John 5:1-16 The Miracle at Bethesda
When we read the account of the man healed at Bethesda, a few questions may come to mind. First, we hear of an angel that would periodically come and trouble the water of a pool and whoever was first to enter the pool would be healed of whatever infirmity they had. It may be hard to understand what God purposed by only allowing one person to be healed at a time. Let’s look at a few reasons why in God’s Providence this was allowed up until the time of Christ’s great Salvific work, which was typified in his healing of the man that was infirm for 38 years by His words alone.
First, we can see the Law of Moses symbolized by the few that were healed, because it was only a small group of mankind that was given the salvific communion with God through the Jewish Law. Only these were given the opportunity to be healed of their diseases of idolatry and enslavement to sin. God intended to eventually offer Salvation to all mankind, but it began with a limited group. God rewarded the faithfulness of the Patriarchs by revealing Himself to them and allowing their line to be the line through which our Lord would enter the human race and bring salvation to all mankind. But at that time, the majority of mankind was not able to healed of their spiritual infirmities. St. Theophylact says, “In former times infirmity prevented many from being healed in the waters of the pool, and only one was made whole. But now, what hinders any man from being baptized? If the whole world approached at once for Baptism, its grace would not be diminished.”
Another lesson that can be learned by only one person being healed at a time is that obviously the most infirm would never be able to be first to enter the pool and therefore they never would be healed. This helps us to see that before Christ, it was impossible to be healed of our infirmities caused by sin, and to restore our relationship with God. The few that were healed could be thought of like the rare exceptions of men that restored their relationship with God and abandoned sin even before the Incarnation, like Enoch and Elijah who were judged worthy of being taken by God alive. The majority of man however have sinned against God in such great ways that we are not worthy of God but rather have voluntarily become sons of the devil. We, being held captive by sin and the devil, needed a savior to enter into death and to free all those held captive there. Only by becoming members of the Body of Christ are we given the Holy Spirit who is able to give us the power to overcome sin and grow in righteousness. We must recognize our inability to be healed by our own power alone and beg God to have mercy on us. But for Him to heal us, we must confess our sins and repent of our former way of life.
One more lesson we can learn from there only being one person healed at a time is the need to struggle for salvation. It was only the person who quickly responded once the water was disturbed that was able to benefit from the gift of God. As St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” (1 Cor. 9:24) God does not want us to be idle in our lives as Christians, depending entirely on Him to accomplish Good in us and in the world. He requires our participation and expects us to bring healing to the world by being His representatives who imitate Jesus’ perfect example. We are called to pick up our Cross and follow Him, dying to our old sinful way of life. How dangerous it is to believe the heresies of Calvin and others that taught that we are all predestined to be either the elect of God or condemned to Hell for our sins, that we contribute nothing to the result. The demons have infiltrated even those that claim to be followers of God and have confused millions of people, causing them to remain idle in the race for Salvation.
Another question that arises from reading this passage is, ‘why does Jesus ask the man if he would like to be made whole?’ It clearly states that Jesus knew that he had been in this state of infirmity for a long time, and we also know that Jesus is fully God, and therefore knows all things. So why did he ask him a question that he knew the answer to and that quite frankly seems somewhat obvious to even us who have limited knowledge? We see that this man had great perseverance and never despaired of being healed by his continuing to come to the pool hoping that one day a man would help him to be put into the pool. The Lord in asking a question that many would respond to in frustration or anger, wanted to display the patience and meekness of the man worthy of Jesus’ healing. Just as He had asked for faith from those that had seen Him perform miracles before he would heal them, here He displays the virtues of the man that He is about to heal. The man answers gently and humbly, he does not blaspheme, he does not rebuke Christ for asking a dumb question, he does not curse the day of his birth. He responds this way without even knowing to whom he is speaking, but simply wanted help from Jesus to be put into the water. He endured this for 38 years and did not despair, but we suffering minor afflictions curse God and turn against Him.
After the man is healed, our Lord tells the man, “Thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.” From this we learn that this man’s infirmity was a result of his sins, much like most infirmities of man. When we suffer, we should seek the cause of the suffering in ourselves. “We should remember all of our sins from childhood onwards; remembering them with the fear of God and with the expectation of suffering for our sins.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovich) St. Nikolai Velimirovich says, “Blessed is the man who uses his sufferings, knowing that all suffering in this brief life is loosed on men by God in His love for mankind, for the benefit and assistance of men. In His mercy, God looses suffering on men because of their sins – by His mercy and not His justice. In place of death, God gives healing through suffering. Suffering is God’s way of healing the soul of its sinful leprosy and its death. Only the foolish think that suffering is evil. Only sin in a man is a real evil, and there is no evil outside sin.”
May we recognize our sins and when suffering exclaim the last words of our Father amongst the Saints, St. John Chrysostom, when he was dying in exile, tormented and despised by men, “Glory to God for everything!” Amen.