Understanding the healing in the invalid man of Bethesda
But let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,” says the Lord. Jeremias 9:24
The story of the healing of the invalid man of Bethesda, as it is best known; the healing of the invalid man who had established his dwelling in the pool of Bethesda, is the story that introduces the reader into the underdeveloped subject among the Jews of who God is.
For Western Christian societies, God is Spirit, the Supreme Being, the Creator of all things, the Almighty who dwells in heaven. Elohim, on the other hand, the God of the Hebrews, the word from which comes the term God of our versions, assumes many names most of them as qualifiers of Elohim’s attributes. The Hebrew does not refer to Him as God because of the belief that they cannot take God’s name in vain, they define Him rather as Adonai, or Hashem.
Elohim, though assuming personal characteristics and attributes, is rather a being that lacks form and transcendence; the Hebrew religious is more interested in the activities that are done for Him than in Himself.
If a Hebrew were asked, who is God? He would surely answer: It does not matter. What ritual should we do for him? That is the important thing.
The men who heard of Him in olden times were not worried about who He is, nor where He is; they got used to seeing Him in the wonders that accompanied His name; so, if the supernatural works were there, it was more than enough. There He was.
The prophet who spoke in His name mattered more. That is why, since the departure of Moses, the prophet who was to come, of whom Moses announced in his writings, the Messiah, is the most important person in the Jewish religious vision.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, Deuteronomy 18:15
So, when the reader enters the reading of the healing of the invalid man in Bethesda, chapter five of John’s Gospel, he encounters a great question: Where is God here? And the answer he finds is, God? Why does he have to be here? Do not you realize we’re celebrating? Feast to God!
It is a reading that strikes the Western eyes, it is perceived irreverence to the presence of God. To illustrate, if this scene had occurred anywhere in America, the day would have been turned into a National holiday. But here, in the story, despite the supernatural work of God present, by the mention of the angel and by the very healing of the invalid man, the fact that the healing was done on Shabbat is questioned. What irony!
The story would have lacked spiritual value had it not been for the Words of Jesus:
My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.
Why is this statement important, and what does it state? The statement establishes the need, the urgency –and the opportunity– that man learns to know God.
Who is God, and what does He want from us? The teaching that follows in the story is established according to the didactics of contraposition: the Words and acts of Jesus in contraposition with what the Law established for such situations.
The value of the Words of Jesus is determined by the day when Jesus worked healing.
… And that day was the Sabbath. (verse 9)
The significance that the people acquired on Shabbat goes back to the time of the wilderness pilgrimage, particularly by the way they were fed with bread from heaven. Because of this form chosen by God Himself to supply them with Manna, the people learned that Shabbat was synonymous with not doing any work on that day.
See! For the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” 30So the people rested on the seventh day. Exodus 16:29-30
Subsequently, in the enactment of Mosaic Law -Torah- the Law established the following decrees around the Sabbath:
You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Exodus 31:14-15
Now, if we go back to the account of the healing of the invalid man, and compare, we have to:
- That day, the day of healing was Sabbath; healing is equivalent to “doing healing”, it is work, therefore the act incurs what is subject to penalty;
- Carrying the bed with him is equivalent to doing work, which makes the action an act also subject to the penalty of the Law. It is understandable that the writer said that, for this reason, the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill him, because he did these things on the Sabbath.(5:16)
But, Jesus said: My Father has been working until now, and I have been working. … Does the Father work on the Sabbath?
The story of the healing of the invalid man in Bethesda, like other similar stories of apparent contradiction, is the ” quiz” of the believer to assess how much we know the God we profess to serve.
Shabbat is the day to work for the benefit of others. It is not about doing absolutely nothing, it is not about paralyzing the work. Shabbat means “to work” but for the benefit of others, that’s why My Father works so far, and I work.
My Father has been working until now, and I have been working. Oh, I see. We have misunderstood.
Six days thou shalt work (for thyself); one day, Shabbat (thou shalt work) for the benefit of thy neighbor.
The Law put a brake on man’s excessive eagerness to multiply wealth by working overtime.
And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Deuteronomy 8:18
Jesus was right, he had not broken into illegality, his act and the recommendation to the invalid man was in accordance with the Law! It is not a question of doing absolutely nothing.
But how do you come to that conclusion?
The people of Israel were freed from slavery on the Sabbath, the first one according to the new way of measuring time according to the instructions given to Moses.
Let us compare the following texts:
Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. 7 And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it. 8 Then they shall eat the flesh on that night (the fourteenth day); roasted in fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. … 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night (the fourteenth day), and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord. … 51And it came to pass, on that very same day (the fourteenth day), that the Lord brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt according to their armies. Exodus 12:6-8, 12, 51. The parentheses insertion is for the purpose of illustrating the teaching.
Let’s compare now with other parallel texts,
On the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight is the Lord’s Passover. 6And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it. 8 But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord for seven days. The seventh day shall be a holy convocation; you shall do no customary work on it. Leviticus 23:5-8
The solemnity of unleavened bread lasted a whole week, from Sabbath to Sabbath. How do we know? Well, Leviticus text says: you shall do no customary work on it, the same instruction is given to Sabbath observance.
On the fourteenth day the paschal lamb was eaten, after the sunset (Exodus 12:6,11); the following day, began the feast of the unleavened bread, which coincided with Sabbath. (Exodus 12:15,16)
According to the account of Exodus, the people went out just after having eaten the paschal lamb, and their departure began the feast of unleavened bread (Exodus 12:39). So, the fifteenth day was Shabbat, as we already saw, the day on which the people of Israel were delivered from slavery.
The testimony that appears in the gospels is also worth here to confirm everything noted. The Gospel accounts point out that Jesus celebrated the Passover lamb supper, which in Christian circles is known as the Last Supper; and they also point out that Jesus was crucified at the end of that week of Unleavened Bread, just the day before the Sabbath Day.
Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. John 19:31
Jesus was honoring the day: Day of deliverance. The invalid man was being freed from the disease and from the consciousness that had bound him for thirty-eight years.
If we review other similar accounts we will see that Jesus acted in function of what had been established as the principle of kingdom life since the founding of the people as a nation.
Sabbath, day of liberation, day to work freedom and blessing for the benefit of others.
So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? Luke 13:16
The reader can observe in the account of the healing of the invalid man of Bethesda, the assurance in Jesus that his work was according to the work of the Father, even though in doing so he exposed himself to persecution by the Jews.
My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.
To know God is not knowledge, it is not concepts, it is not definitions; to know God is to act according to His Will, it is to do what He wants us to do.
Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin. James 4:17
Today, as in the days of the invalid man of Bethesda, many people live by religious knowledge, norms, laws, rites; reasonings that have many prostrate, and persecute others, those who do not act according to the established. These bonds of argument will only be broken when we act according to God’s work… When we know God.
Only those who know God can work!
Go, and do the same.