Healing a Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda

5:1 After this there was a Jewish feast, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Jn 5:1-15 retold with interspersed commentary
Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie-the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.

They would beg. But also it seems that they believed that the waters of the pool had special healing properties.

One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.

Funny, isn’t it, that out of all the disabled people lying there Jesus picked out just one.

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

That’s a funny question. But I should’t be surprised if the man had given up hope of ever getting well.

“Sir,” the invalid 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.”

All the man can think of is the healing properties of the water.

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

Jesus doesn’t help the man into the water. He commands the man to do the very thing that he is unable to do.

At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

The man has been disabled for 38 years. But Jesus has healed him in an instant. So that’s the end of the story then. Or is it?

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

The Jewish leaders listed 39 things that people mustn’t do on the Sabbath, and carrying a burden was one of them. They’re not interested in the fact that the man has been healed. They’re just concerned to find fault with him.

But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.'”

“He made me do it!” says the man.

So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?” The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

So that’s the end of the story then. Or is it?

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.”

As far as Jesus was concerned, being an invalid for 38 years was not the worst thing that could have happened. Healing the man was not the end of the story. It is possible to experience an exciting miracle and still miss out on eternal life!

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” John 5:18 For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

Chapters 5-7 record increasing opposition to Jesus. His miracles are tolerated, even welcomed. But his teaching (in ch 5 about the Sabbath and about his relationship with his Father) arouses fierce antagonism. People might well have said to him, ‘Carry on doing good: but don’t complicate things with your objectionable theology.’ And they might well say the same to us today.

Verses 1-18 recount the third sign. Note:

  1. a selected man
  2. a selected time
  3. a selected truth

A feast – Some manuscripts have ‘the feast’, which would mean the Feast of Tabernacles. More important, however, is the fact that this healing took place on the Sabbath, v9.

of the Jews – An indication that John was writing for Gentiles (as well as for Jews).

‘Certain scholars think this passage is an allegory. The man stands for the people of Israel. The five porches stand for the five books of the law. In the porches the people lay ill. The law could show a man his sin, but could never mend it; the law could uncover a man’s weakness, but could never cure it. The law, like the porches, sheltered the sick soul but could never heal it. The thirty-eight years stand for the thirty-eight years in which the Jews wandered in the desert before they entered the promised land; or for the number of the centuries men had been waiting for the Messiah. The stirring of the waters stands for baptism. In point of fact in early Christian art a man is often depicted as rising from the baptismal waters carrying a bed upon his back. It may well be that it is now possible to read all these meanings into this story; but it is highly unlikely that John wrote it as an allegory. It has the vivid stamp of factual truth. But we do well to remember that any Bible story has in it far more than fact. There are always deeper truths below the surface and even the simple stories are meant to leave us face to face with eternal things.’ (DSB)

5:2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool called Bethzatha in Aramaic, which has five covered walkways. 5:3 A great number of sick, blind, lame, and paralyzed people were lying in these walkways.

The Sheep Gate – This is mentioned in Neh 3:1,32; 12:39 in connection with the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.

John’s use of the present tense (‘there is a pool’) has been taken to show that he wrote his Gospel before the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 66-70). However, John’s frequent use of the ‘historical present’ puts this in doubt.

Five covered colonnades – cloisters that the sick used for shelter.

‘After much guess-work with respect to the identity of this pool, its site had finally been established to the satisfaction of most scholars. The pool…was laid bare in the year 1888 in connection with the repair of the church of St Anne, in NE Jerusalem. A faded fresco on the wall pictures an angel “troubling” the water. It appears, therefore, that by the early church this pool was viewed as Bethzatha.’ (Hendriksen)

‘In 1888 excavations near St Anne’s Church…revealed the remains of an ancient church building. Beneath this lay a crypt, with its north wall divided into five compartments in imitation of arches; on this wall there could also be distinguished traces of an old fresco representing the angel troubling the waters. Clearly those who built this structure believed that it marked the site of the pool of Bethesda. And subsequent excavations below the crypt showed that they were right; a flight of steps was uncovered leading down to a pool with five shallow porticoes on its north side, directly underneath the five imitation arches on the north wall of the crypt.’ (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents, 94)

‘Ancient peoples were specially impressed with the holiness of water and especially of rivers and springs. Water was so precious and rivers in spate could be so powerful that it is not surprising that they were so impressed. In the west we may know water only as something which comes out of a tap; but in the ancient world, as in many places still today, water was the most valuable and potentially the most dangerous of all things.’ (DSB)

Some manuscripts add to this verse, ‘and they waited for the moving of the waters’.

John 5:4

Some manuscripts include here, ‘From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had’. These words (and those added to v3) are absent from the best Gk manuscripts, although such a belief is presupposed by v7.

‘While it is true that some manuscripts omit the end of John 5:3 and all of verse 4, it is also true that the event (and the man’s words in John 5:7) would make little sense if these words are eliminated. Why would anybody, especially a man sick for so many years, remain in one place if nothing special were occurring? You would think that after thirty-eight years of nothing happening to anybody, the man would go elsewhere and stop hoping! It seems wisest for us to accept the fact that something extraordinary kept all these handicapped people at this pool, hoping for a cure.’ (Wiersbe)

A meditation based on John 5:1-18
Jesus once said to some needy people, “What do you want me to do for you?” Let’s spend half a minute in quietness, imagining that the Lord is saying the same thing to us. What is it that you want him to do for you, and for those people and situations that you care about?

A great number of disabled people used to lie at this pool. On this occasion, Jesus seems to have healed just one. Lord, we bow to your sovereign will and wisdom. But look with compassion on us and on those for whom we pray.

