The Pool of Bethesda
In the late 19th century, and then confirmed later during repairs in 1988 near St. Anne’s Church and The Sheep Gate, located in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City Jerusalem, an amazing discovery was made. Until this discovery, the validity of this pool described in John 5 was in question, causing many to doubt whether the writer had even been to Jerusalem or if he was simply telling a story much later than the times of Jesus. The historic archeological discovery confirmed the existence of the Pool of Bethesda and supports the miracle biblical account in the Gospel of John:
John 5:1-9 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath.
In the text above, John describes the pool as having 5 roofed colonnades which was not a normal pool design. Many pools were rectangular, but something was special about this one located near the Sheep Gate. Archeological evidence shows that the pool in fact was rectangular at the base but separated into two basins by a wall, thus creating a 5 sided pool, each having a portico (porch roof). The excavating revealed that the southern basin had broad steps with landings, indicating that it was actually a mikveh (ritual bath). The northern basin provided a reservoir to continually replenish and purify the mikveh with fresh, flowing water through the dam between them. Jerusalem’s pilgrims would flock to the Bethesda Pool to purify themselves and, at times, would also seek healing!
Jesus miracle at this site has many significant aspects. One that is called out in the scripture above is that the healing he provided was on the Sabbath. This was a common problem for the religious leaders of Jesus day and they often called Jesus out for healing on the Sabbath. You see, even to this day, Jews in Jerusalem (and many orthodox Jews around the world) are constantly rewriting the “rule book” on what God designed the Sabbath for in the first place. The Sabbath was given by God for us to have rest and to refresh us. It was never designed for man to be subject to the Sabbath…the Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath!
As we arrived in Israel, we arrived on the Sabbath, so this religious tradition was ever present when we arrived at our hotel the first night. We were somewhat prepared for the Sabbath, but not fully prepared for what we would witness. We knew the Jews treated the Sabbath very differently than we do in America, but I think we were still a bit surprised at the ritualistic nature of the Sabbath by the local Jews. For example, only one elevator functions on the Sabbath…the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) elevator. It continually runs up and down and stops at every floor. If a Jew is on the elevator, non-Jews are not to enter the elevator…some in our group were shooed away for trying! The elevator stops at each floor because it has been deemed that pushing an elevator button is work, and no work can be done on the Sabbath in Jewish traditions. Something that must get exhausting is that the rules must always be changing as technology changes – is pressing a touch screen phone considered work? There is debate over the use of touch screens, but the consensus of articles I have read say that it is not permissible to use a touch screen on the Sabbath! Unfortunately, ritualistic behaviors in Jewish traditions, as well as in American denominations, have taken away from the focus of the Gospel – it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ that we are saved, not by works or traditions…and our response to this amazing gift of grace? We love God and love others! It is not so surprising then to read about the Pharisees constant battle with Jesus over the Sabbath since this Sabbath battle is still happening to this day!
The Upper Room
We then visited a traditional spot representing what the Upper Room may have looked like where Jesus and the disciples met for the Passover meal:
Luke 22:7-13 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.” They said to him, “Where will you have us prepare it?” He said to them, “Behold, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him into the house that he enters and tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there.” And they went and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover
It is impossible to know the exact location of the upper room described here, so this traditional site was just a glimpse into what that room may have looked like. We also saw that there were upper rooms all over Jerusalem, many of which may have been used!
An interesting thing happened while we were in this upper room. Because it is a traditional holy site, many people visit here, so there is an armed guard – a secular guard at that. The acoustics were amazing in that room, so we began singing a hymn that resonated through the room and out the doors. Shortly after the first verse of the song, the guard came running in and told us we must stop, that if we wanted to sing we could go find a church! So we stopped, and left the upper room. We were thinking along the way, we just had church, with The Church Jesus commissioned to go into the entire world and declare His name. Differing opinions I guess!
It was a beautiful walk along the street with a statue of King David and his harp and the Zion Gate to the city.
In the next post, we will take a trip along the Via Dolorosa (The Way of Suffering – the steps Jesus took to the cross) as we visit the Old City Jerusalem! Once again, until then, Shalom!