John 5 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

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(Read all of John 5)
1. After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

[After this there was a feast of the Jews.] The other evangelists speak but sparingly of Christ's acts in Judea; this of ours something more copiously. They mention nothing of the Passovers from his baptism to his death, excepting the very last; but St. John points at them all. The first he speaks of chapter 2:13; the third, chapter 6:4; the fourth, chapter 13:1; and the second, in this place. It is true he does not call it by the name of the Passover here, but only a feast in general. However, the words of our Saviour mentioned above, chapter 4:35, do give some kind of light into this matter.

2. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

[In the Hebrew tongue.] That is, in the language beyond Euphrates, or the Chaldean.

Aruch: that is, the language of those beyond the flood.

If the Holy Books be written in the Egyptian, or Medes', or Hebrew language. Gloss, In the Hebrew, that is, the language of those beyond Euphrates.

The Hebrew writing is that of those beyond the river.

So that by in the Hebrew tongue they mean the Chaldee language, which, from their return out of Babylon, had been their mother-tongue; and they call it "the language of those beyond Euphrates" (although used also in common with the Syrians on this side Euphrates), that, with respect to the Jews, they might distinguish it from the ancient holy tongue; q.d. "not the tongue they used before they went into captivity, but that which they brought along with them from beyond Euphrates."

The Jews to whom this was the mother-tongue were called Hebrews; and from thence are distinguished from the Hellenists; which every one knows. Whence St. Paul should call himself a Hebrew, 2 Corinthians 11:22, when he was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, might deserve our consideration.

[Having five porches.] It mightily obtains amongst some, that in Bethesda the sacrifices were washed before they offered them: but here I am a little at a stand. For,

I. It is very difficult proving that the sacrifices were washed at all either here or in any place else, before they were offered. The Holy Scriptures are wholly silent as to any such thing; nor, as far as I have yet found, do the traditional writings speak of it. It is confessed, the entrails were washed after the beast had been slain; and for this service there was set apart in the very Temple the washing-room. But for their bodies, their skins, or backs, whether they were washed before they were slain, is justly questionable.

II. Amongst all the blemishes and defects whereby the beast was rendered unfit for sacrifice, we do not read that this was ever reckoned, "that they had not been washed." Do we believe that Abraham washed the ram caught in thicket, Genesis 22, before he sacrificed it? It is said, indeed, "that he took it and wiped it. But this was after he had taken off the skin. He took it, and taking off the skin, he said, 'Behold this, O Lord, as if the skin of thy servant Isaac was taken off before thee.' He wiped it [Gloss, he wiped it with a sponge], and said, 'Behold this, as if Isaac was wiped.' He burnt it, and said," &c.

And let that be well considered in Siphra, fol. 18. 1, where a dispute is had upon those words, Leviticus 6:27; "If the blood of the sacrifice for sin be sprinkled upon a garment, &c. When the discourse is of a garment, I would understand it of nothing but a garment. Whence is to be added, the skin when it is pulled off. The text saith, 'Upon whatsoever the blood shall be sprinkled, ye shall wash.' Perhaps, therefore, one may add the skin before it is pulled off. The text saith, a garment: as a garment that is capable of uncleanness, so whatsoever is capable of uncleanness. Except the skin before it be pulled off. They are the words of R. Judah." Mark, the skin as yet cleaving to the beast's back, and not flayed off, is not capable of uncleanness.

I. I would therefore judge rather, that men, and not beasts, were washed in the pool of Bethesda. I mean the unclean, that by washing they might be purified. For whoever considers the numbers of the unclean that did every day stand in need of being washed, and whoever would a little turn over the Talmudic treatises about purifications, and the gatherings of waters for those purposes, might easily persuade himself that both Bethesda, and all the other pools in Jerusalem, did serve rather for the washing of men, and not of beasts.

I would further judge, that the Syriac interpreter, when he renders that passage, "There was at Jerusalem a certain place of baptistery," that he intended rather the washing unclean person than beasts.

II. "There was not any like to Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada, under the second Temple. He one day struck his foot against a dead tortoise, and went down to Siloam, where, breaking all the little particles of hail, he washed himself......This was on the shortest day in winter, the tenth of the month Tebeth."

I do not concern myself for the truth of this story; but must take notice what he hints that telleth it; viz. that in such a case men were wont to wash themselves in Siloam, not the fountain, but the pool.

"Simeon Sicuensis dug wells, cisterns, and caves in Jerusalem. Rabban Jochanan Ben Zacchai saith to him, 'If a woman should come to thee, and ask thee about her menstrua, thou sayest to her, Dip thyself in this well, for the waters thereof will purify.'"