One was there who had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there, he asked, “Do you want to get well?” Lord, some of our needs are so big and so long-standing, that we have learned to take them for granted. Give us insight into our needs, and grant us a desire for those needs to be met.

“Sir,” said the man, “I have no-one to help me.” Lord, give us eyes to see that though other help may fail, you are standing right near.

Jesus said, “Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured. Lord give us faith to believe that you are able to achieve in a moment what we have been longing for for years.

Later Jesus found him and said to him, “See, you are well again, Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Lord, we don’t just ask that you would meet our felt needs, but that you would make us into the people you want us to be.

The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” Lord, we thankyou that you continue to work to this very day. We thankyou that our Saviour’s touch has still its ancient power. We thankyou that the Holy Spirit has been poured out to bring life and light and joy and power.

5:5 Now a man was there who had been disabled for thirty-eight years.

One who was there had been an invalid – The man’s disability is not identified. However, from v7 we may assume him to have been paralysed, lame or very weak (Carson).

The text does not tell us that he was brought to the pool-side every day. It may be that he was brought when the stirring of the water was expected.

Duration of time, either of sickness or of sinning, is no barrier to immediate restoration.

‘Christ deliberately chose one of the most dramatically helpless sufferers in the waiting throng in order to display the limitless power and grace of God. And he deliberately healed him on the Sabbath (Jn 5:9) in order to expose the heartless hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders (Jn 5:10-12, 16, 18). The miraculously cured invalid played an almost passive role in the entire episode, serving mostly as a catalyst for the Jewish leaders’ violent reaction to the love of Christ.’ (NCB)

This statement draws attention to the extraordinary nature of the miracle about to be performed. However, it also raises the question of why Jesus chose to perform the miracle on this particular day – the Sabbath – rather than taking the non-controversial option of performing it the day before or the day after.

‘If John intends any symbolism, it may be along the following lines: just as the water from the purification pots of the orthodox could neither produce nor be mistaken for the new wine of the kingdom, 2:1-11, and just as the water from Jacob’s well could not satiate the ultimate thirst of religious people who may have looked to genuine revelation but whose views were widely viewed as aberrant, 4:1-42, so the promises of merely superstitious religion have no power to transform the truly needy.’ (Carson)

5:6 When Jesus saw him lying there and when he realized that the man had been disabled a long time already, he said to him, “Do you want to become well?”

When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time – Carson says the construction does not help us to decide whether Jesus found out about the duration of the man’s condition by diligent enquiry or by supernatural knowledge. Rather than ‘learned that’ we should read ‘became aware that’.

“Do you want to get well?” – Kruse says, ‘there is no point in psychlogising at this point, suggesting Jesus was referring to some reluctance on the man’s part to see his situation changed, or tha the was trying to elicit desire on the man’s part to be healed.’ Kruse prefers to see this as more a literary device, heightening the expectation ‘that something miraculous is about the occur.’ However, this does look like another of Jesus’ unexpected, thought-provoking questions. Of course he wanted to be healed! And yet it is true of some disabled or sick persons, that they do not want to get better. Fear of losing the sympathy of others, fear of resumed responsibility, or sheer depression and despair, are all reasons why, deep down, some people may resist. In this culture, a beggar stood to lose a decent living if cured.

Perhaps what Jesus meant was, “Don’t you want to get well?” It is evident (from the large number of handicapped people gathered there, and from v7) that the pool was believed to have healing properties. So possibly Jesus is saying, in effect, “If you have been coming to this pool for so long, how is it that you have never received your healing?”

‘It is not so foolish a question as it may sound. The man had waited for thirty-eight years and it might well have been that hope had died, and left behind it a passive and dull despair. It might well be that in his heart of hearts the man might be well content to remain as an invalid, for, if he was cured, he would have to shoulder all the responsibilities again. There are invalids for whom invalidism is not an unpleasant thing, because someone else does all the working and all the worrying…The first essential towards receiving the power of Jesus is to have intense desire for it. Jesus says: “Do you really want to be changed?” If in our inmost hearts we are well content to stay as we are, there can be no change for us.’ (William Barclay)

‘The question “Do you want to get well?” may have been intended to jolt the man out of his apathy, but the answer does not reveal any faith on the man’s part. Clearly he thought in rather magical terms, as v 7 shows, for he believed the commonly held view that only the first to get into the water had any chance of healing. He seems to have thought Jesus’ question not worth the answering.’ (NBC)

5:7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up. While I am trying to get into the water, someone else goes down there before me.”

“I have no one to help me” – “One would think that some of those who had been themselves healed should have lent him a hand.” (Matthew Henry) Perhaps the man hoped that Jesus would help him into the water. He appears not to have heard of the miracles Jesus has performed in Jerusalem, Jn 2:23; 3:1f, nor to have any faith that Jesus was capable of healing him.

John does not paint a very complimentary picture of this man. He tries to avoid difficulties with the authorities by shifting the blame to the one who has healed him, v11, whose name he has not even bothered to find out, v13, and once he does find out he reports to the authorities, v15. ‘In terms of initiative, quick-wittedness, eager faith and a questing mind, this invalid is the painful opposite of everything that characterises the wonderful character in Jn 9.’ (Carson)

“Having been so often disappointed, he begins to despair, and now is Christ’s time to come to his relief; he delights to help in desperate cases.” (Matthew Henry)

5:8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up! Pick up your mat and walk.” 5:9 Immediately the man was healed, and he picked up his mat and started walking. (Now that day was a Sabbath.)

Mat – or mattress, used by the poor for sleeping on, as in Mark 2:4, 9, 11-12; 6:55; John 5:8-11; Acts 5:15; 9:33. It would have been made of straw and easily carried by a well person.

