be many answers, of course, but there are two main reasons—hostility and the danger of success. It is my conviction that these two dangers faced the Lord Jesus Christ in his determination to fulfill the will of his Father in his life and that we can be helped by studying his reactions to them. Simply put, the first of these dangers emerges in the fifth chapter of John in the opposition of the Jewish rulers to Christ and his teachings and is dealt with there, while the second danger—the danger of success—emerges in chapter 6.
At the end of these chapters, chapters 5 and 6, we find Jesus firmly following the path that God had set before him; namely, the path of the cross.
The Jewish Elite
The fifth chapter of the Gospel begins with a sentence that immediately shifts our attention to a new class of people. John writes, “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews.”
The new class of people is “the Jews,” but we must not understand this to mean all of the Jewish people; that is, the term is not meant ethnically. When John says “the Jews” he means the Jewish rulers who had their headquarters in Jerusalem, and it is these primarily with whom Jesus now comes into conflict.
The expression “the Jews” is not at all common in the other three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These Gospels use the phrase occasionally, most often in the expression “the King of the Jews.” But at the most this is only half a dozen times or so. In John the case is quite different. In the fourth Gospel the phrase occurs some seventy times. It is true that in some instances out of this great number of occurrences the term is neutral, or even praiseworthy, as in Christ’s statement, “Salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). But generally the term is used critically of those religious leaders who opposed Christ and the gospel. Thus John clearly distinguishes between the Galileans, who were Jewish in the ethnic sense, but whom he does not call Jews, and the Jews of Jerusalem. Moreover, even in regard to Jerusalem he distinguishes between the leaders, whom he terms “Jews,” and others. For instance, the parents of the man born blind were certainly Jewish, but they are not called Jews. Instead, they are said to have reacted in certain ways because “they were afraid of the Jews” (9:22), meaning the religious leaders.
It is these jealous and hostile leaders of the Judaism of Christ’s day who are now brought into the picture. According to the first four chapters of John’s Gospel most of the major groupings of the nation had already responded to Christ favorably—the disciples of John the Baptist and other Judeans, the Samaritans, the people of Galilee, even (according to the previous chapter) some who were in the service of Herod. The only exception has been the Jewish rulers.
There is probably a historical reason why the Gospel shifts to the conflict between Christ and these men at this point, and this is simply that a number of important historical events had taken place between Christ’s last visit to Jerusalem and the visit recorded in the fifth chapter. There is a lapse of time here that John indicates generally by the phrase “some time later.” It was during this lapse of time that the events in question took place.
What happened during this period? First, there had been a shift in the policy of Rome toward the Jewish nation that had greatly sharpened the danger of insurrections and war. The anti-Semite Roman commander Sejanus, working through Pilate, deprived the Sanhedrin of its jurisdiction over capital crimes, with the result that the Sanhedrin had to abandon the Great Hall of Hewn Stone in the temple court and move as a body to the market of Annas on the temple mount. We see the results of this change a year or so later when the Sanhedrin was compelled to come to Pilate seeking the death penalty in the case of Jesus Christ. Second, there was an increase, partly as a result of the Roman action, of Zealot activity leading the more pessimistic among the rulers to predict a time of persecution and suffering. Thus, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai prophesied the future destruction of the temple, and Rabbi Zadok began a forty-year partial fast for the preservation of Jerusalem that ended only when the city was overrun by the Roman legions under Titus and destroyed by them. From the biblical point of view the most significant event was the arrest and eventual execution of John the Baptist, who was Christ’s forerunner. We notice this by comparing John 3:24, where we are told that “This was before John was put in prison,” with 5:33–35, which speaks of the ministry of John in the past tense.
In such a tumultuous period of history it is no wonder that the leaders of Judaism reacted to the emergence of Jesus as a new and potentially dangerous figure. It is understandable that their hostility intensified when he revealed himself to be above their personal interpretation of the law and actually defended his actions by identifying himself with God the Father. Here is a great hostility. Yet Jesus did not allow this hostility to deter him from following the path the Father had set before him.
Do you allow hostility to deter you? If you determine to live for God in the midst of this sinful world or speak a word for Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know him, you can be sure that hostility in some form will come. Perhaps you have already experienced it. Have you allowed it to get you off the track of Christian living and witnessing? If so, you need to get back on the track by following the example of Jesus.
Jesus Christ did not allow the hostility of the Jewish leaders to deter him from the path that God had placed before him. But, on the other hand, neither did he allow it to produce a bitterness in his outlook on his ministry. Unfortunately, this bitterness has often happened to Christ’s disciples, perhaps to you. I have known Christians who have not allowed hostility to get them off course, but unfortunately they have become so bitter that they have greatly limited their opportunities for service and it has darkened their lives.
It is interesting to note, precisely at this point, that this is what some scholars have claimed happened in the early church in reference to Judaism, and that we even have a reflection of what happened in references such as those in which John critically mentions “the Jews.” In other words, some scholars are saying that Christian anti-Semitism has its origins in the New Testament Scriptures and can be eliminated only when today’s Christians repudiate their error at its source.
