A Victim of Circumstance
Please read John 5:1-15 in your Bible.
Because it is an accumulation of words from several languages, English can be difficult and amusing. In an article published on bestlifeonline. com in 2019, DESIRÉE O provided a list of the Thirty Funniest Words in the English language. For your convenience, I have narrowed it down to five weird - but true - words in the English language.
Bumfuzzle = confused, flustered, perplexed. Example: "That movie was bumfuzzling and left me, well, bumfuzzled."
Winklepicker = a shoe or boot with a sharp-pointed toe. Example: "I've been looking for the perfect winklepicker to go with these pants."
Eeksie-peeksie = perfectly balanced, in identical amounts, equal. Example: "I think it should be eeksie–peeksie for each of us."
Fantysheeny = someone or something that's fancy or even ostentatious. Example: "Her house was filled with fantysheeny furniture."
Wabbit = “Cartoon character Elmer Fudd was famous for calling Bugs Bunny a ‘wascally wabbit,’ which we assumed was because of his particular way of speaking. But perhaps he was using the word wabbit, which means weary or exhausted.”
On a related note, it is interesting how INVALID and “invalid” are spelled the same way. It is the pronunciation of the word that communicates the different meanings.
Both words come from the same Latin root word invalidus, which meant “weak, feeble.” When this adjective is applied to people, it means they are physically weak, infirm, or disabled. When applied to ideas or arguments, they are weak or feeble because they are not true.
Victim or victor? The outcome is a matter of faith.
1. The invalid saw himself as a victim (1-7).
Use your imagination to picture this setting: Jerusalem on a Feast Day, at the pool of Bethesda. (1-3) John does not tell us which feast day it was, perhaps New Year’s Day. There were three Feast Days on which Jews were obliged to travel to Jerusalem: Passover, Pentecost, & Tabernacles.
The SHEEP GATE was near the temple; it was the entry used to bring lambs in for sacrifice in the temple. It might have been a place marked by the pungent smells of the sheep. It was probably not the main entrance to the city.
The name Bethesda means “house of mercy.” Excavations near the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem have uncovered a pool area with five porticos - the FIVE COVERED COLONNADES John mentioned in v. 2. The pool was trapezoidal in shape with a division in the middle, forming the five areas. Rows of columns supported the roof, but the area was not walled; these were covered walkways. Having people lying there implies it was a warm-weather season of the year. Stairways in the corners allowed descent into the pool, which was probably fed by underground springs.
“House of Mercy” is a fitting name, given its reputation for miraculous healing and the kind of people who gathered there: A GREAT NUMBER OF DISABLED PEOPLE. In the original language, the word DISABLED meant “withered limbs.” This is an observation of the medical fact that the muscles of limbs not exercised will atrophy. The possibility of a miraculous healing is certainly a good reason for A GREAT NUMBER OF DISABLED PEOPLE to have gathered there.
The INVALID saw himself as a “victim of circumstance.” (3b-7) The NIV omits 3b-4 because those verses have unsatisfactory manuscript evidence: scholars suspect they were added to the text by a later copyist. I am in no position to evaluate the manuscript evidence, but for me, the removal of those sentences leaves vs. 3a and 7 unsupported; it takes away an important explanation of why A GREAT NUMBER OF DISABLED PEOPLE were there.
The man at the center of this account had been an INVALID for virtually a lifetime. At that point in history, the average life expectancy was 35, so 38 years really was a lifetime. The word INVALID is a general term for any kind of weakness, sickness, or disability.
The INVALID saw himself as a victim because he had no help and on his own, could not get to the water in time to be the first and thereby be healed. Raymond E. Brown’s comment: “His crochety grumbling about the ‘whippersnappers’ who outrace him to the water betrays a chronic inability to seize opportunity, a trait reflected again in his oblique response to Jesus’ offer of a cure.” (p. 209) The INVALID wanted to blame somebody for his not having been healed already.
2. Jesus made him a victor (6, 8-9).
Jesus asked him the essential question: “DO YOU WANT TO GET WELL?” (6) On a surface level, Jesus’ question does not make much sense: Why would he be at the pool if not to be healed? I believe Jesus’ question was intended to evoke some faith from the INVALID. What Jesus got instead was an excuse.