III. Those five porches, therefore, seem to be the several entrances by which the unclean went down into the waters to be washed; and in which, before washing, they might lay up their clothes, and after it put them on again, being there always protected from the rain. And perhaps they had their different entrances and descents according to the different sorts of uncleanness, that all those that were one and the same way defiled should have one and the same entrance and descent into the pool. That this was the first design and use of these porches I do not at all doubt, though afterward there was another use for them brought in. And as to the washing of the unclean in this pool, let me also superadd this one remark: That when they allowed (and that of necessity, because of the multitudes of unclean persons) the lesser gatherings of waters, viz. forty seahs of water in a place fitted on purpose both for breadth and depth, if there was no greater plenty of water, then we must not suppose that they would by any means neglect the ponds and pools.

4. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

[An angel went down at a certain season.] It is hardly imaginable that these impotent people lay day and night throughout the whole year at this pool. It seems rather that the troubling of the waters and healing the sick was usual only at the solemn feasts, probably only the feast of the Passover. And so it may not be amiss to interpret the certain season with this restriction, "It was a feast of the Jews, and an angel went down at that certain season into the pool," &c.

[And troubled the water.] We have this story, or rather this tale, concerning a certain fountain troubled by an evil angel: "It is a story in our city concerning Abba Joses (saith R. Berechiah in the name of R. Simeon), that when he sat at the fountain and required something, there appeared to him the spirit that resided there, and said, 'You know well enough how many years I have dwelt in this place, and how yourselves and your wives have come and returned without any damage done to you. But now you must know, that an evil spirit endeavours to supply my room, who would prove very mischievous amongst you.' He saith to him, 'What must we do then?' He answered him and said, 'Go and tell the townspeople, that whoever hath a hammer and an iron pin or bolt, let him come hither tomorrow morning, and have his eyes intent upon the waters; and when you see the waters troubled, then let them knock with the iron, and say, "The victory is ours": and so let them not go back, till they see thick drops of blood upon the face of the waters.'" The Gloss is: "By this sign it will appear that the spirit was conquered and killed." And the rest of the legend tells us that they did as was commanded, and did not depart till they saw the thick drops of blood upon the waters. Let them enjoy themselves in their doughty victory.

When the time was not afar off wherein "there should be a fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness," Zechariah 13:1, viz. the fountain of the blood of Christ; Divine Providence would have it, that a thing of that inconceivable excellency and benefit should not want some notable prognostic and forerunner. And therefore, amongst all the fountains and pools that were in Jerusalem for washing the unclean, he chose the most noble and celebrated pool of Bethesda, or Siloam, that in that might appear some prefiguration of his blood that should heal the world. Those waters, therefore, that had been only cleansing before, were made healing now; that, by their purifying and healing quality, they might prefigure and proclaim that that true and living Fountain was not far off, who should both purge and heal mankind in the highest degree.

How many years before our Saviour's suffering this miraculous virtue of the pool discovered itself, the holy story doth not tell us: and as for the traditional books, I do not find that they once mention the thing, although I have turned over not a few of their writings (if possible) to have met with it. From what epocha, therefore, to date the beginning of it, would seem rashness in us to undertake the determining. Whether from the first structure of the sheepgate by Eliashib, as some persons of great note judge, or whether from the extinction of the Asmonean family, or the rebuilding of the Temple by Herod, or from the nativity of our Saviour, or from any other time, let the reader make his own choice. What if we should date it from that great earthquake of which Josephus hath this passage: "About that time, about the battle of Actium betwixt Caesar and Antony, the seventh year of the reign of king Herod, there was a mighty earthquake in Judea, that made an infinite slaughter of beasts in that country; and near ten thousand people slain by the fall of houses?" Perhaps in that ruin the tower of Siloam fell, of which Luke 13:4; and what if then the angel made his descent first into the pool? as Matthew 28:2, "There was a great earthquake, for the angel of the Lord descended," &c. But in this matter I had rather learn than dogmatize.

It might be further inquired, at what time it was first known that the healing quality followed the troubling of the waters; but this is as dark and obscure as the former: especially when the spirit of prophecy, appearance of angels, and working of miracles, had been things so long unwonted in that nation.

The masters attribute such a kind of a healing virtue to the fountain of Miriam, as they call it, in the sea of Tiberias.

"The story is of a certain ulcerous man, who went down to the sea of Tiberias that he might dip himself: and it happened to be the time when the well of Miriam flowed, so that he swam there and was healed."

They have a fiction about a certain well that opened itself to the Israelites in the wilderness for the merits of Miriam, which at her departure disappeared. They suppose, also, as it should seem, that a certain well or gulf in some part of the sea of Gennesaret had obtained this medicinal virtue for her sake. It is a wonder they had not got the story of this pool by the end too, and attributed its virtue to the merits of Solomon, because this once was Solomon's pool.

