John 5:1-30, Authority to Give Life to the Dead

[July 10, 2011] In today’s reading the Gospel according to John leaves the Cana sequence behind and Jesus returns to Judea where His own do not receive Him, for “a prophet has no honor in his own country” (John 1:11; 4:43-44). He goes to Jerusalem for a feast (the Byzantine text reads, “the feast,” which presumably would be the Passover, which would have to be read in connection to 6:4), though the gospel does not specify which feast. It calls attention, however, to the fact that the event it describes takes place on the Sabbath. The significance of this miracle is related to the Sabbath, just as that of chapter 6 is related to the Passover and chapter 7 to the Feast of Booths.

The Gospel according to John, we have noticed, has the form of a cross. At the foot of the cross is chapters 1—3; at the upper beam and head is 12:12 to the end. The horizontal arms of the cross stretch from the unnamed woman of Samaria in chapter 4 to Mary of Bethany in 12:1-11. As Jesus embraces the world in His grasp, we move from the outside (Samaria) to the inside (the household in Bethany). As we do so, the rejection of Jesus by the “world” deepens, hinted at in 2:24 but becoming overt for the first time in our present chapter. We also noticed that the four arms of the gospel are chiastic, moving in concentric circles toward and from the center—where Jesus pronounces “I am” to the disciples crossing the sea of Galilee in 6:16-21, a story that echoes both the first day of creation and the Exodus. The outer vertical extremes corresponds to the Sabbath then—where the first disciples abide with Jesus in chapter 1 and where the gathered disciples receive the Spirit in chapter 20. The four-pointed circle inside of that—the wedding of Cana, the woman of Samaria, the anointing in Bethany and Jesus’ appearance to the Magdalene in the garden—corresponds to the sixth day of creation, when God created the man and the woman, the Bridegroom and the bride. The circle inside of that—the cleansing of the Temple, the healing of the son, the raising of Lazarus and the crucifixion of Jesus—corresponds to the fifth day of creation, when God gave life to the waters of chaos and the heavens. Inside of that is the circle of the fourth day, when God formed the luminaries of sun and moon and stars to regulate the day and night. Here we find on the vertical beam of the gospel Jesus’ discourse to Nicodemus in chapter 3 and its amplification in His Last Supper discourse to His disciples in chapters 13—17. On the horizontal beam we find the present chapter, the healing of the paralytic on the Sabbath, and perhaps the healing of the blind man in chapter 9.

As we shall see, a motif of the present story is not being able to enter, and the gift of life. The man born blind in chapter 9 is not able to see, and he does enter (the flock) with the gift of life abundant. Jesus told Nicodemus that no one can see or enter the Kingdom of God unless they were born from above. At the Last Supper, Jesus describes how through His death and resurrection the gift of the Spirit would be given, so that He can abide in them and they in Him—the giving of the Spirit being the new birth and eternal life through which they enter the “place” where He is.

As there was a development and intensification from the woman of Samaria to Mary of Bethany, and from the raising of the king’s man’s son to the raising of Lazarus, so here there is a development from the impotent (paralytic?) man’s healing and apparent lack of spiritual sight to the healing of the blind man and his wide-open spiritual eyes.

The Work (John 5:1-9)

“Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, waiting for the moving of the water.” As with all the signs that Jesus performed in this gospel, we want to find the significance that lies beyond the literal and historical description of the events. It is for this reason that the signs are accompanied by Jesus’ teaching; not just because it happened but to direct us as to how to interpret what priorly happened.

The activity of the feast, whatever feast it was (verse 1), centered in the Temple, but according to an ancient proverb the blind and the lame were excluded from the Temple (see 2 Samuel 5:8; see Matthew 21:14 where the blind and lame came to Jesus in the Court of the Gentiles, and Acts 3:2 where the lame man stood outside the Court of the Women). Were they? The blind and lame were excluded from serving as priests (Leviticus 21:18) though their handicap did not render them impure or unclean. Lame animals were also unacceptable for sacrifices. Several Qumran texts exclude the blind and the lame from the vicinity of the Deity. Thomas Hendrich of Kyoto University argues on historical grounds that oral traditions expanding the application of Leviticus 21:8 to all people and thus excluding any disabled person from entering the Temple go back to the time of David the proverb quoted in 2 Samuel 5:8. See article. Probably the lame and the blind were prohibited from going beyond the Court of the Gentiles into the Court of the Women.

