With Dale Ratzlaff
Many scholars think that the gospel of John was written later than the other Gospels. It was clearly written to express certain theological perspectives. John takes for granted that his readers have access to the other gospel accounts and is not concerned with merely giving his account of the events which are recorded in the other gospels unless these events fit his overall goals that the reader “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have eternal life” (Jn. 20:31).
In addition, John includes events in the life of Jesus which the other gospel writers did not record, because from John’s perspective in time these events contributed to the theological needs of his day. There is good evidence that John is distancing himself from the “Jewish” understanding of things. We see this distance in statements like “the Jewish day of preparation” (Jn. 19:42). If Sabbath observance were a Christian requirement, and if the Sabbath were celebrated according to biblical guidelines when this gospel was written, then we would expect John simply to write, “the day of preparation.” The fact that he calls it “the Jewish day of preparation” was a clear message to his readers. Likewise, John calls the Passover “the feast of the Jews” (Jn. 6:4). This is evidence that the New Testament church was moving away from the Sabbath and other ritual laws of the old covenant. For this reason, we believe John included certain Sabbath episodes which are not recorded by the other gospel writers.
This Sabbath incident is very involved and warrants our careful attention. We will divide the text, and our study of it, into two sections.
After these things there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, withered…And a certain man was there, who had been thirty-eight years in his sickness. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Arise, take up your pallet, and walk” (Jn. 5:1−9).
We should note again this was not a life-threatening emergency. This man had already been there thirty-eight years, and a few more days would probably have done him no harm. Jesus initiated the conversation, and in His healing command ordered this man to arise, lift up his bed, and walk.
This healing took place on the Sabbath. People have often asked if Jesus commanded this man to break the Sabbath.
Without question, Jesus asked him to openly break the Halakah, the rabbinical laws, which were an interpretation of the biblical laws, as D. A. Carson explains in “Jesus and the Sabbath in the Four Gospels” in his book From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (p. 81). This man’s “pallet” probably consisted of a pad to protect him from the hard, stone floor and several heavy woolen blankets to keep him warm during the cold Jerusalem nights. In other words, his “pallet” probably consisted of what would normally be the covers on a bed. Having personally backpacked several hundred miles with modern, lightweight equipment, it is my conclusion that this man’s “pallet” would have constituted a “load,” which was forbidden to be carried on the Sabbath (see Jer. 17:27).
It should also be noted that there was no good reason we can think of why this man had to carry his “pallet” that day. Jesus could have healed him on the Sabbath and then asked him to go back after sundown, or on the next day, and carry away his bed. One gets the idea that Jesus purposefully chose to heal this man on the Sabbath and deliberately asked him to do something which would be considered a violation of Sabbath law.
If we take the position that Jesus did command this man to break the Sabbath, it raises theological questions which must be answered. The only suitable answer is that Christ considered the Sabbath to be a ritual law that pointed forward to the rest He would bring, and now it had little, if any, value. If we hold the Sabbath to be a moral law, then we are faced with either trying to make this act fit within biblical Sabbath law or charging Christ with sin. What we can say for certain, however, is that the people of Christ’s day understood the actions of this man as breaking the Sabbath law as they perceived it.
And immediately the man became well, and took up his pallet and began to walk. Now it was the Sabbath on that day. Therefore the Jews were saying to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not permissible for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “He who made me well was the one who said to me, ‘Take up your pallet and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’” But he who was healed did not know who it was; for Jesus had slipped away while there was a crowd in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may befall you.” The man went away, and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. And for this reason the Jews were persecuting Jesus because He was doing these things on the Sabbath. But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (Jn. 5:9−18).
Looking at these verses in Greek adds additional insight. In verse 18 we read, “because He not only was breaking the Sabbath…” “Was breaking” is in the continuous tense in Greek, implying that Jesus was repeatedly involved in such activity.1 The Greek verb here is eluen, which comes from the root luo, and has the idea of “destroy.” This same verb is used by John in the following verses: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament gives the following possible meanings to this verb as used in the context of John 5:18: “to break up,” “to destroy,” “to dismiss,” “to set aside,” “to invalidate.”2 Therefore, a correct alternate translation would be “because He was not only destroying the Sabbath…”
This passage says that the Jews were persecuting Jesus because He was destroying, or invalidating, the Sabbath. We should not be too hasty to denounce the Jews. Old covenant Sabbath law clearly required that a person who openly broke the Sabbath was to be put to death (Ex. 31:14,15; 35:2). The Pharisees had the old covenant record of the man who was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath and was stoned to death at the express command of God for this violation (Num. 15:32−36). They also had the later scriptural interpretations of Sabbath law to prohibit carrying a load on the Sabbath (Jer. 17:27). One could excuse the man picking up sticks before he could excuse a man carrying his bedroll, except for the fact that he did it at the express command of Jesus. It is assumed that the man gathering sticks was doing so to meet some kind of human need, perhaps for warmth or to cook food, while there was no good reason mentioned in the story why this man had to carry his bed away that day. Therefore, when limiting oneself to the Old Testament Sabbath laws, the Jewish leaders seemed to be doing the very thing the law required: setting about to put to death one whom they understood to have openly and purposefully set aside Sabbath law.
Next, we should note Christ’s defense of His Sabbath activities. “But He answered them, My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” It is very important to note that Jesus did not try to prove that His healing activities or His command to “Arise, take up your pallet, and walk” were within the scope of Sabbath law.3 Rather He boldly states that His Father and He are working—something clearly forbidden in Sabbath law. Jesus then moved the discussion away from the violation of Sabbath law to His close association with His Father. The Jewish rabbis had correctly concluded that the rest which God entered on the seventh day after creation did not apply to God’s work of upholding the universe.4 In Genesis we find that God began the “work” of redemption immediately after the fall of Adam and Eve. It was this “work” that Jesus was continually doing which caused the Jewish leaders to persecute Him. As upholding creation is above the rest of Sabbath law, so is Christ’s work of redemption. This work far supersedes the Sabbath laws of the Pharisees and even the letter of the Old Testament Sabbath laws. It is the goal of redemption to restore the conditions which existed on that first seventh day when God rested.
Look carefully at the whole of verse 18. These are the words of the Gospel writer, John.
For this cause the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking [or destroying] the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God (Jn. 5:18).
Were these accusations correct? Throughout the gospel of John, the divinity of Jesus is portrayed as a major theme. “The Word was God…The Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:1−3,14). “Before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn. 8:58), etc. The clear wording and the literary structure force us to conclude that both of these statements (that Jesus was breaking or destroying the Sabbath and calling God His own Father) were true, and because they were true, they were the reasons the Jews sought all the more to kill Jesus.
- Human need should take precedence over ritual law.
- The Seventh-day Sabbath of Sinai is a ritual law. This is a large takeaway from this passage. While not all scholars would agree, it seems to me this is the clear teaching of this passage. We will find a similar situation when we study John 9.
- Jesus was fully God even when He was in the flesh.
Father, may I have the compassion of Jesus when I see someone in need that I can help. Thank you that Christ came to bring true rest to my soul of which the Old Testament Sabbath was only a shadow.
- Leon Morris, The New International Commentary of the New Testament, The Gospel of John, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI, 1971), p. 307.
- 2. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1967), Vol. IV, p. 336.
- 3. The Jews did understand that God was always “working” in that He controlled nature.
- 4. D. A. Carson, Commentary on John, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 1991), p. 247.