Question: "What happened at the Pool of Bethesda?"
Answer: The Pool of Bethesda was “in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate” (John 5:2), which places it north of the temple, near Fort Antonia. John gives the additional detail that the pool was “surrounded by five covered colonnades.” During Jesus’ time, the Pool of Bethesda lay outside the city walls. It was at this pool that Jesus performed a miracle showing that He is greater than any human malady and that superstition and religious folklore are foolish and feeble substitutes for faith in God.
The Pool of Bethesda was used in ancient times to provide water for the temple. The mention of the “Upper Pool” in 2 Kings 18:17 may be a reference to the Pool of Bethesda. Sometime during the Hasmonean Period, an additional pool was added to the original one.
The name of the pool, “Bethesda,” is Aramaic. It means “House of Mercy.” John tells us that “a great number of disabled people used to lie [there]—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (John 5:3). The covered colonnades would have provided shade for the disabled who gathered there, but there was another reason for the popularity of the Pool of Bethesda. Legend had it that an angel would come down into the pool and “stir up the water.” The first person into the pool after the stirring of the water “was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted” (John 5:4, NAS). The Bible does not teach that this actually happened—John 5:4 is not included in most modern translations because it is unlikely to be original to the text—rather, the superstitious belief probably arose because of the pool’s association with the nearby temple.
On the day that Jesus visited the Pool of Bethesda, there was a man there who “had been an invalid for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5). Jesus asked the man if he wanted to be healed. The man 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” (verse 7). Obviously, the man believed the urban legend about the stirring of the water. He blamed the fact that he was never healed on his tardiness in getting into the water.
Jesus swept aside all superstition and bypassed altogether the need for magic water with one command: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (John 5:8). The man was instantly cured, and “he picked up his mat and walked” (verse 9). The man did not need quicker reflexes or beneficent angels or enchanted water. The man needed Jesus.
Amazingly, not everyone was happy about the man’s miraculous healing. The day Jesus healed the man at the poolside happened to be a Sabbath. As the man left Bethesda, the Jewish leaders saw him carrying his mat, and they stopped him: “It is the Sabbath,” they said. “The law forbids you to carry your mat” (John 5:10). The man told them that he was simply obeying orders: “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’” (verse 11). The Jews inquired who would so brazenly promote Law-breaking, but “the man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd” (verse 13).
The reaction of the Jewish leaders shows that, no matter how much proof God provides, there will be some people who refuse to see the truth. Jesus was a bona fide Miracle Worker, but the religious leaders couldn’t see the miracle. All they could see was that someone had violated a rule. The issue was not the breaking of God’s command, for Jesus fulfilled the Law and was completely subject to it (Matthew 5:17). The only thing being broken was a pharisaical interpretation of one of God’s laws. So, a blessing meant to increase faith only increased the blindness of those who refused to acknowledge the blessing.
The postscript to the story reveals that the man who was physically healed still needed some spiritual healing. “Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, ‘See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you’” (John 5:14). Jesus’ words are a rebuke of an unnamed sin—the man was living contrary to God’s will somehow—and a warning of “something worse.” What could be worse than thirty-eight years of paralysis? How about an eternity in hell (see Mark 9:47)?
Now that the man knew who Jesus was, he returned to the Jewish leaders and told them “it was Jesus who had made him well” (John 5:15). It is likely that the man did this in praise of Jesus, to magnify the glory due His name, and also from a sense of obligation—he had been asked a question and felt he should respond with the answer, once he had it. Little did he anticipate the reaction the leaders would have: “So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him” (verse 16).
The Pool of Bethesda was the focus of a local legend about healing, but Jesus showed that faith in legends and superstition is misplaced. In contrast, faith in Jesus Christ—the One who can heal with a simple word, the Savior who can forgive any sin, the true Master of the “House of Mercy”—is never misplaced.