‘He commanded the man to do the very thing he was unable to do, but in His command was the power of fulfillment (see Mark 3:5; Heb. 4:12).’ (Wiersbe)

Significantly, Jesus does not send the man into the pool. Although it is evident that the pool was believed to have healing properties, Jesus gives no credence to what was presumably a superstitious belief. But he does not challenge it either.

This is one of the miracles that Jesus performed without any faith on the part of the person healed, cf Mk 2:1-5; Lk 22:49-51.

At once the man was cured – But no mention is made of Jesus healing any others at this particular place or time. Cf. v3.

He picked up his mat and walked – This was no half-miracle, ‘I think I’m feeling a little stronger’. The man was thoroughly cured. ‘Just as the thirty-eight years prove the gravity of the disease, so the carrying of the bed and the walking prove the completeness of the cure’ (Barrett).

And this might have been the end of the story. But…

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath – Jesus knowingly worked this miracle on the Sabbath, even though the man’s condition was hardly urgent, and he might easily have healed him the day before or the day after.

‘Strictly, there was no contravention of the written commandment (cf Ex 20:8-11), which was generally interpreted as a prohibition of performing one’s daily occupation on the Sabbath…The oral traditions, however, which the Pharisees cherished, simplified the written law nto an elaborate jurisprudence which significantly extended its range. With respect to the Sabbath, thirty-nine categories of work were identified which breached the Sabbath law..In practice the letter of the law had come to dominate its spirit. Outward conformity replaced heart commitment. They lost sight of the ultimate purpose of the law, its modelling a life which pleased God and witnessed to his gracious choice of Israel. The law became an end in itself.’ (Milne)

5:10 So the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and you are not permitted to carry your mat.” 5:11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” 5:12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Pick up your mat and walk’?” 5:13 But the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped out, since there was a crowd in that place.

‘The Jews hear of the wonderful healing and of the formal breach of their code, and are interested only in the latter. They think they see what is important, but in religious matters there are none so blind as those who are always certain that they see (cf Jn 9:39-41).’ (Carson)

‘They reminded the man who had been cured that it was the sabbath…, and that therefore it was not lawful for him to lift up his pallet, let alone carry it. They probably had in mind such passages as Jer 17:21ff, and Neh 13:15. These were in origin protests against the tendency to secularise the sabbath. It is not just another day of business. It is God’s day. It must be kept free from worldly pursuits. So the regulations began in the laudable attempt to safeguard the holiness of the day. But in time they became so many, and drew so many absurd distinctions that the true character of the day was lost in the manner of its observance. Jesus’ attitude recalled men to the real meaning of the sabbath.’ (Leon Morris)

‘The OT had forbidden work on the Sabbath. But what is “work”? The assumption in the Scripture seems to be that “work” refers to one’s customary employment; but judging by Mishnah, dominant rabbinic opinion had analysed the prohibitions into thirty-nine classes of work…By OT standards, it is not clear the healed man was contravening the law…but according to the “tradition of the elders” the man was breaking the law, since he was contravening one of the prohibited thirty-nine categories of work to which the law was understood to refer.’ (Carson)

‘The miracle would have caused no problem except that it occurred on the Sabbath Day. Our Lord certainly could have come a day earlier, or even waited a day; but He wanted to get the attention of the religious leaders. Later, He would deliberately heal a blind man on the Sabbath (John 9:1-14). The scribes had listed thirty-nine tasks that were prohibited on the Sabbath, and carrying a burden was one of them. Instead of rejoicing at the wonderful deliverance of the man, the religious leaders condemned him for carrying his bed and thereby breaking the law.’ (Wiersbe)

It is to be noted that the zeal of the Jewish authorities was a religious zeal. There is no wickedness so terrible as that which is prompted by religious motives.

Don’t insist on human traditions

‘We must not take the mind-set of the Pharisees in our church practice. But some still rely on “oral traditions” or “principles handed down” that don’t come from Scripture. Such legislature can hinder true service to God. The Bible does not stipulate what we can’t do on Sunday; it does not dictate the denomination we worship in; it does not specify the kind of Christian music we use to worship God. Where the Bible does not specify rules, we should not either.’ (Life Application Bible Commentary)

The man has not troubled to find out the name of the person who has healed him. Now he is ducking any responsibility for what has happened.

‘There is an implied contrast here between the compassion of Jesus for the poor man and the lack of interest in the man on the part of the Jews.’ (NBC)

Note:-

  • The time
  • The place
  • The sick man
  • Jesus’ question
  • The answer
  • The healing
  • The sabbath controversy
  • The second meeting
  • Persecution
  • Jesus’ self-affirmation

Application:-

  • The question of healing
  • The question of the Lord’s day
  • The question of spiritual healing
  • The question of who Jesus is

See why John selected this miracle to record: it is a sign to us all.

The man who was healed had no idea who it was – ‘In his ignorance he represents the great mass of our race who do not acknowledge or worship God and yet daily receive his benefits of health and strength, the providential ordering of the universe, the protection afforded by the “order” of human society, as well as the daily restraining of the full potential of evil in the world and the full effect of the fall in personal life, to say nothing of the patience with which God delays the day of his just judgement, 2 Pet 3:1f.’ (Milne)

‘Christianity founds hospital, and atheists are cured in them, never knowing that they owe their cure to Christ. Prisons are reformed under the influence which flows from the Gospel; and the prisoners never know – sometimes the reformers themselves do not know – that Christ is the Author of the reform.’ (William Temple)

‘Note, Christ does many a good turn for those that know him not, Isa. 45:4, 5. He enlightens, strengthens, quickens, comforts us, and we wist not who he is; nor are aware how much we receive daily by his mediation. This man, being unacquainted with Christ, could not actually believe in him for a cure; but Christ knew the dispositions of his soul, and suited his favours to them, as to the blind man in a like case, Jn 9:36. Our covenant and communion with God take rise, not so much from our knowledge of him, as from his knowledge of us. We know God, or, rather, are known of him, Gal. 4:9.’ (MHC)

Here is another point at which the story might have ended. But…

5:14 After this Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” 5:15 The man went away and informed the Jewish leaders that Jesus was the one who had made him well.

