The beginning of the escalation

Today I want to wrap up Chapter 5 of the Gospel of John. And we get again to a point where it seems to me that John assumes we are already acquainted with the events in Jesus’ life that are recorded in the other (synoptic) Gospels. If you follow them chronologically, you realize that by the time Jesus heals the man at the pool of Bethesda, he has had several adversarial encounters with the religious leaders: They have even accused him of doing miracles by the power of the Devil. Jesus, in turn, has challenged their hypocrisy openly. We need to keep this dynamic in mind as we come to the rest of Chapter 5.

Once the Pharisees learn that it was Jesus who healed the man at the pool of Bethesda, they renew their offensive:

John 5: 16 And for this the Jews persecuted Jesus [and sought to kill him], because he had done these things on sabbath.

By this point, these religious leaders have witnessed Jesus’ works; that is, they have heard His teachings and they have seen the effect of those teachings on the masses. (As Peter said: Jesus went around doing good.) They have also seen His signs; that is, the miracles or works of power: not just healings but also, by then, they would have heard the report of him raising back to life the son of the widow at Nain. We know this from Luke, as he records the response of the populace to that miracle…

Luke 7:16-17 And fear seized on all, and they glorified God, saying, A great prophet has been raised up amongst us; and God has visited his people. And this report went out in all Judaea concerning him, and in all the surrounding country.

Yet, the religious leaders, faced with exactly the same evidence, have a completely different reaction. Instead of the signs causing them stop and question their worldview and their motives, they remain consistently hostile. And that is the recipe for developing a heart of stone.

The Sabbath day controversies

To put these controversies in context, it is best to use a “Combined Gospel”; that is, an interleaving of the narrative of the four gospels into one chronological thread.

(Luke 6:1) And it came to pass on [the] second-first sabbath, that he went through cornfields, and his disciples were plucking the ears and eating [them], rubbing [them] in their hands. (Matthew 12:2) But the Pharisees, seeing [it], said to him, Behold, thy disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on sabbath.

(Matthew 12:3-8) But he said to them, Have ye not read what David did when he was hungry, and they that were with him? How he entered into the house of God, and ate the shewbread, which it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests only? Or have ye not read in the law that on the sabbaths the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? But I say unto you, that there is here what is greater than the temple. But if ye had known what is: I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

(Mark 2:27-28) And he said to them, The sabbath was made on account of man, not man on account of the sabbath; so that the Son of man is lord of the sabbath also. (Matthew 12:9-12) And, going away from thence, he came into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man having his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath? that they might accuse him. But he said to them, What man shall there be of you who has one sheep, and if this fall into a pit on the sabbath, will not lay hold of it and raise [it] up? How much better then is a man than a sheep! So that it is lawful to do well on the sabbath.

(Mark 3:3-5)  And he says to the man who had his hand dried up, Rise up [and come] into the midst. And he says to them, Is it lawful on the sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And looking round upon them with anger, distressed at the hardening of their heart, he says to the man, Stretch out thy hand. And he stretched [it] out, and his hand was restored. (Luke 6:11) But *they* were filled with madness, and they spoke together among themselves what they should do to Jesus. (Mark 3:6-8) And the Pharisees going out straightway with the Herodians took counsel against him, how they might destroy him.

(Luke 13:10-13) And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And lo, [there was] a woman having a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and she was bent together and wholly unable to lift her head up. And Jesus, seeing her, called to [her], and said to her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity. And he laid his hands upon her; and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.

(Luke 13:14-16) But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus healed on the sabbath, answering said to the crowd, There are six days in which [people] ought to work; in these therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. The Lord therefore answered him and said, Hypocrites! does not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the manger and leading [it] away, water [it]? And this [woman], who is a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound, lo, [these] eighteen years, ought she not to be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day? (Luke 13:17) And as he said these things, all who were opposed to him were ashamed; and all the crowd rejoiced at all the glorious things which were being done by him.

You notice that nowhere is Jesus denying that he is doing “work” on the Sabbath. But He is pointing out that his enemies, by getting stuck on the letter of the Law, are missing its Spirit. If the Sabbath was given to humanity as a day of rest in the perfection of the Garden of Eden, how much more is it needed today, as we live on the other side of that Garden? In this valley of tears where life is hard, hunger and sickness and pain rule, and love is so often trampled under the feet of pride, anger, and selfishness… any chance to breathe a sigh of relief is a gift from above.

And everyone would agree that good, kindness, healing, forgiveness… all those are the kind of relief we all need. Jesus is saying, “that’s what the Sabbath is all about”.

But what about the Law?

