XI. THE POOL OF BETHESDA.
[Lincoln's Inn, 3d Sunday after Easter, April 13, 1856.]
St. John V. 16-18.
And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, because He had done these things on the sabbath-day. But Jesus answered them, My Father works until the point in time, and I work. Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He had not only broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making Himself equal with God.
The scene changes again at the opening of this chapter. 'After these things there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.' What feast it was, the harmonists may settle; as St. John has not told us, I am content to dwell upon the fact, which he evidently thought of great importance, that Jesus did go up to the feasts, and that His acts had a special reference to the state of mind which He found among the inhabitants of the capital; above all, among its religious teachers.
'Now there is at Jerusalem, by the sheep-market, a pool which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.' Jerusalem might or might not have been compassed with Roman armies when St. John wrote. I do not know that its independence or its capture would affect the position of the pool or the sheep-market; they might be still just what they had been when the Apostle knew them. Perhaps the pool was no longer visited as in former days; perhaps the tradition of its virtues still drew to it people from the country round. At all events, the sight which had been before his eyes thirty or forty years before, was not one which he would forget. It is not one which we need much effort of imagination to bring before ourselves.
'In these' porches 'lay a multitude of sick folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the waters.' If we look at the separate figures in the picture, they belong as much to the West as to the East — to the nineteenth century as to the first. Nor can any frequenters of an English or German spa consider the motive which brought together so many of different ages and with different ailments, a strange or an obsolete one. Even the notion that at certain times the water would possess a virtue which at other times it would want, may be justified by modern experience, perhaps may be explained by modern science.
But experience and science, it will be said, are both set at nothing by the announcement in the next verse: 'For an angel went down at a certain season, and troubled the water: whosoever, therefore, first after the troubling of the water stepped in, was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.' Here a reason is given for the virtues of the pool; — not, it will be said, a medical reason; not one which can connect the waters of this pool with those which intelligent people frequent for qualities which are, on fair evidence, known or believed to be in them; — but rather one which connects them with the holy wells which in the villages of England, Wales, and Ireland, are supposed to have received a blessing from some local saint. To find St. John adopting or endorsing such legends, causes no pain to those who assume him and his brother Apostles to be the propagators of superstition; ignorant Jews, who were steeped in all the prejudices of their countrymen, and who added to them some of their own invention. There are some who, with a general respect for him and them, can yet give him credit for following the traditions of his country when they were ever so vulgar and false; excusing him on the plea that he knew nothing of physics, and that his business was not with them. There are men of a better and nobler stamp, who, though they do not claim for him any acquaintance with natural science, yet are sure that he lived to scatter delusions, not to foster them; and that he would not have been permitted by the Spirit of truth to claim for lies the name of Him who came to bear witness of the truth. I do not wonder that some of these honest and earnest men should have been able to persuade themselves that the verse I have just quoted has nothing to do with the general narrative of the cure at Bethesda; but has crept into the text from the gloss of some writer who understood Jewish opinions, not the mind of St. John.
I respect the motives of these interpreters, but I think their conclusion is a rash and a wrong one. I am convinced that the words which they would omit are a vital part of the narrative, and that our Lord's act loses very much of its meaning if we overlook them. I am equally convinced that these words contradict no truth of science; that, if taken by themselves, they do not meddle with it, and are only supposed to meddle with it through a logical confusion, from which, for the sake of science and of our own intellectual clearness, it is well that we should be delivered; that, if taken in conjunction with the whole story, they help to scatter a superstition which was very injurious to the Jewish people, and is equally injurious to people in this day.
What St. John affirms is, that a certain invisible angel or minister — an intelligence, as we are wont to speak — was the instrument of making the water of the Pool of Bethesda beneficial to the persons who went down into it. He accounts, in this way, for its operation being more useful at one time than another. That assertion, you say, interferes with the doctrine that there were certain properties in the water itself which affected the condition of human beings. How does it interfere? You hold that the vaccine matter has in itself the property of counteracting the virus of the small-pox. But you hold also that the intelligence of Jenner had something to do with making this vaccine matter available for the actual cure of patients afflicted by the small-pox; you hold that the intelligence of different medical men has something to do with bringing the preventive power to bear on particular cases. You know this for a fact; but physical science tells you nothing of the way in which the intelligence cooperates with the natural agent. The notion that it does is an excusable fallacy; yet it is a fallacy. In no instance whatever can the mere study of physics help you to determine anything respecting moral or intellectual forces; though at every turn the study of physics compels you to the acknowledgment of such forces. It will save us from innumerable confusions, if we take this proposition in the length and breadth of it. Through neglect of it, the physician and the metaphysician are perpetually stumbling against each other, when they might be the greatest helpers to each other.
