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The Life of Jesus - Series 3: Episode 12

Jesus heals a disabled man

| Martin Charlesworth
John 5:1-15

Jesus heals a disabled man on the Sabbath causing controversy, but the man doesn't know it's Jesus until they meet later in the Temple.

Jesus heals a disabled man on the Sabbath causing controversy, but the man doesn't know it's Jesus until they meet later in the Temple.


Hello and welcome to Series 3 and Episode 12, in which Jesus heals a disabled man. The passage we're going to look at, in this episode, is in John's 5: 1 to 15.

Introduction and Recap

The setting is in Jerusalem and this is in contrast to the previous episodes and the narrative that we've been looking at recently. In the last part of a Series 3, we've been in Galilee: we've been amongst crowds; we've seen all sorts of remarkable healings; we've seen Jesus beginning to gather his disciples together; we've seen religious leaders coming down from Jerusalem and Judea and other places to check Jesus out - to investigate him - and now the scene changes dramatically. John, in his account of Jesus' life, points out that Jesus visited Jerusalem on a number of occasions. Jerusalem is the capital city in the south of the country, in the province of Judea. It takes two or three days to get there from Galilee by the normal means of travelling and so it's quite a big decision to go from Galilee to Jerusalem. It was the tradition of the Jews to travel up to Jerusalem, the capital city where the Temple was, every year (once a year or even up to three times a year) to attend the major religious festivals: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, the three major festivals of Israel. Jesus, from time to time, went up to Jerusalem and John records these incidents and each one is significant. When we are in Jerusalem, we're in a very different atmosphere and environment than we are in Galilee.

Let's reflect on that, briefly, before we start reading the passage - so we can get a feel for what's actually going on here. In Jerusalem Jesus wasn't that well-known to the common people. He'd only made brief appearances. The one we know of: John 2, when he cleansed the Temple, was a brief appearance and he will return on a number of occasions. The ordinary people of the city would have perhaps known something about Jesus but very few of them would have met him, or seen him in operation and he would have seemed a rather distant figure to them - they would have heard of John the Baptist and Jesus because they were quite well-known in the country. Whereas, the people in Galilee were very familiar with Jesus: many of them would have actually seen him; many of them would have experienced him coming through their villages or towns; many of them would have travelled some distance to hear him speak; or to ask him to pray for the sick in their families; or something similar. In Galilee, Jesus was very much at the centre of popular culture; people were talking about him all the time. There were stories about the things he did circulating right the way throughout the district but Jerusalem was a bit different.

There was a social division too: Jerusalem and Jerusalemites (people who lived there) felt themselves to be at the centre of the nation - they tended to feel a little bit superior to people from the northern province of Galilee. They had the Temple there (the centre of worship); they had all the priesthood operating there and the ruling council (the Sanhedrin) that organised and adjudicated their religion - Judaism - was based there. They made all the decisions about how things should be done, so it's a different feeling and when Jesus goes up to Jerusalem he can, to some extent, be anonymous. He's not well-known, particularly at this early stage in his ministry. By the end of his ministry, things have moved on - but that's going forward a couple of years from the situation we find ourselves in this text. He goes up to Jerusalem and he initiates a very surprising event: an event that has a different feel to the sort of things he's been doing in Galilee. It's a healing, but the circumstances of it are totally different to what we've been describing in previous episodes. Even if we go back to the last episode (when we looked at Mark 3: 7 onwards) we looked at Mark describing this amazing scene of thousands of people gathering - crowds pressing in; Jesus retreating back to the lakeside of the Sea of Galilee and asking his disciples to prepare a boat so he can get away from the crowds when he needs to; the commotion in the crowds, people pushing through to get Jesus to pray for them - that is a completely different situation from what we find in this passage. It's because we're in a different part of the country, a different context, a different spiritual environment - we're in the capital city where Jesus, until this point, is not well-known. Let's read the passage with those things in mind. We're going to read John 5: 1 - 15:

‘Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish (feasts). 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. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him at the Temple and said to him, “See, (you're) well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.’

