AT THE ‘UNKNOWN’ FEAST IN JERUSALEM, AND BY THE POOL OF BETHESDA.
The shorter days of early autumn had come, 1 and the country stood in all its luxurious wealth of beauty and fruitfulness, as Jesus passed from Galilee to what, in the absence of any certain evidence, we must still be content to call ‘the Unknown Feast’ in Jerusalem. Thus much, however, seems clear that it was either the ‘Feast of Wood-offering’ on the 15th of Abh (in August), when, amidst demonstrations of joy, willing givers brought from all parts of the country the wood required for the service of the Altar; or else the ‘Feast of Trumpets’ on the 1st of Tishri (about the middle of September), which marked the beginning of the New (civil) Year. 2 The journey of Christ to that Feast and its results are not mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, because that Judæan ministry which, if the illustration be lawful, was the historical thread on which St. John strung his record of what the Word spake, lay, in great measure, beyond their historical standpoint. Besides, this and similar events belonged, indeed, to that grand Self-Manifestation of Christ, with the corresponding growth of opposition consequent upon it, which it was the object of the Fourth Gospel to set forth; but it led to no permanent results, and so was outside the scope of the more popular, pragmatic record, which the other Gospels has in view.
There may in this instance, however, have been other reasons also for their silence. It has already been indicated that, during the summer of Christ’s first Galilean ministry, when Capernaum was His centre of action, the disciples had returned to their homes and usual avocations, while Jesus moved about chiefly alone and unattended. This explains the circumstance of a second call, even to His most intimate and closest followers. It also accords best with that gradual development in Christ’s activity, which commencing with the more private teaching of the new Preacher of Righteousness in the villages by the lake, or in the Synagogues, expanded into that publicity in which He at last appears, surrounded by His Apostles, attended by the loving ministry of those to whom He had brought healing of body or soul, and followed by a multitude which everywhere pressed around Him for teaching and help.
This more public activity commenced with the return of Jesus from ‘the Unknown Feast’ in Jerusalem. There He had, in answer to the challenge of the Jewish authorities, for the first time set forth His Messianic claims in all their fulness. And there, also, He had for the first time encountered that active persecution unto death, of which Golgotha was the logical outcome. This Feast, then, was the time of critical decision. Accordingly, as involving the separation from the old state and the commencement of a new condition of things, it was immediately followed by the call of His disciples to a new Apostleship. In this view, we can also better understand the briefness of the notices of His first Galilean ministry, and how, after Christ’s return from that Feast, His teaching became more full, and the display of His miraculous power more constant and public.
It seems only congruous, accordant with all the great decisive steps of Him in Whose footprints the disciples trod, only after He had marked them, as it were, with His Blood, that He should have gone up to that Feast alone and unattended. That such had been the case, has been inferred by some from this, that the narrative of the healing of the impotent man reads so Jewish, that the account of it appears to have been derived by St. John from a Jew at Jerusalem. 3 4 Others 5 have come to the same conclusion from the meagreness of details about the event. But it seems implied in the narrative itself, and the marked and exceptional absence of any reference to disciples leads to the obvious conclusion, that they had not been with their Master.
