Easter 6 • John 5:1–9 • May 1, 2016
By Ben Haupt
At the beginning of his Gospel, the Apostle John inscribes one of his main themes: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:16–17). This pericope introduces the reader to the large confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders found in chapters 5 through the end of 11. The contrast between law and grace is one that the reader should be expecting, and indeed 5:1–9 delivers in some interesting ways.
Many commentators spend copious pages trying to solve the extensive text critical dilemmas in our short nine verses. Theodor Zahn suggests that some of the difficulties may have arisen when the apostle wrote his gospel first to an audience familiar with Jerusalem, the location of the Sheep Gate, the language of Hebrew, and the tradition surrounding our text’s location. Later, perhaps other readers less familiar with this background asked John to revise the text with explanatory notes. Zahn can say this because he judges the variant readings to be quite early.¹ Maybe. He more confidently asserts a few things. First, the festival in verse 1 does not seem to play any obvious role in how the scene plays out, and so we can safely leave its specificity undecided. Second, Zahn asserts that the name of the pool was Bethesda, because John makes it clear that the name was Hebrew and therefore likely was not just a name but also had a greater meaning or significance for setting the scene. Βηθεσδά comes from the Hebrew for house of grace. Jesus comes into this house of grace but finds it full of the blind, lame, and paralyzed. There may well be people in your congregation who will readily and easily relate to these people, people broken by the effects of our sinful, fallen world.
Augustine interprets this pericope figuratively when he explains the five colonnades of this area of Jerusalem as symbols of the five books of Moses and the water in the pool as a symbol for the Jewish people. “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.”² We need not completely follow his figural interpretation in order to retain the main idea that these people have not been well-served by the city of Jerusalem nor the Jewish leaders who were already exposed in chapter two’s cleansing of the temple.
But Jesus, the one who brings grace upon grace in John’s Gospel, comes into this broken place and pours it out. You will help your hearers to focus not only on the physical healing but also on the man’s greater problem that Jesus fixes. In verse 14, Jesus makes a suggestive comment to this thirty-eight-year-old paralytic after he heals him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” Jesus had not only healed the man (which showed Jesus to be the one who created all things and could therefore renew all things) but also forgave him his sins. What might a true Bethesda, one in which Jesus’s grace and forgiveness is continually poured out, look like in the twenty-first century?
¹ Theodor Zahn, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, Das Evangelium des Johannes (Leipzig: Georg Böhme, 1908), 276–77.
² Augustine, “Tractate XVII” Post-Nicene Fathers I, vol. 7, ed. Philip Schaff, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 111.