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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 17

Tractate 17 (John 5:1-18)

1. It ought not to be a matter of wonder that a miracle was wrought by God; the wonder would be if man had wrought it. Rather ought we to rejoice than wonder that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was made man, than that He performed divine works among men. It is of greater importance to our salvation what He was made for men, than what He did among men: it is more important that He healed the faults of souls, than that He healed the weaknesses of mortal bodies. But as the soul knew not Him by whom it was to be healed, and had eyes in the flesh whereby to see corporeal deeds, but had not yet sound eyes in the heart with which to recognise Him as God concealed in the flesh, He wrought what the soul was able to see, in order to heal that by which it was not able to see.

He entered a place where lay a great multitude of sick folk— of blind, lame, withered; and being the physician both of souls and bodies, and having come to heal all the souls of them that should believe, of those sick folk He chose one for healing, thereby to signify unity. If in doing this we regard Him with a commonplace mind, with the mere human understanding and wit, as regards power it was not a great matter that He performed; and also as regards goodness He performed too little. There lay so many there, and yet only one was healed, while He could by a word have raised them all up. What, then, must we understand but that the power and the goodness was doing what souls might, by His deeds, understand for their everlasting salvation, than what bodies might gain for temporal health? For that which is the real health of bodies, and which is looked for from the Lord, will be at the end, in the resurrection of the dead. What shall live then shall no more die; what shall be healed shall no more be sick; what shall be satisfied shall no more hunger and thirst; what shall be made new shall not grow old. But at this time, however, the eyes of the blind, that were opened by those acts of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, were again closed in death; and limbs of the paralytics that received strength were loosened again in death; and whatever was for a time made whole in mortal limbs came to nought in the end: but the soul that believed passed to eternal life. Accordingly, to the soul that should believe, whose sins He had come to forgive, to the healing of whose ailments He had humbled Himself, He gave a significant proof by the healing of this impotent man. Of the profound mystery of this thing and this proof, so far as the Lord deigns to grant us, while you are attentive and aiding our weakness by prayer, I will speak as I shall have ability. And whatever I am not able to do, that will be supplied to you by Him by whose help I do what I can.

2. Of this pool, which was surrounded with five porches, in which lay a great multitude of sick folk, I remember that I have very often treated; and most of you will with me recollect what I am about to say, rather than gain the knowledge of it for the first time. But it is by no means unprofitable to go back upon matters already known, that both they who know not may be instructed, and they who do know may be confirmed. Therefore, as being already known, these things must be touched upon briefly, not leisurely inculcated. That pool and that water seem to me to have signified the Jewish people. For that peoples are signified under the name of waters the Apocalypse of John clearly indicates to us, where, after he had been shown many waters, and he had asked what they were, was answered that they were peoples. Revelation 17:15 That water, then— namely, that people— was shut in by the five books of Moses, as by five porches. But those books brought forth the sick, not healed them. For the law convicted, not acquitted sinners. Accordingly the letter, without grace, made men guilty, whom on confessing grace delivered. For this is what the apostle says: For if a law had been given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. Why, then, was the law given? He goes on to say, But the Scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. Galatians 3:21-22 What more evident? Have not these words expounded to us both the five porches, and also the multitude of sick folk? The five porches are the law. Why did not the five porches heal the sick folk? Because, if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. Why, then, did the porches contain those whom they did not heal? Because the Scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

3. What was done, then, that they who could not be healed in the porches might be healed in that water after being troubled? For on a sudden the water was seen troubled, and that by which it was troubled was not seen. You may believe that this was wont to be done by angelic virtue, yet not without some mystery being implied. After the water was troubled, the one who was able cast himself in, and he alone was healed: whoever went in after that one, did so in vain. What, then, is meant by this, unless it be that there came one, even Christ, to the Jewish people; and by doing great things, by teaching profitable things, troubled sinners, troubled the water by His presence, and roused it towards His own death? But He was hidden that troubled. For had they known Him, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. 1 Corinthians 2:8 Wherefore, to go down into the troubled water means to believe in the Lord's death. There only one was healed, signifying unity: whoever came thereafter was not healed, because whoever shall be outside unity cannot be healed.