Later Jesus found him at the temple – This would have taken quite an effort, for there would have been thousands of people in and around the temple for the festival.

“Stop sinning” – ‘There is the implication that the man has sinned, and continues in his sin. Jesus enjoins him to break with it and be reconciled to God. In 9:1ff Jesus repudiates the idea that disasters like blindness are inevitably caused by sin. But he does not say that they are never caused by sin. In this present verse he seems to imply that the man’s sin had brought about his infirmity. Sinning again may bring a worse fate. Jesus may mean a worse physical fate. But it is more likely that he is referring to the eternal consequences of sin. They are indeed a worse thing than any physical handicap.’ (Leon Morris)

‘The Lord’s words (John 5:14) suggest that the man’s physical plight had been the result of sin; but Jesus did not say that the man’s sins had been forgiven as He did in dealing with the sick man lowered through the roof (see Mark 2:1-12). It is possible to experience an exciting miracle and still not be saved and go to heaven!’ (Wiersbe)

Kruse says that the grammatical structure of Jesus’ command does not require it to be translated, ‘Stop sinning’ (implying that he was continuing to commit some particular sin). He thinks that the translation, ‘Do not sin’ is to be preferred. In either case, the apostle Paul confirms that sin is sometimes associated with physical illness and even death, 1 Cor 11:29f. Another approach (also suggested by Kruse) is to understand Jesus as saying that although the man has been healed physically, he is to take care not to succumb to sin, or else he might forfeit eternal life (Jn 3:18-21) and his final condition would be worse than his former condition.

The purpose of this miracle was not only to make a teaching point. Jesus was interested in the man as a person, and sought him out in order to warn about something that was even more important than physical healing.

“Something worse” – worse than thirty-eight years of helplessness. The reference must be to final judgement, cf Lk 12:4f; 13:1-5.

We do not know why the man did this. Did he feel intimidated by the Jews? Or did he think he was bearing witness to Jesus? He is not reported as saying that it was Jesus who made him do ‘work’ on the Sabbath, but rather that it was Jesus who had made him well.

‘It is not easy to understand the relationship between this man and Jesus. There is no evidence that he believed on Christ and was converted, yet we cannot say that he was opposed to the Saviour. In fact, he did not even know who it was that healed him until Jesus met him in the temple. No doubt the man went there to give thanks to God and to offer the appropriate sacrifices. It seems strange that the man did not actively seek a closer relationship with the One who healed him, but more than one person has gratefully accepted the gift and ignored the Giver.’ (Wiersbe)

Responding to Jewish Leaders

5:16 Now because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began persecuting him. 5:17 So he told them, “My Father is working until now, and I too am working.”

Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath – Healing the man, or telling him to pick up his mat and walk, or both of these.

The Jews persecuted him – Unlike Nicodemus, 3:2, these Jews could not focus on Jesus’ compassionate power, but only on his apparent law-breaking.

‘In their view, it was unlawful to make a man whole on the Sabbath, but perfectly lawful to concoct mischief against another, and persecute him, and seek to slay him, on the Sabbath. Alas! alas! how prone men are, ourselves included, to “strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel.’ (Taylor, The Miracles of our Saviour, 144)

Other Sabbath-day healings are: the man with a withered hand, Mt 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11; the man born blind, Jn 9:1-41; the woman who had been bent in two for 18 years, Lk 13:10-17; the man suffering from dropsy, Lk 14:1-6.

Jesus might well have responded by disputing the meaning and application of the Mosaic law. This would have led to vigorous debate, but not to a charge of blasphemy.

‘Ferus remarks on the great variety of arguments used by our Lord on various occasions, in reply to the superstitious views of the Jews about the Sabbath. One time he adduces the example of David eating the shew bread, another time the example of the priests working in the temple on the Sabbath, another time the readiness of the Jews to help an ox out of a pit on the Sabbath. All these arguments were used in defence of works of necessity and mercy. Here he takes higher ground still, – the example of his Father.’ (Ryle)

Sabbath-breaking ‘was a charge repreatedly brought against our Lord by his enemies; and his ordinary mode of meeting it was by pleading the character of the work which he performed. They were acts of mercy: and it was admitted, even by themselves, that the law of the Sabbath was not violated by such acts, however laborious and troublesome (cf Mt 12:11f; Lk 13:11-17). In the case before us, however, for the purpose of unfolding the truth with regard to his own personal dignity and official character, he chose to follow a different course. He takes at once far higher ground, and distinctly intimates that he, as well as his Father, is the Lord of the Sabbath.’ (Brown, Discourses and Sayings of our Lord Vol I, 72)

“My Father” – Jews would not normally refer to God in this way. They might speak of ‘our Father’, or ‘my Father in heaven’, in order to remove any suggestion of familiarity. Jesus’ hearers recognised the intimacy with which he spoke of his Father, and reacted angrily. There is not only intimacy, but also similarity, in this expression: ‘Because the overwhelming majority of sons ended up doing what their fathers did, “like father, like son” was the cultural assumption…When Jesus claims that his “Father” is “always at his work to this very day,” he is implicitly claiming to be God’s Son, with the right to follow the pattern of work that God himself sets in this regard.’ (Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 36f)

The Father and the Son

Milne remarks that this is the first time in this Gospel that the special relationship between Jesus and ‘the Father’ surfaces. He points out that the ‘Father’ image is currently suffering from a degree of eclipse:-

1. ‘ “Father” is a gender word which puts it under suspicion with those seeking a less sexist formulation of Christian faith.’ Certainly sexism should be addressed, and the feminine qualities of God as taught in Scripture should be asserted. But not to the extent of discarding this fundamental category of biblical revelation.

