Chapter 16.1 Pool of Bethesda
Autumn of A.D. 27 to spring of 29 (about a year and a half)
Pool of Bethesda, detail of original oil painting on canvas by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1618-1682, size 93.5 x 102.75 inches, 1671-73
Pool of Bethesda, detail of original oil painting on canvas by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 1618-1682, size 93.5 x 102.75 inches, 1671-73
(CLICK on the image above for a LARGER version)

When spring came, Christ journeyed to the Holy City with his seven disciples and a small group of followers to celebrate the Passover in its golden Temple. Word of the miraculous things he had accomplished in Galilee had gone before him, and as he went about Jerusalem a crowd soon began to follow.

Sabbath Breaker

Nowhere was the absurdity of Pharisaic custom more evident than in the observance of the Sabbath. The Fourth Commandment, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” was originally a day of rest and thanksgiving. The Pharisees had added numerous rules making it practically impossible for one to avoid breaking some portion of it. A wedding could not be celebrated on the Sabbath or on the days preceding and following it lest the feast extend over into the holy day. No more than two letters of the alphabet could be written, and nothing heavier than a scroll of the holy writings could be carried, and one could only walk a certain distance.

Jesus ignored these minute and literal interpretations that perverted the spirit of the Law, and the Pharisees were angered because he did not encourage the people to follow strict traditions. Knowing the easiest way to discredit the Savior would be to catch him in the act of breaking their customs.

Outside the Sheep Gate at the north wall of the Temple and east of the Fortress Antonia was the Pool of Bethesda. It was surrounded by five covered terraces (porches), one of which projected into the pool and almost separated it into two parts.

Intermittently the rush of water from a subterranean spring that fed one section of the pool caused the water to bubble up. Pious Jews believed an angel disturbed the waters of the pool at these times, and tradition said that the first sick or afflicted person who stepped into the water after it was disturbed would be healed. As a result, there was always a crowd of sick people—blind, lame, or paralyzed—lining the terraces at the pool, and there was a great scramble to be first into the water when it boiled up.

The water had not yet been disturbed when Jesus stood among that multitude of sufferers and their attendant friends. In those breathless moments of intense expectancy, every eye was fixed on the pool; while the eye of the Savior searched for the most wretched person among them all.

One of the men, Eliezer, who had been crippled for thirty-eight years, was lying on his sleeping mat in a corner. Knowing all things, Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

With some reluctance, the man looked up at the Rabbi who asked him that question. His only concern was that he might miss the next stirring up of the waters. Not even answering Jesus, Eliezer gave an excuse for still being sick, “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is disturbed. While I am trying to get there, someone else always steps into the pool ahead of me.”

He was a hopeless sufferer, without attendant or friend, among those whom misery was made so intensely selfish; whose sickness was really the consequence of sin and not merely in the sense which the Jews attached to it. Eliezer now seemed the fittest object for power and grace in spite of his absence of faith.

There in the corner away from the pool in which there was no healing, the Word of power spoke, “Stand up, pick up your sleeping mat, and walk!”

Instantly, the cripple was healed! When Eliezer realized what the unknown Savior had done for him, in simple trust and unquestioning obedience he got to his feet. With great joy he rolled up his mat and walked away from the terraces of the pool carrying his bed. It was God’s Sabbath of holy rest and delight.

But the cured man’s faith would immediately be tested. Jewish leaders lurked in the darkness, waiting to pounce on their unsuspecting victim. This was the moment they were waiting for. A scribe chased after him, calling out, “Don’t you know it’s against the law to carry your bed on the Sabbath?”

When the Pharisees caught up, they shouted, “You can’t work on the Sabbath! It’s illegal to carry that sleeping mat!” Never mind the miracle of healing. Eliezer had broken their tradition.

The man’s joy turned to fear and he quickly explained, “The Rabbi who healed me said, ‘Pick up your sleeping mat and walk.’”

“Who said such a thing as that?” they demanded.

He didn’t know, for Jesus had disappeared into the crowd. But a little while later the Lord found him in the Temple, and gave him a strong warning, “Now that you are well, give up your sinful ways, or something worse may happen to you.”

Ignoring Christ’s words, and in greater fear of what the Pharisees would do, Eliezer told them it was Jesus who had healed him. The leaders were pleased he returned with the news they had hoped to hear and let him go. At last, it seemed, they had an opportunity to convict Jesus of a crime.

Jesus Defends Himself

Jewish traditionalism made carrying one’s bed an infringement of the Sabbath law. Most characteristically, it was this external infringement which they saw, and nothing else—especially that a cripple was made well—missing the true internal meaning of the Law.

When they began to accuse Jesus, he defended himself, “My Father works even now, so I must work also.”

His prosecutors were more determined than ever, accusing him not only of having broken the Sabbath but of blasphemy for saying God was his father. That would have made him the equal of God, which in their sight, only the Messiah could be.

Jesus stopped them with a stern warning, “In very truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and tells him everything he is doing, and the Son will do far greater things than healing this man. He will even raise from the dead anyone he wants, just as the Father does. But if you refuse to honor the Son, then you are certainly not honoring the Father who sent him.

“I assure you, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life.

“The time is coming, in fact it is here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God. And those who listen will live. Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear my voice, and they will rise again. Those who have done right will rise to eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to judgment. And my judgment is absolutely just, because it is according to the will of God who sent me; it is not merely my own. You study the Scriptures diligently because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me so that I can give you this eternal life.”

Valid Testimony

“If I were to testify on my own behalf, my testimony would not be valid. But someone else is also testifying about me, and I can assure you that everything he says about me is true. In fact, you sent messengers to listen to John the Baptist, and he preached the truth. But the best testimony about me is not from a man. I have a greater witness than John. My teachings and miracles have been assigned to me by the Father, and they testify that the Father has sent me. The Father himself has also testified about me. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, because you do not believe the one he sent to you.

“I have come to you representing my Father, and you refuse to welcome me, even though you readily accept others who represent only themselves. For you gladly honor each other, but you do not care about the honor that comes from God alone. No wonder you cannot believe!

“Yet it is not I who will accuse you of this before the Father. Moses will accuse you! If you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

In disgust he looked at those who sought to condemn him for healing a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. And unable to meet his gaze, they could only look away. The scribes and Pharisees, who had been sure they had him trapped, were embarrassed and humiliated by the truth of his words.

After the Passover festival, the Master and his disciples returned to Galilee where the poor and sick eagerly awaited his return and hungered for the Word of God.

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