Sometimes while reading the Bible, I’ll start laughing because I put myself into the story. Like here in John 5:2-17, I’ll insert my commentary throughout the passage.
Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes.
What’s a portico?
In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
No, He asked if you wanted to be healed, man.
Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.
A drag no more.
Now it was the Sabbath on that day. So the Jews were saying to the man who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.”
If Jesus knew that this guy had been lame for years, didn’t the locals notice the miracle? What a bunch of kill-joys.
But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Pick up your pallet and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Pick up your pallet and walk’?”
They still aren’t picking up on the part where the man was healed. Why are these guys so caught up in a dude holding his mat?
But the man who was healed (at least the writer insists on mentioning the healing) did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
Wait, did anyone else catch that last part?
The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.
“Alright, if you’re going to harass anyone for healing me of a life-long handicap, blame this guy.”
For this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because He was doing these things on the Sabbath.
“Are you the guy who told that cripple to carry his rug?”
But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.”
“Yeah, I’m the guy. What are you going to do about it?”
Jesus flat-out admits to their accusation by saying, “I Myself and working.” What a bad-ass! And when the scripture says the Jews were persecuting Jesus, that’s a nice way of saying they wanted to kill Him. He had to know that. And then, for the rest of the chapter, Jesus talks about His authority as the Son of God and chastises the Jews for rejecting Him. Ouch. There is a lot I could talk about here, but I’m going to stick with the Sabbath for now.
The subject of the Sabbath, or God’s appointed day of rest, can irritate a lot of Christians. Let’s be honest, how many believers really observe the Sabbath? What is the Sabbath, anyway? And for that matter, when is the Sabbath? We talk about it so little that it becomes easy to ignore. I’ve thought about it more recently because of an argument I had with a guy. He observes the Sabbath, and on Saturday. “The real Sabbath,” he said. He got mad at me because I didn’t think it was necessary to observe all the Jewish laws so strictly.
“But it’s one of the Ten Commandments. How can you ignore that? And don’t tell me that you pick your own Sabbath. God appointed Saturday, that’s when we’re supposed to rest. You can’t change God’s rules,” he said.
I responded, “You know how much I like Jewish people, but we’re not Jews. As far as I know, we’re Gentiles. When the early church wanted to know if the Greek believers should convert to Judaism before Christianity, James told the church leaders, ‘But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.’” That’s Acts 21:25, in case you’re wondering. “Of all the commands they could have given the gentiles, they pretty much said, ‘don’t serve other gods or do things that glorify death, and stay sexually pure.’ They didn’t mention the Sabbath.”
We never really came to an agreement. This argument gets sticky because the two sides are both technically Biblical. God did command His people to observe the Sabbath. And God was serious about it. In other portions of the law, He tells His people to execute other Jews who don’t observe the Sabbath. Hence the Jews "persecuting" Jesus.
At the same time, Paul talks about the different applications of the law for Jewish and Gentile believers in Romans 2. It’s a pretty complicated passage, so I won’t get too deep into it. But notice verses 27 through 29, “And he who is physically uncircumcised (which was technically against the law for Jews), if he keeps the Law, will he not judge you who though having the letter of the Law and circumcision are a transgressor of the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.”
The point I want to make is this: Jesus didn’t break the law by healing a man on the Sabbath, and the man healed didn’t break the law by carrying his mat. The Sabbath was put in place to remind men that God created them for more than their work. It was meant to allow time for us to focus on our relationship with God. Jesus did as the Spirit of God led him to act, and the crippled man obeyed the Messiah. So if both of them acted in obedience, and their actions glorified God, how is that sin?
Galatians 5:3 says if you take one part of the law, you take on the whole of the law. And the message of Romans 2 is that Jews shouldn’t judge the Gentiles because they themselves fail at keeping the whole law. People who claim to observe the whole law and do so without having “circumcised their hearts”, or dedicated themselves to their relationship with God, they bring judgment on themselves. Jesus says this to the kill-joys in John 5. Those men were caught up in their image of perfection. If they had been concerned with glorifying God, they would have recognized the miracle and praised Him. Their trust in Him would have grown. Their relationship with Him would have deepened. And it’s in this deepening relationship that we find a true Sabbath of the heart.