2. ‘The experience of fatherhood has been a poor one for many people. Their fathers were abusive, or alcoholic, or left the family through divorce, or were largely absent through workaholism or the sheer demands of career; so its associations are not especially positive or helpful.’ But this is no argument for discarding the image of God as Father, which is sanctioned by the experience and teaching of the Son of God. God is the archetypal father, the model and ideal of all other fatherhood, Eph 3:15.

3. ‘Those whose faith is largely shaped by a vital personal experience of Jesus, and the living ministry of the Holy Spirit, although orthodox Trinitarians in their theological convictions, often find little place in devotion or practice for “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” 1 Pet 1:3.’ But God is Father, as well as Son and Spirit, and to neglect this is to court a form of Christianity which is weak on providence and sovereignty.

“Is always at work” – Cf. Gen 2:2, which says that God ceased his work of creation. Jesus is referring here to his Father’s ongoing work of providence. ‘The great machine of the universe does not stand still on the Sabbath-day: the mighty and the minute processes of nature experience no interruption: the sun rises and sets, the grass grows, the river rolls on, the blood circulates, on the Sabbath, as well as on the other days of the week.’ (Brown)

‘That is, in preserving and empowering what he hath made with strength to be and act, and therefore he is said to hold our souls in life. Works of art, which man makes, when finished, may stand some time without the workman’s help, as the house, when the carpenter that made it is dead; but God’s works of nature and grace are never off his hand; and therefore, as the Father is said to work hitherto for the preservation of the works of nature, so the Son, to whom is committed the work of redemption, he tells us he worketh also. Neither ended he his work, when he rose again, any other way than his Father did in the work of creation. God made an end of making, so Christ made an end of purchasing mercy, grace, and glory for believers, by once dying; and as God rested at the end of the creation, so he, when he had wrought eternal redemption, and ‘by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high,’ Heb. 1:3. But he ceaseth not to work by his intercession with God for us, and by his Spirit in us for God, whereby he upholds his saints, their graces, and comforts in life, without which they would run to ruin.’ (Gurnall)

“I, too, am working” – Cf. Col 1:17. ‘It is a considerable part of Christ’s glory to have a whole world of creatures owing their being and hourly conservation to him. The parts of the world are not coupled and fastened together as the parts of the house, whose beams are pinned and nailed to each other; but rather as several rings of iron, which hang together by the virtue of a loadstone. This goodly fabric was razed to the foundation when sin entered, and had tumbled into everlasting confusion, had not Christ stept in to shore up the reeling world. For the sake of his redeemed that inhabits it, he does and will prop it by his omnipotent power. And when he has gathered all his elect out of it into the kingdom above, then will he set fire to the four quarters of it, and it shall lie in ashes. Meanwhile, he is “given for a covenant to the people, to establish the earth,” Isa. 49:8.’ (Flavel)

‘When God made the world, it is said indeed he ended his work, that is, of creation: he made no new species and kinds of creatures more; but to this day he hath not ended his work of providence: ‘My Father worketh hitherto,’ saith Christ, John 5:17, that is, in preserving and empowering what he hath made with strength to be and act, that therefore he is said to hold our souls in life. Works of art, which man makes, when finished, may stand some time without the workman’s help, as the house, when the carpenter that made it is dead; but God’s works, both of nature and grace, are never off his hand, and therefore as the Father is said to work hitherto for the preservation of the works of nature, so the Son, to whom is committed the work of redemption, he tells us, worketh also. Neither ended he his work when he rose again, any otherwise than his Father did in the work of creation. God made an end of making, so Christ made an end of purchasing mercy, grace, and glory for believers, by once dying; and as God rested at the end of creation, so he, when he had wrought eternal redemption, and ‘by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high,’ Heb. 1:3. But he ceaseth not to work by his intercession with God for us, and by his Spirit in us for God, whereby he upholds his saints, their graces, and comforts his life, without which they would run to ruin.’ (Gurnall)

‘British writer George MacDonald pointed out that John 5:17 gives us a profound insight into our Lord’s miracles. Jesus did instantly what the Father is always doing slowly. For example, in nature, as mentioned earlier, the Father is slowly turning water into wine; but Jesus did it instantly. Through the powers in nature, the Father is healing broken bodies; but Jesus healed them immediately. Nature is repeatedly multiplying bread, from sowing to harvest; but Jesus multiplied it instantly in His own hands.’ (Wiersbe)

‘In the climactic statement, ‘my Father is working until now, and I am working’ (5:17), Jesus claims that the exemption from Sabbath law which applies to God applies to him also; it is the Father’s work which the Son does. The discourse which follows reveals that God will realize his goal for humanity in the person and work of his Son. It is the Son who will give life to the dead, judge all people, and bring honour to himself and to the Father. He will realize the Sabbath by bringing an end to human rebellion and the reign of death. He participates with the Father in a second great work of creation, begun after the fall, from which there will be no resting until it is completed.’ (NDBT)

5:18 For this reason the Jewish leaders were trying even harder to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was also calling God his own Father, thus making himself equal with God.

