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, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.
Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, ‘Do you want to be made 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.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’ And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath.”
John 5:10-18, “The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’ (Note: This word “bed” literally means “pallet.”) He answered them, ‘He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’ Then they asked him, ‘Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?’ But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. (This word “withdrawn” means to dodge. Knowing the environment around the Pool, Jesus wisely decided to remove himself from the situation.)
Afterward Jesus found him in the temple (this was the first time in 38 years the man was permitted to worship), and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.’ (This verse could be better translated as, “Because you’ve been made well, sin no more.” Note: The tense Jesus used indicated He was not referring to the act of sinning, but a lifestyle of sin.) The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath.
(Keep in mind this opposition is still relatively early in Jesus’ ministry.) But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.’ Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.”
In order to understand this bizarre reaction by the Jewish religious leaders to this man’s miraculous healing at the Pool of Bethesda and then to explain Jesus’ response to their bizarre reaction, it’s important we address two larger concepts at work here…
First, what was God’s intended purpose behind the Sabbath Day? And secondly, how and why had these first-century Jewish leaders so warped the Sabbath Day into something God never intended it to be. I mean what kind of crazy theology would cause a person to be more focused on a rule-keeping than life-transformation!
For starters, it’s important to point out the idea of the Sabbath predated the Law of Moses entirely. In actuality, the Sabbath was first instituted by God in the Creation narrative.
In Genesis 2:1-3 we’re told, “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the 7th day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the 7th day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the 7th day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.”
On the “seventh day” of the creation account we’re told two interesting things took place. First, after seeing “everything that He had made” and determining that “indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31), on the “seventh day” God “ended His work” and “rested.”
In the Hebrew the word we have translated as “ended” literally means God’s work was “accomplished.” According to Moses God’s creation of “the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished” which explains why God then “rested” on the 7th day.
Please note this word “rested” does not imply God was tired and needed a vacation. Instead, the word simply indicated the “cessation of what was happening before.” In the Hebrew the word “rested” is “shabath” which is the primitive root for “shabbath.” In the English we translate this as Sabbath. God “ended His work” and took a “Sabbath!”
Since Genesis 2 is the first mention of the Sabbath Day of rest, we should ask… Why would God “end His work” and cease creating? Had God run out of innovative ideas or had the purpose of His creation been reached? Obviously the answer lies in the latter…
Because the climax of and ultimate purpose behind all of His creation had been achieved at the end of the 6th day when God formed man, He could now “rest” from or cease His work.
What this means is that this “seventh day” (the number seven indicating completion) signified the consummation of creation, now operating as it was designed, with mankind enjoying an open and uninterrupted relationship with the Creator. God’s work ceased because He was finished. God and man could now enjoy this perfect, unencumbered relationship. You see rest for man was found in a relationship with God afforded through a work of God!
Secondly, this explains why we’re then told “God blessed and sanctified the seventh day.” In the Hebrew “blessed” or “barak” means “to praise or salute.” As one commentator observed, “‘Blessed’ is a statement of good will as well as the condition that fulfills those good words.” A better translation for “God blessed” would be “God favored” the 7th day.
Understand… God favored the “seventh day” and “sanctified” it (literally He set this day apart from the other six) because it was the day He was finally able to cease His work and enjoy His relationship with humanity! In a sense, there was nothing more God needed to do for man to fully enjoy and experience the life He had created for him.
Keep in mind that, while there is no mandate in Genesis 2 for man to cease from his work on the “seventh day,” this is not the case with the Levitical Law. Not only does God later command man to cease from his work on the Sabbath, but it’s important to note the premise for this directive is specifically tethered to the original Sabbath Day God took in Genesis.
In Exodus 20:8-11 Moses presents to Israel the following command from God, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work… For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”
What’s interesting about this passage is that in placing the command for the children of Israel to cease from working on the Sabbath into the context of the “seventh day” recorded in Genesis 2, the idea being presented is that the Sabbath actually had nothing to do with man’s work and was instead designed as a day to recognize the completion of God’s! Don’t miss the line that “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God.”
To this point in Exodus 31:12-17 “the LORD spoke to Moses… ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. You shall keep the Sabbath for it is holy to you… Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested.’”
Please realize… The point of the Sabbath was to (A) Serve as a constant reminder that it was only through God’s work that humanity was originally afforded a relationship with God on the “seventh day”, and (B) Since our subsequent actions ruined this relationship, it could only be through a reinstitution of God’s work and the end of His Sabbath that this relationship would be restored.
