This leaves me with the same question every time I read this story: Why? Why didn't Jesus heal any others there that day? Why heal only one man, and then "withdraw" from the multitude that was there (v.13)? After all, Bethesda does mean "House of Mercy." That just doesn't sound like the Jesus I know. This is the same Jesus who when He tried to withdraw to a secluded place to grieve the loss of John the Baptist, and was followed by a multitude of over 5,000 people, Matthew writes that Jesus "felt compassion for them and healed their sick" – and then He fed them! (Matthew 14:13-14) So why withdraw from a multitude of desperately sick people at the pool called Bethesda after healing only one person?
Well, the answer to that question may point directly to the cross on which Jesus would provide a way of salvation for the healing of the entire human race! Is it possible that Jesus' purpose in healing that one man that day was to set in motion His redemptive plan for the multitude that fills an entire planet?
There's more to this story than the extraordinary healing of a man who had been lame for 38 years (v.5). I'm sure that Jesus knew as He approached the pool that He would find a great many sick people there, and I'm also sure that Jesus knew that He was visiting the pool on the Sabbath day. John points this out to his readers immediately after writing that the newly healed man did as Jesus instructed him to do and picked up his bed and walked. He then wrote, "And that day was the Sabbath" (v.9). Boom! Cue the foreboding music. This was the first time Jesus had openly violated the Sabbath in Jerusalem.
John then immediately explains that some of Jerusalem's Jewish leaders noticed the man carrying his bed on the Sabbath, something expressly forbidden by the 39th of 39 work-categories in the Mishnah, which was the written interpretation of the Mosaic Law.
So the Jewish leaders who saw the man said to him, "'It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.' He answered them, 'He who made me well said to me, "Take up your bed and walk."' Then they asked him, 'Who is the Man who said to you, "Take up your bed and walk"?'" (vv.10-12). He didn't know, because Jesus had withdrawn. In other words, Jesus didn't go to the pool to heal the many sick who were there, as He would do just before feeding the 5,000, but to heal just one man, and to thereby get the attention of the Jewish authorities.
The Jewish reaction was swift and extreme. Once the Jews found out it had been Jesus, John writes: "For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath." (v.16)
This happened very early in Jesus' ministry. Most place it in the early part of his first year of ministry, and already the Jews in Jerusalem wanted to kill Him. This would not have taken Jesus by surprise. I believe this was a calculated act, in obedience to His Father. It was a miracle designed to get the attention of the Jewish leaders who would eventually be instrumental in God's redemptive plan: they would be key players in ensuring that Jesus was crucified.
And in light of the strategic nature of this particular miracle, I think it's worth noting a few things about the man who was healed. He never asked Jesus to heal him, nor did he even directly answer Jesus (yes or no) when Jesus asked him if he wanted to be healed. And then he sought to save his own skin among the Jewish leaders by being the one to eventually report Jesus to them once he realized it was Jesus who had healed him and had told him to break the so-called Sabbath rules (and he was only able to report Jesus because Jesus intentionally revealed Himself to him again and urged him to "sin no more" (v.14-15)). This was not a grateful man. He was a self-preserving man at Jesus' expense, which suited Jesus's purposes just fine, for Jesus wanted to upset the Jewish leaders.
So what are we to think of all this? I believe Jesus saw His own death in the healing of this ungrateful sinner (a man not unlike ourselves, lest we be too hard on him). And I believe Jesus healed this man primarily to begin the process that would result in His death for the salvation of a desperately needy world. Jesus had the world in mind at that House of Mercy, not just the people present.
If we continue reading John 5 and see the many things that Jesus said in response to the Jewish leaders' persecution of Him, we would see how Jesus emphasized His unity and oneness with God the Father and with all the Father's eternal purposes. These purposes surely included His plan of salvation, and perhaps that is what Jesus had in mind when He said that the Father "will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel" (v.20).
So to return to my original question of what about all those other poor hurting people at the pool called Bethesda – why couldn't they be healed? The answer is that Jesus certainly had them in mind when He healed one man among them so as to set in motion a plan that would take Him to the cross for them all. When Jesus appears to be ignoring our needs, we can be certain that He hasn't forgotten us – He's simply after a higher purpose in our lives! And Jesus would also want us to know that if He could choose one ungrateful man to be healed as He pursued God's overall plan, we can be sure that we will not be disqualified by our own selfish sinfulness as we look to Him who saves and heals us from all our sins.
© 2016 by Ken Peters
© 2016 by Ken Peters