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The brother of a deceased man was required to have a child with the widow of his brother, so that the line of the dead man would continue.
Genesis 38 ESV
1 It happened at that time that Judah went down from his brothers and turned aside to a certain Adullamite, whose name was Hirah. 2 There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua. He took her and went in to her, 3 and she conceived and bore a son, and he called his name Er. 4 She conceived again and bore a son, and she called his name Onan. 5 Yet again she bore a son, and she called his name Shelah. Judah was in Chezib when she bore him. 6 And Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. 7 But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord put him to death. 8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” 9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 10 And what he did was wicked in the sight of the Lord, and he put him to death also. 11 Then Judah said to Tamar his daughter-in-law, “Remain a widow in your father’s house, till Shelah my son grows up”—for he feared that he would die, like his brothers. So Tamar went and remained in her father’s house. 12 In the course of time the wife of Judah, Shua’s daughter, died. When Judah was comforted, he went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. 13 And when Tamar was told, “Your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep,” 14 she took off her widow’s garments and covered herself with a veil, wrapping herself up, and sat at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that Shelah was grown up, and she had not been given to him in marriage. 15 When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 He turned to her at the roadside and said, “Come, let me come in to you,” for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” 17 He answered, “I will send you a young goat from the flock.” And she said, “If you give me a pledge, until you send it—” 18 He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord and your staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her and went in to her, and she conceived by him. 19 Then she arose and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood. 20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’ ” 23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.” 24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. 27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.
Deuteronomy 25:5–10 ESV
5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’
C. Jesus and the Sick Man in Jerusalem (Joh_5:1-18)
Ruth 1:11–13 ESV
11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”
1 After these things there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 At the Sheep’s [place] in Jerusalem is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethsaida, having five porticoes. 3 In these would lie a multitude of the sick, blind, lame, or shriveled up. 5 There was a certain man there who was thirty-eight years in his sickness. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and found out that he had been like that for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to get well?” 7 The sick man answered, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and whenever I get there, someone else goes down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.” 9 And all at once the man got well, and he picked up his mat and walked. But it was the Sabbath that day. 10 So the Jews said to him who had been cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to pick up your mat.” 11 But he answered them, “The one who made me well, that man told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who told you, ‘Pick up and walk’?” 13 But he who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had ducked out—there was a crowd in the place.
Ruth 4:1–12 ESV
1 Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. 2 And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down. 3 Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech. 4 So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” 5 Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” 6 Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” 7 Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. 8 So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. 9 Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. 10 Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.” 11 Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, 12 and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.”
14 After these things Jesus finds him in the temple and said to him, “Look, you have gotten well. Don’t sin any more, or something worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who made him well. 16 And for this the Jews began pursuing Jesus, because he did such things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus had an answer for them: “My Father is working even until now, and I am working.” 18 So for this the Jews kept seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only abolishing the Sabbath but was claiming God as his own Father, making himself equal to God.
Matthew 22:24–25 ESV
24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother.
“After these things” [Gr. μετὰ ταῦτα, as in Joh_2:13; Joh_3:22.] (Joh_5:1; compare Joh_2:13; Joh_3:22) links the ensuing account only very loosely to what has preceded. The same phrase occurs again at the beginning of chapter 6 and chapter 7, each time signaling a change of scene or a turn in the narrative (see also Joh_5:14). A number of scholars over the years have proposed reversing the order of chapters 5 and 6, so that Jesus’ ministry at Cana in Galilee to the royal official (Joh_4:43-54) is followed immediately by the feeding of the multitude, still in Galilee near the shore of the lake (Joh_6:1-15). [See, for example, the commentaries of Bernard (1.171), Bultmann (209), and Schnackenburg (Joh_2:5-9), all of whom not only propose such a transposition, but incorporate it into the arrangement of their commentaries.] This explains why Jesus at the beginning of chapter 6 is assumed to be already in Galilee, simply crossing from one side of the lake to the other (Joh_6:1). But there is not a shred of manuscript evidence for such a move. Readers who dutifully follow the course of this rearranged Gospel from chapter 4 to chapter 6 to chapter 5 to chapter 7 will discover at the beginning of chapter 7 that Jesus is suddenly “walking around” in Galilee (Joh_7:1) without any notice of how he got there from Jerusalem, and within nine verses is back in Jerusalem again (see Joh_7:10). The rearrangement solves one problem only to create another. [Schnackenburg (Joh_2:5) argues the opposite, but unconvincingly.] While it may tell us something of the original historical sequence of certain events in Jesus’ life, it tells us nothing of the literary sequence of John’s Gospel. Its mistake lies in trying to “improve” the text by making it more chronologically aware and intentional than it intends to be. “After these things” means little more than “The next thing I would like to tell is this.” Better to interpret the text as it stands than rewrite the text. With this in mind, let us move from chapter 4 to chapter 5, not to chapter 6. The new chapter finds Jesus in Jerusalem, where he again (as in Joh_4:43-54) performs a miracle that gives “life” to someone who is “sick.”
Joh_5:1 Instead of “going down” to Capernaum from Cana in Galilee (katabēthi, Joh_4:49), Jesus “went up” [Gr. ἀνέβη.] to Jerusalem, just as he had done at Passover (see Joh_2:13). Having firmly established that Jesus is a Galilean (Joh_2:1-12; Joh_4:3, Joh_4:47, Joh_4:54), the author makes Galilee his point of reference and brings Jesus to Jerusalem only for “a festival of the Jews.” [Gr. ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδίων, without a definite article. Some ancient manuscripts (including א, C, L, 33) have “the festival of the Jews” (ἡ ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδίων), as if the author (and perhaps the readers as well) have a specific festival in mind, whether Passover (later called “the festival of the Jews,” Joh_6:4), or Tents (sometimes referred to in Jewish literature simply as “the festival”), or Pentecost (which would have come fifty days after the Passover of chapter 2). But the question is moot because the most reliable ancient witnesses (including B, P66, P75, A, and D) lack the definite article.] Ordinarily the “festival” is named, as either Passover (Joh_2:13; Joh_11:55), Tents, or Tabernacles (Joh_7:2), or Dedication (now known as Hanukkah) (Joh_10:22). Here alone it is unnamed, either deliberately or because the story was preserved and handed down without a precise temporal setting. In Joh_2:13-22 it may have been important that the festival was “the Passover of the Jews” because of veiled references to Jesus’ death and resurrection (Joh_2:17, Joh_2:19-22), anticipating Jesus’ last Passover. Here we find nothing linking the events of the chapter to a specific festival. What turns out to be important instead is that “it was the Sabbath that day” (Joh_5:9; see Joh_5:10, Joh_5:16).
Luke 20:28 ESV
28 and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.
If the author has purposely left the festival nameless, he could have done so in order to conceal a departure from chronological order. If the healing to be recorded in this chapter was remembered in connection with Jesus’ first Passover described in chapter 2, then it could have originally been one of the impressive “signs he was doing” that attracted the attention of “many,” including Nicodemus (see Joh_2:23; Joh_3:2). If, as many believe, the story of the temple cleansing was transferred at some point in the tradition from the last week of Jesus’ life to that first Passover in Jerusalem, it would have tended to overshadow other stories already associated with that early visit. The healing recorded in chapter 5 could have been one of those accounts “rescued” from its original setting, given a new literary setting of its own, and made the basis of further controversy between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem (Joh_5:16-18, Joh_5:19-47; see also Joh_7:21-23). None of this, however, sheds light on the Gospel in its present form, where the events described are clearly subsequent to Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem and Judea (2:13-3:36), and to his ministries in Samaria and Galilee (Joh_4:1-54). Whatever the historical facts or traditions, in its literary setting this unnamed “festival of the Jews” could be any festival between the first Passover in Jerusalem (Joh_2:13) and the second Passover (presumably a year later) at the time Jesus fed the multitude in Galilee (Joh_6:4). It is unlikely, therefore, that the author intends us to think of it as Passover. He has left it nameless, and we should do the same. The only reason for mentioning it is to bring Jesus to Jerusalem from Galilee, and for this any “festival” will do. Again (as in Joh_2:13) the mention of “the Jews” in charge of the festival tells us who Jesus’ antagonists will be (see Joh_5:10, Joh_5:15, Joh_5:16, Joh_5:18).