The pool of Bethesda was near the Sheep Gate, which, since it was built by the priests (Nehemiah 3:1), was one of the entrances to the Temple area. The picture that John gives us, then, is of the sick, blind, lame and withered lying outside of the Temple waiting to be healed—Bethesda means “House of Mercy”—so that they can have access to the Temple.

By the time the Gospel according to John was written, around the year 90, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and therefore access to the Temple was cut off for all Israelites. The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 like the destruction of the First, signify the judgment of God. Actually the Second Temple was only provisional. The judgment of God signified by the destruction of the First Temple was to be lifted, according to the prophets, by the coming of the Messiah. Moreover, this judgment of which the prophets spoke was not just incidental but universal. Humankind was and remains under the judgment of God from the beginning of its history. Even the Tabernacle and the First Temple were provisional in this sense, signs (as it were) of an eschatological fulfillment when the promises of God would come true through the Messiah. From this point of view, the sick, blind, lame and withered lying by the pool of Bethesda represent all Israel (not to mention the pagan Gentiles who are excluded from the Temple by default), excluded from the Temple by the judgment of God. When Jesus says, “Sin no more so that nothing worse happens to you,” he associates the man’s malady with God’s judgment on him.

 “And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness.” What is the significance of this number? Back when Israel was in the wilderness, when they left Sinai and came to Kadesh-barnea, in Numbers 13-14, the people refused to enter the Promised Land. “Let us return to Egypt,” they said. God became angry with them and was about to destroy them. After Moses interceded for them, YHWH said, “I have pardoned them according to your word; but as surely as I live … none of those men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness … shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers, nor shall any of those who despised Me see it” (14:20-23). So in Deuteronomy 2:14 we read, “And the time we spent in going from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed over the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until all the generation of the men of war was consumed from the midst of the camp, as YHWH had sworn to them.”

Afterward, Israel repented and tried to enter the land without Moses or the Ark of the Covenant and the Amalekites and the Canaanites struck them and beat them back (Numbers 14:39-45). When the zealots in the years 66-70 tried to throw out the Romans and establish the throne of God in Jerusalem—without the Messiah—they too were struck down and beaten back—because they did not recognize that God’s wrath was upon them.

Psalm 95 speaks of this: “Do not harden your heart as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness; when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, even though they had seen My work. For forty years I loathed that generation, and I said, ‘They are a people who go astray in heart; and they do not know My ways’; therefore I swore in My anger: ‘They shall by no means enter into My rest!’” (verses 8-11). Though Massah and Meribah, meaning “provocation” and “testing,” refer to Exodus 17:7, the prohibition on entering the Promised Land refer to Numbers 14. What is interesting with respect to John 5 is that in the Psalm God refers to the Promised Land as “My rest,” that is, His Sabbath. The miracle in John 5 took place on the Sabbath.

The Epistle to the Hebrews comments on Psalm 95 in 3:7—4:13. Only there the author makes it clear that Israel never did enter the Sabbath, that is, the Promised Land, “for if Joshua had brought them into rest, He would not have spoken concerning another day after these things. So then there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (4:8-9). With this would agree the words of Stephen in Acts 7. Though they entered the land, the promises of God with respect to it were not fulfilled. Their possessing the land was only provisional until the coming of the Messiah; they inhabited it but they did not yet “possess” it. The author of Hebrews tells us “that they were not able to enter in because of unbelief” (3:19). This was their “disobedience” (apeitheō) which J. N. Darby translates as “not hearkening to the word” (3:18; 4:6, 11). In 4:2 the author of Hebrews tells us that the Israelites did not mix the Word they heard with faith; and verses 12-13 directs us again to the Word. Israel never entered the Sabbath rest of the Promised Land because of their unbelief, that is, their lack of faith in God’s Word.

In John 5:31-47 Jesus says that those who were opposing Him still “do not believe [Moses’] writings” and therefore could not believe His words. The Word of God—in the Torah—testified to Jesus, but their lack of faith in God’s Word prevented them from coming to Jesus that they may have eternal life.

Three or four things come together here. Exclusion from the Temple signifies exclusion from the Promised Land, which is equated with exclusion from God’s Sabbath rest. This is equated with exclusion from the gift of eternal life. These three or four things meet in Jesus’ own person. Jesus is the Father’s House, the Temple (John 2:16, 19; 14:2). He is the Promised Land. He is God’s Sabbath, that with which God is completely satisfied. He is eternal life, the life of the Triune God. To abide in Him is to partake of all these things. To refuse to honor and believe the Son is to be excluded from all this.

