The name Bethesda (house of mercy) occurs only once in our Bible, in John 5:2. It is the name of a pool in Jerusalem near to the sheep gate and not to be confused with Bethsaida, a village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It will be noticed that the word “market” in the KJV is italicized, indicating that it is not in the original text, nor is there any record of a market here. The Sheep Gate, however, is mentioned several times in the Book of Nehemiah (Neh 3:1; 3:32; 12:39), and is believed to be the gate through which sheep and oxen were brought to the temple for sacrifice.
Although there is not universal agreement as to the exact location of Bethesda, the site which has the most popular acceptance is that of the pool found during excavations in the Bezetha quarter of Jerusalem not far from Stephen’s Gate and the Tower of Antonia. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary points out that this site is “below the crypt of the ruined fourth-century church and has a five-arch portico with faded frescoes of the miracle of Christ’s healing.” Barnes Notes on the Bibleexplains helpfully, “The word ‘porch’ commonly means a covered place surrounding a building, in which people can walk or sit in hot or wet weather. Here it probably means that there were five covered places, or apartments, in which the sick could remain, from each one of which they could have access to the water.” And what a variety of sick folk there was! Blind, halt, and withered. A sad picture of the havoc wrought among men by sin. And how pathetic was the man’s lament when he said, “Sir, I have no man.” Not only was he helpless in himself, but there was none to help; he was friendless.
If in years to come the site would be in doubt, the poor helpless man who was healed there would never forget or doubt the place of his healing. Graciously chosen from the sick multitude around him, for him it had indeed been a “House of Mercy” where the Savior had met him in his dire need and restored his strength. In this connection it is interesting to compare the miracles in John 5 and John 9: two men, two pools, Bethesda and Siloam, both miracles on the Sabbath day. The man in John 5 could see but he couldn’t walk. The man in John 9 could walk but he couldn’t see. The Savior meets each case accordingly and asks nothing that they cannot give. Bethesda indicates “mercy.” Siloam means “sent.” The helplessness of the man in John 5 is dependant on mercy; he cannot “go” anywhere. The mobility of the man in John 9 means that he can obey the Lord’s command, “go wash” and he does. Each miracle gives birth to a lengthy discourse of the Lord Jesus and each occasions the anger of the Jews.
Although the authenticity of John 5:4 is questioned by some, there seems to be no reason to doubt or omit it. As JND writes, “Some remains of blessing still existed among the Jews. Angels, ministers of that dispensation, still wrought among the people. Jehovah did not leave Himself without testimony. But strength was needed to profit by this instance of their ministry. That which the law could not do, being weak through the flesh, God has done through Jesus. The impotent man had desire, but not strength; to will was present with him, but no power to perform.”
For 38 years this poor man had been infirm. The exact nature of his infirmity is not expressly stated though it must have been a palsy of some sort; nor do we know for how long he had been at the pool of Bethesda. Was 38 years the time of the nation’s wandering in the wilderness? For full 40 years they had sojourned in the desert but were they not, for some of that time, led by the hand of the Lord? Thirty-eight years of national infirmity! How they needed Messiah with all the blessings which He could bring to them!
But these Jews of our Lord’s day, who later would say to Him, “Give us a sign,” would reject every sign that He would give them, as indeed they did now at Bethesda. Rather than believe, they would find fault and engage in controversy. Where was their mercy? A poor man had been healed after 38 years of infirmity and they could only quibble about Sabbath-keeping. “And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the Sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed.” He retorted that the One Who had made him whole had said, “take up thy bed and walk.”
At that time the man did not know the identity of the One Who had healed him, but it is good to notice that soon he made his way to the nearby temple, and it was there that he met Jesus and then testified concerning Him to the Jews who now sought to kill Jesus. The Jews then instigated a persecution against Jesus and actually sought to kill Him because He had done these things on the Sabbath. Our Lord’s reply to them is beautifully concise but increases their anger against Him. Calmly He says, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” Of course we all know that on that early seventh day it is recorded that “God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made” (Gen 2:2). That, however, was rest from the work of creation and, as Dr. Gill writes, “He has continued to work ever since, on Sabbath days, as well as on other days; in upholding and governing the world, in continuing the species of beings, and all creatures in their being; in providing for them, and in dispensing the bounties of His providence to them; in causing His sun to shine, and showers of rain to descend on the earth; and in taking care of, and protecting even the meanest of His creatures.”
To be continued