Joh_5:2 The author might have taken Jesus directly to the temple for this “festival of the Jews” (see Joh_2:14), but first he sketches a scene in Jerusalem for the benefit of readers unfamiliar with the city. Jesus will get to the temple soon enough (Joh_5:14), but attention focuses for now on a “pool” at the “Sheep’s [place],” [“The Sheep’s” (ἡ προβατική) is simply an adjective derived from “sheep” (τὸ πρόβατον; see Joh_10:1-16, Joh_10:26-27; Joh_21:16-17). Used substantively, as here, it is “the Sheep’s place,” possibly understood as “the Sheep Gate” (see Neh_3:1, Neh_3:32; Neh_12:39; in the LXX, ἡ πύλη ἡ προβατική). This would explain why προβατική is feminine. Alternatively, if “pool” (κολυμβήθρα, also feminine) were read as dative (ending with the iota subscript—ᾳ) instead of nominative, then the phrase would be “at the Sheep Pool.” As Bultmann notes, however (240), the nominative participle “called” (ἡ ἐπιλεγομένη) implies that what is “called” by a Hebrew name has already been named in some way (see BDF, 212 [§412-13]; BDAG, 374-75). “Pool” should therefore be read as nominative in agreement with the participle, as the subject of the sentence and the focus of attention (see also Metzger, Textual Commentary, 207-08).] leading into the city, probably (as Brown locates it) “northeast of the Temple where the sheep were brought into Jerusalem for sacrifice.” [Brown, 1.206.] The author claims that this pool “is” (estin, present tense) in Jerusalem, even after the city’s destruction in a.d. 70 (assuming that John’s Gospel is written after 70). [According to J. A. T. Robinson, who dates the Gospel before 70, John’s language presumes that Jerusalem is still standing, yet Robinson is quick to admit that the use of the present tense does not in itself demand this conclusion (The Priority of John [Oak Park, IL: Meyer-Stone, 1987], 70).] Quite likely he is right, for archeological evidence from later times suggests that the pool was still used as a healing sanctuary to the god Asclepius long after the city was destroyed and rebuilt by the Romans. [See, for example, R. M. Mackowski, Jerusalem, City of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 79-83; Robinson, Priority of John, 54-59.] While he knows that the readers have little likelihood of ever visiting the spot, the author invites them to visualize the scene as it unfolds.
The Hebrew name of the place, probably unfamiliar to them and quite uncertain in the manuscripts, is less important to the story than the author’s description of the pool’s “five porticoes” or “colonnades,” and the “multitude of the sick, blind, lame, or shriveled up” lying there (Joh_5:3). The most important ancient witnesses (including P75, B, the Vulgate, and Coptic versions) give the name as “Bethsaida” (P66 offers a slight variation of this), Others (including א and 33) have “Bethzatha,” and still others “Belzetha” (D, and the old Latin), or “Bethesda” (A, C, and the majority of later manuscipts). Conventional wisdom is quick to dismiss “Bethsaida” because it appears to be based on a confusion between this pool in Jerusalem and the town in Galilee that was home to Philip, Andrew, and Simon Peter (see Joh_1:44; Joh_12:21). [See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 208.] Yet this author is quite capable of letting a single name do double duty for two different towns or places (see “Bethany” in Joh_1:28, in Joh_11:1, Joh_11:18, and in Joh_12:1). If he did so here, scribes might well have tried to correct him (just as Origen did at Joh_1:28), by changing “Bethsaida” to “Bethzatha” or “Bethesda” on the basis of what was known about this section of Jerusalem, [Josephus writes of a hill in Jerusalem called “Bezetha,” opposite the Antonia fortress, which gave its name to an area known also as Caenopolis, or “New City” (see War 5.149-51). But “New City” is not the translation of “Bezetha.” George Adam Smith pointed out that this name “cannot mean New-City: probably it stands for Beth-zaith, ‘house’ or ‘district’ of olives” (Jerusalem, 1.244). While “Beth-zaith” is likely a variation of “Bethzatha,” it is also close enough to “Bethsaida” to suggest that the earliest manuscripts (P66, P75, and B) represent not just an assimilation to Joh_1:44, but were in touch with the original name of the place (see 1Ma_7:19 and R. H. Charles, APOT, 1.91, n. 19).] or this pool in particular. [Probably with this pool in mind, the Copper Scroll at Qumran (3Q15, col. 11) refers to “Bet-Eshtadatain” (a dual form in Hebrew, implying twin pools) as “the reservoir where you enter the small pool” (G. Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English [Allen Lane: Penguin, 1997], 588).] This is at least as likely as a change in the opposite direction, and for this reason we have followed the earliest manuscripts in reading the name as “Bethsaida” (see n. [Josephus writes of a hill in Jerusalem called “Bezetha,” opposite the Antonia fortress, which gave its name to an area known also as Caenopolis, or “New City” (see War 5.149-51). But “New City” is not the translation of “Bezetha.” George Adam Smith pointed out that this name “cannot mean New-City: probably it stands for Beth-zaith, ‘house’ or ‘district’ of olives” (Jerusalem, 1.244). While “Beth-zaith” is likely a variation of “Bethzatha,” it is also close enough to “Bethsaida” to suggest that the earliest manuscripts (P66, P75, and B) represent not just an assimilation to Joh_1:44, but were in touch with the original name of the place (see 1Ma_7:19 and R. H. Charles, APOT, 1.91, n. 19).]). The “five porticoes,” or covered colonnades, [Among modern interpreters the five colonnades are commonly visualized as framing a square or rectangular pool on four sides, with one additional portico or colonnade in the center dividing the pool into two bathing areas (thus matching the twin pools of the Copper Scroll; see n. 12). This is possible but by no means certain (see Robinson, Priority of John, 55, who comments that such a description fits “reservoirs for supplying water to the temple area of the city,” but “would have been highly unsuitable for a healing sanctuary” because invalids who entered the pool would have been “in imminent danger of drowning”). Robinson points instead to certain small grottoes discovered at a lower level “with steps leading down to them, together with some rectangular stone basins presumably for washing” (56; see also Mackowski, Jerusalem, 81; J. Wilkinson, Jerusalem as Jesus Knew It, 98).] should not be interpreted allegorically, any more than the “six stone water jars” at Cana (Joh_2:6) or the Samaritan woman’s “five husbands” (Joh_4:18). [Allegorical interpretations are as old as Augustine: “That water, then—namely that people—was shut in by the five books of Moses, as by five porches. But those books brought forth the sick, not healed them. For the law convicted, not acquitted sinners” (Tractates on ; NPNF, 1st ser., 7.111).] The five porticoes simply contribute to the impression of a great amount of space, [“Five porticoes” was one more than the four surrounding the outer court of the Jerusalem temple, according to Josephus (see, for example, Josephus, Antiquities 15.395-402; War 5.190-92; also Mackowski, Jerusalem, 123-28).] appropriate to the “multitude” (Joh_5:3) of those who gathered there.
Joh_5:3, Joh_5:5 The scene unfolds, not merely as something that met Jesus’ eyes when he arrived in Jerusalem, but as what went on at the pool on a regular basis, whether at the Jewish festivals or all the time. It is a customary or repeated scene that the reader is invited to visualize, not a one-time event. Within the five porticoes or covered colonnades “would lie [The verb κατέκειτο (“would lie,” or “used to lie”) appears to be an iterative imperfect (see BDF, §325; Robertson, Grammar, 884), referring to a usual or customary scene of a crowd of sick persons gathered at the pool.] a multitude of the sick, blind, lame, or shriveled up” (Joh_5:3). “The sick” could be read either as a general designation of the whole group (as if it were followed by a colon), or it could be read as referring (rather vaguely) to one group among the four. In any event, the “sickness” [Gr. τῇ ἀσθενείᾳ. The man is then identified as ὁ ἀσθενῶν (“the sick man,” Joh_5:7).] (Joh_5:5) of the man who will be at the center of the story (Joh_5:7) is not specified. His inability to get into the pool (Joh_5:7) will suggest that he is either one of the “lame” or the “shriveled up,” but we are never told explicitly.