Let me give you some references that will made this clear. In a recent book a well-known Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, argues that “the historic roots of Christian anti-Semitism go back to the basic teachings of the New Testament.” In another book Rabbi Samuel Sandmel argues similarly, “We Jews figure as villains, all of us or some of us, in much of your Bible. Only very lately has this bothered you extensively and intensively, and the reality has to be faced that some of you are not bothered by this at all.”3
It is not just rabbis that have been making this point. Actually, the same accusation has been leveled—only in even more forceful language—by Protestants. A. Roy Eckhardt, editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, states that “all the learned exegesis in the world cannot negate the truth that there are elements not only of anti-Judaism but of anti-Semitism in the New Testament.” He calls for a denunciation by Christians of “anti-Semitic allegations” in John, in Paul, and elsewhere. On other fronts Noel Freedman of the San Francisco Theological Seminary has claimed that the New Testament “is simply an anti-Semitic book.”5 In the foreword to Judaism and the Christian Predicament, Union Theological Seminary’s Frederick C. Grant has expressed the hope that the reversal of traditional attitudes toward the Jews that he detects in our age “will in time … involve more than just a formal repudiation of anti-Semitism. It will also include a repudiation of impossible literalism and legalism in the interpretation of the Bible, or the refusal to interpret it at all.”
Is this true? Is the New Testament anti-Semitic? One cannot help admiring the vigor with which these writers—both Christians and Jews—are attempting to purge the world of anti-Jewish prejudice. And there can be little doubt that the defeat of anti-Semitism is long overdue. Nevertheless, at the same time, one must question whether this approach properly represents the biblical view and whether the cure prescribed is adequate. Actually, it is more likely that the cavalier way in which some Protestant exegetes handle Scripture actually breeds an insensitivity to it and consequently sets aside the one sure hope of a cure.
In the first place, it simply is not true that the New Testament is anti-Semitic. It is true that the New Testament contains statements that sound anti-Semitic to modern ears, conditioned as they are by centuries of prejudice. The New Testament speaks of a general failure of the Jewish people in the time of the apostles to believe in Jesus as their Messiah and Savior, and it laments this unbelief. Still, if this is to be judged anti-Semitic, then statements about the failure of Gentiles to believe must be considered anti-Gentile. Actually, the New Testament writers show great anguish because those of their own nation had failed to embrace what was for them the “Good News” of God’s action in Christ for man’s salvation. At no point in any of the nonbiblical literature of the times does any writer claim, as Paul does (Rom. 9:3), that he would be content to see himself accursed if that would bring about the salvation of the Jewish people.
Critics have imagined an anti-Semitic element in John’s references to “the Jews” as those who crucified Jesus. But, as we have seen, this was a political designation for John rather than an ethnic one. He himself was a Jew and was proud, as were the other disciples, of his heritage.
Second, the current judgment against certain biblical strains seems to overlook entirely the positive things said about the Jews in the New Testament, even by those writers who are judged to be most anti-Semitic in their statements. Paul is considered a prime offender because of his sharp polemic, particularly against the Judaisers who were subverting his hard-won churches. But it is Paul who most clearly spells out the advantages of Judaism. “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision?” he asks. “Much in every way! First of all they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Rom. 3:1–2). “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ” (Rom. 9:4–5). This certainly is not anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it shows an unusual sensitivity to God’s dealings with the Jews in history and great appreciation for the spiritual inheritance available to all men through them.
Moreover, if the Jews as a whole have refused to believe in Jesus, this is remarkable to the New Testament writers precisely because of the way God worked through the Jews in the past. It is this that gives rise to extensive comment. In Paul’s mind, the fact that God seems now to be working through the Gentiles, calling out another people, the church, is so unexpected and so astonishing that he properly calls it a “mystery” kept secret since the world began.
Finally, the New Testament also points to great future privileges for Israel, when Israel as a whole will receive her Messiah, even as many individual Jews receive him now. Eckhardt argues that Jesus is not the Messiah of Israel because he is not the kind of Messiah Israel was and is expecting. But this is faulty logic. One might as well say that he is not the Savior of the Gentiles because most Gentiles do not want a Savior. The Christian must argue against both these conclusions, maintaining that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and Savior in spite of people’s rejection of him, and that it is precisely people’s unawareness of this need that most reveals it. Moreover, it would even be a correct reading of Paul (Romans 9–11) and John (Revelation) to claim that God has preserved the Jewish people throughout history so that they can bear a great witness to him in the end days.
The conclusion of all this is that Jesus Christ did not respond to the hostility of the leaders of Israel toward himself with bitterness any more than he allowed their criticism to deter him from his path to the cross. In his reaction we have a pattern for our own.