4. Now let us see what He intended to signify in the case of that one whom He Himself, keeping the mystery of unity, as I said before, deigned to heal out of so many sick folk. He found in the number of this man's years the number, so to speak, of infirmity: He was thirty and eight years in infirmity. How this number refers more to weakness than to health must be somewhat more carefully expounded. I wish you to be attentive; the Lord will aid us, so that I may fitly speak, and that you may sufficiently hear. The number forty is commended to our attention as one consecrated by a kind of perfection. This, I suppose, is well known to you, beloved. The Holy Scriptures very often testify to the fact. Fasting was consecrated by this number, as you are well aware. For Moses fasted forty days, and Elias as many; and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did Himself fulfill this number of fasting. By Moses is signified the law; by Elias, the prophets; by the Lord, the gospel. It was for this reason that these three appeared on that mountain, where He showed Himself to His disciples in the brightness of His countenance and vesture. For He appeared in the middle, between Moses and Elias, as the gospel had witness from the law and the prophets. Romans 3:21 Whether, therefore, in the law, or in the prophets, or in the gospel, the number forty is commended to our attention in the case of fasting. Now fasting, in its large and general sense, is to abstain from the iniquities and unlawful pleasures of the world, which is perfect fasting: That, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we may live temperately, and righteously, and godly in this present world. What reward does the apostle join to this fast? He goes on to say: Looking for that blessed hope, and the appearing of the glory of the blessed God, and our Saviour Jesus Christ. Titus 2:12-13 In this world, then, we celebrate, as it were, the forty days' abstinence, when we live aright, and abstain from iniquities and from unlawful pleasures. But because this abstinence shall not be without reward, we look for that blessed hope, and the revelation of the glory of the great God, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ. In that hope, when the reality of the hope shall have come to pass, we shall receive our wages, a penny (denarius). For the same is the wages given to the workers laboring in the vineyard, Matthew 20:10 as I presume you remember; for we are not to repeat everything, as if to persons wholly ignorant and inexperienced. A denarius, then, which takes its name from the number ten, is given, and this joined with the forty makes up fifty; whence it is that before Easter we keep the Quadragesima with labor, but after Easter we keep the Quinquagesima with joy, as having received our wages. Now to this, as if to the wholesome labor of a good work, which belongs to the number forty, there is added the denarius of rest and happiness, that it may be made the number fifty.

5. The Lord Jesus Himself showed this also far more openly, when He companied on earth with His disciples during forty days after His resurrection; and having on the fortieth day ascended into heaven, did at the end of ten days send the wages, the Holy Ghost. These were done in signs, and by a kind of signs were the very realities anticipated. By significant tokens are we fed, that we may be able to come to the enduring realities. We are workmen, and are still laboring in the vineyard: when the day is ended and the work finished, the wages will be paid. But what workman can hold out to the receiving of the wages, unless he be fed while he labors? Even you yourself will not give your workman only wages; will you not also bestow on him that where with he may repair his strength in his labor? Surely you feed him to whom you are to give wages. In like manner also does the Lord, in those significant tokens of the Scriptures, feed us while we labor. For if that joy in understanding holy mysteries be withdrawn from us, we faint in labor, and there will be none to come to the reward.

6. How, then, is work perfected in the number forty? The reason, it may be, is, because the law was given in ten precepts, and was to be preached throughout the whole world: which whole world, we are to mark, is made up of four quarters, east and west, south and north, whence the number ten, multiplied by four, comes to forty. Or, it may be, because the law is fulfilled by the gospel, which has four books: for in the gospel it is said, I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. Whether, then, it be for this reason or for that, or for some other more probable, which is hid from us, but not from more learned men; certain it is, however, that in the number forty a certain perfection in good works is signified, which good works are most of all practised by a kind of abstinence from unlawful lusts of the world, that is, by fasting in the general sense.

Hear also the apostle when he says, Love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 10:10 Whence the love? By the grace of God, by the Holy Spirit. For we could not have it from ourselves, as if making it for ourselves. It is the gift of God, and a great gift it is: for, says he, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is given to us. Romans 5:5 Wherefore love completes the law, and most truly it is said, Love is the perfecting of the law. Let us inquire as to this love, in what manner the Lord does commend it to our consideration. Remember what I laid down: I want to explain the number thirty-eight of the years of that impotent man, why that number thirty-eight is one of weakness rather than of health. Now, as I was saying, love fulfills the law. The number forty belongs to the perfecting of the law in all works; but in love two precepts are committed to our keeping. Keep before your eyes, I beseech you, and fix in your memory, what I say; be ye not despisers of the word, that your soul may not become a trodden path, where the seed cast cannot sprout, and the fowls of the air will come and gather it up. Apprehend it, and lay it up in your hearts. The precepts of love, given to us by the Lord, are two: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:37-40 With good reason did the widow cast two mites, all her substance, into the offerings of God: with good reason did the host take two pieces of money, for the poor man that was wounded by the robbers, for his making whole: with good reason did Jesus spent two days with the Samaritans, to establish them in love. Thus, while a certain good thing is generally signified by this number two, most especially is love in its twofold character set forth to us thereby. If, therefore, the number forty possesses the perfecting of the law, and the law is fulfilled only in the twin precepts of love, why do you wonder that he was weak and sick, who was short of forty by two?