But, it will be said, that notion of an angel which connects it with the intelligence in a man, is a modern one, not the one which we should naturally derive from the Old Testament. I think, if we study those passages in the Old Testament which refer to angels, we shall find that it is exactly this notion which is the result of them, and that any other is a modern one, either derived directly from heathen sources, or from a mixture of heathen feelings with the lore of the New Testament. In the patriarchal times, we hear of angels appearing to Abraham to tell him of blessings which were coming upon his descendants; of angels seen by Jacob in a vision, of one who wrestled with him till the break of day. The stories leave upon us the impression that there are beings who minister to the unseen Lord of the whole earth; who are interested in the well-doing of men; who are different from men, but not so different as to be incapable of converse with them — not so different that they may not present themselves even to the human senses. The effect of those visions and revelations was to take away from the old shepherds the feeling that they were merely surrounded by natural forms or by animal existences which were beneath them; that there was a world near them, though not visible to them, which might have fellowship with them, and which elevated them above their flocks and herds. In the next age, — the age of legal and national life, — there are intimations of an angel going with the people through the wilderness; angels admonish warriors that they should be courageous in fighting the battles of the Lord; angels remind the people of their departures from the law of God; angels arouse humble men to deliver their people from idolatry and from slavery. Here the lessons respecting the nature and work of angels are not changed, but expanded. These messengers communicate more with the spirit of men, present themselves more rarely to the eye. They are witnesses of a permanent divine order, belonging not to the individuals to whom they come, but to their race; of an order from which they have departed, and into which it is the Divine will that they should be brought back. In the regal period, the war or the pestilence, — the direction of natural agencies to the punishment of human crime, — is referred to angels. The effect of this teaching upon the thoughtful Jew was, that he could never suppose himself the mere sport of outward influences of earth, or of air, or of fire. All these had a purpose; all were directed by the wisdom of Him who had entered into covenant with the nation. In the Book of Psalms, which illustrates this period, He is said to 'make His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire.' All natural powers are felt to be angels of God, because they are under the direction of an intelligent and righteous Ruler. In the Books of the Prophets, before the captivity, the angel is not lost sight of; but the Word of God who comes to the Prophet, more and more gathers up all powers and ministries into Himself, while the human teacher to whom he speaks is himself treated as a messenger of the Most High, — as no less His angel than any creature who has not the weeds of mortality. In the Prophets, after the captivity, new functions are assigned to angels. They watch over different lands; provinces of the earth are committed to them by the Lord of all; — it is hinted that some of them may have failed in their trust, as human sovereigns fail in theirs. These lessons seem especially appropriate to the time when the Jew was to feel his connection with other nations, and to find that each of them supposed itself to be governed by some divine king or demigod.
Is not the doctrine of this chapter entirely consistent with the lessons which St. John had learnt from his fathers? Those lessons, I have urged, can neither be confuted nor confirmed by physical science. But the analogy which we derive from our ordinary experience is all in favour of them. It is a shock to the conscience and reason of man to feel that he is indebted to moral agents, — to spiritual agents, — in a very great degree, for the health and comfort which he enjoys here; but that the whole world which lies beyond his ken is only peopled with physical forces which act upon him blindly and care nothing for him. Men never have been able to persuade themselves of this. The people have always held the opposite faith. Surely it is time to ask ourselves whether that faith must be merely set at nothing, — whether its manifest falsehoods and mistakes do not conceal precious truths, — whether those truths can be at variance with any others, — whether we are not bound to bring them into light, as the only means of dislodging the errors to which they have given countenance, and also of overthrowing some of those idols of the cave which the student worships no less ignominiously than the multitude worships the idols of the market-place? I believe St. John tells us how his Master did this work at the Pool of Bethesda: 'A certain man was there which had had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, He said to him, Will you be made whole? The impotent man answered Him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steps down before me. Jesus said to him, Rise, take up your bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed and walked.'
This was a sign indeed, — a sign addressed to a man who had been waiting day after day, perhaps year after year, for some outward accident to make him well, — that health and disease are dependent upon no accidents; that the power of life is an inward power; that there is One in whom it dwells; that He in whom it dwells is near to the weakest, the most helpless, even the most sinful. It would seem, from the words which our Lord spoke to this man afterwards, 'Go, and sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you,' as if He had selected a man in whom all these conditions met, who was the oldest and most powerless of all the sufferers there, and had brought the sufferings upon himself by his misdoings. The demonstration, therefore, was complete. Men — the very lowest men — are not the dependants upon outward things, no, nor upon the visitations of angels. Such visitations may be appointed; but there is One who has a right to call Himself a Son — One in whom the mind and purpose of the Lord of angels is expressed — One who fulfils, not occasionally but continually, His purposes of health and restoration to men — One who is the Son of Man — who has sympathy with men, and can take away their infirmities, because He knows them, enters into them, suffers them.