Let us return then to the miracle. “Do you want to get well?” Jesus asks the sick man. “Sir,” he answers, “I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up.” Unable to save himself, he was unable to find a man who could help him. The Greek text does not just say “anyone” but a Man (anthrōpos). Unknown to the lame man, Jesus is the Son of Man (John 5:27) of Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:13), who is the New Man after He became the last Adam. The implication is that the man—representing Israel—was waiting for the Savior.

The lame man represents Israel for sure, but his condition also speaks of every child of Adam. We are all able to make ourselves lame, and we have all done so—for he who sins is a slave of sin—but no one is able to heal (or free) themselves.

When Jesus speaks the word and the man obeys, the man is at once healed. “Now it was the Sabbath on that day.” Though the man takes up his mat, he symbolically enters the Sabbath of God’s Jubilee (the Jubilee was a Sabbath of Sabbaths, the year following the seventh Sabbath of years). Jesus fulfills the Messianic Jubilee of Isaiah 61:2, which is the Sabbath that Israel was (and still is) waiting for. He was lying in unrest—for lack of any satisfaction—for thirty-eight years; when Jesus spoke to him with the authority of God, he walked and carried his mat in the rest and satisfaction for which he had waited so long. His healing was physical, but what it signified was spiritual.

The Opposition (5:10-18)

Verse 10-18 make it clear that the focal point of this healing is the meaning and fulfillment of the Sabbath. The word translated “Jew” can also be translated “Judean,” and probably should be. It is the Judeans who do not receive Jesus, not all the Jews. In the writings of Luke, “Jew” often refers to the Judaizers as distinct from the other Jews, the Judaizers being the “zealous” who demanded a strict separation of Jew and Gentile and later became the driving force behind the Jewish War of 66-70. They were the ones who opposed the church’s mission to the Gentiles.

Jesus says to them, “My Father is working until now, and I also am working.” Jesus honored the Sabbath of course, even if His interpretation of the Sabbath Halakah was more along the lines of Rabbi Hillel than of Rabbi Shammai. It is not the case that Jesus ever disregarded the Torah, contrary to what many commentators so carelessly assert. What He means by these words is not that He can fragrantly disregard the laws of the Sabbath (which He did not), but that with respect to Israel, the Father had no rest. His works were not complete (see Hebrews 4:4). Though His works of creation were complete, His work with respect to Abraham was not. The Father was working so that Israel could enter His Sabbath rest. Jesus becomes the abiding place of God’s rest for His people when He passes through death and enters into resurrection. It is not until then that He upon whom the Spirit of God descended and abided (i.e., rested: see 1:33) with complete satisfaction (“This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight”) became the Sabbath abode for those who believe into Him.

As long as the Father worked, the Son also worked. No Person of the Trinity ever works apart from the other. Whatever work of God there is, is the work of all three Persons. All Three are the Creator and all Three effect our salvation. The Father is in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, and the Son is in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is in the Father and the Son. They mutually indwell each other. Therefore we cannot divide the works of God between the Persons. Because, however, the Persons relate to each other in different ways, they are involved in the works of God different ways. The Father initiates the works of God, the Son gives them their form, and the Spirit is the realization of them.

The “Jews” incorrectly accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath but they correctly accuse Him of making Himself equal with God. The first accusation has to do with an inability (based on refusal) to see beyond the surface of things, to see their significance. The “eye of flesh” sees even the law of God apart from spirit. It sees things in terms of its own alienation from God, in the isolated realm of its own soul, which is a constructed thing. As something shared with others, and dominated by powers that emerge from the gestalt, this perception comes out of the “world.” The “eye of spirit” sees the whole of reality and therefore the significance of things is at once available, not necessarily cognitively (which is a referential system of words and concepts) but as immediately transparent to spirit.

The Sabbath, which is the first day that Adam woke up to, having been created the day before, is the day of life. Adam did not labor to enter God’s rest but was born into it. So it is for the regenerated. When we are born of God, we enter into God’s rest.

Jesus addresses the second accusation in the words that follow.