The Jews tried all the harder to kill him – ‘Clear declaration of truth will not satisfy wicked and malicious men, but the more Christ and the light is held out to such, it is hated the more.’ (Hutcheson)

He was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God – ‘A good premise, but a bad conclusion. He did make himself equal with God, but he was not therefore guilty of blasphemy, for he was God.’ (Taylor, The Miracles of our Saviour, 145)

‘It was the lure of just such a rivalling equality which was the occasion of the fall, Gen 3:5…But Jesus is not claiming “equality with God” in the sense of being a second rival deity. Rather it is an equality expressed as a unity in which the Son is so utterly submitted to the Father that the two are one in the works that they do…v19…”The Father is God sending and commanding, the Son is God sent and obedient.”‘ (Milne, quoting Barrett)

‘Sabbath-breaking, though important, was a comparatively trivial offence…Jesus had called God his own father…, a form of speech which did not arise out of liturgical custom or the notion of Israel as God’s child; and the assumption of a uniform activity common to Jesus and to God could only mean that Jesus was equal to God.’ (C.K. Barrett)

‘Jesus is asserting that his “work” of healing, which led to a breach of their oral tradition, was a work of mercy which imitated the gracious Sabbath work of God. Implicit in the claim is a self-consciousness of the most audacious and revolutionaly kind. Jesus is claiming a unique identify with the Father, a fact not lost on his hearers, which provokes their hardening commitment to eliminate him.’ (Milne)

‘When the Jewish authorities heard Jesus call God “my (own) Father,” they did not do what many moderns have done. They did not try to tone down the character of Christ’s sonship. They immediately understood that Jesus claimed for himself deity in the highest possible sense of that term. That claim was either the most wicked blasphemy, to be punished with death; or else, it was the most glorious truth, to be accepted by faith. The very character of the sign which Jesus had just now performed should have caused these religious leaders to adopt the latter alternative. Instead, they chose the former.’ (Hendriksen)

‘In the discourse which follows Jesus enlarges on his claim to be working in collaboration with his Father, v17. The divine work on which he was engaged was twofold – giving life to the dead, v21 and judging, v22. Everyone who hears and believes, he declared, then and there receives eternal life and will escape judgement; he has already passed out of death into life, v24…Already the dead were hearing his voice, and those who were hearing were receiving life and emerging from their spiritual graves, v25. That is, a sifting process was going on, because the Father had given to the Son both to have life in himself and authority to execute judgement, v26f. Further, on the last day, all in the tombs (“all” is emphatic) would hear his voice and come forth. Then the sifting of judgement would be brought to completion, for soe would rise “to the resurrection of life,” others “to the resurrection of judgement,” v28f.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 91f.

5:19 So Jesus answered them, “I tell you the solemn truth, the Son can do nothing on his own initiative, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.

The NIV fails to translate the oun (‘therefore’). The correct translation is, ‘Jesus therefore gave them this answer’.

Ryle remarks: ‘There are few chapters in the Bible, perhaps, where we feel our own shallowness of understanding so thoroughly, and discover so completely the insufficiency of all human language to express “the deep things of God.” Men are often saying they want explanations of the mysteries of the Christian faith, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the person of Christ, and the like. Let them just observe, when we do find a passage full of explanatory statements on a deep subject, how much there is that we have no line to fathom and no mind to take in. “I want more light,” says proud man. God gives him his desire in this chapter, and lifts up the veil a little. But behold! we are dazzled by the very light we wanted, and find we have not eyes to take it in.’

“The Son can do nothing by himself” – ‘Christ is the Son because He does nothing of Himself. He is God because whatsoever things the Father doeth, He doeth the same. They are One because They are equal in honour. He is not the Father because He is sent.’ (Hilary, quoted by Ryle)

‘When it is said ‘the Son can do nothing of Himself’, this does not mean want of power, but the highest power. Just as it is a mark of omnipotence not to be able to die, or to be worn out, or to be annihilated, because there is nothing that can injure omnipotence, so, likewise, ‘to be unable to do anything of Himself’ is no mark of impotence, but of the highest power. It means nothing less than having one and the same power with the Father, so that nothing can be done by the One which is not equally done by the Other.’ (Toletus, quoted by Ryle)

“He can do only what he sees his Father doing” – ‘The phrase, “what He seeth the Father do,” is a figurative term, showing the inseparable communion of will, wisdom, and power, between the Son and the Father in the internal order of the most holy Trinity.’ (Diodati, quoted by Ryle)

5:20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he does, and will show him greater deeds than these, so that you will be amazed.

“The Father loves the Son” – See Jn 3:35n.

“And shows him all he does” – ‘Here the preindustrial model of the agrarian village or the craftsman’s shop is presupposed, with a father carefully showing his son all that he does so that the family tradition is preserved. Stradivarius Senior shows Stradivarius Junior all there is to know about making violins—selecting the wood, the exact proportions, the cuts, the glue, how to add precisely the right amount of arsenic to the varnish, and so forth. Stradivarius Senior does this because he loves Stradivarius Junior. So also here: Jesus is so uniquely and unqualifiedly the Son of God that the Father shows him all he does, out of sheer love for him, and the Son, however dependent on his Father, does everything the Father does.’ (Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God)

“He will show him even greater things than these” – ‘Augustine and Bernard both remark, that it is far “greater work” to repair ruined human nature, than to make it at first, and to re-create it, than to create it.’ (Ryle)

5:21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.

“The Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” – ‘Burkitt remarks, that it is never said of any prophet or apostle, that he did mighty works “at his will.”‘ (Ryle)

5:22 Furthermore, the Father does not judge anyone, but has assigned all judgment to the Son, 5:23 so that all people will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. The one who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.

