While traveling to Jerusalem to participate in a Jewish festival, Jesus came upon a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. The question Jesus asked the man may have seemed insensitive to the casual observer. However, Jesus’s divine inquiry launched a major event.
What Was the Pool of Bethesda in the Bible?
The Pool of Bethesda was a multilevel inground pool, banked by broad landings and stairs that led into the water. Four column-lined covered walkways surrounded the rectangular enclosure, and one divided the upper tank from the lower, giving the pool five colonnades.
During Jesus’s time, a large crowd of disabled people would regularly gather at the pool and wait for the opportunity to be healed. They believed that at certain seasons an angel would come down and “stir” the water, giving it healing properties. Legend had it that healing was available to anyone who was able to enter the pool first after an angel stirred the water (John 5:4, KJV).
Before this massive structure became known as a place of healing, the pool was simply used as a rainwater reservoir for ritual cleansing. Some biblical scholars believe that the Pool of Bethesda was the Upper Pool described in 2 Kings 18:17. “Water was an important part of early medicine and also important to Jewish law, which put a lot of emphasis on being ‘clean’ versus ‘unclean,’” explains Connor Salter.
Located just outside Jerusalem’s walls near the Sheep Gate, the pool provided a perfect venue for purification. After the ceremonial sheep were thoroughly washed in the pool, they were taken through the Sheep Gate to the Temple for sacrifice. Some biblical experts believe the pool was also as a Mikveh, a bath for Jewish worshipers to achieve ritual purity.
Did the Pool of Bethesda Literally Heal People?
For 38 years the paralytic man frequented the Pool of Bethesda, hoping to be healed. Something drew him and the multitudes of other disabled people there year after year. Had healing actually taken place in the mysterious waters? At least three schools of thought exist as to whether the Pool of Bethesda literally provided healing.
Some believe that John 5:4 makes a definitive statement about the healings that happened at the pool. “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” (John 5:4). Because of this verse, they believe God did provide miracle healings through the aid of angels at the Pool of Bethesda. Their argument against naysayers suggests that if healing had not taken place at the pool, Scripture would have exposed the healing reports as false claims.
This assumption is complicated by the fact that not all biblical manuscripts contain the verse that so definitively states the case. In fact, John 5:4 has been purposefully omitted from many modern-day versions of the Bible. “After 1900, translators used new manuscript discoveries from the 1800s, which revealed that the verse was likely not original. More recent Bible translations give us a clearer picture of what the original product of inspiration looked like,” explains Michael S. Heiser.
The second theory suggests healing took place in the waters of Bethesda because the pool was fed by a mineral hot spring. People who promote this viewpoint believe that the naturally occurring sulfur, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphate, and nitrogen in the spring would have spontaneously cured many ailments upon contact.
Proponents of this theory even provide a reason why onlookers might have believed angels were occasionally “stirring” the pool. They explain that an underground surge will sometimes cause a natural spring to release gases that propel upward and create a disturbance in the natural flow of the spring. When this happens, it causes a bubbling effect on the surface that ejects additional mineral resources into the water.
Given what we now know now about the medicinal value of minerals, this theory seems somewhat plausible. However, in 1956 a German archaeologist living in Jerusalem discovered what most believe is the original site of the Pool of Bethesda. The structure of the pool and its location conclusively determine that the pool was not fed by a hot spring but replenished by a complex rainwater collection system.
Lastly, there are some who believe that the Pool of Bethesda was established by the Roman garrison for the express purpose of honoring Asclepius, their “healing” god. Many pagan structures were built in that area during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, including an arena, an amphitheater, and various bathhouses.
Supporters of this viewpoint believe the pool was part of a pagan shrine that would have been built outside Jerusalem’s city walls to avoid enraging the Jewish population. Historical records show that hundreds of such shrines were operating throughout the Greco-Roman empire during Jesus’s time. The Romans believed health and well-being could be obtained through the zealous worship of their pagan gods.
