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Jesus has revealed God's love both for Jews and for those despised by many Jews. Now we come to the man at the pool, one whom Christians would be tempted to despise, since he betrays Jesus. In God's love for this Judas figure we see the full picture of God's love, a love that excludes no one (3:16, see comments on 13:23-26).
Jesus is back in Jerusalem at an unspecified feast. He visits a pool at the northeast corner of the city where people with various illnesses gathered to seek healing. This pool was actually two large trapezoid-shaped pools with a twenty-one-foot-wide space between them. The whole structure was enclosed by porches on each side, with a fifth porch over the area dividing the two pools. The water was occasionally disturbed, perhaps from an underground source such as a spring with irregular flow or drainage from another pool. People believed one could be healed by getting into the pool when this disturbance occurred. It is implied that at least some of those who got into the pool when it was stirred actually were healed (5:7).
Jesus takes the initiative, as he did with the woman of Samaria, and approaches a man lying by this pool who had been ill for thirty-eight years. We are not told exactly what was wrong with him. The NIV translates the general term astheneia ("weakness," "disease") as invalid, due to the present context, but a later reference to healing "the whole man" may suggest a more general illness (7:23). We are also not told how long the man had been coming to this pool, but he had been there long enough to miss the stirring of the water a number of times.
The man is there with no one to help him. So here is an unpredictable source of healing that can affect only a few people, and this man has no hope of getting healed anyway because he cannot get to the pool. In other words, this is a situation of utter hopelessness and futility. But while the man cannot get to the pool, Jesus can get to him. The man is met by the one who is the stable, constant source not just of healing but of life itself, indeed, of eternal life.
Although Jesus knows the man has been ill for a long time and also knows what is in his heart (2:24-25), he nevertheless initiates the contact by asking if he wants to get well (5:6). This Gospel stresses both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and here we see both Jesus' sovereign approach to this man and the importance of the man's own will. This is another of Jesus' questions that are intended to reveal one's heart. What would we say to Jesus if he asked us whether we wanted to be healed of our own illnesses, physical or otherwise? Do we want to be rid of our addictions and other sins? Ten minutes hard thought on this question could lead us to new depths of repentance. It seems like a silly question—of course he would want to be healed. But perhaps the man has grown accustomed to his disability and would prefer the known pain to the terror of the unknown, with its new responsibilities. While such speculation is true to human nature, John does not develop this line of thought (Carson 1991: 243). He is, however, quite clear on the basic point that what one wants or wills or desires (all of these can be conveyed by the verb thelo) plays a vital role in determining whether one can recognize Christ and receive him (7:17). God finds each of us as helpless as this man. The good news is that he desires to grant each of us life, not necessarily mere healing in this life, but eternal life beginning now.
The man's answer implies that he wants to be healed, for he explains to Jesus how it can take place. All he needs is someone to help him into the pool at the right time. By explaining the situation to Jesus he seems to interpret Jesus' question as an offer to help (Schnackenburg 1980b:95). He is right in assuming that Jesus wants to help him, but it is not in the way he expects. Jesus helps indeed! How little is needed on our part for God to work! This man has no idea who Jesus is. He indirectly asks for Jesus' help the same way the Samaritan woman wanted the indoor plumbing she thought Jesus was offering (4:15). In both cases they get far more than they expected. Instead of giving him a hand into the pool Jesus gives him immediate and complete healing. To be able to walk and carry his mat after thirty-eight years meant he received not just healing from his illness, but also strength and muscle tone. "Just as the thirty-eight years prove the gravity of the disease, so the carrying of the bed and the walking prove the completeness of the cure" (Barrett 1978:254). How gracious God is! In the power and the grace revealed in this healing we see the glory of God shining brightly.
After describing this healing John introduces the dramatic note that this occurred on a sabbath (v. 9), thereby setting the stage for the second scene of this story. The Jews reproach the man for carrying his mat on the sabbath (v. 10). The Old Testament does not prohibit this activity, but rabbinic interpretation of the command not to work on the sabbath did prohibit it (m. shabbat 7:2; cf. Carson 1991:244). Since Jesus explicitly commanded the man to carry his mat we have a conflict between interpretations of God's will. The Jewish opponents believe the man is sinning as he obeys Jesus' command. A more striking illustration of the conflict between Jesus and these opponents could not be imagined. Indeed, this story becomes a point of reference as the conflict deepens (7:19-24).
The opponents ask, Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk? (5:12). On one level they are simply asking for his name. But on another level this question epitomizes their basic problem: nothing that Jesus does makes godly sense to them because they do not know who he is. The major question of this Gospel is Who is this fellow? One's answer to that question makes the difference between eternal life and death.