“The Father…has entrusted all judgement to the Son” – Cf. Jn 3:17 – ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him’ (cf. Jn 12:47).  The earlier passage speaks of the purpose of Christ’s coming, which is ‘primarily salvific, even though all must face him as their judge, and even though the inevitable result of his coming is that some will be condemned.’ (Carson)

‘All power and authority over the world is committed to Christ’s hands. He is the King and the Judge of mankind. Before Him every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that he is Lord. He that was once despised and rejected of man, condemned and crucified as a malefactor, shall one day hold a great assize, and judge all the world. “God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” (Rom 2:16)’ (Ryle)

‘I think it highly probable that the “all judgment committed to the Son,” includes not merely the final judgment of the last day, but the whole work of ordering, governing, and deciding the affairs of Gods kingdom. “To judge” is an expression constantly used in the Old Testament in the sense of “to rule.” The meaning then would be, that the Father has given to the Son the office of King and Judge. The whole administration of the Divine government of the world is put into the hands of the Son, Christ Jesus. Everything connected with the rule of the church and world, as well as the last judgment, is placed in the Son’s hands.’ (Ryle)

5:24 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life. 5:25 I tell you the solemn truth, a time is coming—and is now here—when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
5:26 For just as the Father has life in himself, thus he has granted the Son to have life in himself, 5:27 and he has granted the Son authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.

The Son of Man – Although suggestive of our Lord’s humanity, Jews, and all others acquainted with the Old Testament, would have heard in this title distinct echoes of Daniel 7, where the same title is associated with the sitting of the heavenly court and the opening up of books (Dan 7:10).

5:28 “Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 5:29 and will come out—the ones who have done what is good to the resurrection resulting in life, and the ones who have done what is evil to the resurrection resulting in condemnation.
5:30 I can do nothing on my own initiative. Just as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will, but the will of the one who sent me.

“By myself I can do nothing” – Cf. Jesus’ own teaching on being ‘poor in spirit’, Mt 5:3

More Testimony About Jesus

5:31 “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true. 5:32 There is another who testifies about me, and I know the testimony he testifies about me is true. 5:33 You have sent to John, and he has testified to the truth. 5:34 (I do not accept human testimony, but I say this so that you may be saved.) 5:35 He was a lamp that was burning and shining, and you wanted to rejoice greatly for a short time in his light.

‘Here Jesus cites the Old Testament principle, central to later Jewish law (both that of the rabbis and that of the Dead Sea Scrolls), that two witnesses are necessary to prove a (capital) case (Deut 17:6; 19:15).’ (NT Background Commentary)

Another – Jesus is referring to his Father.  The word is allos, which in classical Greek often means ‘another, but similar’, as opposed to heteros, ‘another, but different’.  If the distinction is valid here, then Jesus is virtually claiming equality with God.  Carson says that the distinction is rare in the NT, and that we should therefore not attempt to make Christological capital out of the use of allos here.

“John…has testified” – Cf. Jn 1:6-8.

“Not that I accept human testimony” – Carson understands this to mean that Jesus did not rely on the testimony of others to confirm who he was in his own mind.

“I mention it that you may be saved” – John’s testimony was for their benefit, not his own.

‘The word in the original properly means a lamp, and is not the same which in Jn 1:4,5 is translated light. That is a word commonly applied to the sun, the fountain of light; this means a lamp, or a light that is lit up or kindled artificially from oil or tallow. A teacher is often called a light, because he guides or illuminates the minds of others. Rom 2:19. “Thou art confident that thou art a guide of the blind, a light of them that sit in darkness.’ (Barnes)

5:36 “But I have a testimony greater than that from John. For the deeds that the Father has assigned me to complete—the deeds I am now doing—testify about me that the Father has sent me. 5:37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified about me. You people have never heard his voice nor seen his form at any time, 5:38 nor do you have his word residing in you, because you do not believe the one whom he sent.
5:39 You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, 5:40 but you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.

“You study the scriptures thoroughly”

‘The teachers of the law, for example, whose job was to copy and teach the sacred text, subjected it to the closest scrutiny. They weighed its every syllable. They went so far as to count up the number of words, even letters, of each book. And they did all this, not just for the sake of accurate copying but because they foolishly imagined that eternal life consisted in such accurate knowledge. Like some modern Bible commentators and Bible readers, they became so absorbed in the words that they lost sight of the truth which the words expressed. They were not concerned about the message of Scripture (they did not understand this, let alone embrace and obey it), but only about meanings. If they could study and know and memorize and quote the Word of God, they thought that they had eternal life.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist)

“You think in them you possess eternal life” – ‘To suppose that salvation lies in a book is as foolish as supposing that health lies in a prescription. When we are ill and our doctor prescribes some medicine, is the intention that we should go home with the prescription, read it, study it and learn it by heart? Or that we should frame it and hang it on our bedroom wall? Or that we tear it into fragments and eat the pieces three times a day after meals? The absurdity of these possibilities is obvious. The prescription itself will not cure us. No, the whole purpose of a prescription is to get us to go to the chemist, obtain the medicine prescribed for us and take it. Now the Bible contains the divine prescription for sin-sick souls. It specifies the only medicine which can save us from perishing. In brief, it tells us of Jesus Christ who died for us and rose again. But we do not worship the Bible as if it could save us; we go to Christ. For the overriding purpose of the Bible is to send us to Christ and persuade us to take the water of life which he offers.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist)

“The Scriptures that testify about me” – ‘As we go to the cradle only in order to find the baby, so we go to the Scriptures only to find Christ.’ (Luther) ‘When you are reading a book in a dark room, and find it difficult, you take it to a window to get more light. So take your Bible to Christ.’ (McCheyne)

‘Our Christian conviction is that the Bible has both authority and relevance – to a degree quite extraordinary in so ancient a book – and that the secret of both is in Jesus Christ. Indeed, we should never think of Christ and the Bible apart. ‘The Scriptures . . . bear witness to me,’ he said (Jn. 5:39), and in so saying also bore his witness to them. This reciprocal testimony between the living Word and the written Word is the clue to our Christian understanding of the Bible. For his testimony to it assures us of its authority, and its testimony to him of its relevance. The authority and the relevance are his.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p 104.)