Opponents of this theory believe that if the Pool of Bethesda had been part of a pagan shrine, the “angel” who accompanied the healings would have been a fallen angel. From this, they surmise that the paralytic man in the passage could not have been a Jew, and Jesus would not have approached an area of pagan worship.
The truth is Scripture doesn’t provide details about what the Pool of Bethesda was used for nor does it explain why so many sick people came to believe in the healing powers of the water.
But there’s one thing we do know for certain. The paralytic man was healed near the Pool of Bethesda—by Jesus alone.
Why Did Jesus Choose to Heal the Paralytic Man at the Pool of Bethesda?
Jesus engaged in divine appointments wherever He traveled. As the Father led, the Son followed—all the way to the cross. Never by chance or coincidence, Jesus always found Himself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to do the preordained work God had assigned, for His glory.
That momentous day, did the paralytic man awaken to a new morning, wishing that he hadn’t? In bitterness, did he scoot himself to the edge of the water hating the world, hating his life, and despising the waning hope that had drawn him to the pool? Had guilt and shame gripped the man to the point that it kept him from believing he ever could be healed? (John 5:14).
When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, He asked the man an unusual question—a question that would surgically probe the depths of the man’s intentions, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6).
The man possessed so little hope that he couldn’t answer Jesus’s question directly. Instead, he replied with a statement that revealed a deeper more painful burden than the need for physical healing. “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5:7).
Some commentators describe the man’s reply as a lame excuse (no pun intended). But could it be that in the presence of the Lord, this desperate man unwittingly revealed a profound truth? Did his soul recognize the need for a helper—The Helper—above any other need in his life? The man had no one to help him. Can you imagine—no one? The isolation must have been as emotionally and spiritually debilitating as his paralysis was physical.
Was it the man’s own fault he had no one? Had he driven every possible helper away with his defeatist attitude, cynicism, or simply his own overwhelming neediness? Maybe over the years, his helpers had dropped like flies as they began to realize there was no point in wasting their time. Maybe they’d all refused to enable the man’s delusional hope any longer.
Why would the man continue to drag himself to the Pool of Bethesda, knowing he had no one to help him enter the water? Perhaps his heart knew what his head had yet to discover. God had made an appointment for the man with His Son, the Great Physician.
We don’t know for sure what the invalid was thinking or feeling at that moment. But it doesn’t matter. Jesus looked beyond the man’s motives, intentions, and past and focused on God’s sovereign plan. When Jesus said, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk,” He gave the man an undeserved gift, one he hadn’t even dared to request. At once the man was cured. He picked up his mat, obeyed his healer, and walked away from the pool on his own two feet.
What Can We Learn from The Pool of Bethesda Story?
On the last day of the Jewish festival that had first brought Him to Jerusalem, Jesus participated in the feast of Tabernacles. There He would have witnessed the priests filling sacred vessels at the Pool of Bethesda to use in a ceremony that had become defiled with pagan ritual.
Unable to watch God’s people settle for contaminated water any longer, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this, he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given since Jesus had not yet been glorified (John 7:38-39).
Jesus’s invitation to the masses echoed the healing He had provided to the paralytic man. The man had found his helper at the Pool of Bethesda—the only One who could provide living water, the source of all wholeness and life. And Jesus’s invitation is still available to the masses today. If you or someone you love is suffering from prolonged hopelessness, check out this article to find out more about the living water offered to all through Jesus.
Special thanks to Stephanie Pavlantos, for her help with research on the Jewish traditions exercised in Jesus’s day. Stephanie is an ordained minister who works for Besorah Institute for Judeo-Christian studies.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Alexmumu
Annette Marie Griffin is an award-winning author and speaker who has managed and directed children’s and youth programs for more than 20 years. Her debut children’s book, What Is A Family? released through Familius Publishing in 2020. Annette has also written curriculum for character growth and development of elementary-age children and has developed parent training seminars to benefit the community. Her passion is to help wanderers find home. She and her husband have five children—three who have already flown the coop and two adopted teens still roosting at home—plus two adorable grands who add immeasurable joy and laughter to the whole flock.
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