With John 5, the Gospel narration reports not only the responses to Jesus’ revelation as in John 3 – 4, but also the rejection of the same. The context of Jewish feasts is significant from John 5. The theme of “life” gets central attention hereafter.
John 5 begins with the narration of the third sign of Jesus, the healing of the paralytic by the pool of Bethzatha. The rest of John 5 is a discourse of Jesus on the meaning of Sabbath and Jesus’ self-defence in front of the opponents and critics.
John 5 has two main contents: the narration of healing of the paralytic (Jn 5: 1-9), and the discourse on the Sabbath (Jn 5: 10-47). The narration of the third sign is a preparation for the discourse that follows. Both the narration and the discourse manifest indications of going back to the historical situation of Jesus’ ministry in a nucleus form. The pool described by the evangelist in the Gospel of John has been excavated in Jerusalem. The water might have come to this pool from intermittent springs. The tradition about the troubling water witnessed by some ancient manuscripts (as in John 5: 4 given as a footnote) could have been a reference to an original situation of bubbling of water caused by an intermittent spring, which might have been explained as the result of supernatural powers. Remains of some votive offerings have been discovered in the place during excavations. Although they are dated in a later period, they indicate that some kind of religious importance was attributed to the place.
The name of the place is Bethzatha or Bethesda. Bethsaida is a wrong reading because here the reference is to a place in Jerusalem, whereas Bethsaida is in Galilee, close to the sea. Leaving aside the details of the discussion on the probable reading, we can say that the evangelist is referring to the area north east of the temple where the sheep for the sacrifice were brought into Jerusalem. The name is probably Bethesda.
In the Synoptic tradition we have the healing of a paralytic (Mk 2: 1-12; Mt 9: 2-8; Lk 5: 18-26). There are some similarities between both traditions especially in respect to the words of Jesus about sin: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2: 5); “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you” (Jn 5: 14).
The discourse is introduced in John 5: 10-18. And the discourse has two parts: John 5: 19-30, and 5: 31-47.
The paralytic was sick since thirty-eight years. This is a way of emphasizing the gravity of the situation and human impossibility. The healing was taking place in a very restricted manner, both temporally and spatially. Only for a limited period of time the healing was taking place. Only in the stirred water the healing was possible. The man by himself could not reach the place in time.
Gift of life on Sabbath
Jesus heals the man directly without having anything to do with the pool, water, and the time of stirring. Thereby, Jesus reveals that he himself is the authentic source of healing and life. It is enough to take contact with Jesus in faith to experience life. No other media are needed.
Now, the healing took place on a Sabbath day. The Jewish leaders were furious, not so much because of healing but because the man walked carrying the pallet. This was considered a violation of Sabbath.
When Jesus met him later he says, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you” (Jn 5: 14). The words apparently presuppose that there is a relationship of cause and effect between sin and suffering (sickness). In the Synoptic tradition too, instead of asking the paralytic to get up, and walk; Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2: 5). From the rest of the teaching of Jesus we know that he does not give any importance to this relationship. In John 9, when Jesus is asked by the disciples about the reason for the situation of the man born blind in terms of his sins or that of his parents Jesus denied it completely (Jn 9: 3; Cf. Lk 13: 1-5). So the suffering or sickness cannot be directly the result of sinfulness.
However, when one is not free from sin on the level of the spirit, it may be expressed also physically. Hence, Jesus’ healing was not limited to physical level but integrated with the spirit level as well. When Jesus said to the paralytic “your sins are forgiven”, Jesus was moving to the very root of the evil nature of him. Moreover, the miracles of Jesus are expressions of his attack on the sinful realm of Satan and they are his subversive actions. According to the evangelist the sin is rejection of Jesus, the revealer and the revelation of the Father. The worse that can happen to a person therefore, is the rejection of Jesus. It is in this sense, Jesus says, “sin no more, that nothing worse befall you”. To be on the path of condemnation by rejecting Jesus is the worst that can befall one. Jesus is asking him to be faithful to the new “life” he has experienced through faith in Jesus.
Jesus’ answer to the accusation of the Jews is a teaching on the positive meaning of Sabbath. This is the Leit motif of John 5. The “feast of Jews” mentioned in John 5: 1, is to be identified as the feast of Sabbath. Although, some modern scholars identify “Pentecost” which is improbable, since the evangelist himself identifies it as Sabbath (Jn 5: 9).