Thursday, November 10, 2011

Healing on the Sabbath

Christ at the Pool of Bethesda

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, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids - blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be healed?" The sick man answered him, "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me." Jesus said to him, "Get up, take up your bed, and walk." And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked. 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." But he answered them, "The man who healed me, that man said to me, 'Take up your bed, and walk.'" They asked him, "Who is the man who said to you, 'Take up your bed and walk'?" Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you." The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5: 1-18).

Let’s take a look at interesting verse from John chapter 5 in light of the book of Exodus:

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gate…You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people” (Exodus 20:10; 31:14).

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem (John 5:1).

John doesn’t say which feast was occurring at this time, but it was a major one. Some commentators believe that John is referring to the Feast of Booths or the Feast of the New Year.[1] It is significant to us, I believe, because John is saying that everyone would be in the city for the feast, and would therefore be there to see Jesus’ interactions with the man he is about to heal and the Pharisees. There were seven feasts celebrated by the Jews. They were: The Sabbath, The Passover, The Feast of First fruits, The Feast of Weeks, The Feast of Trumpets, The Day of Atonement, and The Feast of Booths.[2] These feasts, however, were not intended to be simply dinner get-togethers, or empty calendar observances. God wanted to gather his people together and to interact with them at his altar, in the place designated for that purpose.[3] Each of these feasts had a specific ceremony and symbolism attached to them, which we will not explore at length now. Ultimately, though, the Lord’s feasts were all intended to focus Israel’s eyes on the coming Messiah, and God’s relationship with his chosen people.[4] St. Paul called these feasts, “a shadow of the things to come.” Here, John tells us that the substance and culmination of the feasts was walking in the very midst of the people – God meeting his people in God’s holy temple[5] – and they turned away from him.

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” (John 5:10).

The Pharisees were telling the man that carrying his mat was forbidden under God’s command to refrain from work on the Sabbath.[6] Technically, I suppose they were correct. However, they were turning a blind eye to the spirit of God’s law. They were so focused on earning God’s favor by their observance of God’s law, which they perverted by the imposition of their man-made regulations, that they forgot that God desires mercy, and not sacrifice.[7] God gave the people of Israel the law through Moses to show them (and us) their sin, so that the people would repent of their sin, turn to Him and be healed.[8] God tells Hosea that, while he certainly wants to see his law obeyed, his commanded sacrifices were only pleasing to him if they came from the heart – a heart of true repentance. This is what Jesus tells the Pharisees, all Israel, and the entire world. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath day.[9] In this instance, the Pharisees also accuse Jesus of breaking God’s law, albeit in a roundabout way. They ask him if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus, however, turns the question back on them. “Which one of you who has a sheep,” he says, “if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”[10] Jesus, by his examples of “working” on the Sabbath, shows us that doing good (mercy) takes priority over a too-strict, or legalistic (sacrifice) interpretation of the Law.

Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place (John 5:13).

The Greek word in this verse that is translated “withdrawn” can be rendered as “to lean sideways,” or “to evade” or “slip away.”[11] This implies that what Jesus did was a strategic move, like a retreat. Why Jesus would feel the need to “evade” the crowd is not explicitly explained. It certainly isn’t because he is afraid of a confrontation with the Pharisees regarding his actions, as he has demonstrated time and again. It isn’t because he wants to remain anonymous to the man who was healed, because he seeks him out at the temple later and talks with him.[12] The only conclusion I can come to regarding Jesus’ tactical retreat from the crowd in this chapter is that Jesus was working to do the will of his Father. The large crowd saw the miracle that Jesus had performed. They would have recognized from the miracle that someone very special, possibly the Son of David (the Messiah), was in their midst.[13] Jesus’ continued presence in the crowd could have caused a riot or, worse yet, the proclaiming of Jesus as King of Israel by the crowd. Jesus certainly is the King of Israel. However, the people did not understand the spiritual nature of Messiah’s work, and were expecting a worldly king, one who would rescue them from their earthly oppressors and restore the physical nation of Israel.[14] As Jesus told Pilate, his kingdom was not of this world.[15] So, as he would do later, Jesus slipped away to keep this from happening.[16] Jesus would allow himself to be hailed with shouts of “hosanna”, and be crowned as King according to God the Father’s timetable – with a wreath of thorns.[17]

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5: 17-18).

For all of the differences between Christian denominations, the one fundamental truth about God that all orthodox Christian bodies espouse is the doctrine of the trinity. In fact, one of the earmarks of non-Christian cults is their denial of the Holy Trinity. To human beings, rationality tells us that such a thing defies logic, and thus, could not be true. However irrational, though, this is how God has revealed himself to us through Holy Scripture. The doctrine of the trinity is clearly revealed in the pages of Scripture. Within the nature of God, the Bible teaches, there are three distinct persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three persons, while remaining distinct, share the same divine attributes. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all three identified as individuals and all three are identified as God. Yet, according to Deuteronomy 6:4, and a host of other Scripture texts, there is only one God.