John 5:1-15, NIV

I think you can quickly see this is a very different situation to the one we saw in Galilee with those vast crowds. When you go to Jerusalem, the city of Jerusalem - and you can go there today and still see approximately the same structure of the old city of Jerusalem as existed in Jesus' time. There are a number of gates into the city. We've got one mentioned here, the Sheep Gate. You can go through the equivalent gates, although the construction and the building of the Old City is much later than the time of Jesus, but you've still got the traditional walls of the city and the gates and you can go through them.

Pool of Bethesda

On your way in, as you're heading towards the Temple (which is right in the middle of the city), you can pass by a site which is the Pool of Bethesda. It's still there today. It's been excavated and they've even found the five columns, or colonnades in the excavation that are described here by John. I've had the opportunity to go through that gate, to go to that pool and then to head up to the site of the Temple, known as the Temple Mount. In my imagination, I can envisage what it was like for people visiting the city: coming through the gate feeling they'd come to their wonderful capital city, the City of God, the City of David, the city of the Temple. It would have been an exciting feeling.

This pool, this rather large pool - which you can see the remains of - was on the main road up from one of the gates towards the Temple. Many people have suggested that one of the functions of this pool was for ritual cleansing, or ritual washing. The Jews had these ritual washing pools and archaeology has revealed them all over Israel; they called it a ‘mikvah,’ a place of cleansing. I can imagine some people coming up to the Temple - preparing for worship, preparing for a religious festival, preparing to bring an animal sacrifice through the priests to God - would have stopped by this pool and washed themselves, in a ritual sense - not just for physical cleanliness, but as a sign of wanting to wash away their sins. Also, at the pool, which John specifically mentioned, people who were sick gathered around the pool and he refers, somewhat mysteriously, to the waters being stirred. What would stir the waters? Was it something miraculous that happened? Was it perhaps, more likely, an underground spring right under the pool that would bubble up from time to time and create a stirring of the waters? We don't exactly know, but either of these possibilities exist and if there was some underground spring, from time to time the waters would be stirred.

The tradition seems to have been, when the waters are stirred in this ritual cleansing pool, when stirring comes from within - then this is a moment when the waters have special power, not only to clean you spiritually, but to actually heal your body. This is the reason why the invalid in this story, the paralysed man, says to Jesus, that he can't get into the water quickly when the water is stirred and therefore he can't progress with healing because the traditional belief was that people could be healed through this - although there's no evidence that that ever actually happened from this text or from anything else that we know. These sort of religious traditions arise in many societies, don't they? Holy places, places of cleansing, places of healing. All over the world we have these holy places attached to different religious traditions and different major religions. Here's an example of one within the Jewish tradition and what we see is Jesus coming to this pool - but notice he's coming very anonymously. He comes to this feast without a crowd; he comes to this feast without a lot of disciples following him. He comes privately, almost secretly.

The extraordinary thing about this story is that, he has a conversation with this one man. There are many people needing healing there and Jesus had healed thousands and thousands of people in the days and weeks before this event but he picks out one, and it's because there's a particular chain of events that is going to follow this. Jesus is actually provoking a discussion between himself and the religious authorities - and we'll see how that unfolds towards the end of this episode and, particularly, in the next episode where a long conversation takes place. At this particular point, he comes anonymously and he says to the man, very simply, “Do you want to get well?” The man is defensive because he says, “Of course I want to get well! I'm here in the place where we trust that we will get well, when the water is stirred and when we get down into the water.” In other words he's saying, “That's why I'm here.” Then Jesus gives the command, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk” - and miraculously, the man is healed.

The extraordinary thing is that as Jesus disappears off into the crowd, and the man heads up the road to the Temple, just a few hundred metres away, the man doesn't actually know who Jesus is. This illustrates the point I mentioned earlier: not everyone in Jerusalem had heard of Jesus in these days, it wasn't like Galilee. He had been there hardly at all, a few people had heard of him; this man wasn't one of them; he didn't know who he was but he picked up his mat and he walked and got into conversation with religious leaders, who criticised him for carrying the mat because it broke one of their traditions - because this particular event took place on the Sabbath, the holy day of the Jews.