At the end of verse Joh_5:3, the manuscripts diverge. Codex D and some of the old Latin add “paralytics” to the list, possibly because of a similar-sounding story in the synoptic Gospels in which Jesus says, “Get up, pick up your mat and go home,” to a man explicitly called a “paralytic” (Mar_2:10-11; see also Mat_9:6). D had only a few followers in the Latin tradition, but other manuscripts made far more sweeping changes. The first, shorter addition, “waiting for the moving of the water,” appeared also in D and its followers, but in a wide range of later manuscripts and versions as well. Its effect is to explain why so many sick people would congregate in these five covered colonnades at the Bethsaida pool. They were waiting for something, and the reader can infer already that “the moving of the water” in some way represented an opportunity for healing (see Joh_5:7). A much longer addition explains why in much greater detail: “For an angel of the Lord would come down from time to time in the pool and stir up the water. The first one in after the stirring of the water would get well from whatever disease he had.” [Some early manuscripts (D and some old Latin) have the first of these but not the second; others (such as A), the second without the first. But the earliest and most reliable witnesses (including P66, P75, א, B, C*, and 33) have neither. The first variant appears to have been added by scribes to prepare the reader for the sick man’s statement in verse Joh_5:7; the second, to explain further why the water was stirred and why healing properties were attributed to its movement. See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 209.] Interestingly, all the main verbs in this added material confirm the impression that this was not a single event that happened on one memorable day, but something that happened again and again as a common occurrence. [The verbs are all imperfects with the same iterative quality as the κατέκειτο of verse Joh_5:3. This is confirmed by the phrase κατὰ καιρόν (“from time to time”). These verbs are κατέβαινεν (“would come down”) or (in some manuscripts) ἐλούετο (“would bathe”); also ἐτάρασσε (“would stir up”), ὐγιὴς ἐγίνετο (“would get well”), and κατείχετο (“had”).]
These additions (especially the second one) obviously make the Gospel’s readers much more knowledgeable about the situation than they would otherwise be—too knowledgeable, in fact. [Whether the longer addition is based on a scribe’s imagination or on local legend, it has the effect of endorsing the supposed healing qualities of the pool by attributing them to “an angel of the Lord” (ἄγγελος κυρίου). It is doubtful that the author wants to do this, given the fact that Jesus completely bypasses the pool in healing the man with a word. Moreover, despite the promise of angels “going up and coming down over the Son of man” (Joh_1:51), angels play only a very minor role in this Gospel (see only Joh_12:29; Joh_20:12).] All we are supposed to know for the moment is that a large crowd of the sick and disabled gathered regularly at a famous pool in Jerusalem. Our attention is meant to focus on “a certain man” (Joh_5:5) [Gr. τις ἄνθρωπος; compare τις βασιλικός (“a certain royal official,” Joh_4:46). Just as he was first the “royal official” (Joh_4:46, Joh_4:49), then “the man” (Joh_4:50), then “the father” (Joh_4:53), so the man in this story is called “a certain man” (Joh_5:5), then “the sick man” (Joh_5:7), “him who had been cured” (Joh_5:10), “he who had been healed” (Joh_5:13), and finally just “the man” (Joh_5:15).] and his experience “there” (ekei). We will learn of what went on at the pool not from a narrative aside by the author (which is what Joh_5:4 would be if it were genuine), but from the narrative itself. We will see the man through Jesus’ eyes (Joh_5:6), hear the man’s own account of his predicament (
Joh_5:7), and witness a miracle (Joh_5:8-9). The only piece of information we are given in advance is how long the man has been sick—“thirty-eight years.” Here again commentators have looked for allegorical meanings (see n. [Allegorical interpretations are as old as Augustine: “That water, then—namely that people—was shut in by the five books of Moses, as by five porches. But those books brought forth the sick, not healed them. For the law convicted, not acquitted sinners” (Tractates on ; NPNF, 1st ser., 7.111).]), but again unconvincingly. [See, for example, Deu_2:14, “And the length of time we had traveled from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn concerning them” (NRSV; see Marsh, 250). Augustine makes a much more elaborate argument: “If, therefore, the number forty possesses the perfecting of the law, and the law is fulfilled only in the twin precepts of love, why dost thou wonder that he was weak and sick, who was short of forty by two?” (Tractates on ; NPNF, 1st ser., 7.113).] More likely, this is a tradition handed down from the time the story was first heard, remembered, and retold, serving here to heighten the impression of a knowledgeable (if not omniscient) author-narrator. [Similar information is given at times in the synoptic Gospels and Acts; for example, “twelve years” (Mar_5:25); “eighteen years” (Luk_13:11); “eight years” (Act_9:33). Here (as in Luk_13:11), the time reference may have something to do with the charge of Sabbath breaking (see Joh_5:9): if the man had waited this long for healing, what would one more day have mattered? (presumably Jesus would have answered as he does in Luk_13:16).] The man’s “sickness,” like that of the royal official’s son at Cana (Joh_4:46) is not named (see also Joh_6:2; Joh_11:3-4). In the earlier incident we learned that it involved a “fever” (Joh_4:52), and in this instance we learn that it makes him unable to walk or get into the water.
Joh_5:6 Arriving in Jerusalem (Joh_5:1), Jesus surveyed the whole scene just described (or so we can assume), but what we are explicitly told that he “saw” is the one man “lying” there, [Gr. τοῦτον … κατακείμενον.] the man to whom we have just been introduced. When Jesus “found out [“Found out” is literally “knew” (γνούς), or “came to know.” Jesus’ knowledge is not supernatural here (as in Joh_2:25, where the verb γινώσκειν is imperfect), but natural (as in Joh_4:1, aorist, as here). Presumably Jesus learned that the man had been sick a long time by being told. If he had known it by divine omniscience, he would have known precisely how long (“thirty-eight years,” Joh_5:5), but the text never claims that he knew that.] that he had been like that [Literally, “that he already had a long time.” The main verb of the clause, “had” (ἔχει, more literally “has,” historic present), echoes the notice in the preceding verse that the man “had been” (ἔχων) sick (literally, “in his sickness”) for thirty-eight years. “In his sickness” (ἐν τῇ ἀσθενείᾳ αὐτοῦ) is implied here as well. Hence our translation, “he had been like that” (for this use of ἔχειν in reference to the time or circumstances of one’s life, see BDAG, 422).] for a long time,” he asked the man, “Do you want [theleis] to get well?” In contrast to his encounter with the royal official at Cana (Joh_4:47-48), Jesus now takes the initiative to heal. His question is straightforward. It carries no hidden rebuke or psychological analysis, as if to say, “Do you really want to get well, or have you become quite comfortable in your life of dependency all these years?” [Lindars hints at such a reading (215): “It is possible to imagine that Jesus’ question has been prompted by the fact that the man has made no attempt to reach the water when it last bubbled up. His reply will then appear to be quite dignified and free from bitterness. The answer is, ‘Yes, but experience has taught me that it is hopeless to try.’ ” But this would have required a different framing of the question: “Don’t you want [οὐ θέλεις] to get well?” (see J. Staley, “Stumbling in the Dark, Reaching for the Light: Reading Character in and 9,” Semeia 53 [1991], 71, n. 8). Moreover, it implies that Jesus is taking account of information which the reader cannot yet know (except from later scribal tradition!). This is possible but not likely.] Instead, Jesus is asking, “What do you want? What can I do for you?” He is saying just what he said to blind Bartimaeus in Mark: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mar_10:51). [Contrast the leper in Mark, to whom it was a matter of what Jesus “wanted”: “If you want [ἐὰν θέλῃς], you are able to make me clean” (Mar_1:40), and whom Jesus promptly answered, “I want to [θέλω]. Be clean” (Mar_1:41).] Bartimaeus had an answer ready (“that I might see,” Mar_10:51), but here Jesus supplies the obvious answer for the sick man: “to get well.” [Gr. ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι.] “Well” or “healthy” is used only of this healing in John’s Gospel, and it is used repeatedly (see Joh_5:9, Joh_5:11, Joh_5:14, Joh_5:15, and Joh_7:23, as well as the scribal addition in Joh_5:4). To “get well” is as generalized and unspecific as being “sick.” John’s Gospel is not interested in the clinical details or symptoms of the illnesses Jesus cured, only in his ability to make things right by giving life to those in need (see Joh_4:50, Joh_4:53, “your son lives”).