7. Therefore let us now see the sacred mystery whereby this impotent man is healed by the Lord. The Lord Himself came, the Teacher of love, full of love, shortening, as it was predicted of Him, the word upon the earth, and showed that the law and the prophets hang on two precepts of love. Upon these hung Moses with his number forty, upon these Elias with his; and the Lord brought in this number in His testimony. This impotent man is healed by the Lord in person; but before healing him, what does He say to him? Will you be made whole? The man answered that he had not a man to put him into the pool. Truly he had need of a man to his healing, but that man one who is also God. For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:5 He came, then, the Man who was needed: why should the healing be delayed? Arise, says He; take up your bed, and walk. He said three things: Arise, Take up your bed, and Walk. But that Arise was not a command to do a work, but the operation of healing. And the man, on being made whole, received two commands: Take up your bed, and Walk. I ask you, why was it not enough to say, Walk? Or, at any rate, why was it not enough to say, Arise? For when the man had arisen whole, he would not have remained in the place. Would it not be for the purpose of going away that he would have arisen? My impression is, that He who found the man lacking two things, gave him these two precepts: for, by ordering him to do two things, it is as if He filled up that which was lacking.

8. How, then, do we find the two precepts of love indicated in these two commands of the Lord? Take up your bed, says He, and walk. What the two precepts are, my brethren, recollect with me. For they ought to be thoroughly familiar to you, and not merely to come into your mind when they are recited by us, but they ought never to be blotted out from your hearts. Let it ever be your supreme thought, that you must love God and your neighbor: God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. These must always be pondered, meditated, retained, practised, and fulfilled. The love of God comes first in the order of enjoying; but in the order of doing, the love of our neighbor comes first. For He who commanded you this love in two precepts did not charge you to love your neighbor first, and then God, but first God, afterwards your neighbor. Thou however, as you do not yet see God dost earn to see Him by loving your neighbor; by loving your neighbor you purge your eye for seeing God, as John evidently says, If you love not your brother whom you see, how can you love God, whom you do not see? 1 John 4:20 See, you are told, Love God. If you say to me, Show me Him, that I may love Him; what shall I answer, but what the same John says: No man has seen God at any time? And, that you may not suppose yourself to be wholly estranged from seeing God, he says, God is love; and he that dwells in love dwells in God. 1 John 4:16 Therefore love your neighbor; look at the source of your love of your neighbor; there you will see, as you may, God. Begin, then, to love your neighbor. Break your bread to the hungry, and bring into your house him that is needy without shelter; if you see the naked, clothe him; and despise not those of the household of your seed. And in doing this, what will you get in consequence? Then shall your light break forth as the morning light. Isaiah 58:7-8 Your light is your God, a morning light to you, because He shall come to you after the night of this world: for He neither rises nor sets, because He is ever abiding. He will be a morning light to you on your return, He who had set for you on your falling away from Him. Therefore, in this Take up your bed, He seems to me to have said, Love your neighbor.