‘If the Scripture be of divine inspiration, then be exhorted…to study the Scripture. It is a copy of God’s will. Be Scripture-men, Bible-Christians. ‘I adore the fulness of Scripture,’ says Tertullian. In the Book of God are scattered many truths as so many pearls. John 5:39. ‘Search the Scriptures.’ Search as for a vein of silver. This blessed Book will fill your head with knowledge, and your heart with grace. God wrote the two tables with his own fingers; and if he took pains to write, well may we take pains to read. Apollos was mighty in the Scriptures. Acts 18:24. The Word is our Magna Charta for Heaven; shall we be ignorant of our charter? Col 3:16. ‘Let the word of God dwell in you richly.’ The memory must be a tablebook where the Word is written. There is majesty sparkling in every line of Scripture; take but one instance, Isa 63:1: ‘Who is this that cometh from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah? This that is glorious in his apparel, travelling in the greatness of his strength? I that speak in righteousness, mighty to save.’ Here is a lofty, magnificent style. What angel could speak after this manner? Junius was converted by reading one verse of John; he beheld a majesty in it beyond all human rhetoric. There is a melody in Scripture. This is that blessed harp which drives away sadness of spirit. Hear the sounding of this harp a little. 1 Tim 1:15. ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;’ he took not only our flesh upon him but our sins. And Matt 11:28. ‘Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ How sweetly does this harp of Scripture sound, what heavenly music does it make in the ears of a distressed sinner, especially when the finger of God’s Spirit touches this instrument! There is divinity in Scripture. It contains the marrow and quintessence of religion. It is a rock of diamonds, a mystery of piety. The lips of Scripture have grace poured into them. The Scripture speaks of faith, self-denial, and all the graces which, as a chain of pearls, adorns a Christian. It excites to holiness; it treats of another world, it gives a prospect of eternity! Oh, then, search the Scripture! make the Word familiar to you. Had I the tongue of angels, I could not sufficiently set forth the excellency of Scripture. It is a spiritual optic-glass, in which we behold God’s glory; it is the tree of life, the oracle of wisdom, the rule of manners, the heavenly seed of which the new creature is formed. James 1:18. ‘The two Testaments,’ says Austin, ‘are the two breasts which every Christian must suck, that he may get spiritual nourishment.’ The leaves of the tree of life were for healing. Rev 22:2. So these holy leaves of Scripture are for the healing of our souls. The Scripture is profitable for all things. If we are deserted, here is spiced wine that cheers the heavy heart; if we are pursued by Satan, here is the sword of the Spirit to resist him; if we are diseased with sin’s leprosy, here are the waters of the sanctuary, both to cleanse and cure. Oh, then, search the Scriptures! There is no danger in tasting this tree of knowledge. There was a penalty laid at first, that we might not taste of the tree of knowledge. Gen 2:17. ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.’ There is no danger in plucking from this tree of holy Scripture; if we do not eat of this tree of knowledge, we shall surely die. Oh, then, read the Scriptures! Time may come when the Scriptures may be kept from us.’ (Thomas Watson A Body of Divinity)

“You are not willing to come to me”

As Stott (Christ the Controversialist) writes:-

It is not enough to possess a Bible. It is no use to use if it sits gathering dust on a bookshelf, is is prized merely as a family heirloom, or is referred to respectfully as ‘the Holy Bible’

It is not enough to read the Bible, or hear it read.  Its words will do us no good if we only treat as literature.  We must read it with eager expectation that it will lead us to Christ.

It is not enough to study the Bible.  Some scholars, and some ordinary Christians too, study the Bible intently, accumulating large amounts of information and familiarising themselves with all kinds of questions and debates.  They may have committed large sections of it to heart.  But Bible knowledge that does not build us up in the knowledge of Christ is a vain thing.

What is required is that we obey the Bible. We best honour God’s book by doing what it says.  And it tells us to come to Christ.  If we do so, we will never invited upon ourselves his rebuke of his Jewish contemporaries, when he said, “You study the Scriptures.  But you will not come to me for life.”

(Summarised)

5:41 “I do not accept praise from people, 5:42 but I know you, that you do not have the love of God within you. 5:43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me. If someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. 5:44 How can you believe, if you accept praise from one another and don’t seek the praise that comes from the only God?
5:45 “Do not suppose that I will accuse you before the Father. The one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have placed your hope. 5:46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. 5:47 But if you do not believe what Moses wrote, how will you believe my words?”

“Do not suppose that I will accuse you before the Father. The one who accuses you is Moses”Cf. Jn 3:17f.

No particular passage in the Pentateuch is cited by Jesus.  He is probably referring to the general tenor of its teaching.

To (truly) believe Moses is to believe Christ.  And vice versa.

Many evangelical scholars take the view that v46f is decisive regarding the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.  Peter Enns does not think so: “Rather, Jesus here reflects the tradition that he himself inherited as a first-century Jew and that his hearers assumed to be the case”. (The Evolution of Adam)

Some scholars think that Jn 7:15-24 has been displaced, and should follow directly from this verse.

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