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Jesus Confronts the Self-Centered Superstitions of Man -- a study of John 5:1-18

Jesus' power is not for your personal benefit.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 5:1-18

In chapter 5, John's Gospel shifts to a more public, and thus more confrontation, phase of Jesus' ministry. In this passage, two groups reveal how far they have drifted from God -- a man who only cared about how God's power could help him, and Jewish leaders who only cared about their self-made laws for proper behavior.

"Do not sin anymore, so that something worse doesn’t happen to you.”

Superstitions You Can't Get Over

In this week's passage, it's very clear that superstition has wormed its way into the religious beliefs of some of the people. Superstitions make for a fun discussion. What superstitions do you hold?

By superstition, I'm talking about the idea that an action or object can release supernatural/spiritual influence or power. Why do you not walk under a ladder or break a mirror or spill salt? Because you want to avoid "bad luck" (whatever you think that is). Why do you pick up a penny or rub a rabbit's foot or knock on wood? Because you think it will bring you "good luck".

If you just say your superstition out loud, you realize how silly it is, but humans tend to be superstitious. Certainly in sports -- even I can't get over some of my sports superstitions (like where I sit or what I eat when watching an "important" game). For athletes, it's bad luck if you don't kick dirt on where you just spit. Growing a beard in the playoffs makes you more likely to win. Flipping your cap inside-out helps spark a rally. There are weird rituals for kickoffs, at-bats, free throws, and free kicks. Some of us just can't get past our superstitions.

Once we get past the cutesie-ness of superstitions, the simple fact is that superstition is completely incompatible with Christianity. We believe that all things are under the authority of God. Superstition is the idea that God is obligated to act in response to an action (the evil eye) or to tie His power to an object (a horseshoe). That's extremely untrue. To be extremely blunt, and without the intent to hurt anyone's feelings, there's no such thing as luck.

But superstition and religion have always been intimately connected. And this should only make sense -- we are dealing with supernatural powers we cannot see or explain. For example, we've talked about how in Jesus' day, this could be seen in how people responded to His miracles:

The oldest religions (like Roman Catholicism) still show evidence of lingering superstition (relics, pilgrimages, etc.). This quick article from Google explains that quite a few superstitions have Christian roots:

  • 18 Superstitions from Around the World — Google Arts & Culture

  • Knocking on wood has pagan origins (every tree had its own spirit), but early Christians latched onto the practice due to the cross being of wood

  • Throwing salt over your shoulder is supposed to blind the devil who is RIGHT BEHIND YOU, and early Christians decided that Judas had spilled salt before betraying Jesus.

  • Likewise, Judas was the 13th person at the Last Supper, so, yeah.

  • A ladder is a symbol of the Trinity (it makes a 3-sided triangle), and walking underneath it breaks the Trinity.

Interesting. (And problematic.)

If you were to use this topic, just make sure to explain why Christians should not believe that superstitions have any real power. They can be fun as long as we recognize that they're just silly.

However, I think it's also worth pointing out that sometimes Christians can go to the other extreme -- rejecting anything we can't explain as superstition. That's kinda what the Jewish leaders do in this week's passage -- they see an obvious miraculous act of God and reject it because it didn't fit their paradigm for the world. We talked about this when we studied Ephesians:

Superstitions aren't real, but spiritual warfare is real (hey, our pastor is preaching through the Armor of God right now!). It's not superstition to "put on the whole armor of God".

This Week's Big Idea: The Pool of Bethesda

In a world without running water or indoor plumbing, pools were important parts of ancient cities. We've talked about this with respect to Roman cities (this picture is of a surviving bathhouse in Rome):

Jerusalem had a number of pools. This week focuses on the Pool of Bethesda, which was a short distance from the Temple Complex out the Sheep Gate.

5:1 After this, a Jewish festival took place, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 By the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool, called Bethesda in Aramaic, which has five colonnades. 3 Within these lay a large number of the disabled—blind, lame, and paralyzed

The most common belief is that John refers to a pair of pools -- the "five colonnades/porticoes" refers to four porches that surround the pools and one that separates the pools (likely men from women). Such a pair of pools has been excavated.