How are we to avoid these two dangers? There is only one answer. It is by keeping our eyes upon the Lord Jesus. John Bunyan pictured it graphically in Pilgrim’s Progress in a scene in which Pilgrim escapes death from two ferocious beasts who are chained to either side of a path. He escapes by walking directly toward a light that is held before him. Christ is our light. His light shines on the path we are to follow. The Bible admonishes us to lay aside everything that might hinder us in our purpose and to run life’s race “fix[ing] our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
~The Third Miracle~
It is almost commonplace today to observe that the “system” often seems to help those who need it least while it is hardest on the destitute. We speak of this economically when we say that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Those who are well educated often get better educations. Those on the treadmill of unemployment and relief often sink deeper and deeper into the welfare morass. In one sense, some people even apply the principle in the area of religion when they say—wrongly, of course—that “God helps those who help themselves.” So deeply is this ingrained in the modern mind that people try to tell me that the last statement—“God helps those who help themselves”—is in the Bible.
Actually, the opposite is true. For one of the great principles of the Word of God is that God, the Almighty, helps the helpless. The gospel is for everyone. But that only means that it is to you and me, who cannot help ourselves spiritually, that the offer of salvation comes.
The Need of Humanity
The Need of Humanity
The fifth chapter of John contains one of the great biblical expressions of this principle. It is the third miracle that John records in his Gospel, specifically the miracle in which Jesus Christ enables a lame man to walk. There are probably two reasons why John records it. First, it was this miracle that marked the beginning of angry disbelief and hostility toward Jesus on the part of the Jewish leaders. It is to this theme that the Gospel now turns. Second, there is the fact that the story illustrates how Jesus came to the weak and helpless, and saved them. This aspect of the story is particularly apparent at the beginning of the account of the hostility that developed between Jesus and the Jewish leaders; for the leaders were the ones who should have accepted him and among whom we would have thought he should have done his most extensive work. But they were insensitive, and Christ moved instead among the masses.
John tells us that all this happened when Jesus returned to Jerusalem for a feast. This would have been one of the great religious feasts of Israel, though we do not know which one. Apparently he was alone, for none of the disciples is mentioned as having been with him. While in Jerusalem Jesus passed by the pool of Bethesda, which John tells us was distinguished by five collonades, where he saw the lame man.
It is interesting to stop at this point to note that the pool of Bethesda, mentioned here by John, is now known to archaeologists. There was a time when critics of the Gospel were giving the book a very late dating and were arguing in part on the basis of this reference that the author of the Gospel did not really know what Jerusalem was like in Christ’s time. They said no one had ever heard of a pool by this name and, besides, no one has ever even uncovered a five-sided pool from antiquity. Now, however, the name “Beth Eshatain” has emerged from the copper scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. It gives us the name Bethesda. And what is even more important, the pool itself has been found. Actually, the pool of Bethesda (now known as the pool of St. Anne) is two twin pools each surrounded by colonnades. Thus, there are five collonades—four of which surround the pools and one that divides them. This is the pool of which the apostle John was writing when he recorded that in Christ’s day sick people gathered there believing that an angel intermittently stirred up the water, and that whenever this happened the next person to step into the water would be cured.
It is a pitiful picture, as John relays it. But it is far more pitiful when we realize that he is including the description to dramatize the helpless and woefully hopeless condition of the human race.
“Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (5:2–3). What a comprehensive description that is! It is really a twofold description. First, the people are called disabled; that is, they are said to be without strength to help themselves. Then, their disability is spelled out by three more terms. John calls them blind, lame, and paralyzed.
This is the human race as it stands apart from the grace of God through Jesus Christ. How does God view people before that act in which he places new life within them? One answer is in Romans 5:6, which tells us that it was when we were “still powerless” that Christ died for the “ungodly.” The American Standard Version of the Bible and the Roman Catholic Confraternity translation both translate this verse to say that it was when we were “weak” that the love of God was shown to us. The Williams and Goodspeed translations say “helpless.” Phillips uses the English word “powerless.” Beyond this, the lexicons tell us that the Greek word means “infirm, feeble, unable to achieve anything great, destitute of power among men, sluggish in doing right.” In other words, God tells us that it was when we found it impossible to do anything for ourselves spiritually that Christ died for us.
When we use the word “impossible,” we must be careful to indicate in what sense the word is meant. For instance, there are cases of conditional impossibility in which we mean that something is impossible unless something else should happen. I might say that it is impossible for me to pay all this month’s bills, but that is a conditional impossibility since it might happen that I would receive an unexpected check that would cover them. I would be using the word in the same way if I should say that it is impossible for me to take on an extra job, unless I drop one that I am already doing; or that it is impossible for me to work with this noise, unless I wear earmuffs. I could extend this list indefinitely, for there will always be an infinite number of things that are impossible, unless something else should happen.
In quite another category, however, are those impossibilities that will remain impossibilities because they can never be affected by circumstances. It is impossible for a thing to be true and false at the same time and in the same relationship. It is impossible for black to be white. It is impossible for something to exist and not exist at the same time. God places disabled man in this category of impossibilities when he declares that it is impossible for man to do anything by himself that will satisfy God.
We find these truths summarized in the many verses that tell us what man cannot do spiritually. We read, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Jesus asked the people of his day, “Why is my language not clear to you?” then answered, “Because you are unable to hear what I say” (John 8:43). Peter wrote that, unaided by God, a person cannot cease from sin (2 Peter 2:14).