In a real and profound way the Sabbath Day was God’s way of telling humanity to stop trying to fix something only He could! Man taking a day to cease from his work was “a sign between God and man that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctified you.” This word “sanctified” means “to be set apart” or treated as though one is holy.
By design if you were to walk into ancient Israel several things were supposed to stand out as being different… First, Israel was to be a kingdom without a king. Second, they worshipped at a temple without an idol. And thirdly, they had a day in which no one worked. This Sabbath Day of rest was designed to set Israel apart from the rest of the world.
God even goes so far as to claim in Exodus 31 that the Sabbath was designed to be “a perpetual covenant” between Himself and Israel for “on the seventh day He rested.” It wasn't a covenant between Israel and God! The reality is that the Sabbath Day intended to illustrate a concept of such significance that “whoever did any work” was to “surely be put to death.”
What I find deeply interesting is that this “seventh day” or God’s Sabbath (when He rested from His work - the true Sabbath the Levitical command harkened back too) had only occurred once in human history! “God rested” on the original “seventh day!”
And yet, as a consequence of the Fall, when man sinned in the Garden of Eden thereby separating himself from a relationship with his Creator, God specifically ended His rest (His Sabbath) and proceeded to busy Himself with the work of redemption!
C.H. Mackintosh observes the seventh day “showed forth the completeness of creation work; but creation work is marred, and the seventh day rest interrupted; and thus, from the fall to the incarnation, God was working; from the incarnation to the cross, God the Son was working; and from Pentecost until now, God the Holy Ghost has been working.”
You see the “seventh day” was originally “blessed and sanctified by God” and then later, in the Law, it was commanded that man cease from his work on this holy day, because of what the Sabbath ultimately represented! The Sabbath intended to serve as a reminder to the Jewish people that the only way their relationship with God could be restored would not be through their work, but rather through the completion of God’s work!
The big problem Jesus had with the “Religious Right” in His day was the fact they had twisted the Sabbath into being something it in no way represented. They had taken a command meant to recognize God’s continual work and made it into a way they could earn God’s favor through their obedience. Sadly, the Sabbath emphasized the exact opposite. Rest came through God’s work, not ours! The “seventh day” represented grace!
You see rest in the truest sense can only be found in a relationship with God (what Adam and Eve originally enjoyed on the very first Sabbath Day). And yet, that relationship was tarnished by man’s sin effectively ending his rest as well as God’s Sabbath. Man was commanded to take a day off of his work in order to recognize this very reality!
Once again, the Sabbath Day intended to illustrate that a relationship with God was only made possible through the completed work of God! Therefore, rest was not something man could earn, achieve, maintain, or work for, but was something that could only be yielded through a restored relationship enabled by a work of God.
Look again at what we find in John 5:16-18… “For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.’ Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.”
Make no mistake about it Jesus says two things these religious leaders were absolutely offended by! First, Jesus points out that God had never taken a Sabbath Day since that first seventh day. Jesus is clear, “My Father has been working until now.”
Since the Fall of Man God had been actively working every single day in order to provide a way for His relationship with man to be restored from the effects of sin. In making this point Jesus is intentionally poking a whole in their theological understanding of the Sabbath Day. They were flat out wrong in what they believed. On the Sabbath Day man ceased working not to earn God’s favor, but to recognize God’s continual work!
Secondly, since Jesus claimed to be God, He also points out that the Sabbath Day didn’t apply to Him at all. “My Father has been working until now” so “I have been working.” You see Jesus’ healing of the man at the Pool of Bethesda wasn’t inconsistent with the Sabbath. In actuality, the work Jesus preformed in the man’s life was what the Sabbath intended to illustrate… God yielding a work in man that man’s work could never yield!
What this man at the Pool of Bethesda couldn’t do through his own energy, efforts, his work to experience complete healing and restoration, Jesus was able to accomplish with one powerful word. Jesus commanded the man to “Rise!” and “immediately he was made well!” It wasn’t a work that necessitated his involvement, but one done apart from his involvement.
The second overarching concept that demands our attention is how and why had these first-century Jewish leaders so warped the Sabbath Day into being something God never intended it to be? I think the answer to this question is equally important.