In the photo top left, the blue rectangle identifies the pool. This is a big pool -- the size of a football field and as much as 20 feet deep. Lots of people could be there. It would have been common for people to wander from the temple to this pool and back, so seeing Jewish leaders there would be normal.

This particular pool was surrounded by disabled individuals (specifically identified as "blind" "lame" and "paralyzed", covering a huge swash of physical conditions). They seem to have been attracted by a folk superstition...

This Week's Little Idea: Why Did We Skip from Verse 3 to Verse 5?

Your reputable Bible translation probably has a footnote like this at the end of verse 3: "some manuscripts -- waiting for the moving of the water, 4 because an angel would go down into the pool from time to time and stir up the water. Then the first one who got in after the water was stirred up recovered from whatever ailment he had." This verse does not appear in the earliest manuscripts, and the manuscripts that have it are filled with variants. The likely explanation: John did not write this verse, but later scribes added it to explain verse 7. And the reason John didn't write it is there wasn't a single superstition behind the belief. In other words, some people might have believed that "an angel stirred the waters", but others believed completely different things. Magic always springs up alongside religion (think about Balaam the Diviner in Numbers 22 or Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8), and people come up with lots of different ways to explain magic.

So, what about these waters? Let's cut to the chase -- we don't know. In the videos below, they seem to portray the pool as a natural hot spring where bubbles occasionally get released (understandably -- how else are you going to show this?). But when the lame man says that "the waters stir", that could mean just about anything. It was a regular enough event to create a cult of superstition about the Pool of Bethesda. The disabled people had gathered at the pool because they believed they could be miraculously healed in its waters. But there was not an agreed-upon consensus that an angel of God was the cause of that healing (which wouldn't have been true anyway), which is why John didn't write that verse.

And as we will see, John's point wasn't to bring attention to the pool or its "miraculous properties". John's point was that The Great Physician was talking to a man in need of healing, and the man had to be convinced not to look to a bizarre superstition.


This Week's Videos

Here is chapter 5 from The Visual Bible

The Chosen Season 2 Episode 4 also focuses on this event (with a little more dramatic interpretation). The whole episode builds up to the healing (they force the viewer to realize how long this man has been at the pool), but this clip is of the healing itself:

Where We Are in John

Chapter 5 starts a new section in John.

  1. Prologue -- The Word became flesh (1:1-18)

  2. Jesus' identity through His teachings and miracles (1:19-10:42)

    1. The first witnesses (1:19-51)

    2. Early ministry (2:1-4:54)

    3. Rising opposition (5:1-8:11)

    4. Radical conflicts (8:12-10:42)

  3. Transition -- King and Suffering Servant (11:1-12:50)

    1. Lazarus (11:1-54)

    2. Triumphal entry (11:55-12:36)

    3. Unbelief (12:37-50)

  4. Jesus' identity through His death and resurrection (13:1-20:31)

    1. The Last Supper (13:1-30)

    2. The last discourse (13:31-16:33)

    3. The prayer of Jesus (17:1-26)

    4. The passion of Jesus (18:1-19:42)

    5. The resurrection of Jesus (20:1-31)

  5. Epilogue -- A new generation of leaders (21:1-25)

John the author has been establishing Jesu's identity, mostly through private or intimate settings. Last week, we read the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, where we realize that Jesus had come to be the Savior of the entire world. The rest of chapter 4 tells the story of Jesus returning to Cana in Galilee where He heals a royal official's son (from distance) -- John calls that Jesus' Second Sign.

But in chapter 5, the environment changes. Jesus starts encountering and acting in larger groups, more publicly. The more public the setting, the more likely will there be someone who opposes Him.

  • Jesus' miracles get more public (and amazing)

  • Jesus' teachings get more widespread (and challenging)

  • Jesus' opposition gets more fierce (and irrational)

5:1 says that Jesus has returned to Jerusalem for a festival. It's not identified (some think this is yet another Passover). John the author always tells us important details, so this implies that it really doesn't matter when this event took place.

