Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 6)

April 18, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Sabbath Miracles (Part 3)

In this article, we’ll look at the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda. This will be the last Sabbath healing covered in this part of the series, though there are additional accounts in the Gospels.1 This event is found in the Gospel of John.2

There was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. (For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.) One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.3

Archaeologists have found remains of what is considered to be the pool of Bethesda. It was near the “sheep gate” which, like the rest of old Jerusalem, was near the temple. The “five colonnades,” or porticos, are a puzzling feature suggesting an unusual five-sided pool, which most scholars dismissed as an unhistorical literary creation. Yet when this site was excavated, it revealed a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a wall—thus a five-sided pool—and each side had a portico or a porch on each of the four sides with one separating the two pools, perhaps to separate the men and women.4

We’re not told what illness the man had, but it must have been a form of paralysis or lameness which he’d had for thirty-eight years. The man didn’t ask to be healed; Jesus took the initiative by asking, “Do you want to be healed?” His response, that he had no one to put him in the water quickly enough when the water was stirred up, showed he did desire healing. At this point, Jesus commanded him to get up, to take his bed—which according to the original Greek meant a camp bed or mat—and to walk. At Jesus’ word, the man was immediately healed.

This healing differs from most of the healings recorded in the Gospel of John in that there is no mention of faith on the part of the man, nor did he come to Jesus seeking healing. As we’ll soon see, he didn’t know who Jesus was or that He could heal. The man’s sole focus in regard to healing was the issue of how to get himself into the water before someone else. In any case, at Jesus’ command he was healed, and that healing was demonstrated by his rising, picking up his bed, and walking. And of course, this is where the trouble started—because to carry something in the outdoors further than about six feet was to break the Sabbath rules.

So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.5

The healed man’s encounter with Jesus had been brief. He didn’t find out Jesus’ name, nor does it seem that Jesus spoke much with him. We’re told that after the healing, Jesus moved on quickly, as there was a crowd at the pool. When the man was initially asked who had healed him, he had no idea. However, some time later—we’re not told how much later, or even if it was the same day—Jesus met up with this same man again in the temple. Jesus pointed out to the man that having been healed, he should repent of his sins and be reconciled with God.

“See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.6

In what could seem like a rather ungrateful act, after finding out that Jesus was the one who healed him, he reported back to the Jews, telling them who healed him and commanded him to carry his bed on the Sabbath. Perhaps he told them because he was in jeopardy of punishment for having broken the Sabbath, and was trying to show that it wasn’t his fault, because he was following instructions given by the person who had healed him. In any case, his telling the Jews brought trouble to Jesus. It’s significant that the focus of those who wanted to know who told the man to carry the bed was figuring out who to blame for a Sabbath rule being broken, instead of focusing on the wonderful fact that a man who’d had a malady for thirty-eight years and couldn’t move or walk had been healed. Instead of rejoicing over the miracle, they focused on doing harm to the one who performed the miracle because He had broken a rule.

This was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.7

We’re not told specifically what action these religious Jews used against Jesus, but certainly it included challenging Him for doing these things on the Sabbath. The wording used indicates that it wasn’t only for this one infraction that they were persecuting Him, but because Jesus had already performed other miracles and done other things which were seen to be breaking the Sabbath rules.

Jesus’ response to their objection to His actions on the Sabbath was: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” He defended His actions based on His special and unique relationship with God, His Father. He pointed out that His Father was working on the Sabbath. It is through God’s continual “work” in sustaining His creation that the universe and life exists. Without the Father’s work, everything would cease. So, based on His special relationship with His Father, Jesus made the point that His doing the work of healing on the Sabbath was allowed.

Making such a claim was understood by those who were challenging Him as His claiming to be equal with God and partaking of the same nature as God. Because this was considered blasphemy, they sought to kill Him. They eventually succeeded, as the key accusation for sentencing Him to death was blasphemy.

Throughout the Gospels, we read of Jesus healing people on the Sabbath. He had a different understanding of what was allowed on the Sabbath, and the right interpretation about the intent of it, as well as a unique relationship with the Sabbath based on who He was. Because of His unique standing with “My Father,” He was free to heal on the Sabbath and command the healed man to carry his bed.

There’s another instance where Jesus pointed out that because of who He was, He and His disciples could contravene the Sabbath rules. While this instance isn’t an account of a miracle, it makes the same point regarding Jesus’ relationship with the Sabbath and its rules. We find it in the Gospels of Matthew,8 Mark,9 and Luke.10

In Matthew, it says:

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”11

In this account, as in those regarding the miracles done on the Sabbath, an activity is done which the Pharisees consider to be breaking Sabbath law. The Pharisees are not objecting to Jesus and His disciples walking through the field, as presumably the disciples aren’t walking more than a Sabbath day’s journey. Neither are they objecting to the disciples picking grain (probably wheat or barley in this case) from a field that doesn’t belong to them, as this was allowed, provided it was picked by hand.

