Walking to or from the temple one Sabbath day, Jesus passed the pool of Bethesda and saw there the pathetic figure of a man lying there. Traditionally the first person to get into the water when it was troubled would find healing. But this man had no-one to lower him into the water. He had been suffering from his illness for thirty eight years and now spent his days just lying on his mat among all the other seriously disabled people.
38 years of illness is an awful long time! But that man would surely not have minded waiting one more day before being healed. Jesus could so easily have avoided controversy and done the miracle the next day, on the Sunday rather than on the Sabbath. But Jesus clearly wanted to make a point.
With Genesis 2.2 and 3 in mind, people debated whether God just rests on the Sabbath and thus keeps his own law. But it was generally agreed that God must work also on the Sabbath because the world depends on his constant upholding. For his people too it would be impossible if God rested on the Sabbath and therefore was not available to keep, help and protect us. In rabbinic law it is also clear that one can work even on the Sabbath to get an animal out of a pit it has fallen into. If it is legal to work for the safety of an animal, how much more is it allowable to give a human being new life through a miracle of healing! So Jesus’ healing miracle does not really contravene the law whatever the Jewish leaders may have felt. His opponents however objected to him commanding the man to pick up his mat and carry it – that is definitely against the Law!
Significantly the Greek word used in 5.18 means that Jesus ‘loosened’ the Sabbath law, not that he ‘broke’ it. In this passage Jesus is not ‘breaking’ the law and thus denying the whole idea of Sabbath for his followers. He softened the rigid rules concerning Sabbath. The principle of God’s gift of one-day-a-week rest is graciously continued, but rigid rules no longer bind us.
God works (5.17)
Jesus declares that his Father and he also are constantly working – 5.17 uses continuous present tenses. For most Christians it has become irrelevant whether God works six days a week or seven. But we may feel that God doesn’t work in our day and in our context. Some may therefore look back with spiritual nostalgia to the good old days when God used to work in Britain!
Actually however Jesus and his Father never stop working – even in Britain! Not only are black churches growing apace, but also Iranian, Afghan, Chinese, Korean and others. And we may observe growing lively city churches and cathedrals which are inter-ethnic, but largely ethnic English. Even in our village in Stanstead Abbotts we are encouraged by one or two who are moving into the church and into faith in Jesus.
Our faith in the Lord who never stops working is further nourished by God’s church in Africa, Asia and South America. We rejoice in the phenomenal growth of the church in China. The church in Lanzhou which we have particularly associated with has a Sunday congregation of some 4,000 adults. It also has 68 smaller daughter churches with little congregations of 150-450 adults and then also over a hundred emerging ‘preaching stations’ with under 150 adults on a Sunday. The Father and Jesus are indeed at work!
Equal with God?
By stating that the Father and he are both at work, Jesus is clearly linking himself to God on an equal basis. To Israel’s leaders this constituted blasphemy. But Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father lies at the very heart of John’s Gospel – “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30), Jesus later declares. Jesus was with the Father before the Father sent him to earth to live, die and be resurrected among us. And in his ascension he returned to the glory of his Father, thus opening the door for us as his disciples to ascend with him to the Father’s glory.
Jesus constantly refers to God as his Father. Israel’s leaders very customarily and rightly saw themselves as the ‘children of God’, but they didn’t normally think of God being Father to each one personally. Such intimacy in relationship with God the Father seemed too presumptuous and almost blasphemous. So Israel’s leaders “tried all the harder to kill him” (5.18). They denied Jesus’ right to claim equality with God as his Father and thus also have the right to loosen the Sabbath. From now on, fanatical opposition to Jesus began to dog his life and ministry; the shadow of his impending cross hung over him like Damocles’ sword.
As Jesus’ followers we too may suffer strong opposition to our faith in Jesus Christ as the unique Lord, one with God as his Father. Biblical faith in Jesus as Lord not only denies that Caesar is Lord, as in New Testament times. It may also be considered what is called ‘religious extremism’ and thus incur the wrath of the “muscular liberalism” which OFSTED [Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills] threatens. Such intolerance should not deter us from believing and declaring that Jesus is indeed like the Father, the one true Lord and Saviour.