9. But why the love of our neighbor is set forth by the taking up of the bed, is still shut up, and, as I suppose, needs to be expounded: unless, perhaps, it offend us that our neighbor should be indicated by means of a bed, a stolid, senseless thing. Let not my neighbor be angry if he be set forth to us by a thing without soul and without feeling. The Lord Himself, even our Saviour Jesus Christ, is called the corner-stone, to build up two in Himself. He is called also a rock, from which water flowed forth: And that rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:4 What wonder, then, if Christ is called rock, that neighbor is called wood? Yet not any kind of wood whatever; as neither that was any kind of rock soever, but one from which water flowed to the thirsty; nor any kind soever of stone, but a corner-stone, which in itself coupled two walls coming from different directions. So neither may you take your neighbor to be wood of any kind soever, but a bed. Then what is there in a bed, pray? What, but that the impotent man was borne on it; but, when made whole, he carries the bed? What does the apostle say? Bear ye one another's burdens, and so shall you fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2 Now the law of Christ is love, and love is not fulfilled except we bear one another's burdens. Forbearing, says he, one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Ephesians 4:2 When you were weak your neighbor bore you: you are made whole, bear your neighbor. So will you fill up, O man, that which was lacking to you. Take up your bed, then. But when you have taken it up, stay not in the place; walk. By loving your neighbor, by caring for your neighbor, do you perform your going. Where are you going, but to the Lord God, whom we ought to love with the whole heart, and with the whole soul, and with the whole mind? For we are not yet come to the Lord, but we have our neighbor with us. Bear him, then, when you walk, that you may come to Him with whom you desire to abide. Therefore, take up your bed, and walk.

10. The man did this, and the Jews were offended. For they saw a man carrying his bed on the Sabbath day, and they did not blame the Lord for healing him on the Sabbath, that He should be able to answer them, that if any of them had a beast fallen into a well, he would surely draw it out on the Sabbath day, and save his beast; and so, now they did not object to Him that a man was made whole on the Sabbath day, but that the man was carrying his bed. But if the healing was not to be deferred, should a work also have been commanded? It is not lawful for you, say they, to do what you are doing, to take up your bed. And he, in defence, put the author of his healing before his censors, saying, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up your bed, and walk. Should I not take injunction from him from whom I received healing? And they said, Who is the man that said unto you, Take up your bed, and walk?

11. But he that was made whole knew not who it was that had said this to him. For Jesus, when He had done this, and given him this order, turned away from him in the crowd. See how this also is fulfilled. We bear our neighbor, and walk towards God; but Him, to whom we are walking, we do not yet see: for that reason also, that man did not yet know Jesus. The mystery herein intimated to us is, that we believe in Him whom we do not yet see; and that He may not be seen, He turns aside in the crowd. It is difficult in a crowd to see Christ: a certain solitude is necessary for our mind; it is by a certain solitude of contemplation that God is seen. A crowd has noise; this seeing requires secrecy. Take up your bed— being yourself borne, bear your neighbor; and walk, that you may come to the goal. Do not seek Christ in a crowd: He is not as one of a crowd; He excels all crowd. That great fish first ascended from the sea, and He sits in heaven making intercession for us: as the great high priest He entered alone into that within the veil; the crowd stands without. Do thou walk, bearing your neighbor: if you have learned to bear, you, who were wont to be borne. In a word, even now as yet you know not Jesus, not yet see Jesus: what follows thereafter? Since that man desisted not from taking up his bed and walking, Jesus sees him afterwards in the temple. He did not see Jesus in the crowd, he saw Him in the temple. The Lord Jesus, indeed, saw him both in the crowd and in the temple; but the impotent man does not know Jesus in the crowd, but he knows Him in the temple. The man came then to the Lord: saw Him in the temple, saw Him in a consecrated, saw Him in a holy place. And what does the Lord say to him? Behold, you are made whole; sin no more, lest some worse thing befall you.

12. The man, then, after he saw Jesus, and knew Him to be the author of his healing, was not slothful in preaching Him whom he had seen: He departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus that had made him whole. He brought them word, and they were mad against him; he preached his own salvation, they sought not their own salvation.

13. The Jews persecuted the Lord Jesus because He did these things on the Sabbath day. Let us hear what answer the Lord now made to the Jews. I have told you how He is wont to answer concerning the healing of men on the Sabbath day, that they used not on the Sabbath day to slight their cattle, either in delivering or in feeding them. What does He answer concerning the carrying of the bed? A manifest corporal work was done before the eyes of the Jews; not a healing of the body, but a bodily work, which appeared not so necessary as the healing. Let the Lord, then, openly declare that the sacrament of the Sabbath, even the sign of keeping one day, was given to the Jews for a time, but that the fulfillment of the sacrament had come in Himself. My Father, says He, works hitherto, and I work. He sent a great commotion among them: the water is troubled by the coming of the Lord, but yet He that troubles is not seen. Yet one great sick one is to be healed by the troubled water, the whole world by the death of the Lord.