Thus this cure is bringing us to the point to which St. John has been bringing us in all the previous passages of his Gospel. This sign at the Pool of Bethesda, like all the other signs we have been considering, reveals to us the Word who is the Source of life and health to all creatures. We are led from the messenger, visible or invisible, to Him who was with God and was God. We are led from the mere friends or helpers of man to that Word made flesh, the Son of Man. We are led finally to a Son who has come to reveal a Father.
I have chosen my text from the latter part of the chapter, because it brings this subject so directly before us, and because I believe that in doing so it gives us the real moral and explanation of the narrative of which I have just been speaking. Two cures are recorded by St. John as done by our Lord in the city of Jerusalem: one is that at the Pool of Bethesda; the other, that of the blind man at the Pool of Siloam. They are very different in their incidents and their object: the latter we shall have to consider attentively hereafter. But they have this in common, — both were created on the Sabbath-day. In both cases, St. John fixes our thoughts upon this point; in both, this circumstance is the cause of the bitterest indignation against Jesus; here it is said to be the motive of a conspiracy against him. '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 to him that was cured, It is the sabbath-day: it is not lawful for you to carry your bed. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said to me, Take up your bed, and walk. Then asked they him, What man is that which said to you, Take up your bed, and walk? And he that was healed knew not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed Himself away, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus finds him in the temple, and said to him, Behold, you are made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come to you. The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus which had made him whole. And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay Him, because He had done these things on the sabbath-day. But Jesus answered them, My Father works until the point in time, and I work. Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him because He not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.'
Two points present themselves to us here, and demand some earnest consideration. The first is, Why should the Sabbath-day have been especially chosen by our Lord for these acts of healing? The second is, What connection was there in the Jewish mind, or in our Lord's own words, between the charge of breaking the Sabbath and the charge of calling God His Father?
The belief in angels had a good effect upon the people of the Jews, in so far as it led them to believe that the Most High cared for them individually as well as nationally, — that He Himself, and not some outward thing, was the Author of their blessings, the Restorer of their health. It was perverted to a bad use by the people, in so far as it led them to depend upon accidental interferences, not upon a continual living Helper. How Christ's sign brought out the good, counteracted the evil, of this faith, I have endeavoured to show you. But the belief of angels and spirits, which distinguished the Pharisees from the opposing sect, had most of the mischief, little of the truth, which clung to it among the crowd whom they despised. The tenet, that angels had interfered and might interfere, did not make them think that God was concerned for His creatures, — that He loved them. It only suggested the thought that there were certain persons and certain places that might receive favours which were withheld from others. It did not bring them to believe that any union between God and man existed or was possible. Rather angels were the dispensers of those laws, and the executors of those punishments, which marked the separation between God and His creatures, and the wrath of God against them. God was the Author of statutes which had been written in tables of stone, and could not be changed. God was the Judge and Condemner of those who broke these statutes. God might dispense with the punctual fulfilment of them, or accept sacrifices as a compensation for the breach of them, in the case of His favourites. But one claim to be such favourites would be the rigorous enforcement of them, as His commandments, against the nation generally, and the ignorant, miserable, sinful portion of it particularly.
Was not this zeal for the laws and ordinances of the Most High a good zeal? Did not Christ come to fulfil the law? — did He wish to set it aside? Consider, my brethren, what the law was. I do not speak of any spiritual interpretation of it; I refer merely to the letter of the Ten Commandments. They begin with these words, 'I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the house of bondage.' The zeal of the Pharisees for the law of God forgot this foundation of the law altogether. They did not tell the Israelite that the Lord was his God; they did not proclaim the Lord as a Deliverer from bondage, but as the Author of bondage. Therefore, every commandment was denied in its very essence. The first said, 'You shall worship the Lord,' — that is, the Lord the Deliverer, the Lord your God, — 'and Him only shall you serve.' But the Pharisee worshipped any god rather than this only God; worshipped a god who was directly the reverse of this only God. Everything in heaven or earth or under the earth — money, the meanest thing of all — was more an object of worship to him than this only God. He could not help taking His name in vain. Every time he pronounced it he took it in vain; he substituted another name for that of the only God; he cherished another name in his heart.
