Four Profiles in Discipleship in the Gospel of John
Samaritan Woman
Lame man at the pool

Part IV: The lame man at the Pool of Bethzatha

After two days in Samaria, Jesus moves on into Jerusalem. There at the gate to the city he meets another potential disciple -- one of the many sick and forlorn who lay around a spring that supposedly can cure them. In the ancient world springs and groves were commonly associated with divine miracles. There were no hospitals, and doctors were often little more than magicians possessing charms and snake oils.(5) Medical cures were little more than trying to conjure up divine intervention. So it was that Bethzatha Spring attracted a crowd of the destitute, one of whom Jesus singles out. He was in particularly bad shape. For 38 years he had been paralyzed, and even now, so close to the water, he has been unable to immerse himself when the time of healing was thought to occur.

Jesus asks him a simple question: "Do you want to be healed" (5:6)? What a question! the man must think. He does not know with whom he is speaking and takes the question as an innuendo concerning his inability to get into the water. Rather than directly answering the question, he makes excuses for himself (5:7).

Jesus then dramatically clarifies himself by healing the man on the spot. But note how reticent the passage is about the response of the man. Sometimes the silence of the biblical narrative speaks as loudly as the dialogue. Apparently the man does not bother to engage Jesus in further conversation, for later he says he does not even know his benefactor's name (5:13)! When Jesus comes again to the obtuse man to give advice regarding the healing, does the man ask why Jesus chose him, or how he should live his life in response, or who Jesus is? No. Again the silence of the passage suggests that the healed man does not take any steps to grow in his knowledge of Jesus. Indeed, the only thing he really learns about Jesus is his name, which he promptly reports to the Jews. Even Nicodemus knew as much as to call Jesus a rabbi and a teacher who comes from God (3:2). And unlike Nicodemus, this paralytic is never heard of again in the Gospel. It is safe to assume that he is among those who did not seek out a life of discipleship. His potential was recognized by Jesus but was not realized because of his muted response.

Now skip ahead several chapters and consider the parallel healing of chapter 9. This story in many ways balances out chapter 5. Here a man is also severely afflicted, blind from birth. However, in this case, Jesus seems more concerned to display the man as a symbol of his ministry (9:3 ­ 5) than to call the man to be one of his disciples. Rather than directly deal with the blindness, he sends the man to wash in a nearby spring (9:7). Once he is healed, he seems to be about as little informed as the earlier paralytic. Jesus has disappeared from the scene, and the man does not know where he is (9:12). However, this man proves to be a tenacious scrapper, clinging to every bit of truth he can muster about Jesus. For one thing, he knows Jesus' name (9:11). For another thing, he stands up to the threats of the authorities and testifies unflinchingly to the truth. His courage is in deliberate contrast to his wary parents' lack of it (9:20-23).

There are two interrogations of the man. By the time the second one occurs (9:24 ­ 34), the man shows that he has been reflecting and resolving some things about Jesus. He knows that Jesus has been making disciples, and that those disciples are at odds with the ruling authorities. He knows that Jesus has performed the miracle through the power of God. He knows that his healing is an unparalleled event that demonstrates the divine origins of Jesus. The man's theology so threatens the status quo that the authorities drive him out of their midst. In effect, the man is excommunicated. In his blindness he at least had the comfort of fellowship, but in his sight he is forced to take a position of isolation. All of this has occurred without any communication with Jesus beyond the initial command to wash his eyes. The man has simply used his head and has come to some politically incorrect conclusions.

It is now that Jesus takes concern for the man as a potential disciple. No longer just a token of divine revelation meant to inspire the observing crowd, he is now a man who has started "seeing" the heavenly things his partner in chapter 5 missed. Jesus goes in search of him just as he sought out the Samaritan woman and the paralytic.

"Do you believe in the Son of Man" (9:35)? The man answers with a question: "And who is he, sir, so that I may believe in him" (9:36)? Again the word "sir" can be translated "lord." Even if the man is not addressing Jesus as Lord, at the very least he is yielding to Jesus as the one who can tell him heavenly things.

The Son of Man title is especially significant in the Gospel of John. It is Jesus' own way of referring to himself. No one calls him Son of Man in the Gospel. Only Jesus so identifies himself.

Why this title? In the Old Testament, in one of the last books of the canon written, the image of Son of Man is found. The scene is found in the Book of Daniel (7:1-14). The "Ancient of Days" (God) is seated apart from every other heavenly creature, and no one except "one like a son of man" can approach him. To this "son of man" figure is given all authority. Though the Bible describes many prophets and teachers who have come down from God and a select few (Enoch and Elijah) who have come up to God, the unique claim of Jesus is that he is the Son of Man who has both come down and up (cf. John 3:13). The divine origin and divine destiny of the Son of Man are thus a central claim to divine status in this Gospel. When Jesus so identifies himself to the man born blind, he is making a major disclosure to this would-be disciple. By such revelation, Jesus is inviting the man to become his disciple.(6)

"You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he" (9:37). Now the healed man addresses Jesus as "Lord," and this surely is the right translation. "'I believe.' And he worshipped him." Thus, the man born blind is now a disciple with sight. He who was cast out of fellowship with the Jews is now in proximity with the Son of Man. Of the four examples of potential disciples, this man has come perhaps the farthest.

These are the men and women who personally met Jesus. They are profiles of the varying responses that were elicited by encounters with the Lord. To summarize briefly: Nicodemus kept seeking, the Samaritan woman became a missionary, the paralytic was never heard of again, the man born blind provoked his own ostracism in order to associate with Jesus. Among these individual accounts we may find some evidence of our own histories. We come to understand ourselves and our own responses to the message of the Gospel. And is this not the very reason the stories are written, that we "may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing [we] may have life in his name" (20:31)?

5 Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book 28) surveys the medical treatments there were for human maladies in his day (circa 50 C.E.). Among the "medicines" he recommends are the ashes of charred wolf's skull, the horns of a stag, heads of mice, eyes of crabs, owls' brains, salt of vipers, frogs' livers, locusts, bats, and elephant lice. He even prescribes the gall of wild boars, horse's foam, woman's milk, the application of serpents' skins, the urine of calves which were unweaned, bears' grease, the extract of decocted buckshorn, and similar concoctions. Typical of the approach to medicine in Jesus' day were charms and roots described by Josephus which drove out demons and allowed healing to occur (J.W. 7.6.3; Ant. 8.2.5). The Book of Sirach gives a more palatable view of the healing arts (Sir 38:1-4,8,12-13), but Ben Sira is from a different age and socioeconomic position than the paralytic.

6 Jesus never calls himself "Messiah" or "Son of God" in the Gospel of John, though these are not incorrect. He allows others to call him what they like, but his own designation in the first 12 chapters is almost always Son or Son of Man. 12 times he calls himself Son of Man in the first half of the Gospel and only once in the second half (13:31-32). Implicit in the title is the whole scope of Jesus' earthly ministry and heavenly authority. Encountering the Son of Man in history cannot be divorced from encountering his exalted position before God. It is no wonder that Jesus would draw disciples to himself by claiming the title Son of Man in his public dialogues (3:13-14; 8:28; 12:23,32-34).

"Son of Man" is used variously in the other Gospels. When it refers to Jesus' identity, there are 3 senses: earthly ministry, death-resurrection, and future exaltation-judgment. John does not distinguish these senses when he uses the title. Rather he seems to blur the categories so that they are all applicable whenever Jesus cites Son of Man as his identity. All of this is to say that the man born blind is probably being asked if he wants to become a disciple. 

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(C) 1998, 2006 Mark Whitters