Was Jesus putting Himself above the Law by taking it upon Himself to interpret what the Law really meant? This is an important question for us today because, paradoxically, we can still end up on either side of this argument.

On the one hand, you would think because we live in a modern world, because as Christians we do not live in the Old Testament world, that we don’t have any “hang-ups” about the Law.

From that standpoint, this controversy about not being allowed to work on the Sabbath can seem weird or extreme. To most of us, in the US, holidays are more about getting a day off from the job than actual Holy days. And even for most Christians who go to worship every Sunday (or Saturday), there isn’t necessarily a rigid code of behavior for that particular day of the week.

That makes sense because most Christian denominations today will tell you that we are living under the “Dispensation” of Grace and not of the Law.

On the other hand, the very fact that there are a multiplicity of Christian denominations in the world, many of which have historically been antagonistic to each other, is a testament to the fact that even without the Jewish Law we all have a tendency to define ourselves by the “laws” we want to keep. And if you don’t want to keep my laws, I will look at you with suspicion… After all, what gives you the right to interpret the Law? Who are you to think you know better than I do?

Do you see it?

Which side do you fall on?

It is a centuries’-old problem. If I lean to the side of Grace, and feel free to “interpret the Law”, aren’t I courting anarchy? But if I regiment my life according to the requirements of the Law, aren’t I declaring that there, in that Law, is my righteousness? Yet, as Christians we know Who is our righteousness…

In the early Church, they were facing the same tension: Most of the Jewish believers wanted to still hold to the Law, to keep all its rules; after all, it was what they knew all their lives. But Paul and Peter pointed out, first, that no Jew was ever able to keep all of the Law and, second, that God sovereignly called and accepted Gentiles into His plan without any of those requirements. So, James rendered the verdict: If they have chosen to follow the Lord, these were the only “laws” they expected them to keep:

Acts 15:19-21 Wherefore *I* judge, not to trouble those who from the nations turn to God; but to write to them to abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. For Moses, from generations of old, has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath.

This four-item list is interesting because the first two are clearly sins that any Gentile would understand why they were supposed to avoid them. But the last two are Jewish dietary restrictions. Why apply those to the Gentiles?

Because that early Church was a blended community of Jews and Gentiles. And notice that James says every Gentile has heard of those Jewish restrictions. Violating those dietary restrictions was abhorrent to the Jews. So, for the Gentiles to violate them, to flaunt them in that mixed company, would be utterly offensive and divisive. And so, the ruling was eminently practical. Avoiding the last two would not be an undue burden on any Gentile AND it would be kind and considerate to the Jewish believers. 

I like this passage because it reminds us that they also had two sides of an argument where each side could have dug their heels in and said, Why should I give up my rights? Both could have claimed the “higher moral ground.” The Jews wanted everyone to be bound by the Law equally. The Gentiles wanted everyone to be equally free to live their lives the way they wanted. Who’s right, who’s wrong?

Did the Council of Jerusalem settle the issue? Well… because this issue is born out of our own human pride and stubbornness, it kept cropping up. Paul had to address it time and again, in one way or another, in his letters (see Romans 14 for example.)

What is the solution? The bottom line he gives is this simple:

Romans 12:9-10 9 Let love be unfeigned; abhorring evil; cleaving to good: to brotherly love, kindly affectioned towards one another: as to honour, each taking the lead in paying it to the other

Ephesians 5:20-21 …giving thanks at all times for all things to him [who is] God and [the] Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting yourselves to one another in [the] fear of Christ.

The solution is simple:

When in doubt, act in love.

In the age of Grace, we are required to take the responsibility.

This is precisely what Jesus did every time he “violated” the sabbath. He chose to do what the Love of God directed. And that is the crucial thing to remember. For even with such a dictum as “act in love”, we could get into arguments of what is “the loving thing to do”? I could get accused of interpreting what love means to my own advantage.

But that is impossible because we have Jesus’ example, and we claim to be His followers. If so, if that is what we are, then there is only one definition of love for us: The Love of God, the sacrificial Love of God. The Love that puts everyone’s good ahead of mine because God “has got my back”. He will take care of me. Therefore, I am free to take care of you. The Love of God abolishes every pitfall, every temptation, of choosing the way of human self-love.

It is this Love that explains Paul’s solution above, in Romans and Ephesians. It is this Love that makes James’ decision at the Council of Jerusalem perfectly clear because, as it stands, it is self-explanatory. There is no danger that, given the simplicity of that dictum, I as a Gentile believer will go looking for a loophole (some other way to offend those “self-righteous Jews”.) There is also no danger that when I move away and live among another people, who have no such dietary restrictions, that I will judge them for eating bacon.