But, if Jesus was alone and unattended at the Feast, the question arises, whence the report was derived of what He said in reply to the challenge of the Jews? Here the answer naturally suggests itself, that the Master Himself may, at some later period of His life – perhaps during His last stay in Jerusalem – have communicated to His disciples, or else to him who stood nearest to Him, the details of what had passed on the first occasion when the Jewish authorities had sought to extinguish His Messianic claims in His blood. If that communication was made when Jesus was about to be offered up, it would also account for what otherwise might seem a difficulty: the very developed form of expression in which His relation to the Father, and His own Office and Power, are presented. We can understand how, from the very first, all this should have been laid before the teachers of Israel. But in view of the organic development of Christ’s teaching, we could scarcely expect it to have been expressed in such very full terms, till near the close of His Ministry. 6
But we are anticipating. The narrative transports us at once to what, at the time, seems to have been a well-known locality in Jerusalem, though all attempts to identify it, or even to explain the name Bethesda, have hitherto failed. All we know is, that it was a pool enclosed within five porches, by the sheep-market, presumably close to the ‘Sheep-Gate.’ 7 This, as seems most likely, opened from the busy northern suburb of markets, bazaars, and workshops, eastwards upon the road which led over the Mount of Olives and Bethany to Jericho. 8 In that case, most probability would attach to the identification of the Pool Bethesda with a pool somewhat north of the so-called Birket Israîl. At present it is wholly filled with rubbish, but in the time of the Crusaders it seems to have borne the name of the Sheep-pond, and, it was thought, traces of the five porches could still be detected. Be this as it may, it certainly bore in the ‘Hebrew’ – or rather Aramæan – ‘tongue,’ the name Bethesda. No doubt this name was designative, though the common explanations – Beth Chisda (so most modern writers, and Watkins) ‘House of Mercy’ (?), Beth Istebha ()baf+:s:)i, Delitzsch), ‘House of Porches,’ and Beth Zeytha (Westcott) ‘House of the Olive’ – seem all unsatisfactory. More probability attaches to the rendering Beth Asutha (Wünsche), or Beth Asyatha, ‘House of Healing.’ But as this derivation offers linguistic difficulties, we would suggest that the second part of the name (Beth-Esda) was really a Greek word Aramaised. Here two different derivations suggest themselves. The root-word of Esda might either express to ‘become well’ – Beth iasqai- or something akin to the Rabbinic Zit 9 (+yz=zhqi). In that case, the designation would agree with an ancient reading of the name, Bethzatha. Or else, the name Bethesda might combine, according to a not uncommon Rabbinic practice, the Hebrew Beth with some Aramaised form derived from the Greek word zew, ‘to boil’ or ‘bubble up’ (subst. zesiV); in which case it would mean ‘the House of Bubbling-up,’ viz. water. Any of the three derivations just suggested would not only give an apt designation for the pool, but explain why St. John, contrary to his usual practice, does not give a Greek equivalent for a Hebrew term.
All this is, however, of very subordinate importance, compared with the marvellous facts of the narrative itself. In the five porches surrounding this pool lay ‘a great multitude of the impotent,’ in anxious hope of a miraculous cure. We can picture to ourselves the scene. The popular superstitions, 10 which gave rise to what we would regard as a peculiarly painful exhibition of human misery of body and soul, is strictly true to the times and the people. Even now travellers describe a similar concourse of poor crippled sufferers, on their miserable pallets or on rugs, around the mineral springs near Tiberias, filling, in true Oriental fashion, the air with their lamentations. In the present instance there would be even more occasion for this than around any ordinary thermal spring. For the popular idea was, that an Angel descended into the water, causing it to bubble up, and that only he who first stepped into the pool would be cured. As thus only one person could obtain benefit, we may imagine the lamentations of the ‘many’ who would, perhaps, day by day, be disappointed in their hopes. This bubbling up of the water was, of course, due not to supernatural but to physical causes. Such intermittent springs are not uncommon, and to this day the so-called ‘Fountain of the Virgin’ in Jerusalem exhibits the phenomenon. It is scarcely necessary to say, that the Gospel-narrative does not ascribe this ‘troubling of the waters’ to Angelic agency, nor endorses the belief, that only the first who afterwards entered them, could be healed. This was evidently the belief of the impotent man, as of all the waiting multitude. 11 But the words in verse 4 of our Authorised Version, and perhaps, also, the last clause of verse 3, are admittedly an interpolation. 12
In another part of this book it is explained at length, 13 how Jewish belief at the time attached such agency to Angels, and how it localised (so to speak) special Angels in springs and rivers; and we shall have presently to show, what were the popular notions about miraculous cures. If, however, the belief about Bethesda arose merely from the mistaken ideas about the cause of this bubbling of the water, the question would naturally suggest itself, whether any such cases as those described had ever really occurred, and, if not, how such a superstition could have continued. But that such healing might actually occur in the circumstances, no one would be prepared to deny, who has read the accounts of pilgrimages to places of miraculous cure, or who considers the influence of a firm expectancy on the imagination, especially in diseases which have their origin in the nervous system. This view of the matter is confirmed, and Scripture still further vindicated from even the faintest appearance of endorsing the popular superstition, by the use of the article in the expression ‘a multitude of the impotent’ (plhqoV twn asqenountwn), which marks this impotence as used in the generic sense, while the special diseases, afterwards enumerated without the article, are ranged under it as instances of those who were thus impotent. Such use of the Greek term, as not applying to any one specific malady, is vindicated by a reference to St. Matt. viii. 17 and St. Mark vi. 56, and by its employment by the physician Luke. It is, of course, not intended to imply, that the distempers to which this designation is given had all their origin in the nervous system; but we argue that, if the term ‘impotent’ was the general, of which the diseases mentioned in verse 3 were the specific – in other words, that, if it was an ‘impotence,’ of which these were the various manifestations – it may indicate, that they all, so far as relieved, had one common source, and this, as we would suggest, in the nervous system. 14
With all reverence, we can in some measure understand, what feelings must have stirred the heart of Jesus, in view of this suffering, waiting ‘great multitude.’ Why, indeed, did He go into those five porches, since He had neither disease to cure, nor cry for help and come to Him from those who looked for relief to far other means? Not, surely, from curiosity. But as one longs to escape from the stifling atmosphere of a scene of worldly pomp, with its glitter and unreality, into the clearness of the evening-air, so our Lord may have longed to pass from the glitter and unreality of those who held rule in the Temple, or who occupied the seat of Moses in their Academies, to what was the atmosphere of His Life on earth, His real Work, among that suffering, ignorant multitude, which, in its sorrow, raised a piteous, longing cry for help where it had been misdirected to seek it.
And thus we can here also perceive the deep internal connection between Christ’s miracle of healing ‘the impotent man’ and the address of mingled sadness and severity, 15 in which He afterwards set before the Masters in Israel the one truth fundamental in all things. We have only, so to speak, to reverse the formal order and succession of that discourse, to gain an insight into what prompted Jesus to go to Bethesda, and by His power to perform this healing. 16 He had been in the Temple at the Feast; He had necessarily been in contact – it could not be otherwise, when in the Temple – with the great ones of Israel. What a stifling atmosphere there of glitter and unreality! What had He in common with those who ‘received glory one of another, and the glory which cometh from the One only God’ they sought not? 17 How could such men believe? The first meaning, and the object of His Life and Work, was as entirely different from their aims and perceptions, as were the respective springs of their inner being. They clung and appealed to Moses; to Moses, whose successors they claimed to be, let them go! 18 Their elaborate searching and sifting of the Law in hope that, by a subtle analysis of its every particle and letter, by inferences from, and a careful drawing of a prohibitive hedge around, its letter, they would possess themselves of eternal life, 19 what did it all come to? Utterly self-deceived, and far from the truth in their elaborate attempts to outdo each other in local ingenuity, they would, while rejecting the Messiah sent from God, at last become the victims of a coarse Messianic impostor. 20 And even in the present, what was it all? Only the letter – the outward! All the lessons of their past miraculous history had been utterly lost on them. What had there been of the merely outward in its miracles and revelations? 21 It had been the witness of the Father; but this was the very element which, amidst their handling of the external form, they perceived not. Nay, not only the unheard Voice of the Father, but also the heard voice of the Prophets – a voice which they might have heard even in John the Baptist. They heard, but did not perceive it – just as, in increasing measure, Christ’s sayings and doings, and the Father and His testimony, were not perceived. And so all hastened on to the judgment of final unbelief, irretrievable loss, and self-caused condemnation. 22 It was all utterly mistaken; utter, and, alas! guilty perversion, their elaborate trifling with the most sacred things, while around them were suffering, perishing men, stretching ‘lame hands’ into emptiness, and wailing out their mistaken hopes into the eternal silence.
While they were discussing the niceties of what constituted labour on a Sabbath, such as what infringed its sacred rest or what constituted a burden, multitudes of them who laboured and were heavy laden were left to perish in their ignorance. That was the Sabbath, and the God of the Sabbath of Pharisaism; this the rest, the enlightenment, the hope for them who laboured and were heavy laden, and who longed and knew not where to find the true Sabbatismos! Nay, if the Christ had not been the very opposite of all that Pharisaism sought, He would not have been the Orient Sun of the Eternal Sabbath. But the God Who ever worked in love, Whose rest was to give rest, Whose Sabbath to remove burdens, was His Father. He knew Him; He saw His working; He was in fellowship of love, of work, of power with Him. He had come to loose every yoke, to give life, to bring life, to be life – because He had life: life in its fullest sense. For, contact with Him, whatever it may be, gives life: to the diseased, health; to the spiritually dead, the life of the soul; to the dead in their graves, the life of resurrection. And all this was the meaning of Holy Scripture, when it pointed forward to the Lord’s Anointed; and all this was not merely His own, but the Father’s Will – the Mission which He had given Him, the Work which He had sent Him to do. 23
Translate this into deed, as all His teachings have been, are, and will be, and we have the miraculous cure of the impotent man, with its attendant circumstances. Or, conversely, translate that deed, with its attendant circumstances, into words, and we have the discourse of our Lord. Moreover, all this is fundamental to the highest understanding of our Lord’s history. And, therefore, we understand how, many years afterwards, the beloved disciple gave a place to this miracle, when, in the full ripeness of spiritual discernment, he chose for record in his Gospel from among those ‘many signs,’ which Jesus truly did, 24 only five as typical, like the five porches of the great Bethesda of His help to the impotent, or like the five divisions into which the Psalter of praise was arranged. As he looked back, from the height where he stood at his journey’s end, to where the sun was setting in purple and golden glory far across the intervening landscape, amidst its varying scenes this must have stood out before his sight, as what might show to us that ‘Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we might have life through His Name.’ 25
And so, understanding from what He afterwards said to ‘the Jews’ what He thought and felt in going thither, we are better prepared to follow the Christ to Bethesda. Two pictures must have been here simultaneously present to His mind. On the one side, a multitude whose sufferings and false expectancies rose, like the wail of the starving for bread; and, on the other side, the neighbouring Temple, with its priesthood and teachers, who, in their self-seeking and the trifling of their religious externalism, neither understood, heard, nor would have cared for such a cry. If there was an Israel, Prince with God, and if there was a God of the Covenant, this must not, cannot be; and Christ goes to Bethesda as Israel’s Messiah, the Truth, and the Life. There was twofold suffering there, and it were difficult to know which would have stirred Him most: that of the body, or the mistaken earnestness which so trustfully looked for Heaven’s relief – yet within such narrow limits as the accident or good fortune of being first pushed into the Angel-troubled waters. But this was also a true picture of His people in their misery, and in their narrow notions of God and of the conditions of His blessing. And now Israel’s Messiah had at last come. What would we expect Him to have done? Surely not to preach controversial or reformatory doctrines; but to do, if it were in Him, and in doing to speak. And so in this also the Gospel-narrative proves itself true, by telling that He did, what alone would be true in a Messiah, the Son of God. It is, indeed, impossible to think of Incarnate Deity – and this, be it remembered, is the fundamental postulate of the Gospels – as brought into contact with misery, disease, and death without their being removed. That power went forth from Him always, everywhere, and to all, is absolutely necessary, if He was the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. And so the miracles, as we mistakingly term the result of the contact of God with man, of the Immanuel (God with us), are not only the golden ladder which leads up to the Miracle, God manifest in the flesh, but the steps by which He descends from His height to our lowliness.