The Father and the Son: (5:19-20a)

“The Son can do nothing from Himself, except what He sees the Father doing … Whatever the [Father] does, these things the Son also does in like manner … The Father shows Him all things that He Himself is doing.” If the Son can only do what He sees the Father doing, and does everything the Father does, and the Father shows Him all the things that He Himself is doing, then the Father and the Son are acting together in all things: the Father doing and showing the Son what He is doing, and the Son seeing what the Father is doing and doing the same. The words are all inclusive: there are no remaining actions outside of what they do together. The Father and Son always do the same thing. The only difference is that the Father shows the Son and the Son sees the Father, the Father initiates and the Son follows. The Son is the Word and Image of the Father. The Lord’s words, “My Father is working until now, and I also am working,” is an expression of this relationship.

That which motivates this divine union is love. “The Father loves the Son” and therefore shows Him all the things that He Himself is doing. Though unsaid, the Son sees whatever the Father does and does the same out of love for the Father.

If the Father and the Son are alike in all ways as Initiator and Follower but they are not essentially one, then this is the heresy of Arianism. This is not what Jesus is teaching here. For while the Father and the Son differ in their relationship to each other (in terms of who they are), they are essentially the same (in terms of what they are), for the Father dwells in the Son and the Son dwells in the Father, as Jesus discloses at the Last Supper. The super-essential “What” that is both the Father and the Son is the love that They are as They face each other in terms of “Who” They are.

Life and Judgment and Honor: (5:20b-23)

The “greater works than these [that the Father] will show Him that you may marvel” refer to raising the dead and giving them life. The Father not only loves the Son and shows Him all but He also gives to Him all that is His. The Father has given to the Son the authority to give life to whom He will. The Father has also given to the Son all judgment. The Father acts as Judge and life-Giver entirely through the Son. The Father has no revelation in terms of these things apart from the Son.

The embodiment of the Triune God in Jesus of Nazareth is the revelation of the Triune God. When in verses 31-47 Jesus says that the Scriptures of Moses bear witness to Him, He shows that the revelation of God in the Old Testament point forward to the embodiment of God in the Incarnation of the Son. While the entire creation points to the Son as its source of origin, means, and destiny, that “Son” includes what He will become in the Incarnation, just as the prophetic word in the Old Testament does. Though hidden in the mystery of God, the Son of God is none other than Jesus of Nazareth and, in God’s predestination, was never other than who He became in the Incarnation. The Father has committed His entire self-revelation to the Son, so that the Father cannot be known apart from knowing the Son. If we are judged by God, we are judged according to our relationship to the Son, “in order that all may honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” John thus tells us in His epistle, “He who has the Son has the life, he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:12).

The Self-Revelation of the Father is the Son: (5:24-27)

It follows then that “He who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life, and does not come into judgment but has passed out of death into life.” Of course, the death to which Jesus refers is spiritual death. Apart from the Son we are all spiritually dead. If we receive the Father’s revelation of the Son through the word (the Lord’s own word or the testimony of the Father concerning the Son in the Scriptural word), the Father and the Son in a single act give us the gift of eternal life, the divine life that is impervious to death. The Father raises us from the dead by regenerating us with the incorruptible seed of the living and abiding word (1 Peter 1:23). When we receive the Son through faith in His revelation, we receive Him, that is, the gift of His life. This happens when the Holy Spirit through the word of revelation creates faith in us and enters our spirit as life (eternal life).

The hour when the spiritually dead hear the voice of the Son of God and live is now. The Holy Spirit enables us to hear His voice in the Gospel. When the Holy Spirit reveals the Son to us through the word, this creates faith in us. We believe into the Son because we “hear” His voice; that faith is the affect of receiving the Son into our spirit.

As the Father has life in Himself, so He gave to the Son to have life in Himself. They have life in exactly the same sense (“in Himself”) except that the Father gave this “having” to the Son and the Son received this “having” from the Father. Because, however, the Father gave this divine quality to the Son as the exclusive self-revelation of the Father, it is the Son alone who has the authority to execute judgment, that is, the Father will not execute judgment apart from the Son but always by the Son (“for neither does the Father judge anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son”). The Son, then, has the authority to execute judgment.

“Because He is the Son of Man.” This refers to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7:13 (and implied in John 5:7). Humanity will be judged by the Son of Man. What Jesus is saying here is that the Son of Man is the Son of God to whom the Father has given all judgment. The revelation of the Son of God, and our relationship to it (to Him really) is the criterion of the Father’s judgment. Through the word—as we saw in 4:50—the Son gives life to whom He wills. Only those whom the Father has given to the Son and to whom the Son wills to give life receive it, by hearing the Son’s “voice” in the word.