It turns out that the man at the pool does not himself know who Jesus is (5:13). As in the first story in this series (2:1-11) Jesus keeps a very low profile, and the beneficiary does not know who Jesus is. The reason given for this is not the man's ingratitude or dullness, but the fact that Jesus had slipped away in the crowd. The description of the healing gives the impression that it happened quite suddenly and surprisingly, right after Jesus had approached the man. But in his complete ignorance of Jesus, not even knowing his name, this man is like those who earlier had seen Jesus' signs in Jerusalem but had no true faith (2:23-25). This man does not just see signs but is himself the one who receives the benefit of Jesus' action. Yet like those others he fails to receive that which the sign points to, the revelation of God in Jesus.
Jesus does not leave him in this ignorance but, in the final scene (5:14-15), he finds him in the temple. Again Jesus is taking the initiative. It is almost as if this is a two-stage miracle with an interval separating the healing and Jesus' manifestation of himself to the man. In any event, he now speaks to him in his usual abrupt manner: See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you (v. 14). The man had earlier obeyed Jesus' command, but it had gotten him into trouble with the Jews, who accused him of sinning. Now he disobeys (at least from a Johannine point of view) Jesus' order to stop sinning, for he immediately betrays Jesus to the Jewish opponents. Jesus' command to this man could have functioned like his order to the Samaritan woman to go and call her husband (4:16). That command and the woman's response were part of Jesus' imparting of eternal life. The woman passes the test, but not so this man. He is caught between Jesus and the Jewish opponents, and he does not choose wisely. He now knows Jesus' name, but he continues to be ignorant of Jesus' identity.
Jesus' command focuses on the man as a sinner. This is in striking contrast to the later healing of the man born blind, in which Jesus declines to connect the illness with sin (9:3). These two passages taken together provide important insight into the relation between sin and catastrophes such as illness (cf. Carson 1991:245-46, 361-62). Here a connection is clearly drawn between this man's sin and his illness (5:14), whereas the later passage (9:3) seems to suggest that not every illness is directly linked with particular sins (as opposed to the general effects of the Fall). We should thus avoid the view that illness is always connected to some particular sin, almost as if one could work out a precise formula for the connection. We should also reject the idea that there is never such a connection. In practical terms it seems wise to take any illness or calamity as an occasion for an examination of conscience, which one should be doing daily anyway. But we should not necessarily expect to find a specific sin that has caused the distress. Any sin found must, of course, be repented of and put to death by the power of the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:13). Also, just because there are no catastrophes in a person's life does not mean he or she does not have sin to turn from (cf. Lk 13:1-5)!
Asking this man to sin no more seems like an impossible request, an intolerable burden, but it is actually part of the good news. In the first place it implies that he has been forgiven (cf. Jn 8:11; Mt 9:1-8 par. Mk 2:1-12 par. Lk 5:17-26). Here we see the Lamb of God at work, taking away the sins of the world, forgiving even those who will go on to betray him. But furthermore there is a theme in John and 1 John that Christians have been freed from the power of sin. Jesus is challenging this man to a new life, the life from above (Jn 3:3, 5). The barest glimmer of faith on this man's part brought Jesus' healing to his life, and now he is to move far beyond his weakness, both physically and spiritually. As George MacDonald has put it, God is easy to please but hard to satisfy.
Failing to turn to this new life will result in something worse happening—something worse than being an invalid for thirty-eight years! Jesus is offering the man life and threatening him with judgment. These are two sides of a single coin, and together they are the hallmark of all of Jesus' ministry, as will be stated shortly in his keynote address (5:24-29). The light of God's love brings division (3:16-21); one is heading toward either life or death. This image of Jesus threatening a man with hell is not very popular in some circles, but it is a fundamental element in the portrait of all four Gospels. No one in Scripture talks about hell more than Jesus. And he never talks about it, as George MacDonald does, as a purifying fire that will burn you until you are good. God's love is indeed a purifying fire, and that very fire is a part of the good news. If we love God we will want him to purge all sin from us, and the good news is that he is willing and able to do so. The Great Physician will not allow any of the disease to remain within us. Thanks be to God! Jesus, however, never speaks of hell in these terms; it is always spoken of as something to avoid at all cost (for example, Mt 5:29-30; 18:8-9; Mk 9:43-48).
John portrays this man, therefore, in a very negative light. He is a sinner, unlike the blind man in chapter 9, and he betrays the one who healed him. He knows that these leaders were upset with Jesus (5:10). So when he informs the opponents he is prefiguring informers later (11:46) as well as Judas' betrayal at a later feast in Jerusalem (18:2-3). This man's betrayal of Jesus is in marked contrast to the blind man's devotion (chap. 9), for the blind man confesses Jesus by standing up to the very opponents this man sides with against Jesus. The man's ingratitude is apparent.
Thus Jesus is healing one who is totally unworthy, and in doing so he reveals God's graciousness. Here we have revealed God's love, which embraces even one who betrays him. The light of God's glory is shining at its brightest in this manifestation of his love for his enemies.