“Get up. Take up your bed and walk (on out of here).”
John 5 describes a scene in which Jesus approaches a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. Jesus finds the man on his mat, waiting beneath the five-columned porches at the healing pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem.
The text says that the pool was by the Sheep Gate, and it’s possible that before Bethesda became a place of healing, it was a pool used to wash the sheep that were brought to the city for sacrifices during the Jewish feasts.
The healing pool was likely not a mikvah (a pool for ritual immersion before entering the Jewish temple or synagogue), and was probably an Asclepeion. What is an Ascelpeion you wonder? Good question. Hold tight a sec.
Have you ever wondered why John includes the exact number of years the man had been an invalid? Me too. Surely he could have said, “The man had been this way most of his adult life…” trusting we would get the gist. But John wastes no words. He’d like us to pay attention: The man has been in this condition for thirty-eight years exactly. More on this in a minute.
During the time of Jesus and John, Jerusalem was the center for religious Jews, of course, but it was also thoroughly Hellenized (Greek; pagan). Sure, there was the jaw-dropping Jewish Temple built by Herod, but there were also gorgeous amphitheaters, modern gymnasiums, coliseums, healing centers, and beautiful pagan temples built by Rome to honor the myriad of state and local gods.
One of those gods was Asclepias, son of Apollos. Asclepias was the popular god of medicine and healing known for his compassion towards those who were sick (Bethesda means ‘House of Mercy’ in Hebrew). He was known and worshipped as the ‘Divine Physician’ and his mythological daughters were the goddesses Hygeia and Panacea.
Like today, the worship of health and wellness was a thriving cult during the time of Jesus and John. It’s been estimated that there were around four-hundred Asclepions throughout the Roman empire by the second century. Sounds about like Austin.
And so it is into this place that Jesus goes – directly into the physical and spiritual ideals of Rome. And it is in this place that he finds the man who is camped out on his mat waiting for his chance at a miracle from a benevolent pagan god.
“Get up. Take up your mat and walk (on out of here).”
Another thing. SNAKES (yikes) were key to Asclepias’s cult of health. Almost certainly, a prominent, naked, stone statue of Asclepias – a large snake feeding from his extended hand – would have welcomed all those visiting the pool. (PS. Archeologists have discovered snake figures at this five-porched Asclepeion just north of the Temple.)
As Jesus has already made a reference to a snake in his conversation with Nicodemus the last time he was in Jerusalem (John 3), my wheels have been turning. What’s the deal with snakes? What has happened in Israel’s historical narrative that might be unfolding here with Jesus in this place?
One of many snake references in the Torah is when Moses was chatting with the burning bush way back in Exodus 4. He asked Yahweh, “How will they (Pharaoh and Egypt’s gods) know that you are really with me?” And Yahweh said to him, “What’s in your hand? A staff you say? Throw it down on the ground…” And so Moses dropped his staff to the ground and it turned into a snake.
And Moses – smart man – ran away in the opposite direction! And God said, “No, Moses. Come on back, reach out your hand, and grab the serpent by the tail.” Can you even imagine (shudder)? And Moses, (I give him so much respect here) *did* and the snake became a staff again. Alright. Tuck that away.
Fast-forward now to Exodus 7 and Moses is standing with Aaron in Pharaoh’s presence (Pharaoh’s priests and Egyptian gods all represented), and Moses’s staff/snake swallows up all the other priest’’s snakes. Yep.
Now fast-forward again to the nation of Israel coming out of Egypt, led by Moses, and landing at Mount Sinai. Vows are made. All the people shout, “I do!” and promise to be faithful and true. They celebrate a wedding feast (Passover #2) and set up house for about a year.
And then God said, “Right! Time to move to the land I have prepared for you since I made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” and so Israel spends a year-ish (or so) traveling to Kadesh Barnea, and when they arrive it has been exactly two years since they’ve left Egypt. #thehoneymoonisover
And then Moses said, “It’s time! God has given us the land across the Jordan as an inheritance. Let’s send twelve spies – one from every tribe – to scout out the homeland he has sworn to give us so we can settle down for good.” And you know the rest of the story: ten of the twelve spies came back to Moses and said, “We can’t do it. God must hate us.”
And all the people were furious at the idea of God asking them to walk into harm’s way and they wanted to kill Joshua and Caleb for even considering it. “Why would God do this to us?” they cried. “There is NO WAY we can do this. We’ll be devoured like grasshoppers. Our children will become prey. Their gods and resources are stronger than ours. Since we can’t go back to Egypt, we choose to stay here.”
And Yahweh became super-angry (rightfully so) and said, “Seriously? Adonai your God has cared for you – carried you as a father carries his son – everywhere until this place. Will I stop now?” (generously paraphrased by the Kim Hall translation)
And he continued, “Beloved. I’ve given you every indication that I will provide for you and protect you. I have gone before and behind you every step of the way. I’ve gushed fresh water out of a rock and rained down nourishment out of heaven. Have your shoes worn out in all your travels? And yet still you prefer to lay your mat down here, and not walk into the land I have given you there?”
So for THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS the Israelites sat there on their mat.
Until every adult who had refused to take up his mat and walk in faith had died.
And then, in the fortieth year, God came to Joshua (one of the spies who came back and said, “We can do this with God!”) and said, “It’s time to go. I am with you as I was with Moses. Go tell my people to pick up their mats and walk into the new land I am giving them.” And they did. They walked straight into a pagan land by the power of Yahweh.
And their children were not prey.
Might John be showing us in John 5 a Son of Man who is greater than even Moses? One who also walks straight into a lion’s den to show the power of Yahweh over pagan gods and rescue his people?
Is John showing us a Son of Man – Jesus of Nazareth – who is even greater than faithful Joshua? One who walks into the land he loves to show the power of Yahweh over Ba’al and Asherah and bless his covenant people?
Is John showing us that God’s only beloved son was willing to get up from his place at the right hand of God and walk straight into Satan’s territory to show his power over chaos and sickness and dread?
I believe he is!
This certainly is good news indeed: The Father stretched out his own arm to bring about salvation for his people – for us – spiritual invalids hopelessly unable to help ourselves.
And The Son was carried down from the cross after breathing his last so those he came to save would not become prey. He would bring his own safely home to God, and the gates of hell would not prevail against him.
Shalom to you and yours.