Friday, July 16, 2021

A Detour in John's Gospel

A Detour in John’s Gospel:
John 5:1-47.

A few years ago, simply for my own interest, I put together all the selections from the Gospel according to John included in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Though John, unlike the other Gospels, is not featured in any one year of the Lectionary, it gets generous selections along the way. 

Included are the “Logos” prologue, the wedding in Cana, the cleansing of the temple, the night meeting with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, five weeks on the Bread of Life story and discourse (chapter 6), the healing of the man born blind (chapter 9), and the raising of Lazarus.

Not included in the Lectionary is anything from chapter 5 of John.  This is a healing story with sequels, probably omitted in favor of the similar healing story in chapter 9 (reading for Year A, 4th Sunday in Lent.) 

I have found the chapter 5 story and discourses interesting in their own right and have done the following studies of them, as if they were in the Lectionary.  These were written in 2018.

John 5:1-18. 

This passage is remarkable for three things:  (1) the healing at the Sheep Gate pool, Bethesda, (2) the accusation of Sabbath violation, and (3) Jesus’ declaration about his and God’s working. 

(1) The healing story has several interesting details – interesting, though not essential to the larger narrative.  

The details of the place have busied scholars over the ages.  The “Sheep Gate” is apparently at the northeastern corner of the old city, just north of the Temple site (near the present “Lions” or “St. Stephen’s Gate”).  The pool has different names in different manuscripts of the Gospel:  “Bethesda” in the great majority of late manuscripts (after which many modern hospitals are named); “Beth-zatha,” preferred by current scholars as probably the earliest reading; and other spellings include “Bethsaida,” otherwise known as a town in northern Galilee. 

“Healing at the Pool of Bethesda,” painting in Vienna, by Pedro de Orrente, about 1620.
Courtesy of Vanderbilt University Divinity Library.

This pool was the center of a healing area.  The original story assumed hearers were familiar with the healing powers of the pool, but centuries later scribes added verses 3b-4 (missing in most early manuscripts) to explain the old custom to hearers in later times. 

Periodically a heavenly messenger (“angel”) came and stirred up the waters of the pool, and the first person to get into the water after the stirring was healed of their malady.  The disabled man in this story could never get there soon enough, and so he had been waiting for 38 years for a chance to get healed.  Jesus sees this man, and “knowing” [the Greek means he comprehended the whole situation], offered to heal him. 

The healing happens at Jesus’ command:  “Get up!  Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 8, CEB).  These are the exact words with which Jesus commands the paralytic to rise and walk in Mark 2:1-12, and the two stories probably have a common ancestry in early tradition.  The unusual word for “mat,” krabatton, is used several times in these two stories.  The paralytic in the Mark story has his sins forgiven, which is the equivalent to being healed – the primary point in that story.  There is an echo of that point in the John story when Jesus later says to the healed man, “See!  You have been made well.  Don’t sin anymore...” (verse 14).  

(2) But it all happened on a Sabbath!  This is only mentioned as an after-thought (verse 9), but as John’s story develops it becomes the main point. 

“The Judeans” [“Jews” in later European translations] accost the healed man for carrying his “mat” on a Sabbath.  “The man who healed me made me do it,” explained the now able-bodied man.  They ask who that was, but the man doesn’t know.  Later, Jesus warns the man about sinning, and the healed one runs back to tell the authorities it was Jesus that gave him the orders.  (Commentators are divided about whether this was an innocent mistake or a very ungrateful act.) 

Finally we arrive at the crux of this healing story:  Jesus was responsible for making people violate the Sabbath laws!  The Judeans begin to “harass” (CEB) Jesus, even plan to kill him (verse 18), because of his crimes against the Sabbath.  This leads us to the real point of the chapter – Jesus’ reply. 

(3) Jesus’ declaration to the Judeans is bold and challenging.  “My Father is still working and I am working too” (verse 17, CEB). 

The first thing to notice about this reply is that Jesus chooses to talk about “working”! 

Working has to do with the Sabbath!  Everybody knows from Genesis 2:1-3 that God “works” for six days, but ceases work on the seventh day, and humans honor that model by observing the Sabbath.  Jesus says, God is still working, and (therefore) so am I.  One thing this means is that in God’s view right now is NOT a Sabbath.  Divine work is going on because THE Sabbath has not yet come.  In God’s economy, this is not yet the seventh day, when God will cease working.  The real work of God is still going on – and as long as it is, Jesus will be working!  

(See the same viewpoint in 9:4, "We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work," NRSV.)  

But the really challenging thing about Jesus’ reply is the implication that God’s work and Jesus’ work are coordinated – that they are on the same plane, equally divine! 

The Judeans recognize correctly what Jesus means, and indict him accordingly:  “...he was doing away with the Sabbath ... [and was] making himself equal with God” (verse 18). 

The charges are now fully developed, and the stage is set for Jesus’ monologue in defense, which comes next. 


John 5:19-30.  This monologue has three speeches that begin “Amen, amen” (“Very truly” in NRSV; “I assure you” in CEB), verses 19, 24, and 25.  Each speech is relatively independent.  

(1)  19Jesus said to them, “very truly [amen, amen] I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.  20The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.  21Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.  22The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, 23so that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father.  Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.  (John 5:19-23, NRSV.)  

(2) 24Very truly [amen, amen], I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but  has passed from death to life.  (John 5:24, NRSV.)  