Sabbath Day Tradition

We've already discussed a controversy about the Sabbath day that was rising between Jesus and the religious authorities. On the Sabbath day, according to the Law of Moses, people should rest from their work (not to work in the fields, give their families and their animals an opportunity to rest as well and the servants who work in their homes, if that's appropriate). It was a day of rest and worship but the Jews had added all sorts of extra (hundreds of extra) rules and regulations that God didn't give them from the Law of Moses in the Old Testament - they just added them in. One of them relates to the situation here, where they told him that he wasn't allowed to carry his mat because it broke the Sabbath rules. It broke their rules, but it didn't break the God-given Sabbath regulation in the Law of Moses and so a controversy might occur (and indeed will occur) surrounding the fact that Jesus performed this miracle on the Sabbath day - a day when everyone was supposed to be resting.

The story ends when Jesus travels up to the Temple as well, just a few hundred metres up the road into the centre of the city. The man had gone there. He'd got into conversation with religious leaders. He said he'd been healed. He's carrying his mat and he doesn't really know who healed him but then Jesus meets him and identifies himself to him and says, interestingly enough, “See you're well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” He's pointing out here that it's not just about healing, it's about the inner change of life. He's encouraging the man, in a sense, to believe in Jesus - to actually put his trust in him as his saviour.

Then it concludes: ‘The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.’ This would trigger in their minds a memory because, as we've seen just a short time prior to this, a man had been sent from Galilee, up to Jerusalem, to meet the religious leaders and, particularly, the priests, after he'd been healed of leprosy - and if you've read all the episodes, you'll remember that particular episode when Jesus heals the leper because he said, “Go up and show yourself to the priests and make a sacrifice and make a testimony to them.” They would have recorded the fact that Jesus had healed the leper because the priest had to decide whether he was healed and whether he could be re-admitted into Jewish society. That had happened only recently and now this man comes to the religious leaders, who involved the priests as well, and said, “Jesus healed me” - and so Jesus of Nazareth becomes the subject of another conversation in and around the Temple, amongst the religious leaders and the priests. A picture is beginning to emerge that stories about Jesus are reaching them; bearing in mind that they had experienced him in the Temple before - when he'd arrived. John 2, in an earlier episode, we described how he went into the Temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and the people who were selling animals for sacrifice and challenged them that they were corrupting the Temple by turning it into some kind of market environment, rather than a place of worship. The religious leaders were getting a picture that Jesus was appearing from time to time and performing miracles and creating a following and this will become critical to the conversation that takes place in the next episode.

In the next episode, there's a long discussion about the significance of the event that's just happened, the healing of this man, and why it was done on the Sabbath. What did that mean and who was Jesus anyway? What were the testimonies to Jesus? What is the evidence that Jesus was who he said he was and what was the relationship between Jesus and his heavenly Father? All these questions are now going to come to the forefront and, in our next episode, which follows on directly from this - it's part of the same narrative - we're going to see the conversation that happens between the religious leaders and Jesus and lots of important true things about Jesus become clear to us as a result of this particular conversation.

We're going to stick, for the moment, with the actual event. It looks as though Jesus had orchestrated this event. He'd come up very privately; he'd healed somebody - knowing that that person would go up to the Temple and talk about it - and then he gradually made himself known and it provoked an incident. He did it on the Sabbath day, significantly, as well. This is a remarkable story and I would say the healing of this man at the Pool of Bethesda is a prophetic event. Jesus said, in Matthew 12: 8, that he was ‘Lord over the Sabbath.’ In other words, although he respected the Law of Moses, all the traditions about what you can and can't do on the Sabbath he would disregard; he was Lord over the Sabbath. Here he is saying the same thing - he's disregarding their traditions and carrying on and healing people anyway. What Jesus is doing here, is challenging the religious authorities. In the last few episodes, we've seen they've been challenging him. You'll notice, if you remember in the story of the paralysed man, who was let down through the roof by his friends, and he appears before Jesus in a crowded house. There were a whole group of religious leaders who arrived specifically to observe Jesus. They've come from Jerusalem, Judea, all parts of Galilee; they are there to observe him; they're in the process of observing him and then they start asking tricky questions as time goes on. They challenge him about fasting, for example, “Why are your disciples irreligious? They're not fasting.” We discussed that in an earlier episode and in that context Jesus says of the man lying before him, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” He indicates that he, the Son of Man, has authority to forgive sins - so there's a challenge going on. They are following him in Galilee; they're observing him and they're reporting back to Jerusalem. Now the tables are turned! Jesus is coming to Jerusalem and he's challenging them: he's doing something which is going to provoke a response and a discussion and a controversy between himself and the religious leaders and it will lead to him making clear, again, that he is the Messiah and the Son of God. However, the details of that we'll cover in the next episode, when we look at the long discussion that John records between Jesus, the religious authorities and also the man who was healed.