14. Let us see, then, the answer made by the Truth: My Father works hitherto, and I work. Is it false, then, which the Scripture has said, that God rested from all His works on the seventh day? And does the Lord Jesus speak contrary to this Scripture ministered by Moses, while He Himself says to the Jews, If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for He wrote of me? See, then, whether Moses did not mean it to be significant of something that God rested on the seventh day. For God had not become wearied in doing the work of His own creation, and needed rest as a man. How can He have been wearied, who made by a word? Yet is both that true, that God rested from His works on the seventh day; and this also is true that Jesus says, My Father works hitherto. But who can unfold it in words, man to men, weak to weak, unlearned to them that seek to learn; and if he chance to understand somewhat, unable to bring it forth and unfold it to men, who with difficulty, it may be, receive it, even if what is received can possibly be unfolded? Who, I say, my brethren, can unfold in words how God both works while at rest, and rests while working? I pray you to put this matter off while you are advancing on the way; for this seeing requires the temple of God, requires the holy place. Bear your neighbor, and walk. You shall see Him in that place where you shall not require the words of men.

15. Perhaps we can more appropriately say this, that in the saying, God rested on the seventh day, he signified by a great mystery the Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself, who spoke and said, My Father works hitherto, and I work. For the Lord Jesus is, of course, God. For He is the Word of God, and you have heard that in the begin ning was the Word; and not any word whatsoever, but the Word was God, and all things were made by Him. He was perhaps signified as about to rest on the seventh day from all His works. For, read the Gospel, and see what great works Jesus wrought. He wrought our salvation on the cross, that all things foretold by the prophets might be fulfilled in Him. He was crowned with thorns; He hung on the tree; said, I thirst, received vinegar on a sponge, that it might be fulfilled which was said, And in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. And when all His works were completed, on the sixth day of the week, He bowed His head and gave up the ghost, and on the Sabbath day He rested in the tomb from all His works. Therefore it is as if He said to the Jews, Why do you expect that I should not work on the Sabbath? The Sabbath day was ordained for you for a sign of me. You observe the works of God: I was there when they were made, by me were they all made; I know them. 'My Father works hitherto.' The Father made the light, but He spoke that there should be light; if He spoke, it was by His Word He made it: His Word I was, I am; by me was the world made in those works, by me the world is ruled in these works. My Father worked when He made the world, and hitherto now works while He rules the world: therefore by me He made when He made, and by me He rules while He rules. This He said, but to whom? To men deaf, blind, lame, impotent, not acknowledging the physician, and as if in a frenzy they had lost their wits, wishing to slay Him.

16. Further, what said the evangelist as he went on? Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but said also that God was His Father; not in any ordinary manner, but how? Making Himself equal with God. For we all say to God, Our Father which art in heaven; we read also that the Jews said, Seeing You are our Father. Isaiah 63:16 Therefore it was not for this they were angry, because He said that God was His Father, but because He said it in quite another way than men do. Behold, the Jews understand what the Arians do not understand. The Arians, in fact, say that the Son is not equal with the Father, and hence it is that the heresy was driven from the Church. Lo, the very blind, the very slayers of Christ, still understood the words of Christ. They did not understand Him to be Christ, nor did they understand Him to be the Son of God: but they did nevertheless understand that in these words such a Son of God was intimated to them as should be equal with God. Who He was they knew not; still they did acknowledge such a One to be declared, in that He said God was His Father, making Himself equal with God. Was He not therefore equal with God? He did not make Himself equal, but the Father begot Him equal. Were He to make Himself equal, He would fall by robbery. For he who wished to make himself equal with God, while he was not so, fell, and of an angel became a devil, Isaiah 14:14 and administered to man that cup of pride by which himself was cast down. For this fallen said to man, envying his standing, Taste, and you shall be as gods; Genesis 3:5 that is, seize to yourselves by usurpation that which you are not made, for I also have been cast down by robbery. He did not put forth this, but this is what he persuaded to. Christ, however, was begotten equal to the Father, not made; begotten of the substance of the Father. Whence the apostle thus declares Him: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God. What means thought it not robbery? He usurped not equality with God, but was in that equality in which He was begotten. And how were we to come to the equal God? He emptied Himself, taking upon Him the form of a servant. Philippians 2:6 But He emptied Himself not by losing what He was, but by taking to Him what He was not. The Jews, despising this form of a servant, could not understand the Lord Christ equal to the Father, although they had not the least doubt that He affirmed this of Himself, and therefore were they enraged: and yet He still bore with them, and sought the healing of them, while they raged against Him.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701017.htm>.

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