John 5:1-15 tells the story of a paralyzed man healed by Jesus at a pool called Bethesda. It’s one of the most bizarre healing stories in the gospels, for a number of reasons.
First, the setting. The pool of Bethesda was located just north of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. People started coming here about 150 years before Jesus was born, convinced the waters of Bethesda possessed healing properties. The pool still drew a crowd in Jesus’ day:
Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. (John 15:4)
What’s unusual about this miracle is that Bethesda was a place of healing. Most of Jesus’ miracles happen in far more ordinary places: houses, streets, synagogues, hillsides.
So why does Jesus come to a place of healing to do some healing of his own?
Second, the method of healing. Jesus doesn’t touch the man. He doesn’t use any water from the pool. Under most other circumstances, either would have been perfectly normal for Jesus. There are 16 other healing miracles in the gospels (not counting demon possessions); Jesus touches the person being healed in 12 of them. Twice he uses his own spit, and once he uses mud from the ground. So why does Jesus heal the man at Bethesda with nothing more than a word?
Third, the paralyzed man’s attitude. He doesn’t show any sign of faith in Jesus. He doesn’t seem to know who Jesus is.
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.” (John 15:6-7)
Later, John confirms for us that the man had “no idea” who Jesus was (John 15:13). It’s almost as if the paralyzed man can’t take his eyes off the pool long enough to have a proper conversation with Jesus.
Jesus often credits a person’s faith as having some part in their healing (Matthew 9:18-22, 27-30). There was even a place where Jesus was unable to do many miracles because of people’s lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).
So why is the paralyzed man’s faith — or lack of it — apparently not an issue at Bethesda?
Fourth, Jesus’ reaction following the miracle. After the man complains that he is unable to get into the pool, Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. He does. A while later, Jesus bumps into him at the temple, and Jesus’ reaction is, well, weird:
“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)
Not exactly the usual uplifting words of blessing that follow one of Jesus’ miracles (see Matthew 9:22; Luke 17:19). So which of the disciples spit in Jesus’ breakfast that morning? What made him so cranky?
Just a few chapters later, Jesus rejects the idea that suffering is necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure (John 9:3). So why does he tell this guy, in effect, “Get your act together, or else you’re going to get it”?
Maybe there’s more to the pool of Bethesda than we realize.
Archaeologists from Yale Divinity School have excavated the site. Here’s what they discovered:
Between 150 BCE and 70 CE, a popular healing center was located in this area… The baths, grottos and a water cistern were arranged for medicinal and religious purposes. After bathing, patients could sleep in a grotto. “Priests” were available to interpret dreams as part of the healing ritual.
This description precisely matches the ritual of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.
The pool of Bethesda was a shrine to Asclepius. A couple centuries after Jesus, the Romans replaced the bath and grottos with a full-fledged temple to Asclepius.
Kind of adds a whole new dimension to the story in John 5, doesn’t it?
You can almost understand why some later manuscripts sanitized the story by adding the line, “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters.” (Which was almost certainly not a part of John’s original manuscript.)
The pool of Bethesda was not some innocent place where the mildly (but forgivably) superstitious sought relief from their ailments. Bethesda was a place of pagan worship — sitting in the shadow of the Jewish temple.
But why would Jesus go to a place like this? Why would he risk his reputation and his religious purity?
It’s almost as if Jesus is seeking a confrontation — as if he goes to the pool of Bethesda to challenge Asclepius’ claim to the title of “great physician.” Jesus does not use water from the pool to induce healing. He does not even touch the paralyzed man, leaving no doubt that his power comes from God Almighty, not Asclepius.
The man Jesus healed may have been a syncretistic Jew — someone who spent their Fridays at Bethesda and their Saturdays at the temple. He doesn’t indicate any faith in Jesus because his faith is in Asclepius. That’s why he’s come to the pool in the first place.
Which also explains Jesus’ seemingly harsh rebuke near the end of the story. The man was sinning; he had broken the first commandment, forsaking God and putting his trust in Asclepius instead. Maybe Jesus is telling the man, in effect, “Stop trying to have it both ways; it’s time to decide who you stand with.”
But I think there’s one more thing to this story. Notice something else about the man Jesus chose to heal.
He’s the one who kept being getting left behind. The one who was always cut off by someone else on their way to the pool. The one who was consistently overlooked and ignored by Asclepius.
Sometimes Jesus healed simply because he saw needy people and had compassion on them (Matthew 14:14). Jesus healed the ones no one else would. His earliest followers accepted those who were rejected by the other gods.
Asclepius won’t heal you? No problem. Jesus will. Apollo won’t give you a word of wisdom because you can’t pay his fee? No worries. Jesus has the very words of life, free of charge. Mithra won’t accept you because you’re a woman, a slave, or some other “undesirable”? No problem. Jesus is building a kingdom where the last come first.
It reminds me of something a professor in college once said.
Jesus is for misfits.