John's Story Form

One of the reasons why John's Gospel is so easy to follow (if not easy to understand) is he uses consistent forms in his storytelling:

  1. Introduction and setting

  2. Conflict

  3. Resolution

  4. Conclusion and application

Your "homework" would be to see how this week's story fits into that form (note that you'll have to use 5:1-18 to get it all). That exercise will help you understand that two different conflicts have collided in this story.


Part 1: Compassion Expressed (John 5:5-9a)

5 One man was there who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and realized he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to get well?” 7 “Sir,” the disabled man answered, “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I’m coming, someone goes down ahead of me.” 8 “Get up,” Jesus told him, “pick up your mat and walk.” 9 Instantly the man got well, picked up his mat, and started to walk.

Immediately notice that John doesn't tell us the man's name or disease, but does tell us the length of his ailment. It's possible that John was pointing out a parallel with the 38 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (Deut 2:14), but the idea is certainly that this man had no hope to be cured.

I think "The Chosen" episode captures the scene well (even if their pool is too small) -- Jesus comes into the pool area and identifies this man. Why him and not somebody else? Wrong question! The Great Physician has wandered into a crowd of sick people; why isn't Jesus being smothered by people begging for healing?

"Do you want to get well?" is such a strange question. Obviously the man wants to "get well" else why would he be at this "miraculous" pool? Perhaps a better translation would be "Do you want to become well?" It's the word John the author uses of God's working in the world (it also means "make") -- "Do you want God do make something of your life?"

For the fourth week in a row, Jesus is misunderstood. The man hears Jesus' words and can only think of how he needs help getting in the miracle water. Again -- catch that irony. This man is talking to the Creator of life and tells Him he needs help to get to the miracle water.

Once again, Jesus must cut to the chase (because the people can only hear with their own needs in mind and see what's directly in front of them). He gives three commands, each of which would be utterly incomprehensible o someone who had been bedridden for 38 years. Edward Klink says in his commentary, "What once carried the man is now to be carried triumphantly by him."

Immediately, the man obeys and is healed. This is a stark contrast to the 38 years the man was sick.

The stories of Jesus' miraculous healings fill the Gospels and are high points for us as readers. They remind us that God can overcome any barrier -- no obstacle is too great for Him. But we also need to remember that while God blesses us incalculably and immensely, He seems to reserve miracles for very special purposes.


Part 2: Legalism Exposed (John 5:9b-13)

Now that day was the Sabbath, 10 and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “This is the Sabbath. The law prohibits you from picking up your mat.” 11 He replied, “The man who made me well told me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’” 12 “Who is this man who told you, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’?” they asked. 13 But the man who was healed did not know who it was, because Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

This is the first time John the author has brought up the Sabbath. We've talked about the Sabbath multiple times in our study of the other Gospels; this post contains the most information about the Jewish Sabbath:

Aside on the Sabbath (a quote from the above post)

"So, to be clear, the Sabbath is good. "Sabbath" (shabbat) means to "cease". It is a day for people to rest from their labor and be refreshed by family and worship. Even the animals were to rest! God, who created all things, appreciates our physical limits and graciously built in to the cycle of life this regular rest.

So, what went wrong?

Essentially, the Pharisees. They believed (correctly) that God had punished the Israelites for failing to keep the law, and so they decided to "build a fence" around the law to make sure that Jews didn't break any. Think of it this way: if the speed limit were 55 mph, the Pharisees would paint over the sign with a "50" (or less). (And to be fair, that's not a bad thing! When the Bible says to "flee from temptation", the idea is to go as far away from sin as possible -- not get close to it.)

