We just read through John 5 in our Greek refresher course. After working through the miracle story at the beginning of the chapter—the one where Jesus heals the lame man at the pool—I spent some time trying to figure out what it is that John wants us to take away from the story. I’ll just say that it wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be. I suppose I should have known better. After all, narratives are stories, not essays, which means the author doesn’t come right out and advertise his point. He expects readers will simply pick it up from the clues he’s left behind. The fact that John later tells us the purpose of his gospel helps a bit (20:31), though it doesn’t immediately tell us how any particular narrative fits into that larger agenda. So, what’s the point of Jesus’ miracle at the pool? Let me try to surface it with three observations.
First, John begins the miracle story with the words “after these things” (5:1). He puts the same line right after the final words of Jesus’ discourse (6:1). This suggests that John wants us to read the miracle story in vv. 1–15 with the discourse that follows it in vv. 16–47. He wants us to see all of ch. 5 as one narrative. This means that we won’t find the point of the miracle story until we’ve read to the end of the chapter.
Second, John gives quite a bit of attention in the miracle story to what happened after the miracle (vv. 9–15). In fact, it’s the response to something that happened after the miracle that leads right into Jesus’ discourse, which fills the rest of the chapter (see, e.g., the repetition of Sabbath in vv. 9b, 10, 16, 18). What, it seems, John wants us to see—to feel—is the strangeness of the response of Jerusalem’s religious leaders to Jesus’ miracle. He wants us to ask, esp. in light of the dialogue in vv. 10–12, why they pass by the man’s healed legs and focus only on the mat under his arm. John, of course, wouldn’t want us to miss Jesus’ compassion (e.g., vv. 5–6) or the relationship between the man’s suffering and sin (v. 14). But he also wouldn’t want us to think those were his main concerns either. The story is set up to make us see that the religious leaders—and even the healed man (v. 13)—were missing something right in front of their noses and it wants us to ask why.
Third, John wants us to read Jesus’ discourse, then, with all this in mind. He wants us to wonder, e.g., why Jesus’ works failed to authenticate the sort of claims Jesus makes in his defense before these religious leaders (vv. 16–30; see also vv. 36b, 38b, 40). He wants us to wonder why they accepted John the B’s testimony only to later reject it (v. 35), or why they failed to grasp the meaning of their own Scriptures (vv. 36–40). Why, in other words, did they focus on the mat instead of the miracle and think Jesus violated rather than fulfilled their law? Why did the very things that were meant to inspire their worship (vv. 29b, 23b) incite their hatred (v. 16)? What had gone so terribly wrong? John finally gives us the answer in Jesus’ closing remarks (vv. 41–47): Jesus’ opponents—and how many others since?—rejected his claims not because his witnesses were weak but because their testimony was drowned out by a competing voice. Jesus’ opponents had missed reality because their ears were stopped by an idol’s fingers. The idol, in this case, was the approval of men, of peers (vv. 41, 44).
In short, I suspect John included this narrative in his gospel to answer one of the most difficult questions posed to the early Christians: “Why should I believe that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, God’s son, when his own people didn’t?” John’s answer: some people rejected Jesus simply because an idol kept them from seeing reality. (He who has an ear….)