“If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor's standing grain.”12 

The problem is that they are picking the grain on the Sabbath, and on top of that, according to Luke, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands.13 According to the law, they were guilty of doing the work of picking grain; and in rubbing grain in their hands, they were threshing it as well as preparing it for eating. On these two counts, they were guilty of breaking Sabbath law.

The Pharisees directed their question and comment about the disciples breaking the law to Jesus instead of His disciples, because teachers were held responsible for the behavior of their followers. It was the teacher’s responsibility to defend the actions of his disciples.

Jesus’ answer contained two Old Testament analogies and a quotation from the prophet Hosea. He began with a question: Have you not read ... , making the point that what He was about to say should have been obvious to the Pharisees, since they were familiar with Scripture. He used this phrase a number of times throughout the Gospels.14 The first analogy He provided was the story of David when he was fleeing from Saul15 and needed food for himself and for his men. The tabernacle (the tent where God dwelt prior to the building of the temple) was there, and within it was the “bread of the presence,” also called the “showbread.” This referred to 12 loaves of bread that were placed on a golden table within the tabernacle, and which served as a food offering to the Lord. This bread was likely prepared each Friday and placed in the tabernacle each Sabbath. The bread of the presence could only be eaten by the priests within the tabernacle. In the account of King David’s request for five loaves of bread, we read that the priest gave it to him, even though it contravened the law.

The priest gave the bread to David because he believed that David was the king’s emissary, had already been anointed as the successor to King Saul, and as such was doing the king’s bidding. The bread was given to David because of who he was. Even though it was unlawful, David was permitted to take and eat the bread because of his special position. In making this analogy, Jesus was pointing out that, like David, He too had a special position and authority.

A similar point was made in the second analogy:

Have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?

There were exceptions to the Sabbath law for the duties that needed to be done by the temple priests on the Sabbath, such as slaughtering and butchering the animals used for sacrifice, changing the bread of the presence, etc. R. T. France explains:

The basis for this exception is in who they are (priests, appointed for this divine service) and the institution which requires it (the temple, as the focal point of God’s presence among his people). It is a matter of priorities, the authority of the office and the necessity of the service overriding the Sabbath rules which for other people and other purposes remain inviolable.16

The priests, because of who they were, were allowed to do some things which others weren’t. Jesus made the point that, because of who He was and the authority He possessed, He had the right to declare what may or may not be done on the Sabbath. He drove this point home by making the shocking statement:

I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

Jesus once again referred to Old Testament teaching, this time to make the same point He had made when performing healing miracles on the Sabbath—that concern for the good of others and their needs takes precedence over formal keeping of ritual laws and rules. I desire mercy, and not sacrifice is a quote from the book of Hosea:

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.17 

Jesus again and again pointed out that the Pharisees needed to learn that God is much more concerned about loving and helping others than He is about rule keeping and religious rituals.

In contrast with the Pharisees, Jesus regards the Sabbath positively. The day of freedom from work is a gift for humanity’s good. If the Pharisees had understood this principle, they wouldn’t have raised this petty objection about His disciples’ action. By calling His disciples guiltless—you would not have condemned the guiltless—Jesus makes the same point as when He healed on the Sabbath: that the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath rules was incorrect. Just as the temple priests were “guiltless” in doing their temple duties, so were His disciples. Why? Because the Son of Man is the lord of the Sabbath! Because of who He is (something greater than the temple), He has the authority to interpret the Law for His disciples.

The implication was astounding. Jesus was claiming to be the Lord of something which was instituted by God’s direct command.

God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.18

The Sabbath was something described by God as my Sabbath.

“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.’”19

You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the LORD.20

Jesus’ declaration that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath was an extraordinary claim, as it put His authority on par with that of God Himself. For Christians today, this statement doesn't carry the same shock value; but in Jesus’ time, it was considered a dangerous, blasphemous proclamation.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus gave repeated indications of who He was—God incarnate. This was seen specifically in His miracles and in His understanding of the Sabbath and His relationship with it. As the Lord of the Sabbath, He demonstrated the proper understanding of the Sabbath.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

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1 Jesus casting out a demon in the synagogue (Mark 1:21–28); the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:30–31); the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1–16). The last one tells of a Sabbath controversy, while in the first two there is no controversy.

2 Some Bibles don’t include verse 4, as some ancient manuscripts include it and others don’t. The ESV, which we use in this series, doesn’t include it, so I’m inserting verse 4 from the NKJV into the following passage (in parentheses).

3 John 5:1–9.

4 Keener, The Gospel of John, 636.

5 John 5:10–13.

6 John 5:14–15.

7 John 5:16–18.

8 Matthew 12:1–8.

9 Mark 2:23–28.

10 Luke 6:1–5.

11 Matthew 12:1–8.

12 Deuteronomy 23:24–25.

13 Luke 6:1.

14 Matthew 19:4, 21:16, 21:42, 22:31.

15 1 Samuel 21:1–6.

16 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 460.

17 Hosea 6:6 NKJV.

18 Genesis 2:3.

19 Exodus 31:13.

20 Leviticus 19:30.