The waters had not yet been ‘troubled,’ when He stood among that multitude of sufferers and their attendant friends. It was in those breathless moments of the intense suspense of expectancy, when every eye was fixed on the pool, that the eye of the Saviour searched for the most wretched object among them all. In him, as a typical case, could He best do and teach that for which He had come. This ‘impotent’ man, for thirty-eight years a hopeless sufferer, without attendant or friend 26 among those whom misery – in this also the true outcome of sin – made so intensely selfish; and whose sickness was really the consequence of his sin, 27 and not merely in the sense which the Jews attached to it 28 – this now seemed the fittest object for power and grace. For, most marked in this history is the entire spontaneity of our Lord’s help. 29 It is idle to speak either of faith or of receptiveness on the man’s part. The essence of the whole lies in the utter absence of both; in Christ’s raising, as it were, the dead, and calling the things that are not as though they were. This, the fundamental thought concerning His Mission and power as the Christ shines forth as the historical background in Christ’s subsequent, explanatory discourse. The ‘Wilt thou be made whole?’ with which Jesus drew the man’s attention to Himself, was only to probe and lay bare his misery. And then came the word of power, or rather the power spoken forth, which made him whole every whit. Away from this pool, in which there was no healing; away – for the Son of God had come to him with the outflowing of His power and pitying help, and he was made whole. Away with his bed, not, although it was the holy Sabbath, but just because it was the Sabbath of holy rest and holy delight!
In the general absorbedness of all around, no ear, but that to which it had been spoken, had heard what the Saviour had said. The waters had not been troubled, and the healing had been all unseen. Before the healed man, scarcely conscious of what had passed, had, with new-born vigour, gathered, himself up and rolled together his coverlet to hasten after Him, Jesus had already withdrawn. 30 31 In that multitude, all thinking only of their own sorrows and wants, He had come and gone unobserved. But they all now knew and observed this miracle of healing, as they saw this unbefriended and most wretched of them all healed, without the troubling of waters or first immersion in them. Then there was really help in Israel, and help not limited to such external means! How could Christ have taught that multitude, nay, all Jerusalem and Jewry, all this, as well as all about Himself, but by what He did? And so we learn here also another aspect of miracles, as necessary for those who, weary of Rabbinic wrangling, could, in their felt impotence, only learn by what He did that which He would say.
We know it not, but we cannot believe that on that day, nor, perhaps, thenceforth on any other day, any man stepped for healing into the bubbling waters of Bethesda. Rather would they ask the healed man, Whose was the word that had brought him healing? But he knew Him not. Forth he stepped into God’s free air, a new man. It was truly the holy Sabbath within, as around him; but he thought not of the day, only of the rest and relief it had brought. It was the holy Sabbath, and he carried on it his bed. If he remembered that it was the Sabbath, on which it was unlawful to carry forth anything – a burden, he would not be conscious that it was a burden, or that he had any burden; but very conscious that He, Who had made him whole, had bidden him take up his bed and walk. These directions had been bound up with the very word (‘Rise’) in which his healing had come. That was enough for him. And in this lay the beginning and root of his inward healing. Here was simple trust, unquestioning obedience to the unseen, unknown, but real Saviour. For he believed Him, 32 and therefore trusted in Him, that He must be right; and so, trusting without questioning, be obeyed.
The Jews saw him, as from Bethesda he carried home his ‘burden.’ Such as that he carried were their only burdens. Although the law of Sabbath-observance must have been made stricter in later Rabbinic development, when even the labour of moving the sick into the waters of Bethesda would have been unlawful, unless there had been present danger to life, 33 yet, admittedly, this carrying of the bed was an infringement of the Sabbatic law, as interpreted by traditionalism. Most characteristically, it was this external infringement which they saw, and nothing else; it was the Person Who had commanded it Whom they would know, not Him Who had made whole the impotent man. Yet this is quite natural, and perhaps not so different from what we may still witness among ourselves.