First, it’s important to note that within the Levitical Law the concept behind the Sabbath transcended just taking a day off. Sure, Saturday was the Sabbath Day of rest, but the Law also stipulated every 7th year the Jews allow the land to rest. Aside from this there was what’s known as the “Year of Jubilee” or the 7th of seven years - the 49 year. Truth be told, all kinds of grace-manifesting-things occurred on the Year of Jubilee adding to the picture.
Frankly, throughout their long and checkered history, the Jewish people were spotty when it came to obeying these various Sabbaths and would suffer severe consequences as a result. According to Jeremiah 25:11 and confirmed in 2 Chronicles 36:18-21, because the people hadn’t obeyed the 7th year Sabbath for 490 years, their Babylonian exile would last 70 years.
Fast-forward to Nehemiah 13 - which in chronology is the last of the historical books leading up to Matthew’s Gospel. These 70 years in Babylonian exile had been completed and the people were allowed to return to the land. And yet, upon their return, Nehemiah has to caution them concerning the very three things that had led to their initial ruin.
In this final chapter, Nehemiah tells the people to (1) Maintain a high regard for the Temple, (2) Protect against marrying with the surrounding, Gentiles nations that worshipped idols, and (3) Keep the Sabbath Day holy! Nehemiah 13:17-18, “Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said to them, ‘What evil thing is this that you do, by which you profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers do thus, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring added wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.’”
What becomes really interesting is that during the next 400 years (these dark years from Nehemiah to Matthew), fearing the judgment of God, the Hebrew people had taken Nehemiah’s exhortation so seriously they took the three concepts to an extreme.
Maintaining the Temple had become more important than worshipping the God within the Temple. In their attempt to remain separate from the Gentile world, the Jews had developed a deep-seeded bigotry towards anyone that wasn’t full-blooded Hebrew.
And as it pertained to the Sabbath, because the people wanted desperately to obey, they added to Scripture a massive amount of traditions. You see, while the Law simply said not to work on the Sabbath, the religious leaders sought to define what God meant by work.
I won’t bore you with all the examples of this, because our text does a good job illustrating how idiotic things had become. Consider that in light of a man who’d been supernaturally healed, the religious leaders demonstrated more concern that the healing might have constituted work and violated the Sabbath than celebrating the fact a man had been healed!
How had a good desire to obey God become so warped and misguided that religious people who should have known better ended up acting in such a detestable way? Note: I think the answer to this question is important, because it happens in the church all the time.
First, it would seem the motivation for their obedience became a fear of God and not a love for God. Knowing it had been their disobedience that had resulted in the judgment of God (Babylonian captivity), the people feared repeating the same mistake. And yet, sadly this fear led to an even worse sin - moralism. Obedience had became the mechanism to earn or maintain God’s favor as opposed to being the natural response of His favor.
It’s to this point in Mark 2:27-28 “Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.’”
Can we be honest for a minute that this is how the root of legalism develops in our own life? For example, let’s say in a season of rebellion alcohol became a vice that with time yielded some type of judgment (a DUI, ruined relationship, or a lost job). It’s only natural that moving forward you avoid drinking because you don’t want to experience that judgment again.
And yet, if fear of judgment is your sole motivation for not drinking, do you know what happens? The act of abstinence becomes a source for moral pride. What started as a fear of judgment eventually becomes a reason you believe God is pleased with you. God’s favor becomes rooted in your performance as opposed to a manifestation of His grace! Pride in your ability to be obedient slowly supplants a full reliance upon Jesus’ ability to transform.
This is why people that have a past with some sin often become very legalistic about that particular issue. Moral pride in place of grace always leads to a holier-than-thou attitude. Sadly (and I know this will be controversial), such a person was better off as a drunk!
Let me explain what eventually results when fear of not love for God warps your obedience into a mechanism to either earn or maintain God’s favor - as opposed to obedience being the natural response of His favor. I can think of no better illustration than this passage…
First, Scripture becomes supplemented with man-made traditions. Because obedience is based in fear of judgment and becomes central to one’s sense of moral pride, creating more rules to obey is then only logical. Consider that while God said not to work on the Sabbath in order to keep it holy that wasn’t enough for the religious leaders.
In the fear they might work on accident they decided it best to define what God meant by work. To do this they added to Scripture additional rules in order to insure obedience. And while that seemed innocent enough, such an act begins a very slippery slope.
Secondly (and this is what makes adding to the Bible so dangerous), man-made traditions eventually twist the original intent of the Scriptures. In the case of the Jews, with time, their definitions of work had completed warped God’s purpose for the Sabbath command!