Joh_5:7 The sick man hears Jesus’ words simply as an offer of help from a kind stranger, so he suggests something Jesus might do for him. “Sir,” [The designation κύριε is “Sir” here, as in the case of the Samaritan woman (Joh_4:11, Joh_4:15, Joh_4:19), not “Lord,” as on the lips of the royal official (Joh_4:49). The sick man attributes no supernatural healing powers to Jesus at this point.] he replies, “I have no one [literally, “no man”] [Gr. ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἔχω.] to put [“Put” is literally “throw” (βάλῃ), but the verb βάλλειν is common in this weakened sense (BDAG, 163; see, for example, Joh_13:5; Joh_18:11; Joh_20:25).] me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” He needs “a man” (probably male in this instance), either a slave [On ἄνθρωπος as a slave or servant, see BDAG, 81.] or a good friend, [To a modern reader familiar with all the Gospels, the contrast with Mar_2:3-4 is striking. There the paralyzed man had not one but four faithful companions to carry him on his mat to the roof and let him down from there to be healed. It is difficult to say whether or not the writer of John’s Gospel knows this story and is tacitly acknowledging the contrast.] to assist him, and Jesus is a likely candidate. Without the “helps to the reader” provided by later scribes (see Joh_5:3, and n. [Some early manuscripts (D and some old Latin) have the first of these but not the second; others (such as A), the second without the first. But the earliest and most reliable witnesses (including P66, P75, א, B, C*, and 33) have neither. The first variant appears to have been added by scribes to prepare the reader for the sick man’s statement in verse Joh_5:7; the second, to explain further why the water was stirred and why healing properties were attributed to its movement. See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 209.]), we are left to infer that the pool must have had healing qualities (or at least that the sick man thought it did), and that these qualities were in effect only at certain times when the pool was “stirred up,” [Gr. ταράχθῃ.] presumably by an intermittent spring of some sort. “Whenever I get there,” the sick man complains, “someone else goes down ahead of me.” [The scribe or scribes responsible for the explanation added in later manuscripts (Joh_5:4) seem to have interpreted this to mean that only the “first one” (πρῶτος) into the pool after the stirring of the water would be healed, but the language of Joh_5:7 does not require this. “Someone else” (ἄλλος is indefinite, and need not be limited to just one person.] There is reason to suspect his motives. Unless others in the “multitude” at the pool (Joh_5:4) had a slave or close friend by their side, most of them were in the same situation as he. No such healthy companions are mentioned in the author’s opening sketch of the scene (Joh_5:3). The reader is left wondering. In trying to recruit Jesus to help him, is the sick man gaining an unfair advantage? [His complaint, with its emphatic “I” and its close juxtaposition of ἐγώ and ἄλλος, sounds whining and self-centered: “whenever I get there [ἐν ᾧ δὲ ἔρχομαι ἐγώ], someone else [ἄλλος] goes down ahead of me.”]
Joh_5:8 Jesus will have none of it. Instead, ignoring the pool and its supposed healing powers, he tells the man, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.” The setting of the incident, so elaborately introduced (Joh_5:2-3), is virtually forgotten. Jesus and the sick man are still at the pool, but it no longer matters. They could be anywhere. Readers familiar with other Gospels will remember a story in which Jesus and a paralytic are in Galilee, not Jerusalem, and in a house, not by a pool. Unlike the sick man here, this man had friends to help him (not one but four!) who carried him on a “mat” (Mar_2:4), [A “mat” (κράβατος, as here) was a poor man’s bed that could also serve as a pallet or stretcher (see BDAG, 563). Matthew and Luke prefer other terms, such as κλίνη (Mat_9:2, Mat_9:6; Luk_5:18), or its diminutive κλινίδιον (Luk_5:19, Luk_5:24).] and dug through a roof to get to Jesus. Jesus’ words to this man were the same: “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” (Mar_2:9). In both instances the healing was immediate, and the ensuing action matched the command almost word for word. The paralytic “got up and at once [Gr. καὶ εὐθύς.] picked up his mat and went out” (Mar_2:12). In our story, “all at once [Gr. καὶ εὐθέως.] the man was well, and he picked up his mat and walked” (
A natural question to ask in both stories is, Why mention the “mat”? Why not just say “Get up and walk?” [At one point in the Markan story of the paralytic, Matthew and Luke change Jesus’ command to exactly that (Mat_9:5; Luk_5:23). At that moment, Jesus is simply deliberating what he might say.Two verses later, when he actually says it, Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s wording more closely: “Get up, pick up your mat and go to your house” (Mat_9:6; Luk_5:24). When he obeys, Mark and Luke have him taking his mat (Mar_2:12; Luk_5:25), while Matthew simply states that he “got up and went to his house” (Mat_9:8).] In Mark the answer is fairly clear. The paralytic was brought in to Jesus on a “mat,” but now he no longer needs it. Carrying his mat signals his newfound independence and marks his departure from the scene. He does not walk simply to demonstrate his ability to walk, but he goes home, and because the mat is his property he takes it with him (see Mar_2:11, Mar_2:12). In John’s Gospel, although the mat has not been mentioned before, the reader can infer something similar. In telling the sick man, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk,” Jesus is not saying, “Get up and walk around to prove to everyone that you are healed.” He is saying, “Get up, leave this place and take your mat with you, because you aren’t coming back. You don’t need to stay here any longer.” [Up to this point the “mat” seems more at home in the Markan story than here, suggesting that details from that story might have influenced the telling of this one. But as soon as the Sabbath is mentioned (Joh_5:9), the place of the mat, and the act of carrying of the mat, in the story becomes unmistakably clear.]
Joh_5:9 The notice that the man “got well” recalls Jesus’ initial question whether he wanted to “get well” (Joh_5:6). [Gr. ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι, in verse Joh_5:6; ἐγένετο ὑγιής here.] Whatever doubts there may have been about the man’s motives (see Joh_5:7), Jesus knows that he truly wants to “get well,” and he grants his wish unreservedly, with no requirement, or even any mention, of “faith” (contrast Joh_4:50, Joh_4:53; also Mar_2:5). The story now takes a decisive turn, with the abrupt comment that “it was the Sabbath that day” (Joh_5:9). The notice, like some other narrative asides in John (see Joh_1:24, Joh_1:28; Joh_3:24), comes belatedly. Both here and later in the case of the blind man at the pool of Siloam (Joh_9:14), the author waits until the healing is over to tell us that it is the Sabbath, in contrast to several healing stories in other Gospels in which we know from the start that this will be an issue (see Mar_2:23; Mar_3:2; Luk_13:10; Luk_14:3). The effect of the news is to change the story’s direction. Its setting is the weekly Sabbath now, not simply an unnamed yearly “festival of the Jews” (Joh_5:1), and the Sabbath will determine the story line from here on.
