The Pool of Bethesda was a discouraging, even intimidating place. To be sure, the double pool, located north of the Temple area in Jerusalem, was attractive enough. Four covered colonnades lined the sides of the pool, and likely the fifth was in the area separating the two pools. The discouragement came from the crowd of invalids there: blind, lame, and paralyzed. There was a superstition (see v. 4 in the footnotes of contemporary translations, a verse that was almost certainly added after John wrote this Gospel), that an angel would periodically stir the water and the first person entering would be healed.
In John 5:1-18 we read that Jesus finds a man who has been incapacitated, apparently seriously paralyzed, for 38 years. He asks a question, the answer to which might seem obvious: do you want to be healed. The response focused on lengthy difficulties experienced and challenged mobility, revealing the hopelessness of the man.
Jesus spoke (do you remember his speaking to the official in John 4?) and commanded the man to get up, to pick up his mat, and walk. Astonishingly, after 38 years of immobility, he does so immediately. John omits any mention of the man’s faith. Although John 3 and 4 could be described as studies in faith, and though faith remains a theme of the book coming to a peak in chapter 20, that is not the focus of Jesus nor of John here. Rather, the emphasis is on the power of Jesus’ word (this healing sets the stage for Jesus to speak of his future speaking which will raise the dead, verses 28-30). The focus is also on the reaction to the work and words of Jesus. John here describes the beginning of the rise of hatred by the leaders of Israel against Jesus, a hatred that will culminate in his execution in John 19.
The hatred against Jesus was triggered by his actions on the Sabbath. Some may have taken offense at a healing performed on the Sabbath. Many more of the Pharisees saw carrying the mat as a violation of Sabbath rest. In what may have originally been a well-intentioned effort to guard against breaking Sabbath, man-made rules had been erected that missed the focus of God’s institution. Note that Jesus never broke the Sabbath, although he did, as here, act contrary to human additions to God’s law.
Jesus’ response shows you his view of his own person. Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working.” That takes you back to the creation account in Genesis, recalling God’s rest on the seventh day after six days of creative activity. God’s rest was obviously not an afternoon nap. The God who created the most distant galaxy and the smallest subatomic particle continues, on the seventh day, to hold all things together. As G. K. Beale remarks, “God’s rest on the seventh creation day was not inactivity but only a ceasing of his creative work. Once he had brought creation into being, he continued to exercise his sovereign maintaining of it” (A New Testament Biblical Theology, p. 797, © 2011. Pub. by Baker Academic.)
To his hearers’ surprise and dismay, Jesus used his Father’s continuing work on the Sabbath to justify his work or renewal, healing, forgiveness and ultimately restoration, on the Sabbath. Just as his Father was working so was he, like Father, like Son. They get his point–he was claiming that he is divine, he is Son of God. That claim will be developed as you continue to work through John’s Gospel.
Jesus’ claim leads to only two responses. If the Pharisees were right, and Jesus was merely a man, he was guilty of blasphemy. That is what they believed, and they hated Jesus for it, with a hatred that led to murder. But if, by God’s grace, you believe that Jesus’ claim is true, your response to him can only be one of worship. Is that your response?