John 5:4 is a verse that could and should raise questions in one’s mind about the character of God. Here is the verse with a little context:
“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” (John 5:2-4)
At times, we will be confronted with portions of scripture that do not make sense. There are various things we can then do to try to make sense out of what seems mysterious. Of course, pray and seek the guidance of the same Spirit that inspired the word.
The problem will often be that man has not handled the word well in the past. Here is an example. In the study sessions I lead we are going through the book of John. In our session just yesterday, as we came to chapter 5, I asked the group this question: “Is verse four true? Never mind the possibility that it was added or mistranslated or something, is it logical that it could be true and why or why not?” The group immediately answered “no, it could not be true” and they correctly saw that it was inconsistent with a loving God. We found that, in several ways, it just did not correspond with the way a God of love would do things:
- It says the first person in was healed, likely often the least sick – the opposite of what Jesus did. He chose to heal the case that was most unlikely to benefit from any supposed healing virtue in the stirred water.
- It made into a competition – trampling over each other to get there first.
- It held out a false hope for most – like a lottery.
- It kept them from their homes and families and possibly more-necessary attention to their health.
- There was the question of sanitation.
Is God like that? We should take the Bible as it reads but take the whole thing. We should ask “is this reasonable? Does this situation seem like God’s doing?” From the perspective of God’s loving character it doesn’t and so it seems that there is a problem. Well, fortunately, there is an easy solution to this one. One Bible commentary says this:
“Important textual evidence may be cited for omitting the words ‘waiting for the moving of the water,’ and the whole of v. 4.” (SDA Bible Commentary vol. 5, p.948)
In support of that, many Bible versions omit the words in question. Examples:
“In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. … One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” (John 5:3-5, English Standard Version – omits verse 4)
“On these walkways lay a great number of the sick, the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. … One man there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” (John 5:3-5, Berean Study Bible – omits verse 4)
It seems like this was all a tradition/superstition but there must have been some basis of fact behind it. There are various possibilities for the stirring of the water and its claimed effects:
- “The reality was that the water in the pool was moved by the periodic surge from an underwater spring.” (Morris, Gospel According to John, p302)
- Satan’s intervention – he can likely cause illness and withdraw the effect to suit his purposes – see Job chapter 1.
- The placebo effect added to the fact that the person who could move quickly enough to be the first one in was probably often not very sick to begin with.
In the case of John 5:4, the apparent inconsistency with the character of God is resolved by investigating the authenticity of the passage in question.