Joh_5:10 At this point the question of why Jesus mentioned the carrying of the mat resurfaces. A new reason now emerges. “The Jews” make an abrupt appearance, [We have met οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (“the Jews”) twice before, as those who sent messengers from Jerusalem to question John (Joh_1:19), and as Jesus’ antagonists in Jerusalem on his first visit there (Joh_2:18, Joh_2:20), but not since then.] reminding “him who had been cured” [The man is identified in a variety of ways, first as “the sick man” (ὁ ἀσθενῶν, Joh_5:7), now after the healing (Joh_5:11) as “him who had been cured” (τῷ τεθεραπευμένῳ, the only instance of this verb for healing in John’s Gospel), and finally (for variety’s sake) as “he who had been healed” (ὁ ἰαθείς, Joh_5:13).] of what the reader has just been told (that “It is the Sabbath”), and warning him that “it is not lawful for you to pick up your mat.” The reader now learns that whatever else it may have been, the mention of carrying the mat (Joh_5:8 and Joh_5:9) was a way of setting the stage for this warning, and for the ensuing charges of “the Jews” against Jesus of breaking the Sabbath (see Joh_5:15-16). This was a function it did not have in the Markan story of the paralytic in Capernaum. But it was part of the oral law that “taking out from one domain into another” was one of thirty-nine activities considered to be work and forbidden on the Sabbath, [Mishnah Shabbat 7.2 (Danby, 106). Ironically, the four who carried the paralytic to see Jesus in Mark may not have been guilty of Sabbath breaking: “[If he took out] a living man on a couch he is not culpable by reason of the couch, since the couch is secondary” (10.5; Danby, 109). In any event, the issue does not come up there.] and it is probably to some version of that law that “the Jews” are referring.
Are we to infer that Jesus knew this when he told the sick man to carry off his mat? From what we know of the Johannine Jesus, we can be sure that nothing he says or does is unintentional. He knew exactly what he was doing, and his command to “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” was a deliberate challenge to the religious authorities in Jerusalem and their Sabbath laws. [Schnackenburg (2.97) makes precisely this point, even though he considers it a secondary feature of the narrative: “The evangelist makes it look like deliberate provocation.… Originally, Jesus’ instruction was simply part of the pattern of the story (compare Mar_2:11), but the evangelist uses it to show how Jesus is bound to carry out only the will of his Father and to ‘work’ when he sees the Father ‘working’ (verses Joh_5:17, Joh_5:19), even if this means conflict with the Jewish sabbath laws.” Provocation may also be implied by the initial reference to the length of the man’s infirmity (Joh_5:5): if he had been sick for thirty-eight years, what harm could be done by waiting another day to avoid the Sabbath?] With their words, “it is not lawful,” [Gr. οὐκ ἐξεστίν.] the issue is joined (compare Mar_2:24, Mar_2:26; Mar_3:4). If not a Sabbath breaker himself, Jesus has at least contributed to the delinquency of one. [In the first Sabbath dispute in the Synoptics (Mar_2:23-28 and par.), the issue is similarly the action of those associated with Jesus, not Jesus himself.]
Joh_5:11-12 Always quick to make excuses (see Joh_5:7), the Sabbath breaker replies, “The one who made me well, he told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” For their part the Jewish authorities are quite willing to accept his excuse, perhaps in the hope that it will lead them to the real target of their investigation. We seem to be witnessing here a resumption of the aborted confrontation at the Passover festival three chapters earlier. “The Jews” held their peace before (after Joh_2:20), but we have not heard the last of them. “Who is the man who told you, ‘Pick up and walk’?” they ask, and we sense that they are on Jesus’ trail once again. Already the issue is shifting, as it will explicitly later in the chapter (Joh_5:16-18) from the Sabbath question to that of Jesus’ identity. To the healed man, Jesus is “the one who made me well” (Joh_5:11), but to the Jerusalem authorities he is simply “the man who told you, ‘Pick up and walk’ ” (Joh_5:12). They have no interest in, and no direct knowledge of, the healing. To them Jesus is not a healer or miracle worker, only a Sabbath breaker. All they care about is his identity, whether in order to charge him for breaking the Sabbath, or to connect him to the earlier act of provocation in driving the money changers from the temple (Joh_2:14-16). Their question, “Who is the man?” will echo and reecho through this Gospel in various ways, with multilayered answers. [Jesus, who called himself “Son of man” (Joh_1:51; Joh_3:13, etc.), is repeatedly called “a man” or “this man” by his enemies (Joh_7:46; Joh_9:16, Joh_9:24; Joh_10:33; Joh_11:47; Joh_18:17, Joh_18:29; Joh_19:5), potential disciples (Joh_4:29; Joh_7:51; Joh_9:11), and even himself (Joh_8:40). The last answer to the question, “Who is the man?” (τίς ἐστιν ὁ ἄνθρωπος) is Pilate’s “Here is the man” (ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος, Joh_19:5).]
Joh_5:13 For now the question of “who it was” goes unanswered. Jesus’ identity remains a mystery to those who do not believe. “He who had been healed” did not know Jesus’ name, and could not point him out because “Jesus had ducked out [Gr. ἐξένευσεν. Colloquial English (“ducked out”) captures quite well the sense of the verb, which suggests a dodge or a turning of the head (compare νεύει, Joh_13:24, and see Barrett, 255; also Field, Notes, 88, 100).]—there was a crowd in the place.” The implication is that he made his escape quite intentionally, knowing what the authorities had in mind. [This is the first of several instances in which an elusive Jesus escapes potential arrest or even stoning, sometimes with the notice that “his hour had not yet come” (Joh_7:30; Joh_8:20; also Joh_7:32-34, Joh_7:45-46; Joh_8:59; Joh_10:39; Joh_12:36; and see Luk_4:30).] The “crowd in the place” [Gr. ὄχλου ὄντος ἐν τῷ τόπῷ.] brings the narrative back to the opening description of “the place” (the pool at Bethsaida, Joh_5:2), and the “multitude” of the sick lying there (Joh_5:3). Yet this “crowd” cannot simply be identified with that “multitude,” for it seems to be made up of onlookers standing and milling around, more like the ubiquitous “crowds” in Mark’s Gospel. As we have seen, the healing could have happened anywhere, but the author reminds us again of the pool and the opening scene, just in time to set the stage for an abrupt change of venue to a very different kind of “place.”
Joh_5:14 “After these things” again (as in Joh_5:1) marks an undisclosed time lapse and a break in the narrative. At the first Passover (Joh_2:14), Jesus had “found in the temple” money changers and sellers of livestock. This time, at another “festival of the Jews” (see Joh_5:1) he “finds” the man he had healed, again “in the temple.” [Gr. εὑρίσκει … ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ.] Presumably the temple was his destination from the start, when he “went up to Jerusalem” for the festival (
Joh_5:1), until he was caught up in the scene at the pool. Having left that “place” abruptly (Joh_5:13), he would inevitably go to the temple, “the place where one must worship” (Joh_4:20), [See Joh_11:48, where Caiaphas the Chief Priest fears that the Romans will take away “our place [ἡμῶν τὸν τόπον] and our nation.”] above all at Jewish festivals. In short, Jesus had reasons to be in the temple that had nothing to do with the man at the pool. Still, their meeting is not a chance encounter. Jesus “finds” the man quite intentionally, just as he “found” Philip (Joh_1:43) when he enlisted him as a disciple, just as Andrew “found” Simon Peter (Joh_1:41) and Philip “found” Nathanael (Joh_1:45). [See also Joh_9:35, where Jesus “found” the man born blind and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of man?”]
