Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 24

Made Whole

Read John 5:2–16

We stare down into something that resembles an abandoned subway construction project cutting through the middle of the old city of Jerusalem.

I explain to our group that when we peer into this gully we’re diving down through two thousand years of time, past the modern era, through the remains of Crusader and Byzantine era churches, past a Roman temple and finally into ruins from the time of Christ.

At the bottom of the trench, as our eyes learn to discern the various layers of ruins, we can see a colonnaded walkway cutting from top to bottom across what looks like a massive rectangular concrete swimming pool.

This is the fifth of the five colonnades referred to by the author of John’s gospel in today’s Scripture reading.


Just a few years ago, some scholars said the Gospel of John was in error when it described the five colonnades of Bethesda.

Commentators pointed out that clearly there were not five colonnades around a four-sided pool. They used this as an example of how the author of John apparently only wrote symbolically, and not literally, and that the number five must have meant something mysterious.

Then, in the 1960s, this small area was excavated. Now we know why John said there were five colonnades. It’s because there were five!

Four covered sidewalks bordered with columns ran around the pool, one on each side. Then there was a fifth colonnade that split the pool in half.

This area may have been a “mikvah” or ceremonial bath, with the northern side containing ritually “unclean” water, and the southern side, closest to the Temple, being ritually “clean,” the two pools separated by the fifth colonnade.

That helps explain the origin of the name Bethesda, which literally means “The house of two pools.” Thanks to the excavations, we now understand that the fifth colonnade turned one large pool into two.

These days you can only see about one-tenth of the pool (the rest is under active shops and residences in the city) but the small part that was unearthed contains that fifth colonnade. It’s as if God wanted the archaeologists to find the one bit that confirmed John’s description!

After the time of Christ, anti-Christian Romans took over this location. What they did with it is intriguing. They turned it into a temple to Asclepius, their god of healing. They asserted that these waters were magical and that if you were sick, you might get healed. Sounds to me like they were continuing the folk tradition John describes — and maybe they were also trying to squelch early Christian worship of Jesus by claiming they had their own healing deity.

John’s gospel does not claim the legend was true; it only describes what folklore claimed happened around the pool.

People were waiting for magic. Then Jesus brought a miracle.


The pathetic scene in John 5 is easy to imagine. Poor, despairing, disabled people stare in misery at the “magic” water hoping to see some ripples, perhaps caused by an underwater spring.

Then someone shouts “Bubbles!” and everyone hobbles into the pool, shoving each other aside, trying to be first.

So who do you think gets in first, every time? The really needy? Not a chance. It’s the guy with a headache, or an ingrown toenail.

As R. Wayne Stacy writes,

It’s a cruel pool. It taunts them. The whole fly-swarming, foul-smelling scene is a judgment on the kind of religion that has everything to offer to those who don’t really need it — and nothing for those who do. 31

It’s all a race, a competition, all about coming in first, all about performance.

And Jesus walks into the scene and immediately goes to the guy who has never come in first. Not for thirty-eight long years.


I love that Jesus asks him, “Do you want to get well?”

Jesus understood the psychology of victimization. Sometimes we get so used to living as a victim we don’t realize that we really can be healed.

Or we don’t want to be. As someone said, the problem is often not just that we are diseased. It’s that we are addicted to our disease.

Of course this does not mean that the conclusion to which people often leap necessarily follows, that those who are sick must be so because they don’t truly long for wholeness. Please don’t say “You must not really want to be well!” to the next disabled person you meet. That’s just bad theology.

The question is meant for you and for me. Do you want to get well?

The word translated “well” is the Greek hygies, from which we get our English word hygiene. It can be used for physical health — or health in the larger sense. To be made whole.

Jesus doesn’t just heal this man outwardly. He makes him whole.


The posters for the obscure indie film Sympathy for Delicious (Haven’t seen it, so I can’t recommend it) had a great tag line: “You get the healing you need, but not always the healing you want.”

That fits what Jesus does. Because Jesus isn’t just interested in body work. He’s about soul work.

People today tend to want an outside fix. “My life would be so much better if only my nose was fixed, or my teeth, or my hair, or my finances, or…”

But Jesus goes deeper. He makes you whole.

This is always the offer Jesus makes to anyone sick and dying inside, anyone trapped by a performance-oriented religious system that has prizes for those who come in first and has little for those who can’t make it into the magic pool.

He comes straight to you and stretches out his hand and makes his offer. Do you want to be made whole?

Not because of anything you do to make it happen. Not because you were first into the water. But because Jesus comes to you in your disability and makes you an offer.

See, from Christ’s perspective, he was surrounded by spiritually sick people locked into a performance-oriented folk religion. The Pool of Bethesda was just a microcosm for their whole system.

I received this email recently from a man who escaped just such a system: “ I was caught up in the long and tedious practice of trying to work my way to heaven. Grace was something I was taught only kicked in after you died: If you worked hard enough, grace would bridge the gap, so to speak. Now that I have accepted Christ, I understand how grace works. Grace comes first, and then out of your total gratitude to God you will naturally do good works.”

That’s exactly right. Grace gives you the power to walk.


This story does not end with the healing, of course. Able to walk for the first time in years, this man immediately bumps into the religious police, who place him under arrest for carrying his mat — not astounded that this disabled man is now walking, but outraged that he is breaking their laws against carrying stuff on the Sabbath!

For thirty-eight years this man had been trying to become whole by being first into the pool. Thirty-eight years of human effort. Then he gets healed by God’s grace — and the religious police tell him it’s the wrong day of the week.

It would not be the last time the theology of grace conflicted with the restrictions of legalism.

Legalism keeps people crippled with its rules. Grace empowers them to move forward.


In what area of your life are you feeling broken? What prevents you from embracing the desire to be “whole” in that area?