As we come to the end of this episode, thinking about things we can take away and learn from it, there are several points I'd like to make by way of reflection. First of all, the issue of ritual cleansing and holy places, where we can receive healing and special blessing. Our world is full of them. It is in our human nature to like to find places especially associated with God, or the divine, or some holy person. This phenomenon appears in all sorts of different religions and one of the things that we are seeking in these places is cleansing. Cleansing, or cleaning up, from a sense of dirt, moral guilt, sin, darkness inside us - that is how people generally feel; they feel as though they're separated from God, or the divine and they need to improve themselves, to cleanse themselves. A ritual cleansing place, such as the pool of Bethesda, is a sign of mankind's efforts to try and find a way of getting right with God. Jesus never encourages any of that ritual cleansing apart from one basic and fundamental event - and that is baptism. Baptism, which we'll discuss more fully in other episodes, is a one-off event which Jesus intended to be carried out by people who, themselves, had personally believed (not infants or children, we'll come to that on another occasion and discuss that more fully) but those who've believed, those who've put their trust - whatever age they are - who are baptised by full immersion, by being washed in the water thoroughly (like in a bath, where you are immersed in order to be clean) and this baptism is designed to be a one-off event as a symbol. It doesn't have any power in itself, it's only a symbol. A symbol that you have already been cleansed from sin within by the work of the Holy Spirit. These ritual cleansing facilities that appeared in Judaism and appear in lots of other religious traditions are not encouraged in Christianity because they take away from the reality that we have been cleansed already. The way to be cleansed of any further sin we carry out as Christians, is through confession of sin and prayer, rather than any external ritual.

Another reflection from this passage is Jesus' incredible interest in individuals. He picked out this one man, we don't exactly know why. We don't know what was in the heart of this one man, but it's encouraging to us that, in a crowd, Jesus can pick out a single person. He can pick you out of a crowd and if you're in a crowd now and that crowd is a crowd of people suffering, or people not believing in Jesus, he can pick you out. Maybe he is picking you out now and calling you to himself.

Another point to say is there's no hopelessness when Jesus comes into your situation. This man was stuck; in 38 years nothing much had changed. He was poor; he was a beggar; he was an invalid; he was in need of help; and he was at risk of becoming hopeless and depressed - but there's no hopelessness when Jesus comes into your situation.

My final point is that physical healing, is a part of a bigger journey and this man, although he'd been healed, hadn't really woken up to the spiritual things that were represented by Jesus. He didn't know who Jesus was; he didn't know what his message was. When Jesus comes to him, to the Temple and says, “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you,” he's basically saying, “Healing is one thing, but you need to resolve the question of sin in your relationship with God.” Of course, the man was then listening in to Jesus talking to others and enquiring further and he would have found out about the message of Jesus.

This is a fascinating story as Jesus heals a disabled man, an invalid, and the story continues with a very long and interesting discussion that follows this event - which will be the subject of our next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are the ‘holy places’ in your country, or abroad, where people go to be healed. What do you think about these places?
    2. What were some of the sabbath day rules at the time of Jesus? What rules or traditions do you have about the sabbath/Sunday?
  • Discipleship
    1. In Matthew 8: 12 Jesus says that he is ‘Lord over the Sabbath.’ What does this mean to you?
    2. Talk to God in prayer about the fact that He sees you as an individual - not just part of a crowd.
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