There was a time when God shewed wonders upon the fountains and rivers about Jerusalem in a very different manner, that is, in great severity and judgment, as now in mercy and compassion.

These are the words of Josephus, exhorting the people to surrender themselves: "Those springs flow abundantly to Titus, which, as to us, had dried away long before. For you know how, before his coming, Siloam and all the springs about the city failed so much, that water was bought by the bottle: but now they bubble up afresh for your enemies, and that in such abundance, that they have sufficient, not only for themselves, but for their cattle and gardens. Which very miracle this nation hath formerly experienced, when this city was taken by the king of Babylon."

If there was such a miracle upon the waters upon the approach of the enemy and destroyer, it is less wonder that there should be some miraculous appearance there, though in a different manner, at the approach of him who was to be our Saviour.

How long the virtue of this pool lasted for healing the impotent, whether to the destruction of Jerusalem, or whether it ceased before, or from this very time, it would be to as little business to inquire, as after the original and first appearance of it, being both so very uncertain and unintelligible.

6. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

[Wilt thou be made whole?] It is no question but he desired to be healed, because for that very end he had lain there so long. But this question of our Saviour hath respect to the sabbath; q.d. "Wouldst thou be healed on the sabbath day?" For that they were infinitely superstitious in this matter, there are several instances in the evangelists, not to mention their own traditions, Mark 3:2; Luke 13:14, 14:3.

8. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

[Take up thy bed, and walk.] He said elsewhere, "Take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house," Mark 2:11. Whether this be the same with that, it is not so very clear.

I. The common distinction must be observed respecting the sabbath: that is, so that there may be a difference betwixt a private place, or what is any one's peculiar right, and a public place, or what is of more public and common right. Let nothing be carried out on the sabbath out of a private place into a public; and so on the contrary.

"Whoever on the sabbath carries out any thing either from a private place to a public, or from a public place to a private, or brings in, if he do this unadvisedly, he is bound to offer sacrifice for his sin; but if presumptuously, he is punished by cutting off, and being stoned."

II. But it was lawful, within places of private propriety, such as were the porches, entries, and courts, where various families dwelling together might be joined; it was lawful for them to remove and bear from one place to another; but not all things, nor indeed any thing, unless upon very urgent necessity.

"They remove four or five chests of straw or fruits for the sakes of passengers, or want of Beth Midrash; but they remove not their treasure," &c. The Gloss is, "They remove these things if they have need of the place they take up, either for passengers to eat or scholars to learn in; neither are solicitous for their labour on the sabbath," &c.

But why do we speak of these things, when as, by the canons and rules of the scribes, it is forbidden them to carry any thing of the least weight or burden on the sabbath day? So that it would be plainly contrary to those rules to take his bed hither or thither in the porch itself, much more out of the porch into the streets. It is worthy our observing, therefore, that our Saviour did not think it enough merely to heal the impotent man on the sabbath day, which was against their rules; but further commanded him to take up his bed, which was much more against that rule. From whence it is very evident that Christ had determined within himself either to try the faith and obedience of this man; or else, at this time, openly to shake the Jewish sabbath, which, ere long, he knew must be thrown off the hinges it now turned upon; or both.

17. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.

[My Father worketh hitherto.] Our Saviour being called before the Sanhedrim, 1, asserts the Messiah to be God: and, 2, that he himself is the Messiah. 'The Son of God' and 'the Messiah' are convertible terms, which the Jews deny not; and yet have very wrong conceptions about 'filiation,' or being made a son.

St. Peter confesseth, Matthew 16:16, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." So also Caiaphas in his interrogatory, Matthew 26:63, "Tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God?" But they hardly agree in the same sense and notion of sonship. Aben Ezra upon Psalm 2:12, Kiss the Son, confesseth that this is properly spoken of the Messiah; but in Midras Tillin there is a vehement dispute against true filiation. The same Aben Ezra likewise confesseth, that in Daniel 3:25, one like the Son of God is to be taken in the same sense with that of Proverbs 31:2, What, my son? and what, the son of my womb? But Saadias and R. Solomon understand it of an angel.

"There is one who hath neither son nor brother; the Holy Blessed; who hath neither brother nor son: he hath no brother, how should he have a son? only that God loved Israel, and so called them his children."

It is not unknown with what obstinacy the Jews deny the Godhead of the Messiah. Whence the apostle, writing to the Hebrews, lays this down as his first foundation of discourse, That the Messiah is truly God, Hebrews 1. Which they, being ignorant of the great mystery of the Trinity, deny; fearing lest, if they should acknowledge Messiah to be God, they should acknowledge more Gods than one. Hence they every day repeated in the recitals of their phylacteries, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." And so, being blind as to the mystery of the Trinity, are the more hardened to deny that.