The salvation of the entire universe will take place through the Son (Ephesians 1:10). This may be a hard word for some because it is exclusive, nevertheless the revelation that God is one is inflexibly tied to the fact that the revelation of God is one, and that the only life-giving revelation of God is the Son.

ALL People Will be Resurrected by the Son: (5:28-29)

“Do not marvel at this,” Jesus says, that His “voice” (the Father’s revelation of the Son in the Scriptures) can raise people to life who were spiritually dead. His voice imparts to the spiritually dead the gift of eternal life. One day all the dead will hear the voice of the Son and that voice will raise them bodily from the dead. Jesus is no longer talking about a transformation in this life. After we are physically dead His voice will raise us out of the grave. It will recreate us bodily so that we will be alive once again. We will be ourselves, though our body will not be the same as the apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15.

Not everyone will wake from their graves to face the same thing. Those who have done “the good” will awake to the resurrection of life. Those who have done “the evil” will awake to the resurrection of judgment. As Paul explains in Romans 2 (according to the interpretation of both Augustine and Karl Barth), those who believe into the Son of God have done “the good” and therefore are justified. Those who do not believe have done “the evil.” This judgment is not an accounting of good or bad “deeds” as individually considered but an accounting of whether we have or have not done “the good,” which is to believe the Gospel. “He who believes into Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed into the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light”—recall Jesus’ question to the lame man: “Do you want to get well?”—“for their works were evil. For everyone who practices the evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his works be reproved. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be manifested that they are wrought in God” (John 3:18-21).

Though believers will give an accounting of their lives before the Son of Man when He comes to receive them to Himself, this will take place inside the “resurrection of life” for they have already passed from death to life.

Those who do not believe can look forward to the “resurrection of judgment.” What happens when they face the reality of their lives in the light of God’s self-revelation in Christ will be awful. I do not say that it will be hopeless, but that they can escape the torment of what we call hell (“Gehenna,” “where the worm dies not,” the “Second Death,” the “Lake of Fire,” “eternal fire,” the “gloom of darkness”) is highly questionable. If our souls are in torment now, though we live in denial of it, on what basis do we hope it will be better when we die (unless we believe in total annihilation)? On what basis can those who do not believe into Christ escape this terrible experience? According to Jesus, He is the only hope they can have.

I think that there is hope, even then (for the Scripture does not say that the torments will be endless or irrevocable), but that hope can be based on nothing other than the Son of God Himself.

Reiteration: (5:30)

The Father has committed all judgment to the Son, but the Son judges only as He hears from the Father. Jesus reminds us again of their unity within the Trinity. There is the special relationship between the Father and the Son, the face-to-face relationship of Persons, Persons who are moved in their relationship to each other by their mutual love, yet no Person acts apart from the Others but as each dwells in the Others, they act together in Trinity (e.g., the Father and Son giving and receiving, the Spirit actualizing).

Jesus as a Man has His own will, and as sinless His will always agrees with the Father’s, but Jesus denies His soul and seeks not His own will but always the will of the Father. He is continually open to the Father’s will because of this. We often cannot discern God’s will because we still harbor our own, even though the Father’s will would fulfill us far more than that onto which we so tightly hold.


The lame man represents Israel unable to enter the Temple, unable to enter the Promised Land, unable to enter God’s rest, unable to receive life. Israel as such represents the human condition in sin, and so this man also represents all of us. The pool—like the Torah itself—is there beside us offering life. The problem is that we cannot get ourselves into this pool, for sin has left us lame, nor do we have a “man” to put us into the pool. We are in a condition of spiritual death even while still living in our bodies. We look for a savior but there is none—until Jesus comes to us through the Gospel.

He speaks to us and to our condition and His word gives life. We “rise up and walk.” The pool is no longer necessary. The Son of Man has the authority to give us life, and has given us life through the voice of His word, when we heard it. Thus we have passed from death into life. When we believe into Him, not only do we discover that we have received the gift of eternal life through His word, but He Himself becomes our Temple (the Father’s House), the Promised Land full of “milk and honey,” God’s Sabbath rest (we enter the fullness of God’s satisfaction in Christ), the Jubilee of God. In Him are fulfilled all the promises of God, far more than all that we lost—indeed in Him are all the fullness and richness of God, even the totality of God’s glory (the Father’s glory given to the Son and realized in us by the Spirit). When the man was healed, that day was the Sabbath. So it is likewise for us. Alleluia!

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