But then came the command to keep the Sabbath-day. Here, at all events, he could be strict to the letter; that he could keep as God had wished it to be kept. What! when that commandment says, 'Man shall rest because God rests; man shall work because God works?' What! when the commandment announced the Sabbath-day as a blessing to the man-servant, and the maid-servant, and the cattle? A Pharisee construe this commandment literally? A Pharisee keep this commandment strictly? Impossible. There was none which he must distort more, in which he must suppress more vital words, which he must more habitually disobey. The denial of the sentence which introduces the commandments — the determination to regard the Lord as a forger of chains, when He declares Himself to be the breaker of them — necessarily led to a greater and grosser violation of this statute and ordinance of the Lord than of all the rest.
And yet there were obvious reasons why the Pharisee should take his stand on the fourth commandment rather than on any other. As our Lord tells him elsewhere, he made it part of his religion to set aside the honour of fathers and mothers. To bear false witness against a neighbour, if he was not a religious man, not one of their sect, was a merit rather than a crime. Covetousness is spoken of in the Gospels as the very principle of their acts towards men and towards God. And — without inquiring how far they were guilty of secret treasons against life, against marriage, against property — since the enforcing of punishments on open crimes, which disturbed the peace of society, was taken out of their hands, there was no way left them of signalizing their care for what they called God's law and God's honour, but by a pitiless rigour in enforcing the customs and traditions which had connected themselves with the Sabbath-day, the reason and the purpose of the day having been forgotten.
Here was the ground which the Jewish teachers had chosen for the exhibition of their morality and religion; it was on this ground that Jesus encountered them. To the first question, then, I answer, that He selected the Sabbath-day above other days for healing the sick, because He came to vindicate the law and make it honourable; because it had been made dishonourable, and the whole sense of it destroyed, by the notion of the Pharisees that it proceeded from an arbitrary Being, who had made it to coerce His creatures, and not from a loving Being who had formed them in His image, and desired that they should be sharers of His blessedness; because, unless the day of the rest could be reclaimed from their perversions, and restored to its right place and dignity in God's gracious economy, the law never could be a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ the Son of Man, but must always be a hard taskmaster to keep them from Him. It was not a single point of truth which was involved in this controversy — least of all the question, whether a commandment might be relaxed in one particular. The whole truth of the old covenant was involved in it; the whole life and work of the Son of Man was involved in it; the purpose for which the Son of God had taken flesh was involved in it.
The other Evangelists make these assertions sufficiently clear. They tell us how Christ claimed to be the Lord of the Sabbath, because 'the sabbath was made for man;' and, because He was the 'Son of Man;' how He was more angered at the hardness of heart which displayed itself in the apparent zeal of the Pharisees for the Sabbath, than at all their other exhibitions of the same hardness; how the Jewish rulers met His divine anger with theirs, and decided that the only adequate answer to the demand, 'Is it right to do good on the sabbath-day, or to do evil?' must be a conspiracy to put Him to death. St. John could not say more on these points. But there was a subject which it was his especial office to handle. He shows us how Jesus made the defence of the fourth commandment, in its letter and its spirit, a means of asserting His own relation to God. 'My Father works until the point in time, and I work.' Man was bidden to work because God worked. Had God ceased to work, then, on the day of rest? Was He not nourishing the earth, and causing it to bring forth and bud on that day? Was He suspending His labours for His creatures on that day? The argument, like those about the ox and the ass falling into the pit, was broad, simple, direct; one of those which men who have lost their life, their humanity, their godliness, in their books, are tormented by hearing; one which opens the deepest abysses of thought and consolation to those who are seeking for a living God, for a Father of their spirits. But such seekers cannot be content with a command to work because God works, to rest because God rests, — they must know how the command can be obeyed. They must know on what foundation the command stands. If there is a Son of Man who can say, 'I work because He works; I do as my Father does;' He may give the sons of men power to work and power to rest. His union to them and to God is the foundation of both.
I have replied, then, to our second question as well as to the first. I have showed you how the act by which Christ, in the judgment of the Jews, broke the Sabbath-day, naturally led to what was in their judgment an act of blasphemy. It was not that He dispensed with a law of God because He was the Son of God. It was not that He put a new sense into the law of God because He was the Son of God. It was that He could interpret the law of God fully. It was that He could accomplish the law fully. It was that He could unfold the Gospel which was hidden in the law. It was that He could show in what God's rest consists, by showing in what His own rest consisted; what God's work was, by the works which He did Himself in the might of God's Spirit. And thus, by one sign, He declared that men are not the servants of angels, and that they are the children of a Father.
O brethren, may those to whom God has given a better and a nobler Sabbath, which commemorates God's rest in the risen Son of Man and Son of God, never forget the truth which He taught the Jewish people respecting their Sabbath, or repeat the Jewish sin by making it a mere legal day instead of His day!
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
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