Only at this point did John choose to mention that it just so happened Jesus made this man whole on a Sabbath.

Jesus must have gone to the temple to worship, and as he walked out, he saw that great colonnaded Pool of Bethesda and was drawn to all those in need there. This is completely in keeping with what God said pleases the Lord in observing the Sabbath, as you can see here in the words of the prophet Isaiah.

Is not this the fast that I choose:

    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them . . .

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted . . .

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
    from pursuing
your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the Lord

Excerpts from Isaiah 58 (NRSV)

Still, why would Jesus have commanded this man to carry his mat on a Sabbath?

It was bound to get the man noticed, and not in a good way. For that matter, why did the man comply, once Jesus was out of sight? After thirty-eight years of lying by the pool, did he no longer know what day it was? Did he no longer remember his own religion and culture?

What had Jesus in mind?

The Lord would allow no provision for a relapse. Now this man had been made whole, he did not need to save a place for himself at the pool anymore. There was no backdoor exit. He was committed now to a life of health and strength, no longer a victim, but a free agent who could, and now would take responsibility for himself.

Weak, feeble people are used to being carried.

We all need that sometimes.

In fact, years later, Paul would instruct believers to carry each other’s burdens (though he also said each of us must take responsibility for our own load).

But this man had been healed of his particular weakness. It was time for him to walk on his own. Maybe one day soon, he would even be the strong one who could help carry others. (I hope so. I hope he went back to that pool, to the many he must have met there who had lost hope, or were too weak, too fragile, too alone to get to the pool’s waters.)

Maybe there is a life truth in this, for you and me. Maybe there are ways in which it is time for us to walk too, to pick up our own load, to take responsibility in an area of weakness, rather than count on someone else to carry us, because Jesus is making it clear he has made us whole, by the power of his word and his Spirit.  

In any case, keeping the Sabbath had undergone a huge overhaul since the days Isaiah had written those words. After creating all that is, God rested, and by so doing, established the Sabbath as a weekly time of spiritual refreshment, physical rest, and emotional enjoyment.

At Mount Sinai, God explained the Sabbath was to be set aside as a holy day, for worship, not for work. In fact, there were to be seventh year, and seventieth year, Sabbaths as well, that would reset Shalom throughout the land. Alas, Israel did not consistently embrace God’s call to the Sabbath, and there is no record of a Jubilee Sabbath ever even being celebrated.

Towards the end, people were carrying loads into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day in preparation for their work on the next day, so the prophet Jeremiah laid down a moratorium:

Thus says the Lord:

“For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem.”

The Lord, as quoted by the prophet Jeremiah 17:21

Consequently, having ignored even the Lord’s spoken command in their day, God’s people were sent into exile that the land might have all the Sabbath years the people had robbed it of.

Seventy years later, many of Jewish descent returned to rebuild Jerusalem, yet fell into their old habits almost immediately, doing commerce on the Sabbath.

Nehemiah eventually appointed the priest Ezra to teach the people all of God’s law on a regular basis, and help them to keep all the law.

Their legacy, four hundred years later, were the scribes and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day. But they had since added on thirty-nine exhaustive, complicated chapters to the Mishnah (oral law in their day, centuries later written down) on how to keep the Sabbath. Perhaps it was well-meaning at the beginning, to carefully honor God in all things.

But it devolved.

Here is one example. If you spit on the ground and it hit the dirt, that was work, because a furrow would form, and therefore be called plowing. But if the spit hit a rock, then no furrow formed, and work had not been conducted.

Such splitting of hairs had lost sight of God’s purpose for the Sabbath, and had, with weighted irony, made the Sabbath an onerous burden for the people.

It was a collision waiting to happen.

A man finally made whole, finally made capable of carrying his mat, who walked on air in his exuberant enjoyment of the privilege of bearing his own load, walking with his own feet, was destined to run into religious rulers intent on policing the law, particularly within view of God’s holy house.

Therefore, the Judeans were saying to the man who was made whole, “It is the Sabbath, and not allowed-not possible for you to carry the bedding.”

But he gave an answer to them, “He made me sound-and-whole, that one who said to me, ‘pick up your bedding and walk.’”

Therefore, they interrogated him, “Who is the person who said to you, ‘Pick up and walk?’”

But, the man who was made whole did not see-or-know who it is, for Jesus had withdrawn himself into the throng that was in the place.

Conversation between the religious rulers and the man made whole, John 5:10-13

Shortly thereafter Jesus found the man at the temple, probably giving his thank offering to God according to the Law, for being healed. Jesus explained to him that he had to stop sinning so nothing worse would happen.

Jesus’ spiritual authority, particularly in calling attention to the man’s wrongdoing early in his life, which had brought on his wasting disease, alerted him this was no mere faith healer. The man now knew with certainty this was Messiah.

For opaque reasons, he took it upon himself to return to the temple authorities to tell them. . .

[Man carrying his load | Deborah Kerwood / Public domain]

2 thoughts on “Gospel of John: Sabbath Collision

  1. I love this post! I have really changed my way of thinking on the Pharisees- as a kid and into adulthood, I always viewed them as very glib and smug. The more I have studied and looked at this bigger picture, the more I see their fervent (albeit misdirected) love for the law and what they truly believed was right. I can see it in their fear of this rabbi coming and… messing everything up and threatening their ways. It’s this twisted love that blinded them to the Messiah and to real truth. Thank you for sharing these insights on this meta-collision. It gave me such a fresh perspective today!

    1. Thank you, Melanie! My mind has been changing as well, about the Pharisees. I think that’s why Jesus was so deeply grieved with them, because they were the most able–by virtue of their love for God’s word, and their unstinting dedication to upholding God’s word in every way. They just had lost touch with God’s person, God’s great love and mercy, and were forever locked into the theology of God’s position as just and sovereign Judge.

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