Our Saviour strenuously asserts here the Godhead of the Son, or Messiah; namely, that he hath the same power with the Father, the same honour due to him as to the Father, that he hath all things in common with the Father. And hence he makes this reply upon them about healing on the sabbath; "My Father worketh on the sabbath day, so do I also."

19. Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you. The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.

[The Son can do nothing of himself.] That is, "The Messiah can do nothing of himself." For he is a servant, and sent by his Father; so that he must work, not of his own will and pleasure, but his Father's, Isaiah 42:1, "Behold my servant": Targum, Behold my servant the Messiah. So Kimchi in loc. and St. Paul, Philippians 2:7.

The Jew himself, however he may endeavour to elude the sense of that phrase 'the Son of God,' yet cannot deny the truth of this maxim, 'That the Messiah can do nothing, but according to the will and prescription of his Father that sent him.' Which he also will expound, not of the weakness and impotency, but the perfection and obedience, of the Son that he so doeth.

25. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live.

[The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear, &c.] The Jews, as we have said before, looked for the resurrection of the dead at the coming of Messiah: and that truly, and with great reason, though it was not to be in their sense.

The vision of Ezekiel about the dry bones living, chapter, 37, and those words of Isaiah, "thy dead men shall live," &c., chapter 26:19, suggest to them some such thing, although they grope exceedingly in the dark as to the true interpretation of this matter.

That of R. Eliezer is well enough; The people of the earth [the Gentiles] do not live: which somewhat agrees with that of the apostle, Ephesians 2:1, "Ye were dead in trespasses and sins." Nor does that of Jeremiah Bar Abba sound much differently: "The dry bones [Eze 37] are the sons of men, in whom is not the moisture of the law."

It is true, "many bodies of the saints arose" when Christ himself arose, Matthew 27:52: but as to those places in Scripture which hint the resurrection of the dead at his coming, I would not understand them so much of these, as the raising the Gentiles from their spiritual death of sin, when they lay in ignorance and idolatry, to the light and life of the gospel. Nor need we wholly expound Ezekiel's dry bones recovered to life, of the return of the tribes of Israel from their captivity, (though that may be included in it) but rather, or together with that, the resuscitation of 'the Israel of God' (that is, those Gentiles that were to believe in the Messiah) from their spiritual death.

The words in Revelation 20:5, "This is the first resurrection," do seem to confirm this. Now what, and at what time, is this resurrection? When the great Angel of the covenant, Christ, had bound the old dragon with the chains of the gospel, and shut him up that he should no more seduce the nations by lying wonders, oracles, and divinations, and his false gods, as formerly he had done: that is, when the gospel, being published amongst the heathen nations, had laid open all the devices and delusions of Satan, and had restored them from the death of sin and ignorance to a true state of life indeed. This was 'the first resurrection.'

That our Saviour in this place speaks of this resurrection, I so much the less doubt, because that resurrection he here intends, he plainly distinguishes it from the last and general resurrection of the dead, verses 28, 29; this first resurrection from that last: which he points therefore to, as it were, with his finger, by saying, "The hour is coming, and now is," &c.

27. And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.

[To execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man.] Daniel 7:13: "Behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days...and there was given him dominion, and glory," &c. To this our blessed Saviour seems to have respect in these words, as the thing itself plainly shews. R. Solomon upon the place: "One like the Son of man, this is the King, the Messiah." R. Saadias, this is the Messiah our righteousness. When our Saviour declared before the Sanhedrim, "Ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds"; they all said, "Art thou Christ, the Son of the blessed God?" by which they imply, that the 'Son of God' and 'Christ' are convertible terms: as also are 'Christ' and the Son of man. And it plainly shews that their eyes were intent upon this place: "Art thou that Son of man spoken of in Daniel, who is the Son of God, the Messiah?" So did Christ in these words look that way.

30. I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

[As I hear, I judge.] He seems to allude to a custom amongst them. The judge of an inferior court, if he doubts in any matter, goes up to Jerusalem and takes the determination of the Sanhedrim; and according to that he judgeth.

35. He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.

[A burning and a shining light.] He speaks according to the vulgar dialect of that nation; who were wont to call any person famous for life or knowledge a candle. "Shuah" [the father-in-law of Judah, Genesis 38] "was the candle or light of the place where he lived." The Gloss is, "One of the most famous men in the city enlightening their eyes." Hence the title given to the Rabbins, the candle of the law: the lamp of light.

39. Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

[Search the Scriptures.] This seems not to be of the imperative, but indicative mood: "Ye search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life."