There is no danger… if I always act in Love.

And there is no fear that I will misinterpret the Law or the Will of God for my own advantage. Because, as John says, perfect Love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). Jesus made clear that this is what is required of us:

John 13:33-35 Children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me; and, as I said to the Jews, Where I go ye cannot come, I say to you also now. A new commandment I give to you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all know that ye are disciples of mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves.

If we live our lives in that Love, the question: “Is it lawful to do good or evil on the Sabbath?” has only one answer: the obvious one, the perfectly clear one: Whatever good you need, that is in my hand to give you, I will give you.

Is this only true on the Sabbath?

The paradox is that that question should have arisen on the Sabbath. You see, the rest of the week, we are all busy with the work of life, doing what we need to do, maybe scarcely noticing each other. But on the Sabbath, when we are supposed to rest and consider all that God has given us; when we gather together as an assembly (Church) for that very purpose; you would think that we would then see each other as we are, as fellow children of God. And in that context, compassion should readily blossom and even overflow. When else, where else, could the stirring in our soul to do good rise up if not in the presence of God?

Doing good is evidence of standing within God’s will. Peter said it this way in Acts 10:

Acts 10:37-38 …*ye* know; the testimony which has spread through the whole of Judaea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached— Jesus who [was] of Nazareth: how God anointed him with [the] Holy Spirit and with power; who went through [all quarters] doing good, and healing all that were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

And this is why Jesus replied to his enemies this way:

John 5:17 But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto and I work.

They are accusing Him of “working” (miracles) on the Sabbath. And Jesus says, “But that’s exactly what my Father is doing to this day!”

It was such a concise reply, yet his enemies fully understood it: They are arguing about the Sabbath that God instituted. Well… according to the Scriptures that Sabbath is there to remind us, His children, that God rested on the seventh day. But how long is that seventh day?

If the seventh day was characterized by God’s cessation of His creative acts, then wouldn’t that seventh day stretch from that final day of creation in Genesis all the way into the future, to the “end of days”: when God would again work to bring about a new Creation? Isaiah 65:17 For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.

If this is so, by their reckoning, God is supposed to be resting right now. But then, how can these “works of power”, the healing of His children, even the raising of the dead, be taking place? Only God, the Father, has such power. Only he can be the author of these good works.

Therefore, God the Father, who invented the Sabbath is, evidently, working good all sabbath long. If He is, how can His children do otherwise?

The escalation

As Jesus explains to them this principle, and how it proves that this work is God’s work, He adds that He knows what He is talking about because He is talking about His own Father.

John 5:18 For this therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he had not only violated the sabbath, but also said that God was his own Father, making himself equal with God.

And because they did not relent, because they did not accept what was the only logical explanation for this “signpost”, because they chose instead to be offended, Jesus escalates the “signpost”, so that no one could claim a misunderstanding: “Indeed”, He is about to say, “I am the Son of the Father:”

John 5:19-20 Jesus therefore answered and said to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, The Son can do nothing of himself save whatever he sees the Father doing: for whatever things *he* does, these things also the Son does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son and shews him all things which he himself does; and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may wonder.

What greater works? Works that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt Who the author is:

John 5:21-23 For even as the Father raises the dead and quickens [them], thus the Son also quickens whom he will: for neither does the Father judge any one, but has given all judgment to the Son; that all may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He who honours not the Son, honours not the Father who has sent him.

The escalation is in full swing. You see, if some had relented and decided to accept Jesus as a prophet, they could have convinced themselves that that explained the miracles. After all, they believed prophets “had a direct line” to God. When Moses parted the Red Sea, he told them: Exodus 14:13 Fear not: stand still, and see the salvation of Jehovah, which he will work for you to-day. When Elijah asked God to demonstrate His Sovereign power, fire came down from heaven and consumed the sacrifice on mount Carmel.

So, Jesus could have been merely a prophet. And that would have still given them license to claim he went rogue. (See for instance the prophet in 1 Kings 13. Or for that matter, Jonah, who ran away from God’s explicit command.) But now Jesus will not let them have that “out”, for here He claims that God, His Father, has given Him autonomous authority to give eternal life to whomever He chooses to give it… because He, Jesus, will be the Judge at the “end of days”.

And again, to forestall any misunderstanding:

John 5:24-27 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment, but is passed out of death into life.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, that an hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that have heard shall live. For even as the Father has life in himself, so he has given to the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment [also], because he is Son of man.

There, He has said it: Not only does He have autonomous authority to give eternal life, He has the power in Himself to carry all this out. He has identified Himself with the Messianic personage from the book of Daniel. (Daniel 7:13-14 I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of heaven [one] like a son of man, and he came up even to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom [that] which shall not be destroyed.)

