“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.”
John 5:2-3, 5 ESV
You can learn a lot from verse 4 of John 5. Mainly because it’s not there. Unless you are reading from the King James, the text jumps from verse 3 to verse 5. The NIV, ESV, CSB, and the latest version of the NASB put verse 4 in a footnote:
“Some manuscripts contain, “waiting for the moving of the waters. For from time to time an angel of the Lord would come and stir up the surface of the water. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be healed of whatever ailment he had.””
This edit has led to all sorts of conspiracy theories about how modern translations are trying to change the Bible. But it’s really not the nefarious plot some make it out to be. Here’s what’s going on:
A general rule of biblical translation is that when it comes to comparing manuscripts, older is better. There are thousands of fragments of New Testament manuscripts, and when scholars see material in one manuscript that wasn’t in another, they conclude that the shorter is probably the older, and more reliable.
So, verse 4 was likely a later addition, intended to clarify what the paralytic meant when he told Jesus, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.” Tara-Leigh notes in her Recap for today that the pool was fed by an underground spring that would occasionally bubble up, and the local legend was that whoever stepped in first would be healed of whatever disease they had.
In Jesus’ day, this pool was outside the walls of the city. Its Hebrew name is Beth Chesed, or “House of Mercy” (see Day 123: My Favorite Hebrew Word). from which we get our word Bethesda. There is some evidence that the Romans used it as shrine to Asclepius, the god of medicine, healing, and rejuvenation. Throughout the Roman Empire, healing centers dedicated to Asclepius were built, often around natural springs. People with ailments would come to the spring, often carrying a clay figurine of the body part that needed healing. They would say a prayer, pay a tithe, and throw the figure into the pool, hoping Asclepius would accept their offering.
When I was in Israel earlier this year, I noticed this marker next to the pool of Bethesda:
So, at best, there were some therapeutic benefits that came from stepping into the pool when the water was stirred, similar to a mineral bath today. But I don’t believe that it was an angel from God sent to stir up the water. Think about it: if there really was an angel of God who stirred up the pool and rewarded the first person into the water with healing, then it would be the only time in Scripture that God rewarded the fastest, or the strongest, or the pushiest. This isn’t an episode of Israeli Ninja Warrior. It seems out of character. God emphasizes throughout Scripture that the “race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
Incidentally, I am a fan of the series The Chosen, and I am so happy with the way they presented this story from Scripture. Check out this “behind the scenes” look at the episode:
If you want an even deeper dive, you can check out this video, of the creators of The Chosen discussing whether or not this was a pagan worship site:
So in John 5, we meet a man who has put his faith in the power of the pool. Though he has long since given up on being the fastest to the water, he still clings to the conviction that if you are willing to push aside and trample over anyone else that gets between you and your goal, you will be rewarded. And maybe, just maybe, this will be the day when someone else will stumble on the way to the pool, and he can capitalize on someone else’s weakness.
Jesus enters the scene. He steps around scores of people who have placed their trust in the power of the pool. He singles out one paralytic, and asks a direct question: “Do you want to be healed?” And this man, who has been a paralytic for thirty eight years, doesn’t answer the question. “Sir,” he says, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred.”
Jesus offers the paralytic a new lease on life. The paralytic offers Jesus the same old excuses. Even with Jesus standing in front of him, the man still has his focus on a pool with no power.
How like that man I am sometimes! How often I’ve sat by the pools with no power, hoping to experience life change:
- The pool of possessions: thinking that one more thing will be the secret to contentment.
- The pool of relationships. If I have the right spouse, if I network with the right people, then my life will be different.
- The pool of prestige: I need to build my resume. I need to have a good reputation in the community. I need to be noticed.
- The pool of productivity: My identity is wrapped up in what I do for a living. And if I’m ever going to climb the corporate ladder, I’ve got to put in the hours.
And like all those at the edge of the pool, making their sacrifices and throwing clay figures into the water, I have often sacrificed my family at these waters.
Back to the paralytic. It’s no accident that he is waiting at the House of Mercy. Because mercy does not depend on your being the fastest, or strongest. Mercy doesn’t even depend on your having a requisite amount of faith. Jesus didn’t heal this man because of his faith. Jesus healed this paralytic in spite of his lack of faith. It is an object lesson. It’s a call to stop relying on a pool with no power. It’s a call to wait on the way of Jesus. And it’s a reminder that when Jesus singles you out of the crowd and asks, “Do you want to be healed?”, there is really only one answer.
Yes. My Lord and my God, yes.