Not working on the Sabbath had become a religious work in and of itself aimed at earning God’s approval, and was no longer seen as a day to recognize the work of God! Traditions aimed at insuring obedience had completely convoluted the purpose for the Sabbath.
Understand, in verse 10 when the religious leaders tell the man that “it is not lawful to carry your bed” on the Sabbath or in verse 15 when they claim Jesus had “broken the Sabbath” by healing the man… It was not God’s Word they had violated, but these man-made traditions.
What was designed to be a day the people could enjoy had become an unbearable burden. Legalism is notorious for taking a good principle and making it intolerable in practice.
Third, when man-made traditions twist the intent of the Scriptures, God’s love for people becomes lost! Christian, anytime performance is the basis of moral pride instead of Jesus, obedience to rules and traditions becomes more important than people.
It’s hard to justify the actions of these religious leaders, but we’re often guilty of the same thing. Let me give you an example… I think we can all agree possessing a reverence for the Lord is noble. And yet, for generations, in our pursuit to be reverent, people were not welcomed in church if they weren’t wearing a suit. Instead of joy that someone came to encounter the God of the universe, Christians were more concerned with attire.
“Well, wearing a hat or flip-flops in church isn’t being reverent!” First, what is such a person actually violating: A command of God or a tradition Christians have developed to order to insure reverence? I could provide all sorts of examples, but it’s often our traditions that foster a church culture that completely misrepresents the heart of God for the lost.
Finally, when all of this happens (fear not love motivating an obedience to earn a favor God wants to give through the development of legalistic traditions which foster moral pride and self-sufficiency), like these religious leaders, you will find yourself opposing Jesus!
Honestly, what crime had Jesus committed that warranted such “persecution?” Sure, Jesus was a threat to their power and undercut their traditions, but these religious leaders wanted to “kill Him” because His actions gave no regard for their moralism.
In their zeal to obey the Law of God these men end up attacking the Son of God! Please don’t miss the grand warning of the Gospel record… It was religious people who’s moral pride was based in their ability to obey God that ultimately opposed Jesus! It was those who were so religiously-right that they were horribly wrong about everything.
How interesting that while their inability to obey God's Sabbath led to 70 years of exile, it was a dedication to obey that caused them to reject the entire point of God’s Sabbath (Jesus and His work on the cross) which ultimately led to their complete destruction in 70 AD. Friend, if you oppose grace, you oppose Jesus making you the enemy of God.
I don’t want to get to far ahead of ourselves, but it’s worth taking a second and mentioning that, aside from the original 7th day of creation, the Bible does record a second Sabbath Day in which God rested! As a matter of fact, it’s the only time in the Gospel narrative that we’re given a specific account of Jesus doing nothing on the Sabbath Day.
Just a little over two years from this story, while the religious world ceased from working in their attempt to earn the favor of God, it was on that same Sabbath Day that we find Jesus resting in a Garden Tomb. You see on the cross Jesus declared, “It is finished!” The work God began following the Fall had now been completed on the cross of Calvary by Jesus!
Hebrews 4:4, 9-10, “For Jesus has spoken of the 7th day this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all His works’... There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered Jesus’ rest has also ceased from his works as God did from His.”
Because of the cross restless man could now, for the first time since the Fall, enter back into a relationship with God through a work Jesus accomplished on his behalf.
Should there be any surprise what you never find mentioned after the resurrection? You got it… The Sabbath was no longer relevant, but what it represented had been fulfilled! For 2000 years the Jews worshipped God on Saturday; and yet, from this point forward a church, initially comprised of Jews, now gathered to worship on Sunday - a new day!
Let me close with Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 11:28-30, “All you who labor and are heavy laden, come to Me and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you for My yoke is easy and My burden light… For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” As we close, if these truths concerning Jesus strike a cord in your heart you’re willing to accept and surrender yourself to, please in the depths of your soul pray…
“Dear Jesus, I know I am a sinner and that I cannot save myself. I believe You are the Son of God who died on the cross to atone for my sins. I place my complete faith in that work as the only basis for my forgiveness, restoration, and righteousness before You. I confess that on the 3rd day You rose from the dead providing me a relationship with You today. Right now, Jesus I choose to repent of my sins and ask that by Your grace You fill me with Your Holy Spirit. Take my broken life and make it whole. Transform who I am from the inside out. Jesus, I confess You as both my God, my personal Lord, and my eternal Savior. Amen.”
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