Instead of “Follow me” (Joh_1:43), Jesus makes a more modest—but at the same time more ominous—demand. First he reminds the man of the miracle at the pool: “Look, you have gotten well.” [Gr. ἴδε ὑγιὴς γέγονας (see Joh_5:6, Joh_5:9, Joh_5:11).] Then he adds the thinly veiled warning, “Don’t sin any more, [Gr. μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε.] or something worse may happen to you.” If the notice that “it was the Sabbath that day” (Joh_5:9) caught the reader up short and changed the course of the story, so too does this belated warning from Jesus. It is the first occurrence of the verb “to sin” in John’s Gospel. Neither the first disciples, nor Nathanael, nor Nicodemus, nor even the Samaritan woman (despite Joh_4:18), were said to have “sinned.” Nor did the healing of the royal official’s son address any “sins” of either the child or the father. [The one place in Johannine tradition where sin does enter the picture is the story inserted in the majority of later manuscripts about a woman caught in adultery (). Possibly the language of Joh_5:14 has influenced the ending of that story, where Jesus’ last words to the woman are “Nor do I condemn you. Go, and from now on sin no more” (μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε, Joh_8:11). But there Jesus adds no warning about “something worse.”] The reader may have sensed a certain selfishness and duplicity in the behavior of the sick man at the pool, but there has been no hint up to now that Jesus judged or condemned him, or for that matter forgave him. All he said was “Do you want to get well?” (Joh_5:6), and “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” (Joh_5:8). Yet if we remember Jesus’ first visit to Jerusalem, we will also remember that he “knew what was in the person” (Joh_2:25). If Jesus knew “what was in” people in general (enough not to “entrust himself” to them), we need not be surprised that he knew what was in this particular man—specifically that he was a sinner. Jesus would hardly have failed to notice what even the attentive reader is able to infer. Yet why does Jesus issue this warning? “Look, you have gotten well” is what we expect (see Joh_5:6, Joh_5:9, Joh_5:11, Joh_5:15). “Don’t sin any more, or something worse will happen to you,” is not. It sounds as if it belongs in that other story, the one in which Jesus proposed healing someone with the words, “Your sins are forgiven” (Mar_2:5), and then demonstrated dramatically that “Your sins are forgiven” and “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” amount to the same thing (Mar_2:9-12). No such demonstration has taken place here, yet the man Jesus healed is supposed to understand that “Look, you have gotten well” is equivalent to “Look, your sins are forgiven.” Or if he does not understand it, at least the reader is expected to. Either way, the warning follows as a logical corollary.
This story in John’s Gospel and the story of the paralytic in Mark appear to be intertwined in the Gospel tradition. At least one detail, as we have seen—the picking up of the mat—turned out to be even more at home in this story than in the other, because of the issue of working on the Sabbath. Now we find that another—the link between healing and the forgiveness of sin—was integral to the Markan story from the start, but comes in here almost as an afterthought. While Mark’s account of the paralytic helps us fill in the gaps and make sense of the narrative in John, can we assume that John’s readers would have been familiar with Mark? Probably not. Without help from Mark, what do we make of Jesus’ warning to the man he had healed? It implies that a connection between sickness and personal sin is at least a distinct possibility. The possibility is later raised explicitly by Jesus’ disciples on encountering the beggar who was blind from birth (Joh_9:2), and Jesus did not claim that such a connection was unthinkable, only that it did not apply in that instance (Joh_9:3). On the other hand, the issue never came up in the case of the royal official’s son, nor does it when Jesus learns of the illness of his friend Lazarus (Joh_11:3). Jesus in this Gospel views sickness first of all as an opportunity for healing and salvation (see Joh_9:3-4; Joh_11:4), not as a punishment for sin, and the same is true here.
At most there is an analogy between sin and sickness in that both can lead to death or not, depending on circumstances and severity. “Lord, come down before my little child dies!” the royal official said (Joh_4:49), and Jesus assures his disciples that the illness of Lazarus will not “lead to death” (Joh_11:4). In heated debate, Jesus warns his hostile questioners, “You will die in your sin” (Joh_8:21), or “in your sins” (Joh_8:24), and another Johannine writing draws a distinction between sin “leading to death” and sin “not leading to death” (1Jn_5:16-17). [Gr. πρὸς θάνατον, and μὴ πρὸς θάνατον respectively.] In the present passage, too, death (whether physical or spiritual) is presumably the “something worse” [Gr. χεῖρόν τι.] of which Jesus warns the man. [The warning is intentionally vague, as in the saying of Jesus, “The last things become worse than the first” (see Mat_12:45//Luk_11:26; also 2Pe_2:20).] His fate remains uncertain. The sick man has “gotten well,” and by implication his past sins have been forgiven, [We may compare not only Mar_2:5, Mar_2:9-10, but also Jas_5:15 : “And the prayer of faith will save the ailing one, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.” The latter is obviously not a perfect analogy because the sick person is a Christian believer (τις ἐν ὑμῖν, Joh_5:14).] yet he is not “born from above,” as Jesus told Nicodemus a person must be (see Joh_3:3, Joh_3:6). His status, like that of Nicodemus himself, is still undecided. We do not know, and will never know for certain, whether this man is one “who practices wicked things” and “does not come to the light” (Joh_3:20), or one who “comes to the light, so that his works will be revealed as works wrought in God” (Joh_3:21). But we can guess.
Joh_5:15 The immediate outlook is not good. The man said nothing in reply, no word of thanks, no expression of belief, no commitment to stop sinning. Instead, he “went away [Gr. ἀπῆλθεν.] and told the Jews that it was Jesus who made him well.” Much later, after the raising of Lazarus, we will hear of many who “had come to Mary and seen the things he had done” and “believed in him” (Joh_11:45), and of others who instead “went off [Gr. ἀπῆλθον.] to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus had done” (Joh_11:46). Those who were not believers became informants, and their information led to the Sanhedrin’s decision that Jesus must die (see Joh_11:47-53). The long process that ended with that decision begins here at this early “festival of the Jews,” and here too the informant is not a believer, at least not yet and perhaps never. As soon as Jesus said to him, “Don’t sin any more,” he “went away” and did exactly that. As for the “something worse” awaiting him, it is left to our imaginations.
Joh_5:16 “The Jews” at Jerusalem did not care that “it was Jesus who made him well” (Joh_5:15), only that Jesus had done so by telling him to pick up his mat (Joh_5:12). “For this” [Gr. διὰ τοῦτο, “on account of this,” or “for this reason.”] they “pursued” or “persecuted” Jesus. Here, as at the beginning of the chapter, the imperfect tenses are noteworthy. The verb “pursued” (ediōkon, imperfect) describes a repeated or constant action, a fixed policy of regarding Jesus as a marked man. [Much later Jesus will look back on this fixed policy as if it were a single completed act, telling his disciples: “if they persecuted me [ἐδίωξαν, aorist], they will persecute you” (Joh_15:20).] If we assume that this was already the case in light of his actions in the temple earlier, then it could be translated “kept pursuing.” But if it was not (and we have no evidence that it was), then the verb should be rendered “began pursuing,” and this is the course we have followed in translation. By the same token, what Jesus “did” on the Sabbath is not viewed here as a single act of healing, but as part of a regular pattern of behavior. Probably we are meant to conclude that Jesus “did such things [Edwin Abbott, after commenting that “the evangelist seems to indicate a ‘beginning’ to persecute, dating from a special act,” added that “perhaps ‘these things’ means ‘such things as this’ ” (Johannine Grammar, 337). Translating ταῦτα as “such things” is a way of doing justice to the iterative quality of the imperfect ἐποίει, referring to things Jesus did repeatedly or customarily.] on the Sabbath” more than once, even though only one instance has been given (see Joh_20:30; Joh_21:25). [Later Jesus will speak of “one work” he has done on the Sabbath (Joh_7:21, with Joh_7:23), but we also hear of crowds who followed him “because they had seen the signs he had been doing for those who were sick” (Joh_6:2). These signs (whether on the Sabbath or not) are not all recorded, but we know that Jesus will heal on the Sabbath at least one more time (see Joh_9:14).] It is important to note that this was the perception not only of “the Jews” but of the Gospel writer. Like the other Gospel writers, he is convinced that Jesus actually did violate Sabbath law, but equally convinced that he was fully justified in doing so.