At this point, his enemies must be speechless. Instead of Jesus backing down when they pointed out that he was making himself equal to God – maybe expecting him to rephrase or say they misunderstood – He just puts it plainly before them. He has escalated the “signpost.”

This also happens in our lives.

God puts “signposts” in our lives, trying to get our attention. He is Almighty but He will never ever coerce us to love Him. Instead, He will, over and over again, speak into our lives, show us His mercy, and point out the dangers we choose on our own. But, most importantly, He will eventually challenge all of us to face the realities of life.

He will put the choice before us: I can either love this world whose only goal is to seduce me to destruction – by giving me all it tells me I want – OR I can love my Father in Heaven and accept His Love, and live according to His Will, regardless of what it costs in this life.

That is the choice. And it is never an easy choice. The world will tell me that it is offering me absolute freedom: I can love whom I will, and I can hate whom I will. But God tells me that with Him, in Him, I can Love everyone as He loves… and that means that, eventually, this world in which I am stuck living, will hate me.

It is never an easy choice because being asked to make that choice is, for many, a stumbling block, the point of offense: “Why would God put me in this world, and give me free will, if He is going to judge me for choosing the ways of this world? It’s not fair!”

Choosing not to be offended, choosing God’s way, is called Faith.

And every one of us has enough Faith to make that choice.

You see, that question that seems so offensive is what scientists call an ill-posed question. It only seems unfair, impossible, because we have ignored the evidence that the question never brings up.

But God has never left himself without a witness (Acts 14:17). And so, Jesus goes on with His appeal to their hearts:

John 5:28-30 Wonder not at this, for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall go forth; those that have practised good, to resurrection of life, and those that have done evil, to resurrection of judgment.

I cannot do anything of myself; as I hear, I judge, and my judgment is righteous, because I do not seek my will, but the will of him that has sent me.

He is telling them: “Yes, I know what I am saying can be shocking, but you too believe this is God’s plan. And nothing I have said or done is contrary to what you expect God – your God – to do.”

John 5:31-32 If I bear witness concerning myself, my witness is not true. It is another who bears witness concerning me, and I know that the witness which he bears concerning me is true.

“Furthermore,” He is saying, “you know this to be true in your hearts… for you have heard THE witness.”

John 5:33-35 Ye have sent unto John, and he has borne witness to the truth. But I do not receive witness from man, but I say this that *ye* might be saved. *He* was the burning and shining lamp, and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.

“And that witness I am talking about is not John the baptizer. But, you know what? If you had chosen to listen to him, you would have accepted me too. It wouldn’t have come to this… I wouldn’t have had to escalate the question.”

John 5:36-38 But I have THE witness [that is] greater than [that] of John; for the works which the Father has given me that I should complete them, the works themselves which I do, bear witness concerning me that the Father has sent me. And the Father who has sent me himself has borne witness concerning me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor have seen his shape, and ye have not his word abiding in you; for whom *he* hath sent, him ye do not believe.

“So now, I have to be blunt and make you face the hard truth: You already know the answer. Because you have a heart, you have a spirit that can hear the voice of the Father. You know that God the Father is behind every word, deed, and miracle that I have brought you. There is no excuse. If you do not accept this Truth, it is your own fault.

“Let me show you how blind you have made yourselves…”

John 5:39-40 Ye search the scriptures, for ye think that in them ye have life eternal, and they it is which bear witness concerning me; and ye will not come to me that ye might have life.

“Look at all the time you spend studying Scripture… Have you learned from it, accepted it? Has it changed your heart? If it had, you would have recognized me…

“But, see, here is your problem:”

John 5:41-44 I do not receive glory from men, but I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you. I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not; if another come in his own name, him ye will receive.  How can ye believe, who receive glory one of another, and seek not the glory which [comes] from God alone?

This is indeed our problem.

We’d rather love the world and its ways than the God who created it all. But, as I said above, there is no excuse.

John 5:45-47 Think not that I will accuse you to the Father: there is [one] who accuses you, Moses, on whom ye trust; for if ye had believed Moses, ye would have believed me, for he wrote of me. But if ye do not believe his writings, how shall ye believe my words?  

It is not out of ignorance that we reject God. It is a choice we make. God doesn’t have to condemn us. We condemn ourselves. But God has had a plan all along…

John 3:17 (NIV) For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

And so ends Chapter 5 of the gospel of John. As it is true in our lives, so it will turn out to be true with this crowd of doubters. God the Father never ceases to speak. Jesus will try to get through to them again… in chapter 6.

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