John’s Gospel: 5:1-17 (“I am working”)

(John 5:1-3 ESV) After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades.  3 In these lay a multitude of invalids — blind, lame, and paralyzed.

This was likely Pentecost. Jews would travel to Jerusalem for Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Booths. Jesus’ visits to Jerusalem for Passover are named in John, and Pentecost best fits the time of year. Moreover, the Jews concluded that the Law of Moses was given at Pentecost, which fits well with Jesus’ discourse about obedience to the Law of Moses, but certainty is impossible.

Verse 4 is omitted by nearly all modern translations because it does not appear in the oldest manuscripts. However, that does mean that the people did not believe that an angel stirred the waters and provided healing — only that John did not write that sentence. In fact, it seems likely that v. 4 crept into the translation because a scribe felt the need to explain the reason that so many sick had gathered there and raced to be the first in the water.

Ray Vander Laan offers this insight.

Asclepius was the god of healing water. John, the apostle to Asia, is the only gospel writer to include the story of the man at the pool of Bethesda (near which was a shrine to Asclepius) who was not healed with moving water but was healed by Jesus’ word (John 5:14). This certainly would have been a valuable lesson to bring to the followers of Asclepius in Pergamum and another example of the thorough preparation Jesus gave his talmidim.

The Wikipedia reaches a similar conclusion–

The biblical narrative continues by describing a Shabbat visit to the site by Jesus, during which he heals a man who has been bedridden for many years, and could not make his own way into the pool. Some scholars have suggested that the narrative is actually part of a deliberate polemic against the Asclepius cult, an antagonism possibly partly brought on by the fact that Asclepius was worshipped as Saviour (Greek: Soter), in reference to his healing attributes. The narrative uses the Greek phrase ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι hygies genesthai [John 5:6], which is not used anywhere in the Synoptic Gospels, but appears frequently in ancient testimonies to the healing powers of Asclepius; the later narrative in the Gospel of John about Jesus washing Simon Peter‘s feet at the Last Supper, similarly uses the Greek term λούειν louein [John 13:10], which is a special term for washing in an Asclepieion, rather than the Greek word used elsewhere in the Johannine text to describe washing – νίπτειν niptein.

John continues —

(John 5:5-8 ESV)  5 One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.  6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”  7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”  8 Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.”

Notice that Jesus asked for no profession of faith; he did not even identify himself to this man. Jesus was no faith healer.

(John 5:9-11 ESV)  9 And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.  10 So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.”  11 But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.'”

The Law of Moses plainly forbids doing work on a Sabbath (Exodus 20:11). However, the Law does not define “work” in any detail. The Oral Law of the rabbis, however, defined “work” in exquisite detail, and to carry one’s mat was certainly a violation of the Oral Law.

Moreover, the Oral Law prohibited healing on the Sabbath. Physicians were only allowed to stabilize the patient; they could not make the patient better. After all, healing is the work doctors do.

(John 5:12-13 ESV)  12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”  13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.

Jesus evidently looked ordinary enough that he was not easily identified in a crowd. He must have dressed the same as everyone else.

(John 5:14-15 ESV)  14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.”  15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

Having healed the man of his physical ailments, Jesus felt compelled to speak to him about his spiritual condition. Jesus could not be around someone and only be concerned with his physical needs.

(John 5:16-17 ESV)  16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.  17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

The scriptures state that after the six days of creation, God “rested.” As we considered in the Creation 2.0 series, “rest” is used of a divine being coming to reside in his temple —

(Psa 132:7-8 ESV)  7 “Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!”  8 Arise, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.

(Psa 132:13-16 ESV)  13 For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place:  14 “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.  15 I will abundantly bless her provisions; I will satisfy her poor with bread.  16 Her priests I will clothe with salvation, and her saints will shout for joy.”

Moreover, even the rabbis had concluded that God could not truly desist from all work on the Sabbath. As explained by the NET Bible translators,

What is the significance of Jesus’ claim? A preliminary understanding can be obtained from John 5:18, noting the Jewish authorities’ response and the author’s comment. They sought to kill Jesus, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God. This must be seen in the context of the relation of God to the Sabbath rest. In the commandment (Exo 20:11) it is explained that “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Philo, based on the LXX translation of Exo 20:11, denied outright that God had ever ceased his creative activity. And when Rabban Gamaliel II, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiba were in Rome, ca. A.D. 95, they gave as a rebuttal to sectarian arguments evidence that God might do as he willed in the world without breaking the Sabbath because the entire world was his private residence. So even the rabbis realized that God did not really cease to work on the Sabbath: Divine providence remained active on the Sabbath, otherwise, all nature and life would cease to exist. As regards men, divine activity was visible in two ways: Men were born and men died on the Sabbath. Since only God could give life and only God could deal with the fate of the dead in judgment, this meant God was active on the Sabbath. This seems to be the background for Jesus’ words in John 5:17. He justified his work of healing on the Sabbath by reminding the Jewish authorities that they admitted God worked on the Sabbath. This explains the violence of the reaction. The Sabbath privilege was peculiar to God, and no one was equal to God. In claiming the right to work even as his Father worked, Jesus was claiming a divine prerogative. He was literally making himself equal to God, as John 5:18 goes on to state explicitly for the benefit of the reader who might not have made the connection.

In short, the world could not function without God’s actual, constant involvement, and therefore God has never rested from upholding the universe or being involved in human affairs. Rather, he ceased from creating the heavens and the earth because he was finished until the time to create the new heavens and new earth.

This line of reasoning contradicts the traditional interpretation that God rested for a 24-hour day. Rather, God’s rest is continuous, but it is hardly a complete rest. Indeed, he is very active and involved; he is just finished with the construction of the universe as his temple.

Psalm 95 offers another insight —

(Psa 95:7b-11 ESV) Today, if you hear his voice,  8 do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,  9 when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.  10 For forty years I loathed that generation and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”  11 Therefore I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest.”

To enter God’s “rest” was, literally, to enter the Promised Land. The author of Hebrews applies this passage to the promise of an eternity with God, pointing out that the psalm was written long after the Exodus.

(Heb 4:4-11 ESV)  4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.”  5 And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.”

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience,  7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on.  9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God,  10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.  11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

In short, God’s rest is not the Sabbath but heaven. To enter God’s rest is to be with God in his resting place — which is presently heaven (the true temple) but will become the new heavens and new earth, as promised in Rev. 21. Indeed, the temple that is heaven will descend to earth, merging heaven and earth into God’s true temple — and we will enter God’s rest there.

Does that mean the Sabbath command didn’t apply? No, rather, the command was re-interpreted in light of Jesus.

Indeed, if we are to be like Jesus and God, then we too should spend our lives as Christians actively engaged in the world, following God’s example of making it rain on the just and the unjust. We aren’t yet at rest, but one day we’ll enjoy a rest that no one else will receive.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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