The person of the Father is identified in 2 Peter 1:17, “For he [Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him for the Majestic Glory, saying ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” Here Peter is referring to what happened at Jesus’ baptism, when his messianic ministry began.[18] Peter’s quote is also an allusion to two messianic passages from the Old Testament – Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. In Psalm 2, we are told that the Davidic King will be God’s servant and son. In Isaiah, we are told that God’s Spirit would rest upon his servant – two prophecies fulfilled in Jesus at his baptism.

This leads to the second person of the trinity identified in Scripture – the Son. In the New Testament there is a person named Jesus, who is identified as God’s Son. Not only is Jesus called God’s Son, though, he himself declares himself to be God. It is at this point that we see a divergence form orthodox Christianity in the theology of the cults. Every non-Christian cult denies the deity of Christ and forgiveness of sins by his merit alone. Scripture, however, tells a different story. The amazing exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees, recorded in the eighth chapter of John gives us incredible insight into who Jesus claimed to be, and whether or not the Pharisees understood his claims.[19]

Jesus tell them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Shocked, the Pharisees reply to Jesus, “You are not yet 50 years old and you have seen Abraham?” Their thoughts that they were dealing with a madman must have been confirmed to them at this point in the conversation. But Jesus goes on to clarify for them. “‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born I am!’”[20] Jesus did not say, “I was,” but “I am.” By applying God’s divine title from Exodus 3:14 to himself, Jesus expressed the eternity of his being and his oneness with God the Father. The Pharisees must have understood that Jesus was calling himself God, because they picked up stones with which to stone him for blasphemy.

Another such incident is recorded in John 10:24-33:

So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one." The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?" The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God" (John 10:24-33).

The Greek word used by John in this passage is neuter – one THING, not one PERSON. Jesus is telling us that he and the Father are one in essence, or nature, but they are not identical persons. As the Scripture says, the Jews took these words to be blasphemy, and tried to carry out the law – the penalty for blasphemy was stoning – though without due process.[21]

Holy Scripture also identifies a third person – the Holy Spirit – and calls him God. It is with this person of the Holy Trinity that, I believe, Christians have the most trouble understanding and explaining. It is doubly perplexing when a Jehovah’s Witness, in the comfort of your own living room, proceeds to tell you that the Holy Spirit is merely a “force” that comes from Jehovah, and not a conscious, thinking, personal entity. Most Christians are usually at a loss to rebut this false doctrine. However, the words of Holy Scripture make things clear. Peter, in the book of Acts, identifies the person called the Holy Spirit and calls him God.[22] The incident with Ananias and Sapphira shows us that the Holy Spirit is regarded as God among his people:

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the HOLY SPIRIT and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such at thing? YOU HAVE NOT LIED TO MEN BUT TO GOD” (Acts 5: 3-4)

You cannot lie to a table. You cannot lie to a chair. You cannot lie to a hat rack, or even to a dog or a cat. In order for a person to lie to someone/something else, it has to be living, conscious, and have understanding to be able to believe what it is being told. Therefore, for Ananias to lie to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must be a conscious and living being, and not merely a “force.” St. Luke, again in the book of Acts, makes this point beautifully:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, THE HOLY SPIRIT SAID, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work TO WHICH I HAVE CALLED THEM.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13: 2-3).

Only a conscious, living being talks, as the Holy Spirit does in this passage. In addition, St. Luke uses the first person when quoting the Holy Spirit, again indicating personality. Finally the Holy Spirit says that the work to which the worshipers are called is HIS work, making the Holy Spirit equal to the Almighty God.

While there are many more ways in which Holy Scripture reveals the triune nature of God, these are some of the most obvious and easiest to understand. The Bible teaches that the three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – are all individuals, and all share divine attributes, making them all God. In the case of the Holy Trinity, it is not simple arithmetic (1 + 1 + 1 = 3). In this case it is 1 X 1 X 1 = 1.

End Notes

[1] The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version, Verse 5:1 notes, p. 1788.
[2] Leviticus 23
[3] Exodus 29: 42-43; Numbers 17:4
[4] Colossians 2: 16-17
[5] Psalm 11:4
[6] Exodus 31: 12-18
[7] Hosea 6:6
[8] Romans 3:19-20; 7:7; James 2:10
[9] Matthew 12: 9-14
[10] Matthew 12: 11-12
[11] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, (Columbus, Ohio: The Wartburg Press, 1942), 369.
[12] John 5:14
[13] Matthew 12: 22-23
[14] Acts 1:6
[15] John 18:36
[16] John 6: 14-16
[17] Luke 19: 28-40; Matthew 27:29
[18] Matthew 3: 16-17
[19] John 8: 27-59
[20] John 8: 48-56
[21] Leviticus 24:16
[22] Acts 5:3-4