Every generation has its debates. For the fourth century church it was Christology. For the Reformation-era church it was the very nature of the gospel and the priesthood of believers. In Jesus’ day, the Sabbath held a special place among religious leaders. The Jews were asking themselves, “how can we keep the Sabbath so that God does not discipline us as a nation as he did 400 years prior when he sent us into exile?”
Today, not much is said about Sabbath-keeping except by a few fringe groups. I have gotten books from people who say, “read this and you’ll understand why historic Sabbath-keeping (Friday night to Saturday night) is crucial to Christian faith. And I am not convinced. What I am convinced of is that the church in general has a lax and careless attitude toward the Lord’s Day. And that applies to people who say you’ve got to be at church every time the doors are open and to those who say that church attendance has little bearing on one’s spiritual life. Both of those examples reveal a careless attitude about the meaning and practice of the Lord’s Day.
In our continuation of John 5, after Jesus healed the paralytic man, a small controversy over the Sabbath erupts where Jesus raises the bed of his truth-truck and unloads on them. If the Jews thought they had a problem with him healing on the Sabbath, they had a few more things coming.
Jesus is going to explain his connection to God the Father so that there will be no doubt as to why he has the right to heal on the Sabbath and command a man to pick up his mat and walk. And when we are through with this I want to push you a little harder in your attitude and approach to the Sabbath. (When it comes to application, I will use the terms Sabbath and Lord’s Day interchangeably.)
The healing of an invalid at the pool of Bethesda contradicts a Pharisaic tradition regarding the Sabbath.
Our text this morning does not say that it was the Pharisees who were giving Jesus and the now-healed paralytic grief. It was “the Jews” but this phrase is used in John to denote the Jewish authorities who were first skeptical but now growing more antagonistic toward Jesus. Why were they upset? We pick up our story from last week in the second half of verse 9, “Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.’” At this time in Jewish history Sabbath-keeping was a hot topic, like illegal immigration is today. The issue of Sabbath-keeping pushed people’s “hot button.” To understand why this was so hot, you need to look back in the Old Testament and at another stage of Jewish history.
The three texts that our Scripture reader read this morning are cornerstones upon which Sabbath-keeping is built. The first mention of a sabbath comes in Genesis 2:1-3 where it says that God rested from all his labors on the seventh day of creation. When all the heavens and the earth were finished, God rested, blessed that day, and made it holy. All the other days He said “it is good” but on this day He said “it is holy.” In Exodus 20:8-11, God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites through Moses. The fourth commandment incidentally is the longest stated commandment of the ten. Not that it is the most important because Jesus explained the two most important (love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself) but it is given the most explanation. Finally, in Exodus 31:12-18 God expands the meaning of the Sabbath to include it as a sign between God and the people, similar to circumcision.
As you move forward in biblical history, three of the great prophets – Isaiah (ch. 56), Jeremiah (ch. 17), and Ezekiel (ch. 20) – warn the people that their neglect of keeping the fourth commandment is specifically tied to their exile from the promised land. They had desecrated the holy day and done as they pleased. Therefore, God has visited them with judgment. During the 400-year period before Christ, the Pharisees as a group devoted to strict adherence to the law became organized and strongly influenced the religious climate of their day. Bob Deffinbaugh writes these words:
During the 400 "silent years" between the two testaments a great deal of attention was given to the interpretation of the Law (in general) and of the Sabbath (in particular). The detail to which the inspired writers went was nothing compared to the embellishments performed on the Sabbath commandment by the Jewish scholars and religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. We would not be correct to conclude that all of these efforts to clarify the Law are silly and senseless. While the method of interpretation may be wrong, not to mention the conclusions reached, there was ample motivation for probing the obligation of the individual Israelite to the Fourth Commandment. During the Maccabbean Period (a century or so prior to the coming of Christ) a 1,000 Jews had been slaughtered because they were attacked on the Sabbath and would not break the Sabbath to defend themselves. Little wonder, then, that Jewish scholars sought to clarify the Sabbath commandment.
For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work. But next a burden has to be defined. So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is "food equal in weight to a dried fig, enough wine for mixing in a goblet, milk enough for one swallow, honey enough to put upon a wound, oil enough to anoint a small member, water enough to moisten an eye-salve, paper enough to write a customs house notice upon, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet, reed enough to make a pen"—and so on endlessly. So they spent endless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe, whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair, even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb, if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day. [Bob Deffinbaugh, The Sabbath Controversy in the Gospels, www.bible.org]
Getting back to our story in John 5, we can see why the Jewish authorities were a little more than put off. This is why they not only questioned the man who broke the Sabbath by carrying his bed (and he was not carrying a twin-size mattress down the street. It was probably no more than a couple of blankets or a mat to lay on) but they also sought to know who made this “carrying of the mat” possible! The real problem was the person who gave permission to carry the mat and therefore flouted the law. Just like Phinehas of the Old Testament, they wanted to get to the source and stop it before it spread.
