By Connor Salter, Crosswalk.com
The pool of Bethesda is one of those interesting Bible stories where we don’t get the full story. There are the details we’re told, and there are the details that only appear in some manuscripts. There are the characters in the story, and then there are bits of backstory which are only hinted at.
What Was the Pool of Bethesda?
John 5:1-5 explains that the pool of Bethesda was by one of Jerusalem’s gates, known as the sheep gate, and was surrounded on five sides by colonnades (covered columns). To us, this setup would look a lot like a modern-day public swimming pool—an area of water in the center with structures around it to provide shade.
Various archeologists have suggested sites that may be the remains of the pool, which might have been attached to a dam or be two pools built next to each other over time. There is also debate on whether Jewish people used the pool for ritual bathing (an important part of Old Testament laws about staying clean and avoiding “uncleanliness”), or whether it was a healing pool that the Romans built by one of their pagan temples. Either option would make it a healing site that people visited frequently.
Why Did the Pool of Bethesda Heal People?
Pools and baths were not just important for hygiene, in ancient societies water served medicinal purposes. Cold water refreshed people and kept them clean. Hot water could soothe skin conditions, be used in hot compresses and similar treatments. Hot water could also be drunk to help with internal problems like digestion (which is why alternative medicine sometimes recommends drinking hot water with various herbs). Lukewarm water served no clear medicinal purpose; this is why in Revelation 3:15-17, John criticizes the church of Laodicea for being “neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Laodicea was built on a river and had public baths, making it an important site for medical needs.
We aren’t told whether the pool of Bethesda was a hot pool or a cold pool, but either would have made it a healing site. There are also indications that there was something more to this pool than just providing good water. When Jesus asked the invalid man if he wanted to be healed, he replied, “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). This implies that at times the pool’s water would be stirred, and there was some idea that whoever got in first received healing. Some manuscripts of John 5 have an extra line that says people “waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.”
Since this is a line that doesn’t appear in all or most manuscripts, it’s hard to say how accurate it is. We are faced with a problem similar to John 7:53–8:11, which your Bible translation likely includes with a note about how the story does not appear in many of the ancient manuscripts. That being said, this line would explain the invalid man’s comment about the water moving and the first person into the pool getting healed. However, whether or not the pool brought supernatural healing (similar to Naaman being healed when he bathed in the Jordan) or was just a medicinal site, it seems to have had a reputation for healing people.
What Was the Spiritual Meaning of the Pool?
As noted above, 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.” Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Leviticus include various instructions about cleaning oneself to get rid of diseases, remove defilement after touching a dead carcass, or for women cleaning themselves after a menstrual cycle. Therefore, even before baptism made water into a symbol of rebirth, it was associated with healing and being closer to God.
In this particular story, the pool of Bethesda is notable because it provided an avenue for healing, yet it’s hard to tell if the man was taking advantage of it. He is described as being an invalid for 38 years, and when Jesus learned this, he asked the man if he wanted to get well. The man replied that he had no one to get him to the pool and someone else got in first. Granting the fact that we’re not sure how much the man could move (were his legs crippled? Could he move his arms and crawl?), it’s hard to imagine he couldn’t have found someone to help him reach the pool early. In light of that, it’s possible that the man had adopted a defeatist mindset. In that context, the pool of Bethesda can be seen as an opportunity for healing that isn’t taken. Sometimes the problem is that God has provided the opportunity we need, but we aren’t fully aware of it or sure about taking advantage of it. It can be more tempting to accept our situation as it is, missing out on what God’s providing.
3 Important Lessons from the Story at This Pool
There’s plenty more than we can say about the pool of Bethesda story, but here are three specific lessons we can all learn from it:
Consider whether you’re being patient or passive. It’s interesting that the invalid man waited at the pool without getting to it, which may mean he wasn’t fully committed to getting healed. One of the harder questions we all need to ask is if it’s time to wait patiently on God or knock at doors (Luke 11:9) and see what opens. There are times and places for both attitudes. However, there is a genuine difference between waiting for God and making excuses about why we aren’t moving forward.
Be alert for when God finally appears. Whether God answers our requests immediately or later, we have to be ready for him and respond when that moment comes. Like with the man at the pool, it may come when we least expect it (and on the last day we expect it). We must be prepared for God to answer in his own time, in his own way.
Remember God cares about what is good, not necessarily what is “proper.” This is one of multiple times in the Gospels where Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, a day of rest where people weren’t supposed to do anything. Multiple times leaders rebuked Jesus for doing this, missing the fact that getting healed was more important than being proper. Later Jesus would solve the problem of humanity’s sin by dying on a cross, a very improper event that was the last thing anyone expected would be useful. As we follow God, we need to be aware he isn’t as concerned about propriety and “faux pas” as we are. He might even enjoy doing the thing that’s a bit shocking to make a point about where our priorities need to be.
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G. Connor is a freelance writer and journalist, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. He has contributed over 600 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.