But here's where things went wonky: what exactly does "Remember the Sabbath day" mean? Speed limits are convenient in that we can measure speed objectively. But how do you measure "work"? The Pharisees wanted an objective way to measure obedience to this commandment. Hence, the Mishnah has more than 20 chapters devoted to explaining Sabbath laws. They give the categories of "work" and explain various examples. For example, "winnowing" is considered unlawful work, but it was extrapolated to mean "separating edible from inedible", and so activities like filtering water became considered unlawful work. "Planting" is unlawful, but this referred to "enabling plant growth" and so watering plans was also unlawful. "Plowing" is unlawful, but because that meant "preparing the ground for agriculture", dragging a chair across soil was also unlawful. Do you see how this is starting to go off the rails?

Rabbis ultimately further decided that anything that resembled unlawful work was unlawful, and anything that might lead to unlawful work was unlawful. (Hence, no tree climbing because you might break a twig.) Rabbis would argue if someone could wring out water from a cloth or have to let it air dry. No spray paint -- that's winnowing (letting moving air do your work, but spray deodorants are okay because they use an artificial propellant). No tea bags -- that's sifting. No makeup -- that's dyeing. No smoking -- that requires kindling a fire. No cooking, but a salad can be prepared because the form of the vegetables does not change. (Note: things like childbirth were allowed, praise the Lord.)

Here's where those regulations came into play in the New Testament. Rubbing heads of grain together to eat them (our passage this week) was threshing. Healing a person was the equivalent of medical work (also this week). Carrying a mat was work. Walking more than a "Sabbath Day's Journey" from your home (a little more than half a mile) was considered work.

Jesus seemed mostly bothered by the hypocrisy. Jews would find loopholes or technicalities to "legally violate" the regulations. For example, if you put your lunch somewhere, you would consider that your "home" and then travel an extra Sabbath's Day Journey. So, it's no longer about God's law at all. It had become a tool to be manipulated."

End Quote

John is painting the absurdity of the scenario -- here's man who had been miraculously healed from beyond hope, and what do the Jewish leaders notice? Their own Sabbath laws.

Please catch this: this story is not about the Sabbath. The Sabbath is simply a symptom of how far the Jews had drifted from God. Look at what the people are doing in this story:

  • superstitiously looking for a pool to bring healing (rather than God)

  • selfishly wondering why their own laws are being broken (by God)

Everyone has drifted so far from God!

And it gets worse.

What's the healed man's first reaction to the challenge of the Jewish leaders? To defect blame. (And who is he blaming? God.) The reaction of those Jews is a subtle but important development -- they let him off the hook because he was just following instructions, so they go after Jesus. But they won't let Jesus off the hook for following instructions. Who gave Jesus those instructions? God the Father. If they accepted that Jesus had received instructions from God the Father, they would have to admit that they had set God against Himself due to their ignorance of God. The people have clearly turned against God:

  • the superstitious man blames God for making him break their man-made rules

  • the self-important leaders accuse God of breaking the rules they had set

It's all so ridiculous!

The conflict escalates because Jesus had "disappeared into the crowd". This man had certainly never seen Jesus before and so didn't know who He was. We will see why Jesus did that in the next section.

The talking points are many:

  • Have we ever missed God's blessings because they didn't come in the way we expected?

  • Have we ever ignored an act of God because it didn't fit our preconception of what God is "supposed" to do?

  • [Lifeway's question:] How might legalism hold us back from celebrating the work of Jesus in someone's life?

Jesus is about to confront this man, and that functions as a stand-in for how He might confront us if we were to persist in dismissing His work in the world.


Part 3: Identity Exposed (John 5:14-16)

14 After this, Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well. Do not sin anymore, so that something worse doesn’t happen to you.” 15 The man went and reported to the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore, the Jews began persecuting Jesus because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.

[Note: just because I don't regularly complain about the quality of Lifeway's section headings doesn't mean I don't find them regularly terrible.]

Remember how Jesus had earlier asked the strange question, "Do you want to become well?" This encounter hints at Jesus' deeper meaning.

You know how enormous the temple complex was. It's not a small miracle that Jesus could locate this man so easily! Jesus knew how the man would respond to Him, but we shouldn't interpret this to mean that Jesus was using him as bait. Jesus was giving him a legitimate opportunity to make the right decision. He didn't.