The man who was healed initially didn’t know who did it for him but later learned it was Jesus. Instead of thanking him for the miracle, the man went back to the authorities and said it was Jesus, probably for fear of his own life or at least fear of being put out of the synagogue. This brings up another interesting point. At the time John was writing his gospel and his three epistles to the church, the Christian community was made up of two kinds of people: Jewish Christians and Hellenistic Christians. The Jewish Christians had a tendency to struggle with the messianic nature of Jesus. Accepting him as messiah could mean being putting out of the Synagogue. The letter of 1 John emphasizes how we can have fellowship with one another, with Jesus Christ and the Father, because they had lost fellowship with those in the Synagogue. Some people, under the pressure, left the Christian community and went back to Judaism. On the other hand, the Hellenistic Christians came from a pagan background and struggled to accept the full humanity of Christ because of being heavily influenced by gnostic teaching. This is why John emphasizes the humanity of Christ by saying “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and have touched with our hands – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you.” (1 Jn 1:1, 3) Our story in John 5 would be an encouragement to the Jewish Christians to not follow his example by caving in to the Jewish authorities.
The real problem plaguing the Pharisees was not their devotion or zeal for the law. Actually, it was the opposite. They had become so wrapped up in applications of the law that they had forgotten the heart of the law. Jesus said to them in Mark 7:9, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition.” Their zeal made their heart so narroly focused that it caused them to fail to see the bigger picture. It would be like trying to walk a mile in a perfectly straight line while keeping your eyes fixed on the ground below. Listen to what Jesus says in reply to show that they had lost sight of the big picture.
Verse 17, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” Listen to that again.
If I said that to someone on the street, it might not sound like a big deal. “The Father is working at our church, and I am doing His work, too.” Okay. But say that statement in the context of a Sabbath and it takes on a whole new meaning. God is no longer “resting” from his labors. God is working, even on the Sabbath. He is doing the work of redemption.
Jesus was saying that a change has taken place now that the Son of Man was on the scene. I see this change tied to the covenant because, remember, Sabbath-keeping was given as a sign under the Mosaic covenant. Under the old covenant, obedience to God meant imitating him in the Sabbath rest. Under the new covenant, obedience to God means imitating him in the work of redemption.
- The Son can do nothing according to his own will but only the will of the Father. (19)
- The Father loves the Son and shows him what He is doing. (20)
- The Son sees what the Father is doing and does likewise. (21)
Paul says in Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” The Pharisees were not imitating God because they could not see a covenant change.
Secondly, they failed to understand that as the Son of God, Jesus had the authority to change the rules about the Sabbath. The next section of John 5 focuses on Jesus’ authority.
- The Father has entrusted judgment to the Son. (22)
- Everyone must honor the Son just as the honor the Father. (23)
- The one who hears the word of Christ and believes the Father who sent him has passed from the realm of death to the realm of life. (24)
Keep the Sabbath respectfully without neglecting the weightier matters of mercy and justice.
Now just because Jesus has authority over the Sabbath and scripture teaches that certain necessities supercede the Sabbath, does not mean you can do as you please on the Lord’s Day. We are still required to keep the Sabbath respectfully without neglecting the weightier matters of mercy and justice. In fact, if there were a simple reformation of respect given to the Lord’s Day it would have a dramatic effect upon the Church’s testimony to the world.
In my study this week I have become convicted that on this day we do not participate in the Lord’s hour or give the Lord his morning but are to keep the Lord’s Day! The Puritans used to call the Lord’s Day “the market day of the soul.” Six days a week one buys and sells for the sake of one’s body, but Sunday is a day to “trade” in spiritual commodities for the sake of our souls. The Westminster Confession of Faith gives us these words to consider:
All Christians “after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand,” are to “not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts, about their worldly employments and recreations,” but also are to be engaged “the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” [Duncan and Johnson, Give Praise to God, p. 332]
As a pastor, this gives me pause to consider Sunday evening worship not as a duty or as a tradition but as a framework so that the Lord’s Day is hemmed in the beginning and end with a right focus on God.
Mothers, there are some duties of necessity for you, but can you order your life so that on this special day you can cease from your labors of sewing, cleaning, laundry, and housework? Make a double recipe once a week, put it in the freezer and pull something out on Saturday night
Fathers, can you lead your family to order this day after God’s priorities by word and example? When you are on vacation with family, do you actively seek out a house of worship to attend? Cut your grass on Saturday. Change the oil on Monday. Don’t work your employees seven days straight! Hire someone else if you have to.
Students, can you trust God that if you cease from doing school work on Sunday afternoon that He will get you through class with what you need to know and a grade that pleasing to Him? In seminary this was especially brought home one time when Howard Hendricks said that some students need to get Bs because to pursue the A would mean neglect of something, whether it be family or the Lord.