Updated: Sep 29, 2018
In the Gospel of John, chapter five, we read about the healing of a man at the pool of Bethesda. The scriptures don’t tell us exactly what the man was suffering from, other than the fact that he had been in that condition for thirty-eight years. However, given the fact that the man needed another person to help him get into the pool, and that Jesus specifically instructed him to “rise, take up your bed and walk”, it is likely that he was paralysed or lame.
Until the 19th century, there was no evidence for the existence of ‘a pool with five porches’ near the ancient Sheep Gate of Jerusalem, leading some to conclude that the so-called ‘pool’ was a metaphorical figure of John’s imagination rather than an historical reality. However, that all changed in 1888 when German archaeologist Conrad Schick discovered two pools in the vicinity of the Church of St. Anne, one fifty-five feet long and the other sixty feet long, the former arched in by five arches with five corresponding porches running alongside the pool — which goes to show that the Bible is not just a repository of spiritual wisdom, but a reliable historical document.
I visited the site of the pool of Bethesda during my first trip to Israel in 1985. To be honest, I found it hard to get excited about a pile of ruins lying some twenty feet below street level! And I found it even harder to block out the sights and sounds and smells of modern Jerusalem, and re imagine the events of John chapter five. Overwhelmed by the searing heat, my friend, Charles, and I sought refuge in the Church of St. Anne, right next door.
We sat down in one of the pews, savouring the quietness and coolness of the sanctuary, and then realized that there was some kind of service in progress at the front of the church.
A group of twenty to thirty people were gathered in a circle around the altar, holding hands and singing the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, made famous in the miracle services of Kathryn Kuhlman. We discovered later that they were a Charismatic Catholic group from Florida, U.S.A., on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
The Church of St. Anne is a 12th century Crusader church famous for its wonderful acoustics, and is a pilgrimage site for soloists and choirs from around the world. As Charles and I listened to the Hallelujah chorus reverberating through the building, we felt like we had stepped into another world. There was a tangible sense of God’s presence in the air; an ethereal cloud of glory seemed to hover over the altar space and the worshippers gathered there. I thought to myself, “This presence, this Chabod, this Shekinah, has more to do with the events of John chapter five than that pile of ruins next door. Divine mercy caused that miracle to happen, the same mercy we are experiencing right now.”
The name ‘Bethesda’ is a compilation of two words of Hebrew and/or Aramaic origin: beth, meaning ‘house’, and esda meaning ‘mercy’ or ‘grace’. The word ‘esda’ is derived from the Hebrew word hesed, which is used throughout the Old Testament to denote the unfailing love and never-ending kindness of God for His covenantal people, Israel. Thus, it is more than pity for a helpless victim, but rather, loyalty to a covenantal obligation which, in turn, issues in beneficial acts of redemption.
The Lord Jesus is the ultimate expression of the Father’s mercy toward the people he has chosen. The most famous verse of the Bible declares that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son …” (John 3.16). Paul also speaks about the surpassing riches of God’s grace being displayed through the kindness he has extended to us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2.7). Indeed, mercy or compassion is cited as the direct motive for at least five of Jesus’ miracles in particular, and his ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing in general (Matt 9.35-36; 14.14).
If the story of the pool of Bethesda teaches us anything, it is that the place of mercy is the place of miracles. In our desire to see the power of God at work, we tend to put ‘the cart before the horse’, forgetting the law of cause and effect. However, as the gospels clearly show, mercy is the cause; healing and deliverance are the effect. And in order for the church to become a house of miracles, it must first become a house of mercy!
Go and learn what this means
Matthew’s gospel highlights the contrasting relationship that Jesus had with two groups of people at the polar opposites of Jewish society: ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and ‘scribes and Pharisees’. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the hated Roman government, and thus were considered traitors to the cause of Jewish nationalism. Moreover, they were well known for their greed because, after having paid the agreed amount to the tax franchisee, which in turn paid the Roman procurator, they were free to keep any surplus funds for themselves. This inevitably led to inflated taxes and corrupt accounting procedures.
The term ‘sinner’ was a colloquial euphemism for a person leading a promiscuous and immoral lifestyle. The Pharisees considered ‘tax collectors and sinners’ to be outside the society of God’s covenant people — spiritual lepers for whom the prospect of repentance and redemption was virtually impossible. Significantly, Jesus seemed right at home with such people and often shared meals with them, conversing about the kingdom that was beckoning them to its gates.
At the other end of the spectrum, the scribes and Pharisees represented a religious conservative movement in Judaism during the late Second Temple period (150 B.C. – 70 A.D.). Derived from the Hebrew word perusim, meaning ‘separated ones’, the Pharisees were noted for their exact observance of the Jewish religion, their accurate exposition of the law, and their handing down of extra-biblical customs and traditions. In contrast to the Sadducean aristocracy who were based in Jerusalem and controlled the temple and its sacrifices, the Pharisees were dispersed throughout Palestine and exerted considerable influence through the synagogues — places of corporate prayer and instruction in the Torah that became the focal point of the Jewish community in any town with a Jewish population.
The nobility of their intentions notwithstanding, the Pharisees made the fatal mistake of focusing on external appearances and behaviour, and neglecting the more important matters of the heart. In one of his most dramatic denunciations, Jesus accused the Pharisees of being preoccupied with the ‘outside’ and ignoring the ‘inside’ — the hidden realm of attitude, motive and desire (Matt 23.25-28).
On one occasion after dining with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said to the protesting Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt 9.13). It’s important to understand that when Jesus said, “Go and learn,” he was not telling the Pharisees to go back to the synagogue and study the Bible. After all, these fellows were experts in the oral and written law and were able to recite vast sections of the Torah from memory.
Jesus was quoting the prophecy of Hosea in which the Lord laments the fickleness and unfaithfulness of his people, and declares “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6.6). Interestingly, the Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ is hesed, which, as has been previously noted, signifies loyal covenant love — the same kind of love that the Father has for his children. In essence, the Lord is saying, “I want you to love me and love one another as I have loved you.” Does that sound familiar? It should, because that’s exactly what Jesus told his disciples to do at the last supper (John 13.34).
When Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means,” he was urging them to rediscover the essence of the covenant, which is unfailing love and never-ending kindness. Moreover, as the prophecy of Hosea shows, it is kindness toward the righteous and the unrighteous, those who have followed through and those who have fallen away, those who have adhered to the path and those who have lost their sense of direction … tax collectors and sinners, paralysed and lame.
Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that in their quest to obtain a form of godliness they had neglected the weightier matters of the law; namely, ‘justice and mercy and faith’ (Matt 23.23). In the final analysis, it’s not a matter of how much of the Bible we know, but of how well we know the God of the Bible. And the litmus test of knowing God is showing mercy and walking in love.
Paul urged the Ephesians to “be imitators of God as dear children, and walk in love …” (Eph 5.1-2). John put it this way: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4.7-8).
Let us, the church, become Bethesda — a house of mercy for people from all walks of life. For it is in the place of mercy that broken lives are healed and shattered dreams are restored!