Joh_5:17 Jesus immediately gives his justification for breaking the Sabbath. He “had an answer” [Gr. ἀπεκρίνατο. For this rendering, see Brown, 1.212. The aorist middle ἀπεκρίνατο occurs in John’s Gospel only here and in Joh_5:19. Everywhere else in the give-and-take of Johannine dialogue the aorist passive (ἀπεκρίθη) is used. Abbott suggests that the middle implies a formal defense against a charge, yet he admits that this is not involved in the uses he surveys of this verb form in the LXX. It is safer to stay with his more generalized conclusion that “there is some notion of publicity, or oracular response, or solemnity, so that the meaning is different from that of ἀποκριθῆναι” (Johannine Grammar, 392).] for the Jewish authorities who claimed that he broke the Sabbath. It was not an answer remembered as having been given at a specific time and place, or in relation to specific words from “the Jews.” We have no reason to believe that it is still the Sabbath, or that Jesus is still in the temple. [Contrast Lindars (218): “It must be assumed that the Jews’ ‘persecution’ of Jesus meant that they searched for him at once, and having found him (still in the Temple, perhaps; compare verse Joh_5:14) challenged him with the point at issue.”] No real dialogue takes place between Jesus and “the Jews.” He makes his pronouncement (Joh_5:17), and instead of saying anything to him in reply they simply make plans to kill him (Joh_5:18). Then Jesus “gave answer” again (Joh_5:19), [Again, ἀπεκρίνατο.] this time at great length (Joh_5:19-47), with no interruptions from “the Jews” and still no response. It is not so much an actual debate on an actual occasion as a literary construction based on what “the Jews” in Jerusalem must have thought and what Jesus would have said in reply. [Significantly, the middle ἀπεκρίνατο also occurs in Luk_3:16, where it refers to John the Baptist’s answer to an unspoken question of “the people” in general (see also Act_3:12).] It is the writer’s first real venture into the mind of Jesus, speaking for himself in the first person. [This in contrast to the Gospel’s opening verses (Joh_1:1-18), and to Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus (Joh_3:11-21) and John’s farewell (Joh_3:31-36), where Jesus and John respectively are made to speak not so much for themselves as for the Gospel writer and his community.] “My Father is working even until now,” he says, “and I am working.” He had spoken of “my Father” once before, when he said in the temple, “Stop making my Father’s house a house of trade!” (Joh_2:16), but it did not register. This time it does. “The Jews” at Jerusalem now hear the expression “my Father” and grasp its implications (see Joh_5:18). Jesus is picking up the thread of a rather familiar discussion in Judaism about the Sabbath. The notion that God “rested” after creating the world in six days (Gen_2:2-3) could not be interpreted to mean that God is now inactive in the world. On the contrary, God is at work constantly, giving and sustaining life, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. In short, God, and God alone, lawfully breaks the Sabbath. [The discussion is evident both in later rabbinic material and closer to Jesus’ time in the writings of Philo. According to Exodus Rabbah 30.9, a group of Rabbis on a journey to Rome were challenged by a sectarian who asked why God did not observe the Sabbath. “Wretch!” they replied, “Is not a man permitted to carry on the Sabbath in his own courtyard?” adding that “Both the higher and lower regions are courtyards of God, as it says, The whole earth is full of his glory” (Midrash Rabbah: Exodus [London: Soncino, 1961], 355-56). According to R. Phinehas in Genesis Rabbah 11.10, God “rested from the work of [creating] His world, but not from the work of the wicked and the work of the righteous, for He works with the former and with the latter. He shows the former their essential character, and the latter their essential character.” He then showed from Scripture that the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous are both called “work” (Midrash Rabbah: Genesis [London: Soncino, 1961], 86). Philo, in commenting on Gen_2:2, said, “First of all, the Creator, having brought an end to the formation of mortal things, begins the shaping of others more divine. For God never leaves off making, but even as it is the property of fire to burn and of snow to chill, so it is the property of God to make: nay more so by far, inasmuch as He is to all besides the source of action” (Allegory of the Laws 1.5; LCL, 1.149-51). Elsewhere he added, “Moses does not give the name of rest to mere inactivity. The cause of all things is by its nature active; it never ceases to work all that is best and most beautiful. God’s rest is rather a working with absolute ease, without toil and without suffering” (On the Cherubim 87; LCL, 2.61).]
With the pronouncement, “My Father is working even until now, and I am working,” Jesus injects himself into the equation. The result is a kind of riddle, [Curiously, it is not listed among Jesus’ riddles in Tom Thatcher’s survey, The Riddles of Jesus in John (184-87). It is difficult to see why Joh_2:16, for example, is included and Joh_5:17 is not. Thatcher admits, “This list may not be exhaustive. Other large sections of FG in which Jesus speaks of his identity and mission, such as chapters 5 and 15, may include statements which FE understood to be riddles but which cannot be identified by these criteria” (187). Possibly he excludes Joh_5:17 because “the Jews” expressed no confusion (see his four criteria, 183), but essentially they drew a blank (Joh_5:18), just as they did after the pronouncement in Joh_2:16 (see Joh_2:18).] open to several possible interpretations. Does it mean that after creating the world God continued working until now, but that now Jesus takes over in God’s place? Or does it mean that God continued working and is still at work, only now through Jesus the Son? [“Until now” (ἕως ἄρτι) can refer to conditions prevailing up to, but not including, the present (Joh_2:10; Joh_16:24), or to conditions up to and including the present, and beyond (1Jn_2:9, and probably here).] Or that God has been at work ever since creation, first through the preexistent Son and now through the incarnate Son? Or is it simply that God is still at work, and Jesus is God’s imitator, like a son apprenticed to his father? [As has often been noted, the words in themselves and out of context could simply be read, “My father has always been a working man, and I’m a working man too”! On the apprenticed son, see Dodd, Historical Tradition, 386, n. 2, and in RHPR 42 (1962), 107-15] There is no sure way to tell what the relation is between the Father’s work and the work of the Son. Interpretations will vary according to the degree of sophistication the reader brings to the text. The implication in any event is that because God breaks the Sabbath Jesus can do so as well, and for that reason alone the “riddle” (if that is the right word) is highly provocative. [In its implication, the pronouncement is comparable to the principle laid down in all three synoptic Gospels that “the Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (see Mat_12:8, Mar_2:28; and Luk_6:5).] Beyond this, all the reader has to go on is Jesus’ earlier comment to his disciples that “My food is that I might do the will of the One who sent me and complete his work” (ergon, Joh_4:34). Not surprisingly, he now identifies “the One who sent me” unmistakably as “my Father” (compare Joh_2:16), implicitly claiming for himself the title of God’s “One and Only” (Joh_1:14, Joh_1:18; Joh_3:16), or “Son” sent into the world (see Joh_3:17, Joh_3:34-35). The stage is set for a confrontation, or more precisely a series of confrontations, not limited to a single occasion, or to one Sabbath or one unnamed festival, but spanning the rest of the first half of John’s Gospel (chapters 5-12).