[Note: some Jesus movies try to paint this man in a favorable light (like they did Nicodemus), and I understand why. But this man is not a good guy. He represents a humanity that only cares about God inasmuch as God's power can be used for his own benefit.]

Jesus makes a very provocative statement to the man, one that has caused no shortage of scholarly debate. One common interpretation that I think we can quickly dismiss is the idea that Jesus is telling the man to stop committing a specific sin that caused his ailment (like "stop smoking or you'll get emphysema again" or "stop drinking or you'll get liver failure again"). Note that Jesus starts with "See, you have become well". This is about something in his character, who he is, and how he related to God.

This man certainly believed in God, but really only so far as he believed that God's power could be used to heal him. When confronted with a lifechanging encounter with the living God, he only cared about walking home. You might put it this way:

  • say that you have a severe ailment, and you are told that you can be healed of that ailment, or you can be made new in Jesus Christ; which do you choose?

There's nothing in that second option telling us that we will or won't be physically healed of our ailment. Do you see the difference in perspective between the two options?

Jesus specifically says, "Do not sin anymore." Consider:

  • 8:23 “You are from below,” he told them, “I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. 24 Therefore I told you that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.”

  • 15:22 "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 The one who hates me also hates my Father. 24 If I had not done the works among them that no one else has done, they would not be guilty of sin. Now they have seen and hated both me and my Father."

  • 16:9 "About sin, because they do not believe in me;"

The fundamental sin according to John's Gospel is to deny that Jesus is doing God's work in God's power. To do so is to remove yourself from God even further. When Jesus says that something even worse might happen to the man, He is warning that separating yourself from God for eternity is a fate worse than death.

And of course, that's exactly what the Jewish leaders are doing. They are denying that Jesus is acting on behalf of God the Father. In a few weeks, we will discuss another Sabbath-day healing, but I'd still like you to be aware of the following verses. They make the stakes crystal clear:

17 Jesus responded to them, “My Father is still working, and I am working also.” 18 This is why the Jews began trying all the more to kill him: Not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God.
19 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, the Son is not able to do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son likewise does these things. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing, and he will show him greater works than these so that you will be amazed. 21 And just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son also gives life to whom he wants. 22 The Father, in fact, judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 so that all people may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
24 “Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.
25 “Truly I tell you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he has granted to the Son to have life in himself. 27 And he has granted him the right to pass judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of condemnation.
30 “I can do nothing on my own. I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of him who sent me."

This starts getting very difficult, but when have we shied away from difficulty? In these verses, Jesus makes it clear that the Jewish leaders' enemy is not Jesus but God Almighty. Their sin is rejecting the offer of salvation from God in Jesus -- and what a sin that is! Those found in Jesus will rise out of their graves to life everlasting with God! Bot everyone else will be condemned.

The stakes have become clear, and the rest of this section in John fills out the picture even more.


Thoughts about Application

I wouldn't be surprised if someone brings up how sin causes our ailments. There is certainly truth in that -- so much suffering is caused by a person's sinful action, and we bring plenty of suffering on ourselves by our own poor choices! But that's not John's point. In fact, John will tell us a story for the specific purpose of saying that a man's ailment was not caused by anyone's sin.

Rather, our focus should be on how we are choosing to follow Jesus (to sin no more -- not because of what we might get out of it but because Jesus calls us to). We are to trust that God will never leave us or forsake us, no matter how hard our life gets. And we are to commit to live for Jesus no matter our circumstances.

I like Lifeway's focus of recognizing the needs of marginalized people. But I think the further emphasis is to ask ourselves if we are following Jesus for what we think we might get out of it or if we are doing it to bring Jesus glory.


Closing Thoughts: A Group Service Project

Your Lifeway material suggests using this lesson to inspire a group service project for a marginalized segment of your community. I think that's a great idea. If you don't have any ideas where to start, I would suggest contacting your local food bank, a boys and girls club, a shelter, or a senior center. One of those will know of a local need that is not being met.


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