Church People on Church Days

Jesus heals the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda. The man was instantly cured. His life was eternally changed. Jesus made him well. Jesus made him whole!

But it was a church day. And because it was a church day, some of the church people got upset. The guy at the pool is not the only sick person Jesus ran into this day. There are some really sick church people in this scene.

“The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, ‘It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat!'” ~John 5:9-10

The church people, the self-appointed guardians of the truth, immediately put this man on trial. They’re in his face. This is an interrogation. “You’re not supposed to do that! Why are you doing that? Who said you could do that?”

It’s quite incredible, huh? A man is made whole and given new life by the will and power of God, and the opposition comes from church people. Not evil people, no. Good people who mistake their religious traditions for the will of God. These church people are sicker than this paraplegic ever was.

The Law of Moses was very clear that the Sabbath Day is a holy day and it needs to be recognized as part of the covenant between God and his people. It needs to be a sacred day and nobody’s supposed to do any work. But the Jewish teachers and scribes had added to it. It wasn’t specific enough for them. It wasn’t strict enough. It was too gray. How can we judge people, how can we know for sure who’s right and who’s wrong unless we make this more black and white?

So, to make themselves really happy and everybody around them really miserable, they came up with their own rules and restrictions as supplements to God’s Law. It came to be known as Mishna — pages and pages and books and volumes of their own interpretations they bound on all the people. Regarding the Sabbath Day alone, they had 39-different categories of things a person could not do. And they used these interpretations — and that’s all they are — to control people. It gave them power and authority. And if you threatened their interpretations, you were in for a fight. These church people were willing to kill to protect their interpretations.

So, after they publicly berate this guy, they go after Jesus. How dare you work! How dare you heal! How dare you help this man on the Sabbath! And Jesus’ defense is simple: “My Father is working today and so I am working today.”

Jesus goes on in the following verses to explain that every single thing he does, he does because of his Father. Jesus claims he is sent by God, he’s on a mission from God, he’s doing the works of God, he’s obedient to God, and he’s bringing glory to God. And that ticks them off even more! So now Jesus finds himself on trial and he starts bringing out the witnesses in verse 33: The Scriptures testified to me; John the Baptist testified to me; God in heaven testifies to me by these works he’s given me to do. But you…

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” ~John 5:39-40

This is what upset Jesus the most. You know every letter of every word, you’ve interpreted every passage, you’ve memorized it, you argue to the death one verb here and one participle there — you think you have eternal life in the Scriptures. But you don’t!

Dear reader, eternal life does not come from the Bible; eternal life comes from Christ Jesus to whom the Bible points. Our trust and faith and hope is not in the Scriptures; our trust and faith and hope is in the holy Son of God to whom the Scriptures point.

These church people are sick. They know the Word of God frontwards and backwards, but they don’t know Jesus. Their disbelief was deliberate, their diagnosis was severe. They love their church life and their traditions and interpretations, but they had forgotten how to love God and the people God is healing and making whole. Their expression of church had become horribly twisted. They had turned their life-giving and soul-saving faith into something life-taking and soul-destroying. Instead of being a source of joy and light, they were using their religion to suppress and judge. They knew the Word of God, but they totally missed his will. They had counted every letter of the Scriptures, but they had totally missed the truth.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this feel familiar?

I think we’re all — every one of us — susceptible to this sickness. It’s dangerous. It’s deadly.

Do we want to get well?

Sometimes our vigorous preservation of our church traditions counts more than the openness and spontaneity of faith. We know our Bible, but sometimes we use it to defend all the wrong things. We know our Bible, but sometimes that’s all we know. Our allegiance to the way things have always been done sometimes gets in the way of the healing and saving work of Jesus. We can’t appreciate or applaud the good that’s being done because it’s being done differently.

And Jesus deliberately challenges these rigid traditions. He goes out of his way to do things on the Sabbath, just to make the point. So much so, it becomes his habit.

When the apostles picked grain on the Sabbath in Matthew 12, the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Law and Jesus said, “Relax. Look, we’re hungry. We need food. I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Remember? In that same chapter, Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on a church day, in church, and when the church people tell Jesus, “Hey, that’s not how we do things in church!” our Lord says, “People are valuable to me. People! Their physical needs, their emotional needs, their spiritual needs — their souls are valuable to me. It is good to do good. On the Sabbath or any other day of the week, it’s good to do good for people.”

That’s his attitude.

And we should be constantly re-evaluating our own attitudes. Is our church so well-defined and so safe and so comfortable that if Jesus showed up with his attitude, we’d interrogate him? Would Christ’s attitude be OK in our church?

A Scriptural service is when people are healed and made whole. A correct worship service is when people experience the love and grace and mercy of God. What makes a biblical worship service is when God is praised and salvation from Christ is proclaimed and Holy Spirit people eat and drink together and encourage and bless one another. After that, in church, nothing else really matters much at all.




  1. Howard

    Those must be really bad people. Here is a summary of how they were described:

    Really sick, self appointed, sicker than the paraplegic ever was, motivated by the desire to make others miserable, their motivation was to have power and authority and control others, these church people are sick, their disbelief is deliberate, they don’t love God or his people, they are life taking and soul destroying, they use religion to suppress and judge, they totally missed God’s will, they totally missed the truth.

    But what if they were sincere and just doing their best? What if they thought that God disapproved of carrying beds on the Sabbath?

    Haven’t we known these people? Haven’t we been these people? What if someone sincerely believes that God is opposed to instrumental music? Is he bad?

    How do we know we are not these people? Why is it right for us to condemn others and wrong for them to do so?

    • Allan

      Howard, that’s the point of the post. We are those people. We should constantly be re-evaluating our attitudes. We are all — every one of us — susceptible to this sickness. Do we want to get well?

      • Howard

        There are none to condemn, neither “those people” nor ourselves.

  2. Howard

    I failed to make my point. Those people do not deserve criticism or condemnation. They were sincerely doing the best they knew to do. They were fallible, as we all, but neither they nor us deserve criticism.

    • Allan

      Our Lord obviously felt the need to both criticize and condemn. Clearly, he’s judging their hearts and motivations. Clearly, he’s far better equipped than you or I to do that. The Pharisees were fallible and, yes, we are fallible. But we do have some control over our attitudes and motivations. That’s what we need to be continually monitoring. And where our attitudes and motivations are self-centered and harmful, they deserve and need criticism.

      • Howard

        Since your original post is not so much about the Pharisees as it is about the legalistic version of the Church of Christ (of which we both have considerable experience) we need only look to ourselves to understand motivation. At the risk of misjudging you, I believe that even on your worst “pharisee of pharisees” day you were sincerely trying to do God’s will. I do not believe you ever deliberately harmed others or intentionally did evil as these pharisees are accused of doing. What is true for you could be true for all.
        Socrates said no men do evil intentionally, but only out of ignorance. We can use proof-texts to support whatever view of Jesus we want, but I think he condoned this view with “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
        I have done a lot of damage in life leaving scorched earth everywhere I have gone. I have still never harmed anyone intentionally. I and you and all people deserve forgiveness for we know not what we do. We do not deserve condemnation. If I must believe Jesus thinks people deserve condemnation, then I will also think Jesus is mistaken.

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