It could not have been long after this – most likely, as soon as possible – that the healed man and his Healer met in the Temple. What He then said to him, completed the inward healing. On the ground of his having been healed, let him be whole. As he trusted and obeyed Jesus in the outward cure, so let him now inwardly and morally trust and obey. Here also this looking through the external to the internal, through the temporal to the spiritual and eternal, which is so characteristic of the after-discourse of Jesus, nay, of all His discourses and of His deeds, is most marked. The healed man now knew to Whom he owed faith, gratitude, and trust of obedience; and the consequences of this knowledge must have been incalculable. It would make him a disciple in the truest sense. And this was the only additional lesson which he, as each of us, must learn individually and personally: that the man healed by Christ stands in quite another position, as regards the morally right, from what he did before, not only before his healing, but even before his felt sickness, so that, if he were to go back to sin, or rather, as the original implies, ‘continue to sin,’ 34 a thing infinitely worse would come to him.
It seems an idle question, why the healed man told the Jews that it was Jesus. It was only natural that he should do so. Rather do we ask, How did he know that He Who had spoken to him was Jesus? Was it by the surrounding of keen-eyed, watchful Rabbis, or by the contradiction of sinners? Certain we are, that it was far better Jesus should have silently withdrawn from the porches of Bethesda to make it known in the Temple, Who it was that had done this miracle. Far more effectually could He so preach its lesson to those who had been in Bethesda, and to all Jewry.
And yet something further was required. He must speak it out in clear, open words, what was the hidden inward meaning of this miracle. As so often, it was the bitter hatred of His persecutors which gave Him the opportunity. The first forthbursting of His Messianic Mission and Character had come in that Temple, when He realised it as His Father’s House, and His Life as about His Father’s business. Again had these thoughts about His Father kindled within Him in that Temple, when, on the first occasion of His Messianic appearance there, He had sought to purge it, that it might be a House of Prayer. And now, once more in that House, it was the same consciousness about God as His Father, and His Life as the business of His Father, which furnished the answer to the angry invectives about His breach of the Sabbath-Law. The Father’s Sabbath was His; the Father worked hitherto and He worked; the Father’s work and His were the same; He was the Son of the Father. 35 And in this He also taught, what the Jews had never understood, the true meaning of the Sabbath-Law, by emphasising that which was the fundamental thought of the Sabbath – ‘Wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it:’ not the rest of inactivity, but of blessing and hallowing.
Once more it was not His whole meaning, but only this one point, that He claimed to be equal with God, of which they took hold. As we understand it, the discourse beginning with verse 19 is not a continuation of that which had been begun in verse 17, but was delivered on another, though probably proximate occasion. By what He had said about the Father working hitherto and His working, He had silenced the multitude, who must have felt that God’s rest was truly that of beneficence, not of inactivity. But He had raised another question, that of His equality with God, and for this He was taken to task by the Masters in Israel. To them it was that He addressed that discourse which, so to speak, preached His miracle at the Pool of Bethesda. Into its details we cannot enter further than has already been done. Some of its reasoning can be clearly traced, as starting from certain fundamental positions, held in common alike by the Sanhedrists and by Christ. Others, such as probably in answer to unreported objections, we may guess at. This may also account for what may seem occasional abruptness of transitions.
But what most impresses us, is the majestic grandeur of Christ’s self-consciousness in presence of His enemies, and yet withal the tone of pitying sadness which pervades His discourse. The time of the judgment of silence had not yet come. And for the present the majesty of His bearing overawed them, even as it did His enemies to the end, and Christ could pass unharmed from among them. And so ended that day in Jerusalem. And this is all that is needful for us to know of His stay at the Unknown Feast. With this inward separation, and the gathering of hostile parties closes the first and begins the second, stage of Christ’s Ministry.