Proclaiming Jesus in John 5

August 10, 2012

A portico as described in John 5:2

This Sunday our scripture is John 5:1-18, the healing of the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda (or Bethsaida or Bethzatha). I took a class on John’s gospel in seminary, and the professor and most of the books I read contrasted this man’s healing with the healing of the man born blind in John 9. The man born blind was a hero of faith for his fearless proclamation of Jesus. The former paraplegic, by contrast, is so ungrateful for what Jesus has done for him that he goes and rats Jesus out to the religious leaders, who, consequently, resolve to put him to death (vv. 15-18).

I no longer find this interpretation convincing. In fact, if Gail O’Day, a professor at Candler, had taught the class, she would have rejected this interpretation, too. As she rightly notes in her New Interpreter’s commentary on John, the former paralytic doesn’t merely “tell” the Jewish leaders (NIV, NRSV) that Jesus healed him; he “announces” to them that Jesus healed him, or, as the new CEB translates it, “proclaims” that Jesus healed him. The Greek word for “proclaim” is stronger than merely telling: it’s used in a few other places in John’s gospel, and it’s always used in a positive way.

The man doesn’t proclaim Jesus in order to rat him out, but because they had asked the man earlier. He’s simply telling the truth—he’s excited and he wants the world to know who healed him. He likely has no idea what motivates these leaders to ask.

Commentators on this text are also quick to note that there’s no mention of the man’s faith. There’s no word from Jesus about the man’s “faith making him well.” But there doesn’t need to be: the man had enough faith to believe Jesus when he commanded him to get up, take his mat, and walk. He responded in faith. What else was he supposed to do?

Another insight I’ve gained has to do with the nature of the religious controversy. Of course the religious authorities don’t approve of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. But the part of the story that puts Jesus in their crosshairs is his words in v. 17: “My Father is still working and I am working too.” While Jews were commanded to rest on the Sabbath, they didn’t believe that God was also resting. God worked on the Sabbath: babies were being born, after all, and God continued to govern and sustain the universe. Jesus tells his opponents that just as God works on the Sabbath, so does he.

These authorities correctly interpreted the meaning of these words: Jesus was claiming an equality with God—because, as Christians confess, Jesus is God.

In his NIV Application Commentary, evangelical scholar Gary Burge writes that this passage reminds him of C.S. Lewis’s famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” formulation from Mere Christianity. If Jesus claimed to be God and wasn’t, Lewis wrote, then he was either a liar or a lunatic. The religious authorities in today’s scripture would likely agree with him!

I’ve noticed that many people today strenuously object to Lewis’s formulation, mostly because, they say, Jesus never said that he was God. And that’s true: he never came right out and said it. It seems likely his ministry wouldn’t have lasted long if he had done so. Rather, this central Christological claim is implicit in his words and actions—just as it is throughout the whole New Testament. The Church made this clear during its debates about the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century.

John 5 makes this same Christological claim: Jesus is God. I’m sure this Sunday’s sermon will explore the question, “If Jesus is God, then what?” I like what Burge writes in his commentary:

In my academic community, the Jewish/Christian dialogue is predicated on the notion that together we will find religious commonalities that do not offend the other party. To speak otherwise is to “blaspheme” the process of interfaith discourse (cf. John 5:18). In the university marketplace of ideas, Christian religious belief is generally held suspect because most assume that lurking beneath the surface is an absolute argument for truth that wants to upend secular systems of thought and faith. They are right.[†]

Gary M. Burge, John: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 185.

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