(3)  25Very truly [amen, amen], I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.  26For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  28Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation.  (John 5:25-29, NRSV.) 

 30”I can do nothing on my own.  As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.  (John 5:30, NRSV.) 

The first speech has Jesus speak of the “Son” in the third person – “the Father loves the Son...” (verse 20).  Then in the second speech, verse 24, Jesus speaks in the first person, “anyone who hears my word...”  Verse 25 then goes back to “Son” language, “...the dead will hear the voice of the Son...”  The final verse of the passage (30) repeats the opening verse (19), but now in first person speech instead of third:  “I can do nothing on my own...” 

The third person speech in verses 19-23 and 25-29 may be a clue to the background of such Son-and-Father language.  The message of these verses is that the Son does exactly what the Father does, including raising the dead. 

God and Son of Man in Daniel.  This kind of God-and-Son situation is presented in Daniel 7:9-10 + 13-14.  There the “Ancient One” (God Most High) sits in judgment on the evil empires that have been ruining the earth.  That Ancient One then receives in the heavenly court “one like a human being” (literally “like a son of man” – a human to replace the inhuman beasts of Daniel 7:1-8).  That Human One is given “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14, NRSV). 

The assumption in the Daniel vision is that God empowers the “Son of Man” to carry out God’s rule over the earthly powers.  The Son of Man is the implement to establish God’s rule.  He thus does exactly what God is in fact doing (through him). 

The Daniel passage does not have any speech between the Ancient One and the Human One, but the Most High is definitely giving authority and power to the newly arrived Human One.  If the Human One were to speak to others about his authority and mission, he could say the very things Jesus says about the “Son” in John 5:19-30. 

(Modern commentators on John do not seem to have observed this Daniel background to this Son-Father speech, but it seems to me it exactly fits the language used in John 5:19-30.) 

The central verse in this passage, where Jesus speaks in the first person (verse 24), is very awesome:  “Very truly [amen, amen] I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (NRSV).  This verse alone states the central message of the entire Gospel. 

Resurrection.  The Son’s power to raise the dead is elaborated in the second third-person speech (verses 25-29).    “For the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son’s] voice and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (verses 28-29, NRSV).  (The resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked is also promised in Daniel:  “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” Daniel 12:2.  This promise of the two-fold resurrection is given nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible.) 

In Jesus’ own voice, this promise of a resurrected life is a truly spectacular claim for those who bet their lives on the truth of Jesus’ gospel! 


John 5:31-47. 

First, this passage is about “testimonies” – who vouches for the truth of Jesus’ identity and authority.  (The Greek word-group involved here is marturéō; to witness, testify; marturía, a witnessing, a testimony; and mártus, one who witnesses, testifies [in later times, “a martyr.”]  These words occur eleven times in verses 31 to 39.) 

Secondly, this passage is not about “Son” and “Father”; it is about “me” and “you (plural).”  There is no third-person speech here; everything is direct address by Jesus to the unbelieving Judeans.  This is accusation and condemnation of the opponents, those who do not believe, who do not accept the “testimony” to “me.” 

The issue in this passage is, what does it take to get the Judeans to believe in Jesus as the one sent by God?  What testimony can be offered?  The passage will consider five possibilities. 

First, Jesus’ own testimony can’t be used (verse 31).  From other people’s viewpoint, he is the question, not the answer.  (A slightly different rhetorical tack is taken on this topic at 8:13-18.) 

Secondly, Jesus knows that John the Witness (“the Baptist,” though never called that in this Gospel) gave true testimony to him.  The Judeans even sent people to question John about that, and for a while he was “a burning and shining lamp” in whose light the Judeans were willing to rejoice (verses 32-35). 

Third, there is a testimony “greater than John’s,” namely, “the works that the Father has given me to complete” (verse 36).  These, of course, are such things as healing the disabled man at the pool of the Sheep’s Gate.  (See also Nicodemus’ testimony in John 3:2.) 

And, apparently as a testimony separate from the mighty works, “the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf” (verse 37).  This seems to refer to one of the divine speeches in which God addresses Jesus as “son,” since Jesus goes on to say, “You [Judeans] have never heard his voice or seen his form [as I have], and you do not have his word abiding in you...” (verses 37-38).  Unlike Jesus and those who believe in him, the Judeans do not have the rapport with God the Father that would enable them to “hear” the divine testimony to Jesus. 

The fifth and final possible testimony to Jesus is the scriptures.  Here the Judeans have a great advantage.  These are THEIR holy writings.  “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life” (verse 39).  These should be convincing because “it is they that testify on my behalf”!  Yet, “you refuse to come to me to have life” (verse 40).  There clearly were very different ways of reading the scriptures! 

In a kind of peroration (verses 41-47), Jesus ticks off more reasons why the Judeans are not able to believe in him.  “How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?” (verse 44).  And as a final shot at their pride in the scriptures, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (verse 46). 

(Note:  It should be obvious that there is nothing “fair” – much less “true” – about these slams at the “Judeans.”  Like Matthew 23, these statements are fierce propagandistic slurs fired at  powerful enemies in the religious wars of Jesus believers against synagogue teachers – possibly at an early time in Judea, more likely well after 70 CE in Asia Minor [Ephesus].)

Jesus has recited many testimonies why the Judeans should believe in him – rather than plan to kill him!