Joh_5:18 The answer to Jesus’ “answer” echoes Joh_5:16, where “for this,” that is, for healing on the Sabbath, the Jerusalem authorities “began pursuing” Jesus. Here too it is “for this,” [Again, διὰ τοῦτο (see above, n. 66).] for what he has just said, that they “kept seeking all the more to kill him.” The reader now learns that when the authorities “began pursuing” Jesus (Joh_5:16), their intent was “to kill.” [Gr. ἀποκτεῖναι.] Now they are “all the more” [Gr. μᾶλλον.] determined to do so, and they will persist in this intent throughout the Gospel (see Joh_7:1, Joh_7:19, Joh_7:20, Joh_7:25; Joh_8:37, Joh_8:40; Joh_11:53; Joh_18:31). [Abbott, by contrast (Johannine Grammar, 568), suggests that μᾶλλον signals a change of plans: “they rather sought to kill him [than merely to persecute him as before].” But the verses listed confirm the reader’s impression that “pursuing” or “persecuting” Jesus always entailed seeking his death (compare Schnackenburg, 2.462, n. 31). The same will be true of the persecution of Jesus’ disciples (see Joh_15:20-21; Joh_16:2).] Again the imperfect tenses are conspicuous. They “kept seeking” to kill Jesus, not only because he was breaking the Sabbath on a regular basis—in their eyes “abolishing” it [Gr. ἔλυεν. The verb λύειν in relation to the Sabbath (as here), or the law (see Joh_7:23; also Mat_5:19), or the Scripture (see Joh_10:35), appears to mean more than simply transgress or violate or disregard, but rather to annul, destroy, or abolish (see BDAG, 607). It is never used of the Sabbath in any of the other Gospels.]—but for an even deeper reason: he “was claiming God as his own Father.” [“Claiming” is ἔλεγεν. That is, he was “saying that” God was his Father.] They are referring of course to what he has just said, “My Father is working even until now, and I am working” (Joh_5:17), but they make no explicit attempt to interpret what he means either by his “work” or the Father’s “work.” All they seem to hear is the expression, “my Father.” [Gr. ὁ πατήρ μου. Odeberg (The Fourth Gospel, 203) disagrees, commenting that Jesus’ blasphemy “consisted not in his calling the Holy One his Father, but in his presuming upon a peculiar sonship in virtue of which he had the right of performing the same ‘continual work’ as his Father.” In short, he was a rebellious Son, saying in effect, “ ‘I am equal with, as good as, my Father.’ ”] That, perhaps together with his use of the emphatic
“I” (kagō) is what provokes them. From it they conclude three things: that Jesus is referring to God, that he is claiming God as “his own Father,” and therefore that he is claiming to be “equal to God.” [Gr. ἴσον τῷ θεῷ.]
As far as the Gospel writer is concerned, these are perfectly legitimate conclusions: Jesus did “break the Sabbath,” [The verb “break” (ἔλυεν) could imply that Jesus did away with, or abolished, the Sabbath (see BDAG, 607). Yet the notice simply reinforces what was said in verse Joh_5:16 (that Jesus “did such things” on the Sabbath). To the Jewish authorities this may have been tantamount to abolishing the Sabbath, yet they would also have assumed that one man cannot “abolish” an ordinance of God, only violate it. Jesus will later be charged not with abolishing the Sabbath, but simply “not keeping” it (οὐ τηρεῖ, Joh_9:16). As for the Gospel writer, what is said here must be read in light of what Jesus says elsewhere, that one legitimately keeps the Sabbath by healing or doing good (see Joh_7:23; also Mar_3:4; Luk_13:16; Luk_14:3).] he did claim God as “his own Father,” and he did claim to be “equal to God.” [The emphasis is somewhat different from Paul’s in Php_2:6, where Jesus did not consider “being equal to God” (τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ) something to be “grasped” or “seized” (ἁρπαγμόν). To the author of John, this would have been because equality with God was already his.] The text presents these affirmations not simply as what “the Jews” thought Jesus was saying, but as what he was saying, and what was in fact the case. [Contrast Dodd, who argues that “if the evangelist had been asked whether or not he intended to affirm that Christ was ἴσος τῷ θεῷ, he would have replied that ἴσος, whether affirmed or denied, is not the proper term to use in this context” (Interpretation, 327-28). On the contrary, it is precisely the term of the Gospel writer’s choosing, not as a straw man or a misconception that needs to be corrected, but as a true characterization of Jesus. It only needs to be elaborated and spelled out, and this Jesus will do in the discourse that follows. Still, Dodd’s discussion of the matter (320-28) is highly illuminating.] Yet the repeated mention of “the Jews” (Joh_5:16, Joh_5:18) also highlights the fact that such claims were highly problematic within Judaism, as much so or more than breaking the Sabbath. Philo, for example, even while acknowledging that “to imitate God’s works is a pious act,” cautioned that “the mind shows itself to be without God and full of self-love, when it deems itself as on a par with God; [Gr. ἴσος εἶναι θεῷ.] and, whereas passivity is its true part, looks on itself as an agent. When God sows and plants noble qualities in the soul, the mind that says, ‘I plant’ is guilty of impiety.” [Allegory of the Laws 1.48-49 (LCL, 1.177). The Apostle Paul, significantly, once said the very thing Philo warned against (ἐγὼ ἐφύτευσα, “I planted”), but was quick to add, “but God made it grow” (1Co_3:6). Here too we will see Jesus adding crucial qualifications in the discourse that follows.] Philo’s warning against the emphatic “I” (egō) suggests that in John as well part of the offense may be traceable to Jesus’ emphatic conclusion, “and I am working.” [Gr. κἀγὼ ἐργάζομαι.] Jesus’ claim that God was “his own Father” [Gr. πατέρα ἴδιον.] meant that God was (in C. H. Dodd’s words) “his father in a sense other than that in which any Israelite might speak of Him as ‘our Father in heaven.’ ” [Dodd, Interpretation, 325.] This could mean that he was speaking as Israel’s Messiah, [See, for example, (NRSV) 2Sa_7:14, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me,” and Psa_89:26-27, “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God and the Rock of my salvation!’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” This is in keeping with what the reader already knows about Jesus: that he is both “Son of God” and “King of Israel” (see Joh_1:49).] or it could mean (as both “the Jews” and the Gospel writer assume) that he was speaking as a divine being. To the Gospel writer these are not mutually exclusive options, but to Jesus’ questioners the latter was the primary concern. In a later confrontation they will say, “It’s not about a good work that we stone you, but about blasphemy, and because you, being a man, are making yourself God” (Joh_10:33). [The grammar is similar: “making himself [ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν] equal to God” (Joh_5:18), and “make yourself [ποιεῖς σεαυτόν] God” (Joh_10:33).] To the Jewish mind, making oneself “equal to God” (Joh_5:18) represented at the very least a first step toward the outright blasphemy of making oneself “God” (theos, Joh_10:33), [In the Graeco-Roman world, the often-quoted words of Apollonius of Tyana assume only a difference of degree between the two designations: “Other men regard me as the equal of the gods [ἰσόθεον], and some of them even as a god [θεόν], but until now my own country alone ignores me” (Philostratus, Epistle 44).] and in that sense a denial of Jewish monotheism. [Judaism guarded its monotheism rigorously against any notion of “two Powers” (שׁתי רשׁיות) or authorities, or a “second God” (see the classic discussions in G. F. Moore, Judaism, 1.364-67; Odeberg, The Fourth Gospel, 203-4; and Dodd, Interpretation, 324-27). See Sifre Deuteronomy §329, adducing Deu_32:39 (“there is no god beside me”) as the correct reply both to those who say “there is no authority” and those who say “there are two authorities in heaven” (J. Neusner, Sifre to Deuteronomy: An Analytical Translation [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987], 2.374). So too Mekilta to : “Scripture, therefore, would not let the nations of the world have an excuse for saying that there are two Powers, but declares: ‘I am the Lord thy God.’ ” And “Rabbi Nathan says: From this one can cite a refutation of the heretics who say: There are two Powers” (Mekilta de-Rabbi Ishmael [trans. J. Z. Lauterbach; Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1976], 2.231-32).] Yet the reader of the Gospel has known from the start that “God” (theos) is exactly what Jesus is (see Joh_1:1, Joh_1:18), so that to hear it from Jesus’ own lips (implicitly) and from his opponents (explicitly) comes as no surprise, but as confirmation. With the notice that the issue is “not only” (ou monon) the Sabbath, but Jesus’ claims about himself, we move decisively from the realm of legal observance to the realm of christology. The question “Who is the man?” (Joh_5:12) will more and more take center stage. Jesus’ answer (Joh_5:19-47) will primarily address that question, and only secondarily (and indirectly) the issue of the Sabbath.
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