Of all the disabled people there, Jesus chose to approach this man. Verse six tells us Jesus’ selection was based on the length of his illness. Luke 7:13 and 13:12 are examples of other situations where Jesus was moved to pity and healing someone on that basis.
The INVALID did not answer Jesus’ question, so Jesus gave up on dialogue and gave him an order. (8) This is the same command Jesus gave to the paralytic who was lowered through a roof to Him. (See Mark 2.)
Jesus’ command was appropriate as the INVALID was instantly healed. (9) This is a typical way Jesus healed people = AT ONCE. The immediacy of the healing emphasized its miraculous nature.
3. Legalistic Jews tried to make him a victim again (9-13)
“Sabbath Trolls” hassled the former invalid about carrying his mat around. (9) What a bunch of party poopers! The guy must have been enthusiastic about his ability to walk and all these characters can think to do is find fault with him. In every relationship, unsolicited advice and/or criticism are the unwelcome activity of busybodies and “trolls.”
Technically, the Law forbade work Sabbath. The Jewish teachers added to the Law their interpretations of exactly what was work and what was not. In general, it was forbidden to carry anything from one place to another. This was 39th in a list of 39 works forbidden by their interpretations of the fourth Commandment. In another list, carrying an empty bed on the Sabbath was forbidden. You were allowed to carry a bed if a patient was lying on it.
In his reply we see he still thinks of himself as a “victim of circumstance.” (10) He effectively said, “It’s not my fault; I’m just doing what the guy who healed me told me to do.” This is a clue the former invalid was not healed by faith; he did not even know who Jesus was!
And so - for the moment - the legalists were thwarted by Jesus’ anonymity. (11-13) It is a sad commentary on human nature; how easily we miss what is important by focusing on what is trivial. These legalists had missed entirely the joy of a 38 YEAR PARALYSIS being suddenly healed because the guy had his mat under his arm!
John tells us Jesus HAD SLIPPED AWAY INTO THE CROWD after He had healed this man. In his Gospel, Mark often noted Jesus’ attempts to avoid publicity (i.e., 7:33 and 8:23).
4. Jesus advised him to avoid becoming a victim again (14-15).
Jesus returned to the Pool of Bethesda and sought the man out to give him a warning: “You might become a worse victim.” (14) Jesus warned the former invalid to “STOP SINNING OR SOMETHING WORSE MAY HAPPEN TO YOU.” This statement tells us Jesus spotted a defect in the former invalid’s character that he was an unrepentant sinner in his disabled condition. This defect did not get corrected even though Jesus had miraculously healed him. The Bible teaches that not all illness or injury is a punishment for sin (i.e., John 9:3; Luke 8:1-5), but there was a connection in this man’s case.
His behavior implies he did not heed Jesus’ warning. (15) Why go tell the Jewish leadership Jesus’ name? Was he that loyal? Was he that eager to avoid getting blamed for breaking the Sabbath? If he were repentant or at least grateful for what Jesus had done, it makes no sense for him to reveal Jesus as the one who ordered him to work on the Sabbath. We should not be surprised at the man’s lack of gratitude or change of heart - remember the ten lepers Jesus healed and only one of them returned to thank Him?
Victim or victor? The outcome is a matter of faith.
So… let us not feel too sorry for this man. Yes, 38 years an INVALID is a tragedy. But his behavior in this passage makes me think he was not a man of sterling character.
- Instead of answering Jesus’ direct question, He offered an excuse. (7)
- When confronted about breaking the Sabbath, he blamed it on the guy who healed him. (11)
- He did not know - presumably did not ask - who it was that miraculously and instantly ended his 38 years of disability. (13)
- When he did find out Jesus’ name, he immediately told the religious leaders who healed him. (15)
- Notice one final thing: in many of Jesus’ miracles He informed the recipient, “Your faith has made you well.” There is no mention the man’s faith and no indication that he possessed any faith.
One-Volume Illustrated Edition, Zondervan Bible Commentary, John, David J. Ellis
The Anchor Bible, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), Raymond E. Brown
The Bible Knowledge Key Word Study, The Gospels (John), W. Wall Harris
A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich